April 14, 2024
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Rav Itzeleh Volozhiner and the Bi’ur

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 only published legacy is 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. Bezalel 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 adviser 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 that engages with the classical pshat commentaries and offers many original insights in the same style.

In “Making of a Godol” (second 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 pshat 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 pshat, 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 pshat. 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 would-be 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. A close comparison 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.

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” (I list them in a sidebar/expanded version of this essay on TorahMusings.com at https://www.torahmusings.com/2019/05/rav-itzeleh-volozhiner-and-the-biur/.) 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.

By Rabbi Gil Student


Rabbi Gil Student is editor-in-chief of Torahmusings.com

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