May 29, 2024
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May 29, 2024
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Review: ‘Tanakh: An Owner’s Manual,’ by Moshe Sokolow

Dr. Moshe Sokolow, a professor of Bible at Yeshiva University for many years, and associate dean of Azrieli, came out with this book in 2015. I love the title! The book covers the following subjects: Authorship and Editing, Canonization, Masoretic Text, Parshanut, Translations (e.g., Targumim and Septuagint), Tanach and Modern Scholarship, and Pedagogy.

The best section of this book is the one on “Parshanut.” First Dr. Sokolow writes about “Parshanut” in general. Then he has a section on the following leading exegetes from the 10th through 19th centuries: R. Saadiah Gaon, Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Ramban, Ibn Kaspi and Malbim. He places them each in historical context and provides insights into each. For example, regarding Rashi he writes that just prior to Rashi (11th century), the Jews of France had developed two principal approaches to the study of the Bible. The first approach, personified in Rabbi Moshe Ha-Darshan, was the way of derash. (Note that Rabbi Moshe and his colleagues were the ones who put together the midrashic collection “Bamidbar Rabbah.”) The second approach, personified in R. Menachem bar Chelbo, adopted a more philological approach to the text. He writes that “Rashi sought to steer a course between these two extremes and to balance the tendency to rely, invariably and uncritically, on the talmudic and midrashic Aggadah with the opposite tendency to disregard Aggadah [and rely essentially on] grammar and lexicography.” He quotes the famous passage of Rashi at Genesis 3:8: “va-ani lo bati ela le-peshuto shel mikra, u-le-aggadah ha-meyashevet divrei ha-mikra…” As Dr. Sokolow puts it: “Rashi’s exegetical credo, then, was that his use of Aggadah would be determined by the service it rendered to the resolution of a specific textual problem. No aggadah, as it were, would get a free ride.” (Then he discusses the issue of whether Rashi was entirely faithful to his own credo! I.e., does Rashi ever quote Aggadah without a textual problem motivating him?)

I would now like to digress a bit and point out the evolution in my own understanding of Rashi. In my elementary school in the 1960’s, we used those blue linear Rashi’s with English translation. We saw that Rashi was continually providing us with comments, but we had no idea that he was providing these comments to answer a question! In fact I do not recall ever seeing an editorial comment in these five volumes that pointed out that Rashi was here writing to answer a question! Only in high school was I finally told that Rashi was writing because there was a question in the text that was bothering him.

But Rashi regularly gives midrashic answers. Should he be considered a “pshat commentary” or a “drash commentary”? It was only years later, while studying in Israel at age 24, that a Rabbi Baruch Kaplan gave me the proper explanation in a nutshell: “Rashi asks pshat questions, but gives drash answers.” I.e., he is motivated by a question in the text. But instead of suggesting his own answer (as the commentators after him are willing to do), he generally limits himself to the answers already found in the midrashic corpus (and tries to choose the midrashic answer that most closely fits the text). If you knew this already, great, but I am sure that some of you out there did not. (P.S., I went to Columbia College. Surely, I would have learned this earlier in life if I had been at YU for college and took a class from Dr. Sokolow or one of their other Bible instructors.)

Going back to Dr. Sokolow’s book. I would like to share a few more insights. Regarding Ibn Ezra, he quotes the following interesting passage from Ibn Ezra’s introduction to Eichah: “Midrashim are divided into several categories. Some are riddles, enigmas and lofty aphorisms, while others are intended to provide relief after adversity and still others come to fortify those about to succumb, and to fill a spiritual void. Therefore, one should compare the meaning of a verse to a body, and its midrashim to clothing. Some [midrashim] are fine as silk, while others are coarse as burlap.”

Regarding Ramban, Dr. Sokolow quotes an interesting passage from Ramban’s introduction regarding Ibn Ezra: “We shall conduct an open rebuke and a secreted love.” Who knew that Ramban had a secret love for Ibn Ezra’s commentary!

Now it is time to discuss the weakness of Dr. Sokolow’s book. My 2016 Honda Odyssey manual is 561 pages. This book is only 219 pages. Given all the topics it was meant to address, this book needs to be something like that length as well! For example, his discussions of the authorship of each book and of the canonization process are way too brief. I am not interested in who invented each part of my Honda Odyssey, or how the Honda Odyssey evolved over the decades. But in the case of Tanach, I am interested in authorship and evolution/canonization. These sections of the “manual” should have been longer!

For example, in the case of the authorship of Tehillim, he is willing to adopt the position that some of the material dates to early Bayit Sheni (e.g., Psalm 137, which commences “al naharot Bavel”). But he does not trouble to mention two important passages in classical rabbinic literature that support this position. These are Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:4 and Kohelet Rabbah 7:19. These passages include Ezra as one of the 10 authors of Tehillim. (These passages contrast with the well-known passage at Bava Batra 14b that attributes Tehillim to David “al yedei asarah zekenim,” all of whom lived either in David’s time or earlier.)

Another example of his being too brief is his discussion of canonization. He cites Dr. Sid (Shnayer) Leiman’s important book “The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures: The Talmudic and Midrashic Evidence” (second edition, 1991). But he does not mention Dr. Leiman’s conclusion that the Tanach was closed around 164 B.C.E. and that a passage at II Maccabees 2:14:15 may allude to the closing of the Tanach by Judah Maccabee. He also does not mention Dr. Leiman’s important distinction between inspiration and canon. Dr. Leiman writes that a book can be in the canon, but that does not necessarily mean that it was viewed as being composed with ruach hakodesh. Whether Shir HaShirim and Kohelet were composed with ruach ha-kodesh is what is being debated by the second-century C.E. sages in Mishnah Yadayim 3:5. But all agreed that they were already in the canon. Even if Dr. Sokolow disagreed with Dr. Leiman’s points, they deserved to be mentioned.

Of course, had Dr. Sokolow attempted to be more comprehensive in each chapter and set out to produce a 500-page manual, he likely would never have finished. So I sympathize.

There is of course much to learn in this book and I recommend it. One very simple thing I learned is something I am embarrassed that I had not realized. I have opened the Soncino edition of the Five Megillot at least 10,000 times in my life. I knew that Shir HaShirim was in the front and Esther was at the back, but I never understood the rationale for the order. Dr. Sokolow’s book explained that they are presented in the order they are read during the year: Shir HaShirim, Ruth, Eichah, Kohelet and Esther. This is an ancient order, found in many Biblical manuscripts. (In contrast, in the Daat Mikra they are presented in a presumed chronological order: Ruth, Shir HaShirim, Kohelet, Eichah and Esther. This is the order in the 10th century Aleppo Codex, our earliest source that has an order for them.)

Finally, I would like to point out one interesting suggestion that he makes (at p. 61) that I am still trying to digest. He says that the Hebrew phrase “lashon hakodesh” does not mean the “holy language.” That would be “halashon hakedoshah.” “Lashon hakodesh,” he suggests, means “the language of the sacred one,” i.e., God. Similarly he suggests that “lashon hara” means the language of the Satan. I am not yet convinced that either of these interpretations is correct. I would be interested in hearing from any of you with your thoughts on this matter. I find that “ha” in “lashon hara” especially troublesome!

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. When not contemplating the meaning of the term “lashon hara,” he can be reached at  [email protected].

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at

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