Title: Shadal on Numbers
Translated and Edited by Daniel A. Klein
Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto, also known by his acronym Shadal (1800-1865), has enjoyed something of a renaissance in popularity among Orthodox Jews in the last few years. An Italian rabbi, professor, and Bible commentator, he was arguably one of the most important Italian rabbis of the 19th century, and yet is largely unknown in the Orthodox world. This seems to be changing, and while there are several reasons for this newfound appreciation of Shadal, undoubtedly key to this rise is Dan Klein’s fantastic rendering of Shadal’s commentary on the Torah into English. Dan Klein has recently published the fourth volume of Shadal on the Torah, for the Book of Numbers, and it is a treasure trove of rich interpretation by Shadal and assiduous research by Dan Klein.
Those who know Shadal’s commentary on the Torah know that Dan Klein is uniquely fit for the job. Besides translating the Hebrew commentary, Klein translated Shadal’s own Italian translation of the Torah into English, noting when the commentary and the translation conflict. Additionally, Shadal was wont to include passages from Latin and Greek authors in their original language, and Klein provides these in English as well.
However, in my mind, the most important work Klein has done for Shadal enthusiasts is in the manuscript work on Shadal’s writings. Shadal’s commentary on the Torah was mostly written in his lifetime, but was only published in full after his passing in 1865. As scholars have found, there were several versions of Shadal’s commentary found among his students. These manuscripts have been made available, and they, too, add clarity to Shadal’s more cryptic comments. In fact, in his introduction to Shadal’s commentary on Numbers, Klein describes how he gained access to a manuscript hosted at the library of Columbia University of Shadal’s commentary written in Shadal’s own hand, which has assisted his efforts to clarifying Shadal’s intent and clearing up seeming contradictions in Shadal’s commentary.
A good example of these skills can be found in Klein’s translation of Shadal’s commentary to Numbers 16:34, in Parshat Korach. After the Torah describes the miracle of the earth opening up to swallow up Korach’s rebellion, the Torah states that “And all of the Israelites who were round about them fled upon hearing kolam.” Shadal notes that many commentaries understood “kolam,” which usually means “their voices,” to refer to the screams of those falling into the ground. But Shadal disagrees, accepting Rashi’s interpretation that this “kolam” refers to the sounds of the earth opening and the homes and structures falling in.
In a footnote, Klein notes a contradiction between Shadal’s Italian translation and his commentary. Shadal translates “kolam,” as “les loro strida,” which would normally mean “their screams” or “their shrieks.” However, Shadal does not think that it refers to the people screaming! Klein resolves this by translating kolam as “their clamor,” which can fit the Hebrew and the Italian as a more neutral phrase referring to noise. (There is also some poetic sensitivity that I appreciate in the similarities between “kolam” and “clamor.”)
Additionally, Klein manages to solve a different difficulty in Shadal’s commentary. Usually, Shadal explains why he prefers one interpretation over another, yet here he seemingly does not. However, Klein found that the Columbia manuscript, again, in Shadal’s own hand, has an additional line here: “It is human nature to draw near to a person who is shouting.” In other words, Shadal innovatively takes into account a psychological tendency in the course of determining his interpretation: the people would not have run away from screams, for that would be against human nature.
There are many examples of Shadal’s originality in his commentary. In one humorous comment (Numbers 20:12), Shadal claims that he himself was afraid of his own originality. In Parshat Chukat, regarding the story of Mei Meriva, Moses is supposed to get water from a rock and somehow fails, losing his ability to enter the Land of Israel. Shadal comments: “Moses our Teacher sinned one sin, but the commentators have heaped upon him thirteen sins or more, for each one of them invented a new transgression… As a result, all my life I have refrained from investigating this matter in depth, for fear that perhaps, as a result of my investigations, there might come forth from me a new interpretation, and I too would have found myself adding on a new sin upon Moses our Teacher.” Besides being quite funny and candid, this also demonstrates Shadal’s great respect for our righteous forefathers and Biblical characters, even at their lowest moments.
One of the best aspects of Klein’s translation is Klein’s own introduction to each book, which delves into Shadal’s historical context and also provides a response to many of the criticisms against Shadal, from Shadal’s own time to today (especially in Shemot and Vayikra). In his introduction to Shadal’s commentary on Numbers, Klein provides a deep dive into the history of the college where Shadal was a Bible professor, the Collegio Rabbinico school in Padua. Additionally, like his translation of Vayikra, Klein has added appendices in the back of Shadal’s writings that have not been available to the English-speaking public until now, including a short play that Shadal wrote about the elusive figure in Korach’s rebellion named On Ben Pellet, as well as letters between Shadal and another Italian rabbi, Elia Benamozegh, regarding Kabbalah and many other interesting topics.
Like many, I was first introduced to Shadal through Nechama Leibowitz’s essays on the parsha, where she quotes Shadal generously. However, to read the original commentary, the only copy available to me at the time was an abridged version (perhaps “censored” is the right word, since the omissions seem to have an agenda of “frumming” up Shadal’s commentary), that was published as a single volume in the 1970s by Pinhas Schlesinger. It was Dan Klein’s first translation of Shadal on Genesis (at the time, published through Jason Aronson in 1998, although now republished through Kodesh Press) that propelled my interest in Shadal. And it has been over a decade of studying and teaching Shadal’s ideas and comments on the parsha with my students.
This is a highly original and fascinating book that is sure to enhance your understanding of the Book of Numbers, and provide much Shabbat table conversation material.