Jewish commentators on the Torah

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Author: Rav Richard ‘Aharon’ Chaimberlin

After Simchat Torah, Jews again begin studying the Torah, beginning at the be-ginning with the book of Genesis. According to the Rabbis, each year when it the Torah readings are ending with the last chapters of Deuteronomy, HaSatan goes before God to accuse the Jewish people, saying that now that they are finishing with Deuteronomy, they will no longer study Torah. So at Simchat Torah, as soon as we finish reading the last chapter of Deuteronomy, we roll the Torah scroll back to read from Genesis chapter 1, to prove that HaSatan is a liar.

Rav Richard‘Aharon’Chaimberlin

     Many years ago, Miriam (my wife) was employed by an Orthodox Jewish scholar. His family invited us to join his family in their sukka during Sukkot, where we had a lovely meal. Afterwards, they invited us into their home. The husband invited me upstairs, where he had all the volumes of the Talmud. Each page had Mishnah, which is a commentary on Torah in Hebrew, surrounded by Gemara, which is a commentary on Mishnah written in Aramaic. This man was able to read both fluently. I was suitably impressed.

     I decided to ask him what he felt about heaven and hell. He responded something like this: “Heaven – Gan Eden – is where the righteous go after this life. They study Torah 24 hours every day. They never stop to eat or sleep. They just study Torah.”

     I mentioned to him that many people wouldn’t be happy with that picture of Gan Eden, so I asked him what Hell was like. He said something like this: “Hell – Gehenna – is where the unrighteous go after this life. They study Torah 24 hours every day. They never stop to eat or sleep. They just study Torah.”

     He probably told his story somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But I got the picture! The study of Torah doesn’t end in this life. And we should learn to love Torah in this live, or heaven will be hell for us!

     When books were added to the Hebrew scriptures, there was one primary test to determine if the book was worthy. If it contradicted Torah, it was not to be included in the Jewish canon of books. That same test should apply to the Newer Testament. Any interpretation of NT writings that contradicts Torah should be rejected.

     I have the Schottenstein Interlinear Chumash published by Artscroll, which contains the Five Books of Torah, along with fairly extensive Rabbinic commentaries as one proceeds through the Five Books, as well as the Haftarah for each Torah portion. It’s a magnificent, huge, one-volume edition, almost 1700 pages, and beautifully put together. I used to make use of Rashi’s 5-volume commentary of Torah, but seldom use it today. I am not always thrilled with the Rabbinic commentaries, but I do prefer them to Christian commentaries.

     This article contains some information that is critical of some of these Jewish commentators on the Torah. I would like to qualify this criticism. All were intellectual geniuses. They had almost encyclopedic memories. By comparison, I might not seem so bright. But nonetheless, we can have differences of opinion when it comes to various doctrines and beliefs. And of course I would strongly disagree with traditional Jewish commentators in their rejection of Yeshua as the Messiah.

     The Chumash that I use includes the Aramaic Targum written by Onkelos. The word targum means “translation” in Hebrew. However, this word is commonly used for Aramaic translations of the Tanakh (OT). Onkelos completed his Targum (actually a paraphrase) on the Torah in about 110 CE.[1] Later, there was a Targum Jonathan (Yonatan) of the Nevi’im (Prophets). Both of these Targums are widely accepted in Judaism. There is no official Targum for the Ketuvim (“Writings”).

ONKELOS

Onkelos (35 to 120 CE) was an extraordinary scholar. He was also a convert to Judaism, and was in fact a nephew of Titus – yes, the same Titus who is responsible for the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. He completed his Targum on Torah in about 110 CE. The Roman emperor was very unhappy about a member of the Roman aristocracy converting to Judaism. According to legend, he sent three different groups of men to arrest Onkelos. Each time, Onkelos succeeded in convincing these men of the truth of the Jewish religion, causing them to convert. Thereafter, the Roman authorities gave up on trying to arrest him. Whether true or not, it is an interesting legend. But of greater interest to me is the fact that the Targum of Onkelos, a Gentile convert to Judaism, is the most respected Targum. The Targum of Onkelos is included throughout my Chumash, but only in the Aramaic language, no English translation.

RASHI

Also, Rashi’s commentary is also included throughout my Chumash. Rashi was born in France in 1040, but spent much of his life in Germany. He founded a yeshiva in Worms, Germany, but eventually made his way back to France where he died in 1105. He was also a vintner, producing fine wines. Many liquor stores still sell Rashi wine, although I doubt that these wines have a connection to Rashi.

     Rashi completed a Hebrew commentary on the entire Tanakh (OT), as well as commentaries on 30 of the 39 tractates of Talmud. These were both immense tasks. There were no printing presses in his day. The Bible wasn’t neatly divided up in chapters and verses until centuries later when a Catholic monk performed this useful feat. Rashi’s commentary on the Torah is so well respected that there are about 300 commentaries on Rashi’s commentary of the Torah! His commentary in my Chumash is all in Rashi’s own unique Hebrew script. Rashi had three daughters, but no sons. He is also famous for all three daughters being great scholars, and each also married great scholars. Also, although most Orthodox Jews frown on this, each of the daughters designed tallits (prayer shawls) that were feminine, along with the tzitziot (fringes) on the corners. I readRashi’s commentary translated into English on occasion, but frankly don’t often care for it that much. I joke that Rashi was probably drinking too much of his fine wine when he wrote his commentary. As time goes on, I have begun to appreciate it more.

MAIMONIDES

The most famous commentator is Maimonides, often called “the Rambam.” He was born in 1135 in Spain, and died in 1204 in Tiberias, Israel. He wrote extensive commentaries on both the Tanakh and Talmud. He also wrote the Mishneh Torah (“Second Law”), with its instructions on Halachah (Rabbinic interpretations on how to obey the mitzvot – commandments). The term Mishneh Torah is also used for the book of Deuteronomy, which also means “Second Law” in Greek.

     Overall, I am not thrilled with Maimonides, because he takes an allegoric view of Scripture, that it should be often taken figuratively. Overall, my view is, “When the literal interpretation makes sense, seek no other sense.” I should qualify that a bit. As we dig deeper into Scripture, there are often deeper meanings to be gleaned. However, I generally don’t like allegorical interpretations, something that is often done in Christianity. To make matters worse, Maimonides often tries to combine Greek philosophy with Torah. To me, that is like trying to mix oil and water. They don’t mix. Maimonides also wrote Guide to the Perplexed. I tried to read it. I don’t consider myself a dummy, but I had a hard time trying to understand this book. I got more perplexed the more that I read. Maimonides was also a physician.

     We have visited the shrine to Maimonides in Tiberias, Israel. And it really is a shrine. Miriam and I were a bit shocked to see a giant portrait of Maimonides hovering over dozens of candles. It felt almost like going into a Catholic church. However, we can’t blame Maimonides for this shrine built after his death. I mention Maimonides because my Chumash also makes use of his commentaries.

NACHMONIDES

My favorite commentator is Nachmonides, known as “the Ramban,” not to be confused with the Rambam. Like Maimonides, Nachmonides was also born in Spain, in 1194, and was also a physician. He was already a practicing physician while still a teenager! Obviously, he was another brilliant Jew. I like his commentaries because he promoted a literal interpretation of the Torah. He also had insights that boggle the mind. Just by reading Genesis chapter 1, he understood that there are ten dimensions: Four are knowable, and six are unknowable. I can understand length, width, height, and time. I find it hard to wrap my brain around the concept of six other dimensions. However, many modern physicists have come to the same conclusion of these extra dimensions that Nachmonides understood almost 800 years ago.

     In Medieval Spain, there were occasionally events called “Disputations.” They would have a public debate using a learned rabbi, who would be forced to debate a learned Christian. The judges would also be Christians (Catholic Christians, of course). The debates would be on the truths of the Jewish and Christian religions. If the Jewish rabbi lost the debate, the Jews of that town would be forced to convert to Catholicism. Jews who refused to convert would be forced into exile or perhaps burned at the stake. If the rabbi won the debate, the Jewish population would be free to remain and continue to practice their religion.

     In 1263, there was a Disputation scheduled in Barcelona. Nachmonides was chosen to debate a learned Christian. The cards were clearly stacked against Nachmonides, since the judges were all Catholic Christians. However, the judges were impressed by the logic

of Nachmonides, and decided that Nachmonides had won the debate. Therefore, the Jews could remain in Barcelona and remain true to their faith. However, 4 years later, Nachmonides was forced to leave Spain. Eventually, he made it to Israel, and died in Tz’fat (Safed), perhaps the most mystical city in Israel. Nachmonides was also a Kabbalist, something that I disagree with. I sometimes refer to Kabbalah as Jewish occult with a Hindi accent, because Kabbalah teaches such things as reincarnation. (Much of it is just plain boring.)

YESHUA

Another superb Jewish commentator on the Torah is Yeshua! Many people believe that Jesus came to earth to start up a new religion. The truth is that Yeshua came to be the Messiah for the old religion: Judaism. Neither He nor his talmidim (disciples) converted to Christianity. They remained Jewish followers of the Jewish Messiah. His Sermon on the Mount was a very rabbinic interpretation of Halachah. While many Christians believe that Jesus came to do away with the Law, Yeshua said,

17Think not that I have come to destroy the Law, or the prophets: I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill. 18For truly I say to you, Until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or one tittle shall in any way pass from the Law, until all be fulfilled. 19Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.[2]

Also, instead of weakening the commandments, He actually strengthened them, including the prohibitions of murder (5:21-22), adultery (5:27-29), divorce (5:30-32), false vows (5:33-37), and loving your neighbor (5:43-48).

     Of course, Yeshua was far more than a commentator on the Word. He was the Word! As it says in John 1:1-3: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. 3All things were made by Him; and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” The only Scriptures that Yeshua had in the First Century was the Tanakh, including the Torah, which Yeshua quoted from often.

RAV SHA’UL (PAUL)

Perhaps the most misunderstood of all is Rav Sha’ul, known also as Paul. On a personal level, he continued worshipping and teaching in the synagogues (Acts 13:14; 17:2; 17:17 18:4; 18:29). He observed and practiced Temple sacrifices (Acts 21:26). He stated, “I am a Jew” (Acts 22:3). He never called himself a Christian. In Acts 23:6, he stated, “I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees.” He stated, “I have committed no offense against the Law of the Jews or against the Temple or against Caesar” (Acts 25:8). He said, “I have done nothing against our people (the Jews), or the customs of the fathers” (Acts 28:17).

     In Romans 2:13, Paul said. “For not the hearers of the Law are just before God, but the doers of the Law shall be justified.” In Romans 3:31, Paul stated, “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.” Whereas many claim to be spiritual by not keeping the commandments, Rav Sha’ul said, “For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am carnal…” in Romans 7:14. At least 90% of what Paul taught was what could be called “pro-Torah.” However, many Christians will cling to the 10% of his teachings which can be misconstrued as “anti-Torah.” God’s instructions (Torah) are eternal, as seen in Psalm 119:144,152, etc.

     The concept that God has changed His mind and “done away” with Torah is contrary to His nature. In Malachi 3:6, we read, “I, the LORD, do not change…” The Greek and Roman gods and goddesses were fickle and moody. However, the God we worship does not change. The very definition of sin in the Newer Testament tells us, “Whosoever commits sin transgresses also the Law, for sin is the transgression of the Law” (1 John 3:4). Wow! That sounds like the same definition of sin that we would find in the Tanakh (OT)!

     I hasten to add: We do not keep the Law (God’s instructions) in order to get saved. Instead, the Law contains God’s instructions for those who are already redeemed. As Yeshua said, “If you love Me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). We also read, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments; The one who said, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has been truly perfected. By this we know that we are in Him. The one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 John 2:3-6). And of course, Yeshua walked as a Torah-observant Jew.


[1] “Common Era,” equivalent to A.D.

[2] Matthew 5:17-19

Source: https://petahtikvah.com/Articles/JewishCommentatorsonTorah.htm#_ftn2