For the past six months, I have been writing blogs to coincide with holidays and select topics found in the parshah of the week. Each has explored how Biblical Hebrew metaphor informs an allegorical reading of the Torah. The work is based on over twenty years of daily Torah study which led to my writing an etymological dictionary of Biblical Hebrew in its Semitic context. Although the blogs have been received well by the few who have read them, a number of religiously observant readers have asked for evidence from the Talmud that such an allegorical reading was recognized by ChaZaL, an acronym meaning “our sages, their memory will be regarded as a blessing.” Although I can demonstrate a similar use of Hebrew metaphor in particular passages in the Talmud, such assertions hardly constitute proof. That a proof is necessary can be seen from this quote in the Wikipedia entry regarding Chazal’s authority: “…Chazal had the authority to comment on the Torah according to the Talmudical hermeneutics standards required by the Halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai (The unwritten laws believed to have been given to Moses at Sinai), sometimes even expounding a word or phrase outside its plain and ordinary sense. Nowadays in Orthodoxy, this authority is not delegated to the current generation’s sages, and thus the Torah can not be commentated on, in matters concerning the halakha (“tradition”), if it contradicts Chazal’s commentary.“
A Chiddush (חידוש) is a novel interpretation of Torah. In medieval times, Ramban indicated that it is an “obligation imposed upon us to search through the subjects of the Torah and the precepts and bring to light their hidden contents.” Despite this sentiment expressed by one of the greatest Rabbis in Jewish history, a chiddush of Torah is expected to remain within certain confines and limits of acceptable Torah interpretation. Furthermore, it is generally accepted that any novel understanding of Torah would come from a recognized Torah authority. In the case of my work, neither of the above are true. My Torah allegory is far afield from what is usual or accepted and although I have studied Biblical Hebrew and Torah for two decades, my study has been independent and solitary. Although the story of my venturing into and discovering this chiddush is long and interesting, it is not particularly enlightening or helpful in explaining how I came to this labor of love that engages me for hours each day. Neither self aggrandizement nor self adulation motivate this work. Through diligent study, I stumbled into and fumbled through this allegory, vigilantly laboring over it to understand its secrets.
In their book The Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson demonstrate how language utilizes metaphor to expand simple concepts into concepts of larger complexity. For example, the Hebrew root \aQaBh (עקב) literally means “to twist around.” Of course, in our life experiences there are many things that are either twisted around or actions that involve twisting or that might be perceived as a twisting or twisted. Derived from this root are words such \aQuBh twisted around; \aQaBaH cunning; \aeQeBh consequence / reward; \aaQaeBh ambush party, heel, and footstep; and \aQoBh curvy or steep. From this simple idea of “twisting around” are derived Semitic verbs meaning “to twist, to constrain, to follow, to trace, to succeed, draw near, to seek out, to investigate, and to review critically.” From the word heel is derived the verb meaning “to supplant;” the Hebrew literally means “to grab the heel” while the English literally means “to grab the plantar aspect of the foot.” Simply put, all words are metaphor, words of greater complexity and the ideas or objects that they represent are built upon a simpler framework.
Jewish belief attests to four levels of Torah exegesis. They are represented by using the word for orchard as the acronym PaRDaeS – Pashat: a literal reading of the text; Remez: representing what is hinted at by the text; D’rash: ways of expounding upon the text; and Sod: hidden secrets to be revealed about the text. Many believe that the sod of Torah can be found in the Zohar, Qabbalah and gematria. My work utilizes the metaphor of Hebrew and Semitic words to deduce another interpretation of Torah. I cannot and will not assert in which of the three deeper levels of exegesis my allegorical interpretation belongs. In order to do my translation, I needed to understand two components of each and every Hebrew root in the Torah. First, I utilized dictionaries of Biblical Hebrew, Ugaritic, Syriac, Arabic, Akkadian, Sabaic and Amharic to find the range of meanings for a particular root. Then utilizing a theory that Semitic triliteral roots evolved from biliteral roots and utilizing sound correspondences between different consonants, I formulated a theory that enabled me to determine the essential meaning of each root. I then compiled an etymological dictionary of Biblical Hebrew. To determine the allegorical meaning of the text, I replaced each word in the text with its root’s essential meaning and the numerous other meanings informed by the other Semitic languages. I then spent more than a decade writing and rewriting the text so that there was internal consistency within sentences and between sentences, paragraphs, chapters and books.
In all of the Babylonian Talmud, there is only one mention of the word PaRDaeS that refers to the Rabbinic tradition of Biblical exegesis. It states, “Four entered into the PaRDaeS – the orchard (of Torah).” From the Talmud: (Mas. Chagigah 14b):
ארבעה נכנסו בפרדס ואלו הן בן עזאי בן זומא אחר ורבי עקיבא אמר להם רבי עקיבא כשאתם מגיעין אצל אבני שיש טהור אל תאמרו מים מים משום שנאמר דובר שקרים לא יכון לנגד עיני בן עזאי הציץ ומת עליו הכתוב אומר יקר בעיני ה’ המותה לחסידיו. בן זומא הציץ ונפגע ועליו הכתוב אומר דבש מצאת אכל דיך פן תשבענו והקאתו. אחר קיצץ בנטיעות. רבי עקיבא יצא בשלום
“Four men entered into the orchard. And these were they, Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma, Achaer, and Rabbi Aqiba. Rabbi Aqiba said to them: ‘When you are arriving adjacent to the stones of pure marble, preclude from saying, ‘water, water!’ On account of it being said: ‘He that speaks falsehood shall not stand firm before my eyes.’ Ben Azzai strove to see and died. Concerning him Scripture says: ‘Precious in the eyes of haShem is the death of His considerate-ones. Ben Zoma strove to see and became distressed in being taken unawares. Concerning him Scripture says: ‘Have you found honey? Eat what is sufficient for you, lest you become bloated with it, and vomit it.’ Achaer chopped at the plants. R. Akiba went out in peace.”
The above paragraph can be translated metaphorically in its entirety, names and all. However, based on my two decades of perusing the Talmud, there are not many full paragraphs that can be translated that way. Instead, isolated words and phrases that can be understood metaphorically are found peppered throughout the Talmud. As an example, many are aware of the story that relates when Hillel and Shammai were separately approached by a foreigner who said, “Convert me upon the condition that you teach me all of the Torah, all of it, while I am standing on one foot.” Hillel’s answer, “That which to you is hateful, do not do to your friend,” understands the question metaphorically. One potential metaphorical understanding of the word for foot, regel (רגל), can be “habit.” So even though literally he wants to be taught the entirety of Torah while standing of one foot, Hillel’s answer understands that metaphorically, he is asking for one behavior or one habit that encompasses the entire Torah. On the face of it, Shammai’s response seems to be an expression of anger only. For it says, “He pushed him out with the cubit of construction (אמת בנין) that was in his hand.” However, metaphorically the Hebrew word for cubit, /aMaH, literally means “what is ever present.”1 Also the word binyan (בנין) can mean building, construction or structure. So Shammai goes after the man with what was ever present of the structure of the Torah. In other words, Shammai also understood the question metaphorically, but he would have none of it, and metaphorically threw the entire structure of Torah at him.
Let us now consider the names of the four who entered into the four levels of Torah exegesis. Metaphorically, the names represent different human characteristics or archetypes. Ben Azzai (בן עזאי) represents a person possessed of strength, from the root (עז) meaning strong. Ben Zoma (בן זומא) represents a person who cuts off or cuts short the flow of information; from the root (זמה). Although, the word /achaer (אחר) is appropriately translated as “another,” it actually has the same literal meaning as the verb from which it derives. The verb /aChaR (אחר) literally and primarily means “to be behind” and secondarily “to be slow or delayed.” The word /achaer (אחר) means “another” because the other is behind the first. On the peshat level of our story, /achaer (אחר) is thought to be Elisha b. Abuyah, renamed after his apostasy. As an archetype, /achaer (אחר) represents a person who is intellectually slow. Rabbi Aqiba’s name comes from the root \aQaBh (עקב) discussed above. The name is similar to Yaaqov. Both metaphorically represent a person who intellectually follows an idea closely and investigates. Through the metaphorical meaning of their names, the four who entered into the four levels of Torah represent four intellectual archetypes that approach new, profound and complex information in different ways: one intellectually strong enough to take in all the information (Ben Azzai); one of reasonable intellectual capacity, but not necessarily enough to fully embrace the information (Ben Zoma); one who is intellectually deficient and delayed (Achaer); and one whose intellectual capacity enables him not only to embrace the information fully, but also follow it and investigate it further (Aqiba). The subtle differences between the archetypes of Ben Azzai and Aqiba will become more apparent as we delve further into the text. Next, let us examine Rabbi Aqiba’s admonition to his associates:
אמר להם רבי עקיבא כשאתם מגיעין אצל אבני שיש טהור אל תאמרו מים מים משום שנאמר דובר שקרים לא יכון לנגד עיני
Rabbi Aqiba said to them, ‘When you are arriving adjacent to the stones of pure marble, preclude from saying, ‘water, water!’ On account of it being said: ‘He that speaks falsehood shall not stand firm before my eyes.’” The phrase “stones of pure marble” represents the aspects of Torah sticking out most prominently of what is confoundingly complex, yet whose presentation is perfectly clear. The word for stone (/eBheN – אבן) comes from the Semitic root BoowN (בון) which literally means “to bulge or push between.” So the Hebrew word for stone (/eBheN – אבן) means “what bulges or sticks out prominently (from the ground).” The word for marble (ShaeSh – שש) comes from a Semitic root (ShooWSh – שוש) that literally means “what looms overhead.” In Syriac, this root also means to disorder and confuse, but in Arabic it means “confounding and complicated.” Lastly, the word tahor (טהור) means pure, clear or perfect. Aqiba’s admonishment to not say “water, water” is a warning to not ask for more and more of it, as one thirsts for water. The Hebrew word for water, mayim, literally means “what is stirred up” derived from the verb HaMaH (המה), to stir up. In other words, when confronting something so confoundingly complex as the allegory of Torah, do not lie and ask for more and more of what is already tremendously intellectually stirring.
The text says of Ben Azzai, the one who was strong, that “he strove to see and died.” In Hebrew, the metaphor of death is actually not as dire as it may appear. The root MowT (מות) literally means to completely drawn out or away. Metaphorically, death represents a complete manifestation or drawing out of something into reality. The following two related roots help to demonstrate this. The Hebrew word for when, MaTai (מתי) literally means “what point drawn out in time.” Similarly, the root MaTaQ (מתק) means to savor or literally “to temporally draw something out in the mouth.” So when the text says that Ben Azzai died, metaphorically it is saying that he was completely drawn out into the complexities of Torah. After all, his name proves him to have been strong. As a compliment to him the text says, “Precious in the eyes of haShem is the death (complete drawing out into experience), regarding those who consider him.” Where the word CheSeD (חסד) meaning “one who is considerate or kind,” metaphorically means “one who considers.”2
Regarding Ben Zoma, the one who cuts back or cuts short, the text says that “he strove to see and became distressed in being taken unawares.” Here the Torah is referred to as honey (DaBhaSh – דבש) which literally means “that which flows copiously and thickly.” He is told to eat or encompass what is adequate or sufficient for him. For if he were to take in too much, he would need to vomit it up. Although his name Zoma could mean either cut back or refute, the statement about him suggests more that he is of limited intellectual capacity rather, than rejecting the information.
Achaer, who was mentally slow or delayed, was cutting at the plants. The meaning of this seems rather simple. If the orchard, the PaRDaeS, represents the four levels of Torah exegesis, then cutting at the plants within the orchard is a symbol of rejecting either Torah in its entirety or at least the deeper three levels that exist beyond the pashat. However, the Arabic cognate of the word used for plants (N’Ty\a – נטיעה) also means “to be meticulous, to be fastidious, to go into something deeply, and to explain something.” Based on this cognate, it is the deeper aspects of Torah exegesis that his mind is unable to handle.
Finally, Rabbi Aqiba, the one who follows an idea closely and investigates, was going out in peace. Presumably not only because the vastness and complexity of Torah that he encountered was not disturbing to him, but also because such knowledge put him at ease and made him feel complete. The difference between the archetype represented by Rabbi Aqiba and that of Ben Azzai is subtle. Both are fully able to embrace the intensity of Torah. It says of Ben Azzai “precious in the eyes of haShem.” the word for precious, Y’QaR (יקר), literally means “(a jewel) that is gotten into very closely” which alludes to the action required to gouge or pick it out, NaQaR (נקר), from the rock in which it is embedded. Allegorically, this tells us that he was able to excavate and delve into the details of Torah. However, Rabbi Aqiba’s name suggests that not only could he delve deeply into the details, but that he was also able to follow the trail of those details no matter which way they might twist and turn. Furthermore, because \aeQeBh (עקב) also means consequence, his name suggests that he was able to understand the real world consequences of the PaRDaeS, Torah exegesis.
Our four archetypes describe the different capacities of those who engage in Torah study. Specifically it assumes that the study of Torah is not merely a study of the simple reading of Torah, the pashat, but also includes engaging with the three deeper levels of Torah exegesis as well. The main point of this story is to convey the limits of individuals. Unfortunately, not everyone is able or perhaps willing to accept that Torah can and should be understood in this way. What we find there depends not only on our intellectual capacity, but also on our perspective and the extent of our openness to explore and see the Torah anew. It is not an exploration that is comfortable. It challenges the foundation of one’s belief system and rattles both the mind and spirit. It brings into question both the faith upon which many individuals rely and also lays the ground work for a new faith, a faith of unfathomable dimensions. Not every mind is ready to be thrust into the questions and doubt nor the complexities and confusion that will unfold when upon this journey. Some will reject it outright, turn away and never look back. Still others might find ourselves, like our ancestors before us, at QaDaeSh BarNae\a (קדש ברנע) “dedicated to move forward by clearing away restraint.”3
1 – The unattested root /uM (אום) literally means “what is ever present.” Therefore, the word /aeM mother literally means “one who is ever present,” the word /aYaM (אים) foreboding literally means “an ever present feeling,” and m’/uMaH (מאומה) something literally means “a thing of that is ever present.”
2 – So what is the essential meaning of this root ChaSaD (חסד) that gives such disparate meanings as taunt, envy, kind, shameful indulgence and loyalty? In order to unravel this discordance of meanings, we need to peel back a few layers of the etymological onion. The root ChaSaD (חסד) evolved from the verb ChooS (חוס) which when associated with the preposition \aL (על) means to show concern / shower consideration upon. However, when joined with the preposition b’ (ב), it means to have trust in or rely upon. The word ChooS (חוס) evolved from the root ChooSh (חוש) which has an essential meaning of to spend time with or persist with someone or something by experiencing, sensing, feeling or considering.
3 – QaDaeSh BarNae\a (קדש ברנע). The piel of QaDaSh literally means to dedicate to move forward, hence it is commonly used to mean both to sanctify something or commit to move it into a more forward, holier position, and to betroth.
Most of the roots with BaR (בר) literally mean to make a clearing, to clear away, or to go clear through, hence בור (clearing > pit), באר (clearing > well, to clearly elucidate), בער (to clear away > clear a field, burn), ברר (to clear away > sift), ברא (to clear away > to sculpt, create, carve, cut down), ברח (to go clear through > escape, bar), ברך (to go clear through > to excel, be / declare excellent; to make a clearing > kneel, pool), ברק (to go clear through > lightening). The root NW\ (נוע) means to sift, but secondarily to restrain, hence the verbs derived from it נעל to lock, נעם be precious (held back) and מנע to restrain.
The full metaphorical translation of PaRDaeS:
The great one who follows closely and investigates said to them: “When you are arriving at the periphery of the things prominently sticking out of that which is complicated (regarding the study of Torah), that which is of perfect clarity; preclude from saying, “(Give me…) that which is tumultuously stirred up, that which is stirred up (regarding the study of Torah)!” Because of that which is said, “One who speaks falsehoods shall not stand firmly, regarded as a person drawn off in eyeing-observing me.” The one who was strong strove to see and was completely drawn out (into the experience). – About him scripture says, “Getting in close through the eyeings-observations of haShem is the being drawn out into experience completely, regarding those who consider him.” The one who cuts back strove to see and was distressed and afflicted. – About him scripture says, “Have you found (in the study of Torah) that which rushes outward – thickly and copiously? Embrace only enough for you, lest you be over-filled by it and vomit it up.” The one who was slow of mind was cutting down the meticulous and drawn out explanations.
Francis Brown, S.R.Driver, Charles A. Briggs (1906 /2000) The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.
Ernest Klein (1987) A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company
Hans Wehr. Ed by J Milton Cowan (1979) Hans Wehr A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. Ithaca, NY: Published in the United States by Spoken Languages Services, Inc with permission of Otto Harrassowitz
Jeremy Black, Andrew George, Nicholas Postgate, eds., A Concise Dictionary ofAkkadian, 2nd corrected printing (Santag Arbeiten und Untersuchungen Zur Keilschriftkunde, 5; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000)
Marcus Jastrow (1996) A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushlami, and the Midrashic Literature.New York: The Judaica Press
J. Payne Smith’s (1999) A Compendious Syriac Dictionary. Published by Wipf and Stock
David Kantrowitz (1991 – 2009) Judaic Classics version 3.4. Institute for Computers in Jewish Life, Davka Corp., and/or Judaica Press, Inc.