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Torah commentaries

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Torah commentaries

This article describes the first printing of the Hebrew Bible with major Jewish commentaries, notes concerning translations into Aramaic and English, lists some universally accepted Jewish commentaries with notes on their method of approach and lists modern translations into English with notes.

Earliest printing of commentaries

The Hebrew Bible was codified by the rabbis at the Great Assembly and, in its Latin translation, was first printed as volume 1 of the Gutenberg Bible in 1455. The complete Tanakh in Hebrew, with commentaries by Rashi, Radak, 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 manuscript 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 accurate text. It was published by Daniel Bomberg in 1525. Later editions were edited with the help of Eliyahu ben Asher ha-Levi Ashkenazi Levita. Various editions of Mikraot Gedolot are still in print.[1]


"All translations are commentaries".[2] Many nations and many languages have translations of the Bible. According to the Bible study wiki[3] there are at least 90 English translations and thousands of translations into other languages.


A Targum is a translation of the Bible into Aramaic. The classic Targumim are Targum Onkelos on the Chumash (the five books of Torah), Targum Jonathan on Neviim (the Prophets), and a fragmentary Targum Yerushalmi. There is no standard Aramaic translation of Kesuvim (the Hagiographa).[4]


Onkelos is the most often consulted literal translation of the Bible.[5] with a few exceptions. Figurative language, is usually not translated literally but is explained (e.g., Gen. 49:25; Ex. 15:3, 8, 10; 29:35). Geographical names are often replaced by those current at a later time (e.g., Gen. 10:10; Deut. 3:17).
According to the Talmud,[6] the Torah and its translation into Aramaic were given to Moses on Mount Sinai, because Egyptian slaves spoke Aramaic. After the Babylonian exile, the Targum was completely forgotten. Onkelos, a Roman convert to Judaism, was able to reconstruct the original Aramaic. Saadiah Gaon disagrees and says the Aramaic of Onkelos was never a spoken language. He believed that Onkelos's Aramaic was an artificial construct, i.e. it was a combination of Eastern and Western dialects of Aramaic.[7]

Jonathan ben Uzziel

Jonathan ben Uzziel was the greatest pupil of Hillel the Elder. Targum Jonathan ben Uzziel found in the Chumash was not written by Jonathan ben Uzziel according to scholars, who refer to it instead as Pseudo-Jonathan. According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica[8] internal evidence shows that it was written sometime between the 7th and 14th centuries ce. For example, Ishmael's wife's name is translated into Aramaic as Fatima (who was Mohammed's daughter) and therefore Targum Pseudo-Jonathan must have been written after Mohammed's birth. The classic Hebrew commentators would turn this argument around, and say that Mohammed's daughter was named after Ismael's wife. Both sides will agree, however that stylistically that Jonathan's commentary on the Chumash is very different from the commentary on Neviim. The Targum Jonathan on Neviim is written in a very terse style, similar to Onkelos on Chumash, but on the average Targum Jonathan on Chumash is almost twice as wordy.

Targum Yerushalmi

The Jerusalem Targum exists only in fragmentary form. It translates a total of approximately 850 verses, phrases, and words. No one knows who wrote it. Some speculate that it was a printers error. The printer saw a manuscript headed with "TY" and assumed it was a Targum Yerushalmi when actually it was an early version of Targum Yonathan. Others speculate that it was written by a R. Yosef or R. Hoshea (Yihoshua).[9]

Modern Translations



Rishonim Early (1000-1600)

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak) is the most influential Jewish exegete of all time.[10] He is the preeminent expounder of Peshat.[11] Rashi says "I, however, am only concerned with the plain sense of Scripture and with such Aggadot that explain the words of Scripture in a manner that fits in with them".[12] There have also been many super-commentaries written on Rashi's basic commentary,[13] including:
  • Be'er Mayim Chaim (R. Chaim Ben Betzalel), by the Chief Rabbi of Worms, R. Chaim ben Betzalel (1515-1588), the older brother of the Maharal of Prague.
  • Amar Nekeh, by Rabbi Obadiah of Bertinoro (c. 1440-1516), a leading rabbi of Italy and Jerusalem, best known for his commentary on the Mishna.
  • Divrei David, by David HaLevi Segal (1586-1667), a Polish rabbinical authority known as the Taz for his classic commentary on the Shulchan Aruch.
  • Gur Aryeh, by the Maharal (1526-1609), known for this work and for his fundamental works on Jewish philosophy and mysticism
  • Maskil le-David, by David Pardo (1710-1792), a Rabbi of Sarajevo and Jerusalem.
  • Mizrachi, by Elijah Mizrachi (1450-1525), Chief Rabbi of the Turkish Empire, which has itself spawned multiple supercommentaries such as Yeri'ot Shlomo by Solomon Luria (Maharshal) and Leshon Arummim by Barzillai ben Baruch Jabez.
  • Nachalas Yitzchak
  • Sefer Ha-zikaron, by Rabbi Abraham Lévy-Bacrat, who lived through the Spanish Expulsion of 1492.
  • Sifsei Chachamim, by Rabbi Shabbethai Bass, which analyzes other supercommentaries on Rashi and is considered important enough that a shortened version, Ikkar Sifsei Chachamim, is often printed with the commentary of Rashi.
Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir) was the grandson of Rashi and the brother of Rabbeinu Tam. "The sages have said a Biblical passage must not be deprived of its original meaning [on Gen. xxxvii. 1]. Yet as a consequence of the opinion expressed by them, that the constant study of the Talmud is one of the most laudable pursuits, commentators have been unable, by reason of such study, to expound individual verses according to their obvious meaning. Even my grandfather Solomon was an adherent of this school; and I had an argument with him on that account, in which he admitted that he would revise his commentaries if he had time to do so."[14]
Ibn Ezra (Abraham ben Meir) was a contemporary of the Rashbam. His commentary on Chumash was reprinted under the name Sefer HaYashar. He clearly separates the literal meaning of a biblical verse from the traditional meaning, upon which the halacha is based, and from the homiletic meaning drush. He explains that the traditional meaning and the homiletic meaning do not attempt to imply meaning to the verse; they only uses the verse as a mnemonic.[15]
Rabbi David Kimchi (David ben Joseph) followed the methodolgy of Ibn Ezra. He deemphasised homiletics and emphasised the Talmudic interpretations when they reached his standard of peshat. In his exgesis he strove for clarity and readability, as opposed to his predecessors who emphasised conciseness.[16] His commentaries are said to have "a remarkably modern flavor"[17]
The Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman) was the first biblical commentator to introduce kabbalistic concepts into his exgesis.[18] He differed from the Zohar in that he believed that the transcendent nature of God is absolutely unknowable by man, whereas the school of Zoharists believed that transcendence is comprehensible through revelation, ecstasy, and in the contemplation of history.[19] Ramban expressed his views through the Sod aspect of his commentary. He also expressed, in his commentary, his belief that all mitzvot had a comprehensible and rational explanation.
The author of the Arba'ah Turim, a precursor of the Shulchan Aruch (Jacob ben Asher) wrote a commentary on the Torah in which he anthologised the Pshat element of his predecessors. At the beginning of each section he wrote, as brain teasers, some explanations using Remez. These were gathered and printed under the name Baal HaTurim. The Baal HaTurim is printed in all modern editions of Mikraot Gedolot. The full commentary titled Perush ha-Tur ha-Arokh al ha-Torah, was published in Jerusalem in 1981.[20]
The Ralbag (Levy ben Gershom) also known as Gersonides based his exegesis on three principles:
  1. What can be learned through the nine principles (he believed that four of them were not allowed to be used in post-talmudic times).
  2. Every story in the Bible come to teach us ethical, religious, and philosophical ideas.
  3. Most of what we call Remez can be clearly understood by resorting to exact translation and grammatical analysis. He also condemned allegorical explanation.[21]
The Hizkuni based his kabbalistic commentary primarily on Rashi, but also used up to 20 other sources, including Dunash ben Labrat.
The family name of Don Yitzchak Abarbanel (Isaac ben Judah) also appears as Abravenel, Bravanel, etc. He lived in Spain until the expulsion in 1492 and then went into exile in Italy. In his commentary on Tanach, before each section, he would list a series of questions exploring the conceptual problems in the section from both exegetical and theological perspectives. His commentary would attempt to answer these questions through Pshat and Medrash. He distinguished between Medrashim that were part of Mesorah and those that were mere opinion and could be safely disregarded.[22]

Acharonim Later (1600-)

The name Malbim is an acronym for (R. Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michal), although there is an opinion that the name is a Hebrew translation of the family name Weisser meaning whitener.[23] The Malbim's exegeis is based on several assumptions.
  1. There are no extra words or synonyms in the Bible. Every word is meaningful.
  2. Drush is as explicit as Pshat is, except that Drush has different rules of usage and syntax.
  3. The basis of the whole of the Oral Law is explicit in the Bible, either through Pshat or Drush. The only exception is when the Oral Law states that the law is not found in the Bible and is designated as Halacha l'Moshe m'Sinai.[24]
  • Metsudot Eighteenth Century
The Metsudot (the fortresses)) are a commentary on Neviim and Ketuvim written by Rabbi David Altshuler. When he died, his son Yechiel completed it and divided it into two sections: Metsudat Zion a glossary of difficult words, and Metsudat David a restatement of difficult ideas[25]
A German Rabbi during the reformation period, his commentary focuses on the grammar and structure of the language of the Hebrew Bible to understand the laws being given. His commentary includes the Five Books of Moses and other various parts of Tanakh.
Baruch HaLevi Epstein (Baruch ben Yechiel Michael HaLevi) was a bank worker by profession who devoted all of his extra time to Jewish studies. To write the Torah Temimah, he gathered excerpts from the Talmud and other sources of the Oral Law and arranged them in the order of the verses of the Written Law to which they refer. He then wove the excerpts into a commentary on the Bible and annotated each excerpt with critical notes and insights.[26]
In the early 1940s professor Leibowitz began mailing study sheets on the weekly Torah reading to her students throughout the world. The study sheets included essays on the weekly portion, source notes, and questions. She encouraged her students to send their answers to her for correction. Soon she was sending out thousands of sheets and correcting hundreds of answer sheets weekly. These study sheets were collected and published in English and Hebrew in the mid 1960s and they are still in print. "Her specific collection of sources was based solely on each one's contribution to understanding peshat and to the revelation of the significance of that text."[27]

20th and 21st century commentary

  • 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.
  • The Living Torah, by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, his best-known work, is a widely used, scholarly (and user friendly) translation into English of the Torah. It is noteworthy for its detailed index, thorough cross-references, extensive footnotes with maps and diagrams, and research on realia, flora, fauna, and geography. The footnotes also indicate differences in interpretation between the classic commentators. It was one of the first translations structured around the parshiyot, the traditional division of the Torah text. The Living Torah was later supplemented by The Living Nach on Nevi'im (two volumes: "The Early Prophets" and "The Latter Prophets") and Ketuvim ("Sacred Writings" in one volume). These were prepared posthumously following Rabbi Kaplan's format by others including Yaakov Elman.
  • 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.
  • Koren Publishers Jerusalem is a Jerusalem-based publishing company founded in 1961. It publishes various editions of The Koren Tanakh, originally created by master typographer and company founder Eliyahu Koren. The Koren Tanakh is the official Tanakh accepted by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for synagogue Haftarah reading, and the Bible upon which Israel's President is sworn into office. Koren offers a Hebrew/English edition with translation by biblical and literary scholar, Harold Fisch, and is currently at work on a Hebrew/English edition with translation and commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
  • Da'at Miqra is a series of 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.
  • The Gutnick Edition Chumash, by Rabbi Chaim Miller, is a translation that incorporates Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson's - the Rebbe's - "novel interpretation" of Rashi's commentary. This "Toras Menachem" commentary is culled from the Rebbe's lectures and notes on classical and Hassidic interpretations. It also includes mystical insights called "Sparks of Chassidus", a summary of the mitzvot found in each Parashah according to Sefer ha-Chinuch. It is unique in its presentation of "Classic Questions" - the questions underlying more than one hundred Torah commentaries.
  • A second LA Chumash") offers an Interpolated English translation and commentary - "woven" together - again based on Rashi, and the works of the Rebbe. The Chumash also includes a fully vocalized Hebrew text of Rashi`s commentary. The Editor-in-Chief is Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky with contributing editors: Rabbis Baruch Kaplan, Betzalel Lifshitz, Yosef Marcus and Dov Wagner. Additional Features include "Chasidic Insights" and "Inner Dimensions", Chronological charts, topic titles, illustrations, diagrams and maps. Each sidra is prefaced by an overview, a study of the name of each sidra and its relevance to the respective text.
  • 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, 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 currently have produced volumes on all five books of the Torah, the Haftarot, and the books of Jonah, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Ruth. Although not a book of the Bible, JPS has also issued a commentary volume on the Haggadah. The next volumes planned are Lamentations, Song of Songs, & Psalms (5 volumes).
  • 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 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.
  • The Torah: A Women's Commentary, Edited by Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Rabbi Andrea Weiss. URJ Press (December 10, 2007). This volume "gives dimension to the women's voices in our tradition. Under Editor Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi's skillful leadership, this commentary provides insight and inspiration for all who study Torah: men and women, Jew and non-Jew. As Dr. Eskenazi has eloquently stated, 'we want to bring the women of the Torah from the shadow into the limelight, from their silences into speech, from the margins to which they have often been relegated to the center of the page - for their sake, for our sake and for our children's sake.'"[31]
  • The Women's Torah Commentary: New Insights from Women Rabbis on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions Edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, Jewish Lights Publishing (September 2008). From the Jewish Lights website: "In this groundbreaking book, more than 50 women rabbis come together to offer us inspiring insights on the Torah, in a week-by-week format. Included are commentaries by the first women ever ordained in the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements, and by many other women across these denominations who serve in the rabbinate in a variety of ways." [32]

See also


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