The Soncino Chumash
Cohen (A.), Ed.
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Introduction
  • The mediaeval Jewish commentators whose work on the Pentateuch and Haphtaroth is summarized in this volume regarded the Bible as the word of God, and consequently as an inexhaustible storehouse of wisdom to which they could always resort for inspiration and guidance. While they derived knowledge from other sources also, even this knowledge obtained an added significance in their eyes, and became more fully absorbed, when they were able to discover some indication of it in the Scriptures. Hence in studying the text of the Bible they were always on the look-out to find in it support for what was already in their minds; consequently they read into it — perhaps unconsciously — as much as they got out of it, if not more. It is this feature which forms a distinctive characteristic of their commentaries.
  • This process of ‘reading in’ was especially carried to great lengths for homiletical purposes by Jewish interpreters of the Hebrew Bible, notably the Rabbis of the Talmud in their Haggadah. It is true that the Rabbis laid down a rule that no interpretation was to be admitted which was incompatible with the peshat or plain meaning of the text; but in practice they paid little regard to this rule. The commentators with whom we are concerned, however, usually observed it more rigidly, and thus restricted their liberty of ‘reading in.’
  • Subject to this limitation, the mediaeval Jewish exegetes turned to four main sources to find material for their commentaries. These were the Haggadah2 and Midrash3 of the Rabbis, the Arabic and Jewish philosophy derived from Plato and Aristotle, non-Jewish — and specifically Arabic — literature, and the Cabbalah or mystic lore. Corresponding to these we can (following Bachya ben Asher4, a Spanish-Jewish commentator of the fourteenth century) distinguish four methods of interpretation, which may be briefly described as follows:
    1. The homiletical or midrashic. This consists in selecting from the teaching of the Rabbis lessons of an edifying or homiletical nature which the text suggests.
    2. The philosophical or rationalistic. This consists in deriving from Scripture guidance on the metaphysical and ethical questions discussed by Greek philosophy.
    3. The literary. This consists in applying to the text of the Bible the standards of diction, style and arrangement observed by other literatures.
    4. The mystical. This consists in finding hints and allusions in the Bible on the nature of God and the soul, and similar matters dealt with by the Cabbalah.
  • One or more of these methods was used by each of the commentators included in this volume, as will be shown by a more particular account of each.
    1. RASHI5 (Rabbi Shelomoh Yitschaki, Solomon ben Isaac) was born in France in 1040, and after spending most of his life in the Rhineland died in Worms in 1105. He possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Rabbinic literature and a marvellous gift of clear and terse exposition. His commentary6 on the Pentateuch is essentially homiletical in spirit, but his selections from the Midrash are made with rare judgment and are attached with great skill to the Biblical text.
    2. ABRAHAM IBN EZRA7 was born in Spain in 1092, and early obtained a complete mastery both of the Hebrew and Arabic languages. The latter half of his life he spent travelling round the world, carrying the Arabic culture of Spain into other countries. His commentary is essentially literary, being concerned largely with questions of diction, grammar and exact intention of the text. He aimed at extreme brevity and is in consequence not infrequently obscure.
    3. RASHBAM8 (Rabbi Shemuel ben Meir, 1085-1174) was the grandson of Rashi, who was also his teacher. He was, like Rashi, a great Talmudic scholar. His notes on the Pentateuch laid emphasis on the peshat, and he often took an independent line in his explanations, not hesitating to differ from his illustrious grandfather.
    4. NACHMANIDES9 (Rabbi Mosheh ben Nachman) was born in Gerona in Spain in 1194, and lived there most of his life. He early gained renown as a Talmudical jurist, but was also deeply interested in the Cabbalah. In 1263 he held a celebrated disputation with the renegade Pablo Christiani, as a result of which he was forced to leave Spain. He went to the Holy Land, his love for which is often expressed in his commentary, and died there c. 1270. His commentary on the Pentateuch, which was his principal work, contains four distinct strands: legal disquisitions showing the connection of the Halachah with the Scriptural text, lessons of moral value based on the Scriptural narrative, mystical allusions suggested by the text, and literal interpretation in which he often controverts the views of Rashi.
    5. OBADIAH BEN JACOB SFORNO10 Was born at Cesena in Italy c. 1475 and died at Bologna in 1550. In addition to a thorough Biblical and Rabbinical knowledge, he studied mathematics, philosophy and medicine. In his commentary he displays wide learning and keen insight. He rejects mystical and forced interpretations. His primary object is always to discover the plain meaning, and he takes every opportunity to develop the ethical teaching implicit in the text.
  • In connection with the Haphtaroth, a commentary by Rashi is always, by Abraham Ibn Ezra sometimes, available, but none by other expositors named above. Their place is taken by two commentators of renown.
    1. DAVID KIMCHI11 was born at Narbonne in 1160 and died there in 1235. He was a pioneer in the field of Hebrew Grammar and Lexicography, and these interests determined the character of his commentaries on the Prophets and Psalms. They were, for their time, ‘scientific’ in principle, and so highly valued that Latin translations were made of them. In this version they exercised great influence upon Christian students of the Bible. He often relieves his precise consideration of the text by allusions to the Targum and Rabbinic tradition.
    2. GERSONIDES12 (Levi ben Gershon) also belongs to the French School of Bible scholars. He was born at Bagnols in 1288 and died in 1344. His versatility embraced philosophy, mathematics and medicine in addition to Biblical exegesis. His philosophical bent of mind is reflected in his commentaries which were not written in popular style. That on the Five Books of Moses is not included in editions of the Pentateuch; but on the historical Books, from which Haphtaroth are taken, he is of great value. His method was to give a plain interpretation verse by verse, followed by a summing up of the philosophical and moral ideas contained in a section.
  • Expository works on the Scriptures by Jewish scholars are legion. The commentaries which have been selected for inclusion are representative of the various Schools in this field.
    → Maurice Simon

Selected Abbreviations
  • Classical Commentators
    → E. Abraham Ibn Ezra
    → G. Gersonides
    → K. Kimchi
    → N. Nachmanides
    → R. Rashi
    → S. Sforno
    → Sh. Rashbam
  • A.J. American-Jewish translation of the Scriptures.
  • Haggadah. Non-legal portions of Rabbinic literature.
  • Halachah. Rabbinic discussions on law.
  • kere. The Hebrew as it is to be read according to the Masoretes.
  • kethib. The Hebrew as it is written according to tradition.
  • Midrash. Homilies of the Rabbis.
  • M.T. Masoretic text.
  • Talmud. Corpus of Jewish Thought and Law.
  • Targum. Aramaic translation.



In-Page Footnotes ("Cohen (A.), Ed. - The Soncino Chumash")

Footnote 1: See Wikipedia: Mikraot Gedolot .

Footnote 2: See Wikipedia: Haggadah.

Footnote 3: See Wikipedia: Midrash.

Footnote 4: See Wikipedia: Bahya ben Asher.

Footnote 5: See Wikipedia: Rashi.

Footnote 6: Footnote 7: See Wikipedia: Abraham ibn Ezra .

Footnote 8: See Wikipedia: Rashbam .

Footnote 9: See Wikipedia: Nachmanides .

Footnote 10: See Wikipedia: Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno.

Footnote 11: See Wikipedia: David Kimhi.

Footnote 12: See Wikipedia: Gersonides .


Book Comment
  • The Soncino Press, London, twelfth impression, 1975.
  • Note: Some irritating schoolboy has underlined the Hebrew text of Numbers 12:1-12 (pp. 855-6), but this is otherwise a very nice hardback copy.



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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2022
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



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