Book review: Reference works for readers and collectors

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

A friend once asked if I read or skimmed the books I review. He seemed a bit disappointed when I said I read them. Then I did note one exception: Some works aren’t really meant to be read, but studied. So, for these books, I usually read the introductions and skim through the material. The books in this review are really reference/study works, books that collectors like to have on their shelves and read/use in classes or to consult when they have a question. All three are beautifully bound works that make a great gift for anyone who loves the Bible and biblical commentaries.

“The JPS Bible Commentary: Song of Songs”

When I first saw information about the “The JPS Bible Commentary: Song of Songs,” with commentary by Michael Fishbane (The Jewish Publication Society), I thought it contained a typo: It listed the book’s length at more than 300 pages. Since the JPS commentary on the book of Ruth was only a little more than 100 pages and the difference in the length of the two books is only eight pages in my Hebrew/English Tanach (Hebrew Bible), it seemed an obvious mistake. However, once I had the commentary in my hands, I understood why the book is so long: There are so many disparate interpretations on the text – from the very secular idea of its being a miscellaneous collection of love and/or wedding songs to the most religious interpretation of the work as a love song between God and the people Israel – that a detailed discussion is needed.

Fishbane focuses on specific types of Jewish interpretation, using the four levels of traditional commentary to explain the text.

  • Peshat, the “plain sense” of the text, focuses “on the grammatical meaning of the terms and phrases in their given content.” On this level, “the Song speaks about a maiden and her beloved.”
  • Derash, which uses an allegorical approach, sees “the Song’s maiden [as] personification of the people of Israel (sometimes as individuals, sometimes as the collectivity) and her beloved as the personification of God.”
  • Remez, which treats the text as a “philosophical allegory of the intellectual or spiritual life,” understands it as speaking about “the human striving for perfection” and “God’s desire for the perfection of the human being and encouragement for the seeker of truth.”
  • Sod, a mystical interpretation, treats the maiden and her lover as representatives of “male and female aspects of Divinity,” with the Divine seeking to “realize its own inherit harmony through love.”

Each section of the commentary analyzes the text using the four different types of interpretation. The beauty is that readers can either focus on one type of commentary, or study individual verses as seen through all four levels. The book also offers a history of the development of these commentaries as they relate to the text. “The JPS Bible Commentary: Song of Songs” is perfect for beginners and scholars seeking to uncover the meaning of this poetic and intriguing biblical work.

“The Schocken Bible: Volume II – The Early Prophets”

When I graduated from rabbinical school, a friend gave me a copy of Everett Fox’s translation of the Chumash (the first five books of the Bible). For the next year, I used it to read the weekly parasha (Bible portion). Fox’s attempt to capture the flavor of the Hebrew in his translation and his commentary concerning his choice of words made the book fascinating reading. He does the same in his latest work, “The Schocken Bible: Volume II – The Early Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings” (Schocken Books), where he once again tries to bring the Hebrew text to life.

Fox notes that “whatever the Bible’s origins, it is clear that most writing in antiquity was read aloud and so to experience the Bible in its spokenness is a vital way to draw nearer to it.” He pays close attention to the length of phrases, the sounds of the words and the rhythmic aspects of the text. He also offers introductions to each book, along with an outline of its structure. His commentary looks at everything from the correct pronunciation of a word to an explanation of the choices made for a particular phrase.

One example of how Fox’s translation seeks to retain the flavor of the original Hebrew text can be found in Hannah’s prayer (I Samuel, chapter 1, verse 10-11):

  • The Jewish Publication Society translation: “In her wretchedness, she prayed to the Lord, weeping all the while. And she made this vow: ‘O Lord of Hosts, if You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant and will remember me and not forget your maidservant, and if You will grant Your maidservant a male child, I will dedicate him to the Lord for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head.’”
  • Fox’s translation: “And she was bitter of feeling, so she prayed to YHWH, while she wept, yes, wept; and she vowed a vow, and said, ‘O YHWH of the Forces-On-High, if you will see, yes, see the affliction of your maidservant, and will bear me in mind and not forget your maidservant, and will give your maidservant the seed of men, then I will give him to YHWH for all the days of his life: no razor shall go up on his head!’”

Those who own a copy of the first volume will definitely want this new one for their collection. Members of study groups will find comparing Fox’s translation to other translations an excellent way to better understand the text. At more than 800 pages, “The Schocken Bible: Volume II” is an impressive piece of scholarship.

“The Commentators’ Bible: Deuteronomy”

Anyone who owns a copy of the previous volumes in “The Commentators’ Bible, The Rubin JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot” series – edited, translated and annotated by Michael Carasik (The Jewish Publication Society) – can skip this review and just order the latest in the series, “Deuteronomy.” It’s of the same high quality as the three prior volumes on the biblical books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. For those unfamiliar with the series, Carasik provides an excellent introduction to the world of medieval Jewish commentary on the Bible; his work is a great place for those who can’t read them in the original Hebrew to start their studies.

The work has some wonderful features. My favorite is the inclusion of both the old Jewish Publication Society (1917) and new Jewish Publication Society (1985) translations of the biblical text. This offers readers an opportunity to see the difference between a literal translation and a smoother, more literary one. Carasik edits the medieval commentaries, sometimes to explain more fully sections that would otherwise be difficult for contemporary readers to understand or to prevent repetition of material. In his “Principles of Translation,” the author carefully outlines his approach to the work and what readers should expect.

The pages are arranged with the biblical verses in Hebrew at the top center, and their English translations to the right and left of that text. The main commentaries featured – Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra and Nahmanides – are printed below those. Additional comments from other commentators appear on the bottom of the page when they offer different insights to the text.

Those looking to find new meanings in the weekly parasha can look at all the commentaries for the section (although the work is not divided into parashot). Anyone interested in a particular commentator can follow his comments throughout the book. Carasik offers additional study suggestions for those unfamiliar with medieval commentary or the study of the Torah text. “The Commentators’ Bible” is a wonderful addition to any reference shelf. I look forward to the final work in the series.