Some biblical commentaries are brilliant but exhausting, often lost to casual Torah students because of length. Three that come to mind are R. Yitzchak Arama’s Akeidas Yitzchak, R. Moshe Alshikh’s Toras Moshe and R. Yitzchak Abarbanel’s commentary. Each offer original interpretations that serve as lasting contributions to biblical interpretation. However, due to the length of their commentaries they are rarely studied.
Abarbanel begins each biblical section with a long list of questions and then proceeds to explain every verse, in the course of which he answers the questions. He also often summarizes earlier views, sometimes critiquing them or defending them against other’s challenges. He offers a vibrant debate, particularly because he wrote at the end of the time of the Rishonim and therefore had access to many commentaries. But it is often lost for literary reasons. Additionally, his frequent focus on Medieval philosophy turns away many readers. Even though it attracts me, I suspect that I am among the minority on this.
Abarbanel needs a redeemer, someone to bring his original interpretations to the masses and offer a taste of his commentarial surveys and philosophical excurses. Zev Bar Eitan takes on this complex task in his Abravanel’s World of Torah: A Structured Interpretation – Bereshit: Theory of Moral Evolution. In 500+ pages, Bar Eitan offers a glimpse of the first book of the Torah according to Abarbanel. If I had undertaken this task, I would have adapted Abarbanel’s own words into a commentary situated on phrases, similar to the commentaries of Ramban and most other Rishonim. Bar Eitan went in the opposite direction.
Abarbanel’s extensive discussion of the Torah text incidentally incorporates the narrative as he dissects it. Bar Eitan seized on this aspect of Abarbanel’s commentary, turning it into the core of his adaptation. Abravanel’s World of Torah is a retelling of the biblical story according to Abarbanel’s interpretation. The careful reader will find many original interpretations implicit in the narratives, in addition to the many explicit questions and answers.
Gone is Abarbanel’s lengthy introductory questions, as well as most of his give-and-take with other commentators. In its place, Bar Eitan summarizes other views and offers Abarbanel’s conclusion. In my opinion, Bar Eitan mistakenly removed the names of Abarbanel’s sources, preventing readers from seeing the frequent battles with Ramban, Ralbag, Ran and Rambam. To me, this is the most enjoyable aspect of Abarbanel’s commentary and could have been included in brief footnotes.
Wisely, Bar Eitan retained in summarized form many of the philosophical investigations. Even if you do not learn with whom Abarbanel disagrees and the often excruciating detail of his arguments, you gain an appreciation for the issues of Medieval philosophy as summarized by one of its latest proponents and applied to the biblical text. Purists will probably rebuke Bar Eitan for his simplifications but non-specialists will find this aspect of the book fascinating and digestible.
In a controversial move, Bar Eitan inserts his personality directly into the text. His gripping prose vividly evokes the emotions of the narrative, certainly beyond Abarbanel’s fairly dry style. In writing this way, Bar Eitan frustrates scholars who immediately recognize this foreign imposition on Abarbanel’s work. However, he successfully creates an enjoyable book, appropriate for general readers without scholarly ambitions.
The average yeshiva educated Jew, familiar with the weekly Torah reading but limited in time and attention, will love this book. Reading Abravanel’s World of Torah, you study the drama of the parashah as Abarbanel understood it, with brief excursions into other commentaries and clearly marked detours into simply stated philosophical issues. Personally, I prefer the depth of the Hebrew original. Realistically, I rarely have time for it and instead enjoy the quick and pleasant read of Bar Eitan’s English adaptation, thanks to which Abarbanel can gain a wider audience.
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