Review: The Commentators’ Bible: Leviticus

Title of Work:

The Commentators' Bible: Leviticus: The JPS Miqra'ot Gedolot: Leviticus

Author of Work:

Michael Carasik


Pastor Souksamay Phetsanghane

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SS.98.The Commentators Bible - Leviticus.LgANOTHER COMMENTARY?!?! That is perhaps a person’s reaction to this review. However this book is unique when it comes to commentaries, at least most English commentaries. This is not just one commentator’s thoughts on Leviticus, but actually several commentators’. In addition, if one considers that the commentators often quote the Talmud, this is actually many commentators’ thoughts on Leviticus.

For this commentary is a Miqra’ot Gedolot “Large-Format Bible” (xi). On each page, there is the Hebrew text, two English translations, Abarbanel’s questions, comments from Rashi, Rashbam, ibn Ezra, and Nahmanides, and selections from the Masorah and a few other commentators.

Since this commentary has the standard pattern for any commentary (text and comments), it may be more prudent to give a short biography and then samples from the four major commentators.

  • Rashi: the standard medieval commentator on the Bible and Talmud; his comments combine the straightforward (literal) sense of a passage and the Sages’ midrashic comments as he saw fit.
    • “I am the Lord your God. Know who is issuing these decrees against you – One who can judge and punish, and also One who can be relied on to give the proper reward. [footnote] The word Elohim ‘God,’ can also mean judges’; ‘Lord’ (a euphemism for God’s personal name) is understood to refer to His kindly aspect” (132, cf. 146).
    • “Five times ‘Jacob’ is spelled יַעֲקוֹב with an extra ו indicating the o sound, instead of the usual יַעֲקֹב, where the o is simply indicated with a dot in the normal way. Now, Elijah’s name in Hebrew is ‘Eliyahu,’ spelled אֵלִיָּהוּ – expect for five times when the ו at the end is missing! Jacob took the ו from Elijah as a guarantee that he would come and announce the good news that Jacob’s descendants would be redeemed” (231).
    • “Instructions: Literally, ‘the Torahs’ – the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The plural here tells us that both of them were given to Moses at Sinai” (232, cf. 34).
  • Rashbam: Rashi’s grandson; favored the straightforward sense even when it contradicted the Sages’ midrashic comments.
    • Anyone who eats of its carcass. The Sages interpret the mention of eating here to indicate that anyone who carries or touches an edible-sized portion of the carcass – that is, an olive’s worth – would acquire impurity. But the straightforward sense of the verse is that one who eats such flesh is impure whether or not he has touched it with his hands …” (81).
    • “The straightforward sense is the one that fits the context” (154).
  • Ibn Ezra: Rashbam’s contemporary; for ibn Ezra, his comments must agree with the grammar of the text and his reason.
    • A person. Literally, ‘a soul.’ The word is appropriate, for the meal offering is not required but given willingly, and the soul too is referred to as willing; see Ps. 51:14, ‘let a willing spirit uphold me’” (13).
    • “At this point in the argument, the eyes of my ‘Sadducean’ friend … were opened, and he blurted out an oath that he would never again trust his own judgment in interpreting the commandments, but would rely on the interpretations that have come down to us in Jewish tradition” (47).
    • “The thumb and big toe are the keystones of the hand and the foot, representing the essence of action. The ear is a reminder to hear that which he has commanded. The right side is used because that is the dominant side” (104).
    • “As a general rule, we should simply take what the text says at face value” (233).
  • Nahmanides: The last of the four commentators and also a kabbalist; his comments reflect Kabbalism, especially when he talks about the “True interpretation” or “according to the way of Truth” (cf. 147, 160, 171, 188, 190-191, 193, 206, 210, 219, 223, 230).
    • “The term ‘sin,’ on the other hand, etymologically implies missing the mark, straying from the path …” (30).
    • Love your fellow as yourself. This is hyperbole. One cannot literally be commanded to feel the same love for someone else as one does for oneself. … What the Torah is commanding is that, in practical terms, one should treat the other person in every respect just as one would wish to be treated” (149-150).
    • “See Rashi’s comments. You must understand that, with his tremendous expertise in Talmud – which is all laid out before him like a set table – Rashi simply stated this conclusion without realizing that it might mislead lesser mortals” (205).

An interesting echo of the disciples’ question in John 9:2 is the commentators’ views on why someone gets leprosy (96) or anything abnormal, “As the Sages point out, dropsy is a sign of transgression” (162). There are similar, curious comments on: the Urim and Thummin (50); the clean and unclean animals (70-82); Christians (70, 150, 151, 217); pregnancy (84-86); Azazel (102, 120-121); Molech and its worship (138-139, 158, 159); the Babylonian exile (208; 228); and the Messiah (219, 222).

Reading this book is like sitting at a debate. One commentator has his say, then another, then another etc. They may address what the previous said or they may move on to a different subject. Like in any debate, some comments Lutherans can agree on: e.g. Nahmanides on “sin” above; some are not accurate: numerology (204); some not particularly helpful: views on baldness (95); and some a Lutheran could not accept: views on rabbinic tradition seem similar to the Roman Catholic Church and tradition i.e. tradition is equal, if not above Scripture. (The above quotes show these different possibilities as well, maybe even in the same quotation.)

However this commentary is still useful, if only for this one reason: it gives a glimpse into the Old Testament that is different from our norm. This commentary opens up millennia of research thought, and study on Leviticus. It not only gets the reader into the fascinating world of medieval Jewish scholarship but also further back into the Talmudic era and beyond. A journey with a few caveats, but a worthy journey indeed.

To assist a reader of this commentary, who is unfamiliar with the referenced people and items, a list of important terms is also provided: The Commentator’s Bible – Leviticus Supplement

Michael Carasik teaches Biblical Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He is also the weekday Torah reader at Historic Congregation Kesher Israel in Center City Philadelphia. He received his Ph.D. in Bible and the Ancient Near East from Brandeis University. He is the author of Theologies of the Mind in Biblical Israel. In addition to this volume, he is also the translator of The Commentators’ Bible on Numbers and Exodus.

The Commentators’ Bible: Leviticus: The JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot: Leviticus, edited, translated, and annotated by Michael Carasik. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2009. 270 pages.