The Torah may be interpreted in many ways. In fact Midrash Numbers Rabbah 13:15 states that there are 70 facets of Torah interpretation (literally 70 faces to the Torah) corresponding to the gematria of wine יין, indicating that the Torah study is both pleasurable and exhilarating. Many commentators add that the gematria of סוד (secrets of the Torah) is also 70 corresponding to the verse in Psalms 25:14, “The secret of Hashem is with those who fear Him”.

Four Levels

Notwithstanding the above, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal) emphasized study of the Torah at 4 primary levels or approaches as shown in the following table. The Gaon of Vilna also endorsed this system to properly appreciate the depths of Torah. The Shulchan Aruch Harav (Laws of Torah Study 1:4) codifies this method of study. (Within these approaches of course are many facets.) The first letter of each of the four levels when rearranged spells פרדס (orchard or paradise).

Level – HebrewLevel – EnglishPrimary Text(s)
פשטLiteral MeaningBible
רמזHints and allusionsMidrash/Talmud

Literal Meaning – פשט

This level corresponds to the literal meaning of the text, whether in Hebrew or another language, and sets its context. At this level, the student may draw upon other texts from the bible to elucidate words or contexts. However word comparisons are only valid in Hebrew or the Aramaic Targum (translation) because Hashem gave the Torah in Hebrew, the prophets wrote in Hebrew, and the Targum was given at Sinai and later written by Onkelos (Megillah 3a).  

At this level, the student of Torah is left with many questions that cannot be resolved without using the other levels.

Exegesis – דרש  

This level corresponds to the Oral Torah to define and elucidate the 613 commandments of the written Torah (Zohar 3:110a as explained by the commentary מדבש מתוק, Rashi on Gittin 60b). This exegesis includes laws taught by Moses from Sinai (מסיני למשה הלכה), the 13 rules as listed by Rabbi Yishmael (Introduction to Sifra), historical traditions or details not mentioned in the bible, and homilies.

Laws Taught by Moses

These laws are essential for proper observance of mitzvoth even though the details are not found in the written text. For example the Torah commands the wearing of phylacteries, literally a sign on your arm and an ornament between your eyes (Exodus 13:9-10 and 13:16; Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18). However the written Torah does not specify the shape, material, colour or contents of these signs and ornaments. The Talmud Menachot 34a-37b provides these details authoritatively as laws taught by Moses from Sinai and are codified in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim chapters 25-45).  

Thirteen Rules

The application of the 13 rules is a topic in itself and will be addressed in a later article. For a brief synopsis refer to the Artscroll Siddur – Ashkenaz, by Rabbi Nosson Scherman, Third Edition 1043 pages, on pages 48–52.  For a more detailed analysis refer to Introduction to the Talmud, Mesorah (Artscroll) Publications, Team of Torah Scholars, 2019, 624 pages, on pages 12-21.

Historical Traditions

The written Torah records many seminal events in the history of the Israelites with many details omitted. The oral Torah, based upon an unbroken chain of tradition from Moses fills in these details, albeit with some disputes regarding the fine points.

The following table provides several examples from the book of Genesis which are expounded in the tractate Sanhedrin:

EventVerses (Genesis)Talmud (Sanhedrin)
Creation of man and woman1:26-29, 2:20-2138a-39a
Tower of Babel11:1-9107b, 109a
Wickedness of Sodom13:13, 18:20107b, 109a,b

There are numerous other examples in the Talmud and the Midrash is replete with this form of exegesis closely following the verse of the bible.

In another example, the Torah records the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai but does not specify on which on which day of the third month (Exodus 19:1 – 25). The Torah also relates a series of commands from Hashem to Moses leading up to the giving of the Torah but does not provide a timeline of these events. The Talmud Shabbat 86b-88a discusses this sequence and elaborates on the dispute whether the Torah was given on the 6th or 7th of Sivan. In addition the Talmud (ibid. 88a-89b) relates the many miracles that occurred at the giving of the Torah (e.g. appearance of angels who crowned the Israelites, world filled with fragrance, souls of Israelites departed and restored with mystical dew).     

In summary the Talmud is the definitive repository of the Oral Law and serves as the primary text for exegesis and corresponding rabbinic laws. The halachic Midrashim (i.e. Mechilta, Sifra, and Sifrei on the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers/Deuteronomy respectively) are also in this category and are frequently quoted by Rashi. The homiletic Midrashim (e.g. Midrash Rabbah and Midrash Tanchuma) are also involved in exegesis, primarily in non-legalistic (aggadic) analysis, with a bent towards the next level of hints and allusions.

Dealing with exegesis requires comparing many related texts and resolving (apparent) contradictions. For exegesis one should study under a Torah teacher, preferably a rabbi who possesses a solid background in Talmudic studies, in a group to discuss, debate, and expound on the Torah at this level.

Rationale for Oral Law

The reader may ask, “Why does the Torah omit so many details that must be explained by the oral law? The Torah as the revealed word of Hashem should have written these details.” This question has been pondered by many Torah commentators over the ages with many answers. For brevity, this article will provide a few of these answers:

  1. Unwieldy – The Torah could not provide all of the details in one volume or scroll. There are numerous details attached to each commandment of the Torah (Eruvin 21b) which would have, and in fact resulted in, many works in Halacha and associated responsa. In addition Hashem wanted every one of the Israelites to have a share in the Torah, whether a layman or scholar. The written Torah provides a brief outline of each law suitable for the layman. The oral law with its myriad of details is directed to the serious student of Torah (Maharal Tifferet Yisrael Chapter 69).
  2. Adaptability – The Halacha must be applied to new situations which were not known to the Israelites at the time of the giving of the Torah at Sinai (e.g. prohibition of use of electricity on Shabbat and festivals, permissibility of microphone or broadcast systems for reading of Megillah, artificial insemination, etc.). If these details were written in the Torah it would only confuse the Israelites as that time (Sefer Ikkarim 3:23). Hence the major principles are mentioned in the written Torah with the details in the oral law to be analyzed and applied by Torah sages throughout the generations.
  3. Theology – Hashem foresaw that in the future other religions will claim ownership of the bible and that their beliefs supersede the written Torah (i.e. replacement theology). Hence Hashem exclusively gave the oral Torah to the Israelites as the chosen people to fulfill the laws of the Torah with its intended details (Exodus Rabbah 47:1, Midrash Tanchuma Noah 3 and Ki Tissa 34).   
  4. Misinterpretation – Any passage committed to writing is open to interpretation and especially misinterpretation by someone unfamiliar with the author’s intent. Since the Torah was given on Sinai more than 3,000 years ago the original intent could be lost on the Israelites. Hence an oral tradition passed down from teacher to student preserves the original intent and meaning of the written text (Maimonides Guide to the Perplexed 1:71).
  5. Authenticity – As mentioned in point 4 the oral law depends upon a close teacher to student relationship. If the Torah were only in written form, the students would not expend the effort to master the intricacies of the law relying only upon their reading skills. In addition the teacher over time could discern the intellectual prowess and moral standing of his students to determine if they are worthy to pass on the oral tradition to the next generation of students to continue the unbroken chain from Sinai (Maharal Tifferet Yisrael Chapter 69).   

The reader may ask, based upon the above reasons, “Why was the oral law written down?” Actually from the point of view of Halacha the oral law should have remained oral (Talmud Gittin 60b). However Rabbi Yehudah the prince felt that due to the Roman persecution, especially after the rebellion of Bar Kochva, the oral law may be forgotten. Therefore he committed the Mishna to writing, based upon the verse Psalms 119:126, “It is time to act for Hashem, (even if it appears) that they have nullified your Torah.” For similar reasons the Talmud and Midrash were later committed to writing but purposely in a terse and somewhat confusing manner to ensure that a student be serious and study under a master of the oral law.   

Hints and allusions – רמז

This level includes allusions, allegory, gematria (numerical values), letter substitution systems (e.g. Atbash, Albam), permutation of letters, and acronyms. Although the homiletic Midrashim are the primary source for this level, the Talmud occasionally deals with this level. When engaging with this level, one must keep in mind that the literal meaning of the verse should not be ignored or contradicted. As the Talmud states (Shabbat 63a), “A verse does not depart from its literal meaning – פשוטו מידי יוצא מקרא אין”, although there may be additional homiletical interpretations.  


The midrash finds hints or allusions far beyond the literal meaning of the text. However these allusions are integral to the text and not read into the text, reflecting Hashem’s infinite wisdom contained in the written Torah. For example (Genesis Rabbah 88:5) finds a hint to the four cups of wine at the seder through the number of times that the word cup כוס and its associated forms are used in reference to the dream of the butler (Genesis 43:11, 13, and 21). Actually depending upon the method of counting one can find 3, 4, or 5 allusions. The midrash also mentions 4 or 5 expressions of redemption from Egypt in Exodus 6:6-8. The details of this midrash and its analysis (i.e. cups of wine and redemption) will be described in an article on the four cups.   


The Torah may also be interpreted beyond its literal meaning to include allegory where roles or concepts are reassigned depending upon the context. The Sotah is a wife suspected of infidelity after warning from the husband and seclusion with the suspected man in the presence of two witnesses (Numbers 5:11-31 and Talmud Sotah). At the literal and exegesis level the principles are husband, wife, and suspected adulterer. In an allegorical sense the midrash (Numbers 9:45) identifies the principles as Hashem as the husband, the wife as the Israelites, the adulterer as idol worship. Of course these analogies are not to be interpreted literally since Hashem does not possess a physical form and we are not married to Hashem in a literal sense. Rather the midrash through allegory teaches important lessons in language that people can readily understand and apply. The midrash teaches that Hashem, so to speak, is upset when Israel abandons Hashem like a husband would be outraged if his wife were unfaithful. In addition Hashem may have contact with other nations (polygamy was permitted for a man at the time of the Torah and Talmud) but Israelites can only have one G-d, just as a woman cannot have two husbands simultaneously. She is permitted to remarry after divorce or death of her husband. Hashem will never divorce the Jewish people (Isaiah 50:1) and obviously Hashem cannot die.       


The Hebrew alphabet is composed of 22 basic letters, each with a numerical equivalent. The first 9 letters increase by units, the next 9 by tens, and the last 4 by hundreds as shown in the table below.  Five letters have a special form when they appear at the end of a word ץ-ף-ן-ם-ך and may assume the same numerical value as its basic letter or increase by hundreds up to 900.

1-9       ט- אUnits1-9
10-18   צ-יTens10-90
19-22   ת-קHundreds100-400
23-27   ץ-ף-ן-ם-ךTens20-90
23-27   ץ-ף-ן-ם-ךHundreds500-900

Due to its apparent simplicity, gematria may be misused and requires judicious interpretation. The fact that two words or phrases have the same numerical value does not imply that there is a direct relationship. A suggested interpretation should coincide with other levels of pardes. In addition a cluster of instances or a group numbers is more powerful than a single number or instance in the field of gematria. Gematria may only be applied to biblical Hebrew or the authorized Aramaic translation of the bible since Hashem communicated his words in these languages.   

Letter Substitution

In addition to numerical values the Hebrew letters may be substituted one for another through different cipher systems. The two most popular are Atbash and Albam as explained below:  

NameHebrew LettersOrdinal ValuesRule
Atbashת-א, ש-ב, ר-ג …(1, 22), (2, 21), (3, 20)…(i, 23-i)
Albamל-א, מ-ב, נ-ג …(1, 12), (2, 13), (3, 14) …(i, 11+i)

Each letter of the basic 22 letter alphabet is assigned an ordinal number. Then the alphabet is divided into two equal parts of 11 letters. Each letter of the first group is paired with a letter of the second group according to the rules shown in the table. In the Atbash system the first letter of the first group is paired with the last letter of the second group and the second letter of the first group is paired with the second to last letter of the second group and so on. In the Albam system the first letter of the first group is paired with the first letter of the second group and the second letter of the first group is paired with the second letter of the second group and so on.

Some examples are provided to illustrate these systems. Not all letters of a word must be substituted when using these techniques.

Atbash System – Examples

Initial WordTransformed WordMeaning
מצוה – Commandmentה-ו-ה-י Divine NameDivine energy in commandment
מלך – King (Human or Divine)יכל – AbleKing has the power

Albam System – Example

Initial WordTransformed WordMeaning
נפש – Soul (Animal or Human)גוי – Nation (Jewish or non-Jewish)Transform to nation
אמת -Truthלבך – Your heartTake truth to heart

Permutation of Letters

The words of the bible, whether in Hebrew or Aramaic, may be rearranged to obtain deeper meanings.      

Initial WordTransformed WordMeaning
ארון – Ark (of the covenant)נורא –AwesomeDivine revelation – awesome
יכל – Ableכלי -VesselBe able as a vessel of divine will


Each Hebrew or Aramaic word in the bible may serve as an acronym as shown below.

אנכיIExodus 20:2Shabbat 105a
מזבחAltarExodus 20:20, 27:1Midrash Tanchumah Terumah 10

אנכי – I Hashem gave the Ten Commandments specifically (and the Torah in general).

ננפשיBy myself
ייהביתAnd Gave

It is interesting to note that this acronym is in Aramaic, indicating the closeness of this language to Hebrew. The Talmud offers another acronym in Hebrew as follows:

ככתיבהWas written
ייהיבהAnd Given

מזבח – The altar and by extension the sacrificial system brings forgiveness, blessing, and meaningful life to the world. Today prayer takes the role of sacrifices. At the time of the messiah we will have both prayer and offerings to Hashem.   


This article has elaborated on different approaches to hints (רמז) because they are easily implemented and allow the student of Torah to find additional meaning. A compelling hint is one that seamlessly integrates with the other 3 level of pardes.

Secrets of Torah – סוד

This level relates to the mystical and esoteric study of Torah, often called Kabbalah, whose primary text is the Zohar with the focus on understanding the interplay of human actions with the heavenly realms.

(Note: This author has not been formally trained in Kabbalah but is aware of the basic concepts of Kabbalah (e.g. four heavenly worlds, ten sefirot – divine emanations) through reading several books on Kabbalah and by studying the Zohar daily. Therefore articles on this web site will not deal with concepts beyond the revealed Torah and its commentaries. Following the directive of the Talmud Chagigah 13a, “Seek not things concealed from you, nor search those hidden from you. Reflect on that which is permitted to you; you have no business with secret matters.” Rather these articles will quote from the Zohar to explain biblical verses and elaborate on the connection between the Zohar and related sections of the Talmud and Midrash following the pardes system.)     


The Torah may be interpreted at many levels. This article (primer) focuses on the four primary methods of Torah study starting from the literal meaning, advancing through exegesis then hints and allusions to attempt to understand the secrets of the Torah. The objective of this approach is to build from one level to the next and to resolve (apparent) discrepancies when they occur. As the psalmist says (Psalms 19:8), “The Torah of Hashem is perfect; restoring the soul.”    

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