The Commentators’ Bible: Exodus
by Michael Carasik, 2005, Jewish Publication Society.
This book is so beautifully bound and laid out, not to mention well-edited and conceived, that I would count it a tragedy if the other four volumes never make it to print. A quick search on the internet turned up no information about the possibility of future volumes.
This is an over-sized book. The publisher’s page says 9 x 12, but I would say more like 9 1/4 X 12 1/4. Yet the volume is not thick at 368 pages or overly heavy. Still, it will fit in a soft briefcase or backpack. The reason for the large page size is evident as soon as you open it.
What the Commentators’ Bible does is make the traditional Jewish exegetes available to English readers in a convenient format. The only Hebrew is the Biblical text itself positioned in the upper center of the page. All the rest is English, including the commentary of Rashi, Arbarbanel, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and Nahmanides (Ramban). Several other commentators are featured here and there in the notes at bottom, such as Sforno, Gersonides, Kimhi (a personal favorite of mine), and Bekhor Shor.
Each page in the Commentators’ Bible is laid out in a style familiar to readers of the Talmud. The text, in three forms, takes central stage at the top. The Biblical text is included in the Hebrew (Masoretic text, Leningrad Codex), the Old JPS (Jewish Publication Society) English translation from 1917 and the New JPS from 1999.
Beneath the text are penetrating questions for study and discussion by Arbarbanel. For example, on Exodus 12:40, Arbarbanel asks:
Doesn’t the 430-year length of the Israelite stay mentioned in v. 40 contradict what God told Abraham in Gen. 15:13, that the Israelites would be “enslaved and oppressed four hundred years”–not to mention the actual figure (see Rashi’s comment) of 210 years?
To the left are Rashi’s comments. And here is a great thing: Carasik has translated Rashi in a free style that makes Rashi much easier to understand. Anyone who has read Rashi knows he is famous for using very few words and his comments are often cryptic to all but the best experts in rabbinic literature. Carasik translates him loosely and in a very comprehensible fashion. On the question raised by Arbarbanel, Rashi says:
Altogether, from Isaac’s birth until now was 400 years. God had said to Abraham, “your offspring shall be strangers … four hundred years” (Gen. 15:13), a period that began as soon as Abraham had offspring. But it was 30 years after the decree before Isaac was born and the 400 years began. The 430 years cannot possibly refer to Egypt alone. [Rashi goes on to prove this with genealogies]
To the right are the comments of Rashbam, Samuel ben Meir, the grandson of Rashi. He tended to take the plain meaning even when it contradicted earlier rabbinic sources. On Exodus 12:40, however, he is in perfect agreement with his grandfather about the meaning of the 430 years.
Beneath Rashi is Nachmanides, a commentator I often find illuminating. He is also known as Ramban and lived in Israel in the 13th century. He works off of Rashi and Ibn Ezra’s comments and often adds a mystical interpretation. He finds fault with Rashi’s interpretation of the 430 years. He proves, using Gen. 12:4, that Abraham was older than 70 at the time of Gen. 15 and the covenant between the pieces. He says:
My own opinion is that God was speaking in round numbers; four centuries was such a long time that God did not bother to add the 30 years. After all, he went on to say, “they shall return here in the fourth generation” (Gen. 15:16), to let Abraham know they would not return precisely at the end of 400 years, but only in the fourth generation, when the “iniquity of the Amorites” (ibid.) was complete. This was an allusion to the additional 30 years.
Beneath Rashbam is Ibn Ezra, a twelfth century Spanish scholar (though he died in England). He is a stickler for grammar and reason, though Carasik notes in the introduction he is more reluctant to contradict the earlier rabbinic sages than Rashbam was. In an essay I found online, Carasik also says that Ibn Ezra liked to showboat a bit, showing off his knowledge of topics like astronomy and drawing attention to his great learning. Ibn Ezra likewise proves that the 430 years cannot mean the time from Jacob’s entrance into the land until the Exodus. He gives examples of overlapping Biblical chronologies that explain how this confusion can occur. In the end, he agrees with the early rabbinic tradition:
For what our sages have transmitted to us, that the exile lasted 210 years, is accurate, and their transmitting it is enough for us, because that is all the proof we need.
Finally, at the bottom of the page are additional notes. These may come from the editor himself or from other commentators.
The value of Carasik’s work for English readers is immense. He makes the traditional commentators available to us in an easy to read fashion. Reading The Commentators’ Bible is like having a Chevruta (study group, usually done in pairs or small groups) with the great exegetes of Judaism. They are in conversation with one another and we can easily enter into their conversation.