Soon, probably tomorrow, I am planning to review a book I received from a Messianic Jewish Musings reader who thought it worthwhile to buy a book and further the cause of blogdom education. I will review The Commentators’ Bible:Exodus by Michael Carasik, purchased for me by none other than a Torah-loving Catholic reader.
As I thought about reviewing this wonderful new resource, it occurred to me I should say something about the many Torah commentaries that I now have. Many of you readers would be interested in buying a book or two like these and you might like to know something about the ones available in English (or English and Hebrew).
First, for those who are new and learning terminology, let me explain a term: chumash. A chumash (KHOO-mosh) means a book containing the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) divided into the weekly readings used in the synagogue and often with the accompanying haftarah readings from the prophets. Chumash comes from the Hebrew word five. It is a book about the five (you know, the five books of the Torah). Many chumashim (plural for chumash) come with commentary notes, often from the medieval commentators such as Rashi and Ramban (Nachmanides).
I have many chumashim. It’s hard to know where to begin. As I sit typing this in my library I realize I don’t have all of my chumashim at my finger tips. My library is too big to completely fit in my house. I have the majority of it in my house and a good portion in another office I use near my house. So I will have to describe some of my books from memory.
The Artscroll Chumash: Stone Edition is a good general chumash and many will find all they need in this one volume. Artscroll makes beautiful books. Their slant is Orthodox, and even a small subset within Orthodox circles that has drawn some criticism, and you can certainly tell from the kinds of notes they include. So for traditional commentary on the Torah, you’ll find it here. Yet I find I do not care for the Stone translation. It is quirky and uneven, in my opinion. Which is why I prefer the next one . . .
The Soncino Chumash is an older volume and has the benefit of being easy to carry. It is by Abraham Cohen, the author of a book you may have on your shelf: Everyman’s Talmud. It uses the old JPS (Jewish Publication Society) translation. The old JPS is antiquated but follows a more literal approach than the new JPS and a nice literary feel. The new JPS has the benefit of recent scholarship, of course, but I sometimes don’t appreciate the highly interpretive translation. Old JPS is pretty solid and readable. Most importantly as a reason to buy and prefer this chumash: the comments are traditional and brief, great for people who want some information but not too much and for people who don’t need an academic commentary.
The Pentateuch and Haftorahs by J.H. Hertz is similar to the Soncino Chumash, but a little longer. It also uses the old JPS and is traditional. Hertz was the chief rabbi in the U.K. back in the early twentieth century. His wisdom in collecting and commenting on Torah is classic.
Sforno Commentary on the Torah in the Artscroll Mesorah series is a nicely bound volume. I find that I regret buying it, however, since the comments are by one commentator only, Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, a 16th century Italian scholar. He is very literal and his comments are worth reading, but his comments are of limited usefulness. I’ve been rather disappointed with Sforno.
The Torah: A Modern Commentary by Gunther Plaut is something different in a chumash. It is a modern, critical, Reform commentary on the Torah. As such, it is invaluable for those who want to have a little variety in their Torah library or who appreciate a modern approach to interpretation. Although the divisions into weekly readings (parashot) are accounted for in Plaut, he uses 145 sections divided by a more detailed outline of the Torah. He has an incredibly useful feature found in no other chumash: a list of references from literature that relate to portions of the Torah (want to quote Melville or Spinoza intelligently in your Torah teaching?).
The Torah With Rashi’s Commentary: Sapirstein Edition by Artscroll is by far my favorite. I know, it seems to violate my earlier statement that I prefer commentary drawn from multiple scholars. But Rashi is Rashi for a reason and this edition of the Torah (comes in five volumes for easy carrying) is the best at helping a modern reader understand Rashi. It not only has Rashi’s famously concise and profound notes on the Torah but also has commentary on Rashi’s commentary — very necessary for a reader who is not intimately familiar with the midrashim and Talmud (that means most of us).
What’s Bothering Rashi?, finally, is a set of five books which starts with Rashi’s comments and turns them into a discussion or individual study experience. These volumes are like having a study partner asking you questions and helping you get to the root of Rashi’s reasons and thought processes. You can see examples of these Torah brain-teasers here if you scroll down to the section called “What’s Bothering Rashi?”.
Which chumash should you buy? That depends on your needs. I’d recommend The Soncino Chumash or J.H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, for a general reader who does not plan to get too far into details. If you can’t get what you need at amazon, try Judaism.com. If you move up and want a deeper experience with traditional Jewish exegesis, get The Torah With Rashi’s Commentary: Sapirstein Edition and to round out the collection with variety, The Torah: A Modern Commentary.
UPDATE, February 2011: The Commentators’ Bible is now available for Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers and is the most complete English chumash available, but in five oversized volumes (not the best for carrying). If you like detail, this is the best overall. But you’ll still understand Rashi better in the Sapirstein edition of Rashi.