Hermeneutics (Drash)

A method for learning Torah, developed by the rabbis of the Talmud.


Hermeneutics (drash) is the science of biblical exegesis by the early Talmudic rabbis in accordance with certain rules. The idea behind the system is that the full implications of the biblical laws can only be ascertained by a close scrutiny of the text for which the hermeneutic principles provide the key. A question much discussed in modern scholarship is whether the application of these rules was believed by the rabbis to convey the true meaning of the law, so that the laws were seen as actually derived from the texts examined, or whether the laws were arrived at by other means, either by tradition or by independent reasoning, and the hermeneutical rules were intended to show that the laws have a basis in the Torah.

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It is impossible to provide a simple solution to this extremely complicated question. It often seems that when the rabbis engaged in detailed exegesis in order to arrive at the law to be followed, they saw their conclusion as actually one demanded by the exegesis.

On the other hand, where the exegesis was too unlikely for it to be believed to be the actual source of the law, it seems probable that the rabbis knew this and were really saying, this is what the law must be and we can attempt to show that our understanding has a basis in Scripture. The Karaites, in their opposition to the Talmud, alleged that the hermeneutical principles were a foreign importation into Judaism and were no more than Jewish adaptations of Greek reasoning methods.

The employment of seven hermeneutical principles is attributed in the sources to Hillel. But the formulation of thirteen principles by the first- to second-century teacher, Rabbi Ishmael, is the usually accepted formulation, appearing in the standard Prayer Book as part of the morning service. This inclusion in the Prayer Book is based on the idea that every Jew, in addition to his prayers, should study each day something of the Torah, which the rules provide in capsule form, although it cannot be imagined that the average worshipper has an inkling of what he is saying when he recites these difficult rules.

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Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

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