The Volume of Quarrelling Commentators


The JPS Miqra'ot Gedolot: Exodus
Edited by Michael Carasik
349 pages. Jewish Publication Society of America. $75.

The importance of this volume cannot be overestimated—for the first time we have a responsible translation of the miqra’ot gedolot, a type of rabbinic Bible, that is accessible to those without great facility in Hebrew. The commentaries translated here are of extremely wide interest, and will appeal to a large audience. Here a reader can find a broad range of linguistic, psychological, philosophical, mystical, astronomical, astrological, and even mathematical insights.

Bible commentary started already in the biblical period. According to Nehemiah 8:8, discussing an assembly in the fifth pre-Christian century, “They read from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it and giving the sense; so they understood the reading” (Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation). In Daniel 9, the prophet consults the book of Jeremiah, and reinterprets one of its passages in a rather novel fashion. Much of the rabbinic corpus, including the Talmudim and Midrashim, is comprised of biblical interpretation, and the great Jewish Bible translations of the Septuagint (into Greek) and the Targumim (into Aramaic) are in cases as much a commentary as a translation.

Biblical commentary became much more developed in the Middle Ages, especially in the eleventh century through the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. At different periods, different Jewish centers were especially active. Early in the period, Jews were a strong presence in France and Germany—this community, however, was weakened by the Crusades, and the population shifted to Spain and other countries. Within the Franco-German orbit, Rashi, an acronym for Rabbi Solomon (Shelomo) son of Isaac, was the most important commentator. He lived from 1040 to 1105, and wrote a commentary on most of the Bible, typically selecting and anthologizing from earlier classical rabbinic works. His style was simple and elegant, and he became the central Bible commentary within the Ashkenazic world. In contrast, the best-known of the Sepahrdic or Spanish commentators was Abraham ibn (son of) Ezra (1089-1164), who traveled widely in Europe. His style is much more difficult than Rashi’s. His interests are often narrowly grammatical, and he at times feels free to differ with traditional rabbinic interpretation.

Many other commentaries joined the fray, often disagreeing with each other. This is often not polite discourse: they could call each other disparaging names which go beyond what is respectable in contemporary academic circles, but alas, this was all in the name of true Torah scholarship. Although Rashi, as noted above, eventually became the most respected commentator in the Ashkenazi world, and ibn Ezra in the Sephardic world, their “victories” were not absolute—they did not prevent the studying and copying of other commentators, and the production of new commentary. Manuscripts of a very wide variety of commentators were copied, produced, and circulated, and eventually, after movable type was introduced in the 15th century by Guttenberg, the works of individual commentators who were popular were printed. In fact, the first Jewish book printed (in 1475) is likely Rashi’s commentary on the Torah. This is quite remarkable and highlights the importance of commentary as a Jewish genre—Rashi was printed before the Bible itself!

As printing became more developed, the possibility of printing a work with many commentaries became feasible—such volumes eventually became called miqra’ot gedolot. The first such rabbinic Bible appeared in 1517, and contained the Torah text along with one Aramaic Targum (translation) and one medieval commentary per book. The more standard format was assumed with the second rabbinic Bible in 1524, which contained several commentaries per book. This, of course, was a great convenience, but also allowed each page to reflect the debates that exist in Jewish tradition about how the Bible should be interpreted. The commentaries printed by each printer represent the “survival of the fittest,” where the most popular available commentators were chosen. This judgment could and did change over time.

The Commentators’ Bible is the first scholarly translation of a volume of the miqra'ot gedolot intended for the general public. Carasik wisely began with Exodus, which is shorter and has less commentary than Genesis. Each page contains the Hebrew text (with vowels and cantillation marks), the old and new Jewish Publication Society Bible translations, and the following rabbinic commentaries rendered into English: Rashi, Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson, who often disagrees with his grandfather), ibn Ezra, and Nahmanides (a very eclectic Spanish commentator, who is an important early mystic). This is a judicious selection of commentary in terms of variation and importance. Other commentaries are summarized in a section called “Additional Comments.” He also includes the questions that the Spanish commentator Don Isaac Abravanel, who was expelled from Spain in 1492, asks at the beginning of his commentary on each unit—these are often much more interesting and relevant than the long-winded answers that this commentator offers. This is the first time an English-speaker has a single volume with access to such a wealth of commentary.

The typography of the volume is gorgeous. It is often difficult to read the Hebrew in traditional miqra’ot gedolot, but here each commentary is very clear, and the folio-sized pages are not over-cluttered. Also, there is much additional valuable material in the book, including a clear explanation of how each page is structured, a glossary, and expositions on “Special Topics,” ranging from “Peshat and Derash” to “The Jewish Calendar.” These topics will make it much easier for readers to understand the commentaries without requiring long paraphrases or excurses.

The sources that Carasik has translated are difficult and reflect a variety of medieval Hebrew styles. The translations are accurate and clear, and are not overly paraphrastic. This means that they reflect the original, and are sometimes difficult to understand even in English. But this is proper—too much interpretation should not be inserted into these translations, and it is important to sense their flavor, which cannot happen when the commentaries are paraphrased rather than translated. The translation reflects great learning along with consultation with all sorts of experts in medieval regalia as needed. Of course, the texts translated are so complex and diverse that individual scholars may disagree with a point here or there, but the passages that I checked suggest that this work is highly reliable.

Who should purchase and read this book? Anyone who wants to understand the great medieval commentary tradition, and the debates concerning the Bible’s meaning should read it. These debates are not arcane, and often continue to inform biblical scholarship and Judaism. (For example, anyone interested in revelation would do well to consult the commentaries on Exodus 19.) In fact, many biblical scholars (who are unable to comprehend medieval Hebrew) have rediscovered the wheel, as they interpret biblical texts in the same way as Rashi, ibn Ezra, or others, without having read these great medievals. Thus, this translation will be useful to all biblical scholars and interpreters, and especially to those who share the same principles as the medievals, especially that the Torah should be read as a unitary work. Finally, this book would be indispensable as a learning aid for any beginning or intermediate students who are trying to decipher the difficult Hebrew of the miqra’ot gedolot.