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A New Commentary for a Changed World

Torah leaders confronting the Enlightenment were forced to develop innovative and original approaches to preserving and transmitting the mesorah. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s groundbreaking commentary on Chumash stands out.

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As the Enlightenment brought down ghetto walls all over central Europe that had kept the Jews isolated from the world around them many began to discard their Judaism and assimilate into the surrounding environment. Although in Eastern Europe the Jews couldn’t fully assimilate into gentile society different forces most notably the Haskalah succeeded in distancing many Jews from Torah observance.

Among those who abandoned Torah observance were some who felt that Chazal’s interpretation of the mitzvos was not based on the Written Torah. To counteract this trend in the mid-to-late 19th century several new and highly original commentaries on Chumash appeared. Although they were very different from each other in important ways each aimed to explain the Written Torah in the spirit of Chazal. Among these were:

• Hakesav V’hakabbalah by Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg the rav of Koenigsberg Prussia and a disciple of Rav Akiva Eiger. He carefully analyzes the root meanings and grammar of the words of the Chumash to provide a clear interpretation of the pesukim and respond to attacks on Chazal’s received understanding of Torah;

• The commentaries of Rav Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel known by his acronym Malbim to Tanach. A brilliant talmid chacham and a warrior against the Haskalah he served as the rav of many different Eastern European communities. His first work a commentary on Sefer Yeshayahu included an introduction in which he elucidated the principles that formed the basis for his commentary to Tanach as a whole such as that no two words in Tanach Hebrew have precisely the same meaning and that there are no repeated phrases or clauses in Tanach. His works on Vayikra and Devarim are original commentaries to the Sifra and Sifrei demonstrating how Chazal proved the correct halachic interpretation of each verse.

• Ha’ameik Davar by Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (the Netziv) son-in-law of Rav Yitzchak of Volozhin the son and successor of the founder of the famed yeshivah in that city Rav Chaim of Volozhin the esteemed disciple of the Vilna Gaon. The Netziv also served as rosh yeshivah in Volozhin for almost forty years until its closing in 1892. He authored many works including responsa and commentaries on Shas the She’iltos of Rav Achai Gaon all the halachic midrashim and the Chumash.

• The commentary of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch who held rabbinic positions in Oldenberg and Emden Germany and served as chief rabbi of Moravia before returning to Germany to establish a modern Torah-committed community in Frankfurt. Toward the end of his life he produced his commentaries on the Chumash Tehillim and the siddur. This essay will focus on the contributions of his multifaceted commentary to Chumash.

Linking Torah Shebiksav to Torah Shebe’al Peh

Unlike both Hakesav V’hakabbalah and Malbim who expressly state that a major purpose of their commentaries is to demonstrate the unity of Torah shebiksav and Torah shebe’al peh Rav Hirsch’s very brief introduction to his commentary does not emphasize this unity. However Rav Hirsch’s commentary includes hundreds of examples illustrating that the proper study of Torah shebiksav leads directly to the conclusions of Torah shebe’al peh.

Rav Hirsch noted that the Torah shebe’al peh was actually taught to the Jews first. Moshe received all the laws of Torah shebe’al peh at Har Sinai and taught them to the Jewish People gradually. The completed Torah shebiksav by contrast was not received by the Jews until the very end of Moshe’s life immediately prior to the Jews entering Eretz Yisrael or forty years after they had received the Torah shebe’al peh. This sequence of transmission explains numerous passages in the Torah including the commandment to slaughter animals ka’asher tzivisicha “as you were instructed ” meaning the sets of regulations that had been transmitted to Moshe at Har Sinai and previously taught to Bnei Yisrael.

Uniqueness of Rav Hirsch’s Commentary

The most obvious difference between Rav Hirsch’s commentary and the others is the language in which it was written. The latter are written in traditional rabbinic Hebrew while Rav Hirsch published his commentary on Chumash and indeed all of his other works in German. Long before Rav Hirsch’s time many Torah works had been authored in the vernacular such as all of Rav Saadiyah Gaon’s writings and those of the Rambam with the exception of the Mishneh Torah. But in the hundreds of years since the era of the Rishonim the publication of seforim in languages other than Hebrew had been rare. As a young rabbi in Oldenberg however Rav Hirsch recognized the need to present Torah teachings in German in order to reach his generation and impress upon them Torah’s eternal relevance.

In Rav Hirsch’s commentary there are numerous instances in which he included a comment in Hebrew. Invariably these are of a scholarly nature relating to a Talmudic discussion point that was not appropriate to the general audience for whom his work was intended. Yet he was concerned that the important halachic points he wanted to make should not be lost to posterity; such points he chose to write in scholarly rabbinic Hebrew.

Beyond being an interpretation of Chumash Rav Hirsch uses his commentary to demonstrate how to use the Torah as the primary educational tool for personal growth. There is virtually not a comment of his on the Torah that does not provide a moral lesson. Indeed there are many occasions when he did not comment upon questions about pshat in a verse where it would appear appropriate for him to have done so. Clearly he refrained from providing commentary where the conclusion would not provide any lesson one can utilize for personal ethical development.

Rav Hirsch referred to his Torah hashkafah with the term Torah im derech eretz the details of which he developed in different places in his commentary. Although the expression is often misunderstood Rav Hirsch used it to mean that Torah and its observance must always provide the primary focus of a Jew’s life and that this can and must be done in all places times and situations. Everything else that this world has to offer including livelihood education culture and social mores must be subsumed within a Torah framework.

Reasons for Mitzvos

One of Rav Hirsch’s great innovations is his explanations of the taamei hamitzvos. The Sefer Hachinuch explains that the term taamei hamitzvah means the taste of a mitzvah not its reason and it is such a taste that Rav Hirsch sought to provide.

The concept of deriving educational reasons for mitzvos certainly did not originate with Rav Hirsch and he quotes dozens of places where Chazal discuss what lesson one can derive from the observance of the mitzvos. Rishonim like the Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim Ramban in his commentary on the Torah and the Sefer Hachinuch also devote much space to this study. However Rav Hirsch added several dimensions to the concept of taamei hamitzvah. For Rav Hirsch an explanation of a mitzvah must always be compatible with every detail of the halachos of that mitzvah. For this reason Rav Hirsch first develops and explains all the halachic details of the mitzvah and then offers an explanation for the mitzvah that incorporates all those details. At times this required him to first resolve certain halachic issues regarding the laws of a mitzvah.

The mitzvah of not mixing meat and milk together provides a good illustration of the difference between the approach of Rav Hirsch and that of his predecessors. The Ramban explains that the reason for this mitzvah is that cooking a newly slaughtered kid in the milk of its mother fosters cruelty in a person. However this reason for the mitzvah has little apparent connection with the halachos of this mitzvah which prohibit any meat and any milk of two kosher species cooked together.

On the other hand Rav Hirsch first explains the laws of the mitzvah and then demonstrates why the Torah’s description of cooking a goat in the milk of its mother is the simplest way to express these ideas. He then set forth a philosophical explanation providing an appreciation for the mitzvah explaining why this prohibition is limited to the meat and the milk of kosher domesticated animal species and why the injunction includes not only the consumption of this mixture but also cooking and benefiting from it.

Another example is the Torah’s prohibition on planting any trees near the Mizbeiach. The Ramban explains that even planting a shade tree that will enhance the area of the Beis Hamikdash is prohibited since it was the custom of the idol worshippers to plant trees near the entrance to their temples.

Rav Hirsch however notes that the thriving of a tree near an idol was considered a sign of the influence of that deity. This idea fits very well with the heathen notion that gods are primarily forces of nature whose rule manifests itself in the phenomena of the physical world. However such notions are diametrically opposite to the Jewish concept of G-d. A Jew is obligated to subordinate all his aspirations including his moral and spiritual world to the sphere of G-d’s sovereignty. Only through this can he expect to succeed in the physical world.

Many of Rav Hirsch’s approaches to taamei hamitzvos are highly original such as his explanations for arayos keifel arachin tumah and taharah and the disqualification of blemished animals and blemished Kohanim from the service of korbanos. Regarding tumah for example he notes that the foundation of most religions is the fear of death and it is when death occurs that the priest assumes his greatest role.

The Torah in contrast bans the Kohein from being involved with the dead to demonstrate that the Torah’s goal is that we grow and develop throughout life and that the Kohein’s role is to educate others in how to live as Jews. Rav Hirsch uses the same concept to explain why a Kohein with a physical blemish or injury is forbidden to serve in the Beis Hamikdash and why a similarly impaired animal is prohibited as a korban. This emphasis on external appearance seems to run counter to the Torah’s emphasis on internal qualities and equal access for all to a relationship with Hashem.

He explains that religions generally become the haven of the marginalized and alienated in society. By prohibiting the physically impaired from performing the service in the holiest of places the Torah emphasizes that its goal is to foster in all Jews the development of a relationship with Hashem rather than to simply provide a refuge for the disenfranchised.

Taamei Hamikra

Rav Hirsch emphasized that his commentary is based on a careful reading of the words of Chumash. Included in this was his study of the taamei hamikra, which can teach us how to break a pasuk into smaller units in order to understand it correctly.

As an example, his interpretation of the pasuk in Shiras Ha’azinu (Devarim 32:5), “shicheis lo lo, banav mumam,” reflects the accentuation implied by the taamei hamikra: this pasuk is all one sentence, with only a small break (a tipcha) after the second word lo (with an alef). Thus, disagreeing with all the previous commentaries that I have seen, he translates the sentence as: “Their moral frailty has corrupted it to become non-children.”

Grammar — Dikduk and Shoresh

Rav Hirsch developed an understanding of Torah ideas upon the principle of shorashim where there are phonetic cognates. This idea, which has sources in Chazal and the Rishonim,[1] is that different consonants that are articulated by using the same part of the mouth are related to each other.[2]

Thus, there is a relationship among the guttural consonants (alef, hei, ches, and ayin) that can be used to explain the meaning of related roots in which they appear. The same is true for the palatals (gimmel, yud, kaf, and kuf), the dentals (daled, tes, lamed, nun, and tav), the sibilants (zayin, samech, tzadi, reish, and shin/sin), and the labials (beis/veis, vav, mem, and pei/fei).[3]

Analyzing different words for similar roots, Rav Hirsch develops a philosophic underpinning of the comparative roots, and then creates an associative meaning for each root. For example, the roots bara (beis-reish-alef, to create, which means to bring into reality that which previously existed only in one’s mind); barach, beis-reish-ches, to escape; para, pei-reish-alef, to be undisciplined; parach, pei-reish-ches, to flower; and parah, pei-reish-hei, to reproduce, seem to be unrelated verbs. However, the first letter of the root in each instance is a labial, the second is reish, and the third is a guttural. For Rav Hirsch, the underlying idea common to all of these roots is that of leaving a state of being constrained.

Rav Hirsch also takes note of a relationship pattern between similar consonants. For example, the tzadi often reflects a more intensive version of the other similar sounds, such as the sin. Thus, there is a conceptual relationship between yatzar, yud-tzadi-reish, which means to limit something for a specific purpose, and yasar, yud-samech-reish, which connotes educating, shaping and disciplining the spirit. In literally hundreds of applications of these ideas, Rav Hirsch sets forth an entire world of educational themes.

In Rav Hirsch’s view, too, the shoresh of a word can often provide educational and religious lessons. For example, in describing Avraham Avinu’s travels in Eretz Canaan, the Torah uses the unusual word vayateik (vav-yud-ayin-tav-kuf), which Rav Hirsch translates as, “He gave orders to move on.”[4] Rav Hirsch notes that when this root appears in Tanach, it connotes that someone or thing is moved unexpectedly or forcibly to another setting. Thus, Rav Hirsch explains, Avraham realized that his followers needed to be isolated from the surrounding society for him to succeed in educating them, but he needed to overcome their resistance in doing so. Thus, the root of the word is used to teach us about Avraham’s pedagogic approach.

Controversial Aspects

Probably the most controversial aspect of Rav Hirsch’s commentary on Chumash is his belief that even our greatest leaders are not beyond reproach, and that the purpose of a late Torah commentary can include the extraction of practical lessons from their shortcomings and errors. Rav Hirsch’s commentary includes critiques of how Yitzchak and Rivkah raised Eisav, of Yosef’s relationship with his brothers, of Moshe, Tziporah, and others. Indeed, the Ramban (whom Rav Hirsch quotes in this context) also felt capable of offering critique of our greatest Torah leaders even in places where Chazal did not do so.

Rav Hirsch’s position in all these cases is clear: Only Hashem is perfect. The fact that the Torah makes a point of addressing the errors made by our greatest leaders demonstrates that Torah is true, and of Divine origin. Man’s purpose in this world is to learn and to grow, and we can do so both by emulating the great actions of our greatest leaders but also by learning from their errors.

Did Rav Hirsch Use the Hakesav V’hakabbalah or HaTorah V’hamitzvah?

In his beautiful essay introducing the first edition of the first English translation of Rav Hirsch’s commentary to Chumash, Dayan Dr. Isaac Grunfeld writes: “When Samson Raphael Hirsch began his commentary in 1867, he had the works of Mecklenburg and HaTorah V’hamitzvah of Malbim in front of him.” I presume that Dayan Grunfeld had some mesorah to this effect. However, from my work on Rav Hirsch’s commentary, and after comparing this work to the other two, I personally am not convinced that this statement is accurate, for the following reasons.

First, when Rav Hirsch felt indebted to an earlier commentator, he always quoted his source. In the course of his commentary of Chumash, he quotes a wide variety of sources, including: the Rishonim; his rebbeim, Chacham Bernays and Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, author of Aruch Laneir; and works published shortly before his time, such as Harechasim L’vikah and the writings of the highly controversial Naftali Wessely. Yet there is not a single reference anywhere in his commentary to either Hakesav V’hakabalah or HaTorah V’hamitzvah.

Second, there are places in which Rav Hirsch presents no explanation, while Hakesav V’hakabbalah presents approaches that lend themselves perfectly to Rav Hirsch’s style of commentary. For example, Rav Hirsch offers almost no commentary to the lengthy list of travels that Bnei Yisrael made through the desert. Yet, Hakesav V’hakabbalah has a beautiful explanation of the place names along the route of these travels that lends itself perfectly to Rav Hirsch’s goal of using of Chumash to teach mussar haskeil, just as Rav Hirsch himself does in explaining the list of names of the descendants of Sheis. If he was as familiar with Hakesav V’hakabbalah as Dayan Grunfeld suggests, it is indeed puzzling why he would not use the opportunity to include these lessons in his Torah commentary, and attribute them to Hakesav V’hakabbalah.

As to why Rav Hirsch would not have seen fit to utilize those commentaries in composing his own, the reason may simply be that unlike both Hakesav V’hakabbalah and HaTorah V’hamitzvah, whose goal was to prove the accuracy or authenticity of Chazal’s understanding of Torah, the focus of Rav Hirsch’s commentary was, instead, to demonstrate how Torah provides for personal growth in Torah, through proper personality development, and development of a comprehensive Jewish worldview.

(Originally featured in Kolmus, Issue 37)

[1] I refer to the “commentaries” (plural) of the Malbim because, although he wrote on the entire Tanach, a rare accomplishment, his treatments of the different parts of Tanach are so varied as to make it difficult to refer to them all as one commentary.[2] On Chumash, the Malbim follows two different styles. As I mention in the article, his work on Vayikra and parts of Devarim is an explanation of the midrashei halachah, the Sifra and the Sifrei, in which he delves into Chazal’s method of understanding Torah shebikskav. On the other hand, his commentaries to other parts of Chumash bear close similarity to the commentary of the Abrabanel — he presents many questions on the topic at hand, and then weaves an explanation to answer them. Yet another style is presented in his commentaries to Esther and Shir Hashirim, in which he presents his own midrashic-style approach to these works.

[3] This point is the main thrust of Dayan Isaac Grunfeld’s introduction to Rav Hirsch’s commentary, which I will quote later in the article.

[4] Commentary of Rav Hirsch to Bereishis 1:19

[5] See, for example, commentary of Rav Hirsch to Vayikra18:4.

[6] Ramban, Devarim14:21.

[7] Commentary of Rav Hirsch to Shemos 23:19.

[8] Devarim 16:21

[9] Rav Hirsch Commentary to Devarim 16:21. Based on the Haberman translation.

[10] For example, see Rashi, Vayikra 19:16, where he explains that the word רכיל stems from the word רגל. See, similarly, Ra’avad, Eduyos 4:3; Ramban, Shemos 15:10; Vayikra 19:20, Devarim 7:12; Rash, Peah 6:1

[11] A language specialist calls these words homorganic consonants.

[12] Those interested in seeing a systematic dictionary of Rav Hirsch’s work in this area are referred to Matityahu Clark’s Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, Feldheim Publishers, which Rabbi Clark writes is “based on the commentaries of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.”

[13] Bereishis 12:8. Translation is from the Haberman edition.

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