Shadal and the Orthodox Canon

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by R. Gil Student

The publication of Daniel A. Klein’s English translation of Shadal’s commentary on Exodus offers us an opportunity to consider the place on the Orthodox bookshelf for Prof. Shmuel David Luzzatto (Italy, 1800-1865). Shadal lived during the flowering of the Haskalah. He was a creative and independent thinker and a fierce defender of tradition. In particular, his commentary on the Torah continues in the tradition of the classical peshat commentaries with his own original contributions and frequent use of historical scholarship.

For example, in explaining the box in which Moshe’s mother placed her baby (Ex. 2:3), Shadal translates gome as papyrus. He does not tell us but Radak (Sefer Ha-Shorashim, gma) describes gome as a very light tree. Shadal looks to a similar biblical term and a Roman poet:

papyrus (gome). [A plant] that grows by the Nile, so called [in Hebrew] after the expression, “Please let me try [or “sip”] [hagmi’ini] a little water” (Gen. 24:17), as if it needs to drink. Thus Lucan calls it bibula papyrus (“thirsty papyrus”). They made clothes, shoes, baskets, and even boats out of it; in the words of Lucan (Pharsali 4.136), “The boats of Memphis are framed of thirsty papyrus” (Rosenmueller and Gesenius).

Shadal freely quotes from historical sources and Christian commentaries, all to find the best peshat in the Torah. One might expect this from someone with radical beliefs. However, when it comes to the Torah, Shadal fought against biblical critics. His commentaries are completely within traditional Orthodox views of the divine origins of the Torah text. As Klein writes in his lengthy introduction to the Exodus commentary, “He firmly believed in Torah min ha-shamayim (the Divine origin of the Torah) as well as the Torah’s unity and accurate transmittal by Moses” (p. 16). However, Shadal had unusual philosophical views. He harshly criticized the Rambam and all philosophy, while also rejecting Kabbalah and mysticism. This places him outside the mainstream but not necessarily outside of Orthodoxy.

Regarding the legal parts of the Torah, Shadal interprets the verses literally and not always according to the Sages’ expositions. This is particularly evident in the Torah portion of Mishpatim, which contains many laws. For example, regarding a dangerous burglar, the Torah (Ex. 22:2) says that you may defend yourself by killing him unless “the sun has risen over him.” The Sages (Mekhilta, ad loc.; Sanhedrin 72a) interpret this to mean that if it is clear to you as the sun that the burglar poses no life threat to you, you may not kill him and claim it was self-defense. Shadal (p. 357) explains it differently–if the sun has risen then witnesses can see his burglary and testify against him in court. “The house owner was permitted to kill the digger [burglar] precisely because he could find no witnesses.”

Following many classical peshat commentators, Shadal explains the verses in the simplest, most literal way even if the Talmud and Midrash–containing the Oral Torah–derive laws based on a different interpretation. Theologically, this presents no problem because peshat and derash represent different layers of meaning within the Torah text. Both can be true. However, Shadal has a different, theologically problematic approach, to this issue which he includes infrequently in his Torah commentary.

In Klein’s introduction to the Exodus volume, he provides an excellent description of Shadal’s beliefs on the Oral Torah. According to Shadal, “many of the rules of law that were presented as derived from derash were not handed down from time immemorial, but were newly crafted in response to changing times” (p. 22).

There are two main approaches among Medieval thinkers about the Oral Torah. According to the Ge’onim, the entire Oral Torah was transmitted to Moshe and throughout the generations some of it was forgotten, which led to rabbinic disagreements. According to the Rambam, in addition to the Oral Torah transmitted throughout the generations, the Sages had the ability to derive new laws from the Torah text based on specific rules. Shadal is going beyond the Rambam’s approach in two ways. First, Shadal is saying that the Sages’ innovations were not derived from the text. They are all rabbinic enactments and the biblical connections were mere supports (asmakhta’os). Additionally, he argued that the Sages made these enactments in response to the times and not in a pure search for the Torah’s true meaning.

The first point is difficult but tenable. It is possible to argue that much of what we generally consider to be biblical law is actually rabbinic enactment. The second point is theologically troubling. Shadal engages in historicism, connecting rabbinic laws with historical circumstances. Effectively, he is accusing the Sages of distorting the Torah to fit their agendas. Even if the Sages intended well and saved Judaism and Jews, they molded the Torah to fit their attitudes rather than vice versa. I could say that this places undue power in the hands of rabbis but that understates the theological problem. This attitude undermines the authenticity of the Torah, even though Shadal believed that the enactments of the Sages were binding in practice. Turning the law of God into the law of men, making many de’oraisa laws into derabbanan laws can be overlooked. But turning those laws into historical contingencies deprives them of all sanctity. That is not the Orthodox way. As Dr. Ephraim Chamiel writes, “his position was close to that of the historical-positivist school, and he should be viewed as one of its precursors.” [1]The Middle Way: The Emergence of Modern Religious Trends in Nineteenth Century Judaism, vol. 2 p. 305. “Positive-Historical” was the term used by the Conservative Movement before it … Continue reading

In theory, Shadal’s view on the Oral Torah could be set aside because it should have no impact on his peshat biblical commentary that anyway sidesteps legal exposition. However, a writer with such beliefs will inevitably incorporate them into his writings. Noting the omission of wives from the list of those who must observe Shabbos (Ex. 21:20), Shadal writes that women were equally commanded in all positive and negatives commandments. “However, the Sages exempted women from the positive mitzvot that are time-bound (she-ha-zeman gerama); apparently; in their times the status of women had changed, and men had been laying a heavier yoke on them” (p. 305). In response to the greater duties women faced at home, the Sages exempted them from many biblical commandments. The image of rabbis who could undo the word of God based on historical circumstance is quite difficult. The traditional understanding is that women had always been exempt, since the time of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. A more radical view might say that the Sages looked closely at the Torah and determined an original intent to exempt women. The suggestion that the Sages intentionally changed the Torah, albeit with good intentions, means that we would be obeying the rabbis and disobeying God.

The traditional yeshiva student will have no need for Shadal. However, the sophisticated reader will find many worthy interpretations in Shadal’s commentary. Prof. Nehama Leibowitz frequently quotes Shadal, among the many commentators–Orthodox and non-Orthodox–she cites and I consult it regularly. However, only someone ready to do theological battle with Shadal should tread–carefully–through this commentary. Unlike Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur, which contains no unorthodox theology, Shadal’s commentary occasionally deviates from Orthodox beliefs.


1The Middle Way: The Emergence of Modern Religious Trends in Nineteenth Century Judaism, vol. 2 p. 305. “Positive-Historical” was the term used by the Conservative Movement before it adopted biblical criticism.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, 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 currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four 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.


  1. Dan Klein here. Thank you for your thoughtful and incisive essay on Shadal on Exodus. Having been involved with Shadal’s works for many years, I am well aware (as was he) that some of his views may stir up controversy and prove difficult for some to accept. Permit me to analyze and respond to a few of your statements:
    1. “Effectively, he is accusing the Sages of distorting the Torah to fit their agendas. Even if the Sages intended well and saved Judaism and Jews, they molded the Torah to fit their attitudes rather than vice versa.” The negative words “accusing” and “distorting” are not in keeping with Shadal’s approach. It must be emphasized that Shadal not only insisted that Rabbinic halakhah was binding in practice, but he was fully on board with the way in which the Sages formulated the halakhah. As I state in my introduction, “Notice that Shadal does not assert that the Sages were legislating with carte blanche. Rather, he says that they were operating ‘in accordance with the principles of the Torah and its secret teachings that had been handed down to them from Sinai.’ In other words, the ‘Oral Torah’ (Torah she-be-al peh) did indeed have a Sinaitic core, even if much of what developed from that core was manmade… Shadal was convinced that the Rabbis’ takkanot were indeed in accordance with the Torah’s principles and, in many cases, could even be said to reflect the ‘deepest intention’ of the Torah, even when departing from the peshat. In any case, Shadal based the binding authority of the takkanot on a written Torah passage of crucial importance: ‘According to the teaching (torah) that they [the legal authorities of your time] will give you, and according to the decision that they will pronounce, you will do; you must not stray to the right or to the left from the decision that they communicate to you’ (Deut. 17:11).”
    Shadal would thus have taken exception to the assertion that the Sages’ enactments were made “not in a pure search for the Torah’s true meaning,” or that they were “distorting the Torah.” In fact, his approach was aimed against those who accused the Sages of distorting the Torah by reading its verses unnaturally in order to derive halakhot. As Michael S. Berger has pointed out in his book Rabbinic Authority (as quoted in my introduction), even though many early leaders of the Reform movement “felt bound by the law of the Torah because of their belief in its divine authorship,” they “did not feel similarly obliged by the Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah, especially when many of those interpretations seemed to violate the simple, plain meaning of the text.” By taking the approach that the Rabbinic derashot – some of which do appear fanciful or far-fetched – were merely “pegs” on which to hang their halakhot, and that their true sources were either longstanding traditions or, in some cases, new responses to social needs, Shadal was defending the Sages’ authority and by no means intended to undermine it.
    2. “As Dr. Ephraim Chamiel writes, ‘his position was close to that of the historical-positivist school, and he should be viewed as one of its precursors.’” Yes, but Dr. Chamiel also takes the view that there was a crucial difference between Shadal’s approach and that of the “historical-positivists,” who strongly hinted that Deut. 17:11 empowered and perhaps even obligated post-Rabbinic authorities of every generation to effect changes in halakhah. On the basis of several key statements found in Shadal’s writings, Chamiel says (as quoted in translation in my introduction) that “in Luzzatto’s view, [such] reforms are only a theoretical possibility. The authority that would be able to formulate decisions in matters of reform would have to be a Rabbinical body with fear of Heaven and expertise in halakhah. It would have to love humankind, be humble and free of human biases, and understand the spirit of the people and its needs with deep wisdom and broad vision, like our Sages. Such a body does not exist and, practically speaking, cannot come into existence, and therefore from a practical standpoint, it is impossible to promulgate reforms in halakhah.”
    3. “Shadal’s commentary occasionally deviates from Orthodox beliefs.” I can certainly understand why some may think so. For what it’s worth, my own conclusion is that Shadal was occasionally unorthodox but ultimately not un-Orthodox. I would suggest that his works should be read not only by “someone ready to do theological battle with Shadal,” but by someone who values and upholds tradition but is willing to inspect it in new ways.

    • Thank you for your comments. I don’t think we disagree about what Shadal held–far be it from me to disagree with you. Indeed, in your introduction (p. 24), you explicitly state that Heinrich Graetz and Zehchariah Frankel held “a view similar to Shadal’s,” distinguished by Shadal’s opposition to post-Talmudic reforms.

      However, I object to his Historicism, which I consider an accusation against the Sages.

  2. I don’t understand your argument here, Rabbi. You are okay (up to a point) with saying that all the drashos are in fact D’Rabbanans, yet you have an issue with saying that DRabbanans were instituted to address issues that they identified? Isn’t that what all D’Rabbanans are? When the Chazal were Metaken Muktze for example, wasn’t it to address a contemporary Shabbos observance (or relaxation) issue?

    I think that there is a major problem with Shadal’s approach, but it isn’t that Chazal addressed contemporary issues through Takanot. The problem with his approach is that he is saying that Chazal lied and obfuscated the true meaning of the Torah in order to institute their takanot.

  3. This is how Shadal himself explained his position (Beit ha-Otsar, 1847):

    “The Soferim… did not bother to force the words of the Torah so as to bring them into agreement with their takkanot, for there were none among the people who would have raised any objection against them; rather, all the people would obey the judges of their times, as prescribed in the Torah of Moses. Only for the need of a particular time, when the Sadducees raised claims against them, did the Sages adduce proofs from the Torah… However, toward the end of the Second Temple period, when the Hasmonean dynasty ceased, when Herod ruled and society became corrupted and men of violence prevailed, and when honor and governing authority were taken from the Sages, who were no longer the nation’s judges and administrators but rather its wise men and teachers, then they began to support the laws and statutes that had been handed down to them by citing verses from the Torah… However, they would privately inform the greatest of their students (in keeping with the secret teachings of the Torah) that these explanations were merely asmakhta, and that Scripture never loses its plain meaning.”

    In my introduction to Shadal on Exodus, I anticipated the charge of “lying” and “obfuscation” and offered this response: “Shadal might have countered that there was nothing ethically wrong with the Rabbis’ fostering the impression among the common people that their derashot reflected the actual meaning of the Torah texts, because (1) their enactments were in fact wise and beneficial applications of the Torah’s underlying principles and intentions; (2) they were legislating under the authority granted to them by Deut. 17:11; (3) the unsettled political conditions of the late Second Temple period compelled them to start supporting their rules of law by citing Torah verses; and (4) they never let the scholarly elite forget that such supports did not reflect the actual peshat.” Whether or not Shadal was factually correct in all his assertions, he certainly did not mean to accuse the Sages of acting in bad faith.

  4. It seems one of Shadal’s contemporaries agreed with my assessment. According to R. Binyamin Shlomo Hamburger, after a glowing eulogy for Shadal was published in a Charedi newspaper, Rav Yitzchak Bamburger of Wurzburg wrote a fiery response that had to be edited for its harshness:

  5. “The image of rabbis who could undo the word of God based on historical circumstance is quite difficult.” Granted, but without undoing God’s word, don’t the rabbis sometimes allow for modifications in the applicability of it, in accordance with historical circumstances? E.g. when they banned polygamy? On the other hand, it would seem only prudent not to lay too much stress on the historicizing interpretation, even if there is some truth to it, since in the wrong hands it could have subversive effects. And indeed, according to your account, Shadal made use of this interpretation infrequently.

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