Sermon? Drash? Devar Torah? Originally Published March 25-26, 2022.

Last week your correspondent was privileged to take in and contemplate a homily by the Reverend Dr. Vincent Campbell, Senior Pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Pittsburgh.  Was his homily a devar Torah?  While reflecting on the inspiring sermon itself, we also considered how to refer to it.

We got to thinking about a bunch of words:  drash, sermon, homily, devar Torah…  not to mention exegesis and hermeneutics (which we have mentioned in this column previously, and which your correspondent avoids pronouncing publicly), the latter two being English terms for methods of extracting interpretation. 

The basic, face-value meaning of a piece of scripture we may be reading is referred to as the “pshat” (official transliteration peshat).  (I remember this meaning by thinking that it is the “upshot.”)  “Midrash” (a part of the Talmud) consists of both the legislative interpretations (Midrash halakhah) and the stories and messages (Midrash aggadah) discussed and written during the Rabbinic Period (100-500 CE).

Drash” (official transliteration derash), also an interpretation (as a verb “to drash” may mean “to interpret”), could refer to sections of Midrash (“Midrash” means “out of learning”), or could be an extruded discussion of a verse.  “Devar Torah,” a “word of Torah,” is a coordinated speaking on a piece of Torah, often for this purpose expanded to include all Jewish writings rather than just the Sefer Torah.

A rabbi may give us a sermon which is not a devar Torah - such as an exhortation to comport ourselves with dignity in the face of a pandemic - but most often the rabbi will connect what is being said with some ancient teaching, encouragement, or rule.  If the sermon is connected with the teachings of our religion, it is also a “homily.”  “Homiletics” comes from the Ancient Greek ὁμιλητικός (omiletikos), “assembled crowd,” and refers to the art of preaching.  (The word in modern Greek means “talkative.”)  We Jews have been welcoming preaching as interpretation of Torah since at least the fifth century BCE, when Ezra (ca. 480-440 BCE) would read Torah in public and then according to Midrash he offered interpretations in the lingua franca of the day after the readings.

In Parashat Shemini, this week’s parashah, in Leviticus 10:16, we find “דָּרֹ֥שׁ דָּרַ֛שׁ” as part of the sentence in which darosh is translated as “[Moses] studied.”  This has been said to be (but actually isn’t) the middle word of the Torah.  Though not physically centered, it does indicate that study should be central to our reading.

What is “drasha” or “derashah” (official transliteration)?  It is also a lesson, a teaching, but more toward a full sermon.  It may differ from “drash” in the latter’s reference specifically to Midrash in some interpretations, although others say the difference is only nuance.  These words are all derived from lidrosh, to seek.

Some readers may know that “drash” is also an acronym for Deployable Rapid Assembly Shelter, which of course may be yet another way to look at our study of Torah.