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Four Levels of Understanding Torah

Shammai says: Make your Torah study a fixed practice; say little and do much; and receive everyone with a cheerful face. (Pirkei Avot 1:15)

There are four basic levels to the understanding of Torah:

Peh (P) - Peshat = Simple
Resh (R) - Remez = Hint
Dalet (D) - Derash (Drush) = Insight
Samech (S) - Sod = Secret

Pronounced as "pardes" it is very important that this term be inscribed into memory, because the ladder to knowledge is only by way of pardes...one step at a time:

P - R - D - S

The term Midrash (investigation) signifies study and interpretation; hence, Beit haMidrash denotes a Talmudic school. For the most part, the purpose of the Midrashic literature is to explain the Biblical text from the ethical and devotional point of view. It is then referred to as Midrash Haggadah, in contrast to Midrash Halacha which is mainly concerned with the derivation of laws from Scriptural texts.

Rashi, the "Father of Commentators," gives us the peshat (simple) understanding, which is a very important and a MUST starting point of Torah study. Rashi has two rare gifts as a commentator:

1) The instinct to discern precisely the point at which explanation is necessary
2) and the art of giving or indicating the needed help in the fewest words.

No matter how advanced one becomes in their studies, one will always refer to the peshat commentary of Rashi.

RaMBaM (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), was born on Erev Pesach which fell on Shabbat in the year 1135 in the city of Cordova, of southern Spain. He came from a family of great Torah scholars that extended back to Rabbeinu HaKadosh who as we know came from the royal family of David HaMelech.

His halachic masterpiece is the Mishnah Torah (or the Yad Ha'chazaka). The word yad, which equals to 14, is the number of main headings into which this work is divided. He started writing it in the year 1171, at the age of 36, and finished it ten years later. Tradition is that on the night this work was completed (8 Kislev 1181), his father came to him in a dream along with another person whose face shone like the sun and told him that this was Moshe Rabbeinu who had come to see his work and give him a yasher koach on the magnificent job he has done.

RaMBaM wrote this work because of the terrible galut Jews were experiencing. Their knowledge of Talmud was weakening and people were no longer able to comprehend the Gemorah as they did in past generations. They simply were unable to figure out what the halacha should be. The galut had taken its toll on Torah study and they needed a simple guild in practical halacha without the confusion of arguments and deep pilpul. This work contains no names, arguments or proofs, but simply gives the halacha to follow in each individual case. It is written clear concise Hebrew and divided up into different sections so that anyone could easily find the halacha they are looking for.

The halachot include not only the halachot that one needs today, but also covers the halachot needed in the time of the Beit HaMikdosh (the Temple) and is set up in a very logical order. This work is not just based on the Talmud Bavli, but also includes the Talmud Yerushalmi, Beraitot, Toseftot, Sifri, Sifra, and the Mechilta as well as all the important commentaries and Geonic Teshuvot of previous generations and relies heavily on the RIF in deciding the final halacha.

RaMBaM wrote many masterpieces. RaMBaM died in 1204 at the age of 70.

RaMBaN (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman), generally referred to as Nachmanides (1194-1270), was born in Spain, where he became known as an illustrious Talmudic authority and Bible commentator. He died in Eretz Yisrael at the age of 76.

His principle work, a commentary on the Torah, contains halachic interpretations, ethical lessons, Kabbalistic allusions, as well as literal explanations in which he frequently disagrees with either Rashi or Ibn Ezra.

Nachmanides professed great respect for Maimonides (RaMBaM) and defended him against the anti-Maimonists. In his opinion, Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed was intended not for those of unshaken belief, but for those who had been led astray by the teachings of the Greek philosophers.

It has been noted that Nachmanides represented Judaism from the side of emotion and feeling, as Maimonides did from the viewpoint of reason and logic.

Bachya (Rabbi Bachya ben Asher), born in Saragossa, Spain in 1255, where he functioned as Dayan and maggid. He died in 1340. He was the outstanding pupil of Rabbi Shlomoh ben Adret and studied under him in his Yeshivah in Barcelona.

Rabbi Bachya is the first scholar to present his commentaries along the clearly defined lines Peshat (plain meaning of text), Remez (philosophical interpretation), Drush (homiletical treatment of the text), and Sod (the mystical aspect of the text - Kabbalah). Personally, he favored the latter type of interpretation. This was due to his conviction that he prophecies in the 12th Chapter of Dani'el presaged the almost imminent arrival of the Mashiach.

Most historians consider that the commentary on the Torah was already complete in 1291 when the author would have been only 36 years old. The popularity of this commentary is attested to by the fact that no fewer than 10 super-commentaries have been published on it, two of them dealing exclusively with the Kabbalistic parts of the commentary.

Yalkut MeAm Lo'ez, when a person studies from these commentaries, it is counted as if he had studied Scripture, Talmud, Midrash and the Shulchan Aruch, since all are included in it.  Rabbi Yaakov Culi, author of Yalkut MeAm Lo'ez, was one of the greatest sages in his generation.

In his book, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azzulai speaks of him with the highest respect: "The Sage, perfect, saintly, humble.... I know the greatness of the works of this saint, which are truly wondrous. He was a fast writer, totally versed in the Talmud, codes and commentaries, as is obvious from his book MeAm Lo'ez, which he wrote to bring merit to the multitudes. Happy is he and happy is his portion." (Shem HaGedolim, Sefarim, Eyin 29)

The Torah is called Etz Chayim, a Tree of Life (Mishlei 3:18). Studying the narratives and halachic passages of the Torah is like studying a tree.

One can stand at a distance and observe the tree as a total entity. Or one can study the seeds, leaves, bark, roots, twigs, limbs and fruit independently from one another.

In neither case will the student gain a complete knowledge of the tree. In order to fully understand the tree, both approaches must be used in combination.

And that is how Torah, the Tree of Life, must be studied. We must learn each chapter within its context. We must study every verse, learning the meaning of each word. But each word must also be studied with respect to its letters, its nekudot (vowels and points) its prefixes, its suffixes, its ta'am, for they are the roots, buds and leaves of the Tree.

Our Father, the merciful Father, Who acts mercifully: Have mercy upon us and place understanding in our hearts - to understand and elucidate, to listen, to learn and to teach, to safeguard, to perform and to fulfill all the words of the study of Your Torah, with love.

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