Rav Itzeleh Volozhiner and the Bi’ur

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Rav Itzeleh (Yitzchak) Volozhiner succeeded his father as rosh yeshiva of the premier yeshiva in Europe. A Torah scholar and famous orator, he also served as a leading representative of the Jews to the Russian Czar. Rav Itzeleh Volozhiner was royalty in the yeshiva world, the son of Rav Chaim Volozhiner with descendants that include the Netziv and the Soloveitchik legacy and whose students include the leading non-Chasidic European rabbis of the 19th century.

Unfortunately, none of his writings were published nor survived in manuscript. His published legacy consists mainly of a collection of students’ notes from his lectures on the Torah. The book, Peh Kadosh, was riddled with confusing sentences and typos until being rewritten and expanded by R. Dov Eliach, and republished in 1994 as Peh Kadosh Ha-Shalem.

An endnote with a surprising historical claim about Rav Itzeleh caught my eye. In his recently published The Legends of Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah: With the Commentary of Rabbi Abraham Hakohen Kook (p. 219 n. 519), R. Betzalel Naor quotes the memoirs of Max Lilienthal about a conversation the latter had with Rav Itzeleh. Lilienthal was a liberal rabbi from Germany who was enlisted by the Czar’s government as an advisor for reform of Jewish education. He eventually left Russia in failure and came to America where he became a Reform rabbi. Yeshiva legend discusses Lilienthal’s few days with Rav Itzeleh in Volozhin, discussing educational programs. In his memoirs (David Phillipson, Max Lilienthal American Rabbi: Life and Writings, “My Travels in Russia,” p. 348), Lilienthal writes that Rav Itzeleh told him:

”We have prayers in the morning as early as possible; all the students have to be present during the service. After the service I explain to them some chapters of the Sidrah of the week, and the Haphtarah with the commentary of Rashi, adding some free explanations of my own, into which interweave some remarks from the commentary of Moshe Dessau (Mendelssohn).”

During different periods in my life, I have spent a lot of time with both Peh Kadosh and Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur. On seeing this, it occurred to me that this could very well be true. Let me explain, for those unfamiliar with either books. Moses Mendelssohn translated the Torah into high German and commissioned a Hebrew commentary, which he edited and wrote much of it. Because he represented Jewish entrance into German society, which at the time required great assimilation and often conversion to Christianity, and the German translation of the Torah was intended to assist Jews in entering Christian society, many rabbis vehemently opposed the work. Some struggled to find in it traces of heresy, at most pointing to the kind of ambiguous passage you can find in any book if you look hard enough. Others assumed it was heretical or explicitly opposed it for the reason cited above. Whether fairly or not, the book became a symbol of heresy and assimilation. However, many traditional scholars enjoyed the brilliant commentary which engages with the classical peshat commentaries and offers many original insights in the same style.

In Making of a Godol (2nd edition, vol. 1 p. 253), Rav Nathan Kamenetsky quotes the Lilienthal passage and another source as plausible argument that the Bi’ur was used by leading scholars in Volozhin. Rav Nathan Kamenetsky writes: “The study of that commentary was obviously not outlawed in Lithuanian circles in those times.” Elsewhere, he adds that his father, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, had studied the Bi’ur. (I have used it extensively and found it helpful, but it requires a strong background in classical peshat commentaries. If you can’t read a difficult Ibn Ezra, you probably shouldn’t be using the Bi’ur. Ask your rabbi or rosh yeshiva for guidance.)

Rav Itzeleh Volozhiner’s Peh Kadosh is unique among rosh yeshiva commentaries on the Torah. Most include midrashic and mussar exhortations intended to sharpen the students’ minds and improve their behaviors. In contrast, Peh Kadosh consists mostly of insights into the simple explanation of the biblical text based on simple peshat, in the spirit of Rashbam and Ibn Ezra (Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky’s Emes Le-Ya’akov is another exception). Rav Itzeleh often quotes Rashi and offers alternate interpretations. On occasion, some of his famous parables are used to illustrate this simple peshat. In many ways, his comments anticipate his son-in-law the Netziv’s approach in the latter’s groundbreaking, verse-by-verse commentary on the Torah, Ha’amek Davar.

In other words, Rav Itzeleh Volozhiner and the Bi’ur follow generally similar approaches to commentary. While I would not have thought of them in the same sentence, once I saw someone do that I found it plausible. Therefore, I decided to check the similarities. I went through every comment in Peh Kadosh Ha-Shalem on the portion of Emor (Vayikra 21-23) and compared it with the commentary of the Bi’ur (this section of the commentary was written by Naphtali Herz Wessely, with frequent editorial additions by Mendelssohn). I found marked similarity, bordering on occasional plagiarism albeit with important caveats. Peh Kadosh, even in its rewritten format, is poorly constructed. The students’ notes seem to have omitted key sources and perhaps the main point of the lecture. For example, the student may not have heard the original source (e.g. Ibn Ezra) for which Rav Itzeleh was quoting additional proofs, instead recording just the basic insight that was not original. Rav Itzeleh also may have been illustrating a comment with one of his famous parables, but the student only wrote the comment and not the parable. At times, Rav Itzeleh examines the same issue as the Bi’ur but offers a different explanation. This isn’t proof of use but makes sense if he was using the Bi’ur. In general, Peh Kadosh quotes no sources later than Rashi. It isn’t clear whether that was Rav Itzeleh’s style, the students’ or the editor’s. Additionally, similarity doesn’t prove dependence. What follows does not prove that Rav Itzeleh used the Bi’ur but lends credibility to the claim, contained in a(n admittedly biased) report of a personal conversation with him.

Some limited observations on Parashas Emor:

  1. Vayikra 21:1 “Let none defile himself for a dead person among his people.”What does “among his people” add? The Bi’ur quotes and rejects two explanations of Rashbam. The Bi’ur concludes that this refers to special people within his nation, including a kohen, scholar, military leader or prince. A kohen may not become impure if they die, even more so if someone else dies.

    Peh Kadosh suggests that it refers to other kohanim. You might have thought that he may not become impure if a regular Jew dies but not a kohen. This teaches that he may not become impure even if a kohen dies.

    Similar idea, slightly different conclusion.

  2. Vayikra 21:2 “Except for his relative who is close to him, his mother, his father,…”What does “his relative who is close to him” add if the verse continues to list the close relatives?

    The Bi’ur says that the simple explanation is that the verse gives a general rule and then the details. However, because of this repetition, the Sages derived that the close relative refers to his wife. It adds that no one else has explained this but a wife is a close relative only to her husband and not to any of his other relatives. Ultimately, though, the explanation that this close relative refers to a wife is a tradition the Sages received.

    Peh Kadosh says that peshat is that the close relative is a wife because other relatives are listed in the verse. He adds as a derush that the wife is a relative only to the husband and not to the other relatives.

    The same explanation in different words.

  3. Vayikra 21:4 “A husband shall not defile himself for his desecration”Who is this husband, ba’al? Onkelos translates it as “rabbah,” a master.

    The Bi’ur quotes Onkelos and explains it (“it seems to me, nireh le-da’ati”) as referring to someone respected, the kohen gadol.

    Peh Kadosh quotes Onkelos and explains it as meaning that even the kohen gadol may not become impure.

    Same explanation.

  4. Vayikra 21:12 “He shall not leave the sanctuary and he will not desecrate the holy things of God”How does the kohen gadol leaving the sanctuary for a funeral during the Temple service desecrate the service? The Bi’ur explains that by leaving the service, he shows that he finds it more important than the Temple service.

    Peh Kadosh explains with a parable about a schoolteacher who constantly leaves during the middle of class whenever a family member calls him. He shows that he values his family responsibilities over those to his students. Similarly, if a kohen gadol leaves for a family funeral during the Temple service.

    This is the same explanation, although Rav Itzeleh illustrates it with a parable. Surprisingly, neither note that Ramban and Seforno explain the verse similarly.

  5. Vayikra 21:13 “He shall marry a woman in her virgin state”The Bi’ur explains that a kohen gadol might have thought that he should stay away from women entirely, like at Mount Sinai, therefore the Torah teaches that he must marry, albeit only a virgin who has never been married previously.

    Peh Kadosh explains that with each increasing level of holiness comes additional marital restrictions. Therefore a kohen gadol might have thought that he should not marry at all. Therefore the Torah teaches that he must marry, albeit only a virgin who has never been married previously.

    Basically the same explanation with slightly different nuances.

  6. Vayikra 21:17 “Speak to Aharon saying: Any man among your offspring throughout their generations who has a defect…”Why doesn’t the verse address Aharon and only his descendants?

    The Bi’ur says that Aharon had no defects so the verse addresses his descendants. Then the Bi’ur says that this was a direct quote from the Ramban.

    The Peh Kadosh offers the same explanation. The editor says to look in the Ramban.

  7. Vayikra 23:6,8 “You shall eat unleavened bread seven days”, “And you shall bring a fire offering to the Lord for seven days”The Bi’ur explains that this passage does not intend to teach the detailed laws of the holiday. It mention eating matzah for seven days to establish that the days are equal in some ways, even if regarding work they are different.

    Peh Kadosh says that the days of the holiday are the same regarding eating matzah and bringing the sacrifice but different regarding doing work.

  8. Vayikra 23:23 “But on the tenth of this seventh month it is a day of atonement, it shall be a holy day”What does the word “but” come to exclude? The Bi’ur quotes explanations from Rashi, Ramban and Rashbam. It then suggests that this is the only holiday on which “holy day, mikra kodesh” does not imply festive eating.

    Peh Kadosh offers the same explanation.

    Neither note that Chizkuni and Seforno say the same thing.

  9. Vayikra 24:14 “And all who heard shall lean their hands on his head“The Bi’ur quotes Rashi who says that they lean their hands to say that he is guilty and not them. The Bi’ur adds that this is only done for a blasphemer because the witness have to repeat his blasphemy and the judges have to hear it. Therefore, they lean their hands to say that they only “sinned” because of him, as part of his trial.

    Peh Kadosh says the same.

    Neither note that Chizkuni offers the same explanation.

  10. Vayikra 24:15-16 “Any man who blasphemes his God shall bear his sin. And one who blasphemously pronounces the name of the Lord shall be put to death”Why is only the second case sentences to execution? The Bi’ur quotes approvingly (“yafeh piresh”) Ibn Ezra’s explanation that the word uses for God, Elokim, can refer to angels or judges. Therefore it depends on the blasphemer’s intention and cannot be punished by a court. The second case refers to cursing the specific name of God and leaves no room for ambiguity.

    Peh Kadosh offers the same explanation.

  11. Vayikra 24:23 “And the children of Israel did just as the Lord has commanded Moshe”Why does the Torah need to tell us that the Jews killed the blasphemer in the way they were commanded? The Bi’ur quotes Ramban who says that they did not do it out of hatred of the man but as a fulfillment of a command.

    Peh Kadosh offers a parable of people who have a monetary disagreement. If they are wicked, they will argue the whole time even while walking to and from the court, even fighting physically. But if they are righteous, they will plead their cases in the court as brothers and even look for possible compromises. When the Jews executed this blasphemer, they did not taunt or injure him on the way out of hatred, which out of sheer numbers could have killed him, but executed him according to the law.

In short, there are enough similarities to raise questions. Out of 33 entries in Peh Kadosh Ha-Shalem in Emor, 11 show marked similarities to the Bi’ur. Those 11 are the places where the commentaries reach similar conclusions. However, there are more places where they discuss the same issue but reach different conclusions. Perhaps the Bi’ur and Rav Itzeleh used similar methods and earlier commentaries, not always quoting them. Rav Itzeleh was sufficiently brilliant to arrive at original interpretations on his own. However, the similarities lend credence to the claim that Rav Itzeleh utilized the insights of the Bi’ur in his classes.

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 recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves 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.

One comment

  1. Dr Shaul Shtampfer’s HaYeshiva haLita’it Behit-havatah, pg 213 includes a two year curriculum submitted by Volozhin Yeshiva on April 22, 1858 to the government in order to prevent a thread of closure. Year one includes chumash and nevi’im rishonim with Rashi and the Biur, and year 2 is nevi’im acharonim and kesuvim.

    The curriculum also includes Russian, German, arithmetic (through fractions and decimals), Hebrew language, Mishnah (all), Gemara and Shulchan Arukh (3 turim, not CM). Gemara is learned with the Rosh. No mention of the standard Gefe”t.

    When I first encountered the curriculum I what I found notableabout it.

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