Monday, July 28, 2014

Mishlei Methodology: Meiri - Nigleh and Nistar

This post was originally published on 6/24/13. Several minor changes have been made.

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The Perils of Metaphor

Over the several years I've taught Sefer Mishlei, I've noticed a trend among new students: they almost always gravitate towards a metaphorical approach, and I must continually steer them back to the plain pshat.

The main difficulty with the metaphorical approach is that it is unbridled. Once a person breaks free from the confines of the pshat (straightforward meaning) and ventures into the speculative world of metaphor, it becomes possible to interpret the pasuk in an almost infinite number of ways, without restraint. Even worse, metaphorical thinking makes it easy to project one's preconceived ideas onto the pasuk, or to twist the meaning of the pasuk to fit into one's own emotional and intellectual biases.

This is how beginners tend to see a typical pasuk in Mishlei.
One of the major contributing factors to the popularity of the metaphorical approach is the fact the many meforshim (commentators) utilize the metaphorical approach, including Rashi, the Vilna Gaon, the Malbim), and others. The trouble is that they interpret pesukim metaphorically without explaining how they arrived at their interpretations. Consider, for example, the pasuk, "The house of a tzadik (righteous person) is very sturdy, but when a rasha (wicked person) arrives, it becomes sullied" (Mishlei 15:6). Rashi explains:
The house of a tzadik: this refers to the Beis ha'Mikdash (Holy Temple), which was built by David; it was a sturdy fortress of strength of Israel. but when a rasha arrives it becomes sullied: upon the arrival of the idol, which was brought by Menashe, [the Beis ha'Mikdash] became sullied.
Rashi's interpretation is certainly valid, but how is the student of Rashi's commentary supposed to understand how he derived this idea from the pasuk? The pasuk doesn't say anything about the Beis ha'Mikdash, or David ha'Melech, or Menashe, or idols - and yet, Rashi tells us that this is what the pasuk means! And even if we accept Rashi's interpretation on the basis of authority, that doesn't help us to acquire his methodology. Consequently, the Mishlei-neophyte who looks to Rashi as his guide will be tempted to give own similar "interpretations" of the pesukim, thinking he is doing the same thing as Rashi, when in truth, he is just free-associating. I have seen this happen on numerous occasions, especially with students who aren't trained in analytical thinking.

Thankfully, my Mishlei rebbi gave me a rule of thumb which has served as my methodological anchor throughout my thirteen years of Mishlei learning: always take the pasuk as literally as possible unless you are forced to interpret it otherwise. And even when you are forced to deviate from the literal reading, be extremely conservative and refrain as much as possible from positing anything which isn't stated explicitly in the pasuk.

Still, as much as I gained from the literal approach to Mishlei, I was bothered by the many commentators who learn Mishlei as a book of metaphors. I wondered how these commentators determine which of the many possible directions to take in decoding Shlomo ha'Melech's cryptic statements. Do they just have a highly developed Mishleic intuition, or were their interpretations guided by a method which I, myself, could acquire and use?

"Like golden apples in settings of silver - so is a statement properly formulated" (Mishlei 25:11)
Meiri's Approach

To this day I have found only one commentator who uses a metaphorical approach to Mishlei which I can actually understand and utilize: the Meiri. Before I present my understanding of his approach, it would help to review the basic subject matter of Mishlei as a whole. Sefer Mishlei was written as a companion to Torah, and was intended to facilitate the same objectives as the Torah itself, namely, tikun ha'nefesh (perfection of the intellect) and tikun ha'guf (perfection of the physical and psychological well-being of individuals, and of society as a whole).

Exactly how Mishlei goes about accomplishing this task is a matter of dispute among the commentators. For example, Rashi and Ralbag maintain that the book contains a mixture of pesukim aimed at the two objectives; some pesukim teach ideas about tikun ha'guf, whereas others teach ideas about tikun ha'nefesh. Rabbeinu Yonah and the Metzudos, on the other hand, seem to maintain that the majority of Mishlei is about perfection of the physical, and only a few pesukim here and there deal with intellectual perfection.

This is where the Meiri's approach shines. He maintains that almost every pasuk in Mishlei can be learned on two levels. He refers to these levels as the derech ha'nigleh ("revealed path") and the derech ha'nistar ("concealed path"). 

The derech ha'nigleh is what we would refer to as the "plain pshat" - an interpretation which reflects the meaning intended by the author in the most straightforward reading of his words. According to the Meiri, the derech ha'nigleh contains ideas about how to achieve success in the physical world. The Meiri even helps us by classifying all of the pesukim based on the types of derech ha'nigleh lessons they teach: ethics, politics, mitzvos, everyday advice, etc.

The derech ha'nistar, on the other hand, is to learn each pasuk as an allegory about how to achieve intellectual perfection. Unlike the derech ha'nigleh ideas, which are accessible to the average student of Mishlei, the derech ha'nistar ideas can only be understood by yechidim ("elite individuals"). Meiri writes in his introduction:

[Shlomo ha'Melech] cautions us about his proverbs in the opening statements of his book that although the nigleh ideas are beneficial, one must not mistakenly think that they are like other proverbs, namely, that they do not contain any nistar ideas. Rather, these mashalim teach us nistar ideas which include all types of perfection - both perfection of decision-making and perfection of analytical thinking, such that this book encompasses all virtuous conduct and will be beneficial to all people.

One of the advantages of learning the Meiri's commentary is that he almost always provides both interpretations of the pesukim in Mishlei. The difficulty, however, is that his style of commentary on the derech ha'nistar is, itself, exceedingly nistar. Instead of explaining the idea in his typically clear and straightforward manner, the Meiri merely alludes to the idea with concise, enigmatic sentence fragments. Not only that, but he often expresses the idea by borrowing language of other allegories from other sources, including (but not limited to) Shlomo ha'Melech's other writings, the other books of Tanach, and from the midrashim of Chazal. To the extent that one lacks fluency in these other allegories, one will have a difficult time understanding the Meiri's derech nistar interpretations.

An authentic picture of the Meiri discovering the derech ha'nistar.
(Artwork: Quest for Ancient Secrets, by Mike Bierek) 
My Approach to the Meiri's Approach

For many years I focused exclusively on the derech ha'nigleh portion of the Meiri's commentary and completely ignored the derech ha'nistar. At a certain point, I got into the habit of glancing at his derech nistar interpretation as an afterthought to my learning of the derech ha'nigleh. In recent years, I began devoting more attention to his derech ha'nistar ideas, and only am I beginning to grasp the core of his method.

In a nutshell, the Meiri's method of interpreting Mishlei metaphorically may be summed up in two steps: (1) figure out the pshat of the pasuk in the derech na'nigleh, (2) take the exact idea from the derech ha'nigleh but apply it to the subject matter of the derech ha'nistar - that is to say: abstract the idea from its application to the subject matter of tikun ha'guf and apply it instead to the subject matter of tikun ha'nefesh

Let's see how this plays out in a well-known pasuk from Eishes Chayil: "She seeks out wool and flax, and her hands work with desire" (ibid. 31:13). The derech ha'nigleh approach to Eishes Chayil is to learn it as talking about an actual woman managing her household. According to the Meiri's derech ha'nigleh interpretation, the idea may be summed up as follows:
In every craft, there are "glorious" stages of the craft which allow the practitioner to exhibit his or her expertise in an impressive and rewarding manner, and there are "lowly" stages of the craft, which are necessary but tedious and unexciting. In the craft of making clothing, the glorious part is the designing and fashioning of the clothing itself, whereas making the trip out to the market to buy the raw materials is a necessary but unglamorous chore. The Eishes Chayil is an ishah chachamah (wise woman); she understands that in order to make a quality product, she must strive for excellence at every stage of the process. Consequently, she will approach her task with the same alacrity and desire at every step - even when seeking out the raw materials.
Thus far the derech ha'nigleh. As you can see, the Meiri's idea emerges from the pshat of the words and brings out a beautiful lesson in how to achieve success in the physical world.

Compare that to the Meiri's derech ha'nistar interpretation. Here's my summary:
The most exciting and enjoyable part of learning is the abstract, conceptual, creative analysis which culminates in new insight into the subject at hand. However, one must be careful not to rush to this stage of learning without first taking care to collect. assess, and organize all of the relevant facts - no matter how tedious and unglamorous this process might be. Conceptual theorizing might be fun, but if it isn't rooted in accurate data, then it is worthless. Consequently, a genuine truth-seeker will approach the fact-gathering stage with the same eagerness, exhilaration, and conscientiousness as he or she does in the theorizing stage.
See what I mean? The Meiri's derech ha'nistar reflects exactly the same idea as the derech ha'nigleh, with only one difference: the former is applied to the subject of achieving success in the physical world, while the latter deals with achieving success in the world of chochmah.

The greatness of the Meiri's method is that it steers clear of the aforementioned dangers of the metaphorical approach. His approach allows the student of Mishlei to remain firmly grounded in an objective, conservative analysis of the pshat, but promises the reward of a valuable metaphorical idea about tikun ha'nefesh.


  1. Why is information concerning intellectual perfection hidden in metaphor?

    1. I'm not entirely sure, but I'll tell you my best guess. Tikun ha'guf must precede tikun ha'nefesh. Thankfully, we're built this way. We are more interested in maximizing physical pleasure and minimizing physical pain than we are about seeking abstract knowledge. By writing Mishlei in a way that the derech ha'nigleh is almost exclusively geared toward tikun ha'guf, Shlomo ha'Melech ensures that the student will proceed in the right order. The student will develop his mind by pursuing physical pleasure in this manner, and in so doing, he will become more attached to chochmah. Eventually, he will realize that Mishlei can be learned on a deeper level, which facilitates his pursuit of chochmah. At this point, the student will gradually transition to focusing on tikun ha'nefesh.

      Moreover, if Shlomo ha'Melech wrote Mishlei in such a way that the derech ha'nigleh was about tikun ha'nefesh, many people wouldn't even start reading it because they're not interested in that.

      So basically, he wrote it this way to avoid two pitfalls for two different categories of people: (1) people who want to skip steps and jump straight to tikun ha'nefesh, and (2) people who are turned off by tikun ha'nefesh and wouldn't even start Mishlei in the first place.

      Again, this is just a theory, and is by no means the only answer.

    2. sounds good to me. thanks!

    3. I'm glad you responded immediately. I was about to poke you.

    4. how rude! - stephanie tanner

  2. I haven't studied Rashi extensively but he seems to hold that the two forms of perfection can only arise through the institutions of the Torah, and therefore mishlei must be learned as making reference to Torah and Mitzvah institutions as the basis of interpreting its metaphors.

    I wonder if this is because he held that an attempt to do so through a purely 'worldly wisdom' will not successfully draw a person to the teshuva path of torah. In other words, the ropes tied one to another must make reference to Torah for them to be sufficiently related to the life of the am.

    This is similar to how mordechai was successful in leading the people to a 'kiymu v'kiblu' by showing them the practical benefit of living the mitzvah life (first in his response to the problem and then in the mitzvot of purim), which explicitely helped them understand wisdom as expressed in davar katan, instead of in a more general sense of practical wisdom.

    The rambam in his introduction to the moreh also seems to have a well worked out shitah of the proper approach to the metaphors of mishlei, which might interest you.

    1. That seems like a good approach to Rashi's shitah. It makes me wonder how deep this machlokes runs. If the other meforshim maintain that one can be successfully drawn to the teshuvah path of Torah without connecting Mishlei to Torah and mtizvos, what does this say about their understanding of man, of Torah, and of chochmah in general?

      Yeah, I just started re-learning the Rambam's hakdamah to the Moreh with Dave, and have noted his approach to Mishlei there (though I haven't yet explored it in depth).

    2. That's a great question,

      I wonder if this question might also relate to the question of why mishlei will be negated with the rest of tanach in the yemot hamashiach as opposed to remaining as a book for beginners.

  3. Thank you very much for taking the time to write this.

    Could you please direct me to a source for Meiri on Mishlei? I would very much like to follow up on what you have here.

    1. Unfortunately, the Meiri's commentary on Mishlei isn't printed in most Mikraos Gedolos. I've only seen it in the "Even Yisrael" edition, which - itself - is hard to find. There's a stand-alone volume published by אוצר הפוסקים, which I believe is connected to the publishers of the בית הבחירה. Speaking of which, there is a volume of the black בית הבחירה editions of Meiri which contains his commentary on Mishlei, Tehilim, and Avos. I don't know for sure who publishes it, but it should be fairly easy to find.

      Unfortunately, I don't know of any online editions of the Meiri on Mishlei.

      That's the best I can do. Good luck!