Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Jay F. Shachter, trans. The Commentary of Abraham ibn Ezra on the Pentateuch, volume 5: Deuteronomy (Hoboken, N.J.: KTAV, 2003). Pp. iii + 204. Paperback. ISBN 0-88125-745-1. $ 35.

Abraham ibn Ezra was an intellectual giant of the twelfth century. He traveled widely, wrote prolifically and displayed vast erudition in such fields as poetry, grammar studies, neo-Platonic philosophy, astronomy and astrology. He also had some level of expertise in classical rabbinic texts. (Scholars argue about how much.)

Of his many books, most well known are his Bible commentaries. Jews who study the Bible in the traditional manner are well acquainted with these works due to the somewhat surprising decision of the printers of the first rabbinic Bibles (the Miqraot Gedolot) in Italy at the beginning of the sixteenth century to include ibn Ezra's commentary right beside that of Rashi, the great northern French Bible commentator who died when ibn Ezra was a child. Baruch Spinoza made ibn Ezra's Torah commentary famous outside of the limited circle of rabbinic readers when he portrayed ibn Ezra as the first Jewish proto-critic of the Bible, who hinted broadly, Spinoza argued, that Moses could not have written the Torah.

Considering the importance of ibn Ezra's commentaries to rabbinic Jews and to critical Bible scholars, an English translation would be welcome. Yet the task is extremely difficult. The translator ideally should be an expert in all the many areas of study in which ibn Ezra was expert. Furthermore, ibn Ezra relished writing his commentaries in cryptic wording--especially, but not exclusively, when they contained heterodox messages--and there are many passages in his works that still baffle scholars. Added to that, the state of our texts of the commentaries is very poor; there are no critical editions.

Jay F. Shachter has now published his translation of ibn Ezra's commentary on Deuteronomy. This is his second volume--Leviticus was published in 1986. The translation is accompanied by a very small number of explanatory notes.

Any translator of a classical text from a culture very different from our own must decide how much use to make of explanatory notes. Shachter does provide a few useful short notes such as when he points out (e.g., commentary to Deut. 16:22 and 17:15) that ibn Ezra is promoting a position that is not in conformity with standard Jewish law (halakhah). True, lengthy notes in translations can sometimes get out of hand. Yet Shachter has chosen inappropriately to err in the opposite direction, perhaps reasoning that cryptic passages in the medieval Hebrew ought to remain cryptic in English. Consider, for example, this passage, near the beginning of the commentary:

If you can grasp the mystery behind the following problematic passages: (1) the final twelve verses of this book; (2) "Moshe wrote" . . . you will then understand the truth.

Shachter adds no explanatory note to clarify that the "problematic" issue is, according to most readers, the question of Mosaic authorship. Nor does he help the reader understand why a discussion of this issue is appropriate in a commentary on Deuteronomy 1:1 (where the troubling phrase "on the other side of the Jordan" appears in reference to the east side of the Jordan, suggesting an author who is situated on the Jordan's western bank). True, ibn Ezra also does not help the reader make that connection. But translators generally do provide that service.

Shachter does reasonably add many helpful words to his translation. For example, in the above short quotation almost half of the words in the English text ("behind the following problematic passages" and "the final twelve verses of this book") have no equivalent in the Hebrew. Shachter does interpret as he translates (as every good translator must) but he stops interpreting too quickly for my taste.

The translation is marred by a number of troubling errors. The word kaved in the commentary to Deut. 6:5 is rendered "kidneys," instead of "liver." The Hebrew words אף כי (commentary to Deut. 23:3) are incorrectly rendered "even in," changing considerably the import of ibn Ezra's comment, since ibn Ezra generally uses the words אף כי  in the sense of "how much more so," the same way that they are used in the Bible itself (e.g., Deut. 31:27). Shachter's grammatical and syntactical terminology is often non-standard and not helpful. For example, in the commentary to the first verse of Deuteronomy we read that "the phrase that Moshe spoke is modified by the entire remainder of the verse." These words are an interpolation by the translator and I confess that I do not know what they mean in context.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this translation is that the translator frequently changes the order of ibn Ezra's comments to make them conform to the translator's sense of what would be most logical. For example, it is unusual that ibn Ezra began his commentary on Deuteronomy by mentioning an interpretation that he had read (or heard) about the phrase in verse 2, "eleven days from Horev by way of Mount Seir." But that is what ibn Ezra did. So if a reader were to open ibn Ezra's Hebrew commentary, fail to understand the first words of the commentary and turn to Shachter's translation for help, she or he would expect to find their explanation on the first, not the second page of Shachter's translation. Occasionally footnotes appear in the translation, such as on page 80. ("Note that the Torah does not reveal whether one can accept the testimony of a blood relative, or a woman, or a deadly enemy.") The reader might assume that such footnotes are interpolations from the translator but they are not. For some reason the translator has chosen to relegate some of ibn Ezra's comments to the footnotes.

The scholarly community must still await a more useful English translation of ibn Ezra's Deuteronomy commentary.


Martin Lockshin
York University, Toronto