Chumash and the Fall of the Ghetto

The yahrzeit of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch,  a man to whom each of us owes a personal debt of gratitude, is on the 27th of Teiveis.

From the time of the French Revolution and continuing into the nineteenth century, the ghetto walls that had kept the Jews isolated from the world around them gradually fell all over central Europe. A result of this was that, no longer required to be part of their insular and observant Jewish communities, many Jews began to assimilate into the world environment now open to them and to throw away their Judaism.

In Eastern Europe, although the Jews were still kept isolated from full advancement into secular society, different forces, most notably the haskalah, accomplished similar purposes of distancing many Jews from the observance of the Torah. Among the challenges posed by some of the more intellectual who had abandoned Judaism, was their misunderstanding that the Torah as presented by Chazal bore differences from that of the written Torah.

At this time, several new and highly original commentaries on Chumash appear. Among these are Hakesav Vehakabalah, by Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, the commentaries[i] of the Malbim to Tanach, the commentary of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, and the Ha’ameik Davar, the commentary of Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, known by his acronym as the Netziv. All four of these commentaries show the impact of the tumultuous times in which they were written, although there are major differences between their treatments of Chumash.

Hakesav Vehakabalah

Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, born in 1785, a disciple of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, became the rav of the city of Koenigsberg, then in Prussia, in 1831 and remained in that position until his passing 34 years later. Koenigsberg was within Germany but far to the east, and therefore Rav Mecklenburg saw both the problems of assimilation and reform that were happening in Germany and those of the haskalah and other non-religious movements of Eastern Europe. Hakesav Vehakabalah was intended as a response to attacks on Chazal’s understanding of Torah. In his introduction, he discusses the issues concerning the writing down of Torah shebe’al peh, quoting both the midrashim and the explanations of the commentaries on this question.

The explanations of Hakesav Vehakabalah are based on careful analysis of the root meanings and grammar of the words of the Chumash, using them to provide a clear interpretation of the pesukim, at times providing a Yiddish translation for a term. Although frequently he is highly original in his approach, he also often mentions the different approaches of the earlier commentaries and chooses the one that he demonstrates is the most accurate.

The first edition of Hakesav Vehakabalah was published in 1839. In his lifetime, three more editions were published, each including additional commentary or translation. He continued to add more to the work, and a further edition, including the author’s additional notations, was published posthumously in 1880.

The Malbim

Rav Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel, who became known by his acronym, Malbim, served as the rav of many different communities in Eastern Europe. A brilliant talmid chacham, a warrior against the haskalah, and a prolific author, he is remembered to posterity primarily because of his commentaries on Tanach and the essays that accompany those commentaries.[ii] His commentary on Yeshayah, which is the first volume that he produced, includes an introduction in which he elucidates the principles that form the basis for his commentary on most of Tanach. These include that there are never two terms in Tanach Hebrew that mean the exact same thing, and that there are no repeated phrases or clauses. Each word in Tanach was chosen meticulously to provide a very specific nuance of meaning and that one must delve into the depth of this meaning. His works on Vayikra and Devorim are original commentaries to the midrash halacha on these seforim,in which he demonstrates how Chazal proved the correct halachic interpretation of each verse.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, born in 1808 in Hamburg, Germany, held rabbinic positions in Oldenberg and Emden, Germany, prior to becoming the Chief Rabbi of Moravia. Thereafter, he returned to Germany and established a Torah-committed community in Frankfurt. Towards the end of his life, after he had built a strong Torah community, he produced his commentaries to the Chumash, Tehillim and the Siddur. As he writes in his introduction, his commentary on Chumash was based on lectures that he had given on the subject, and he used the notes of attendees to those shiurim as the basis for his written commentary.

The Netziv

Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin was born in the village of Mir, then in czarist Russia, in 1817. At the age of 16 he married the daughter of Rav Yitzchak of Volozhin, the son and successor of the founder and Rosh Yeshivah of the famed yeshivah in that city, Rav Chayim of Volozhin, the esteemed disciple of the Vilna Gaon. From that time until his very last months, the Netziv was associated with the yeshivah of Volozhin, where he eventually became Rosh Yeshivah, a position he held for almost forty years until the yeshivah was closed in 1892, because of the insistence of the czarist government that it secularize its curriculum. The Netziv authored many works, including a commentary on the She’iltos of Rav Achai Gaon, commentaries to all the halachic midrashim, a commentary on Shir Hashirim, responsa, and his commentary to the Chumash, called Ha’ameik Davar.

Of the four authors we are discussing, the Netziv is unique in that his primary role was that of a rosh yeshivah, whereas the other three were communal rabbonim. All four of these gedolim were renowned poskim. But the Netziv was unusual as a rosh yeshivah in that he not only taught a daily Gemara shiur in which he went through the entire Shas (not only the so-called “yeshivish mesechtos”), but he also taught a daily class in the week’s parshah. His discussion and his commentary were based on his personal analysis of the pesukim or from ideas that he heard orally from talmidei chachamim such as his father-in-law, Rav Yitzchak of Volozhin.

The differences among these commentaries

Notwithstanding the similarities of purpose among these commentaries, each reflects its author’s unique contributions to Torah; thus, there are major differences among them. For example, the Malbim’s commentaries to the book of Vayikra and to most of Devorim are not devoted to explaining the pesukim, but to demonstrating how the halachic droshah of the Torah shebe’al peh is based on a particular way of understanding the Torah shebiksav. He developed an extensive system that provides the underpinning of all of the halachic derivations. In his introduction to Vayikra, he writes that he had initially intended to write his commentary explaining this derivative approach to every droshah of Chazal. However, he discovered very early in the writing of his commentary that the length of such a work would become unrealistic. Instead, he wrote a separate essay that explains the principles with which Chazal operated, and in his commentary he referred to the appropriate part of this essay when necessary.

Rav Hirsch also maintained that proper study of Torah shebiksav will leave you with the conclusions of Torah shebe’al peh. He noted that the Torah shebe’al peh was actually taught to the Jews first.[iii] 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 was not received by the Jews until the very end of Moshe’s life, immediately prior to the Jews entering Eretz Yisroel, or forty years after they had received the Torah shebe’al peh. This 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 the Bnei Yisroel.

Comparing Torah shebiksav to Torah shebe’al peh

Both Hakesav Vehakabalah and Malbim mention that a major purpose of their commentaries is to demonstrate that Torah shebiksav and Torah shebe’al peh are one. In the introduction to the first volume of commentary he wrote on Chumash, Vayikra, the Malbim mentions specifically the tragedy of the reform convention that took place in 1844 in Braunschweig (called Brunswick in English), a city in Germany about 40 miles southeast of Hanover. The Malbim writes that when he heard of what had happened at the reform convention, he decided that klal Yisroel required a new commentary on Tanach written according to the mesorah. He notes that among the points he will be demonstrating is that Torah shebiksav and Torah shebe’al peh are one.

Although Rav Hirsch’s very brief introduction to his commentary does not emphasize this relationship between Torah shebiksav and Torah shebe’al peh, this foundation shows up literally hundreds of times in his commentary.[iv]

Uniqueness of Ha’ameik Davar

Of the four authors we are discussing, the Netziv’s commentary is actually quite original in a surprising way, which requires that we explain a bit of history concerning traditional Torah commentaries. Among the early classic commentaries on Chumash, the Ramban, Rashi and many others assume that any explanation of the written Torah must fit the conclusions of our Chazal and the Oral Torah. This approach accords well with the approaches of Hakesav Vehakabalah, Rav Hirsch and the Malbim.

However, among the rishonim this approach was not universally held. The Ibn Ezra, for example, often explains pesukim unlike the halachic conclusion. He certainly felt that the concept ein mikra yotzei midei peshuto,[v] no verse is interpreted without its most literal explanation,means that the Torah can be understood on many levels, and that the most basic understanding, pshat, does not necessarily require that it be consistent with the other levels. Many later authorities and commentaries criticize the Ibn Ezra for his approach.[vi] Yet, the Netziv also utilizes the same method, at times explaining a pasuk in a way that does not appear consistent with the halachic conclusions that we find in Chazal.[vii] Such an approach was anathema to Hakesav Vehakabalah, Rav Hirsch and the Malbim.

Uniqueness of Rav Hirsch’s commentary

The most obvious difference between Rav Hirsch’s commentary and those of the others is, of course, the language. Whereas the other commentaries are written in traditional rabbinic Hebrew, Rav Hirsch published his commentary on Chumash, and, indeed, all of his other works, in German. Using the vernacular to present the Torah was not an original approach of Rav Hirsch. Rav Sa’adiya Geon’s commentaries to Chumash, as well as all his other writings, were written in Arabic, as were the Chovos Halevovos, the Kuzari, and many other writings of the early Sefardic rishonim. Similarly, the Rambam wrote all of his works, with the exception of the Mishneh Torah, in Arabic. However, using the vernacular as a vehicle for presenting Torah had fallen by the wayside in the hundreds of years since the era of the rishonim With very few exceptions, Torah works were all published in Hebrew. As a young rabbi in Oldenberg, Rav Hirsch recognized the need to present the Torah in German. He certainly understood that he had a personal mission of providing Torah education to his generation, and to demonstrate that a proper understanding of Torah demonstrates its primacy over all of man’s endeavors.

In Rav Hirsch’s commentary there are instances when he wrote a comment in Hebrew. Invariably, these are the comments of a Torah scholar on a Talmudic discussion point that was not appropriate to the general audience for whom his work was intended. Yet, he was concerned that posterity should not lose the important halachic point he had realized. To accommodate this, he chose to write these points in scholarly, rabbinic Hebrew.

Aside from his use of German, there are many other ways in which Rav Hirsch’s approach is different from the other commentaries that we are discussing. Rav Hirsch’s commentary is not simply an interpretation of Chumash. He uses his commentary to demonstrate how the Torah should be used as the primary educational tool for man to grow as a human being. There is virtually not a comment of his on the Torah that is not explained as a moral lesson, what we call in our day a musar haskeil. It appears that Rav Hirsch deliberately restricted his commentary to topics that provide us with a musar haskeil. There are many occasions where he did not comment upon questions about pshat in a verse where it would appear appropriate for him to have done so. Apparently, he refrained from providing commentary where the conclusion would not provide any lesson one can utilize for personal growth.

Thus, Rav Hirsch viewed his commentary as a means of showing how to use Chumash as a lesson guide in what we usually call musar and hashkafah. In this, his commentary is very different from the other three works we are discussing, all of which are devoted to providing a commentary on Chumash and not focused specifically on being works of ethical and moral development.

From a mussar perspective, Rav Hirsch’s Torah commentary can provide a complete life-instruction manual on its own. We understand well why Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz told his students at Yeshiva Torah Vadaas that it would be worth their investment of time to learn to read German just for the sake of being able to read the writings of Rav Hirsch. (At the time that Rav Shraga Feivel advised his students to do this, no translation existed of Rav Hirsch’s Chumash commentary in any language, nor were most of his other writings available in Hebrew or English.)

Rav Hirsch called his Torah hashkafah by the term Torah im Derech Eretz, the details of which he developed at different places in his commentary.[viii]Although the expression is often misunderstood and misinterpreted, Rav Hirsch used this term to mean that Torah and its observance is always 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 most innovative approaches is his explanations of the ta’amei hamitzvah. Of course, we all realize that a human being could never claim to understand why Hashem commanded that we perform a certain activity or prohibit a different one. Nevertheless, while performing the mitzvah, there are lessons that we can derive that may help us appreciate to a greater extent our role in fulfilling Hashem’s mission for us on earth. The Sefer Hachinuch explains that the term ta’amei hamitzvah should be translated not as reason for a mitzvah, but as taste of a mitzvah. While observing or studying the laws of the mitzvos, an educational reason that we can utilize should assist the experience of the mitzvah.

The concept of deriving educational reasons for mitzvos certainly did not originate with by Rav Hirsch. In one place in his commentary,[ix] Rav Hirsch quotes dozens of sources where Chazal discuss what lesson one can derive from the observance of the mitzvos, and we have several rishonim, most notably the Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim and the Sefer Hachinuch, who devote much time to this study. However, Rav Hirsch added several dimensions to the concept of ta’amei hamitzvah. One dimension is that Rav Hirsch’s explanation of a mitzvah must always fit every detail of the halachos, the laws of the mitzvah. In this detail, his approaches vary from those suggested by the Rambam and the Sefer Hachinuch, whose reasons often do not fit all the details of the mitzvah.

Based on this approach, Rav Hirsch first develops and explains all the details of a mitzvah according to the halachic conclusion, and then weaves an explanation for the mitzvah that fits all those halachic details. At times, he must first take controversial positions regarding details of the laws of the mitzvah, something he is not afraid to do.

Frequently, Rav Hirsch presents approaches to ta’amei hamitzvos that none of the major mitzvah commentators suggest. For example, Rav Hirsch presents brilliant approaches to explain mitzvos such as arayos, keifel, arachin, and tumah and taharah, and why we disqualify blemished animals and blemished kohanim from the service of korbanos. In the case of tumah, he notes that the foundation of most religions is the fear of death, and this is when the priest assumes his greatest role. Quite the contrary, the kohen, the Torah’s priest, is banned from involvement with the dead. This is to demonstrate that the Torah’s goal is that we grow and develop throughout life – when we are in the heights of our best health. To emphasize this, we need to distance the kohen, whose role is to educate how to live as a Jew, from death.

Rav Hirsch uses the same concept to explain a different, seemingly baffling area of mitzvos. Why is a kohen who has a physical blemish or injury forbidden to serve in the Mishkan or the Beis Hamikdash? Similarly, why is an animal with a similar impairment prohibited as a korban? This emphasis on physical beauty or selectiveness seems to run counter to the Torah’s idea of equality. Everyone is equally responsible to develop a relationship with Hashem through His Torah.

Rav Hirsch explains that religions in general become the home of those who are challenged by society and cannot find their place. The Torah needs to emphasize that everyone’s goal is to grow and develop in his relationship with Hashem. The only way to convey this message fully is to demonstrate that the physically impaired cannot perform service in the holiest of places.

Rav Hirsch develops an extensive analysis of the reasons for korbanos in general, and the different korbanos in particular. Based on the nature of its species, its age and gender, each variety of animal is used to explain the message and concept of each type of korban.

Rav Hirsch explains beautifully why someone who is caught stealing is required to pay back double, keifel, whereas a robber is not. One who steals when no one is looking undermines a basic understanding that a society needs in order to function – that I can rely on a degree of trust among my neighbors. Thus, his sin undermined not only the trust of the individual whose property was stolen but also that of society as a whole, thus requiring a double act of compensation.

Ta’amei hamikra

Rav Hirsch emphasized that his commentary is based on a careful understanding of the Chumash text. Read the verse very carefully and see what it teaches. Include in the study the ta’amei hamikra, what is colloquially called the trop, according to which we read the text and which includes rules how to break a pasuk into smaller units to understand it correctly. To Rav Hirsch, any interpretation of the verse must include a proper understanding of the ta’amei hamikra.

Grammar — Dikduk and shoresh

There are several other ways in which Rav Hirsch’s commentary is different from other approaches to study Chumash. People often note his original use of dikduk, particularly his development of understanding Torah ideas based on the principle of shorashim that are phonetic cognates. This idea, used by Chazal and by rishonim,[x] is that different consonants that are articulated by using the same part of the mouth are related to one another.[xi] Thus, there is a relationship among the guttural consonants (ע ה א ח) that can be used to explain the meaning of related roots that use these or the labials (ב ו מ פ).[xii] Based on similar roots, Rav Hirsch develops a philosophic underpinning of the comparative roots, and then creates an associative meaning for each root. Often included within this system is a relationship pattern between similar consonants. For example, the tzadi often reflects a more intense version of other similar sounds, such as the sin. Thus, there is a conceptual relationship between יצר, which means to limit something for a specific purpose, and יסר, which educates, shapes and disciplines the spirit. In literally hundreds of applications of these ideas, Rav Hirsch demonstrates an entire world of educational themes, each of which teaches a Torah perspective on the world.

The shoresh of a word can often explain to us not only why a specific term is used, but may sometimes provide educational and religious lessons. For example, when mentioning that Avraham Avinu moved his followers from Shechem to the mountain, the Torah uses an unusual word ויעתק vayateik, which Rav Hirsch translates as He gave orders to move on.[xiii] Rav Hirsch there notes that this root is used in various places in Tanach for apparently different ideas, but whose common thread is that someone or something is moved unexpectedly or forcibly to a setting where it did not belong originally. Rav Hirsch thereby explains that Avraham realized that his followers needed to be isolated from the society around them for him to succeed in educating them, but he needed to overcome their resistance in doing so. Thus, from the proper study of the root of the word used, we gain an insight into Avraham’s pedagogic approach.

Rav Hirsch later notes that Avraham Avinu indeed took his followers with him to rescue Lot. This is seemingly an abrogation of his previous decision to have his followers live apart from society. The answer is that this was an emergency, and one cannot maintain separation under those circumstances. Again, we are provided with an education on how to run one’s life according to Torah standards.

Germane to this discussion, I would like to take issue with a comment made by the late Dayan Dr. Isaac Grunfeld in his beautiful essay written as an introduction to the first English translation of Rav Hirsch’s commentary to Chumash, by Dr. Isaac Levy. Dayan Grunfeld’s writes that the Hirsch Commentary is devoted to presenting “the unity of the Written and Oral Law as one of the fundamentals of authentic Judaism.” In this introduction, Dayan Grunfeld makes the following statement, “When Samson Raphael Hirsch began his commentary in 1867, he had the works of Mecklenburg and Hatorah Vehamitzvah of Malbim in front of him.” I presume that Dayan Grunfeld has some mesorah that this is true. However, from my work on Rav Hirsch’s commentary, and my comparison to the other two works, I personally am not convinced that this statement is accurate. My reasons are as follows:

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 his rabbe’im, Chacham Bernays and Rav Yaakov Ettlinger (the Aruch Laneir), the highly controversial Naftali Wessely, and such late works as Harechasim Levik’ah. Yet, there is not a single reference anywhere in his commentary on Chumash to either Hakesav Vehakabalah or Hatorah Vehamitzvah.

The answer is simple: Rav Hirsch’s thrust in his commentary was different from theirs. His goal was not to demonstrate that Chazal’s understanding of Torah was the most accurate. His goal was to show that the Torah can be used as a basis for all of man’s growth in Torah, his proper personality development, and his hashkafah or world outlook.

There are places that Rav Hirsch leaves us with no explanation, whereas Hakesav Vehakabalah presents approaches that lend themselves perfectly to Rav Hirsch’s style of commentary. I will give one example: Rav Hirsch has almost no commentary to the lengthy list of travels that the Benei Yisroel made through the desert. Yet, Hakesav Vehakabalah has a beautiful explanation of the names and travels, which lends itself perfectly to Rav Hirsch’s use of Chumash to teach musar haskeil. Rav Hirsch himself uses other similar passages to teach musar haskeil, most noticeably the list of names of the decendants of Sheis. If he was in the habit of reading Hakesav Vehakabalah as part of his weekly reading, as Dayan Grunfeld implies, I cannot fathom why he did not use the opportunity to include these lessons in his Torah commentary and attribute them to Hakesav Vehakabalah, as he so often attributes explanations to earlier commentators.


Most of the innovations that have kept Torah alive in the last century are directly attributable to Rav Hirsch. Although Sarah Shenirer is the founder and basis of the Beis Yaakov movement, the originator of organized chinuch for women was Rav Hirsch, and his influence on everything related to the beginnings of the Beis Yaakov movement is axiomatic.

In most countries of the world, the majority of our Torah elementary schools and high schools include secular studies in their curriculum. This approach to Torah education is completely based on the framework of Rav Hirsch’s education system.

The extensive use of the vernacular for teaching Torah is another gift to us from Rav Hirsch. Certainly, the success of the numerous publishing houses that print and distribute Torah literature written in English, French, Spanish, Russian and other languages is completely based on Rav Hirsch’s producing his material in German.

The existence in the modern marketplace of highly trained professionals, as uncompromising in their professional standards as they are in their Torah observance, is directly attributable to the teachings of Rav Hirsch.

Rav Hirsch was the quintessential borei’ach min hakavod. Clearly, he saw his mission in life as educating the Jewish world with the beauty of Torah and its mitzvos. Leaving Moravia for what appeared to be a moribund Frankfurt may have been a disastrous move professionally, but for Klal Yisroel it has been the savior, not merely of the central European Torah world, but of virtually the entire contemporary Torah world. Yehi zichro boruch.

[i] I refer to the commentaries of the Malbim because, although he wrote on the entire Tanach, a rare accomplishment, his treatment of the different parts of Tanach is so varied as to make it difficult to refer to it as one commentary.

[ii] On Chumash, the Malbim follows two different styles. As I mention in the article, his work to Vayikra and parts of Devorim is an explanation of the midrashei halachah, the Sifra and the Sifrei, in which he delves into Chazal’s method of understanding Torah Shebiskav. 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.

[iii] Commentary to Bereishis 1:19

[iv] 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.

[v] See Yevamos 28a

[vi] See, for example, the second introduction of Yam shel Shelomoh of the Maharshal to Tractate Chullin.

[vii] For examples of this, see his explanation of the law of shifchah charufah, Vayikra 19:20 and of the pasuk velo setamei es admasecha, Devorim 21:23. See there how the other three commentaries we discuss deal with this topic.

[viii] See, for example, his commentary to Vayikra 18:4.

[ix] Devorim 24:18

[x] For example, see Rashi, Vayikra 19:16, where he explains that the word רכיל stems from the word רגל.

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

[xii] 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.”

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