Thursday, 21 November 2019

Book Review: Shadal on Genesis

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                     Book Review: Shadal on Genesis by Daniel Klein (Kodesh Press, 2019)

            Samuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865) was the preeminent Italian Jewish Bible scholar of the 19th century. There are two main ways in which Shadal’s commentary is unique. First, he quotes from a variety of sources, Jewish and Gentile. Second, he tries very hard to figure out the root of each word.  This is very useful, because once you understand the root of a word, many other words become understandable. One example is at Gen. 24:20. Here we are told: “va-te’ar cadah.” From the context it means that Rivkah “poured out her pitcher.” But Shadal points out that fundamentally the root of that first word is Ayin-Resh-Heh, “to expose.” We all know this root from the word “ervah.” Shadal explains that one who pours from a vessel exposes its base. On my own I never would have thought to connect this “pour” word with Ayin-Resh-Heh (expose, bare)!

             “The work would be a noteworthy one if only for its range of knowledge, references to the Bible being supported from the Greek and Roman classics, the medieval talmudists jostling incongruously with the Church Fathers, and contemporary humanists figuring side by side with the Jewish writers of every land and age.”  This was a comment by a modern historian about a 16th century Italian Jewish scholar. Klein points out this statement could serve equally well as a description of Shadal’s commentary.
             We all appreciate the Torat Chayyim of Mossad Harav Kook and its improvement over the traditional Mikraot Gedolot. But Shadal’s work takes one’s scholarship to an entirely different level, with the range of sources quoted.
             The above book just now published by Kodesh Press is essentially a republication of Klein’s first edition of this work, published by Jason Aronson in 1998. Shadal wrote a translation of each verse in Italian, and a commentary in Hebrew citing extensive sources. These were written at different times. Klein’s editions include both. 
            How did Klein got interested in Shadal? It was not planned. He decided to learn Italian in his youth. Then his grandmother, who had studied Italian in college, gave him an edition of Shadal’s translation so he could practice his Italian. First he simply enjoyed the practice. But then he realized that he benefited greatly from the translation. This led him to study the Hebrew commentary as well. In 1976, Klein set a goal that he would translate Shadal’s translation and commentary into English. Since Klein was an attorney, he could only do this as a side project. After 20 years he finished Genesis and in 1998, this volume came out. In 2015, with Aronson no longer publishing Judaica books, he finished Exodus and had it published by Kodesh Press. Now Kodesh Press has republished the Genesis volume.
            How did I get interested in this work? This was also not planned. My book on Jewish chronology and ancient Persia (Jewish History in Conflict) was published by Aronson in 1997.  My chavruta at the time (and for many years) was Steve Leichman. One day in 1998, Steve’s wife Abby Klein Leichman told me that her brother had just published a book with Aronson: Shadal on Genesis. I had never heard of Shadal. But out of loyalty to Steve and Abby and to my new publisher, I bought this book.
            Buying that 1998 Genesis edition was life-changing for me! I now divide my life into two parts: pre-Shadal and post-Shadal. In my pre-Shadal life, I was like every other intelligent Orthodox person. I was interested in the standard Rishonim, and I also happened to have a side interest in chronology.  But it was from studying Shadal that I learned how to figure out roots of words and realize commonalities between words. So now I spend much of my time on etymology.  If I give a “devar Torah” now, my first thought is always to find some unusual word in the parshah.
            After I finished the Genesis volume in 1998, I was so addicted to Shadal that I had to acquire the Hebrew edition for the rest of the four books. I acquired the Hebrew edition that was most available at the time: the 1965 Schlesinger edition. But this edition is problematic: The material from non-Jewish authorities was often deleted. (Schlesinger does provide a weak rationale for doing this.  More recently, E. Munk did an English translation of this edition.)
          The original Genesis edition and the new edition have an appendix with biographical summaries of the wide range of individuals cited.  In my view, the original Genesis edition was flawless. Nevertheless the new edition has an improved introduction and some added footnotes.
         Rabbi J.H. Hertz cites “Luzzatto” very frequently. He is always citing to Shadal, and not to his 18th century relative Moshe Chayim Luzzatto. Nechama Leibowitz cites Shadal often as well. I am not aware of citations to Shadal in ArtScroll’s works. I don’t think the failure to cite him is because he was too modern. He was Orthodox in actions and beliefs (e.g., Divine origin of the Torah and its accurate transmittal). Rather, his works although known in the scholarly world, did not spread into the yeshiva world.
         The main weakness with Shadal’s commentary is that he was writing at the dawn of biblical archaeology, when Akkadian had only recently been deciphered. But Klein writes that a high portion of Shadal’s root derivations are borne out by modern lexicography. (Today if you want to double-check whether your proposed devar Torah based on Shadal is correct, you can simply go to H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew (2009) to see if a better alternative is presented there.)
          To give an example of a Shadal in Genesis, I will cite his comments on Gen. 12:8. Regarding Avraham, the Chumash records: “va-ya’atek mi-sham.” The root of this first word is Ayin-Tav-Kof. He first points out that this verb means “to uproot.” But adds that this root was transferred to denote the copying of a book from another book, as if the scribe were “uprooting” the writing and putting it into another place. We all know the modern Hebrew word for “copy.” Whoever would have imagined that it comes from here! Then he explains the origin of another textual variant word: “nusach.” Then he points out that the word “girsa,” on the other hand, referred (originally at least) to an “oral teaching,” as the root G-R-S meant “grinding” or “chewing.”
           My favorite Shadal is in parshat Chukat. He writes “Moshe sinned one sin, but the commentators have heaped many sins on him. I was always afraid to write about this because I didn’t want to add an additional sin.”  Fortunately, he writes about it and does not add a new sin!
           I plan to pick one parshah and do a separate column with excerpts from his commentary so you can see his freedom of inquiry and variety of sources.  The book is available from and
             One of Shadal’s later family members was Fiorello Laguardia, former mayor of New York City.
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish scholar. On Simchat Torah, he can often be found walking slowly in the dancing circle with an etymology book in his hand.

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