June 23, 2024
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A Noteworthy Commentary on Leviticus

Reviewing: Shadal on Leviticus: Samuel David Luzzatto’s Interpretation of the Book of Vayikra.” Translated and Edited by Daniel Klein. Kodesh Press. 2020. English. Paperback. 307 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1947857483.

Daniel Klein continues to spread the teachings of an important, but too often overlooked, biblical interpreter. Samuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865) was the preeminent Italian Jewish biblical interpreter of the 19th century.

There are two ways in which Shadal’s commentary is noteworthy. First, he quotes from a wide variety of sources, Jewish and gentile. Second, he tries very hard to figure out the root of each word. This is very useful, because once you understand the root of a word, many other related words become understandable.

On the Chumash, Shadal wrote a translation of each verse in Italian, written primarily for the masses. We also have a commentary in Hebrew for more serious students that cited the extensive sources I mentioned above. Klein’s works always include both. The commentary in Hebrew was put together by Shadal’s students after his death, based on transcripts of his lectures.

How did Klein get interested in Shadal? It was not planned. With his father’s encouragement, he decided to learn Italian in his youth. Then his grandmother, who had studied Italian in college, gave him an edition of Shadal’s translation so he could practice his Italian. First he simply enjoyed the practice. Then he realized that he benefited greatly from the translation. This led him to study the Hebrew commentary as well. In 1976, Klein set a goal that he would translate Shadal’s translation and commentary into English. Since Klein was an attorney, he could only do this as a side project. After 20 years he finished Genesis and in 1998 it was published by Jason Aronson. In 2015, with Aronson no longer publishing Judaica books, Klein finished Exodus and had it published by Kodesh Press. Now he has completed Leviticus, again published by Kodesh Press. (In 2019, Kodesh also republished the Genesis volume, with a revised introduction.)

How did I get interested in Shadal? This was also not planned. My book on Jewish chronology and ancient Persia (“Jewish History in Conflict”) was published by Aronson in 1997. My chavruta at the time (and for many years) was Steve Leichman. One day in 1998, Steve’s wife Abby told me that her brother had just published a book with Aronson: “Shadal on Genesis.” I had never heard of Shadal. But out of loyalty to Steve and Abby and to my new publisher, I bought this book.

Buying that 1998 Genesis edition was life-changing for me! I now divide my life into two parts: pre-Shadal and post-Shadal. In my pre-Shadal life, I was like every other intelligent Orthodox person. I was interested in the standard Rishonim, and I also happened to have a side interest in chronology. But it was from studying Shadal that I learned how to figure out roots of words. If I give a dvar Torah now, my thought is always to find some interesting word in the parsha.

After I finished the Genesis volume in 1998, I was so addicted to Shadal that I had to acquire the Hebrew edition for the rest of the four books. I acquired the Hebrew edition that was most available at the time: the 1965 Schlesinger edition. But this edition is problematic: The material from non-Jewish authorities was often deleted. (Schlesinger does provide a weak rationale for doing this. More recently, E. Munk did an English translation of this edition.)

In his introduction to the Leviticus edition, Klein writes: “When I undertook to translate the writings of [Shadal]… 44 years ago, I knew that I would eventually have to [translate the third book]….I wondered whether there would be much of an audience for this work, with its lack of stirring narratives and its emphasis on the details of animal sacrifices, ancient real estate law, and various skin disorders… I was pleasantly surprised…[Shadal’s] insights into the purposes and benefits of the book’s manifold rules and regulations, and his clear explanations of the book’s sometimes difficult language, can help to open up Leviticus to those who have regarded it as a closed or overly challenging tome.”

Here are some examples of Shadal’s explanations in the Leviticus commentary:

1. On the word מדה (measure), at Lev. 19:35: “The root maddad (“to measure”) originally denoted the spreading of one thing over another, as in, “And he [Elijah] stretched himself [va-yitmoded] upon the child” (I Kings 17:21), and hence this term came to be used for the measurement of length, which involved the passing of a rope or measuring rod over the object to be measured….”

2. At Lev. 17:13, the Torah instructs that when an animal that is permitted to be eaten is killed, its blood must first be poured out and covered. Why the requirement of covering? Shadal writes: “[Some say that this is] so as not to leave it on the ground for the souls of the dead to come and drink it, in accordance with the belief of ancient peoples, as seen in Homer. Rosenmueller [a non-Jewish German Orientalist] said that this was by way of according honor to the blood, so that the wild beasts should not drink it. To me it seems that this was so that the blood should not remain and cause one who saw it to think that it was human blood, and that the blood of an innocent person had been shed in the land of Israel, which was holy….” Klein adds a note, explaining the reference to Homer. (He has excellent notes throughout.)

3. At Lev. 2:2, on the word אזכרתה: “The entire term zechirah (“remembering”) has as its most basic meaning “to give off a scent,” and was transferred to denote remembrance, for remembering a past event is like detecting the scent of something after it passes from one’s sight.”

4. He also gives a very important explanation of the small aleph at Lev. 1:1 (cited by Rabbi J. H. Hertz).

Rabbi Hertz cites “Luzzatto” frequently. He is always citing to Shadal, and not to his earlier relative Moshe Chayim Luzzatto. Nehama Leibowitz cites Shadal often as well. I am not aware of citations to Shadal in ArtScroll’s works. I don’t think the failure to cite him is because he was too modern. He was essentially Orthodox in his actions and beliefs. Klein discusses Shadal’s Orthodoxy in his excellent introduction.

The main weakness with Shadal’s commentary is that he was writing at the dawn of biblical archaeology, when Akkadian had only recently been deciphered. But a large portion of Shadal’s root derivations are borne out by modern lexicography. (Today if you want to double-check whether your proposed dvar Torah based on Shadal is correct, you can simply go to H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, 2009, to see if a better alternative is presented there.)

One of Shadal’s more recent relatives was Fiorello LaGuardia, former mayor of N.Y.C. As to the translator, Daniel Klein, he is a descendant of Rav S.R. Hirsch. (He has inherited the etymology-interest gene from him! Klein is a superb writer as well.)

Klein’s book is available from kodeshpress.com and amazon.com. There is also a great podcast by Klein about Shadal at www.seforimchatter.buzzsprout.com.

Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish scholar. Full disclosure: His recent books are also published by Kodesh Press. He identifies with the author, who also has constructed a life combining law and Jewish scholarship.

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