July 13, 2024
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July 13, 2024
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The Commentary of Samuel David Luzatto

Reviewing: “Shadal on Numbers.” Translated and Edited by Daniel A. Klein. Kodesh Press. 2023. English. Paperback. 445 pages. ISBN-13: 979-8888940167.

Daniel Klein continues to spread the teachings of an important, but too often overlooked biblical interpreter. Samuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865), also known as Shadal, was the preeminent Italian Jewish biblical interpreter of the 19th century. Over the years, Klein has translated Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus. Now he finished Numbers. After he finishes Deuteronomy, he hopes to do Luzzatto’s important Isaiah commentary.

There are two ways in which Shadal’s commentaries distinguish themselves from the commentaries of others. 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. Sometimes the translation and commentary contradict one another.)

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 himself 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.

Klein’s Genesis volume was published by Jason Aronson publishers in 1998. The subsequent volumes have been done by Kodesh Press.

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 the roots of words. If you enjoy my weekly columns, a large percentage of which focus on etymology, it is all to the credit of Shadal and Daniel Klein.

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.)

Now, Klein has completed four out of the five books, so we are getting the complete Shadal, and are almost there.

Klein’s own notes in all the volumes are always excellent. I often cite them in my weekly columns.

The Numbers volume has two interesting appendices. One is a poem that Shadal wrote in his youth about On son of Pelet mentioned at the beginning of the Korach rebellion (16:1) but then never mentioned again. To explain why he is never mentioned again there is a midrash about how his wife saved him from getting involved in the rebellion. Shadal wrote a poem expanding on this midrash. The other appendix is a reprinting of Klein’s article in Hakirah vol. 31 (2022) about a fascinating correspondence between Shadal and a leading kabbalist.

Here are some examples of Shadal’s comments on Numbers:

The sin of Moshe in parshat Chukat: “Moses our Teacher sinned one sin, but the commentators have heaped many sins upon him, thirteen sins or more, for each one of them invented a new transgression … As a result, all my life I have refrained from investigating this matter in depth, for fear that perhaps, as a result of my investigations, there might come forth from me a new interpretation, and I too would have found myself adding on a new sin upon Moses…” Fortunately, he does not come up with a new sin and agrees with Rashi (striking the rock instead of speaking to it).

Did Balaam’s donkey actually speak? “It would not have been beyond God’s power to make it speak, but if He had done so, Balaam and his two servants would inevitably have been stricken with mortal fear, and it would have been impossible for him to have had the strength to make any reply. Therefore it is probable that the donkey did not speak in a normal human manner … but that its mouth emitted a howling sound that could have been understood in the sense of, ‘What did I do to you for which you beat me?’… It is also likely that Balaam boasted of his ability to understand the sounds of birds and beasts, and that accordingly, when he heard the donkey’s voice, he interpreted its words and responded to them…. If the donkey actually spoke, how could it be that it did not justify itself and tell Balaam that there was something blocking its way?”

13:2: Here he discusses the verb תור רגל. His views evolved over the years. In a very helpful footnote, Klein explains to us Shadal’s final view, which Shadal (or his later students) did not take the trouble to repeat but only gave a reference to. A “meragel” seeks to discover and make known that which others want to keep hidden, while a “tar” is merely investigating things that are not kept hidden.

16:1: “Va-Yikach Korach”: What did Korach take? Here is Shadal: “Korach was jealous of Moses, and now he seized the moment in which the Israelites were in distress (‘lakach ha-shaah she-hayu Yisrael mitzta’arim’) because of the decree of the spies and the Hormah, and he put himself into action.”

Regarding the Israelites remembering eating fish “hinam” in Egypt (11:5), he cites the Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century BCE), and regarding the death of Korach and his followers (16:21), he cites the Roman poet Virgil (first century BCE). In both cases, Klein provides very helpful footnotes.


Rabbi Hertz cites “Luzzatto” frequently. He is always citing Shadal, and not his earlier relative Moshe Chayim Luzzatto. (Am I the only one still using Hertz? It seems that way in my shul. The volumes do not move much.) Nehama Leibowitz cites Shadal often as well.

One of Shadal’s more recent relatives was Fiorello LaGuardia, former mayor of New York City. As to the translator, Daniel Klein, he is a descendant of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. (He has inherited the etymology-interest gene from him!)

Klein is a superb writer. His book is available from kodeshpress.com. There is also a great podcast by Klein about Shadal at www.seforimchatter.buzzsprout.com  on 1/3/21.

Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish scholar. He identifies with the author who also has constructed a life combining law and Jewish scholarship.

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