On “The Incomparable Gaon of Vilna”

I found Rabbi Moshe Meiselman’s essay on the Gaon of Vilna interesting and stimulating, but nonetheless wish to challenge its view of the impact of the Gaon’s method and example in the world of “learning” of the 20th century.  Rabbi Meiselman mounts a two-pronged argument: a) that the “Lithuanian: style of learning harks back to the Gaon’s method because it leapfrogs many centuries so as to focus on Talmud and rishonim, as did the Gaon himself, rather than on later authorities; b) that the dominance of the Mishnah Berurah, as over against the diminished role of the Aruch Hashulchan, derives from the former’s reluctance to credit popular, local, custom, against written source material — contrary to the practice of Aruch Hashulchan — a tendency inaugurated by the Gaon.

As for the first point: It is of course true that the Lithuanian method did return us to Talmud and rishonim.  But the resemblance to the Gaon’s own work ends at that point.  The Gaon 1) devoted considerable effort to establishing accurate texts, resorting not infrequently to emendation; 2) understood Talmud and rishonim according to their p’shat; 3) used a very wide range of sources, including many that were outside the ken of his contemporaries.  Now, 1) Lithuanian method is not at all interested in textual issues; 2) employs an analytic method which is often at odds with the textual p’shat, or at least finds that p’shat irrelevant to its goals; and 3) concentrates on a few, basic, sources.

Similarly, with regard to the contrast drawn between Mishnah Berurah and Aruch Hashulchan.  The phenomenon to which Rabbi Meiselman points exists, of course, and has interesting implications.  But it is not the major, differentiating, characteristic of the two works.  The basic difference between the two works lies in the fact that Aruch Hashulchan returns us to an examination of Talmud and rishonim, from which the p’sak halachah is then extrapolated.  Mishnah Berurah focuses on acharonim and their problems, with the p’sak halachah as his point of departure.  Thus, looked at as a whole, it is Aruch Hashulchan which is closer to the intellectual ethos and heritage of the Gaon.  And the reasons for the undoubted popularity of Mishnah Berurah, then, must be sought in other directions.

Gerald J. Blidstein

Beer Sheva, Israel


You published a very enlightening article about the Gaon of Vilna by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman.

However, I was disturbed that the author failed to disclose the part played by the Vilna Gaon in burning the books of the Chassidim, in excommunicating them and in participating in the arrest of a prominent rebbe.

Just as the Chumash did not hide the weaknesses of our patriarchs and other key figures, so should the author not  hide the errors of the Vilna Gaon.

Jack Greenwald

Denver, Colorado

Rabbi Meiselman responds:

While I am glad that Professor Blidstein took the time to read and comment on my recent article in Jewish Action, he misunderstood the two points that he commented on.

There is a fundamental difference between influence and resemblance.  The development of Lithuanian style learning was not subject to the exclusive influence of the Gaon.  There were other influences as well.  As I mentioned in the article, there are three ways to approach Torah study: as the study of a legal system, as a discipline of text analysis or as a study of logical structures.  It was the influence of the Gaon that dislodged the approach to learning from one of legal development and replaced it with the text analysis that was common in Lithuania.  During the latter part of the nineteenth century the development of conceptual analysis as a parallel focus of learning began under different influences.  It was the influence of Rav Chaim Soloveichik that wrought the decisive change where the main focus was on conceptual analysis according to the understanding of the various rishonim.  This influence was based on the Gaon and took the learning of Torah to the direction that exists today.  The Gaon’s influence and first revolution was the basis of the second revolution that Rav Chaim wrought.

I never meant to explain why the Mishnah Berurah became the main source of halachah in the twentieth century.  There are many reasons.  I meant to make a simple point, which is nothing more than a syllogism.  The Mishnah Berurah is the definitive halachic work of the twentieth century.  It was heavily influenced by the Gaon in the way I describe.  Therefore, the Gaon’s revolution deeply influenced the nature of halachah today.  The other issues are beside the point of my article.  Whether or not the Aruch Hashulchan or the Mishnah Berurah is closer to the intellectual ethos of the Gaon is open to question.  I stated my opinion in my article.  However, that has nothing to do with the popularity of the Mishnah Berurah.

In an answer to Mr. Greenwald, I wish to state that I am not one of those people whose approach to Chumash is to sit in judgment of the titans of the Chumash and to evaluate their so-called failings from my limited understanding.  Nor, am I one of those who feel that they can identify and judge accordingly what some people perceive as the failings of our people’s greats.  I feel that it is beyond our level, ability and understanding to evaluate the disagreements between the founders of Chassidus and the Gaon.  Nor, is there any solid historical basis to say that the Gaon was responsible for the Baal Hatanya’s jail sentence.  Furthermore, it is reported in the name of the Tzemach Tzedek that he felt that early Chassidus had certain antinomian tendencies that could have led its followers astray in subsequent generations and that it was only the Gaon’s violent opposition that put these into check and prevented this from occurring.

Questions Gra Theory

Your article on the Vilna Gaon, “An Attempt to Hasten the Redemption” (Fall 1997), appears to be far too speculative to be termed a “breakthrough theory,” as your lead caption describes it.

The article sets out to solve two problems: a) Why did the Gra decide to travel to the Holy Land; and b) Why did the Gra travel via Amsterdam, which is west of Vilna, instead of taking a more direct southern route through Odessa and Turkey.

It is not clear why either of these questions presents much of a problem.  Going up to the Holy Land was the dream of many great Torah scholars since the Churban.  There are many mitzvos which can only be performed in Eretz Yisrael; and the Sages consider mitzvos performed outside of the Land of Israel as mere shadows of their true essence.  In addition, many rishonim consider it one of the 613 mitzvos of the Torah.  Recognizing this, why should the Gra not want to go to Eretz Yisrael?

Similarly, there is a plausible explanation for the Gra’s choice of the Amsterdam route.  Amsterdam was the major shipping center in those days and transportation was available from Vilna to that city and from there to the Holy Land.  Also, it is 1,000 kilometers closer to Vilna than Odessa.  Furthermore, what evidence is there that physical and political conditions made it easier — or even possible — to travel from Vilna to Odessa, and from there to the Holy Land?

Be that as it may, the author proceeds to develop his theory.

After being shown a manuscript that the Gra travelled to the Holy Land via Amsterdam, the author decided to follow the Gra’s footsteps in Holland “hoping to find some hint of the purpose of his journey.”

Here we are given an interesting description of how the author, after searching various archives, discovered an entry that the community of Hague granted 5.5 gold coins to a certain “Rav Eliyahu of Vilna,” on his way to the Holy Land.

However, even assuming that the beneficiary of the Hague community was indeed the Gra (it is feasible that the “Eliyahu” and “Vilna” of the entry, quite common names, referred to someone else), this discovery merely shows that the Gra was in Holland, a fact already indicated by the above-mentioned manuscript.  It gives no hint as to the purpose of his journey nor that this purpose required him to be in Amsterdam, as the author postulates in his theory.  Moreover, the discovery does not even indicate that the Gra was in Amsterdam, but only that he was in The Hague, 40 kilometers from that city.

The author’s theory is based on the following speculations: 1) The purpose of the Gra’s trip was to hasten the Mashiach.  The Chassidim, who had begun to travel to the Holy Land the year before to hasten the Redemption intended to hasten Mashiach through prayer while the Gra felt it should be hastened through performance of mitzvos.  The Gra felt that the Chassidic approach might in fact delay Mashiach.  No source is offered indicating that the Gra had such motivation.  2) The Redemption would come only if the Gra would discover the interpretations of two passages of the Zohar which had eluded him.

The author supports this speculation by a reference to Rav Yisroel of Shklov who, in his P’as HaShulchan (Pardes edition, p.5a, bottom of column 2) cites the Gra as saying that he knew the interpretation of all of Torah except for two passages of the Zohar.  To learn these missing interpretations, the Gra said “if he would know who knew [their interpretations] he would travel by foot to him and he is waiting for this for the Mashiach.”

The meaning of this last passage is clear: Since no one else is able to explain these passages, the Gra will have to wait for the Mashiach himself to explain them.  But the author, translating this passage as “he would travel to him by foot and would then wait for the Messiah,” arrives at the conclusion, crucial to his theory, that the Gra held that the understanding of these two passages was necessary for the Mashiach to come.

3) A parallel speculation posits that the Gra held that Mashiach would come only if the Gra would compose a new Shulchan Aruch with a unified view on all controversial issues.

In support of this the author cites the Gra’s sons who write that there were two things which the Gra was kept by Heaven from doing.  One was travelling to the Land of Israel and the other composing a new Shulchan Aruch with clarifications of all controversial points.  The author seems to conclude that since the first was to hasten the Mashiach (itself a conjecture, as above), the second as well was necessary for this purpose.  Actually, both of these ideas are independent.

4) The crux of the theory is that the Gra travelled to the Holy Land via Amsterdam to visit the libraries in that city where he hoped to find manuscripts which would give him the interpretation  of the two elusive passages.  This would permit his aliyah to hasten the Redemption.  When the Gra was unable to discover the true meanings of the two passages he aborted his trip and returned to Vilna.  As the author puts it,

“Apparently, the reason that the Gra returned from his journey is connected with the fact that he did not succeed in clarifying the sugyot in the esoteric Torah that eluded his understanding.  It was in order to achieve this clarification that he journeyed to Amsterdam prior to aliyah.  Without having achieved clarification, without completing the revelation of all the secrets of the Torah and completion of ‘process of refinements,’ without these he could not achieve the purpose of his aliyah to the Holy Land.

Aside from the speculative nature of this suggestion, the obvious question a reader might ask is: Why would the Gra inform his disciples and family before he left that he was travelling to the Holy Land (a fact clearly documented) when this trip was dependent upon the discovery of manuscripts in Amsterdam, manuscripts which he did not even know existed?

5) The theory continues to posit that because the Gra decided not to travel to the Holy Land he abandoned his plan to write a new Shulchan Aruch.  This project, like the interpretation of the passages, was part of hastening the Redemption.

This postulation presents a problem: If the Gra abandoned his trip because he was unable to learn the correct interpretation of the elusive passages, then he should never have set out before writing his Shulchan Aruch. On the other hand, if he felt his Shulchan Aruch could be written after arrival in the Holy Land then why, as well, was the interpretation of the passages a prerequisite to travelling there?  Was there no chance that the interpretations could be discovered after his arrival in the Holy Land?

6) The author ends by stating that the inability to find the manuscripts had major repercussions on the Gra’s conception of bringing the Redemption.  He now decided that the Redemption had to come about by natural means such as by settling the land.

This conclusion is puzzling.  If the Gra originally held that the Redemption would come through the performance of mitzvos in the Land, it must have been based on his understanding of Torah sources on this subject.  Why would failure to discover manuscripts totally unrelated to this issue cause him to have such a radical change of mind?

In his interview with the literary editor, the author was asked if personal opinions might have influenced his interpretations.  He answer, “…the charge has no basis.  The documents speak for themselves.”  In one reader’s humble opinion, these documents have yet to be cited.

[Rabbi] Aharon Feldman

Jerusalem, Israel

Dr. Morgenstern responds:

Every revelation of primary historical sources is apt to create an opening for fresh interpretations of historical events.  As a result of the disclosures uncovered by new sources, even well-known historical sources acquire an added light and new meaning.  It is natural that new revelations about Gedolei Yisrael (the great men in Israel) are likely to encounter emotional resistance because the new perspective is likely to be considered an attack on the accepted and the traditional.  For we all love to cleave to the images which we grew up with and were educated in the course of years.

Such was the case when I uncovered new historical sources concerning the disciples of the Gra in Eretz Yisrael — concerning the Messianic activism that characterized them, on their untiring plans and their activities for the hastening of the process of redemption by natural means (geulah b’derech hateva).  Various academic circles could not swallow the new activist image that I imparted to the Gra’s disciples in Eretz Yisrael in my research and they tried with all their might to embrace the stereotype which viewed them as an elitist, passive group whose entire universe revolved around Torah learning and fulfillment of mitzvot.  In the course of time, when I accumulated many historical sources and my thesis was further supported in the studies that I prepared, they began to weaken and admit to the correctness of the new thesis that I sketched: they began to give a place of honor in the history of the Jewish nation to the disciples of the Gra on the subject of the practical settlement of the Land.

A similar response to the new thesis I proposed also arose among the Charedim.  They ignored the new sources as they had difficulty reconciling the practical implications of the activities of the Gra’s disciples in Eretz Yisrael with their own view of the disciples’ functions in Jewish history.  An example one might mention is the ambivalent attitude to the historical revelation that in 1830 Rav Yisroel Shklov, the disciple of the Gra, attempted to revive semichah in Safed.  This was a practical example of an audacious and radical action from a religious aspect.

If this is so with regard to the image of the Gra’s disciples in Eretz Yisrael, how much more so is it true when we come to determining the historical figure of the Gra himself.  Here it is ten times more difficult to be original.  In truth, no complete biography of the Gra has yet been written; certainly not a biography based on historical sources.  Those who have recorded his life have, in the main, recorded all sorts of anecdotes about him, praise about his great learning or about his ascetic lifestyle, but those who have written his life story have failed to link the incidents of his life into a complete web and even neglected open historical facts.  For example, the fact that the Gra wished to compose a new Shulchan Aruch was already mentioned by his sons in 1803, but not all the biographers of the Gra gave it their attention.  Similarly, with regard to the Gra’s trip to Eretz Yisrael, which was linked to messianic elements.

I must here excuse myself to the readers of Jewish Action for not bringing to their attention all the proofs that were revealed to me during the course of my research and which were related to the messianic hopes which prevailed during that period and which, it appears, the Gra shared.  I am speaking of the words spoken by the Italian kabbalist Rav Emanuel Chai Rikki, author of the Mishnat Chassidim, who in the 18th century was considered to be the preeminent explicator of the Ariz”l.  In one of his books, Yosher Lavav, which discusses key topics of the kabbalah, R. Emanuel clearly states that between 1740-1781, the process of redemption will occur: “According to R. Shimon B. Yochai, in 1781 and two thirds, the Mount of the Lord will be prepared.”

A historical source that has come down to us indicated the Gra’s identification with this view.  One of the only two sefarim that the Gra gave approbations to was the Darchei Noam of R. Shmuel son of Eliezer of Kalavira, who mentions in five pages of his introduction the view of R. Emanuel that the Messiah would arrive by 1781.

I cannot elaborate further on this point in this forum.  I hope that my book will appear shortly where the reader may grasp the full messianic import of the period.  On the heels of the messianic hope during this period some of the greatest kabbalists were oleh to Eretz Yisrael, amongst them the disciples of the Maggid of Meseritch, 1777.  The Gra also strove to bring to reality the potential messianic element which cloaked this period.  For this purpose he attempted to be oleh in 1778, but before he went, he sought to complete the process of refinements, before the arrival of the appointed time, the year 1781.

Let us move from our general points to briefly respond to the questions raised by the writer.

Rabbi Feldman argues that the Gra’s purpose in being oleh was in order to fulfill the mitzvah of residing in Eretz Yisrael.  Had the Gra actualized his wish to be oleh, we could agree.  However, the situation before us is vastly different: The Gra decided to be oleh, started to concretize his wish, but changed his mind in the middle.  It is this reversal which arouses great wonderment.  It would seem that one must uncover the reason for this dramatic reversal.  That is, to first determine what was the purpose of his aliyah and what was the reason which compelled him to turn on his heels when he realized that he could not fulfill the purpose of his aliyah.  What is certain is that one cannot relate this to the mitzvah of residing in the Land.  It is worth noting that even the Gra’s son did not know the reason for his return and pressed his father many times, but the Gra avoided responding.  It does not appear that mitzvat yishuv Eretz Yisrael was all that motivated the Gra.

As to the second question concerning the route from Vilna to Eretz Yisrael.  Historically, the route is southerly, on land and over rivers until the city of Galatz or Odessa and from there via the Black Sea till Constantinople and from there over land or by sea to Eretz Yisrael.  This was the route of the Chassidim in 1777 who also traveled from Northern Russia; this was the route of the Gra’s disciples in their aliyah in the early 19th century and this was the route of the emissaries sent from Eretz Yisrael to Vilna to raise funds for the Jews of Eretz Yisrael.  On the other hand, the Gra’s route by way of Amsterdam was westerly and was a departure from the established route.  For this reason it required special attention and investigation.

As I wrote in my article, I believe the Gra’s journey to Amsterdam is linked to the purpose of his aliyah.  Before reaching Eretz Yisrael the Gra hoped to find in Amsterdam the complete manuscript of Ramak’s Commentary on the Zohar, or the manuscripts that Ramchal left before his departure to Eretz Yisrael.  There was widespread belief that these two manuscripts were present in Amsterdam or nearby.  Amsterdam was then a center for Hebrew manuscripts.  Regrettably, the questioner did not understand the intent of the words attributed to the Gra regarding the two matters that he failed to unravel.  These words were not related to his disciple Rav Yisrael Shklov before he journeyed to Amsterdam but much later, in his old age.  The Gra’s statement that if he succeeds in revealing the two secrets, the Messiah would come, refers to the Lurianic concepts concerning the final process of refinements — at which point the way would be clear for the Messiah’s arrival.  Without such knowledge, the Gra could not compose his Shulchan Aruch in a complete manner, in a manner which would be accepted by everyone without argument.

As is known, the Gra made no distinction between the revealed and hidden Torah.  One drew halachah from both.  The Gra decided halachah by reference to Talmudic as well as Zoharic sources which he considered part of the Talmudic literature.  Therefore, the Shulchan Aruch the Gra sought to compose depended on the resolution of the two sugyot which he did not understand.  The Gra hoped to unravel the two sugyot by means of the above writings, which he thought could be found in Amsterdam.  It would seem that his hope was disappointed and this prevented his aliyah and his composition of the Shulchan Aruch in Eretz Yisrael.  I am not suggesting that the reasons for his return which I described are the only reasons.  However, it is clear from historical sources that upon the Gra’s return one can discern a dramatic change in his relationship to his surroundings.  The practical effect was his establishment for the first time in his life of a beit midrash where he taught his Torah to disciples and the main topic of study was the Jerusalem Talmud on seder Zeraim, that is, the mitzvot relating to the Land.

The shift in the Gra’s thinking is evident from the aliyah of the Gra’s later disciples and their preoccupation with messianic activism based on redemption effected through natural, human means in the category of the “will from below” (isarutah d’lisattah) which arouses the “will from above” (isarutah d’leylah).


A Tale Told By an Idiom

In the Fall 1997 issue of Jewish Action, in a review called “Rashi: Annotated, Translated (and sometimes tangled),” after calling Silverstein’s Rashi Chumash one of “several new translations of Rashi” (which it is not), and then citing Silverstein to the effect that it is intended as a translation of Chumash according to Rashi (which it is), Dr. Avigdor Bonchek writes:

“Silverstein, a renowned translator of Torah classics, tells us in his introduction that all previous translations of the Chumash ‘are not just badly translated or unfelicitously translated — but not translated at all.’  Considering all the translations on the market, among them those of ArtScroll, the Jewish Publication Society, Aryeh Kaplan’s The Living Torah, Hertz, S.R. Hirsch and others, this is quite a charge!  To this surprising statement he adds, not too modestly, that his Rashi Chumash is ‘the first English translation of the Chumash.'(!)”

Now, if Silverstein had, indeed, perpetrated all that Bonchek attributes to him, it were, indeed, a grievous fault, and grievously had Silverstein answered for it at Bonchek’s hands; but it simply is not so!  What Bonchek has done (as is evident to anyone who so much as glances at the foreword to The Rashi Chumash) is the moral and syllogistic equivalent of condemning Silverstein as having said “All men are scoundrels,” when, in fact, he had said: “If all men are murderers, then all men are scoundrels.”  Bonchek simply omitted the “If all men are murderers” part!

In Silverstein’s forward, the counterpart of “If all men are murderers” is “In light of the foregoing,” the “foregoing” being the Rashi commentary on a particular verse, representative conventional translations of that verse, and juxtaposition of these with the Rashi Chumash translation — all of which Bonchek omits.  Naturally, we shall have to restore some of the omitted citations.  But whereas Silverstein, in his foreword, kindly leaves these unnamed, Bonchek gives him no choice but to identify them.

Very well then:

“arot achotcha bat avicha o bat emecha moledet bait o moledet chutz loh tegalah arotcha”

The ArtScroll editions: (The comments in bracketed parentheses are Silverstein’s, as they appear in the foreword.)

1) Tanach Series: “The nakedness of your sister — whether your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether born to one who may remain in the home [(a good woman ?)] or born to one who must remain outside of it [(a bad woman ?)] — you shall not uncover their nakedness.”

2) Stone Chumash: Same as above.

3) Sapirstein Rashi: “The nakedness of thy sister, the daughter of thy father, or the daughter of thy mother, whether she be born at home [(Brooklyn ?)] or born abroad [(Turkey ?)], even the nakedness of any of these [(What are we to make of that ‘even?)] shalt thou not uncover.”

4) Tanach: Same as Stone.

The Jewish Publication Society: “The nakedness of thy sister, the daughter of thy father or the daughter of thy mother, whether born at home, or born abroad, even their nakedness thou shalt not uncover.”

The Living Torah: “Do not commit incest with your sister [(Is incest permissible with others ?)] even [(Here we go again!)] if she is the daughter of [only] your father or mother.  [(“only ?  Who else!)]  Whether she is legitimate or illegitimate, you must not commit incest with her.”  [(Obviously, we would otherwise have thought that if she were either legitimate or illegitimate (Which one ?) it would be permitted to commit incest with her!)]

Hertz: Same as Jewish Publication Society.

Hirsch: “The nakedness of your sister, [be it] the daughter of your father or the daughter of your mother, whether born in the house or outside, their nakedness you shall not uncover.”

And here is the Rashi Chumash translation, a translation according to Rashi:

“The nakedness of your sister, the daughter of your father, [even by a woman that he ravished], or the daughter of your mother, whether she be born [of a woman that he is commanded to send] outside [such as a mamzeret or a netinah] — you shall not uncover their nakedness.”

And now, in the light of the foregoing (and “the foregoing” is quite representative), it is seen that “with a conventional translation, the Chumash is not just badly translated or unfelicitously translated — but not translated at all!…and that — strange as it may sound — it may not be amiss to say that The Rashi Chumash is the first English translation of the Chumash!”

Silverstein’s next sin, according to Bonchek, is “over-literalness.”  To wit: “His over-literalness leads to many problems and errors: poor translation, mistranslation, and, at times, misunderstanding of Rashi.”  Now, I think we would agree that this is a pretty serious indictment and that it would have to be supported by some pretty meaningful evidence.  Very well, then, I shall furnish all of Bonchek’s evidence and leave the reader to assess its meaningfulness.

Exhibit #1:  “D’maihem bam” (Leviticus 20:13) becomes ‘their blood is in them,’ instead of the usual on them.”  Silverstein, according to Bonchek, has committed the “unforgivable ‘in’.”  Now, why, indeed, did Silverstein commit this atrocity?  For no other reason than that the translation of “in” in Hebrew is “in” in English, that “their blood is on them” (unqualified) is not English, and that the reader of The Rashi Chumash is apprised only four psukim before, (20:9), that wherever “in him” (“in them,” etc.) appears in this connection, it is to be understood (according to Rashi) as “on his own head.”

Exhibit #2:Ve’ish asher yeetain…” (Leviticus 20:15) [becomes] ‘And if a man gives his lying to a beast.'”  Bonchek does not quite tell us what he wants here.  There is no Rashi on the verse.  Onkelos renders it exactly as stated above.  Does Bonchek want to accuse Onkelos of over-literalness?

Exhibit #3:Havah nitchachmah lo” (Exodus 1:10) is rendered ‘Ready yourselves to plot against it,’ instead of the usual ‘Come, let us deal wisely with him.'”  Is “with him” the “usual” translation?

The ArtScroll editions:

1) Stone Chumash: “Come, let us outsmart it.”

2) Sapirstein Rashi: “Come, let us act wisely to it.”

3) Tanach: Same as Stone.

The Jewish Publication Society: “Come, let us deal wisely with them.”

The Living Torah: “We must deal wisely with them.”

Hertz: Same as Jewish Publication Society.

Hirsch: “Come, let us deal cleverly with them.”

In this entire survey of translations, there appears not one “usual” “with him“!

Bonchek continues: “This literalness is taken over into the gratuitous insertion of Rashi into the text.  For example, Genesis 48:16 is translated: ‘The angel who is wont to redeem me from all evil, let him bless the youth [Menasheh and Ephraim].’  Now why add the words in the brackets?”

Silverstein: Because Rashi does.

“Why insert their names?…Because Silverstein must have reasoned, that’s what Rashi comments on this verse: ‘Menasheh and Ephraim.'”

Silverstein: No, Silverstein did not reason it; he saw it in Rashi!

“But Rashi here is problematic.  Any explanation of his comment will not justify the unnecessary insertion of his comment into the translation.”

Silverstein: No, but it will most certainly justify the necessary insertion!  Try Mizrachi’s explanation, for example, I found it eminently satisfying.

“Silverstein does not seem to be aware of this.”

Silverstein: Of what?

Bonchek continues: “This obsession with literalness carries over into his interpretation of Rashi.”

Silverstein: Whose obsession?

“In Exodus 22:20 we have ‘Veger lo-toneh…‘ which Silverstein translates as ‘And a stranger [from another land] you shall not taunt etc.’  The bracketed words are Silverstein’s addition, from Rashi.”

Silverstein: Quite true.

“But in actuality, the stranger here is a convert, not a stranger from another land, even though Rashi defines the word ger as one from another land.  But Silverstein has mistaken Rashi’s meaning…”

Silverstein: Again?  You mean “a stranger from another land” does not mean “a stranger from another land”?

“as can be seen by Rashi’s comment in Baba Metzia 59a.”

Silverstein: I find absolutely nothing relevant in Baba Metzia 59a.  But even theoretically, what could Rashi conceivably say anywhere which could unsay what he says here?

Bonchek continues: “Let us take the Rashi on Genesis 26:18 in Parshat Toldot.  I like this Rashi comment because it shows how a comment which doesn’t seem to tell us much can, after close analysis, reveal a true ‘chiddush‘ (new insight).”

Vayashav Yitzchak vayachpor…

Here is the Rashi on this verse: Because you were strangers: if you taunt him, he too can taunt you and say to you ” you also descend from strangers” Don’t reproach a fellow man for a fault you also possess [then Rashi adds] Wherever “ger” occurs in the Scritptures it signifies a person who has not been born in that land, but has come from another country to dwell there.” 

…See how impossibly this is translated in the Rashi Chumash: ‘And Isaac returned [(before he left Gerar)] and dug the wells’ etc.  How could Isaac return to a place before he left it!”  (not to the place — to the wells!)…The newer translations:” (along with Onkelos, it may be added!) “mistakenly render the Hebrew “Vayashav” to mean ‘And he returned.’  Rashi’s whole point (his chiddush)” (the “insight,” I suppose, that we have been waiting for “is that this word does not mean ‘he returned’ even though we might have thought so since the previous sentence tells us that Isaac ‘left Gerar.'” (sic.  This is not a quote.)  “Rashi tells us…”

Silverstein: Where, I pray you?

“that the word does not mean ‘return,’ as it usually does, rather, it means here ‘he redid,’ in this case ‘he redug.’  This is but one example of how necessary it is to fully understand Rashi and his style before one can faithfully translate him.”

I would say, rather, that it is an example of how necessary it is to know Hebrew before one can translate “Vayashav” as “and he redug!”  Try this scenario: Isaac, before he leaves Gerar, returns to the wells that the Philistines had stopped up, and he digs them up!

[Rabbi] Shraga Silverstein

Telz-Stone, Israel


Dr. Bonchek responds:

Since this response is not a personal one to Rabbi Silverstein but rather one that is intended to be of benefit to the reader, I will limit myself to the Rashi comments.  As far as my criticisms of Silverstein’s overliteral translations, I defer to the readers’ judgment.  (But I can’t refrain from asking, regarding the incestuous couple “whose blood is in them”: Whose blood is not in them ?  Both sinners and saints have their blood in them!)  Every language has its own idioms; idioms cannot be translated literally without sounding ridiculous.  The thief caught red-handed certainly doesn’t have crimson palms.  The gardener with a green thumb is not suffering from gangrene.  These are idioms.  So too is D’maihem bamChazal were aware of this when they said, “He who translates literally is a liar” (Kiddushin 49a).

Let us now look closer at Silverstein’s understanding of several Rashi-comments.  In Exodus 22:20 we find this verse “You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  The Rashi Chumash has:

“And a stranger [from another land] you shall not taunt and you shall not oppress him [by theft], for you were strangers in the land of Egypt [and are equally vulnerable to taunting].”

Silverstein’s bracketed insertion “[from another land]” is an error.  An analysis of this complex Rashi will show where Silverstein has misunderstood Rashi’s meaning.  I hope the reader will enjoy the following analysis and savor the taste of Rashi’s uniquely subtle style of commenting.

Here’s the Rashi on this verse:

Because you were strangers: If you taunt him, he too can taunt you and say to you “you also descend from strangers.”  Don’t reproach a fellow-man for a fault which you also possess.  [Then Rashi adds] Wherever “ger” occurs in the Scriptures it signifies a person who has not been born in that land, but has come from another country to dwell there.”

So here we see that in addition to his comment, Rashi gives us a definition of ger.  Anyone who appreciates Rashi’s precision and economy of words, must be quite surprised by this comment.  Why would Rashi define a word on this verse which has already appeared at least half a dozen times in the Torah previously?  If this apparently simple word needs to be defined, why wait until now to define it?  This leads to the classic question; What is bothering Rashi here?  Answering this question will clarify the whole comment and show where Silverstein went wrong.

Understanding Rashi.  Rashi draws his comment here from the Mechilta, the Midrash-Halachah on Shemot.  (Also the Talmud Baba Metzia 59b).  There it says: You shall not say to him [the stranger] “Yesterday you were worshipping Baal and until now swine’s flesh was between your teeth and now you dare to stand up and speak against me!”  And how do we know that if you taunt him he can also taunt you?  For it says “A stranger you shall not taunt…for you were strangers in the land of Egypt…do not reproach a fellow man with a fault which is also your own.”  So we see clearly the ger referred to here is a convert, a ger tzedek, and not a stranger from another land.

But if the word ger is to be understood as “convert,” we are confronted with another problem.  What does the verse mean “for you were gerim in Egypt?”  Certainly Jews were not “converts” in Egypt, they were strangers from another land.  The word changes its meaning in mid-sentence!  It is for this reason that Rashi finds the need to tell us here [and nowhere else in the Chumash] that the word ger usually means “a stranger from another land.”

But if the Jews were themselves not “converts” while the person being taunted is a convert (eating swine yesterday) then why does Rashi say “don’t reproach another with a fault that you too possess?”  There is no comparison between the two cases!  Here the Rashi in Baba Metzia (59b) comes to our aid.  (I apologize for mistakenly citing Baba Metzia 59a in my review and thus sending Rabbi Silverstein on a wild goose chase!)  There Rashi, referring to “moom shebcha al tomar lechavercha,” says, “since you were strangers it is an insult to you to use the word ger.”  Even though the meanings are different, but since the word is the same, don’t taunt a convert in this way.  This analysis of Rashi’s comment, which gets to the heart of it, was offered by the Nachlat Yaakov.

The next Rashi I faulted Silverstein on was from Toldot (Genesis 26:18).  He translated the word “vayashav” as “he returned.”  It actually means “he redug.”  I know this because Rashi tells us so.  Rashi disabuses us of the mistaken translation “to return” by writing at the end of his comment the words “chazar vechaphran.”  Throughout his Torah commentary, whenever Rashi uses the verb chazar together with another verb (here vechaphran) he means the act was repeated.  (For example, see the first Rashi in Shemot — “chazar vemonam,” He counted them again, not, He returned and counted them).  This is an iron-clad rule in Rashi; there are no exceptions to it.  One must be familiar with Rashi’s style and use of words, not with our use of words.  I should add that in the Tanach the word vayeshev does occasionally mean “to do again.”  See, for example, Kings II 1:11 and 1:13.  Granted this is a rare use of the word.  That is precisely why Rashi saw the need to tell us its unusual meaning here.  Yitzchak did not return to Gerar (or to the wells) rather he redug them “before he left Gerar.”

I would like to add a note here to illustrate Rashi’s fine-tuned precision.  See the dibbur hamatchil (lead words) vayashav vayachpor.  See the verse in the Torah.  Did you notice that Rashi left out the word “Yitzchak” in between the two verbs?  It is uncharacteristic of Rashi to skip a single word in his dibbur hamatchil.  Why did he do this?  He did it intentionally to emphasize that the word vayeshev refers to the act of digging and not to Yitzchak himself.  The act of digging “returned” so to speak, not Yitzchak.

In conclusion: Understanding Rashi consists of much more than merely translating his words.  Every one of his comments requires in-depth analysis; it is a fascinating and exhilarating learning and spiritual experience.

[Dr.] Avigdor Bonchek

Jerusalem, Israel

This article was featured in the Spring 1998 issue of Jewish Action.