Peshat is a notoriously difficult term to define, and it seems to change meaning depending on the commentator involved. For Rabbi Solomon (Hebrew Shelomoh) son of Isaac, or Rashi, who lived in France from 1040 to 1105, peshatmeant “contextual meaning.” Rashi's commentary, covering almost the entire Hebrew Bible, is a type of medieval Reader's Digestof classical rabbinic interpretation. Very little in Rashi is original; his brilliance, and extreme popularity (Rashi on the Torah was the first Hebrew book printed, before the Torah itself!) lay in his ability to select and rework rabbinic traditions, largely ignoring the many rabbinic traditions which overly strained the context of the text and those which used the text as a type of peg on which to hang various ideas that are not at all connected to the context. More than that, the traditional Midrashim were so atomistic and filled with diverse opinions that it is almost always impossible to answer a simple question of how the Midrash understood the text. Rashi, through his judicious selection process, chose Midrashim that were relatively close to the text, and were mutually reinforcing. Thus, we have peshat where the broader text, as well as each letter or word, has a clear meaning. This accomplishment was so significant that the commentary of Rashi, especially on the Torah, is one of the most significant Jewish postbiblical texts; its influence on Jewish understanding of the Bible, especially in European communities, as well as on medieval Christians, for whom Rashi epitomized Jewish exegesis, cannot be minimized.
The method of peshat was taken one step further by Rashi's son‐in‐law, Rabbi Samuel (Hebrew Shmuel) son of Meir, or Rashbam (1080–1174), who understood peshat in a more radical sense as the simple meaning of the text. Rashbam, though a leading scholar of Jewish law, felt free to offer interpretations of the text in his commentary on the Torah that disagreed with rabbinic law. For example, in contrast to his father‐in‐law Rashi who, following the rabbinic tradition, interprets the words “for life” concerning the Hebrew slave in Ex 21.6 as until the jubilee year, Rashbam glosses “according to the peshat, all the days of his life.” It remains unclear how Rashbam would have reconciled this peshat with what he understood to be the requirements of rabbinic law. In any case, the type of very literal, nonMidrashic way of reading the text which characterized Rashbam found new followers.
Rashbam is also noteworthy for the way in which some of his comments are clearly the product of a reaction against the Christians, especially the persecution of Jews during the Crusades. Though anti‐Christian polemic existed in Rashi as well, it was relatively mild; the Crusades, which marked a significant change in the status of the Jews in medieval Europe, would leave a deep impact on many commentators. Nevertheless, Jewish commentary should not be seen as predominantly reactive.
Much of the rest of medieval Jewish interpretation may be understood within the context provided above, as a continuum on which the classical atomistic Midrashim and the search for peshat existed as opposite poles. Several additional influences are noteworthy. Especially in countries where Arabic was spoken, a new serious study of the Hebrew language was begun, likely in an effort to counter the Muslim claim that the Arabic of the Koran is the most beautiful language. Arabic paradigms were applied to Hebrew by scholars in the Arab orbit (e.g., Sa'adya [882–942] in Babylon, Abraham ibn Ezra [1089–1164] in Spain and elsewhere), and commentaries that were more philological in nature, exploring the meaning of grammatical forms and lexical terms, developed. Spinoza offers a picture of ibn Ezra as a medieval radical, doubting the Mosaic authorship of several verses from the Torah. In reality, despite some atypical positions that include the suggestion that Isa 40–66 , what scholars now call Second and Third Isaiah, are not by the same author as chs 1–39, ibn Ezra was quite traditional in his outlook, and deeply philological in his perspective. Rabbi David Kimchi (Radak), who lived in Provence from 1160 to 1235, systematized many of these interpretations, and his understanding of biblical grammar continues to have a major influence on the scientific study of Hebrew. More than any other medieval exegete, Radak also showed a deep interest in what would later be called textual criticism, namely deciding what the correct text of the Bible was, and many of his views in this area are remarkably modern.
The world of premodern interpretation is, of course, much richer than indicated here. There was a very significant strain of mystical interpretation of the text, exemplified in the Zohar (late thirteenth century), and in the commentary of Nachmanides, Rabbi Moses son of Nachman (active in the thirteenth century). Philosophical interpretations also developed; most notable are those found in The Guide to the Perplexed by Maimonides (1135–1204). With the Renaissance, Jewish scholars were influenced by the new science; this is especially seen in the extremely lengthy commentary by Don Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508), who also synthesizes and to an extent harmonizes the many commentators of all types and from various geographical locations who preceded him.
Postbiblical Jewish exegesis does not neatly divide into the schools through which medieval Christian interpretation is often defined. It is essentially different from much of the work of its Christian counterparts. Part of this is because they were studying different works: the Hebrew Bible studied alone, or in relation to rabbinic traditions, is fundamentally different from the Old Testament as part of the Bible, followed by the New Testament. The allegorical and especially the typological methods, which had a very significant role in Christian interpretation, played a much less weighty role in Jewish interpretation. Finally, direct access to the text in its original Hebrew typically distinguished Jewish biblical interpretation from that of the Christians. Despite these differences, which are very significant, most Jewish and Christian premodern interpretation shares a set of basic assumptions that make them fundamentally premodern. These include the idea that the Bible is an authoritative canonical work, which is revealed divine speech, and, as such, must be interpreted in a special way. Though set in history, it is in a sense timeless, speaking to every generation and to every individual. Although several medieval rabbis cast some small doubts on one aspect or another of these premises of interpretation, only in the seventeenth century would these shared assumptions begin to erode, and only then would we slowly move from premodern to modern biblical interpretation.