Maimonides' Biblical Exegesis

BIB 6090

Bernard Revel Graduate School

Spring 2004: Mordechai Cohen

Syllabus (Original in PDF)



DESCRIPTION:   Maimonides’ philological, literary and historical interpretations of Scripture in light of his rabbinic and philosophical sources, as well as the medieval Babylonian-Therian peshat school. Exegetical goals of the Guide; selections from other Maimonidean writings. Biblical texts and topics: Genesis 1-5 (Account of Creation), anthropomorphic depictions of God, prophecy, derivation of halakhah, Job, Song of Songs.

REQUIREMENTS. Lectures are based on sources and readings (see bibliography, pp. 3 if.) indicated on the syllabus below and must be prepared prior to class meetings. A research paper is due at the end of the semester. Please consult me to choose a topic (my e-mail:

BIBLIOGRAPHY. See p. 3 below. You should acquire Maimonides. The Guide of the Perplexed; [Hebrew] trans. Michael Schwarz (Tel Aviv, 2002), a superb new annotated edition with a comprehensive, up-to-date bibliography of Maimonidean scholarship.


UNIT 1: Portrait of Maimonides as Biblical Interpreter

Sources:      Guide, introduction, pp. 9-11 (Schwarz ed.)

Readings: Twersky 1993; Klein-Braslavy 2000

UNIT 2: Maimonides’ notions of Peshat and Derash


  1. Page 9-11 in Schwartz's into to The Guide.   Determine the two goals in writing the guide, and what the Rambam means by "Pshtei D'Kra." 

  2. Click here to open the source Locate the Rambam's reference to "Ein Mikra Yotzei Midei Peshuto." How does he use it?  What is the dispute between the Rambam and Ramban?

  3. Click here to open the source.  Read and classify types of Mitzvot.

  4. Elbaum 2000:75-94, 107-131 (includes sources in Ibn Ezra and Maimonides).  How does a p'shat exegete deal with medrash?

UNIT 3: Halakhic Exegesis Sources in Mishneh Torah:  

UNIT 4: Exegetical Goals of the Guide: Reconciling Scripture and Reason

Sources: Guide, introduction (pp. 11-19 in Schwarz ed.), II:29 (and 30), II:47

Readings:   Segal 1977 : 989-996

UNIT 5: Rationalist Interpretation of Scripture in the Babylonian-Iberian Tradition


Click here to open source  (the entire intro to the Tafsir)
Click here to open source (the entire letter with Shilat's intro)
Compare to Ibn Ezra on Isaiah 11:1
(See Elbaum 2000:86-92

Reading:   Brody 2000

UNIT 6: Philological Exegesis

Source:   Guide 1:1, 1:43

Readings:   Harvey 1988; Hyman 1991; Strauss 1963:xi-xxxii

UNIT 7: Literary Analysis

Sources:      Guide, introduction, 1:15

Readings:   Klein-Braslavy 1988; Cohen 2003:1-16, 98-100, 118-136, 179-188

UNIT 8: Song of Songs

Reading:     Rosenberg 1990 (includes sources in Maimonides), Cohen 2003: 98-118 

UNIT 9: Meshalim in Prophecy

Sources:      Nahmanides on Gen 18:1; compare Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra ad loc.

Reading:     Cohen 2003:196-200

UNIT 10: Account of Creation

Sources:      Guide 11:25, 30

Readings:   Klein-Braslavy 1987:9-46, 63-69; Cohen 2003:216-223


UNIT 11: Job Philosophical Reading

Sources:   Guide 111:22-23

Readings:   Levinger 1988; Greenberg 1992; Cohen 2003:188-196


UNIT 12: Job Literary Reading

Reading:   Cohen, forthcoming


UNIT 13: Zahir an-Nasy (PeshaP) and Historical-Cultural Analysis of Torah Law

Sources:      Guide 111:29, 41

Readings:   Twersky 1980:387-391, 430-447; Levinger 1989:56-66; Kamin 1991:12*~26*


UNIT 14: Overview of Maimonides’ Biblical Exegesis

Bacher 1896; Rosenberg 1981 +





UNIT 1 (1/20/2004): Portrait of Maimonides as Biblical Interpreter

Scholarship's approaching to exegesis is though the analysis of the literary, linguistic , and philological.

Rambam: 1135-1204.  Born in Cordova.  

Intends to write Biblical commentary titles "Sefer Nevi'im" (Which would have incorporates all 3 books of Tanach including Ketuvim, his approach to the lower level of Ruach Hakodesh found in Ketuvim notwithstanding) but instead incorporated his commentary into The Guide.  The goal (one goal?) of the Guide is to explain difficult passages in light of (then) modern philosophy and science.  Segel feels the Rambam's commentary is "Midrash Philisophy." Note "Midrash," as apposed to "P'shat."  That is to say that in Segel's opinion, the Rambam was not delivering the P'shat of the verses, but explaining them in support of his philosophical positions. The same would be said of his citations of scriptures in Mishna Torah, although the exegesis would be seen through the prism of the Talmudist.  In this sense, Chazal are driving the exegesis, which is very similar to Rashi's approach to commentary.  (As we will see, M.C. takes exception with this point of view, as does modern scholarship.)

The Rambam's commentary does not cite other exegetes, some of which he must be certainly aware.  First questions: did he know the Ibn Ezra.  The Ibn Ezra was born in 1089, and while we are  not certain of his exact date of death, as the Rambam wrote his first work (Mishna Commentary) from age 23-29, the Ibn Ezra was certainly alive and writing, as he began to write in the 1150s(?), first in Rome, then in Northern France, and then in England.  Note however, that his geographical setting (12th century Christendom), as apposed to the Rambam's settlement in Muslim lands may have been a barrier across which the Ibn Ezra's book may not have been able to cross.  The Rambam's last will and Testament points to the Ibn Ezra (I don't remember how), but it is largely viewed as psuedopigraphal.  Are link may also be established by noting that the Rambam's Sefer Hamtzvot bears striking parallels to Ibn Ezra's Yesod Morah.  Even if the Rambam did not borrow from the Yesod Moreh, the similarities point to a similar tradition, that of the Spanish Exegetes, where both were born.  Any student of exegesis born in Spain was raised on a diet of Ibn G'anach, even though his works are limited to a dictionary and grammar.  Another exegete of the Spanish tradition would be Moshe HaKohen G'ikatilla, and Yehuda Ibn Bal'Am.  

The Rambam does cite G'ikatilla and Bal'Am in his "Ma'amar Techiyat  HaMeitim," written to fend off accusations of heresy derived from his approach in Mishnah Torah to eschatological verses in Yishayahu.  He point to the former two scholars who preceded him in his "rationalist" (?) view of these verses.  These exegetes' works (also that of Chayu'g) were lost to us for a long time (as they were written in Arabic) but were found in Leningrad .  This shared Spharadic tradition ties the Rambam to the Ibn Ezra, and to earlier Spanish exegetes.  Nonetheless, the Rambam quotes only Chazal.

Rosenberg shows that the Rambam did have a methodology to his exegesis.  (See also Klein-Braslavy who creates a work of the Rambam's commentary on Tehillim, Yechezk'el, Iyyov, etc. culled from his Guide and other works.)  The Rambam is now viewed as a biblical exegete.  In 2000, Klein-Braslavy writes a book on Rambam's approach to King Solomon fusing his commentaries on Medrashei Chazal and his philosophical works. Changes in viewpoint from 2000 to 2004 indicate that Klein-Braslavy's approach needs revision.  (This seems to be good assignment for the final paper: rewrite the Klein-Braslavy 200 article based on the latest scholarship.)  The new approach suggests that the Rambam is a pure p'shat parshan, rather than being driven by his philosophical and talmudist background.  He includes (where??) phililogical definitions which are straight out of Ibn G'anach.  The Guide quotes Ibn G'anach directly (once) on the meaning of the word "Kenaph" which in the Book of Ruth are ascribed to God (יְשַׁלֵּם יְהוָה, פָּעֳלֵךְ; וּתְהִי מַשְׂכֻּרְתֵּךְ שְׁלֵמָה, מֵעִם יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר-בָּאת, לַחֲסוֹת תַּחַת-כְּנָפָיו.).  He shows that Kenaph is from the Arabic the cover or Hide ("liHastir") and indicates a garment corner.  It does not here mean wings, and thus does not ascribe a polymorphism to God.  The Rambam, however, does go beyond the traditional p'shat exegesis of G'ikatilla and Bal'am to merge in philosphy and Chazal to create his exegeses.  For example, he is willing to go against tradition, and declare Iyyov a Mashal.  (The Rambam can also be shown to have used Arabic literary philosophy.  I'm not sure what the point was here.)

Now that the Rambam is defined as a P'shat exegete, we have to define the meaning of P'shat, especially as the Rambam never uses this term.  See readings for unit 2.

UNIT 2 (1/27/2004): Maimonides’ notions of Peshat and Derash

(Read Klein-Braslavy in 31.3 in Magne Seabo, also Chapter 1 of Moshe Ibn Ezra's article by Cohen.  Moshe Ibn Ezra analyzes Tanach in comparison to Arabic poetry; cites from  Rasg's Tafsir and Janah's dictionary.) 

theory does not propose that Rambam always stuck to peshat, since he is certainly influenced by being a Talmudist.  However, that he he is sometimes (?) a Peshat Parshan must be identified.  

The Guide professes two goals: to explain

The term  "Sheimot" comes from Al-Farabi, an Arabic Aristotelian philosopher.  Other definitions: 

The term Meshalim comes from Chazal as well as Al-Farabi and Ibn-Sina Also includes a Jewish literary tradition.  

Rambam's intent is that by explaining the meaning of words, understanding that words have duplicate meanings, it is necessary to determine the correct meaning.  This will serve to cancel the "simple," and incorrect meaning.  In the Hebrew version of the guide, the word "simple" is rendered "Peshat."  In the original Arabic, however, the word is "Thahir," which is better understood as "immediately apparent," or "revealed," but also means "superficial," which carries a connotation of incorrect.

The Guide focuses on distinguishing between "Peshat" (Eric: I think he means "Thahir") and philosophical commentary.  When dealing with the Mitzvot, the tension is between Pshat and Drash.  Nachmanides says that one cannot undo Peshat, Derash is also intended by the Torah.  This is the idea of Mashal and Melitza  (which we would render today is Nimshal (=Mashal) and Mashal (=Melitza).  This describes the two layers of the biblical text.  The Rambam rejects this two layered approach.  Ibn Ezra says (commentary on Eicha and Elbaum p. 93) that the Midrashim are an embellishment.  

UNIT 3 (2/3/2004): Halakhic Exegesis Sources in Mishneh Torah:  

(Interesting book by Shlomo Selah on Ibn Ezra and his approach to science.)  Elbaum highlights two strategies used by Ibn Ezra to reconcile Peshat vs. Derash:

Regarding the Asmachta, the Eben Ezra does not say whether the law that is supported by the Rabbinicaly established Asmachta is itself rabbinic or is in fact a Torah law, but with no proof-text.  In the case of "Sheir" indicating a wife among the 7 people that a priest can defile himself to bury (and that a mourner must mourn for), while the word actually means "close blood relative" and the meaning "wife" is an Asmachta, the allowance for the wife is still a Torah law.

In Halachik Torah units,  the Ibn Ezra will not always rely on Asmachta or Mashal to resolve a difficult verse.  He may say, in fact, that the Rabbis understanding of the Peshat of the verse is correct. 

This, even though the Peshat does not seem to support the Rabbinic understanding, and in fact we will find other Pashtanim who stick to the Pshat.  So by Exodus 13:9, which the Rashbam says is not referring to Tefillin

while the Ibn Ezra maintains that it is.

UNIT 3 (Continued) (2/10/2004): Halakhic Exegesis Sources in Mishneh Torah:  

Ibn Ezra introduced a linguistic/literary methodology, but his methods evolved from Karaite methodology, including Yeffet (although the founder of the movement was a “drash” guy).  Ibn Ezra fused the Karaite methodology (jettisoning their philosophical and religious views) with Rabbinic interpretation.  On Narrative passages he felt free to diverge, but on halachik matters he would not.  The Ibn Ezra is specifically careful in regarding the text as Mashal since this would open up the Pandora’s Box of Metaphoric interpretation used by Christians.  (Note the “Third” way in his introduction.)

Regarding the Torah passages of Yibbum, Avelut/Preistly-Purity, and Kiddush on Shabbat Ibn Ezra declares that the connection between the verses and the laws are Asmachtot: mnemonics used by the Rabbis to remember (or give authority) Torah or Rabbinic laws.  In the case of Avelut/Preistly-Purity he looks first at the philology, and then bows to the Rabbinic understanding.  In the case of the prohibition of allowing oneself to be charged interest, Ibn Ezra is able find grammatical support to the Rabbinic understanding of the verse, and therefore does not need to rely on an “Asmachta” to manage the contrast between the simple meaning of the text and the normative law. 

The Rashbam has a bi-level understanding of biblical text, stating that the “Ikkar” is the Rabbinic understanding.  The Pshat is a second level of understanding which, not being “Ikkar,” need not agree with the Rabbinic interpretation even on legal issues.  (Sara Yeffet questions whether the Rashbam could really have believed that the text could maintain dialectic ideas, and therefore felt that the Rahbam felt that the Pshat was correct, but that “Ikkar” meant that is was important to bow to Rabbinic interpretation.  However, one needs only to look at the emergent Christian Schools of biblical interpretation of the 11th to 12th centuries to see that they also maintained a bi-level approach, both “pshat” and the metaphoric level used to support their Christological beliefs.)  In all of the four cases above, the Rashbam mentions only the Pshat, at times diametrically apposed to the Rabbinic interpretation. 

The Ramban maintains that every verse maintains that when a Rabbinic interpretation of a verse does not coincide with the Pshat, the Rabbinic interpretation is as correct as the verse Pshat, the verse being able to “carry” both meanings.  See for example the case of and Kiddush on Shabbat where is begins with the apparent meaning of the verse, and then moves on to the Rabbinic. 

See the Rambam on Hilchot Gezaila and Aveida 11:18 where he cites Leviticus 21:4 as a source for a Cohen not entering a cemetery.  This is the verse which is used by the Rabbis to indicate that a Priest cannot defile himself for an inappropriate wife.  Find out where he gets this from!!! 


UNIT 6: Philological Exegesis (2/24/2004)

The Guide II:29 explains that the prophets (in this case Isaiah) make sure that we understand that the supernatural events are understood as simile. The way this is done is by matching the supernatural descriptions with natural events, like the fall of Babylon or Assyria.  Once this "stylistic pattern" is identified, it can be applied to to less-then-clear literary units, such as the Lion/Lamb prophecy.  The Rambam chose specifically prophecies which foretold (supernatural) events that were in the pas, such as the fall of Babylon or Assyria.  Since everyone can see that these events did not take place as described but were similes, the same rules can be applied to messianic prophecies, as well.  

One this can of worms is opened, however, the Rambam must explain that not everything is a simile, and in chapter II 49 (??) he gives an example of two types of literary units-- those that are simile and those that are intended to be understood in the plain sense--and tells us to be able to use these examples for understanding and differentiation any literary unit under the following four categories: Mashal, Hashala, Hagzama, and Diyuk.  (The first three being what Saadia described as Ma'jaz--non-literal--and which the Rambam is now analyzing and forming a methodology for appropriate exegesis.  These categories loosely match the ones described in the Guide's into (although Hagzama--hyperbole-- is absent, and apparently these sections were written at different times and stages in Maimonides' thinking on this matter.  

Of particular interest is the issue of Hasha'ala, which is a subcategory of equivocal terms (terms that can support more than one meaning).  Of the equivocal terms, three can affect understanding our deity (see Hyman article):

  1. Completely equivocal.  A single word accidentally and independently having two non-connected meanings. (Meshutaf)
  2. Words that refer to a similar attribute of two different things: body of a man, and body of literature (Eric: ?? Not sure about this one.  I think it's called Mesupak)
  3. Words borrowed from the original meaning, and applied to a new area (probably based on some similarity between the superficial meaning and the new meaning.)  This is a Hashala, and is the area that will be of focus for the Rambam.  He deals with two of these in chapter 1: Tzelem, and chapter 43: wing.