A widely known, at least in the Jewish world, rabbinic maxim states that there are “shiv'im panim laTorah” (literally translated, 70 faces to [every item in the] Pentateuch). This phrase has been taken to mean that a plethora of interpretive possibilities lie within the words of the Pentateuch (Torah). As such, it is no wonder that rabbinic homilies often start off with the line, “there is a famous disagreement between one commentator and another, for instance Rashi (Rabbi Solomon b. Isaac) and Nahmanides (Rabbi Moses b. Nahman), regarding the interpretation of such and such a biblical verse.”
These types of arguments between commentators often appear to be over small matters- sometimes over the explanation of just one word. To modern ears, especially those unfamiliar with classic Jewish biblical exegesis, it can be easy to lose interest quickly. However, those willing to wade into these waters will find brilliant thinkers who at times transform interpretation from an imposition onto a text to a revelation of the meaning of God’s words.
Over the past few years, the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) has been working on making these thinkers more accessible to the English-speaking world. Their ongoing project to produce what they call The Commentators’ Bible (as of now only Exodus and Leviticus are available, though Numbers is due out this summer), is the first entirely English version of the Hebrew classic Mikra’ot Gedolot, and is an invaluable resource for Bible study.
The modern Mikra’ot Gedolot is a style of printing the Hebrew bible that includes a selection of medieval commentaries that surround the verses of the Bible. The major benefit to this approach, which has kept it popular for close to 500 years, is the ability to synoptically view different interpretations of the text. Additionally, the format makes it easier to follow the arguments made against earlier interpretations by later commentators.
This style originated with Daniel Bomberg, a wealthy Christian who was given, in 1516, permission to publish Hebrew books in the city of Venice. In 1517 he published, with the editorial help of Felix Pratensis, a Jew who later became a monk, the first Rabbinic Bible (which we could anachronistically call the first version of the Mikra’ot Gedolot).
Owing to a number of factors, the most important of which was the inadequacy of the recension of the biblical text, Bomberg published his second Rabbinic Bible in 1524. This version was edited by the scholarly Jacob ben Hayyim ibn Adonijah. With urging from ibn Adonijah, Bomberg spent large sums of money collecting manuscripts that would allow him to publish what became the accepted text of the Hebrew bible for approximately the next 400 years. The version was so well received that in 1611 it served as the textus receptus for the King James Bible.
Though the format of Mikra’ot Gedolot developed to include more commentators (the second Rabbinic Bible included four, and most versions today include at least six), the format has remained consistent over almost 500 years. JPS honors this style by laying out the translated commentaries in the same arrangement. However, The Commentators’ Bible is not just a compilation of the extant translations of the commentators.
Michael Carasik, the editor of the series, has worked hard to make reading the commentaries as understandable and educational as possible. Instead of a straight rendition of the different glosses, Carasik translates as if “the commentators are rewriting their original comments today, in contemporary English.” Though at times the changes, especially when the medieval commentators make reference to the OJPS or NJPS (the old and new translation of the bible by JPS), are disconcerting, Carsik deftly creates a very comprehensible and faithful translation. He does admit to leaving certain comments out of his translation, though his criteria, which he includes in each volume, are reasonable, as most of them eliminate redundancies.
Though “much ink has been spilled” writing about the methodologies and thought of these medieval scholars, in keeping with the mission of the series there is just enough information in the section entitled “What’s On The Page” to give readers an orientation toward the different concerns and approaches of the commentators. For example, the paragraph on Nahmanides makes us aware that we should expect him to analyze and comment on earlier commentators (principally Rashi and Ibn Ezra, commentators who both appear on the page) and that he will sometimes offer an additional obscure comment drawing on his mystical learning.
I do, however, think that the introductory material falls short when it comes to background on the sources that these Rabbis often use without attribution. This shortcoming is thrown into relief by the section’s discussion of Rashi’s methodology. Carsik writes that Rashi’s approach “was to explain the biblical text according to its straightforward sense…adding only those midrashic comments that fit the context and explain a linguistic feature of the text.” Besides the unexplained terminology (midrashic means those comments that are culled from earlier rabbinic homiletic sources, many of which date back to the time of the Mishnah and Talmud—70 c.e. to 500 c.e.), this statement has the potential to confuse or mislead readers when they eventually encounter Rashi’s commentary. And while the paragraph on Rashi ends with a note to see a fuller discussion of the methodological considerations underlying Rashi’s commentary, the discussion will probably elude most individuals experiencing these approaches for the first time.
To get a taste of both this version of Mikra’ot Gedolot in action, and the thought of two of the commentators we mentioned here, allow me to begin by saying that “there is a famous disagreement between Rashi and Nahmanides regarding two words (four in the English) in Leviticus 19:2.” God instructs Moses to “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.”
(Below I have included the text of Rashi and Nahmanides’ comments on this verse from the The Commentators’ Bible, Leviticus to allow for a pause to independently read their comments and construct their position without my approach coloring yours. You might find it useful to think about the interplay between these two interpretations and the text of the verse, what each would advocate as the ideal way to attain holiness, and finally, taking each seriously as the possible meaning that God intended when revealing these words, and what that means for how we live.)
I will end with my understanding of the difference of opinion between Rashi and Nahmanides on this verse. The argument concerns the command in the verse to be holy. Both commentators, in my estimation, are forced to explain why coming right after a list of particular sexual prohibitions, the next chapter opens with a broad statement that one must be holy.
In my mind, Rashi sees the placement of this commandment as determinate of its meaning. Since the command follows these sexual prohibitions and he cites many cases in which holiness is connected to sexual prohibitions, he concludes that the reference to holiness in Leviticus 19:2 is about abstaining from illicit sexual activity. As a result, Rashi’s view is that the command to be holy means to carefully avoid sin, specifically in our area of greatest temptation.
In contrast, Nahmanides sees the call to holiness as a far-reaching approach to one’s religious life. Picking up on the end of the verse, in which God says that the motivating factor for this command is imitatio dei, Nahmanides proceeds to work out what it means for God’s holiness to be imitated by men. Drawing on a rabbinic homily that interprets this verse to mean that “Just as I keep myself separate, you too must keep yourselves separate,” he builds this idea into an approach to life. He explains that just as one can live according to the law but lead an unscrupulous life, the opposite is also true—one can go through life not only fulfilling the law but going beyond its call.
Admittedly, not every debate about Scripture will force us to consider our lives in these grand terms, but in studying the details of revelation we can attempt to come closer and understand just a measure better God and His will.
David Lasher is a junior fellow at First Things.
Michael Carasik, Commentators' Bible: The Jps Miqra'ot Gedolot: Leviticus
Michael Carasik, Commentators' Bible: The Jps Miqra'ot Gedolot Numbers
Michael Carasik, Commentators' Bible: The Jps Miqra'ot Gedolot: Exodus
RASHI 19:2 Speak to the whole Israelite community. This teaches us that this section was spoken in full convocation, [A] since most of the basic building blocks of Torah depend on it. You shall be holy. Keep yourselves apart from the forbidden sexual relationships, even from the thought of transgression. Note that wherever sexual limits are mentioned, holiness is also invoked. E.g., when the priests are warned that they "shall not marry a woman defiled by harlotry," it is because "they are holy to their God ... for I the Lord who sanctify you am holy" (21:7-8). See also the instructions about the High Priest in 21:14-15, "A widow, or a divorced woman, or one who is degraded by harlotry—such he may not marry. Only a virgin of his own kin may he take to wife—that he may not profane his offspring among his kin, for I the Lord have sanctified him."
[A| See Deut. 31:10-13.
NAHMANIDES 19:2 Speak to the whole Israelite community. Our Sages said long ago that this section of the Torah was spoken in full convocation—for most of the essential tenets of the Torah depend on it. That is why Moses is told to speak to the "whole" Israelite community. The reason it is placed here among the priestly matters of Leviticus is that it discusses the offering of well-being and because it lists the punishments that are to be given those who engage in the sexual relationships prohibited in ch. 18 (which belong in Leviticus for the reasons given in our introduction to the book). You shall be holy. Rashi understands this to mean that the Israelites are to separate them- selves from the forbidden sexual relationships. But in the Sifra, from which Rashi presumably derives this comment, it says merely "separate yourselves," full stop. Similarly, with reference to "you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy" (11:44), the Sifra explains this as God saying, "Just as I keep Myself separate, you too must keep yourselves separate." In my opinion, this does not refer to keeping "separate" from the sexual transgressions, as Rashi thinks, but to the separateness ascribed throughout the Talmud to the people it calls "Pharisees," that is, "Separatists," meaning those who exercise self-restraint. You see, the Torah proscribes immoral sexual relationships and for- bidden foods, but it permits intercourse between man and wife, eating meat, and drinking wine. So there is license for a man of appetite to steep himself in lust with his wife (or his many wives), or to "be of those who guzzle wine, or glut themselves on meat" (Prov. 23:20), or to discuss all sorts of vile things, as long as they involve something that the Torah does not explicitly prohibit. One could therefore be a scoundrel with the full permission of the Torah. So after giving the details of those things that are specifically prohibited (in ch. 18), the Torah now gives us a general commandment to restrain ourselves from excess even in those things that are permitted: to limit intercourse to that which is necessary to fulfill the commandments (as the Talmud says, scholars should not frequent their wives like roosters); to limit our intake of wine (notice that the nazirite of Numbers 6, who may not drink wine, is referred to as "holy," and the Torah presents the evils of wine in its stories about Noah and Lot); and to keep ourselves separate from uncleanness even if it is something not specifically forbidden elsewhere. (Again, the fact that the nazirite—who avoids contact with the dead—is described as "holy" provides an example.) One must keep from defiling one's mouth and tongue by overeating of gross foods and from foul speech, where "every mouth speaks impiety" (Isa. 9:16). One should sanctify oneself in this way until one reaches the level of restraint of R. Hiyya, who never spoke an idle word in all his days. This general commandment actually goes so far as to include cleanliness as an aspect of holiness; the Talmud links 11:44 to hand washing before and after meals. Even though these are rabbinic commandments, it is in fact the essence of the text to insist that we keep ourselves clean, pure, and separate from the mass of humanity, who soil themselves with all sorts of perfectly permissible ugliness. It is In fact the way of the Torah to conclude a series of specific prohibitions with a general commandment of this kind. After giving the specific details of how business is to be conducted fairly, the Torah concludes, "Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord" (Deut. 6:18), including a general demand for honesty and equity within the specifics of the law. So one must actually go beyond the letter of the law and act in a way that will win the approval of others, as I shall explain (God willing) when I reach that text. Similarly, with regard to the Sabbath, specific labors are forbidden by explicit prohibition, but over exertion in general is forbidden by the positive injunction to rest. With God's help, I will explain all of this more fully.