Translating one peirush on Chumash is hard enough. Translating 15 is nothing short of remarkable. But Eliyahu Munk has done just that. The Ohr HaChaim, the Alshich, the Akeidas Yitzchak, the Kedushas Levi, the Ksav v’Hakabalah, the Chizkuni, the Shelah, the Tzror Hamor, the Tur, Rabbeinu Bachye – all translated into English by one man.
And he’s still going strong. At age 96, Eliyahu Munk is now translating the Meshech Chachmah. Amazed at this literary output, The Jewish Press recently called Eliyahu Munk in Israel to speak to him about his life and work.
The Jewish Press: What’s your background?
Munk: I was born in Frankfurt, Germany. My father came from Cologne and taught mathematics, chemistry, and physics.
I attended Rav Joseph Breuer’s yeshiva 10 hours every week. He taught me the haftarot, and the way he made a navi come to life is something I haven’t forgotten. He had a knack of making a navi talk to you. It was a terrific thing.
I left Germany at age 16, six months before Kristallnacht, and went to England. Six months later I went to yeshiva in Gateshead, but I left just before the Second World War broke out to help support my family. I didn’t have permission to work in London – because we were refugees – so I moved to Manchester where I was interned by the British and sent to Australia with 2,000 other people.
Why were you interned?
Because [the British government] was afraid that amongst us may be people parading as refugees but who really were spies. I don’t blame them.
The day I was interned I had planned a date with my girlfriend to see a big movie in the afternoon: “Gone with the Wind.” But I was gone with the wind [by the time we were supposed to meet]. She didn’t know I had been picked up by the police and then sent to Australia two weeks later.
How long were you in Australia?
Two years. But it was a very good experience. We even started a Daf Yomi there. We had two Gemaras. One of them was used by the man who gave the shiur and the other 22 members of the group had the Gemara for two hours every day to prepare.
I came back in the middle of the war because my girlfriend was still in England, and I was very fortunate that she waited for me. Now, baruch Hashem, in a few weeks’ time, we will celebrate our 75th anniversary. We have, baruch Hashem, 75 great-grandchildren. They’re all in Israel and all, baruch Hashem, shomrei Shabbat.
You later moved to Canada where you worked as a businessman and teacher of Torah. Then, in 1978, you made aliyah. Why?
Why did I make aliya? The question is for other people: Why did you not make aliya? Basically I retired. And 10 years before I went into business for myself, I promised myself and my family that as soon as I could sell the business, we would make aliya.
When I came to Eretz Yisrael, I decided to copy Moshe Rabbeinu. He taught for free, so I wanted to do the same. I decided to spread Torah by translating Torah greats. The first one – the Akeidat Yitzchak – took me about seven years, and by now I have about 60 volumes in print.
Of all the peirushim you’ve translated, which one was the hardest to tackle?
Perhaps the Shelah – the Shnei Luchot Habrit – because I first had to spend six months getting a little bit of background in Kabbalah before even daring to translate it.
How long does it take you to translate a peirush?
I don’t know, but until eight years ago I worked 60 hours a week. Now I help my wife a lot – she’s not as well-preserved as I am – but I still spend 30 hours a week working. I’m in the middle now of translating the Meshech Chachma. It’s very challenging.
Because I have to reduce it in order to make it accessible. Sometimes I have to first tell the reader what the subject is all about. The Meshech Chachmah has an unusual approach, but the more I work on this translation, the more I admire him.
I hope to complete it before my time in this world is up.
You said earlier that it took you seven years to translate the Akeidas Yitzchak. Why so long?
Because I had to decide what not to put in. if I would have translated the whole thing, it would have been 4,000 pages long and nobody would have bought it.
You have been criticized in the past for omitting material in your translations. How do you respond?
It’s not only permitted, but in the Targum of Edut HaMizrach, certain aspects of Aharon’s participation in the eigel are not translated. So if portions in the Torah could be eliminated from the Targum, certainly I can eliminate some portions from a rabbi who lived a couple of thousand years later.
In your works, you sometimes paraphrase rather than translate. Why?
That’s exactly what every navi did. Every navi who was familiar with the Torah was entitled to rephrase it as long as he got the content right. So I didn’t do anything unusual. If you translate something literally, you will probably have volumes on the shelf but you won’t have anyone looking at them at the table Friday night….
I am not worried. I hope that my melitzei yosher after 120 years will be the gedolim whose work I translated. I’m not interested in getting a hesped on this earth, but I am interested in getting people who will speak up for me at the beis din shel maala. I hope when I have to give an account for myself in heaven that they will put in good words for me because I made sure their works down here are being read by many people who don’t know much Hebrew.
Are you related to Elie Munk?
There are a half dozen Elie Munks. We are all named after the same Rav Eliyahu Munk who was my great-grandfather. So whether it’s Elie Munk who wrote The World of Prayer or Eli Munk who wrote Seven Days of the Beginning – it’s all the same mishpachah. The Elie Munk who wrote The World of Prayer was a first cousin of my father. He later became the chief rabbi of Paris.
Last question: You said you grew up in Frankfurt, Germany. Many say that children in the Orthodox Jewish school there did not wear yarmulkas for secular subjects. Is that true?
As long as Rabbi Shlomo Breuer was the rav, the students didn’t have to wear a kippa for [limudei chol]. According to halacha, when you’re under a roof, you don’t have to cover yourself unless you’re dealing with divrei kodesh. The kippa came into being only for gedolei hador because it was possible that they might not be anavim, so you put something on your head to show that you don’t think you’re sticking out your head into heaven.
When Rav Yosef Horowitz from Hungary became the new rav [in 1929], he insisted that his children must wear kipot all the time, so then matters changed a little bit.