THE TORAH CAN BE A great read — inspiring, comforting, uplifting, provocative — but without the explanatory input of generations of commentators, it can also be a bit daunting. Fortunately, Jewish tradition has portioned this essential text into weekly bites for easier consumption. In the spirit of Simchat Torah, which begins Saturday night and marks the (at least) 2,355th end and rebeginning of the annual Torah reading cycle, here are some of the resources used by our local community over the years we’ve spent engrossed in this Book of Books. I hope it helps you too.
The Sapirstein Edition: Rashi (5 volumes)
Slant: Very Traditional
Points: Rashi is the commentator par excellence. He is strictly concerned with elucidating the Torah’s plain meaning, and he brings to bear on each verse nearly the entire corpus of the Jewish textual tradition as it existed in his time. Use this if you want to understand Torah as Serious Jews have done for almost a thousand years. (Nice literal translation too.)
Caveats: A good deal of Rashi’s work has to do with Hebrew grammar, so keep that in mind — he can sometimes be a tad dry. Also keep in mind that he was a literalist, operating from the model that the Torah was Divinely written. Even if you don’t share that view, there’s a tremendous amount of classical Torah nutrition here.
Wellsprings of Torah (2 volumes)
Author/Publisher: Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman
Slant: Traditional (Eastern European)
Points: R’ Friedmann HY”D was a Warsaw Ghetto resident murdered in 1943. He left a great literary legacy culled from many sources: some his own, some very obscure and some not so, but all focused on the Torah’s spiritual insights. Considering his circumstances, R’ Friedman’s “take” is by turns inspiring and chilling.
Caveats: He likes to take occasional potshots at the lesser-observant, but given the times in which he lived — and the state of Jewish identity therein — that’s understandable.
Weekly Midrash (AKA “Tsene U’Rene”) (2 volumes)
Slant: Traditional (Eastern European; late 16th Century)
Points: Written for women to pass on to their families, this work adorned many a “Shabbos table” down through the centuries. According to the jacket copy, a number of great rabbis first cut their Torah teeth on the theological and moral lessons contained herein. A good insight into “shtetl Judaism.” And the woodcut illustrations are charming.
Caveats: Much of what’s in here will doubtless strike the modern mind as somewhat superstitious and moralistic. Be that as it may, it also contains much classical commentary and homiletics.
The Pentateuch and Haftorahs (AKA “The Hertz Chumash”)
Author/Publisher: Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz / Soncino
Slant: Traditional (immediately pre-Holocaust British)
Points: Used by Conservative Judaism for many years until its recent replacement by Etz Chaim (see below). Draws from a vast variety of classical and then-modern commentators, augmented by explanatory essays.
Caveats: Not shy about taking the serious mickey out of Biblical Criticism (i.e., the Documentary Hypothesis, which posits that Torah was assembled from a handful of different sources and redacted c. 5th Century B.C.E.). But they argue their case well, and given the authors’ historical perspective, it’s not entirely unjustified. Also: it uses the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation, so be prepared for a host of thees, thous and thys.
Commentary on the Torah
Author/Publisher: Richard Elliott Friedman
Slant: Biblical Criticism, with a twist
Points: Despite the author’s Documentary Hypothesis adherence and his other scholarly works (e.g., Who Wrote The Bible?) he insists that the Torah should be read and studied as a unified text. His translation is very nearly literal in order to capture the poetic flavor of the original Hebrew.
Caveats: Not for Biblical literalists.
The Living Torah
Author/Publisher: Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
Points: Exhaustive. The astonishingly erudite R’ Kaplan brings a host of early, middle and late commentators from a variety of interpretive approaches (literal, metaphorical, homiletic, mystical). He offers a nice translation that wanders at times from the literal, but always lets you know when he does. Also featured: helpful illustrations, maps, tables, &c., all aimed at clarifying the text.
Caveats: He foregoes top-of-the-page chapter-and-verse numbers, meaning that you have to consult the copious footnote headings to find your way around. But that’s only one small molehill against a mountain of great exegesis.
Author/Publisher: Various (see below) / RA-USCJ
Slant: Modern Conservative Judaism
Points: Replaces the “Hertz Chumash” (see above) as the Conservative Movement’s synagogal standard. It’s actually three commentaries in one: straight elucidation; a psychospiritual interpretation; and, at the bottoms of many pages, the Toraitic sources of practical halacha (Jewish law and practice). Insightful essays, diagrams and useful full-color maps too.
Caveats: Uses the modern Jewish Publication Society translation, which is a bit too figurative for the tastes of anyone who wants to know what the Hebrew actually says. To use one example among many: the very important Exodus 24:7 excerpt about how and why to practice Judaism (“na’aseh v’nishma”) is translated “we will faithfully do!” instead of the literal “we will do and we will understand.” This changes the reader’s paradigmatic Torah understanding from learn-as-we-go to hear-and-obey; the latter is not at all what living Jewishly is about.
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
Author/Publisher: Women of Reform Judaism
Points: Fills a sorely vacant hole in the tapestry of male-dominated Torah commentary. Each portion is introduced with a dive into its meaning for modern women, and followed by three insightful essays and a selection of relevant poetry. Very important for anyone seeking a gender-balanced exegetical approach, and especially women who ask, “Yes, but what’s in the Torah for me?”
Caveats: The wonky JPS translation.
The Stone Edition: The Chumash (AKA “The Artscroll Chumash”)
Slant: Orthodox Judaism
Points: Similar to The Living Torah (see above) in that it offers the views of a variety of classical commentators, but from a very literalist perspective (which also informs the translation). Very good introduction to the traditional Torah understanding, though. It also provides the haftarot (weekly prophetic readings) after all the Torah portions (The Living Torah does this too), making for an easy week-to-week read. Nice illustrations as well.
Caveats: They have a tendency to treat the non-Orthodox rather poorly. They also not-so-delicately insist that their Torah view is the only correct one.
The Torah: A Modern Commentary (AKA “Plaut”)
Author/Publisher: Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut / UAHC
Slant: Reform Judaism
Points: Good scholarly treatment, with commentators from traditional to modern (including poets and historians) along with much relevant archaeological material. Useful, well-researched essays (and maps!) are sprinkled throughout.
Caveats: The text is sliced up thematically rather than by the portion, making it a challenge for weekly study. Also, it uses the wonky JPS translation and, like the Artscroll Chumash (see above), seems convinced that their side has all the answers.
Be, Become, Bless
Author/Publisher: Rabbi Yakov Nagen
Slant: Modern Orthodox (with a smidgen of Buddhism)
Points: Deep essays relating to each portion, rather than a straight translation. It speaks to (and for) those who have found their way back to Judaism after a dip in the waters of Eastern religious thought. Even without that exotic-to-some background, it’s good all-around “experiential holiness” food.
Caveats: Not for strict traditionalists.
Essays on Ethics
Author/Publisher: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Slant: Modern Orthodox
Points: From perhaps one of our greatest living Torah expositors. As apparent from the title, R’ Sacks’ explorations of each weekly portion emphasize Torah’s practical ethical lessons. A great champion of the Western philosophical tradition, R’ Sacks’ work is well-informed by modern social science (anthropology, sociology, psychology, game theory, economics, historiography, et al) and, at times, is quite anthemic.
Caveats: Can be a bit hard on modern liberalism, particularly of the individualist variety.
Sparks Beneath the Surface
Author/Publisher: Rabbis Lawrence Kushner and Kerry Olitzky
Points: Excerpts from each weekly portion are highlighted by three treatments from different Chasidic masters; each treatment is also given a translation, its Scriptural context, and a brief biography/background.
Caveats: Not for those bothered by or uninterested in Jewish mysticism.
Rebbe Nachman’s Torah (3 volumes)
Author/Publisher: Breslov Research Institute
Slant: Chasidic (Breslover)
Points: Organized by the weekly portion, this verse-by-excerpted-verse commentary features insights by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and his primary disciple, Reb Nosson. Emphasizes attaining simple faith and joy, as well as keeping up one’s spirits no matter the challenge.
Caveats: Occasionally very technical, and sometimes opaque, for those unfamiliar with basic Qabalistic concepts. As with Sparks Beneath the Surface (see above), it’s not for those bothered by Jewish mysticism.
The Rebbe’s Shabbos Table
Author/Publisher: Breslov Research Institute
Slant: Chasidic (Breslover)
Points: Deep but accessible delvings into the Torah’s practical and mystical treasures, organized by the weekly portion and meant to spark lively discussion on relaxing Shabbos afternoons. A good introduction to the Breslover school of chasidut.
Caveats: Not for the non-mystically inclined.
Bible Basics: An Introduction and Reference Guide to the Five Books of Moses
Author/Publisher: Jerome S. Hahn
Points: Not a commentary so much as an interpretive catalog. Charts, maps, diagrams, illustrations, tables, excerpts, overviews, glossaries, lists, you name it. Helpful both for beginners as well as old Torah hands.
Caveats: The historical dates given presuppose the correctness of the Jewish calendar, which purports to show the years elapsed since Creation; sometimes confusing when mapped against the Gregorian calendar.