Category Archives: Rabbinic literature

Levels of Jewish law

There are several levels of law in halakha.

A1. The מצוות דאורייתא, mitzvot d’oraita, 613 Mitzvot (commandments) – These are all found directly in the Torah.

A2. Laws given to Moses at Sinai, Halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai, הלכה למשה מסיני.

These are laws not stated in the Torah, nor derived from it by logical principles (hermeneutics.)

These laws have been known to us from antiquity: they were accepted by the sages of the Mishnah as being as ancient and authoritative as the laws in the written Torah. They were transmitted, some perhaps from the time of Moses, through Judaism’s oral tradition, until written down in the Mishnah. In a way, they constitute additional mitzvot, which one can add to the 613.  But not because we are changing the Torah or adding to it. Rather, according to our history, these rules were always part and parcel of Torah, even if they were not written within the admittedly small text of the Torah.

As in all cultures, not all beliefs and practices are written down at once. Maimonides lists 31 of these mitzvot in his Mishnah commentary introduction:  31 Halachos L’Moshe MiSinai according to the Rambam

Usuallt, extensions of Torah laws are not Halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai. If a primary rule is given in the Torah (abstain from labor on Shabbat) the elaboration doesn’t count as a Halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai. In the Mishnah and Talmud, the rabbis elaborate 39 categories of labors prohibited on Shabbat; these are merely elaborations of the Torah mitzvah and not additional mitzvot.  See the piece by Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, 31 Halachos L’Moshe MiSinai according to the Rambam.

However, in some cases, details for how to observe a mitzvah are included in this category.  There seems to be no firm rule for which statements count in this category, but over time the list made by Maimonides has been seen as authoritative. Some examples are

1. That the loaves of a thanksgiving offering need a half-log of oil;
2. That the offering upon completion of a nazir period requires a quarter-log of oil;
7. Minimum sizes, such as of food for blessings;
10. The parchment to be used for tefillin;
11. The parchment to be used for mezuzos;
20. The ink to use for writing a sefer Torah;
25. That a field with ten or more saplings may be plowed right up until Shemittah;

It is often taught that we must believe that the Halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai literally came from Moses. But even a cursory reading of the Talmud and Midrash show that the rabbis didn’t believe this. Jewish tradition actually teaches that the term means a rule accepted as if it was given to Moses. Rabbi Shalom Berger (Orthodox) writes

“In the brief chapter on “Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai” in Menachem Elon’s HaMishpat HaIvri, Elon points to the well-known Midrash (TB Menahot 29b) – that describes Moshe Rebbenu sitting in Rabbi Akiva’s Talmud class and not understanding the discussion – and ends with Rabbi Akiva quoting the source for his teaching as “Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai” – as a proof that the term can be used to mean that a given teaching is known and accepted *as if* it had been given to Moshe on Mount Sinai.”

B. The seven rabbinic mitzvot – שבע מצוות דרבנן, Mitzvot d’rabanan.  The Talmud notes occasions when rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud actually created new mitzvot (commandments.)  They are:

1. Saying blessings over pleasurable things (מצוות הנאה, e.g. fruits), over the fulfillment of a mitzvah (e.g. brit milah), and over various natural phenomenon (e.g. seeing the Great Ocean, i.e. Mediterranean Sea, or lightning) or significant (e.g. meeting a king) events. These additional brachot are together counted as one, for the purposes of the mitzvot d’rabanan.

2. Washing one’s hands before eating bread.

3. Eruvim: 3 kinds of “mixings” to allow: (a) carrying on Shabbat in a courtyard, which can be extended (eruv xatzeirot, the usual referent of ‘eruv’), (b) walking more than a mile on Shabbat outside a city (eruv t’xumim), (c) preparation of food on a Yom Tov (holiday) for consumption on the Shabbat that immediately follows it (eruv tavshilim)

4. Recitation of Hallel (Psalms 114-118) on most holidays and on Rosh Chodesh

5. Lighting of Shabbat candles

6. Public reading Megillat Esther on Purim, both evening and day.

7. Lighting candles on the 8 nights of Chanukah.

The 7 are not grouped as such in the Talmud: the list is first compiled by R. David Vital in his book כתר תורה ((1536, listing the mitzvoth, according to the choices of the Rambam. The numeric equivalent of the Hebrew title, ‘Keter’ adds up to 620 [613 + 7] in gematria (numerical mysticism.)

C1. Gezeira d’rabanan. A rabbinic fence law, aimed at deterring one from doing something that is prohibited.

For example, one may not place food directly on a fire before Shabbat in order to keep it heated during Shabbat. This is a fence around the law against cooking on Shabbat. To prevent the gezeira from being violated, a metal cover, called a blech in Yiddish, is placed on the stove top before Shabbat with the flame (turned to a low setting) under one section and the pot with food placed on the blech. This blech serves as a fence, allowing heating of the food without any danger of violating the law. Note that a “gezeira dirabanan” becomes binding only if it is accepted by the community. From the Soc.Culture.Jewish.Faq

C2. A Takanah is rabbinic legislation. The term often refers to directives aimed at imposing a duty to perform a particular, act. Some are rulings not to engage in particular acts e.g. the 2 famous takkanot of Rabbeinu Gershom (c. 1000 CE – not marrying more than one woman, not opening another’s mail).

D. Minhag, Custom.

Minhag is any act that the masses, on their own, accept. A minhag against actual halachah is called a minhag ta’ut (mistaken minhag.) Any based on a misunderstanding is a minhag shtut, a foolish custom. These two should not be followed. Any nearly universal minhag is called a Minhag Yisroel, and has most of the stringencies of law. (Yarmulka, and Ma’ariv services are two examples of a Minhag Yisroel.)

E. P’sak. A rabbinic ruling. Any individua can ask their rabbi a question, and since a rabbi is trained in Jewish law, the rabbi’s answer is generally considered authoritative. This does bring up the question of “who is a rabbi”, because the rabbinical semichah (ordination) that Jews have today is not the classical semichah that existed in the Mishnaic and Talmudic era. Rather today’s rabbinic ordination is היתר הוראה – a permission to pasken (decide halachic questions).

Not every question asked to a rabbi results in a p’sak halakhah: The rabbi’s answer is sometimes only considered a p’sak when it involved an original analysis.  If the rabbi finds it sufficient to reply by citing already existing laws and customs, then the response is just a regular answer. (e.g. “May we count seven men as a minyan? ” “No, it needs to be 10 men”.)


A rabbi traditionally may not offer a p’sak when within the presence of his/her own teacher! The exception is that one may override one’s own teacher, if one becomes recognized as a Posek (expert in a particular area of Jewish law.) What is a posek? Posek (article on Wikipedia)

Rabbi Yitzchok A. Breitowitz adds an important constraint in making a p’sak.

“Halachic decision-making is not a matter of a Rabbi secluding himself in a room and getting a direct answer from G-d which he then communicates with ex cathedra authority. Indeed, based on the verse, “It [the Torah] is not in Heaven”, the Talmud declares that prophecy and Divine inspiration cannot be taken into account in the resolution of halachic questions. All halachic resolution depends on a solid empirical grounding in the facts coupled with a reasoned application from the primary texts that Jewish law considers to be definitive, e.g. Talmud, Codes. Ad hoc decision-making that is not rooted in these texts is generally illegitimate.”

Is Posek shopping permissible? (Asking multiple rabbis the same question, in order to get the answer that you want.) Here is a response from the website of the Union of Orthodox Congregations (Modern Orthodox, USA)

Missing years in the Hebrew calendar

There is a serious chronological discrepancy between the Seder Olam (Rabbinic Jewish) dating system and the archaeologically proven historical record. The dating problem appears after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, in 423 BCE – which is traditionally recorded in the rabbinic calendar as having occurred in the year Hebrew 3338 (3338 years after the creation of the world.) This discrepancy results in a large discrepancy between the two systems for all periods before the Persian period.

Among the right wing Orthodox, it is believed that Jews must use the Seder Olam chronology, and that all historical and archaeological records must either be wrong, or grossly misinterpreted.

However, there is actually no consensus in rabbinic Judaism as to which chronology to adopt. Many Artscroll books and other right wing works follow the Seder Olam chronology. However, other Orthodox works use the conventional system, such as: The Soncino edition of the Bible, the J. H. Hertz Pentateuch, the  Da’at Mikra edition of the Bible (published by Mossad ha Rav Kook in Jerusalem), and Adin Steinsaltz’s edition of the Talmud.

How did this discrepancy come about? Mitchell First writes:

“..the chronology of the Sages can be completely explained. What happened is that the Sages saw [what they thought was] a prediction in the book of Daniel [9:24-27) that a certain time period would span 490 years. The beginning and end points of the 490 year period referred to are ambiguous. For various reasons, the Sages interpreted the beginning and endpoints to be the destruction of the First Temple and the Destruction of the Second Temple. Once they adopted this interpretation…and believed that the prediction must have come true, they were constrained by other data known to them regarding the length of period from the destruction to the rebuilding (70 years), and the total length of the Greek, Hasmonean and Roman periods (386 years). This forced them to state a length for the period from the rebuilding under Darius until the beginning of Greek rule that was shorter than they otherwise should have..”

Comparison of the Seder Olam (Rabbinic) chronology with the conventional (archaeological and historical) chronology.

Event  Seder Olam chronology  Conventional historical chronology
  King David captures Jerusalem and makes it his capital  867 BCE  1000 BCE (+/- 5 years)
 Building of the First Temple  831 BCE  965 BCE
Josiah repairs First Temple 458 BCE 622 BCE
 First Temple destroyed  421 BCE  586 BCE
 Beginning of Persian rule in Israel  368 BCE  539 BCE
 Reign of King Ahasverosh , according to Book of Esther. Compared to the historical King Xerxes.  366-362 BCE  486-465 BCE
 Commencement of the rebuilding of the Second Temple  351 BCE  520 BCE
 End of Persian rule. Beginning of Greek rule in Israel.  317 BCE  332 BCE
 Destruction of the Second Temple  70 CE  70 CE

All dates after this point are identical in both systems.

The best book on this subject is Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology by Mitchell First.

“According to Seder Olam Rabbah, the work that forms the basis for almost all rabbinic chronology, the period from the defeat of the Babylonians by the Medeo-Persians until the beginning of Greek rule, encompassed 52 years and spanned the reigns of three Persian kings. According to the chronology that is universally accepted by historians today (conventional chronology), this period of Persian rule over the land of Israel encompassed 207 years (539 to 332 BCE) and during this period more than ten Persian kings reigned. This discrepancy between the traditional Jewish chronology and conventional chronology has not gone unnoticed. The purpose of this study is to collect and categorize the variety of Jewish responses to this discrepancy, both by Jewish scholars and rabbinic authorities. Part I provides an introduction to the discrepancy. Part II contains the earliest Jewish responses to the discrepancy. In the major part of the study, Part III, the responses to the discrepancy from the time of Azariah de Rossi (16th century) to the present time are collected and categorized. This unified collection and categorization of the many responses will enable students and scholars to have easy access to what has been written by Jewish scholars and rabbinic authorities about the discrepancy and will facilitate scholarly evaluation of the responses.”

Below is an amazing debate between an ultra-Orthodox Jew, who believe that the dating system of Midrash Seder Olam is historically correct, and a Jewish secular trained historian, who has a masterful understanding of the primary historical sources. This debate took place on a Usenet newsgroup – for younger readers, Usenet was a worldwide, massive bulletin board system, the first major set of discussion forums on the internet

Subject: Re: 3761 B.C.E.? March 3, 1996
Subject: Re: Historicity of Aggadah June 4, 1996
From: D S Levene (
Newsgroups: soc.culture.jewish

Lisa Aaronson wrote:
: Well, the Babylonian destruction was 490 years before the Roman
: one (70 years of exile and 420 years for the Second Temple), and
: since the latter was in 70 CE and there’s no year 0, the former
: was in -420, or 421 BCE. The difference is in the duration of the
: Persian period (and the very beginning of the Greek period).
: Jewish sources have Alexander conquering Persia 52 years after the
: Persians conquered Babylon. And a total of 4 Medean and Persian
: kings during this period. The Greeks gave the same period a total
: of 208 years and 10 kings.
: A lot comes down to who you consider more reliable. The Greek
: stories were collected folklore, basically. Lots of hearsay from
: people in foreign lands. Herodotus actually admits that he heard 4
: different and conflicting stories of the coming to power of Cyrus
: the Great, only bothering to tell the one he thought most likely.
: Greek stories that didn’t fit the consensus synthesis are
: considered, a priori, to be unreliable. For example, Xenophon
: records the rise of Cyrus in a way almost identical to the Jewish
: version, but since this contradicts Herodotus, it is dismissed as
: “an early historical novel”.

This is, I’m afraid, almost total nonsense. We do not get the standard Persian chronology from “Greek stories”: it is the one overwhelmingly supported by *all* sources – Persian, Babylonian and Greek alike. The rabbinic chronology, by contrast, is attested only centuries later, and is utterly unsustainable against the Babylonian and Persian documentation.

(1) Let’s start by setting out the basic picture from the king-lists.  The most comprehensive one is the so-called Royal Canon, which gives  astronomically tabulated dates for all the Persian kings. The fullest version of this that we have is very late; but it derives from earlier material, and its dates are confirmed by cuneiform lists of earlier periods. See, for example, the so-called Saros Tablet (in ZA 7 (1892)), which lists the whole period by eighteen-year intervals.

Lists like these enable us to construct our basic chronology for the period, as follows (all dates B.C.E.; for the sake of familiarity I use the Greek names of all these kings):

Nabonidus 556-539 (he was the last king of Babylon before the Persian conquest)
Cyrus 539-530 (he had reigned in Persia for 20 years  before capturing Babylon)
Cambyses 530-522
Bardiya 522
Darius I 522-486
Xerxes (Ahasuerus) 486-465
Artaxerxes I 465-424 (*) See note below
Darius II 424-404
Artaxerxes II 404-359
Artaxerxes III 359-338
Arses 338-336
Darius III 336-331
In 331 Alexander the Great captured Babylon and overthrew the Persian empire.

(*) Note: There were a few months of conflict following the death of Artaxerxes I; two of his sons, Xerxes II and Sogdianos, briefly tried to seize the throne before being killed, and a third son, Darius II, took over. This had an interesting consequence which I discuss below.
(2) That is the basic picture: can we confirm it? Indeed we can, comprehensively and overwhelmingly: there is a mass of supporting documentation. Astronomical data is especially important. We have a large number of Babylonian astronomical records for the Persian period. For example, we have a record of virtually every lunar eclipse in the period, dated by the king’s reign; we have dated records of solar eclipses and planetary conjunctions and observations; we even have “astronomical diaries” – dated diaries in which astronomers recorded their day-by-day observations. The dates of these can be checked astronomically – and comprehensively confirm the total correctness of the standard chronology. There are numerous Babylonian astronomical records, for example – I’ll just mention a few briefly:

Astronomical texts for the period are assembled and described in T.G. Pinches & J.N. Strassmaier, “Late Babylonian Astronomical and Related Texts” (Providence, 1955).

BM 36910+36998+37036 records by date lunar eclipses from Darius I to Artaxerxes II.

The so-called Saros Canon (in ZA 10 (1895)) lists every year from Artaxerxes II onwards, recording every lunar eclipse in the period.

BM 36754 records solar eclipses in the reigns of Artaxerxes III and Darius III.

LBAT 1411-1412 records conjunctions of Saturn and Mars with the Moon for the reign of Darius II and the start of the reign of ArtaxerxesII.

LBAT 1387-1388 records observations of Venus for the reigns of Artaxerxes I and Darius II.

BM 36823 records observations of Jupiter for the reign of Darius I.

LBAT 1394-1395 records observations of Jupiter for the reigns of Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III.

Strassmaier, “Cambyses” No. 400 is a record of various astronomical data for the last year of Cambyses’ reign.

The dates of all these can be checked astronomically (and there are many other such documents also). They all demonstrate the absolute correctness of the standard chronology.

(3) Moreover, a large number of other contemporary Babylonian and Persian documents together confirm this chronology (mostly various sorts of  business records). Once again, I give just a very few examples here  (many hundreds more could be adduced).

Cyrus’ capture of Babylon from Nabonidus is confirmed by the Cyrus Cylinder and the Nabonidus Chronicle.

The Behistun Inscription confirms the Cyrus-Cambyses-Bardiya-Darius I sequence of kings.

A text of Darius II (in JAOS 72 (1952)) confirms the Darius I-Xerxes-Artaxerxes I-Darius II sequence.

The length of reign of Darius I is confirmed by VAS V 110, dating itself to the 36th year of Darius’ reign.

The length of reign of Xerxes is confirmed by one of the Persepolis Treasury texts (in JNES 24 (1965)), dating itself to the 20th year of his reign.

The length of the reign of Artaxerxes I is confirmed by BM 33342; also BE X 4. These documents, unusually, are double-dated by both the 41st year of Artaxerxes I and the accession year of Darius II, a result of the uncertainty surrounding the opening of Darius II’s reign (see above).

The length of reign of Artaxerxes II is confirmed by VAS VI 186, dating itself to the 46th year of his reign.

[By the way, I should just point out in passing that all these kings are attested in Babylonian sources as kings *in Babylon*, thus reconfirming that their reigns post-dated the Persian conquest of Babylon.]
Even more data:

(i) There are documents from Persian kings, describing their own relationships to their predecessors. Thus in the so-called Cyrus Cylinder, Cyrus describes his capture of Babylon from Nabonidus (we also have an independent description of the same events in the Nabonidus Chronicle). The Behistun Inscription of Darius I recounts how Darius seized the throne from Bardiya, who illegitimately (or so Darius claims!) took it from Cambyses, who inherited it from his father Cyrus. A letter of Darius II (first published in “Journal of
the American Oriental Society” 72 (1952)) describes Darius’ inheritance of the throne from his father Artaxerxes I, who inherited it from his father Xerxes, who inherited it from his father Darius I.

(ii) Especially revealing are archives which provide us with sequences of documents. Two of the most famous are the Persepolis Tablets and the Murashu Archive. The former gives us several thousand palace administrative documents, mostly dated; most come from the
reign of Darius I, but some carry on through the reign of Xerxes and into the reign of Artaxerxes I. The latter is the complete – and dated – records of a large Babylonian business in the reigns of Artaxerxes I and Darius II. The dates in these confirm the lengths of the reigns and (when we can sequence them) their order.

(iii) There are other sorts of documents that confirm the order and length of reign of various of the Persian kings. With the start of the reign of Darius II, one finds documents which are, unusually, double dated by the 41st year of Artaxerxes I *and* the accession year of Darius II: this is the result of a brief period of uncertainty surrounding the accession of Darius, who was one of three claimants to the throne. This confirms both the length of Artaxerxes’ reign and the identity of his successor. There are also various other examples of business and private documents from the reign of one king that refer back to previous events or documents in the reign of an earlier king. Finally, of course, there are thousands of other dated contemporary documents that, by their dates, guarantee that the king ruled at least that length of time (if a document is dated “the 19th year of Xerxes”, it shows that Xerxes ruled at least 19 years).

All of this material simply provides additional confirmation for what was already known from the king-lists and astronomical texts.  Moreover, there are simply no gaps into which “unknown” kings like those in Daniel could be slotted. The material described above, that directly provides sequences for the reigns of kings, proves this point. For much of the Persian period our evidence is so full that we can date reigns not merely year by year, but month by month, and sometimes even day by day – to the point that even with kings who were not recognised by their successors (as is the case with Bardiya, and the claimants calling themselves “Nebuchadnezzar III” and “Nebuchadnezzar IV” in the first years of the reign of Darius I), documents nevertheless survive that are dated by their brief “reigns”.

A (small) selection of the documents that are relevant for dating in the period are discussed by R.A. Parker & W.H. Dubberstein, “Babylonian Chronology 626 B.C.-A.D. 75” (Providence, 1956).

(4) Please note that these are not “Greek sources”, but Persian and Babylonian – and often contemporary ones at that. All are independent of one another; many provide astronomically checkable dates. This is, as I say, only a tiny proportion of the evidence that I can introduce, but no more should be necessary. This alone is enough to demonstrate  conclusively and overwhelmingly the correctness of our standard chronology, and the utter impossibility of the rabbinic one.

(4) All of this is sufficient to prove the absolute correctness of the standard chronology, and the absolute impossibility of the rabbinic one. But if we need an entirely independent check, one is easily forthcoming from Greece – or more specifically Athens.

Athenian chronology is extremely well attested, on grounds totally independent of Babylonian and Persian chronology. We have complete lists from the early 5th-century BCE until far into the Roman period of Athenian archons – the annual magistrates at Athens whose names provided the year’s official date. We can confirm the accuracy of this by cross-checking against our substantial (though less complete) lists of other Athenian officials, and documentary material of other sorts – annual tribute lists, for example.

From the early 5th-century BCE onwards, Athens had considerable involvement in Persia, and there are numerous references in Athenian writers to contemporary Persian events – well-known examples include Aeschylus, Thucydides, and Xenophon. Needless to say, these contemporary references are exactly what would be expected from the evidence above: they confirm comprehensively the total correctness of the standard chronology derived from our Persian and Babylonian sources.

(5) But I cannot resist a little bit of Greek material as well, not least because Lisa has been so scathing about it.

Thucydides, who was a general in the Peloponnesian War, records at 2.28 a solar eclipse at Athens in the first year of that war; the eclipse can be dated astronomically to August 3, 431. Later (8.58), he quotes a treaty between Darius II and the Spartans at the end of the 20th year of the war – i.e. (dating from the eclipse) spring 411 (Thucydides’ years run summer to spring). He quotes the date on the treaty as the 13th year of Darius II – and, sure enough, if we cross-check the data from our Babylonian sources, we find that the 13th year of Darius indeed began Nisanu 411.

The total correctness of the standard chronology (and, incidentally, of Thucydides’ chronology) is, as always, confirmed by an independent contemporary source.

Lisa Aronson wrote:
: The Jewish version was transmitted generation after generation by
: Sages living in the place where the events actually unfolded.

In other words, it is an oral tradition. Oral traditions are notoriously unstable at the best of times, and they are *especially* poor at preserving chronology – see the study by D.P. Henige, “The Chronology of Oral Tradition”. You could hardly have a weaker basis on which to  found a chronology; it cannot stand for a second against the innumerable documents that demonstrate the contrary.

Lisa wrote:
: Probably the most amusing thing about this whole issue is that the
: documentary hypothesis, which claims that the Bible was composed of
: several disparate and conflicting sources which were eventually
: redacted into the Bible we have today, has no basis in fact. No
: “source” has ever been discovered or is mentioned in the Bible.
: Whereas all of the arguments for this silly theory actually *are*
: true about the Greek accounts of the Classical period. The various
: “historians” (they were actually entertainers who chose the most
: exciting stories so that their patrons would keep patronizing them)
: *do* mention the various conflicting sources, etc.

Oh come now, this is ridiculous. Who was Thucydides’ patron? Who was Xenophon’s? Who indeed was Herodotus’? There is not the slightest evidence for the “patron” theory, and a fair bit against it (what we know of the backgrounds of these writers suggests that they were independently wealthy). The fact that you say this (I suspect retrojecting anachronistically from other genres and later periods) speaks volumes for your ignorance of ancient history.

As for your account of their methodology, all I can say is that it doesn’t work even for an instant for Thucydides, who was mostly writing contemporary history, and is notorious for not citing variants. As for the rest, what Herodotus (say) is doing when he gives an
alternative version is far removed from the “redacting disparate sources” that is alleged by the Documentary Hypothesis for the Torah: it is much closer to a modern historian citing variant sources in a footnote, and trying openly and critically to assess their value.

The point is that (a) in the one case (allegedly) one has actual pre-existing documents which are stitched into something new with only minimal alterations in the originals’ wording; while (b) in the other case you have someone collecting source data – but not necessarily in document form, and not simply taking it over as it stands, but using it actively and critically to create a work that is entirely one’s own.

All good modern historians do (b); but as for (a), while one finds a few examples of it in Greece and Rome at later periods, I cannot think off-hand of a 5th- or 4th-century Greek historian (and certainly not Herodotus, Thucydides or Xenophon) who has written this way –  they are much closer to (b).

Lisa wrote:
: A scholar in Jerusalem came up with a theory about 13-14 years ago
: which successfully fits the Greek tales into the Jewish
: chronological framework. The resulting reconstruction adds
: tremendous depth to our picture of the history of this period. I’m
: working on turning his paper into a book (in English; the paper is
: in Hebrew). God willing, it’ll be available by next year.

Heaven preserve us.

David Levene
Department of Classics
University of Durham

Alternative to Rashi Fundamentalism

Who Needs a New Torah Commentary?

Some are content to study Torah with only medieval commentary, but I felt it was time for a modern update.

By Richard Elliott Friedman

Who Needs a New Torah Commentary? – Richard E. Friedman

The first book to be printed on the printing press in Hebrew was not the Bible. It was the Torah with commentary of Rashi, the pre-eminent exegete. Why? Because the Torah is not to be read. It is to be studied. And at various times during one’s studies, one needs a teacher. Studying the Torah with Rashi’s commentaries is a joy because he shows what questions one can ask of a text. Look here! Is this a contradiction? Look here! This can have two opposite meanings. Which is right? Why does the Torah not tell us this piece of information that we need to understand the text? Why does it give us this fact that seems to be of no significance at first glance?

Rashi wrote his commentary 900 years ago. Commentaries for laypersons in recent times have changed. They have been written as introductory notes to help explain the text. They often collect comments from scholars of the past and from current biblical scholars. This is different from what commentary means classically. The purpose of Rashi’s commentary and of Ibn Ezra’s and Ramban’s was to show the readers new things in the text, problems they had not seen, or to address old problems that had not yet been solved–and then to offer the commentator’s solutions to these problems.

…. Through the archaeological revolution of the last two centuries, we have new knowledge of the biblical world, both of Israel and its neighbors. We know the languages that they spoke and wrote in addition to Hebrew and Aramaic: Akkadian, Caananite (Ugaritic, Phoenician, Moabite), Egyptian, and Summerian. We have hundreds of sites and tens of thousands of ancient texts.

We have manuscripts of the Torah and of the entire Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, from Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) that are a thousand years older than those Rashi had. We have use of the Greek version (the Septuagint), which, together with the Qumran texts, gives us more precise knowledge of the original text.

And we have the great commentators themselves. Their thinking and their conclusions are our starting point, already at our fingertips, enabling us to learn from them and then to go farther. And we have the work of great scholars of more recent times as well.

There has developed a kind of Rashi fundamentalism in recent years. Especially in Orthodox communities, it is practically heresy to question whether Rashi was ever wrong.

I think that Rashi himself might have been disappointed that it would come to that. The commentators who immediately followed him–Ibn Ezra and Ramban and Rashi’s grandson Rashbam–knew better. They expressed respect for Rashi, but they disagreed with him and offered alternatives to his comments. Rashi’s commentary served for nearly a millennium. There is still much that is useful in it, and it can be valuable for millennia to come. But we also need new commentary for the coming generations, in the light of a world of knowledge and new questions and new needs.

What Rashi and the other commentators taught us to do was to look at a text critically. They were teaching us to do philology: the art of reading well. Reading with care. Thinking about what the words mean. It is thus ironic that some people have become Rashi fundamentalists. They have learned not to read the Torah critically but to parrot the critical reading of Rashi. And they do not read Rashi critically.

Although Ibn Ezra and Ramban questioned Rashi and pointed our where they thought he was wrong, more recent generations of teachers have lost faith in their own knowledge and judgement, and so they risk failing to relate the Torah to the lives of their people.

But something has happened in the present generation. There have been great scholars, and they have acquired new sources of information: archaeology, knowledge of the ancient Near East, literary sensitivity, and knowledge of the social sciences. And so it is time for new commentaries–not to replace the classical commentators, but to join them.

My commentary is meant to do just that: to be in the tradition of the classical commentaries but to use this new learning. There are many volumes of such new commentary, but they are mainly on single books of the Bible, sometimes gathered in collections of volumes on the Torah or on the whole Bible. There have been few that follow the tradition of being a single scholar’s commentary on the Torah as a whole. Some take the form of introductory footnotes on a translation. I mean to do the opposite: precisely to show how united and connected the whole Torah is, and to try, like the commentators who are our starting point, to relate it to life….


Meforshim is a Hebrew word meaning “(Bible) commentators” (or roughly meaning “exegetes”), Perushim means “(Bible) commentaries”. These terms refer to commentaries on the Torah (five books of Moses), Tanakh, Mishnah, Talmud, the responsa literature, or even the siddur (Jewish prayerbook), and more.

Classic Torah and/or Talmud commentaries have been written by the following individuals: