The Dayan and Da’as Mikra

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The relationship between the towering Torah giant, R. Shaul Yisraeli, and the Da’as Mikra commentary on the Bible is religiously significant and, according to a brief biography in a recently published book, somewhat complex. R. Yisraeli was, at various times in his life, rosh yeshivah of the Merkaz HaRav yeshivah, dayan of the top religious court in Israel, founder of the Eretz Hemdah kollel for Religious Zionist dayanim and member of the Chief Rabbinate’s rabbinic council. While known as a world-class halakhic expert, he was a broad individual, with interests ranging across the Torah spectrum, including philosophy and Bible. He even published a high school textbook on Jewish philosophy, still in print (Perakim Be-Machasheves Yisrael).

Da’as Mikra is the series of biblical commentary published by Mossad HaRav Kook. While strictly Orthodox, the commentary includes new discoveries in history, archeology and literary studies. Potentially explosive in the Orthodox community, this series includes an editorial board of distinguished scholars, including R. Yisraeli. The names of the editorial board members involved in each book are published at the beginning of each volume.

R. Eliezer Melamed’s Revivim: Gedolei Yisrael Ve-Anshei Mofes contains biographies of rabbinic and other notable figures often absent in the broader Orthodox community. Among them is R. Yisraeli, whom R. Melamed knew personally. Within this biography, R. Melamed discusses R. Yisraeli’s role with Da’as Mikra (p. 110). R. Yisraeli took his position on the editorial board very seriously. According to R. Melamed, R. Yisraeli reviewed the draft of each volume carefully before publication and provided the author with detailed notes. He often pointed out sources in midrash for explanations that were otherwise thought to be new. And if the author ignored R. Yisraeli’s comments, he repeated them in the next round of review out of his feeling of responsibility for the important undertaking.

Particularly interesting is R. Melamed’s statement that R. Yisraeli objected to the publication of a Da’as Mikra commentary on the Pentateuch. He felt that the Five Books of Moses should be studied with traditional commentaries, not new approaches. I checked and, indeed, his name does not appear in those books. As R. Melamed explains, R. Yisraeli withdrew from involvement in the preparation of those volumes. Therefore, his name, implying his approbation, do not appear on them.

Regular readers of this website know that I occasionally quote non-traditional commentaries on the Torah. Apparently, R. Yisraeli would not approve of this practice. It is not clear to me whether his objection applied to everyone, including scholars, or just to lay enthusiasts who are the primary audience of Da’as Mikra.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor 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, 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 has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as 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.

9 comments

  1. C’mon surely its Da’at Mikrah!

  2. I know it’s a tangential point, but I never thought of Perakim b’Machshevet Yisrael as a high school text. Most people I know (including myself) wouldn’t have understood or appreciated many of the sources quoted in it at that age. Is that really how it’s used?

  3. Shmuel – yes, Rav Yisraeli put the book together for yeshiva high schools. It was in keeping with the approach applied in Mercaz Harav that a regular seder should be devoted to what Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook called ‘limud emunah’. The idea was somewhat groundbreaking even for an adult yeshiva like Mercaz Harav; but it was a really new experiment to teach this material in HS. I just looked in my edition. The first edition came out in 5712-that would be 1952. In the forward Rav Yisraeli clearly says this work was being done for batei sefer – schools – as a new enterprise. The book was published by Midreshiat Noam, where he taught HS after teaching at Kfar Haroeh. This is very definitely a HS text by Israeli yeshiva HS standards and intents.

  4. >C’mon surely its Da’at Mikrah!

    Do you tell Israelis that it’s “Igroys Moyshe?”

  5. “Potentially explosive in the Orthodox community . . .”

    a critique of it being too conservative:
    http://jbq.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/344/344_daatmikra1.pdf

  6. “It is not clear to me whether his objection applied to everyone, including scholars, or just to lay enthusiasts who are the primary audience of Da’as Mikra.”

    “In his book Hameassef, Rabbenu Hai Gaon of blessed memory made use of the work of the Arabs . . . and he also used a stanza from a love song to clarify a saying of our rabbis of blessed memory . . . He also quotes the Koran and the Hadith. And so did R. Saadia Gaon of blessed memory before him in his Arabic commentaries, and for this reason the sages said, “Whoever says a word of wisdom, even among the nations of the world, is called a sage” . . . and in this connection the Nagid, after citing many Christian explanations, recounts . . . that R. Hai Gaon instructed R. Matzliach ben Albassek, the dayan of Sicily, to go to the head of the Christian church [the Nestorian patriarch] to ask him what he knew regarding the interpretation of a biblical verse, whose meaning was in doubt. When he saw that R. Matzliach was reluctant to go, he rebuked him and said, “Our ancestors and pious predecessors would ask the adherents of other faiths, and even shepherds, as is known, for guidance on the meaning or explanation of a word.” [63]

    (R. Jonathan Sacks, “Judaic Sources on Co-existence in a World of Difference”, quoting R. Yosef Ibn Aknin, student of Rambam, Commentary to Shir Hashirim, 495)

    =========

    “Is there room for non-traditional scholarship? A lot of the non-traditional commentary works on peirush ha-milot, and on peshuto shel mikra, which is very important. We’re not sure about the meaning of a great deal of Biblical words, and we follow the principle, “kabel es haemes mimi sheomro.” If someone has a suggestion, we would be happy to listen – and some of the suggestions of the non-traditional scholars are gevaldig! But as far as the overall picture of Tanakh is concerned, Chazal had their own tradition of interpretation. Why should we assume that someone living centuries later is going to have a better interpretation?

    But there is certainly room for this. For instance, archaeology is discovering practices that existed years ago in the days of the Tanakh, and based on these findings, we can understand problematic verses in Tanakh. It is certainly a mitzvah to understand the peshuto shel mikra, and to know what the verse is talking about.”

    (“Torah is Not Just a Collection of Dinim: An Interview with Rav Herschel Schachter”, Commentator, 11/07)

  7. The Chumash volumes, interestingly, include Rashi, which no others did. I think this in an interesting trend- for example, more and more frummer perushim also include Rashi and often Onkelos as well, and there are, for example, new Kehatis which include Bartneura (which sort of misses the point). On the other hand, later editions of Mendelssohn also included Rashi and Onkelos.

    The first volume, Ezra-Nechemiah, included a bibliography that included non-Jewish works. No subsequent volume has had a bibliography.

  8. That last line was citing the Jewish Study Bible. I see from the link from Ari Kinsberg that I may be wrong, but so may the link.

  9. NACHUM:

    Shir ha-Shirim also has Rashi (but none of the other megillot in the same volume). Yehudah Kil said (I don’t remember if in the intro to Bereshit or in his Siyum) that they included Rashi with the chumash because you don’t learn chumash without Rashi. Or something like that. (In any case, whatever it says about the guiding principles of Da’at Mikra, it’s not in of itself a bad thing. Perhaps the punctuated/vocalized Rashi opened it up for those who could not otherwise learn it?)

    I think Kehati has come with Bartenura for a while now? I found it interesting because it made me realize that *a lot* of Kehati is strait from the Bartenura.

    GIL:

    Kil acknowledged R. Yisraeli in the intro to Bereshit even though he isn’t listed as an advisor. But this may have just been a general acknowledgement of contribution to the series as a whole. On the other hand, I think most of the chumash volumes were actually published after R. Yisraeli died? (Although at least some of them were sure already being prepared while he was still alive.)

    On the subject of advisors, I was surprised to see Joshua Blau listed, although perhaps I don’t know enough about him to justify my surprise.

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