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Judaica Online Exhibitions
And We have Revealed to You ...
Qur'an, Sura 5.8, The Dinner Table

Jewish Biblical Interpretation in a Comparative Context IV: Medieval Jewish, Christian and Islamic Exegesis
Scripture in Islamic Tradition

For Muslims, as for Jews and Christians, the notion of scripture lies at the core of faith. That a common scriptural heritage links all three faiths is already announced in the Qur'an, which refers to followers of the shared Judaeo-Christian tradition with the phrase "ahl al-kitab" ("people of the Book," e.g., 3:199). The Qur'an is, of course, "the Book about which there is no doubt, guidance for the God-fearing" (2:2). But the Qur'an also suggests that it is only the most recent iteration of the very same "the Book" on which its sister faiths are founded. God says "We brought the family of Abraham the Book and wisdom" (4:54). God also "revealed the Book which Moses brought, as light and guidance for the people" (6:91). Jesus receives from God, "the Book, wisdom, the Torah, and the Evangelium" (5:110). God's message reaches its final form with Muhammad, whom God sends, following in the path of these biblical figures, as "a messenger" to "recite His signs and teach ... the Book and wisdom" (2:129).

Joseph Lowry

Liturgy and Music in Byzantium

The specific genre of collections of liturgical texts known as a Stikherarion usually contain the Stikhera, or verses specific to the daily, festal or sanctoral commemorations for the services of Vespers and Matins (Orthros) for the liturgical year. These volumes often, but not always contain musical notation. These stikhera, fixed in number, are inserted between the final verses of the fixed psalms appointed in the ordo for the daily cycle of vespers and matins. Three sets of stikhera make up the bulk of a complete Stikherarion: from the Menaion [a set of 12 books, one for each month, containing the variable hymns and text appointed for vespers and orthros of the fixed yearly cycle ]; from the Triodion [the liturgical collection containing the variable parts of the services for the moveable Lenten and Paschal cycle] and the Pentekostarion [the liturgical collection containing the appointed variable elements for the 50 day Pentecost cycle; these two separate larger collections excerpted and combined into one volume for the Stikherarion] and from the Oktoechos [a liturgical collection containing the texts for the daily cycles for every day of the year excluding Lent, arranged according to each of the eight modal cycles, or echoi]. Stikhera were frequently included for special saint's days or feasts of local significance. Presumably both the sheer mass of the material involved, and the fact of its seasonal or cyclic usage divided these volumes into separate collections.

An 11th C. revision of the post-iconoclastic controversy Stikherarion (with sanctoral additions and deletions subsequent to those controversies) continued in use until the 15th century, when a similar revision occurred, and when more highly developed (ornamented and melismatic; Neo-Byzantine notation) melodies replaced the previous simpler, syllabic notation. Several hundred stikheraria survive, each normally containing about 2000 Stikhera.

According to the dedicatory colophon [97v], RAR Ms. 226 was collected and arranged by Iakovos [James] the 'Protopsaltis' [Head Chanter] and completed by George of Smyrna on 25 October 1800. Written on glazed paper in a precise secretarial cursive with a ferrite black inking for the text and Neo-Byzantine musical neumes written above the text, and a cuprite rose-red inking for rubrical and modal superscriptions, Capitals and leads to inter-stikheral verses.

The size, abridgement and decorative illumination of RAR Ms. 226 may point more to private usage rather than as part of a formal ecclesiastical aumbry. Such privately owned volumes became increasingly popular in the late 15th C and often functioned in the same manner as private books of hours did in the Latin traditions of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Josef Gulka

Judeo-Arabic Polemics

The Geonic period (9th-11th centuries) opens an entirely new chapter in the history of Jewish learning and Jewish culture. New activity in Halakhic monographs, Biblical exegesis and religious philosophy, starts suddenly, from nothing as it were, with very little antecedents to rely on. The beginning of this new chapter is coupled with a most fundamental cultural change, namely the emergence of Judeo-Arabic culture. Jews adopted the Arabic language, indeed Arab culture, for all needs and purposes. This important change affected all areas of literary activity, both religious and secular, with the exception of liturgical poetry. As a result of this change Jews shared the same language with all other inhabitants of the political system of Islam - Muslims, Christians (a very large and conspicuous community within the boundaries of Islam) and members of other faiths. Socially it involved all segments of the Jewish population, including the highest echelons of Jewish spiritual and cultural leadership of the largest communities at the time. The importance of this change cannot be overestimated, as it brought Jewish spiritual activity in direction contact and interaction with the cultural environment at large (including Islam, Christianity and the heritage of Classical philosophy and sciences). It should be mentioned though that as a rule Judeo-Arabic (with the exception of several hundred Karaite Medieval manuscripts) is written in Hebrew script (like some more recent Jewish languages). This has constituted in some measure a cultural divide between Jews and members of other faiths. Judeo-Arabic has been used by Arabic speaking Jews until the 20th century.

The Geonic period witnessed also the most important development in the history of Jewish sectarianism during the Middle Ages, namely the schism between Rabbanites and Karaites. In principle the Karaites rejected (and still do to this day) the authority of the Rabbinic tradition in favor of independent interpretation of the Bible. In practical terms this led to the development of an independent system of commandments and prohibitions. The differences between them and other Jews were most evident in the areas of communal and family affairs - liturgy, calendar, holidays and laws of marriage.

This is the background to the emergence of a rich and varied polemical literature in Judeo-Arabic, aimed by Jews against other faiths, and within Judaism between Karaites and Rabbanites. In fact every Karaite Halakhic or exegetical work contains extensive polemical sections.

Haggai Ben-Shammai

Rashi: Commentary and Plain Meaning

Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes (1040-1105, known by the acronym Rashi [Rabbi Solomon Yitzchaki]) is acknowledged as the biblical commentator par excellence of the Jewish exegetical tradition. Rashi spent his early years in Troyes and then went to the rabbinical academies of Worms and Mainz where he drew upon the classical rabbinic sources that had been transmitted from both the Babylonian (Islamic) and Palestinian (Eretz Yisrael and Byzantine) traditions.

Rashi wrote commentaries on the entire Hebrew Bible (except Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles and Job). One of his fundamental principles was to balance the lexical boundaries of the biblical words or phrases against a variety of potential interpretations from rabbinic literature. He described his approach in the following way: "There are Many aggadic Midrashim, and our Rabbis have previously set them in proper order in Genesis Rabbah and other Midrash collections. However, I have come for the plain meaning of the biblical text and for the Aggadot that settle the words of the Scriptural text in their proper order." (Genesis 3:8). Rashi used the Hebrew phrase unique to his writings, Peshuto shel Miqra, to describe his goal. A discerning reader of Rashi's commentaries can observe his sensitivity to the Christian environment. The initial comment on each of the Five Books of Moses presses the argument that each book is a continuous narrative of God's affection for the Jewish people. In his commentary on the Psalter there are several references to a Teshuvah le-Minim (a response to the Christians) that refute a typological reading of the Psalter as prophesies of Jesus Christ and the Incarnation. The commentaries on the prophetic books also have indications that Rashi "answered" the Christians [Ezekiel 1:3], and the eschatological visions indicate his sensitivity to the suffering of the Jewish people in the exile. The biblical commentaries of Rashi influenced his immediate successors in the Northern French Jewish academies such as his younger colleague Joseph Kara, and his grandson Samuel b. Meier. In addition to his influence on the Jewish exegetical tradition, Rashi's commentaries appear to have been a source for the scholars at St. Victor Abbey in Paris such as Hugh and Andrew. Furthermore, the Franciscan Nicholas of Lyre (1270-1349) made extensive use of Rashi's commentaries and thereby influenced the work of Martin Luther and other scholars of the Reformation.

Michael Signer

The Glossa Ordinaria and the Development of Layout

Gloss (Gk. glossa, Lat. glossa, tongue, speech) is an interpretation or explanation of isolated words. To gloss is to interpret or explain a text by taking up its words one after another. In Canon law, glosses are short elucidations attached to the important words in the juridical texts, which make up the collections of the "Corpus Juris Canonici" (q.v.). But the term gloss is also given to the ensemble of such notes in any entire collection, e. g. the Gloss of the "Decretum" of Gratian, of the "Liber Sextus", etc. These brief notes, at first inserted between the lines, soon overflowed the margins, and became copious enough to form a framework, intertextually and physically, within which the real text was enshrined, as may be seen by an examination of ancient manuscripts and certain editions of the "Corpus Juris Canonici". Moreover, later glosses were of such ample proportions as to become at times small commentaries containing discussions on the opinions of previous canonists. As each master added his own gloss the notes began to swell in volume; but care was always taken to indicate the particular author by placing a significant abbreviation after his gloss, thus: Hug. or H. (Huguccio); Jo. Fa. or F. (Joannes Faventinus), etc. Gradually this mass of glosses took on in the schools a permanent form, a necessary condition to its usefulness in teaching; and became a kind of secondary canonical text, less authoritative, of course, than the original, but supplying material for oral commentary. Thus arose "ordinary gloss" (glossa ordinaria), endowed with a certain authority. While this authority was not indeed official (as though it were actually the law on the point), it was nonetheless real. It represented not only the opinion and authority of the individual canonists and commentators who wrote it down, but also expressed the summa of current teaching at the time. This glossa ordinaria model for an authoritative chain of interpretive citations found its widest distribution and application in the genre of scriptural commentaries, either on individual books the Bible, or on the entire Scriptural corpus. These glossa ordinaria became, in fact, the chief source for teaching, preaching and studying the Bible in the middle Ages.

Josef Gulka

Nicholas of Lyra and Rabbinic Exegesis

Nicholas of Lyra - Franciscan, Hebraist, and biblical exegete - turned to the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic commentaries more extensively than any other medieval Christian Bible commentator. The interpretations of "Rabbi Salomon" (Rashi) and other "Hebrew doctors" are cited on almost every page of Nicholas's Old Testament commentary and with remarkable frequency in his New Testament commentary as well.

Nicholas was drawn to the Hebrew text (and to rabbinic exegesis as authentic interpretation of Hebrew text) in his effort to establish a clear reading of the literal sense of the Christian Bible. Because he allowed for metaphor and multiple layers of meaning within the literal sense of Scripture, Nicholas was able to make use of a wide range of rabbinic interpretations.

While Nicholas was quick to challenge Jewish interpretations that he believed contradicted Christian doctrine, he was just as likely to abandon longstanding Christian interpretations if he thought the Jewish approach more likely or "reasonable." Drawing perhaps on a lost tradition of Rashi manuscript illustration, Nicholas frequently used figures to juxtapose Jewish and Christian exegesis on specific passages, as here in Exodus 25:10-21. Nicholas describes the arrangement of the rings, staves, and cherubim upon the ark according to Christian tradition and according to Jewish tradition as presented by Rashi. In the midst of his discussion, Nicholas interrupts himself to direct his reader's attention, saying "so that the above said things may be understood more easily, I have described them in a drawing." As is often the case, the drawings help support Nicholas's contention that Rashi's interpretation is more reasonable than the traditional Christian view.

Deeana Klepper

The Song of Songs in Medieval Northern France - Peshat Exegesis Against its Historical and Cultural Background

The inner Jewish religious discourse and the continuous intellectual confrontation and dialogue with Christian environment, were centered in the 12th century around exegesis of Scripture. The study of this exegesis, in its forms, methods and contents, is perhaps the best means by which the common intellectual milieu and the peculiar spiritual contexts of each of these religious communities can be understood. They are all expressions of the specific sociological and cultural setting of the 12th-13th centuries. An example of this literature are the commentaries on the Song of Songs, which was one of the most popular and most commented on biblical work throughout the ages.

Among the interesting features of the history of the Song of Song's Jewish interpretation are two, probably related phenomena: a) the emergence and flourish of Peshat exegesis which focused on the literal interpretation of the Song of Songs; b) a relatively great number of medieval "Ashkenazi" commentaries, the authors of which are either anonymous or conjectural.

Three such commentaries are Rashbam's commentary on the Song of Songs (published by A. Jellinek in 1855), which provides a unique perspective on the Peshat school of exegesis at its climax, and two more little-known anonymous commentaries of the same provenance: a commentary published by A. H|bsch in 1866 and attributed by some scholars to Joseph Kara, and a commentary published H. J. Mathews in 1896, belonging to the same northern-France provenance of the 12th-13th centuries. These two works share a unique characteristic: they have given up the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs and are dedicated exclusively to the literal meaning of the work: an expression of human love.

This bold deviation from the accepted traditional stand toward the Song of Songs which - on the face of the matter - is similar to modern critical philological/historical understanding of the Song of Songs, is differently motivated and expresses a unique track of the Jewish/Christian polemic.

Sara Japhet

David Kimhi - Between Philology and Exegesis

Any family would be proud to produce an eminent biblical exegete; the Kimhi family produced three: Joseph (ca. 1105-1170), an emigri from al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) who settled in Narbonne in Christian Provence, and his two sons, Moses (d. ca. 1190) and David (ca. 1160-1235). Together, they formed a channel through which the exegetical streams of the Andalusian rationalist-philological tradition of peshat exegesis entered the Provengal intellectual horizon, which, in their time, was dominated by the midrashic legacy of Rabbi Moses ha-Darshan of Narbonne (early 11th century) and the Midrash-laden commentaries of Rashi (1040-1105), the great northern French Talmudist, whose works spread quickly among Jewish communities in Christian Europe. Whereas midrashic exegesis applied creative and fanciful reading methods in order to extract religious meaning from Scripture, Joseph Kimhi, aided by his elder son, Moses, began to establish in Provence a stricter methodology of biblical interpretation based, first and foremost on a philological reading of Scripture, in accordance with a venerable tradition that had developed in al-Andalus over the preceding two centuries. But David, known as Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi), the youngest and brightest star of the Kimhi constellation, would refocus the entire exegetical tradition. Born and educated in Narbonne, this illustrious scion of the Spanish peshat tradition was nourished by the midrashic soil of Provence and produced an original exegetical system that integrates elements from both schools. Radak became remarkably popular in both Jewish and Christian circles; his commentaries have appeared alongside Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra in the Rabbinic Bible (Mikra'ot Gedolot, introduced in the sixteenth century); and he earned for his family the tribute that the rabbinic adage, "There is no Torah without flour (kema)", was adapted poetically as, "There is no Torah without Kimhi".

In accord with Kimhi tradition, Radak began his writing career around 1205 with a monumental work on biblical Hebrew language, the first part of which is a grammar, Sefer Mikhlol, the second a dictionary, Sefer ha-Shorashim. Our Provengal exegete went on to write commentaries on Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Former Prophets, Latter Prophets and Genesis. Inspired by the great twelfth century Andalusian philosopher, Maimonides, Radak also composed separate esoteric philosophical commentaries on the `account of creation' (ma`aseh bereshit; Gen 2:7-5:1) and `account of the Chariot' (ma`aseh merkavah; Ezekiel 1). Although Radak wrote no separate polemical work, he addresses (and aims to refute) christological readings throughout his writings, often drawing upon Joseph Kimhi's Sefer ha-Berit, a literary record of a disputation between a Christian and Jew.

Featured here is a passage from CJS RAR MS 375, a late thirteenth-early fourteenth century manuscript of the Shorashim, which is perhaps Radak's most influential work. It quickly became standard in Jewish learning and even achieved popularity among Christian Hebraists well into the seventeenth century. (It was used, for example, by the translators of the 1611 King James Bible.) In the post-script to the Shorashim, Radak mentions that his two-part linguistic work was produced at the request of biblical scholars in Provence who found it difficult to understand "the books of the authors who came before [which were] translated from one language to another and are difficult to understand." This would seem to be a reference to the great Hebrew linguist, Jonah ibn Janah, whose grammar-dictionary combination (Kitab al-Luma` and Kitab al-Usul, written in Arabic) is indeed the model of Radak's work. Although Ibn Janah's magnum opus was indeed translated into Hebrew in twelfth century Provence by Judah ibn Tibbon, evidently there was a need for a clearer Hebrew work of this type, which Radak aimed to fill.

A glimpse of Radak's daily life emerges in another note in the post-script to the Shorashim, where the author apologizes to the reader for any errors that might have crept into his grammatical-linguistic work and attributes them to the fact that "all the days that I worked on [the Mikhlol and Shorashim], most of my time was spent on my [primary] work teaching young men Talmud." This remark helps to explain the extensive citations of Talmud and Midrash in Radak's commentaries, a feature unusual in the peshat school our Provengal exegete inherited and would have seen, for example, in the commentaries of Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164), the eminent Andalusian imigri exegete who represents the "pure" hermeneutics of that tradition. Although Radak did indeed take ibn Ezra to be his peshat mentor, this Provengal Talmud teacher was also at home in rabbinic exegesis and evidently was moved by its creativity, depth and inspirational force. Manifesting a special talent for integration, Radak harnessed the two exegetical streams that converged in twelfth century Provence to biblical commentaries that combine linguistic acuity and historical sensitivity with interpretive creativity, imagination and religious passion. All of these qualities contribute to the lasting impact of his work to this day, especially among readers of Scripture who seek a historical-philological interpretation that does not forfeit the spiritual dimension of Holy Writ.

Mordechai Cohen

Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Polemics in Spain

Serving his Barcelona community for almost half a century, Rabbi Shelomoh ibn Adret (the "Rashba," ca. 1235-1310) inherited Nahmanides' (Ramban's) mantle, whose student he was, in the latter's leading position in Spanish Jewry and was recognized as the outstanding Halakhic authority of his generation on the Iberian Peninsula and beyond. Questions were addressed to Ibn Adret from all over the Jewish world, and even the king of Aragon, Pedro III, submitted to him for adjudication a number of complicated cases that had arisen between Jews of different communities. Already Yosef Caro started to collect Ibn Adret's Responsa, which served him as a major source of his Shulhan Arukh. The more than 10,000 known Teshuvot were subsequently published in different printed editions and other collections, posing a difficult literary problem. The first collection of Ibn Adret's Responsa was published in Rome between 1469 and 1471 and the second, of which only a few copies remain, in Constantinople in 1516. The CAJS rare book room includes a Bologna print from the Jewish year (5)299, i.e. 1538 or 1539, containing 1255 Teshuvot. Moreover, most of the Responsa attributed to Nahmanides and included in the 1519 Venice print, another treasure of the CAJS library, actually are the work of Ibn Adret.

In his Responsa as in his other writings, Ibn Adret often deals with exegetical questions, thereby referring to the inner-Jewish debate about allegorization, an exegetical technique he was opposing to. Moreover, Ibn Adret shows his familiarity with the arguments of contemporary Christian polemicists against Judaism, e.g. the Dominican friar Raymond Martini (Ramsn Martm) and the Franciscan Raymond Lull (Ramsn Llull), both of whom were arguing about specific questions of how to understand the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.

A polemical treatise authored by Ibn Adret and called Ma'amar 'al Yishma'el ("Treatise against the Muslim") responds to the 11th-century Muslim scholar Ibn Hazm of Cordoba. Having written the fullest Bible criticism of any Muslim scholar, Ibn Hazm had claimed that the Hebrew Bible cannot be identical with the original text revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai but must be a later corruption. A closer look at Ibn Adret's response to Ibn Hazn shows that the Rabbi, when refuting classical Muslim literature, was also aiming against contemporary Christian exegesis, since he saw certain commonalities between Islamic Bible criticism and the Christian claim that the Jews had abandoned the religion of the "Old Testament" and replaced it by the Talmud.

Martin Jacobs