A new excellent extensive Bible commentary

Koren Publishers Jerusalem has launched a huge project that will benefit many Jews and non-Jews. While most books containing commentaries on the bible either focus on all five books of the Torah or just one of the five books and then gives only the commentaries of about a dozen commentators as well as that of the author of the volume, this series of books offers much more.

There will be 55 volumes, one volume for each of the 54 biblical portions read during Shabbat morning services in synagogues, with a small part of that portion on Monday and Thursday mornings, and a small part of the following portion on Saturday evening in the synagogue services. The 55th volume will be an introductory volume. Five of the first books of Exodus have been published. The work necessary to complete the project may take some years. Each volume contains abridged excerpts from more than forty commentators from Philo (25 BCE-50 CE} and the early Midrashim until the present day.

The books are divided into two parts. Opening the books from the right side are the Biblical Hebrew text and the Hebrew commentary of Rashi (1040-1105), the new much-improved translation of the Torah portion by the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, and the commentary of Rashi with a new very readable English translation by Rabbi Sacks in which he frequently adds words to clarify what Rashi is saying and why he is saying it, a three-page discussion on the translation of Rashi, and in the Shemot volume the haftarah for the biblical portion for Ashkenazim, Sepharadim, and Yemenites in Hebrew and English translation.

Rashi’s commentary is often not based on a literal reading of the Torah but midrashic and sermonic. Readers will be delighted with Rabbi Sack’s clarifying translations. For example, in this right-hand Rashi section, he notes that while 1:10 is usually translated that Pharaoh instructed his people regarding the Israelites “Let us deal wisely with them,” the Hebrew actually states the singular “with him.” Sacks explains that Rashi’s commentary is that the singular does not refer to the Israelites collectively but to Pharaoh’s plan to engage in combat against God. Another example is 3:15 when God tells Moses the divine “name,” and says “this is my name forever,” the Hebrew word for “forever” misses the letter vav. Rashi states that the missing letter is “implying that God’s name should not be read as written.” Still another example is Rashi’s commentary on Exodus 4:3 where God shows Moses a miracle by turning his staff into a snake. Rashi writes that God was hinting to Moses that since he spoke ill of the Israelite slaves, he spoke slander as the snake did in Genesis 3. This section is 50 pages long.

Opening the book from the left side readers will find an additional 261 pages divided into four sections. (1) Commentaries from the early time of the sages. (2) The classic commentators. (3) Confronting modernity. (4) Three essays surveying some of the previously mentioned remarks. Each of the first three sections begins with a chart showing the dates of the commentators. The commentaries are translated by Rabbi Jonathan Mishkin.

The first section has the abridged ideas of 16 commentators from Philo, the Talmuds, and over a dozen different Midrashim from the beginning of the Common Era until the thirteenth century. Among the many comments is the view of Midrash Tanhuma that 1:1 which states that the sons of Jacob came with him to Egypt is informing us that they entered the foreign country with Jacob’s values. Targum Onkelos explains that the scriptures statement in 1:8 that Pharaoh did not know Joseph means he did not preserve Joseph’s decrees. Philo to 1:15 writes that the midwives Pharaoh ordered to kill newborn Israelite males were Egyptian women because Israelite midwives would not perform such an immoral act. Philo adds that female Israelite newborns were not killed because Pharaoh did not think that women would join an army against him. On 2:10, he opines that Moses’ name was Egyptian because the princess rescued Moses from the water and the water in Egyptian is “mos.” Targum Yerushalmi clarifies Moses looking this and that way before killing the Egyptian who was beating an Israelite in 2:12, that using divine inspiration Moses looked into this world and the future and saw that no convert would come from this man.

The second section contains interpretations from 15 sources from Saadia Gaon who was born in 882 until 1619 such as Maimonides’ son informing readers that while virtually all the biblical portions begin with the Hebrew letter vav, as does the first verse in Exodus, and vav is usually translated “and,” it is “merely the opening to the text rather than a conjunction.” Ibn Ezra understands 1:8’s “Then a new king arose” that this pharaoh was not of the royal lineage. He usurped the throne. When scripture states that Pharaoh observed that the Israelites were “many and more powerful than we” in 1:9, Ralbag reads it to mean that he saw that the Israelites had a higher birth rate and would grow powerful and intimidating. Rashbam suggests that Pharaoh gave the Egyptian midwives houses in 1:21 and placed them near his castle so that he could keep them under surveillance. Ibn Ezra states on 2:10 that the princess who rescued Moses from the water did not call him Moses, but gave him an Egyptian name which the Torah translated into Hebrew. Ibn Ezra to 4:30 contends that Moses never spoke to the Israelites directly, but always through his brother Aaron, and after Aaron’s death through Aaron’s son Elazar.

The third section has commentaries from twelve sources beginning in the eighteenth century to the present time. Shadal understands 2:2’s description of Moses “a fine child,” that he did not cry or make noise. He writes that 2:11’s statement that Moses went out to his people reveals that while he was raised among Egyptian, his natural mother who had nursed him would occasionally travel to see how he was faring, and she told him of his origin. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch significantly clarifies 4:31’s “the people believed Moses.” The word amen in the Bible does not mean blind faith as it does today. It indicates that what was heard was “affirmed” by visible facts.

The fourth section called “The Biblical Imagination” has three essays: “The Meaning of a Name,” “The Test of Israel’s Leaders,” and “Justice Shall Be the Girdle of His Loins” by Rabbi Shai Finkelstein.

In summary, this new series of 55 books, 5 of which have so far been published, will offer readers what could be called an encyclopedia of abridged interpretations from over 40 traditional Jewish sources on a single biblical portion. While the original more detailed version of each of the selected sources would give even more information, and it would have even been nicer if some other sages such as the teachings of the great Maimonides were included, and readers will not always agree with the comments of the sages who are included, what we are given is an enormous gift that will undoubtedly open our eyes and minds to the many ideas in the Torah and Jewish tradition, and will give us delightful books to read on Shabbat.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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