Title: Great Biblical Commentators: Biographies, Methodologies, and Contributions
By: Avigail Rock
When one opens a Mikraot Gedolot of the Tanach, one cannot help but be impressed (or amazed or daunted) by the text/commentary ratio. Indeed, there are many pages where we find only commentary and no text, which can be very intimidating to the learner. Another challenge the learner faces is understanding the historical background, specific styles and educational mission and philosophy of these myriad commentators whose words dominate the pages. I myself have experienced “information overload” from the sheer volume of peirushim that appear to swirl on any particular page.
We are indebted to Dr. Avigail Rock, z”l, for her work, Great Biblical Commentators: Biographies, Methodologies, and Contributions published by Maggid for the thorough and broad exploration of the major parshanim. The book opens with mapping out translations in general and Targum Onkelos in particular. This is critical because translation sheds light on the meaning of the text and Targum Onkelos, who is referenced in the Talmud Yerushalmi and is cited countless times by later commentators like Rashi and Ramban. She then moves on to Saadia Gaon (882-942) who lived in Babylonia in the century through Rabbi Mordechai Breuer (this chapter was written by Rabbi Yehuda Rock, (Dr. Rock’s husband who was also a student of Rabbi Breuer) who was active in the 20th century. In addition to the 20 millenia of parshanim included here, the reader will find a vast geographic spectrum of where they hail. In total, there are 24 chapters dedicated to these key figures and their contributions.
While the book is basically structured chronologically, occasionally this order is suspended to keep parshanim from a similar geographic region together. The reader will both enjoy and benefit from the clear organizational structure of each chapter which starts with an introduction that provides historical context as well as an appreciation for the educational and sometimes polemical mission and style unique to each commentator. Dr. Rock wisely curated specific examples that illustrate the unique contribution of each parshan. Additionally, there is a treasure trove of footnotes that sheds even more light on the text.
I recommend the reader to view each entry as a “mini-encyclopedia entry” with the option to either start with the origins of commentary all the way through contemporary times or, alternatively, dive into a specific commentator that fascinated the reader for whatever reason. While reading this book, one cannot help but think of the expression, “Shivim Panim l’Torah,” 70 faces of the Torah, a jewel with facets that are perceived by different people with different perspectives. Another great lesson gleaned from each chapter is that the Torah speaks to each generation and that the Torah’s eternal messages meet the challenges faced by each generation. This volume is a welcome key to help the casual student of Chumash as well as the scholar gain a deeper appreciation of each commentary that serves to explain the simple and, occasionally complex, meaning of the Torah. It is a great resource that will enrich any Judaic library.