lethargic_man: (capel)
[personal profile] lethargic_man

Some time ago, when a friend WinoLJ/DW saw me reading my way through the Torah commentary of Rabbi Ludwig Philippson—the original edition of the chumash used in my shul, the modern edition of which on the bookshelves contains no commentary—she asked me what kind of commentary it was. Not having assembled any thoughts beforehand, all I could do was answer "er..." Since I never answered her properly, it occurs to me that I could do so here, to a wider, but hopefully also interested, audience.

To answer in brief, it is a nineteenth-century commentary, meaning that not only does Philippson have a thorough grounding in traditional Jewish learning, but he also has a solid classical secular education, and expects his audience to do so too. Thus he will cite words and phrases in French, Latin and Greek (the last printed, of course, in the Greek alphabet) without translation, expecting his audience to know these languages. In addition, he will sometimes also refer to words in Arabic and Persian, printed in the Arabic alphabet. He does (mostly) give translations of these, but I cannot think of another chumash I have encountered with bits of Arabic in it! He will also refer to or cite other sources, from Josephus and other ancients to recent Bible commentators and travel writers.

Writing as he does in the middle of the nineteenth century, he does not of course have access to our modern knowledge about the Cairo Geniza, the Dead Sea Scrolls, or a wealth of then not-yet deciphered documents in cuneiform from the Middle East (and chooses not to engage with secular studies casting doubt upon the Bible's historiography, such as the (then still incompletely-formulated) Documentary Hypothesis), but he makes up for that with his breadth of knowledge of the sources that are available to him, pulling out, for instance, tiny details from Herodotus that corroborate the Biblical text (and which completely passed me by when I read Herodotus, despite the fact I was looking for such details).

He also frequently goes into lengthy comparisons of details of the culture evinced by the Torah, with Middle Eastern culture as depicted in other sources, not infrequently hanging half a page of description off no more than a few words of seemingly throwaway detail in the Biblical text, a couple of examples I attach here:

First, a comment on the scene where Jacob wears Esau's clothing when he goes in to receive his father's blessing, so that Isaac will smell the clothing and think him Esau:

[scanned text]

And now, a comment on the arrival of Abraham's servant in the city of Nāḥor in search of a bride for Isaac.

[scanned text]

Such details add warmth and the redolence of a bygone era to what could otherwise be a rather turgid text (particularly given the writing style of nineteenth-century German*); and though it is true that some (but not all) sentences are not as easy to read as anything contemporary, I am enjoying reading it, and, given that, do not understand why so many people keep trying to get me to give up reading it and read something modern instead.

* "Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth."—Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

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Lethargic Man (anag.)

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