(This is a continuation of the previous post:
I’ve kept the footnotes sequentially numbered.

“P’shat” is only one of 4 levels of understanding. The actual definition of each level is not always so clear. Nor is it always so easy to decide into which category a given comment or interpretation should be put.

For demonstration purposes, I’ve tried to keep it very simple. Any reader who wants to disagree with my definition or with the examples I present is more than welcome to do so. It’s one more helpful step in learning.

For my purposes, “remez,” the second level, isn’t necessarily concerned with “explaining the meaning” at all. Rather, it derives laws, actions and principles from the text and applies them to real-life situations without violating or contradicting the “p’shat,” or plain meaning of the text itself.

For example, Torah tells us not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk. However, since we buy our milk and meat at markets, we can’t tell which meat came from which cow. It becomes impossible to avoid the risk of boiling a kid in its own mother’s milk. Therefore, the rabbis dis-allow the mixing of milk and meat altogether.

Implicitly, the rabbis are telling us that learning Torah should lead to a change in our behavior, however gradual.

Where “p’shat” requires only comprehension (as large a task as that can be in itself), “remez” requires that, plus the beginnings of conscious application. It’s how we internalize Torah; take it “out of the book” and into ourselves. “P’shat” can never be more than knowledge about Torah. With “remez,” we begin to have knowledge of Torah; particularly, of how it relates to our daily behavior.

On the  “remez” level, specific laws and actions might be derived from the mention of “acacia wood.” Thus:

“…the Midrash Tanhuma [13] on Parshat Terumah tells us that Jacob (Yaakov) received a prophecy that his descendents, while in the desert, would be instructed to build a Mishkan, a dwelling place for G-d. He subsequently planted saplings in the land of Israel and instructed his children to diligently transplant them to Egypt. By making this wise decision, Yaakov prepared a whole forest that would later supply the Mishkan with at least 800 cubic feet, or twenty tons, of usable wood.” [14]

The writer culminates this essentially midrashic discussion in a plea for us to be more environmentally responsible, with particular regard to wood, trees and forests:

“Yaakov had the wisdom to project the need for large amounts of wood in the Sinai desert, an environment that could not sustain wood. He therefore looked ahead and created a sustainable solution for the sacred needs of the Israelites…We too, must look ahead and ask ourselves if we are creating sustainable environments for the needs of our children, our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren.” [15]

Because he’s deriving specific actions, rather than broader principles and concepts, I place this in the “remez” category.

“The Midrash [16] also analyzes the choice of acacia wood in the construction of the Mishkan, and explains that the Hebrew root of the word shitim, meaning acacia, shares the same root as the word ‘sh’toot,’ meaning folly. A connection is made: by building the Sanctuary out of this particular wood, we are reminded to rectify the folly that the Children of Israel pursued with the sin of the Golden Calf.
The Midrash’s link between acacia and [the folly of] the Golden Calf presents an almost funny, yet poignant connection to the current real-world correlation between deforestation and beef production. According to the Center for International Forestry Research, cattle ranching for beef has caused the majority of felled forests in Latin America…” [17]

This author derives, by way of a midrash (the 3rd level of understanding) that connects the Golden Calf with the wood of the Mishkan, a rule about correcting our contemporary folly in cultivating beef (e.g. our “golden calf”) which leads to harmful effects on trees that exist in the natural environment. From this, he derives:

“Suggested Action Items:

1. Seriously limit your intake of meat as part of your commitment to avoid deforestation and other environmental “folly.” If and when you do buy meat, choose locally produced, organic meat from a source you trust.

2. Before buying something new, stop and consider why you are buying it. If it is for a holy purpose, go ahead. If it is to fill a void that might not be G-d-focused, think about choosing not to buy it.” [18]

acacia treeFrom the mention of “acacia wood,” this writer has drawn lessons on the proper concern and management of trees and forests. To the extent that these lessons refer to specific actions, I categorize this as a “remez” level of understanding.

As you might have noticed, inferences are derived even from the Hebrew name of acacia (“shi’tim”). Further, they can be derived from words associated with the root of the Hebrew name — about which there’s not always agreement. This method of derivation isn’t confined by the limits of empirical logic. It’s far more intuitive — like the difference between jazz and classical music. In fact, great intelligence and wit are required to present a convincing connection at this level. That display of genius almost validates its own conclusion. Rebbe Nachman of Breslav was a great master of this in his “Likutei Moharan;” later Breslav publications present his ideas without the string of intuitive connections that lead him to his conclusions. This is far from the kind of reasoning that’s popularly taught in universities. It’s part of what separates traditional Jewish culture from Western culture. One could make a similar comment about other “thought” traditions — e.g. Indian, Muslim, etc.: The rules by which they reason are often very different from the rules by which Western logic works.

Of course, there’s no limit to the number of lessons we can learn on the “remez” level. Different commentators can freely bring their own interpretations here. In “remez,” we begin to glimpse that infinity. We might even feel a degree of spiritual awe as a result of it. But unlike Newton and Einstein, who could do no more than feel awe as they comprehended the orderliness in the universe and sensed the existence of a Creator, in “remez,” we begin to interact with that Creator; to be changed by the awe.

For the next post in this series, on “D’rash,” see:


[13] Midrash Tanhuma on Parshat Terumah, chapter 9; also Rashi on Sh’mot/Ex. 25:5 (and 26:15) —
“‘and sh’tim wood” – But from where did they get this in the wilderness? Rabbi Tanchuma explained it thus; Our father Yakov foresaw by the Holy Spirit that Israel would [in the future] build the Mishkan in the wilderness. So, he brought cedars to Egypt and planted them there, and bade his children take these with them when they would leave Egypt.” (see also B’reishit/Gen. R 94)

[14] http://www.jewcology.com/resource/Parshat-Terumah-Is-G-d-present-in-our-Consumption

[15] ibid.
“We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
For discussion of the source of this quote, see:

[16] Midrash Tanhuma on Parshat Terumah, Chapter 10

[17] http://www.jewcology.com/resource/Parshat-Terumah-Is-G-d-present-in-our-Consumption

[18] ibid.