The Rashbam and Pshuto Shel Mikra

וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹקִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ:

And behold, there was a ladder set earthward and its top reached heavenward, and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending on it (Bereishit 28:12)

Ascending and Descending

As is well-known, Chazal (Bereishit Rabbah 68:12) tell us that the malachim that were ascending were the malachim of Eretz Yisrael, while those that were descending were malachim of Chutz La’Aretz, who would accompany Yaakov from this point on until his return.

Rashi on our pasuk points out the basis for the explanation of the Midrash, “עולים תחילה ואחר כך יורדים,” that is, the pasuk first mentions the malachim who were ascending before mentioning those who were descending. The problem is, since malachim originate from Heaven, surely they would first descend before ascending! It is in response to this question that Chazal explained that these were actually two separate sets of malachim; first, the malachim of Eretz Yisrael — who had accompanied Yaakov Avinu until this time — ascended, and then the malachim of Chutz La’Aretz descended.

If one looks at the peirush of the Rashbam — R’ Shmuel ben Meir — on this pasuk, one will find the following:

In terms of pshat there is no need to be particular regarding the fact that the pasuk mentioned ascending before mentioning descending, for this is the normal way of things, to mention ascending before descending.

Why does the Rashbam state that there is no need to be particular regarding the order of these terms when Chazal apparently felt that there is?

A similar comment of the Rashbam can be found in his peirush to Parshat Tetzaveh (Shemot 29:9), regarding the order in which Aharon and his sons were dressed in the bigdei kehunah on their first day performing the avodah. Parshat Tetzaveh seems to imply that Moshe put the avnet on all of them at the same time, while the pesukim in Parshat Tzav (Vayikra 8:7, 13) seem to indicate that he finished dressing Aharon before beginning to dress his sons. The Gemara (Yoma 5b) has an entire discussion as to how resolve this discrepancy.

The Rashbam writes (s.v. vechagarta):

There is a dispute concerning this in Masechet Yoma, since the order in which they were dressed mentioned here differs from the order mentioned in Parshat Tzav. (However,) according to the pshat there is no need to be particular (regarding the difference in order between the two parshiyot).

Here, too, Chazal were particular regarding a certain aspect of the pasuk, while the Rashbam states that it is not necessary. What are we to make of all this?

Pshat and Drash Questions

What the Rashbam is telling us is that the two areas of Torah known as pshat and drash have differing levels of sensitivity in terms of what constitutes an issue or a question. The function of pshat is to explain the pasuk in a straightforward way, ensuring that everything is in order in terms of language, syntax, and grammar. The drash, on the other hand, is much more sensitive in terms of what requires explanation or resolution. Therefore, the Gemara, which explains pesukim of the Torah primarily through the medium of drash, sees the difference in the order of the bigdei kehunah between the two parshiyot as an issue that needs to be addressed, and indeed, on the level of drash, it does! The Rashbam on the other hand, whose peirush on the Torah is devoted to pshat, maintains that there is no need to be particular. That, too, is true, on the level of pshat these discrepancies are not issues.

Thus, we see a fascinating principle regarding the difference between pshat and drash. Not only do they differ in the type of explanation they will provide, but also in the prior issues of what constitutes a question in the pasuk that needs to be addressed.

The Rashbam and Rashi

It is also noteworthy to point out that the question regarding the pasuk mentioning malachim ascending before descending is mentioned by Rashi in his peirush to our pasuk! If indeed this question only exists on the level of drash, why would Rashi mention it? Has he not stated that the goal of his peirush is to resolve pshuto shel mikra?

Apparently, there is a further internal dispute taking place regarding where exactly to place the dividing line between a pshat issue and a drash issue. Rashi sees the pasuk mentioning malachim “ascending” before “descending” as a matter which requires resolution on the level of pshat. The Rashbam on the other hand, sees that as a drash issue, whereas in terms of pshat “one need not be particular.” This means that sometimes there can be a dispute among the baalei hapshat not so much in terms of understanding the pshat of a certain word or phrase, but actually establishing whether or not it even presents a pshat concern.

It is quite significant to note that in this case, the baalei hapshat in question are none other than Rashi and his grandson the Rashbam! Frequently throughout the course of his peirush, the Rashbam will explain the pesukim differently than Rashi did. However, he does not see his peirush as being in conflict with that of Rashi, but rather, as a continuation of Rashi’s peirush, further developing pshat-based insights, in his words, “הפשטים המתחדשים בכל יום.” Indeed, the Rashbam (in his introductory remarks to Parshat Vayeshev) tells us that on numerous occasions he remonstrated with his grandfather and asked him why he did not write more pshat explanations in his peirush. To this Rashi replied that indeed had he the time he would have written further pshat insights.

It should come as no surprise therefore, that even though the Rashbam takes issue with Rashi on many occasions, nonetheless, he exhorts his readers to become fluent in Rashi’s peirush (Shemot 40:35):

Anyone who takes the word of our Creator to heart, let him not move from the explanations of my grandfather, Rabbeinu Shlomo, and let him not depart from them, for most of the halachot and derashot contained within are close to the pshat of the pesukim, and can all be derived from (paying attention to) redundancies and deviations in the phraseology of the words. It would be good to take hold (as well) of my explanations, but not to relinquish the former (Rashi’s peirush.)

The Rashbam and Divrei Chazal

In his introductory comment to Parshat Vayeshev (Bereishit 37:2), the Rashbam describes the background that led him to write his peirush:

Chazal have taught us “אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו — the pasuk does not depart from its straightforward meaning,” even though the primary goal of Torah is to teach — through the allusions and nuances of the pshat — aggadah, halachot, and dinim, through redundancy, and through R’ Eliezer the son of R’ Yose Haglili’s thirty-two principles (of drash) and R’ Yishmael’s thirteen principles (of drash). The early ones, in their piety, occupied themselves primarily with following the derashot, which are the primary (area of Torah study), and as a result of this they did not acquaint themselves with the depths of pshuto shel mikra.

The Rashbam is saying that although earlier generations rightly emphasized the study of midrash halachah, which is the primary way Torah should be explained (“שהן עיקר”), nonetheless, this came at the expense of engaging in pshuto shel mikra. And since it was Chazal themselves who told us “אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו,” the Rashbam undertook to write his peirush al derech hapshat, in order to address that need.

Sadly, there are those in the academic world who would present the Rashbam’s peirush al derech hapshat as being in opposition to or conflict with drash, as if he was seeking to establish pshat as the only legitimate way to explain the Chumash. These people consider themselves adherents to the Rashbam’s approach and champions of his method, and they do not realize — or choose not to recognize — that they are in direct contravention of his own words. The very same Rashbam who wrote his peirush based on pshat also wrote — in that peirush — that derashot are the ikar, and is the same Rashbam who is one of the most preeminent Baalei HaTosafot, who wrote extensive peirushim on numerous masechtot in Shas.

Moreover, it is a basic error to set the Rashbam apart from other more “traditional” Rishonim such as Rashi (and the Ramban), because of the fact that he explains pesukim based on pshat which differs from the way Chazal explained them al derech hadrash. For the truth is that Rashi and the Ramban likewise offer peirushim al pi pshat which differ from the derashot, albeit on fewer occasions than the Rashbam, so that the difference between the Rashbam and Rashi is not one of fundamental approach, but merely one of frequency of application.

At the root of the problem lies the tendency of certain people to see the realms of pshat and drash as being in competition with one another, whereas in reality, they complement each other. It is for this reason Chazal themselves — whose primary area of interpretation was that of drash — exhort us not to neglect the area of pshat, as the Rashbam quoted in his introductory paragraph. It is in this spirit of coexistence and harmony between pshat and drash that he wrote his unique peirush; the least we can do when learning it is to approach it with the perspective he had when writing it.