Weekly Freebies: Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur

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Moses Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur on the Pentateuch was both popular and controversial. I’ve located three volumes on Google books. Please add in the comments links for other volumes if you can find them.Thanks to Shimon S. for finding the missing volumes.

Genesis: link
Exodus: link
Leviticus: link
Numbers: link
Deuteronomy: link

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

27 comments

  1. Later editions used Latin charachters which makes it much easier to read the German.

  2. lawrence kaplan

    I remember many years ago teaching selections from the Biur as part of a course on modern Parshanut. I had a number of modern Orthodox students in the class. Their universal reaction was: “What was the controversy about?”

  3. Was it the earlier or later editions that used Hebrew letters for the translation? And was the Rashi and Onkelos original?

  4. >Was it the earlier or later editions that used Hebrew letters for the translation?

    The earlier ones – and it makes it VERY hard to read the German. There are just so many vowels you can generate with Hebrew letters.

  5. If I am not mistaken, the later editions used Gothic font – which is only a moderate improvement over the Hebrew letters. 🙂

  6. lawrence kaplan

    Rashi and Onkelos were not original.

  7. B”H
    Thank you for these interesting links.
    Did you see that the German translation on Lev 11:5 wrote shafan = Kaninchen (rabbit)?

  8. in response to prof kaplan – what is the controversy about – see the biur to deut. 2:12. in my edition in gothic letters, the verses 10, 11, 12 are really in parenthesis, for they weren’t by God but by the author of the Torah!
    i always wondered why the nodah beyehuda put the sefer in cherem for a translation of kedoshim that was slanted one way according to the ibn ezra, and ignored this more heretical commentary and translation. because of this, it could be there are no parenthesis in the translation – one would have to check earlier editions.
    shlomo

  9. further to previous post: for those who have trouble finding it, it is on p. 29 of 761:
    can’t seem to copy it here.
    sorry
    shlomo

  10. the verses 10, 11, 12 are really in parenthesis, for they weren’t by God but by the author of the Torah!

    I would have said “They aren’t by Moshe, but by the author of the Torah” 🙂

  11. first for numbers:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=jEI-AAAAYAAJ&pg=PT86&dq=%D7%AA%D7%A8%D7%92%D7%95%D7%9D+%D7%90%D7%A9%D7%9B%D7%A0%D7%96%D7%99+%D7%95%D7%91%D7%90%D7%95%D7%A8&hl=iw&ei=kvNHTsChEILPhAf4jcmkBg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9&ved=0CFMQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q&f=true

    second what “i would have said” – true but the biur says “there are not the words of haShem” vehaneereh meiomek pashatut haketubim she-ein elu divreu haShem, aval yesaper koteiv haTorah….”
    sorry that what’s it says. and since even sefer devarim was dictated, it’s the words of haShem, just a different style in this sefer.

  12. lawrence.kaplan

    This passage form the Biur was cited by the Hatam Sofer to his disciple the Maharam Schick to explain to him why he he found the Biur objectionable. The Maharam Schick was unconvinced, and rightly so. “She-ein eile divrei Ha-Shem” means that verses Deut. 20-23 are not part of the FIRST PERSON speech by God, which consists of Deut. 2:18-19 and 24-25, but an insertion of the narrator. It is a purely literary observation, and has NOTHNG to do with who is the author of the Torah and its divine origin. Check, and you will see that I am right. If it is frum enough for the Maharan Schick….

  13. lawrence kaplan

    I meant Deut. 2:20-23.

  14. LK: On further review I find it ambiguous.

    The key point is that 2:18-19 are a nested quote – God’s command within Moshe’s speech within the Torah’s overall narrative. From the wording of 2:20-23 you can tell that they are outside Moshe’s speech, and by definition, outside God’s command as well. For a frum writer, that means that both 2:19 and 2:20 are by God, just in different contexts. Mendelsohn’s use of “Hashem” and “kotev hatorah” is compatible with this understanding, but also with the understanding that “kotev hatorah” is someone other than God. In fact, use of differing language, with no clarification that the same author is meant, might hint to the latter understanding.

    Would Mendelsohn have been willing to consider the latter understanding? I would think yes, since it is not much further than what Ibn Ezra is alleged to have believed.

  15. >Would Mendelsohn have been willing to consider the latter understanding? I would think yes, since it is not much further than what Ibn Ezra is alleged to have believed.

    Mendelssohn was very maximalist on the question of Mosaic authorship, rejecting even the opinion in the Gemara that Yehoshua wrote the last 8 pesukim (much less Ibn Ezra’s view that it was the last 12 pesukim).

    In any case, the whole thing is a straw man. No one ever accused Mendelssoh, or his Chumash, of denying that Moshe (i.e., through Hashem) wrote a single word in the Torah. The issue of post-Mosaic additions has nothing to do with him, and as I said, he was even frummer than the Gemara on that question. The report concerning the Chasam Sofer is interesting, but for more than 50 years of the Chumash’s existence no one ever detected such a thing in it. Given enough time and enough bad opinion you can find ever more negative things in just about anything you want to discredit.

  16. >Mendelsohn’s use of “Hashem” and “kotev hatorah” is compatible with this understanding, but also with the understanding that “kotev hatorah” is someone other than God.

    First of all, it was not Mendelssohn’s use. Mendelssohn only wrote the commentary on shmot, I believe that the commentary on Devarim was written by Herz Homberg.

    Second, you are completely misreading the theological implications of that part of the commentary. It has nothing to do with the Divinity or authorship of those pesukim, but rather their literary style. The Hatam Sofer was scratching the bottom of the heresy hunting barrel trying to find a smoking gun where there was none – he couldn’t even convince his own loyal student and frankly, after the commentary had been around for years and was studies by many great rabbis, he was the first to really suggest this particular passage was heretical. Coincidence? I think not!

  17. i agree with prof. kaplan’s last take on the biur. it is very ambiguous. but one should compare it to the commentary of rav dovid zvi hoffman who writes something similare but makes sure to say that the three verses were added by moshe al pi hashem at the end of his life when he wrote down the sefer torah al pi hashem. rav hoffman then deals with the issue of what conquest did israel do – eretz refaim or thru moshe’s prophecy of future events.
    in contrast, the biur writes like a bible critic – there’s the main text and that’s by God Himself and then there’s the 3 verses but the author of the Torah, implying that’s not haShem. he then cites proof to that from the conquest of Israel which seems to be something written by the future author and referencing it to the past, for it already happened when that author wrote it.
    considering biblical criticism that was around those days, I would think the biur should have been more careful, and been more explicit a la rav Hoffman.
    someone else who understood it the way the chasam sofer did is the modern day da’at mikrah on that pasuk as he refers the reader to rav hoffman and the biur.

  18. Actually, Mendelssohn did write that section of Devarim. See R’ Leiman’s shiur on the topic. There’s a letter from Nedelssohn when he commissions Homberg where he says he already did through Ekev.

    Anyway, it’s all nothing. The problem arises because they didn’t have the distinction between square and round brackets- we use the former for insertions and the latter for things that were original but can be removed. (The Vilna Shas sort of uses this, although it’s actually referring to original manuscripts and thus adds a step.) To put in our terms, Mendelssohn meant round (original, but can be skipped) and his critics read it as square (inserted later.) That’s all.

  19. Dr. Isaac:

    If you look at the commentary on the COMMENTARY (written on Leviticus by Wessely) you will note that he does not learn mafris parsa at all like rashi, but rather like rashbam. Hence, mafris parsa means “hooved”, not split hooves. See kesav vkabalah who quotes him ad loc.

  20. >considering biblical criticism that was around those days, I would think the biur should have been more careful, and been more explicit a la rav Hoffman.

    I disagree. This was 1780-83. What was the biblical criticism denying Mosaic authorship that was around in those days? It barely existed. 100 years earlier there was Spinoza, and Spinoza was still a poisonous word in Germany. There was also Astruc and some others, but there was very little to be clear about, certainly not in a Jewish commentary and context. If anything the Be’ur hid issues in modern biblical scholarship from readers, as Edward Breuer amply documents in his book on it.

    I would just point out that in retrospect it was a bad choice to have used Herz Homberg, since he turned out to be a real louse, and if he hadn’t been involved it would have been harder and harder to impute such a criticism.

    Another criticism which you see in a few places is that the Be’ur cherry picks sources among the classic meforshim to deny the concept of Moshiach (for example, see עלי חלדי by R. Yitzchak Nissenbaum, pg. 96). In other words, if in Pasuk X Rashi interprets it as applying to yemos ha-moshiach but Rashbam interprets it differently, then the Be’ur will choose the non-messianic interpretation of the Rashbam. But in Pasuk Y, where it is Rashbam who gives a messianic explanation, and Rashi who did not, then the Be’ur will choose Rashi in this case, thus subtly and deviously denying the concept of Moshiach.

    Ay, the classic example in this regard is that the Be’ur does not interpret ‘ad ki yavo shilo’ as referring to Moshiach? – but this is a major Christian messiah text, so there is good reason not to interpret such a text as relating to moshiach. Furthermore, the commentary to Bereishis was written by Salomon Dubno, who is supposed to frum and acceptable.

    In fact Mendelssohn certainly believed in Moshiach, indeed he (semi) openly refers to it in Jerusalem, the book he wrote in German for the entire European reading public. He writes:

    “And yet from time immemorial men have acted in opposition to these self-evident principles (i.e., to do “all of men’s duties [which] are obligations toward God. Some of them concern ourselves, others our fellow men.”). Happy will they be if in the year 2240 they cease to act against them.” (Translation by Allan Arkush.)

    Alexander Altmann points out that what is the year 2240? It is the Hebrew year 6000. Yes, Mendelssohn believed in Moshiach. (Let me guess, next someone will say, Yes, but he clearly didn’t expect it every day….”)

    The point is that if you are looking to find a p’sul you will find it; you can do this with anything.

  21. lawrence kaplan

    I do not view the comment as ambiguous. Nachum, Chardal, and I are making the same point in different ways. Also, to repeat, the Maharam Schick who related the Hatam Sofer’s objection in a teshuvah he wrote, explicitly states that he was not convinced by the objection. No one would view him a soft on heresy.

    S: Altmann in his biography already suggested that in retrospect Homberg was a bad choice.

  22. Some are arguing about earlier editions vs later editions.

    The whole first edition is online at JNUL:

    http://aleph.nli.org.il/nnl/dig/books/bk001838482.html

    Interestingly, it doesn’t include rashi/onkelos on the page in this 1783 edition. Nor does it include davening in the back. Of course, the first edition of the Tiferes Yisroel on the Mishnah doesn’t include Bartenura either – this is MY commentary, I don’t need to pay to print other people’s commentaries alongside, until I know if it’s going to be a success or not.

  23. Thanks for the links!!

  24. “In fact Mendelssohn certainly believed in Moshiach, indeed he (semi) openly refers to it in Jerusalem, the book he wrote in German for the entire European reading public.”

    Better than that:
    “…the Talmud forbids us from even to think of a return [to Palestine] by force.. Without the miracles and signs mentioned in Scripture, we must not take the smallest step in the direction of forcing a return and a restoration of our nation. The Song of Songs expresses this prohibition in a somewhat mystical and yet captivating verse…”
    Mendelssohn, Remarks Concerning Michaelis’ Response to Dohm, 1783. (Cited by Mendes-Flohr & Reinharz in The Jew in the Modern World)

    The above comment makes Mendelssohn more in line with the Satmar Rebbe than the Chasam Sofer who did advocate “small steps” in the “restoration of our nation.”

  25. Yeah, but that doesn’t “prove” he believed in the messiah. It’s something you could say if you didn’t want the restoration too. It’s just one of life’s ironies that the Satmar position on Zionism and the 19th century Jewish German nationalist was the same. You don’t have to believe in the messiah to articulate that point of view. I’m not saying MM didn’t, only such a seemingly conservative viewpoint could be held while totally disbelieving that there ever will be a restoration.

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