For reasons of space and because of the other entries available in this Encyclopedia, this article will focus on Rabbinic exegesis in the Middle Ages, which was formative for later Jewish interpretation. For medieval Jews, much as for their ancestors, the Bible was a sacred text that was studied for religious edification, as a source of law and a guide to ritual practice, and that was read aloud in synagogue for the community to hear. Much of the literary creativity of the period, including biblical commentaries, sermons, legal responsa, treatises on Jewish thought, philosophy, mysticism, and liturgical compositions, resulted from serious engagement with scripture. Consequently, a discussion of medieval Jewish biblical interpretation could draw from a variety of genres and sources. The following discussion is limited to a particular genre, the formal running commentary on a biblical book as it took shape among Jews between the late ninth and fourteenth centuries—thus travelling a chronological path between the end of the rabbinic period and the crystallization of the major trends in Jewish exegesis that would carry on into modernity.
During the period from the birth of Christianity until the rise of Islam, most Jewish biblical exegetes had their teachings preserved in collections of midrash. Although commenting on an entire biblical book was a popular practice in Christian circles as early as the third century, Jewish scholars did not begin to do so until the ninth century, when they were living in the Islamic world.
Islam posed a different set of challenges for Jews than did Christianity. The former offered the idea of a replacement revelation, while the latter at least acknowledged the importance of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Muslim commitment to the perfection of Arabic as the holy tongue led its scholars to approach the text of the Qur’an by developing a sophisticated linguistic and philological method that was also influenced by the rationalism of Islamic Kalam philosophy. The claims made about the perfection of the Arabic language and the Qur’anic text left Jewish scholars on the defensive regarding Hebrew and the text of the Torah. In order to respond, Jews appropriated the tools of Muslim scholarship and began to explore and study the Bible in similar ways. This led to the advanced study of Hebrew grammar and the compilation of dictionaries of biblical Hebrew. These contrasted with the midrashic method, which interpreted individual words or phrases out of context, by relying on a new set of assumptions: among them that language is constructed according to identifiable conventions by which it conveys meaning and that words have a semantic range delimited by their context.
Karaite Biblical Commentary.
In the eighth century, Jews began translating the biblical text into the Arabic vernacular much as their predecessors had done with the Aramaic Targumim. However, in contrast to the Targumic literature that could be paraphrastic and that often introduced rabbinic exegesis into the translation, these new efforts consisted of finding appropriate and accurate Arabic equivalents for each Hebrew word. These translations were precursors to a new genre of Jewish biblical exegesis, individually authored commentaries. A political shift in the Jewish community further catalyzed the move to this new form of biblical interpretation. In Iraq the Karaites (Scripturalists) arose in opposition to rabbinic authority and challenged the traditional type of biblical study among Jews. The authority of rabbinic “oral law,” which often relied on apparently far-fetched interpretations and could contradict the written Torah, provoked some Jews of more rationalist leanings to question rabbinic exegesis, particularly in matters of halakhah (Jewish law). Daniel Frank has argued, “It was unquestionably the Karaites who moved biblical exegesis to center stage. Abandoning Rabbinic midrash while championing philology, they perfected a new form. The Bible commentary was born in the Islamic East” (2004, p. 257). The earliest Jewish Bible commentary to survive from the Middle Ages is Daniel al-Qumisi the Karaite’s (ninth c., Iran, later Palestine) commentary on the Minor Prophets, although fragments of earlier commentaries are extant. Karaite exegesis blossomed in the tenth and eleventh centuries and numerous commentaries on the Bible are preserved from their community in Jerusalem (e.g., Yefet ben Eli [second half of the tenth c.] composed commentaries on the entire Bible, although no witness to Lamentations has been found).
The Karaite commentaries, composed primarily in Arabic, follow biblical verse order and are exceptionally concerned with the literary qualities of the Bible, and the contextual relationship between verse, pericope, and biblical book in particular. They include lexical glosses from Arabic and other languages (e.g., Persian), and are sensitive to grammar and syntax. Despite their Scripturalism the Karaites occasionally turned to midrashic or homiletical explanations (especially when the lemma was poetic or prophetic), but only after the primary contextual meaning was highlighted. Although the rabbis were committed to a multivalent biblical text and maintained that individual words could be polysemous (i.e., could have multiple meanings), the Karaites countered that biblical texts had only one legitimate meaning. In later works the Karaites’ interests expanded to historical-literary and redaction issues (e.g., the historical setting of a particular narrative and how it aids understanding; typical patterns of expression in biblical Hebrew; and the editorial process).
Saadiah Gaon and Early Medieval Rabbinic Biblical Commentary.
The rise of Arabic grammatical thought and the influence of rationalism that inspired Karaite scholars did not go unnoticed by the rabbinic Jewish elite, nor did the Karaite threat to their authority. Saadiah ben Yosef al-Fayyumi (882–942, Egypt and Iraq) was the Gaon of the Talmudic academy in Sura. His preserved oeuvre includes liturgical poetry, a commentary on the esoteric work Sefer Yetsira, studies of grammar and linguistics (e.g., Agron), works on the Talmud and rabbinic hermeneutics, responsa, anti-Karaite polemics, a major work of Jewish philosophy (The Book of Beliefs and Opinions), an Arabic translation of the Bible (Tafsir) and commentaries on the Torah, Isaiah, Daniel, Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and the Five Scrolls (although not all are complete).
Saadiah’s study of the rabbinic tradition, his embrace of Arabic language theory and the encounter with Kalam philosophy, and his stark opposition to Karaite teachings shaped his exegesis. In the Book of Belief and Opinions (treatise 7, chapter 2) and the introduction to his commentary on Genesis he makes clear that the Bible should be understood literally except when it contradicts (1) what is observed through the senses; or (2) reason; or (3) another biblical verse; or (4) a reliable rabbinic exegetical tradition. The last is the most conservative element of Saadiah’s approach, but he granted significant autonomy for the individual exegete to judge the value of any teaching. Saadiah draws on midrash in all sorts of exegetical matters without any distinguishable system for deciding what to include. His general approach was adopted by his successor Samuel ben Hophni (d. 1013), but already in his time the rabbinic school of exegesis had begun a move to al-Andalus and North Africa.
The Grammarians in Spain.
Perhaps no innovation had as siginificant an influence on Jewish Bible commentary as did the arrival of the biblical Hebrew dictionary. Although not a biblical commentary per se, it was composed using systematic philological study of the Bible and became an essential tool in the hands of exegetes. The act of producing a dictionary concretized the new assumptions of Jewish interpreters that words had meanings in context, that they shared roots (in the earlier theory bi-literal, and later tri-literal), and that Hebrew followed rules which could be deduced. The earliest of the dictionaries, Menahem ibn Saruq’s Mahberet (notebook, mid tenth c.), was composed in Hebrew, which later facilitated its transmission to communities in France and elsewhere where Jews lived under Christian rule and were not fluent in Arabic. The Karaite community likewise produced such dictionaries, although in Arabic (e.g., David ben Abraham al-Fasi’s Kitab Jami’ al-Alfaz [Book Containing a Collection of Words, tenth c.]). Ibn Saruq was followed in the late tenth century by Judah Hayyuj, and in the eleventh century by Jonah ibn Janah. The former wrote three treatises on Hebrew grammar and a biblical commentary preserved in fragmentary form and perhaps never completed. The fragments preserve an introductory essay (it may be the first in a Jewish commentary to discuss philological exegesis) and interpretations of verses from Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Malachi. Hayyuj was the first to advocate for the tri-literal roots of Hebrew verbs, and the commentary was novel in putting these grammatical theories into practice in biblical interpretation.
Ibn Janah wrote several grammar books in an effort to refine Hayyuj’s theories but, from the perspective of biblical interpretation, his major innovation was the application of rhetorical analyses to biblical texts. This was especially important since midrashic exegesis assumed that each biblical word was significant while ibn Janah’s theory suggested that some words were mere rhetorical flourishes. He also paid significant attention to biblical realia and sought to properly identify toponyms, flora and fauna, implements, and tools.
The significance of the growth of a school of Hebrew grammarians for encouraging the shift from midrashic exegesis to literary-contextual exegesis cannot be overemphasized. The students of Ibn Janah and Hayyuj quickly translated their theoretical concepts into full-blown biblical commentaries in Spain. These new schools took Jewish biblical interpretation in radical directions, which left them open to rather significant criticism from more conservative members of the rabbinic elite.
Peshat Exegesis in Northern France.
In the eleventh and twelfth centuries northern French rabbis participated in a revolutionary change in biblical studies. The community of scholars who primarily devoted their attention to Talmud study moved away from traditional biblical studies that relied on studying scripture with midrash. In essence, they complemented and then replaced this approach with a new methodology termed peshat exegesis. Generally, peshat refers to a contextual reading of biblical text, but a precise definition is not possible because medieval exegetes likely understood and applied it in different ways.
The rise of peshat exegesis was intimately tied to an explosion of Jewish literary creativity in northern France. Three contributing factors help explain its rise: Spanish-Jewish cultural influence; the twelfth-century Renaissance in Christian Europe; and Jewish-Christian polemics. Scholars typically agree that these factors encouraged the development of peshat exegesis, but they debate the degree to which each component acted as a catalyst. The exact route of the Spanish influence is not entirely clear, but that Ibn Saruq is cited by name in Rashi’s commentaries helps to seal this argument. That peshat grew naturally out of a similar approach to Talmud study that was already well-established in northern France has also been suggested. The move to peshat biblical exegesis was, in part, an application of an old method to a new text. The Jewish-Christian polemic as the source of peshat also has merit since Jews and Christians would have debated scripture at the peshat level because they could not have convinced their opponents by citing proofs from confessional works. Jews and Christians could agree on the rules of Hebrew grammar in a far more substantial way than they could agree that the Talmud understood the text correctly or that a verse typologically foreshadowed Jesus. The renaissance of literary activity in twelfth century Christian Europe as it encountered the difficulties of reconciling issues of scriptural authority, reason, and faith is evident in the writings of Jews of northern France in particular. The increased activity of both Christians and Jews was apparently simultaneous, but as with the other factors, demonstrating actual influence is not easily done. Certainly, Jews and Christians interacted, but demonstrating that they explicitly discussed Scripture is much harder to do. However, economic and business ties almost certainly led to cultural interchange.
The stand-out figure of the Peshat School is Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi, 1040–1105), whose commentary on the Bible continues to be the primary one studied by traditional Jews today. Rashi wrote commentaries on almost every book of the Bible (and most likely intended commentaries on all the books). Those attributed to him on Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles almost certainly are the work of other authors. Rashi nowhere provides a systematic description of his approach to scripture. On occasion, as in his comment on Genesis 3:8, he notes his intention to explain the text according to its peshat and that when necessary he will turn to midrash to clarify a lemma. Whether this should be understood as a general statement or something more limited has been regularly debated. Although Rashi is clearly concerned with peshat, he frequently cites midrash, sometimes offering a peshat and midrashic explanation together on a single lemma. Thus, his method for selecting when and what to cite from midrash remains obscure. Often these midrashic sources are rephrased or exclude parts of the original text, changing the meaning of the teaching in order to meet his needs.
Rashi had access to Ibn Saruq’s Mahberet, but much of the Spanish Jewish grammar oeuvre was only available in Arabic. As a result, Rashi, although sensitive to the nuances of biblical language, could not frame his interpretations with the sophistication of his Spanish contemporaries. Rashi glosses more than 1000 biblical terms with Old French (and occasionally German and Slavonic), compares words to Mishnaic Hebrew usage, relies on the Aramaic Targums, sometimes refers to his contemporary circumstances and realia (his commentary on Psalms written after the Crusades of 1096 shows significant anti-Christian polemic), and uses the cantillation accents in the Masoretic text as a source of information about the meaning of the text.
Although Rashi set the tone for the next century of biblical exegesis in northern France, he was not the first concerned with these methods or with peshat. The early eleventh century saw a group of unidentified Jewish scholars, the poterim, teaching the Bible using the vernacular in northern France, and Rashi refers explicitly to them (e.g., Lev 14:14). By the mid-eleventh century Menahem bar Helbo had likely produced commentaries on the entirety of the Prophets and Hagiographa (only fragments remain). They show some of the same traits as Rashi (e.g, the use of Old French glosses, peshat comments, and citations of midrash). However, Helbo was more aware of the connection between Hebrew and Arabic. He had significant influence on later generations of northern French exegetes, particularly via his nephew Joseph Kara who may later have studied with Rashi.
The phenomenon of Peshat exegesis was almost entirely the product of the circle around Rashi and his students. His colleague Shemaiah (1060–1130) may have composed a biblical commentary, but only a manuscript of his glosses on Rashi’s commentaries is extant. Like Rashi, he used midrashim to reinforce literary-contextual readings and was attentive to biblical realia (e.g., weights, measures, construction methods).
Whether Joseph Kara (1050–1125) was actually Rashi’s student is unclear but they cite each other’s work and likely knew one another. Rashi’s grandson, Samuel ben Meir (1080–ca. 1160), identifies Kara as a colleague. Kara, who may have written commentaries on the entire Bible (fragments of his Torah commentary are preserved, as are commentaries on the Prophets, Psalms, Job, and the Five Scrolls), was more systematic in his peshat exegesis than Rashi. He sometimes used midrashic explanations, but precisely why is unclear. Although he relied on Rashi’s commentary, often quoting him, he disputed his explanations. Kara used Old French and German to explain biblical words, compared biblical terms to similar ones found in Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic, relied on cantillation notes to aid exegesis, and suggested that information that seemed irrelevant in context could be necessary for understanding material later in the biblical narrative.
Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam, ca. 1085–ca. 1158), like Rashi his grandfather, was a biblical exegete and a prominent Talmudist and legal authority. Given that peshat exegesis could undermine rabbinic traditions, it is noteworthy that Rashbam was committed to the idea that the text operated simultaneously on two interpretive levels: the primary one being the rabbinic legal tradition, and the secondary one being literary-contextual. His own exegesis was devoted to the latter, and because he occasionally interpreted verses in opposition to rabbinic interpretations his defense of their complementary nature is important. Rashbam was likely the most ardent peshat exegete and was remarkably consistent in distinguishing between peshat and derash, even challenging Rashi’s explanations when they disagreed with the former. According to Rashbam, he even did this in discussions with his grandfather (Rashbam to Gen 37:2). Rashbam’s commentary might be seen as a commentary on Rashi; he offers interpretations when he disagrees with him but offers no comment when he is apparently in agreement. Despite his lack of knowledge of developments in biblical exegesis among Spanish Jews because of the Arabic disconnect, Rashbam’s method with regard to grammar was the most highly developed of the northern French school, he even composed a work on the topic (Sefer Dayekut.) He was also remarkably sensitive to the rhetorical and literary aspects of the biblical text.
Eliezer of Beaugency (mid-twelfth c.), who wrote commentaries on most of the Bible (only commentaries to Isaiah and the Minor Prophets survive), may have been Rashbam’s student, although this cannot be demonstrated conclusively. His commentaries contain very few references to midrash; he was especially focused on using context to explain terms, and many interpretations are offered as paraphrases rather than explicit comments. Rashbam’s brother, Rabbenu (Jacob) Tam (1100–1171), and their pupil, Joseph Bekhor Shor (1130–1200), also wrote biblical commentaries. The former’s on Job is preserved, as are the latter’s on the Torah. In essence, Bekhor Shor was the last true member of the peshat school and his work evidences a return to midrashic concerns. Although his interpretations are literary-contextual (in contrast to his predecessors he knew the work of Hayyuj and ibn Janah, whom he identifies by name [e.g., former Deut 11:26; latter Gen 30:8]), midrashic comments are found throughout and he uses rabbinic numerology, which was by then returning to vogue. Bekhor Shor offered numerous interpretations revealing significant insight into the nature and character of biblical figures.
The Spanish School.
In al-Andalus in the latter half of the eleventh century the two most important commentators were Moses ben Samuel Chiquitilla and Judah ben Samuel ibn Bal’am. The former’s biblical commentaries have only survived in fragmentary form (he wrote on the Pentateuch, Isaiah, the Book of the Twelve, Psalms, Job, and Daniel). The influence of ibn Janah on him is apparent. He also translated Ibn Hayyuj’s grammar works into Hebrew. Chiquitilla was a rationalist who attempted to demonstrate that biblical miracles did not deviate from the natural order and that many of the prophecies referred to events that had already happened rather than to things that would transpire in the messianic era.
Ibn Bal’am was a biblical commentator, halakic scholar, and Hebrew grammarian who lived in Toledo and then Seville. He wrote a complete Bible commentary in two parts: Kitāb al-Tārjih (The Book of Decision) on the Pentateuch, and Nuqat al-Miqra (Glosses to the Scripture) on the Prophets and Hagiographa. Although much influenced by Ibn Janah, Ibn Bal’am was an independent thinker who actively disagreed with his forerunners. Some have suggested that he only offered a comment on a verse when he was explicitly challenging an earlier interpretation. Many of his comments are uniquely grammatical, although occasionally he commented on the subject matter of a particular Bible text (e.g., theology, history, philosophy, geography, the character of biblical figures). Digressions of this sort are more common in his Torah commentary. Ibn Bal’am described his method in his introduction to the commentary on the Prophets as explaining difficult words by translating them into Arabic, then comparing them to related words in the Bible, and then to Rabbinic Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, and by studying syntax and morphology. He was also concerned with issues of realia and toponyms, frequently disagreeing with his predecessors’ conclusions in these matters but not always providing alternative renderings.
The preeminent representative of the twelfth century Spanish School is Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1164), who, although he lived in Spain for more than fifty years, spent his last twenty-five travelling in Italy, France, and England. Although Ibn Ezra is famed as a neo-platonic thinker, liturgical and secular poet, grammarian, and astrologer, he composed biblical commentaries on the Torah, Isaiah, the Book of the Twelve, Psalms, Job, the Five Scrolls, and Daniel. He did not begin these until after he left Spain. Once in Christian Europe, he was commissioned by patrons to compose commentaries, and for some biblical books (e.g., Exodus, Esther) he wrote two commentaries, one while in Rome and another once he arrived in France. As a result, long and short versions of some commentaries are extant.
Ibn Ezra was well read in the work of the Spanish grammarians, earlier Spanish exegetes, the Karaites, and Rashi. His approach was shaped primarily by his encounter with grammar and linguistics. Saadiah and the grammarians were his primary influences. He says little positive about Rashi noting that only one in one thousand of his comments provided a true peshat interpretation (Safah Berurah 5a). Ibn Ezra probably did not know of Rashi’s works before reaching Italy. He delineates five types of exegesis in the introduction to his Torah commentary: (1) extensive commenting that treats issues of content and subject-matter beyond the simple meaning of the words (as represented by the Geonim); (2) the Karaite approach, which rejects the authority of the rabbinic oral tradition; (3) allegorical interpretation (e.g., as promoted by Christian exegetes); (4) midrash, or fanciful interpretation (as practiced by the early rabbis in non-halakhic discourse); and, (5) grammatical exegesis. Of these five, he endorses only the last. In contrast to the northern French peshat commentators, he did not allow grammatical readings to contradict rabbinic legal traditions. In this he agreed with Saadiah, as he also did with respect to reason as the sole guide for the exegete. Ibn Ezra’s peshat exegesis was concerned primarily with philology and grammar as compared to those in northern France who, given their lack of access to the Spanish grammarian’s works, were more interested in the literary-contextual reading.
Travelling in the opposite direction, Isaac ben Samuel Al-Kanzi (1065–1140) went from Spain to Egypt (or was perhaps born there to a Spanish father). Although he composed a commentary on the Former Prophets, only parts of 1 and 2 Samuel and Kings survive. The commentaries are primarily an Arabic word-for-word translation inserted following Hebrew trigger words. Al-Kanzi cites all the major authorities including Saadiah, Hayyuj, ibn Janah, ibn Bal’am and Chiquitilla, as well as Karaites. He consistently explains passages as supporting halakhic tradition, but adheres to contextual readings otherwise. Al-Kanzi had three exegetical objectives: realistically reconstructing historical events, properly explaining character’s motives, and expounding on ethical-religious behavior and the Divine reward.
Moses Maimonides, the Guide of the Perplexed, and Philosophical Exegesis.
In approximately 1191, Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides; Rambam; 1138–1204) the Cordoba-born head of the Cairo Jewish community completed his philosophical work The Guide of the Perplexed. Although composed in Arabic it was quickly translated into Hebrew (once by Samuel ibn Tibbon, and slightly later by Judah al-Harizi) and from the start attracted significant attention (not all of it positive). Maimonides never produced a systematic commentary on the Bible (although a work on Esther was incorrectly attributed to him), but there can be no doubt that he was an exegete and that the Guide is a biblical commentary, arranged by theme rather than by biblical book or verse. Maimonides produced the work for a specific student and those like him, who were religiously knowledgeable and committed to Jewish practice but who had studied the sciences and philosophy and were perplexed by apparent contradictions between the two bodies of knowledge. In an attempt to deal with these contradictions, Maimonides interpreted the Torah through a philosophical lens. In order to resolve the contradictions Maimonides accepted that the Torah communicated on multiple levels according to the intellectual ability of the reader. The simple-minded would read the narratives and laws as just that, while the philosophically-minded individual would see that these were parables intended to reveal philosophical (particularly Aristotelian) truths. Apparent contradictions between revelation and reason could be resolved by accepting the biblical language was deliberately equivocal and had been revealed by God to Moses, the greatest of the philosophers.
Maimonides laid out a method for biblical exegesis that triggered a short lived Middle Eastern school of interpreters. His influence on exegesis became far more significant elsewhere.
Joseph ben Judah ben Jacob ibn Aknin (ca. 1150–1220), whose family originated in Barcelona, took refuge in Fez during the Almohad invasions and may have met Maimonides there. His commentary on the Song of Songs Inkishāf al-asrār wa-ṭuhūr al-anwār (“The Divulgence of Mysteries and the Appearance of Lights”) explains the text as an allegory of the cravings of the rational soul for the active intellect. Although ibn Aknin states that he was the first to read the biblical book in this way, his work appears to build on Maimonides’s description in his Mishneh Torah (The Laws of Repentance 10:3) and the Guide of the Perplexed (3:51).
In Egypt, Maimonides’s son Abraham (1186–1237) completed commentaries in Arabic on Genesis and Exodus. These were heavily influenced by Sufi mysticism and offer a diverse range of comments including grammatical and literary interpretations, rhetorical analysis, philosophical teachings, and pietistic lessons. He quotes from Saadiah and Samuel ben Hofni, as well as ibn Janah, Rashi and ibn Ezra, among others, and draws richly from the writings of his father and grandfather.
The Jewish-Sufi circle that developed gave rise to several commentators, including Abu Sulayman Abraham ibn Abi r-Rabia he-Hasid (d. 1223), whose commentary on Song of Songs (preserved only in quotations in the writings of Abraham Maimonides) is an allegory of a dialogue between a mystical devotee and the Divine object of his desire. Hanan’el ben Samuel (1180–1250), who was Abraham Maimonides’ father-in-law, is believed to have composed a commentary on the Torah and Haftarot. These are preserved in fragmentary form but reveal that he used an allegorical method of interpretation that offered a mystical-philosophical reading of the text influenced by Moses Maimonides and Sufi thought. The last significant exegete in this tradition was Tanhum ben Joseph Yerushalmi (1220–1291), who died in Egypt although he was from the land of Israel. Though not an original thinker, he was a remarkably successful anthologizer of the work of the great masters of Spanish, North African, French and Karaite traditions. He was influenced by Maimonides and Sufism and composed an Arabic commentary on the whole Bible (only parts of the Former and Latter Prophets, the Five Scrolls, Daniel, and Psalms are preserved) that was primarily concerned with grammatical and rhetorical analysis but also uses philosophical and mystical allegory.
From Muslim Spain to Christian Europe: The Provençal School.
Around 1150 Joseph Kimhi (1105–1170) left Spain with his eldest son Moses (1127–1190) for Narbonne in Provence, where another son David was born (1160–1235). By the time of his arrival, Provencal Jewry focused on the midrashic approach to Bible, and because of the absence of Arabic literacy continued to rely on outdated scholarship on grammar. Joseph composed commentaries on the Pentateuch, Prophets, Proverbs, and Job (only the last two are extant). In addition, he wrote a Hebrew work on grammar that challenged the theories of Ibn Saruq and others on whom the earlier peshat exegetes had relied. As might be expected, Joseph was guided by reason in his exegesis and made clear that commentary without proper grammatical understanding could not be peshat. To explain the biblical text he used comparisons with rabbinic Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic as well as knowledge of poetry and poetic formulations, and he explicitly challenged midrashic traditions. In so doing, he set the groundwork for a shift in Provençal exegesis that was reinforced by his sons.
Moses Kimhi composed commentaries on Proverbs, Job, and Ezra-Nehemiah. He is almost uniquely concerned with issues of grammar and philology, likely a response to the Provencal scholars’ preference for midrash. Although his commentaries do address some historical and philosophical concerns, his primary commitments are clear, especially with regard to the workings of Hebrew syntax.
David Kimhi (Radak) lost his father when only ten years old and was primarily educated by his brother. Of the members of his family, he gained the most renown, particularly for his biblical commentaries (Genesis, Former and Latter Prophets, Psalms, Proverbs, and Chronicles), a grammar (Sefer Mikhlol), and a dictionary (Sefer Shorashim). Although steeped in the knowledge of grammar and philology, Radak (unlike his brother) also studied the rabbinic Talmudic-Midrashic tradition. He was influenced significantly by the rationalism of ibn Ezra and Maimonides. For example, his commentaries include philosophical insights on issues of providence, miracles, and prophecy. He is clear to distinguish between peshat and derash, but both are a significan presence in his works. Although some of his discussion blatantly dismisses the value of midrash as merely homiletical, he was influenced by its creativity and synthesized it in his own approach (e.g., reading passages as if prophetically referring to the events of his day), thus setting a new trend that differed from the Spanish legacy of his father and brother and from the Provençal milieu in which he was raised and educated.
Nahmanides and Mystical Exegesis.
Nahmanides (1194–1270) was born in Gerona in Christian Spain. A rabbi and scholar, he made contributions to philosophy, mysticism, biblical commentary, and poetry. Although he earned his living as a medical doctor he was among the leading Talmud commentators of the Middle Ages. He was born into the Jewish intellectual and economic elite and was the descendant of significant scholars and a relative of high status officials in the community of Gerona. Early in life he studied Talmud with the method of the Tosafists of northern France along with those current in Provence. During the Maimonidean controversy (which began in France in 1232) Nahmanides attempted to act as mediator between the two camps despite the fact that he disagreed with the radical philosophizing that had developed as a result of Maimonides’s work. So great was his reputation that in 1263 he was drawn into a public dispute with the apostate Pablo Chrisitiani by King James I. Although he was victorious in the dispute, after the publication of the contents he was ultimately forced to leave Spain. He fled to the Land of Israel, arriving at Acre in 1267.
Nahmanides wrote commentaries on the Torah and the book of Job (believing all to be “authored” by Moses). These appear to have been written later in his life and although he began composing them in Spain he continued them after fleeing to Israel. As a product of Christian Spain, he was an heir to the exegetical traditions of al-Andalus and the traditions of Ashkenaz (France and Germany). His commentaries frequently cite rabbinic material, and Nahmanides devoted significant space to analyzing midrash and its relation to the biblical text. For Nahmanides the Bible operates on a number of levels. It is both a record of the past and a sign of things to come. Nahmanides often quotes earlier exegetes, including Rashi (whom he especially esteems), Ibn Ezra, Saadiah and Maimonides, and frequently challenges their respective interpretations. Nahmanides was learned in grammar and was concerned with the literary structure of biblical narratives. He also uses typological reading, a method generally rejected by Jews because of its use by Christians, and sees the events of later Israelite history foreshadowed in the actions of the patriarchs. Perhaps most significantly, Nahmanides was among the earliest commentators who applied kabbalistic methods to interpret the text. This is especially noticeable in the introduction to his Torah commentary, where he describes the entire Torah text as the Names of God. The text can be subdivided into these names rather than the words of the narrative. Nahmanides was committed to the notion of what has come to be called “omnisignificance,” (i.e., even the slightest of details of the biblical text were deliberate and must be appropriately interpreted). For Nahmanides the Torah texts contains hidden secrets (sod) that have been transmitted from teacher to student since antiquity; that is, the Bible as a whole has both an exoteric and an esoteric meaning. These secret interpretations do not trump the contextual readings but complement them, the text being able to sustain multiple interpretations simultaneously. A commentary on Song of Songs was attributed to him, although it was the work of fellow Geronese exegete and mystic Ezra ben Solomon (d. 1238 or 1245). If anything, this demonstrates the growth of Nahmanides’ reputation and the productivity of mystical exegetes in this period.
In the Torah commentary of Nahmanides’s student Bahya ben Asher (Saragossa, d. 1340), the idea appropriated from Christian circles of a fourfold interpretation of scripture in which all were correct exegesis at once was given the name Pardes. Although pardes was a real word originally meaning orchard, in this context it is an acronym for the exegetical approaches: Peshat (the contextual reading), Remez (philosophical or typological allegory), Derash (midrashic tradition), and Sod (mystical teachings). Bahya rarely applies all four methods to any one verse and this is true generally of the exegetes to follow. Most used one, two, or three methods in combination.
The most significant work of medieval exegesis, the Zohar (Book of Radiance or Splendor), is more accurately described as a mystical “midrash” on the Torah using the frame story of the relationship between the second century sage Simeon bar Yochai and his students. Although its composition was begun in the circle of Moses de Leon in Castile in the mid-thirteenth century, it did not take on its form and organization until the rise of printing. For much of its history it was attributed to Simeon and treated as ancient sacred wisdom. Its composition in Aramaic gave it the appearance of age, but a close study of the language reveals many late elements that are inconsistent with rabbinic period Palestinian Aramaic. Kabbalistic exegesis relies on decoding the biblical text as an allegory about the interaction of the sefirot (the ten emanations of God). The Zohar’s influence can be seen in the Torah commentary of Menachem Recanati (1250–1310) where it is cited explicitly (although only the then available sections).
The Maimonidean Exegetical Tradition in Europe.
Despite anti-Maimonidean concerns among French and Spanish rabbis and even the banning of the study of philosophy by those under twenty-five by Solomon ibn Adret of Barcelona in mid-1306, biblical commentaries shaped by Maimonides’s philosophy were composed in significant numbers during the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries in Provence, Spain, and Italy. In Provence three important figures were Joseph ibn Kaspi (1279–1331), Nissim ben Moses of Marseilles (works composed in the 1320s), and Levi ben Gershom (Ralbag, Gersonides, 1288–1344). Others include Samuel ibn Tibbon (1165–1232), who translated the Guide into Hebrew, composed a Maimonidean-type commentary on Ecclesiastes, and a philosophical-exegetical treatise Ma’amar Yiqqawu ha-Mayim (Let the waters be gathered [Gen 1:9]) in which he includes extensive philosophical discussion of Genesis, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Job, and the Book of Psalms, and Abba Mari ben Eligdor (fourteenth c.), whose commentary on Job relies heavily on Maimonides.
Joseph ibn Kaspi was a grammarian, philosopher, and biblical exegete. So committed was he to the study of Maimonides’ philosophy that he travelled to Egypt to study with his grandchildren and then to Fez where the Guide was studied in Muslim philosophical schools. Ibn Kaspi wrote on the works of Abraham ibn Ezra and Maimonides, in addition to commentaries on the Torah (modeled on Rashi and Ibn Ezra), the Prophets, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Ezra-Nehemiah. The commentaries focused on peshat exegesis (with regard to grammar he was especially influenced by Ibn Janah), but also contain philosophical explanations. In the case of Job his commentary is devoted to challenging Maimonides’ interpretation as offered in the Guide 3:22–23. In general, Ibn Kaspi agreed with Maimonides that a peshat meaning of a verse was true while it simultaneously had an esoteric philosophical meaning. However, in contrast to Maimonides, who described supernatural events in the Bible as sometimes taking place in a character’s prophetic vision, he asserted that they really happened as the peshat of a narrative described.
Nissim ben Moses of Marseilles composed a commentary on the Torah (Ma’aseh Nissim) primarily concerned with providing naturalistic explanations for all supernatural and miraculous depictions of events. Miracles could be explained by the superior intellectual or prophetic ability of the prophet, or by the fact that events took place in a vision. In this respect he was significantly influenced by Maimonides. The commentary shows a thorough knowledge of rabbinic sources and Abraham ibn Ezra.
Levi ben Gershom was a polymath who composed significant works on Talmud and Jewish law, philosophy and logic, astronomy, and mathematics. He wrote commentaries on the Torah, Former Prophets, the Five Scrolls, Proverbs, and Job. In organizing his commentaries, Gersonides divided the text into sections, first offering an explanation of key words according to the rules of grammar and available lexical knowledge, then a paraphrase of the text including more extensive explanatory glosses, and finally a collection of ethical-moral and philosophical lessons. For Gersonides, who was very much influenced by Maimonides, the Torah is a book of both revelation and philosophy. It functions to direct the learned reader to philosophical and moral perfection. In contrast to Maimonides, who saw philosophical lessons hidden in the biblical text, Gersonides held that the philosophical meaning of a passage is its peshat, and he revealed philosophical explanations that Maimonides kept hidden in his Guide.
In Spain, the Maimonidean tradition was perpetuated by scholars like Isaac Arundi (fourteenth c.). He likely originated from Ronda, Spain, and lived in Italy and perhaps Provence. His commentary on the book of Job is extant and was clearly influenced by Maimonides and Gersonides although it also contains quotations from the rabbis, Plato, Aristotle, and Averroes.
In Italy, Immanuel of Rome (1261–1335) composed commentaries on the entire Bible. Those extant include all or parts of the commentaries on the Torah, Habbakuk, Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, and Esther. By his own description Immanuel culled the “pearls of wisdom” from other sages, dividing his comments up according to grammar, peshat interpretations, his original interpretations, and the hidden and allegorical meanings. The last often includes material from Maimonides’s Guide and from his halakic work, Mishneh Torah. In the commentary on Job, Immanuel is explicit in stating that his work is based on Maimonides, and he may be the first to have written a verse-by-verse commentary on Job in the Maimonidean vein.
By the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries the major trends in Jewish biblical exegesis had been established. What followed were commentaries that synthesized these various perspectives and that were largely in conversation with the previous sages, especially Rashi, ibn Ezra, Maimonides, and Nahmanides. New developments were in certain ways a return to older styles, e.g., the anthologizing of midrash and homiletical exegesis. Later generations could not escape the influence of the methodologies established by the peshat, philosophical, and mystical exegetes who had preceded them. This was reinforced in the early sixteenth century with the printings of Biblia Rabbinica (Miqraot Gedolot) in Venice in 1517 and 1524–1525. These printed Hebrew Bibles typically included on the page the biblical text, an Aramaic Targum, and in the earlier edition one and occasionally two medieval biblical commentaries, with many more per page in the second edition. The most frequently included commentaries were those of Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Nahmanides, and Gersonides. Of particular importance is that for all the rabbinic Bibles produced until 1619 the only commentators included were those who lived between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. In so doing, the act of printing created a canon, or at least reinforced the importance of particular commentators. This influenced the methods and approaches of future biblical exegetes who began with this recognized stable of commentaries. Simultaneously, the inclusion of multiple commentaries on a single page showed the dialogic and varied nature of Jewish biblical commentary in the Middle Ages.
[See also MIDRASH; ORTHODOX JEWISH INTERPRETATION; QUR’ANIC AND ISLAMIC INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE; RECONSTRUCTIONIST JEWISH INTERPRETATION; and REFORM JEWISH INTERPRETATION.]
- Berlin, Adele. Biblical Poetry through Medieval Jewish Eyes. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. A study of Jewish exegesis of biblical poetry as a window on scholars’ knowledge and application of grammar, linguistics, and literary analysis.
- Berlin, Adele, and Marc Z. Brettler, eds. The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. The Jewish Publication Society translation and commentary on each biblical book, with fifteen essays on the place of the Bible in Jewish life and thought. Those by Barry D. Walfish (“Medieval Jewish Interpretation,” pp. 1876–1900), Hava Tirosh-Samuelson (“The Bible in the Jewish Philosophical Tradition,” pp. 1948–1976), and the editors and Elliot Wolfson (“The Bible in the Jewish Mystical Tradition,” pp. 1976–1990) provide an excellent survey of medieval Jewish exegesis along with extended overviews of individual scholars and examples from their works.
- Carasik, Michael. The Commentators’ Bible: The JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2005–ongoing. The first major attempt by a single author to translate major medieval commentaries on the Torah in the style of the Biblia Rabbinica. It includes translations of Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and Nahmanides, along with selections from others. The translation excludes comments made redundant by the translation, the repetition of one exegete cited in another’s commentary, and occasionally condenses long comments. It successfully provides an experience akin to reading the Hebrew original, but the individual commentaries have been translated by others (e.g., Martin Lockshin’s translations of Rashbam on Torah).
- Cohen, Menachem. Mikraot Gedolot Ha-Keter (Hebrew). Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2000–ongoing. The preliminary results of an effort to produce a Rabbinic Bible with accurate texts of the commentaries. Currently available are volumes on Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Minor Prophets, the Five Scrolls, and Psalms.
- Cohen, Mordechai Z. “Biblical Exegesis: Rabbanite.” In Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World edited by Norman Stillman, et al. Vol. 1, pp. 442–457. Leiden: Brill, 2010. The most up-to-date survey of Jewish exegesis by rabbinic Jews in North Africa, the Middle East, and Muslim Spain by an author engaged in cutting-edge work on the influence of Islamic scholarship on Jewish intellectual enterprises. Includes many articles on individual exegetes.
- Cohen, Mordechai Z. Three Approaches to Biblical Metaphor: From Abraham Ibn Ezra and Maimonides to David Kimhi. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2003. Explores the hermeneutical methodology used by three major exegetes to reconcile the literary contextual meaning of the biblical text with reason (i.e., when should a text be taken literally and when should it be read as metaphorical?). An essential text for understanding Jewish philosophical exegesis.
- Eisen, Robert. The Book of Job in Medieval Jewish Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. A case study of medieval Jewish philosophical exegesis on Job, especially as practiced by Maimonideans. Includes discussion of Saadiah, Maimonides, Samuel Ibn Tibbon, Gersonides, Immanuel of Rome, and others.
- Frank, Daniel. Search Scripture Well: Karaite Exegetes and the Origins of the Jewish Bible Commentary in the Islamic East. Leiden: Brill, 2004. A recent study of Karaite exegesis and the origins of the single author verse-by-verse biblical commentary by Jews.
- Frank, Daniel. “Biblical Exegesis: Karaite.” In Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World edited by Norman Stillman, et al. Vol. 1, pp. 457–461. Leiden: Brill, 2010. A survey of key developments in Karaite exegesis in the Middle Ages based on the most current research.
- Grossman, Avraham. The Early Sages of France: Their Lives, Leadership and Work (Hebrew). Jerusalem: Magnes, 1996. An intellectual biography of the major exegetes in the peshat school by the premier scholar of the field.
- Harris, Robert A. “Biblical Interpretation, Medieval French.” In Encyclopaedia of Judaism edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan J. Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green. 2d edition. Vol. 1, pp. 234–251. Leiden: Brill, 2005. An extremely thorough survey of Jewish exegesis in medieval France, including descriptions of a number of exegetes who made more modest contributions.
- Harris, Robert A. Discerning Parallelism: A Study in Northern French Medieval Jewish Biblical Exegesis. Providence, R.I.: Brown University, 2004. Presents the literary sense of the Peshat school of exegetes by exploring its members’ analysis of the phenomenon of biblical parallelism.
- Harris, Robert A. “Medieval Jewish Biblical Exegesis.” In A History of Biblical Interpretation: The Medieval through the Reformation Periods, edited by Alan J. Hauser and Duane F. Watson, pp. 141–171. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009. An effective overview with a focus on Rashi and Rashbam, Abraham ibn Ezra, Radak, Ramban, Ralbag, and Isaac Abarbanel. Includes examples from their commentaries.
- Kalman, Jason. “Medieval Jewish Commentaries and the State of Parshanut Studies” Religion Compass 2, no. 5 (2008): 819–843, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00099.x/full (accessed January 9, 2012). A survey of the major trends in the study of medieval biblical exegesis, current debates and disputes, and bibliographic references to the best available editions of many medieval commentators and European language translations thereof.
- Katznellenbogen, Mordechai Leib, ed. Torat Haim (Hebrew). Jerusalem: Mossad Ha-Rav Kook, 1986–ongoing. Mossad Ha-Rav Kook has for almost fifty years been a premier publisher of quality editions of medieval commentaries. This Rabbinic Bible reproduces many of them without the editorial comments and textual variants found in the original editions. Included are brief but helpful notes on each commentary. Currently available are volumes on the Torah and the Five Scrolls.
- Howard Kreisel. “Philosophical Interpretations of the Bible” in The Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy, edited by Steven Nadler and Tamar M. Rudavsky, pp. 88–120. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. A survey of Jewish philosophical exegesis from Saadiah through Maimonides, into Provence and the Renaissance, concluding with Spinoza. It is especially important for its treatment of Nissim of Marseille who otherwise is rarely discussed.
- Levine, Michelle J. Nahmanides on Genesis: The Art of Biblical Portraiture. Providence, R.I.: Brown University, 2009. A treatment of Nahmanides’s exegesis and knowledge of biblical poetics. Explores the influence of other commentators on his commentary on Genesis and more generally.
- Levy, B. Barry. 1991 “Rabbinic Bibles, Mikra’ot Gedolot, and Other Great Books,” Tradition 25 (1991): 65–81. An overview of the development of Biblia Rabbinica, along with descriptions of their contents and discussion of the commentators included in various editions.
- Polliack, Meira. The Karaite Tradition of Arabic Bible Translation. Leiden: Brill, 1997. A study of Torah translation and exegetical concerns of Karaties in tenth and eleventh century Jerusalem with significant comparisons to the translation of Saadiah.
- Meira, Polliack. “Major Trends in Karaite Biblical Exegesis in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries.” In Karaite Judaism: A Guide to its History and Literary Sources, edited by Meira Polliack, pp. 363–413. Leiden: Brill, 2003. A thorough survey of the exegetical methods of the major Karaite exegetes.
- Saebo, Magnes, ed. Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, vol. 1, pt. 1, From the Beginnings to the Middle Ages: Antiquity. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996.
- Saebo, Magnes, ed. Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, vol. 1, pt. 2, From the Beginnings to the Middle Ages: The Middle Ages. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2000.
- Saebo, Magnes, ed. Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, vol. 2, From the Enlightenment to the Renaissance. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008. Collectively these volumes (along with a forthcoming one) survey Jewish and Christian Interpretation from antiquity to modernity. Vol. 1, pt. 2 is devoted to the Middle Ages and includes many articles written by an international group of the best scholars on each individual exegete or interpretive trend. It is the finest available material on Jewish biblical exegesis in one place and includes important English articles by scholars who primarily publish in Hebrew (e.g., Avraham Grossman on Peshat in France).
- Signer, Michael. “Bible, Jewish Interpretation of.” In Medieval France: An Encyclopedia, edited by William Kibler and Grover Zinn, et al., pp. 123–126. Oxford: Routledge, 1995. A survey of medieval Jewish exegesis in France. Signer is effective here, as in his other works, in comparing Jewish interpretation to the practices of contemporary Christian scholars.
- Simon, Uriel. Four Approaches to the Book of Psalms. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. A comparison of the approaches of Saadiah, the Karaites Solomon ben Yeruham and Yefet ben Eli, Moses Chiquitilla, and Abraham ibn Ezra. By comparing their views of the same texts the similarities, differences, and influences are highlighted.
- Targarona, Judit. “Biblical Exegesis: In al-Andalus.” In Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World, edited by Norman Stillman, et al. Vol. 1, pp. 461–462. Leiden: Brill, 2010. A brief overview of the major developments and primary exegetes in Muslim Spain.
- Walfish, Barry D. Esther in Medieval Garb: Jewish Interpretation of the Book of Esther in the Middle Ages. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. A survey of all the medieval Jewish commentators on Esther, along with biographical information and descriptions of their exegetical methods.