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A New Commentary for a Changed World

Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

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. Composed in the vernacular, Rav Hirsch’s work presents the Torah as the primary educational tool for personal growth and impresses its eternal relevance on the reader.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

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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.

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