The Great Italian Jewish Bible Commentator Who Drew on Jewish and Gentile Scholarship Alike

June 22, 2021 | Martin Lockshin
About the author:

Although Samuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865) was undoubtedly Italy’s leading Jewish scholar in his day, his commentary on the Pentateuch—which was only published after his death—is still rarely studied. Until recently, it was difficult to find a serviceable edition in the original Hebrew, let alone a useful English translation. Martin Lockshin thus praises Daniel A. Klein’s translation-in-progress for remedying the latter problem. In his review, he surveys Luzzatto’s accomplishments:

Samuel David Luzzatto . . . refused to be ordained as a rabbi himself, repeatedly declining the offers of his colleagues. He spent most of his life teaching in the Modern Orthodox rabbinical seminary in Padua, the Collegio Rabbinico. [In addition], he was a respected member of [the founding generation of academic Jewish studies], but at the same time was deeply opposed to [efforts to ground Judaism in] rationalist Greek philosophy, including Maimonides’ approach, on ethical grounds.

Luzzatto’s prolific literary output included an insightful commentary on the Torah that was unique in its time and continues to speak to readers today. It focused on the p’shat (the plain meaning) of the text and on the moral and religious messages that the p’shat contains. That alone does not seem terribly unusual, but Luzzatto was also an expert in Hebrew and other Semitic languages. Well-acquainted with the research of Jews, Christians, traditionalists, and critical scholars, he cited any source . . . that helps advance our understanding of the biblical text.

He was perhaps the first Torah commentator to draw liberally both from the writings of Bible critics and the traditional medieval Jewish commentators. Since his time, very few others have followed that path. A strong defender of the antiquity and divinity of the Torah, he still found insights in the interpretations of Jews and Gentiles who did not share his beliefs.

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