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This article is concerned with Jewish commentaries on the Tanakh (also known as the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament)

The Hebrew Bible is from the Masoretic text, and thus contains neither the books of the apocrypha nor the Christian New Testament.
The Hebrew word for Jewish commentators on the Bible is Meforshim; it more literally translates as "exegetes". The Hebrew word for commentaries is perushim.
In Judaism, these terms can refer to commentaries on the Torah (five books of Moses), all other books in the Tanakh, works of Jewish rabbinic literature, and even the siddur (Jewish prayerbook). This article restricts its topic to those meforshim (commentators) and perushim (commentaries) on the Torah and Tanakh.


There are two major approaches towards Biblical studies.

The classical approach is the Jewish, religious study of the Bible, where it is assumed that the Bible has a divine origin. This approach is a branch of theology, and is also known as Biblical interpretation.

Another approach is to study the Bible as a human creation; this is known as Biblical criticism. This approach is the one practiced in the secular, academic world. In this approach, Biblical studies can be considered as a sub-field of religious studies. This approach may draw on many disciplines, including history, archaeology, literary criticism, philology, and increasingly the social sciences.

Secular practitioners of Biblical Studies do not necessarily have a faith commitment to the texts they study. In fact, Biblical criticism seems to contradict commitment to the idea that the Bible was written by prophets inspired by God. Indeed, this practice, when applied to the Torah, is generally considered heresy by the entire Orthodox Jewish community. As such, much modern day Bible commentary written by non-Orthodox authors is considered trief (forbidden) by rabbis teaching in Orthodox yeshivas.

Some classical rabbinic commentators, such as Abraham Ibn Ezra, Gersonides and Maimonides, used many elements of modern day biblical criticism, including their then-current knowledge of history, science and philology. Their use of historical and scientific analysis of the Bible was considered kosher by historic Judaism due to the author's faith commitment to the idea that God revealed the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The Modern Orthodox Jewish community allows for a wider array of biblical criticism to be used for biblical books outside of the Torah, and a few Orthodox commentaries now incorporate many of the techniques previously found only in the academic world, e.g. the Da'at Miqra series.

Non-Orthodox Jews, including those affiliated with Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism, accept the validity of both traditional and secular approaches to Bible studies. See the article on Revelation for details of how all three groups understand this concept.


Philo (20 BC - 50 AD), known also as Philo of Alexandria (gr. Φίλων ὁ Ἀλεξανδρεύς), was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher born in Alexandria, Egypt.

Philo used allegory to fuse and harmonize Greek philosophy and Judaism. His method followed the practices of both Jewish exegesis and Stoic philosophy. His work was not widely accepted in the Jewish community. Philo taught that all that was great in Socrates, Plato, etc. originated with Moses. He set about reconciling Pagan philosophy with the Old Testament, and for this purpose he made extensive use of the allegorical method of interpretation. He taught that many passages of the Pentateuch were not intended to be taken literally. In fact, he says that they were literally false, but allegorically true.

The Targums[edit]

The Targums (the most famous of which is that on the Pentateuch erroneously attributed to Onkelos, a misnomer for Aquila, according to Abrahams) were the only approach to anything like a commentary on the Bible before the first century CE. They were interpretative translations or paraphrases from Hebrew into Aramaic for the use of the synagogues when, after the Exile, the people had lost the knowledge of Hebrew.

A targum (Hebrew: תרגום‎‎, plural: targumim, lit. "translation, interpretation") is an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) written or compiled from the Second Temple period until the early Middle Ages (late first millennium). The two major genres of Targum reflect two geographical and cultural centers of Jewish life during the period of their creation, namely the Land of Israel and Babylonia. Aramaic was the dominant Jewish language or lingua franca for hundreds of years in these major Jewish communities.

The Mishna and Talmuds[edit]

Judaism holds that the books of the Tanakh were transmitted in parallel with an oral tradition, as relayed by the scholarly, religious leaders of each generation. Thus, in Judaism, the "Written Instruction" (Torah she-bi-khtav תורה שבכתב) comprises the Torah and the rest of the Tanakh; the "Oral Instruction" (Torah she-be'al peh תורה שבעל פה) was, in some form, ultimately recorded in the Talmud (lit. "Learning") and Midrashim (lit. "Interpretations"). Judaism's oral law is sometimes termed the Oral Torah.

A Jewish understanding of the Bible, and an understanding of the laws therein, is thus based on the combined oral and written tradition.

Rabbis of the Talmudic era conceived of the oral law in two distinct ways. First, they thought of it as an unbroken chain of transmission. The distinctive feature of this view was that it was "converyed by word of mouth and memorized."[1] Second, the Rabbis also conceived of the oral law as an interprative tradition, and not merely as memorized traditions. In this view, the written Torah was seen as containing many levels of interpretation.

This Oral Law consists of legal and liturgical interpretations and applications of the Torah (five books of Moses). As little of it was originally written down, it was preserved by constant repetition, hebrew: mishna. On the destruction of Jerusalem, several rabbis, learned in this Law, settled at Jamnia. The rabbis comforted their countrymen by teaching that the study of the Law (Oral as well as Written) took the place of the sacrifices that had previously been offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. Their work of systematization was completed and probably committed to writing by the Jewish patriarch at Tiberias, Rabbi Jehudah ha-Nasi "The Prince" (150-210). It is written in New Hebrew, and consists of six divisions, each containing about ten tractates, each tractate being made up of several chapters. The Mishna is a compilation of moral theology, liturgy, law, etc.

The discussions of later generations of rabbis centered around the text of the Mishna. Interpreters laboured upon it both in the land of Israel, and in Babylonia. The results are the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud.

The Midrashim[edit]

Simultaneously with the Mishna and Talmud there grew up a number of Midrashim, or commentaries on the Bible. some of these were legalistic, like the Gemara of the Talmud but the most important were of an edifying, homiletic character (Midrash Aggadah). These latter are important for the corroborative light which they throw on the language of the New Testament. The Gospel of St. John is seen to be steeped in early Jewish phraseology, and the words of Ps. cix, "The Lord said to my Lord", etc. are in one place applied to the Messiah, as they are in St. Matthew, though Rashi and later Jews deprived them of their Messianic sense by applying them to Abraham.

Karaite Commentators[edit]

Anan ben David, a prominent Babylonian Jew in the eighth century, rejected Rabbinism for the written Old Testament and became the founder of the sect known a Karaites (a word indicating their preference for the written Bible). This schism produced great energy and ability on both sides. The principal Karaite Bible commentators were Nahavendi (ninth century); Abul-Faraj Harun (ninth century), exegete and Hebrew grammarian; Solomon ben Yerucham (tenth century); Sahal-ben Mazliach (died 950), Hebrew grammarian and lexicographer; Joseph al-Bazir (died 930); Japhet ben Ali, the greatest Karaite commentator of the tenth century; and Judah Hadassi (died 1160).

Middle Ages[edit]

Rabbi Saadia Gaon (died 892), the most powerful writer against the Karaites, translated the Bible into Arabic and added notes. He created a new school of Biblical exegesis characterized by a rational investigation of the contents of the Bible and a scientific knowledge of the language of the holy text. Besides commentaries on the Bible, Saadiah wrote a systematic treatise bringing revealed religion into harmony with Greek philosophy. He thus became the forerunner of Maimonides and the Catholic Scholastics.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, (Hebrew: רבי שלמה יצחקי‎), better known by the acronym Rashi (Hebrew: ‏רש"י‎), (1040 – 1105), was a rabbi from France, famed as the author of the first comprehensive commentaries on the Talmud and Tanakh.

Abraham Ibn Ezra of Toledo (died 1168) had a good knowledge of Oriental languages and wrote learned commentaries on the Old Testament. He was the first to maintain that the Book of Isaiah contains the work of two prophets.

Moses Maimonides (died 1204), the greatest Jewish scholar of the Middle Ages, of whom his coreligionists said that "from Moses to Moses there was none like Moses", wrote his Guide to the Perplexed, which was read by St. Thomas. Maimonides was a great admirer of Aristotle, who was to him the representative of natural knowledge as the Bible was of the supernatural.

There were the two Kimchis, especially David Kimchi (died 1235) of Narbonne, who was a celebrated grammarian, lexicographer, and commentator inclined to the literal sense. He was followed by Nachmanides of Catalonia (died 1270), a doctor of medicine who wrote commentaries of a cabbalistic tendency; Immanuel of Rome (born 1270); and the Karaites Aaron ben Joseph (1294), and Aaron ben Elias (fourteenth century).

Earliest printing of commentaries[edit]

The Hebrew Bible was codefied by the rabbis at the Great Assembly and was first printed as volume 1 of the Gutenberg Bible in 1455. The complete Tanach in Hebrew, with commentaries by Rashi, Radak, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (Ramban), and Ralbag was printed in 1517 by Daniel Bomberg and edited by Felix Pratensis under the name Mikraot Gedolot.

The Hebrew Bible was handed down in mamuscript form along with a method of checking the accuracy of the transcription known as mesorah. Many codices containing the masoretic text were gathered by Jacob ben Hayyim ibn Adonijah and were used to publish an exact manuscript. It was published by Daniel Bomberg in 1525. Later editions were edited with the the help of Eliyahu ben Asher ha-Levi Ashkenazi Levita. Mikraot Gedolot is still in print.[2]

Late Medieval era[edit]

Isaac Abarbanel (born Lisbon, 1437; died Venice, 1508) was a statesman and scholar. None of his predecessors came so near the modern ideal of a commentator as he did. He prefixed general introductions to each book, and was the first Jew to make extensive use of Christian commentaries. Elias Levita (died 1549) and Azarias de Rossi (died 1577) have also to be mentioned.

Post-Enlightenment Jewish Bible commentary[edit]

Moses Mendelssohn of Berlin (died 1786), a friend of Lessing, translated the Pentateuch into German. His commentaries (in Hebrew) are close, learned, critical, and acute. He has had much influence in modernizing Jewish methods. Mendelssohn has been followed by Wessely, Aaron Jaroslaw, Herz Homberg, Isaac Euchel, Friedlander, Hertz, Herxheimer, Philippson, etc., called "Biurists", or expositors.

Wissenschaft des Judentums ("the science of Judaism" in German), refers to a nineteenth-century movement premised on the critical investigation of Jewish literature and culture, including rabbinic literature, using scientific methods to analyze the origins of Jewish traditions.

Jewish scholars whose work in this field included:

20th and 21st century commentary[edit]

The Soncino Books of the Bible covers the whole Tanakh in fourteen volumes, published by the Soncino Press. The first volume to appear was Psalms in 1945, and the last was Chronicles in 1952. The editor was Rabbi Abraham Cohen. Each volume contains the Hebrew and English texts of the Hebrew Bible in parallel columns, with a running commentary below them.

Judaica Press is an Orthodox Jewish publishing house. They have published a set of 24 bilingual Hebrew-English volumes of Mikraot Gedolot for Nevi'im and Ketuvim, published as Books of the Prophets and Writings. s in traditional Mikraot Gedolot, the Hebrew text includes the Masoretic text, the Aramaic Targum, and several classic rabbinic commentaries. The English translations, by Rosenberg, include a translation of the Biblical text, Rashi's commentary, and a summary of rabbinic and modern commentaries.[3]

Mesorah Publications, Ltd. is a Haredi Orthodox Jewish publishing company based in Brooklyn, New York. Its general editors are Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz. They publish the Artscroll prayerbooks and Bible commentaries. In 1993 they published The Chumash: The Stone Edition, a Torah translation and commentary arranged for liturgical use. It is popularly known as The ArtScroll Chumash, and has since became the best-selling English-Hebrew Torah translation and commentary in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries. They have issued a series of Tanakh commentaries on the rest of the Tanakh. Their translations have been criticized by a few Modern Orthodox scholars, e.g. B. Barry Levy, and by some non-Orthodox scholars, as mistranslating the Bible. The dispute comes about because the editors at Mesorah Publications consciously attempt to present a translation of the text based on rabbinic tradition and medieval biblical commentators such as Rashi, as opposed to a literal translation.

Da'at Miqra is is a series of Modern Orthodox, Hebrew-language biblical commentaries, published by the Jerusalem-based Rav Kook Institute. Its editors included the late Prof. Yehuda Elitzur of Bar-Ilan University, Bible scholar Amos Hakham, Sha’ul Yisra’eli, Mordechai Breuer and Yehuda Kiel. The commentary combines a traditional rabbinic outlook with the findings of modern research. The editors have sought to present an interpretation based primarily upon Peshat — the direct, literal reading of the text — as opposed to Drash. They do so by incorporating geographic references, archaeological findings and textual analysis.

A modern Orthodox Yeshiva in New York, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, recently started a new Bible series, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Tanakh Companion. The first volume out is Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Tanakh Companion to The Book of Samuel: Bible Study in the Spirit of Open and Modern Orthodoxy, edited by Nathaniel Helfgot and Shmuel Herzfeld.

JPS Tanakh Commentary. The Jewish Publication Society of America, known in the Jewish community as JPS, has initiated a long-term, large scale project to complete a modern Jewish commentary on the entire Hebrew Bible. Unlike the Judaica Press and Soncino commentaries, the JPS commentaries are producing a detailed line-by-line commentary of every passage, in every book of the Bible. The amount of the JPS commentaries are almost an order of magnitude larger than those found in the earlier Orthodox English works. They current have produced volumes on all five books of the Torah, and the books of Esther, Job and Ecclesiastes.

A major Bible commentary now in use by Conservative Judaism is Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, Its production involved the collaboration of the Rabbinical Assembly, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and the Jewish Publication Society. The Hebrew and English bible text is the New JPS version. It contains a number of commentaries, written in English, on the Torah which run alongside the Hebrew text and its English translation, and it also contains a number of essays on the Torah and Tanakh in the back of the book. It contains three types of commentary: (1) the p'shat, which discusses the literal meaning of the text; this has been adapted from the first five volumes of the JPS Bible Commentary; (2) the d'rash, which draws on Talmudic, Medieval, Chassidic, and Modern Jewish sources to expound on the deeper meaning of the text; and (3) the halacha l'maaseh - which explains how the text relates to current Jewish law.

Professor Leonard S. Kravitz and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky have authored a series of Tanakh commentaries. Their commentaries draw on classical Jewish works such as the Mishnah, Talmud, Targums, the midrash literature, and also the classical Jewish bible commentators such as Gersonides, Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra. They take into account modern scholarship; while these books take note of some findings of higher textual criticism, these are not academic books using source criticism to deconstruct the Tanakh. Rather, their purpose is educational, and Jewishly inspirational, and as such do not follow the path of classical Reform scholars, or the more secular projects such as the Anchor Bible series. The books also add a layer of commentary by modern day rabbis. These books are published by the Union for Reform Judaism. Commentaries in this series now include Jonah, Lamentations, Ruth, the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs.

The Jewish Study Bible, from Oxford University Press, edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. The Hebrew and English bible text is the New JPS version. A new English commentary has been written for the entire Hebrew Bible drawing on both traditional rabbinic sources, and the findings of modern day higher textual criticism.

There is much overlap between non-Orthodox Jewish Bible commentary, and the non-sectarian and inter-religious Bible commentary found in the Anchor Bible Series. Originally published by Doubleday, and now by Yale University Press, this series began in 1956. Having initiated a new era of cooperation among scholars in biblical research, over 1,000 scholars—representing Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, secular, and other traditions—have now contributed to the project.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, The Orality of Rabbinic Writing, in The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud, ed. Martin Jaffee, 2007. p. 39. This is attested to in numerous sources, such as Mishna Avot 1:1. The manner of teaching is described in B. Eruvin 54b.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Judaica Press Prophets & Writings
  • The Orthodox Jewish Scholar and Jewish Scholarship: Duties and Dilemmas, Dr. Moshe J. Bernstein,
The Orthodox Jewish Scholar and Jewish Scholarship
  • B. Barry Levy. 1996. “The State and directions of Orthodox Bible study,” in Modern scholarship in the study of Torah: Contributions and limitations, edited by Shalom Carmy. (Jason Aronson Inc.)
  • Text and Context: Torah and Historical Truth, B. Barry Levy, The Edah Journal 2:1
Text and Context: Torah and Historical Truth

External links[edit]