Kabbalistic Exegesis and Pardes
Naḥmanides was active in Gerona, Spain, in the second half of the 13th century, in the generation preceding Moses de Leon and his circle who composed or compiled the zoharic corpus of mystical texts. (See “The Bible in the Mystical Tradition,” pp. 1976–90.) While one can distinguish levels of interpretation in Naḥmanides' commentary, it is in the last quarter of the 13th century, particularly in the Zohar and other writings often attributed by modern scholars to Moses de Leon that one first encounters the acronym pardes to refer to the four levels of interpretation of the biblical text, peshat, remez, derash, and sod, or historical, philosophical, homiletic, and mystical. This usage is primarily restricted to kabbalistic writings and did not achieve the almost universal application that the four senses achieved in medieval Christian exegesis. The first three methods of interpreting the text—the peshat, philosophical, and homiletical— already existed and were widely applied by exegetes of various persuasions up until that time. By introducing a fourth level and presenting it as the culmination of the exegetical process, the most profound understanding of the biblical text attainable, the kab‐ balists were validating the work of their predecessors while at the same time claim‐ ing pride of place for their own innovative approach to the text. The commentary of Naḥmanides' student Baḥya ben Asher (late 13th century) was more formally organized along the lines of the commentaries of the medieval Christian exegetes, with several levels of interpretation, although there are few verses which are interpreted on all four levels. But with the exception of Baḥya, there are few examples of exegetes who analyze a book using all four methods consistently as did the Christians. Rather than being a methodology, pardes is a convenient way of describing the four approaches that medieval exegetes took in commenting on a biblical book. Some exegetes would use only one approach, some would combine two or three, but seldom would all four be consistently applied.