A Review of Nechama Leibowitz’s Eyunim- Studies on Torah

  • by: Yaakov Kagan
  • Submitted on February 26, 2003

Before and after her death in 1997 at age 92, many tributes were paid to Nechama Leibowitz. Perhaps the highest praise came from Prof. Saul Lieberman who, in a letter to Nechama, wrote, “There is no one in our generation, no man or woman, who has contributed so much to Jewish education.” (Arend, et. al., eds., 2001, p.21), on which Gutel (2002) commented, “ Need we say more?” (p.B9). Nearly a half-century ago, at age 52, she received the prestigious Israel Prize for Education. Indeed, is there any need to praise her masterwork? The Eyunim (Leibowitz, 1996) had already become classics in her lifetime, a distinction attained by few men and no other woman (Gutel, ibid.).

The purpose of the current paper is therefore not lauditory, but rather descriptive and analytical. When Nechama was asked to describe her methods she replied, “I have no derech… I only teach what the commentaries say. Nothing is my own.” (Bonchek, 1993, p.19). Denials notwithstanding, this review attempts to describe methods employed and originality displayed. Page references here are all to the Hebrew edition of the Studies. Direct quotations are avoided since the Studies are readily available in several languages. Numerous examples are provided to make abstract generalities more concrete, and thereby provide a small sample of Nechama’s thoughts.


The Studies often contain the following aspects of method. The writer considers these important tools of Nechama’s craft but not essentially creative.

1. Topics of significance.
2. Biblical verses presented schematically.
3. Marshalling of similar expressions and concepts.
4. A sharply stated question or issue.
5. Sources of interpretations, ancient and modern.
6. Analyses of sources.
7. A western lexicon and literary perspective.
8. Additional features, including challenge-questions, footnotes and indices.

The second part of this paper will deal with Nechama’s Binah Yetera (special discernment) and originality.

1. Topics of significance

Each Study is self-contained and clearly focused on a single major concept. Nechama’s primary unit for analysis is neither global dealing with whole books or weekly portions, nor is it molecular dealing with a particular word or point of grammar. Rather than attempt to define “major” the writer will illustrate concretely by taking the first three Studies from Bereshit aided by Newman’s (1974) subtitles, which do not appear in the original Hebrew, but are given in his English translation and adaptation.

Nechama’s Titles Newman’s Subtitles
Man in the Image of G-d The unique and universal in man

Not Good for Man to be Alone-Partnership of man and woman

Tree of Knowledge-Symbol of destructive sophistication?
Sensual man? Indiscipline?
Views of Abravanel, Ramban and Midrash.

A perusal of the tables of contents will convince the reader that there are no esoteric topics of interest only to scholars. Morally difficult areas such as Sarah’s treatment of Hagar, Your Brother (Jacob) Came with Deceit, Did Moses Speak Unbefittingly? (when he refused to follow instructions to go unto Pharaoh), The Message of Sacrifices, An Eye for an Eye, Mystery of the Red Heifer and The Marginal Jew and many more…are included and made relevant for the modern reader.

Anecdotally, when the writer led small groups of college students and adults in reading the Studies, selecting any single one (and leaving out the others from the same weekly portion) was often difficult because all the titles seemed so captivating. After reading, the students were asked whether the material was important and whether they would like to retain it in long-term memory. Conclusions were invariably positive. As Bonchek states, “All (emphasis added) of Nechama’s lessons… have a deeper spiritual, moral or psychological message to convey” (ibid., p.20). It is impossible for this writer to tell whether she selected the topics for their message or perhaps any topic in her hands, would have a message. No matter – one simply can not find an insignificant study. Newman (ibid.), in his incisive introduction, cited a student of Nechama’s who said, “She moulded not only our methods of study but our Jewish outlook, unearthing the religious and ethical message of the Bible for us here and now” (p.xv). Here are a few examples of Nechama explicitly pointing out moral lessons:

Based on Sarah’s mistreatment of Hagar, one should not attempt superhuman feats… of indefinitely enduring a second wife in the same household (Bereshit,p.111).

Comparing the fleshpots of Egypt with the Manna from heaven shows that in the long run, spiritual things are more reliable than material things (Shemot, p.198).

Based on Mizrachi’s comment on “it appears to be negah (impurity)”, one should never claim certainty in doubtful situations (Vayikra, p.172).

The Torah does not mention the initiator of the idea of the seduction of some Israelites by the daughters of Moab because it was Israel’s responsibility to resist temptation and they were punished for not doing so regardless of who thought up the plan (Bamidbar, p.354).

Regardless of whose idea it was to send spies, the Israelites should not have accepted the negative report and were punished for so doing. The same goes for Adam’s eating the forbidden fruit and Eve’s blaming the serpent… there is no evading personal responsibility (Devarim, p.19).

2. Biblical verses presented schematically

Bible texts are generally presented in separate meaningful phrases on separate lines rather than in extended lines and paragraphs. Key words are printed in bold and letters are s-p-a-c-e-d apart for emphasis. Lines are drawn connecting verses associated chiastically as in Shemot, p.116, where a 1-2-3-4 order of redemption is followed by a 4-3-2-1 series. In multiple accounts of the same event, as in Eliezer’s mission to find a wife for Yitzchak, the actual account and the servant’s retelling are placed side-by-side, point-by-point, enabling the reader to easily make comparisons, e.g., in the actual event Eliezer takes out the jewels and then asks for the girl’s name, but in the retelling he first finds out the girl’s name and family (Bereshit, p.87).

While these “low-tech” displays may not be profound or original (see Bereshit, p.64, where Cassuto’s format is presented) Nechama uses them extensively and effectively. She places before the reader a “set table” so laid out that even the novice can see what is what is not the same. As an example of what is not the same, see Bereshit, p.5 where the command to be fruitful and multiply is juxtoposed for man and fish. There is no “and He said to them” to fish, signifying pure instinct for fish compared with the thoughtfulness desired from man.

Comparing what the Bnei Gad said with parallel verses spoken by Moses side by side, and the use of bold lettering for the word Hashem, a crucial absence of Hashem is clearly evident in the speech/thinking of Bnei Gad for several sentences. Finally, they do “get it” as evidenced by Hashem boldy appearing on their side of the ledger also (Bamidbar, p.357). Seeing schematically is so much better than hearing or seeing undifferentiated paragraphs.

3. Marshalling of similar expressions and concepts

Nechama aligns similar verses even though they may be widely separated in the Text. To teach that the purpose of the plagues was to convince Pharaoh about G-d’s existence ten verses are presented, one after the other, with various forms of “to know” in connection with Pharaoh and the plagues (Shemot, p.124). The key word “k-n-o-w” is emphasized by extra spaces between the letters, making the point visually compelling.

Here are a few more examples of marshalling:
– Five instances of “Speak to the children of Israel…” are given and then “Speak to ALL the children of Israel” (Vayikra, p.207)
– All the verses which mention that the destruction of Israel will lead to profaning G-d’s name… are assembled, including the astonishing statement that G-d was afraid (Devarim, p.320).
– All the verses where fear of G-d is expected from non-Jews… are assembled. (Devarim, p.324).
– All the verses are gathered where “You will be unable to…” means “You are forbidden to …” (Devarim,p.206).
– Five verses are lined up where something which actually did happen is said never to have happened, e.g., “I (Hashem) did not make a treaty with your fathers”; and Joseph saying to his brothers that “You did not send me to Egypt – rather it was Hashem.” Nechama expects the student to find the common denominator (Devarim, p.64). While all commentators are aware of these groupings, Nechama goes to the trouble to set them down before the reader’s eyes.

4. A sharply stated question or issue

The focal point of many Studies is an incisive question regarding language, meaning or morality. These mostly are cited from classic commentaries, as in:
– Why did Hashem choose Abraham? Isn’t it preferable to leave all of mankind united? (Bereshit, p. 83, Kuzari).
– The breaking of the tablets of commandments appears strange and astonishing, an act of anger. We know it is forbidden to break even a small object in anger, how much more so something holy and precious! (Shemot, p.429, Be’er Yitzchak).
– What is the commandment of circumcision doing here amongst the commandments of uncleanliness and defilement? (Vayikra, p.135 Yitzchak Karo).
– What wrong did the spies do? Moshe required them to answer specific questions truthfully. Did he send them in order to bear false testimony? (Bamidbar, p. 169, Ramban).
– How could the Torah say that Israel was not given “a heart to know”? Wouldn’t such a gift interfere with man’s free will? (Devarim, p.274, Abravanel).

The student’s curiosity and even pugnacity thus aroused, he is eager to proceed on with commentators’ solutions and even with ideas of his own. So too is attention focused when an issue is sharply drawn, as in:

– Two different evaluations of Noach’s righteousness (Bereshit, p.44).
– Several opinions regarding the purpose of the enslavement in Egypt. (Shemot, Introduction).
– Four different interpretations for the commandment to dwell in Sukkot (Vayikra, p.337).
– Balaam – prophet or sorcerer? Sources are cited for both opinions (Bamidbar, p.285)

5. Sources of interpretations, ancient and modern.

True to the subtitle of the Studies:In the Context of Ancient and Modern Jewish Bible Commentary(Newman, ibid.) Nechama selectively cites interpretations from the entire array of Jewish commentary. Her task of selection may be analogous to a conductor with hundreds of virtuoso soloists at her disposal. These soloists play the same score but rarely do they rehearse together. The conductor attempts to orchestrate the performance by spotlighting those soloists who perform a given piece most brilliantly. It is faithfulness to the music (TEXT), not the genius or reputations of the performer (Commentator) or the personal preference of the conductor that matters. Often different soloists or groups of soloists with different interpretations are chosen for contrast. Ibn Caspi and Ibn Ezra are often cited even though they do not attribute significance to subtle differences in wording (Shemot, p.66), a position which Nechama vehemently opposes.

To the writer’s knowledge there are very few instances of Nechama paraphrasing her source without presenting the source verbatim. One occurs when Laban switches Jacob’s brides and then, instead of apologizing, attacks Jacob for failing to adhere to the custom of marrying the older sister first. Nechama conveys the words of her ancient source to aptly include the modern quip, “The best defense is a good offense” (Bereshit, p.224). Also, on the Torah’s omission of Joseph’s cries from the pit at the time of occurrence, Ramban’s explanation is conveyed by Nechama as an attempt to maintain a moral balance, for otherwise, the reader’s sympathy would be completely with Joseph, resulting in a story of “black versus white” (Bereshit, p.238).

In the writer’s humble opinion, Nechama did for Torah what Kahati did for Mishna and Art Scroll does for Talmud. They make available to scholars (and perhaps more importantly to non-scholars), a selection of the best interpretations, down through the ages. Quotations comprise a goodly proportion of the Studies, presented at least once on nearly every page. They are readily recognizable as quotations thanks to smaller print and indentation. To the writer’s knowledge the only author to print a thankful acknowledgement of Nechama’s great labor and labor savings for others… was Jacobson (1956) in the introduction to his popular Binah Bamikra (Meditations on the Torah). As a well known rabbi once remarked to the writer, “Practically everybody uses Nechama, but hardly anybody will admit it!”

Nechama constantly sought the fuller meaning of Text through both pshat and drash. She rejects the ultraliteralists for being too prosaic and realistic when the Text is in fact supernatural. She rejects Rashbam’s idea that Moshe’s refusal to heed the command given to him from the midst of the inextinguishable Burning Bush to go and speak to Pharaoh stemmed from diplomatic considerations (Shemot, p.68) and Ibn Ezra’s naive realism’ (realism hanievi) in claiming that the purpose of Abraham’s trial in the binding of Isaac could not be to show the world how righteous a person could be… because no one was there to witness the event! [Every reader of the Bible knows otherwise.] As Nechama says, the plain pshat of a supernatural event is supernatural. When Jacob limped after the struggle with the angel it was not due to rheumatism, as some suggested (Bereshit, p.255).

Midrashim are often employed to alleviate some difficulty in the Text (following Rashi’s program in Bereshit 3:8) and when they convey a deeper meaning, as for example, in Shemot, p.210, where different Midrashim explain the purpose of the large number of mitzvot either positively – to enhance quality of life, or negatively – to guard against pitfalls of sin. The drash, she says, seeks the heart, the deeper more private level, whereas the pshat seeks the mind, the surface level of conventional intellect (Bamidbar, p.141). She prefers the drash on “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt freely” meaning free of mitzvah constraint (Bamidbar, p.139) and “They are stronger than we” meaning stronger than G-d (ibid, p.170) and “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt” meaning a desire to revert to idoltry (ibid. P.177) when drash is in harmony with the entire context.

Yet there are realms where Nechama fears to tread. She parts company with Ramban when he employs mystical, kabbalistic notions, saying that she can not fathom them (Vayikra, p.14). This is the same Ramban whom she cites more often than any other commentator except Rashi and whom she considers the greatest of all commentaries in delving into the human psyche (Bereshit, p.231) Even in psychology, Nechama vehemently rejects Ramban’s singular view of Joseph as a self-promoter when he advises Pharaoh to appoint a wise man (Bereshit, p.316)because the Text has Joseph repeatedly attributing all his success to Hashem,and not to his own talents. Nechama retains the freedom to judge each issue independently. She supports Ramban (against Rashi and Hirsch) that it was Jacob, not Joseph, who wept at their reunion after twenty two years of separation (ibid., p.358) on grounds that Jacob was generally fearful of what lay ahead for his family.

Among her favorite modern sources are Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rav Yaakov Tzvi Meklenberg, the Netziv, Meshech Chuchma, Malbim, Cassuto, Benno Jacob, Buber, Rosenzveig, Biur, Prof. Heineman and the much revered Maran Harav Avraham Yitzchak Kook. Absent altogether are citations from Chassidic or Mussar literature, perhaps because these approaches are too homiletic.

Occasionally, a concession is made to derech tzachot (playful interpretations) in footnotes. One instance refers to the splitting of the sea, where, according to the Talmud, the tribes were vying with one another saying, “I will be the first to jump in”. The playful remark considers this a mere war of words since the sea was open for all to jump into if they were indeed so brave (Shemot, p. 191) Another instance refers to the test of a bride’s suitability through examining her eyes (Talmudic statement). The humorous interpretation is for the examination of her generosity – whether she gives charity with an ayin yofa (a good eye) (Bereshit, p.158). Both instances reflect timeless aspects of human nature and while they may not reflect the plain meaning of the Text, they are irresistibly appealing and merit mention, if only as footnotes, to understand verses of Torah in a lighter vein.

The Studies contain a small treasure trove of Talmudic sources. There is the chapter of Mishnayot Bikurim describing the bringing of the first fruit to Jerusalem (Devarim, p. 244). There is the long story of the worker who returns home empty handed after three years labor. Amazingly, he bears no ill will, providing his employer with numerous excuses for not paying his wages. This is an illustration of how to judge a fellow man righteously (Vayikra, p. 270). A great many instances of Talmudic understanding of Scripture are provided.

Rare insights are also provided from sources practically unknown even to scholars. As Newman (ibid) stated, “Nechama ransacked the whole treasury of Jewish comment down the ages from the earliest Midrashim to contemporary commentators, in the process resurrecting from oblivion many little known works which have been reprinted for the first time for centuries in response to the demand set up by her quotations from them” (p. xxviii).

There are also special gifts from modern literature. A section from the emotionally moving ode to Rashi by Shimon Meltzer is brought in a long footnote as an exquisite accompaniment to Rashi’s famous comment on Jacob’s request to Joseph for burial in Israel (Bereshit, p.387). A section from Howard Fast’s My Glorious Brothers on Jewish attitudes towards slavery, is translated into Hebrew and brought as a long footnote (Shemot, p.3) Shai Agnon is quoted on the significance of the death of a single Jew (Bamidbar, p.191). Shalom Aleichem is quoted on how not to return a stolen object (Bamidbar, p. 60). Henry George is cited to suggest that the law of return of land to original owners prevented the rich and powerful from displacing small land owners (Bamidbar, p. 422). Mahatma Ghandi’s view on the virtues of making vows is contrasted with the Torah’s view that it is preferable to act as a free person rather than be bound by vows (Devarim, p.216).

At first glance the above sources seem incongruous in a work so steeped in classic Jewish Biblical commentary. Yet in Nechama’s treatment this ‘dash of color’ works well to clarify concepts and broadly appeal to readers from diverse backgrounds. While this type of citation comprises but a tiny proportion of sources cited, it nevertheless shows that Nechama read widely and sought insights from unconventional sources.

6. Analyses of sources

Nechama offers brief explanations of some sources. Occasionally, after what she deems to be a difficult citation, she writes laymor or clomar (“that is to say”) and proceeds to clarify matters using terms familiar to the modern reader. Here are a few examples:

After quoting Ran’s explanation of why Isaac had to marry a girl from Abraham’s homeland and not from Canaan, Nechama adds that if we remove the ancient outer layer and use current language, we get Ran’s meaning… the beliefs of Rivka’s family are changeable and therefore not fatal. However, the degenerate, immoral practices of the Canaanites are not subject to change and are therefore mortally dangerous to Issac’s spirituality (Bereshit, p.154). Another example deals with the expression “Kanagah nirah li babayit”(it appears that I have a negah in my house). According to Rav Lipman Heller, this indicates that one should never open one’s mouth to Satan, to which Nechama comments that in rational terms, he’s saying that we should be optimistic (Vayikra, p.172).

Rav Kook is often quoted and explained, probably because of the mystical flow of his writing. For example, Nechama finds it necessary to explain Rav Kook’s notion of why Adam was vegetarian while Noach was omnivorous (Bereshit, p.55) and Rav Kook’s ideas about the sanctity of the Sabbatical year (Vayikra, p. 407 & p.424). Rav Kook’s idea that Korban Mincha will be THE Korban of the future… is presented with the cautionary remark that it is only for “people of discernment” (Vayikra, p.42). Nechama was no mere seamstress stitching together patches of cloth to form a quilt. Rather she abstracts the essence of each interpretation, groups similar ones together and separates different ones even if the differences are subtle. It is absolutely not a random collection of source material or even worse, of paraphrased sources.

In the Studies, answers are provided to some questions originally posed in the Gilyonot (worksheets, consisting of sources, without comment, and questions for the student to answer independently). In the Studies the reader is told (not asked to find) that the common denomenator in the four instances where fear of G-d is expected even from non-Jews… lies in their decent treatment of vulnerable persons over whom they exercise control. (Shemot, p.33). The reader is told that all concrete cases given by the Talmud of lo tonu (“don’t aggrevate”) are motivated by the drive to compensate for one’s personal feelings of inferiority by displaying superiority over others (Vayikra, p.429).

Whether using discovery or expository methods, Nechama’s emphasis is always on clarifying bedrock distinctions between different commentaries. As such it is similar to the rigorous, analyses of Rav J.B. Soloveitchik and the Brisker school. (The writer is indebted to Rav M. Spieglman for this observation). Cohen (1998) also sees a similarity in terms of intense closeness of scholars of different ages bound together in heated study. However, in Nechama’s analyses, there is constant evaluation of each interpretation’s faithfulness and congruence with the Holy written TEXT. In Oral Law, by definition, there is no sacred inviolate text written by the same Divine Author. Logic and internal consistency of different schools of thought are all important. In Brisk, closure is obtained when it can be shown that Rambam is consistent with himself and maintains a central concept which deals effectively with all pertinent information and the same applies just as well to Rambam’s opponents.

It is common for Nechama to save for last that interpretation which, in her judgment, best fits the Text. As examples, after several interpretations of counting the Omer are presented and rejected Ktav V’hakabalah and others are presented and deemed best (Vayikra, p.344). Benno Jacob and Casutto are presented approvingly as the finale in the Study dealing with the request for items (Kailim) upon leaving Egypt (Shemot, p.134) since they both deal adequately, in her judgment, with all aspects of the Text and context. This is Nechama’s “golden rule” (Newman, ibid.) even when it entails marginalizing the universally venerated, greatest of all commentaries, as when Rashi’s interpretation of the third part of the priestly blessing (Bamidbar, p.89) is rejected in favor of others (Bamidbar, p.89).

7. A western lexicon and literary perspective

The non-Hebrew speaking reader of Nechama’s Hebrew text may find himself struggling with strange looking words. After some trial and error soundings, they finally are discovered to be familiar English words in unfamiliar Hebrew configuration. Here are but a few of many in her lexicon, in approximate English transliteration: subjectivit/objectivit, particularizm/universalizm, pasiviyut/activiyut, formalium, realistium, idealium, opportunistium, ironia, associatsia, motivatsia, personifakatzia, proyectsia, hierarchia and spontanit. Here is one paragraph, shortened and paraphrased, with the underlined words transliterated. ‘This long Midrash describes the progress of mankind in developing methods of destruction. As intelectuali prowess increases, so also do the methods of totalit destruction. The last attempt to destroy uses radicali means… ‘(Bereshit, p.198). In short, the writing is in modern Hebrew which borrows freely from English when needed. Otherwise, Nechama uses classic Hebrew prose beautifully.

The style of citing references is that of scholarly writing according to the practices of western scholarship. As such, the modern university-trained reader will find Nechama’s text user friendly whereas others not so exposed may find the language and style alien. The popularity of translations of Nechama’s Studies into English, Spanish, French, Dutch and Russian, indicates a resonance with western thought and language.

Nechama borrows tools from analysis of literature to aid in her explanations. The concept of Milah Madricha (guideword) is employed in understanding Judah’s heartrending appeal to the ‘Egyptian’ viceroy by noting that the word Av (father) is used 14 times and the word Eved (slave) is used 13 times in the same speech. This shows the bases of his plea.

Nechama notes the use of “flashback” as a literary device as when we find out about Jacob’s oppressive treatment at the hands of Laban many years after the events occurred. Jacob was silent until he flees and so was the Torah (Bereshit, p. 238). We learn of Joseph’s cries from the pit into which he was thrown by his brothers… some twenty two years after the event occurred, to convey that the brothers are finally moved by Joseph’s cries (Bereshit, p.330), whereas when the event actually occurred, they were impervious.

Nechama also notes cryptically that “somebody” (the reader is not told who) says that the reason the Torah leaves out the many trials of Abraham mentioned by the Midrash… is to keep the interest and tension high in the reader. Had the Torah revealed that Abraham was a well established “superstar”, the trials which the Torah does describe would lose their suspense and sense of inner struggle (Bereshit, p.85).

Auerbach’s Mimesis on the Binding of Isaac is quoted at length (Bereshit, p.138). This expert in world literature points out the terseness of the actual narrative. The bare minimum of description may have led the Midrash to embellish the narrative with Abraham in deep conflict with Satan, who is interpreted as a projection of his own inner feelings against carrying out the sacrifice. To again quote Newman (ibid.), “In recent years, Nechama has found much in common with contemporary literary criticism, the keynote of which is close reading for different levels of interpretation and nuances of meaning”. Newman (ibid.) hastens to add, “But there is all the difference in the world between the scholarly detachment of such modern literary criticism and her deep Jewish religious moral commitment “(p. xv). Nechama uses the tools of literary analysis to better understand, teach and make more beloved the holy ‘tree of her life’ and not as a mere intellectual exercise.

8. Additional features…

Challenge-questions are provided at the end of nearly each Study. Sometimes the questions come from the commentators and sometimes, the questions appear to be her own. Sometimes the reader is sent to remote places in the Bible to compare Texts. As told to Salmon (1988), Nechama strives to activate students and elicit thinking. Passive, strictly receptive learning is a sure way to bore, fatigue and eventually lose the majority of students. Analysis, synthesis and evaluation of ideas are required. ‘Is Rav X’s idea similar to that of Rav Y or Z or is it a new idea altogether?’… is a typical question.

Answers are not provided in the text, probably to prevent students from taking the easy, but less productive, way out. During her lifetime, students sent her their answers for feedback. Newman (ibid.) remarks that after some 32,000 letters she stopped. Anecdotally, the writer asked Nechama, when she was about 80, why she stopped writing answers. She responded vehemently that she had not stopped writing, she merely stopped counting! At present it is possible to obtain some answers on the internet at www.torahcc.org primarily to questions raised in the “gilyanot” (worksheets.). Alas, gone are the days when one could obtain detailed feedback to written work and when encouraging, enlightening responses were only a phone call away.

Footnotes serve the same purpose as in any scholarly work. Indicies likewise function as always. There are separate ones for Scripture, Commentators and Authors cited, and in most English volumes, a Subject index. All are useful and welcome.

The index of Biblical verses at the end of each volume on Torah shows Nechama’s use of the whole Tanach to understand a given issue. Tanach is used both for content of ideas and as a means of better understanding the meanings of words.

PART II, BINAH YETERA (special discernment)

The final part of this paper deals with Nechama’s originality in the following ways:

1). Sensitivity to emotional tone.
2). Applications to modern life.
3). Decisor of “best” interpretations.

The Talmud attributes Binah Yetera to women. Nechama asks, in a challenge question (Bereshit, p. 13), how this wisdom is exhibited? She gives no direct answer, but the writer feels that at least a clue may be derived from her own work in the three areas listed above and described below.

I. Sensitivity to emotional tone.

Despite Nechama’s protestation cited at the outset that she says “nothing of her own”, the writer believes it reflects more modestly than accuracy. Some examples of her original interpretations are presented below based on the writer’s assumption that when Nechama writes “perhaps” or “it appears” and she does not cite any source, then it is her own idea, since she is otherwise scrupulous in mentioning her sources. All examples reflect her concern with the feelings of the persons living through the events described in Text.

– Nechama writes that we can all empathize with Sarah’s feelings of anger against Hagar. Hadn’t Sarah generously initiated and facilitated Hagar’s becoming her husband’s second wife, not merely a concubine? And now Hagar sees herself superior in every way. Who can blame Sarah? And who can blame Hagar and Ishmael for their resentment toward Sarah and her decendents? (Bereshit, p.111).

– Jacob prepared to meet Essau by sending gifts, praying and organizing his camp for war. But in what sequence did these three occur? Unlike what most people would say (without carefully reading the Text) gifts came last, after prayer. Nechama suggests that it was through prayer with self appraisal that Jacob felt that he needed to make monetary amends for unethical dealings with Esau in the past (Bereshit, p.253).

– The Torah says that since the Egyptian priests had food provided by Pharaoh, they therefore (al ken) did not have to sell their lands during the famine. Nechama notes that the same phrase (al ken) is used latter to describe why future Jewish priests will not receive any land. Nechama asks if we do not feel that the Torah is ridiculing the Egyptian manner of “giving to the rich to make them richer”! (Bereshit, p. 378).

– Nechama claims that when the Torah states that Joseph’s brothers SAW that their father had died, the ‘seeing’ refers to Joseph’s visit to the very pit into which they had thrown him (following Reb Yitzchak in the Midrash). She finds Rashi’s interpretation (following Reb Tanchum) that Joseph no longer invited his brothers to dine… dissonant with the overall emotional picture of Joseph as consiliator (Bereshit, p.399 – 400).
– Of the many Midrashic explanations for Hashem first appearing to Moshe from amidst a thorn bush, Rashi chose the one that shows Hashem in pain, suffering, as it were, with His oppressed children. The reason, according to Nechama, is that only this Midrash addresses the people’s emotional state of doubt, anguish and desperation as described in the surrounding Text and offers compassion and hope (Shemot, p.49).

– Why does Nechama choose Rashi’s interpretations over those of his grandson, Rashbam, as to Moshe’s questions of ‘Who am I to go to Pharaoh and take the children of Israel out of Egypt’? Because Rashi sensed that Moshe’s only possible reaction to this first revelation was fear and trembling at the awesome presence compared with his feelings of worthlessness and insignificance about himself and the people he was chosen to lead (Shemot, p.55).

– To grasp the encounter between Pharaoh, Moshe and Aaron at a pictorial and even visceral level, Nechama asks the reader to conjure up the image of Pharaoh rising from his throne resplendent in majesty, adjusting his crown to just the right angle, turning toward the supplicants with disdain and asking why they distract the people from their work. His haughty manner makes impossible any further discussion of freeing the slaves (Shemot, p.75).

– The Torah forbids oppressing the widow and orphan (Shemot, 22:21) and warns, in the next sentence, that those who do oppress will be killed and that their wives will become widows and their children orphans. The Mechilta (cited in Rashi) is bothered by a logical tautology – if Mr. “X” is killed, Mrs. “X” automatically becomes a widow and the “X” children orphans. The Mechilta gives an answer which will not be repeated here. However, Nechama solves the problem by suggesting that the appeal is not logical but emotional. No new information is added by describing the fate of the oppressor’s family, but the thought and visual image of his forlorn wife and children can evoke a visceral shudder in the oppressor over and above that evoked by the image of his own death (Shemot, p.293).

– When Moshe descended Mount Sinai, there were rays of light eminating from his head. Aaron and the people feared to approach him. Only after Moshe encouraged them did they gingerly come closer. Nechama associates this with the fear and then very cautious approach to Joseph by his brothers after their father’s death. In both situations, there is visceral fear, realization of grave sin, an intense desire to pacify and reconcile with the feared person and encouragement to do so by that person. In both, re-approach is very gradual and tentative. The feeling-tone is identical. (Shemot, p.448)

– Nechama writes that reading Vayikra from the beginning, one feels a significant increase in intensity when reaching the section of forbidden sexual contacts. She writes that the first five sentences convey the feeling of heat, as if one is standing before a great bonfire! (Vayikra, p.190 & 199).

– Nechama writes that the reason for the Egyptian bondage can be learned from those commandments where the Torah states the purpose of performance is “because you were slaves in Egypt”. These commandments include loving the stranger, enjoying holidays and Sabbath, support of the released and escaped slave. The purpose of experiencing slavery was to have the receivers and transmitters of Torah feel inwardly the horrors of slavery and thereby empathize with and act compassionately toward the downtrodden (Vayikra, p. 12).

– The maternity offering includes a sin – offering. Why? What sin did the mother (and not the father) commit? According to Nechama, the mother experiences the might and miraculous ways of the Creator in her entire being and is extremely close to holiness while giving birth. After giving birth, the mother may feel herself unworthy of these miracles, hence the sin-offering. A similar recoiling is found in Isaiah when he first has a majestic, angelic vision of the divine which is immediately followed by fear and trembling over his own perceived lowliness… ‘I am a man of unclean lips’ (Vayikra, p.105).

– Moshe says to the children of Israel toward the end of his life that ‘Hashem did not give you a heart to know…’. Nechama maintains that the philosophers and rationalists erred in taking this sentence as a declaration of fact. Rather, it should be understood in the context of the entire speech, as a sign of despair, of bitter irony coming from the faithful father/leader concerning his children/followers whom he was unable to change or educate adequately in the ways of Hashem (Devorim, p.278).

– The above examples illustrate Nechama’s “golden rule” (Bereshit, p.400) that any single sentence must be understood within the overall content, style and emotional atmosphere of the surrounding Text in which it appears. In the brief introductions to many a Study, Nechama provides the emotional tone so that issues will not be examined in isolation.

2. Applications to modern life.

Concrete anecdotes from contemporary society are used to illustrate Torah concepts. Some examples include:

– Office workers who take excessively long coffee and tea breaks (as described by Berl Katzenelson in a footnote) are said to violate the prohibition of using their authority to oppress fellow men by keeping clients waiting (Vayikra, p.237).

– Kibbutz celebrations of the harvest seasons which glorify nature and human prowess only, are throwbacks to pre-Torah pagan ways which the Torah specifically tried to reform (Vayikra, p.335).

– The Talmud gives several illustrates of causing grief to others merely by speech. Nechama transforms each into the contemporary vernacular, e.g., giving deliberately misleading information is called sidru oto “they fixed him good;” The customer with no intention to buy anything becomes a woman who asks a hapless shopkeeper to show her some hard to reach items just to kill some time before her bus comes (Vayikra, p.427).

– Appointment of Jewish overseers to brutalize their own brothers is familiar to us. We know them as Kapos (Bamidbar, p.94).

– The Sefer Hachinuch’s great maxim that character is moulded through repetitive behavior is seen in the Torah’s insistence on a great many behavioral commandments. The maxim, alas, also works on development of evil character traits through repetitive evil behavior. Nechama illustrates the latter by using concentration camp guards as an example. Presumably, (at least in some cases) they were ordinary people to begin with but through constant repetition, they became monstrously evil and callous towards mass murder (Shemot, p.138).

– The request of two and a half tribes to remain on the eastern side of the Jordan… is similar to the contemporary conflict many young people have between pursuit of personal career goals and the fulfillment of national ideals (Bamidbar, p.355).

– Nechama likewise cites commentators who found in Torah, messages relating to historical events of their own times, e.g., Abravanel regarding Moranos (Bamidbar, p.182) and The Netziv of Volozhin regarding the importance of Jews maintaining their own unique communities and not treating Berlin as their Jerusalem (Bereshit, p.370 and Shemot, p.10), and Franz Rosenweig’s idea that many contemporary ideals and “isms” are forms of idoltry when false values are deified as ends in themselves (Shemot, p.235). Applications to comtemporary life are sprinkled throughout the Studies.

3. Decisor of “best” interpretations.

When Jacob and Joseph meet after twenty-two years of separation, one of them weeps. Which one? Rashi and Rav Hirsch say it was Joseph. Ramban says it was Jacob. Nechama agrees with Ramban based, not on language, but on the overall tone of Jacob’s expressed fear of going down to Egypt (Bereshit, p.360).

What was the nature of the trial of Manna? Rashi maintains (Devorim, p.89) that it was a test of man’s ability to keep all the rules associated with Manna. Nechama asks that the same problem of keeping all the rules can be applied to any Mitzvah! Nechama goes on to favor other interpretations. (In the writer’s opinion, Rashi can be defended by considering that no other Mitzvah runs counter to the basic physiological drive to reduce hunger and the fear of future hunger. Here is a people only recently released from slavery and privation, facing the bleak desert and asked not to put away any food for the morrow and not to collect on Sabbath. Picture the newly released concentration camp inmates, still wearing those hideous black and white striped pajamas. Even though they saw ample provision for the next day before them with their very own eyes, not in heaven, could they all be expected to obey the order not to put away an extra piece of bread!. Perhaps that is Rashi’s meaning).

S.D. Luzzato (“Shadal”) explains sending away the mother bird before taking her eggs… is to prevent punishing the mother for her act of love and loyalty towards her offspring and to teach that no harm will come to those who perform acts of kindness (Devorim, P.210). Nechama vehemently rejects this view, maintaining that the Torah never guaranteed that virtue will always be rewarded in this world. (“The writer has difficulty understanding Nechama’s point here. Perhaps Shadal is easier to understand in the negative… The Torah’s lesson is that people should not punish or take advantage of virtuous behavior).

When unable to select a “best” interpretation, as in (Bereshit, p.106) the meaning of Brit Bain Habetarim (Treaty Between The Parts) Nechama says that she does not want to force any one opinion on the student. She is content to present a small selection of alternatives and let the student decide since Torah can accommodate different opinions. However, as we have seen, when she spots a “winner” the reader is informed in no uncertain terms.

Did Nechama have the right to select “best” interpretations and reject others? This is no doubt, a sensitive area. In the writer’s opinion, Nechama was one of the most competent scholars in this generation in her areas of expertise, Bible with commentaries, and is therefore entitled to voice her opinions. Let objection come from those who have taught as many students in as many varied contexts, over as many years and who have submitted their views to the learning public for scrutiny! (If these criteria seem overly restrictive, that is exactly the point!) No one need accept her views, but certainly her steadfastness to her lifelong mission entitles her to express her keen opinions. Infallible? Certainly not! But power of judgement and a sense of “connoisseurship?” These she possessed, and the reader is much enriched by their expression and through study of the analytic processes involved in selecting “the best”.

In summary and conclusion, some of the tools of Nechama’s craft were identified and illustrated and some aspects of her special creative perceptions were presented. She remains by far more the organizer and evaluative analyzer of classic interpretations than creator of original interpretations. Nechama often attempts to evaluate different interpretations in terms of their harmony with the emotional tone of the surrounding passages. In her view, this criterion is axiomatic and is the hallmark of all letter interpretations.

Some of Nechama’s veteran students now themselves veteran teachers, report themselves thinking and teaching according to her derech. With the five volumes of Studies, anyone, even those who never had the privilege of meeting her, can join her passionate search for meaning of the central concepts of Torah and commentaries.

Acknowledgments: The writer is grateful to Prof. G. Cohn and Rabbi M. Spiegelman for their useful suggestions and to D. Kurz, esq. and Mrs. C. Bobrowsky for their careful reading of earlier drafts.


Arend, M., Ben-Meir, R. and Cohn, G. (eds.),2001, Pirkei Nechama:
Sefer Zikaron Le ‘Nechama Leibowitz. Jewish Agency, pp. 752 , Jerusalem.

Bonchek, A. (1993) Professor Nechama, Teacher of Israel.
Jewish Action,54, 16, 18-20, 27.

Cohn, G.H. (1998) Nechama Leibowitz – Teacher of Torah. Bekhol Derakhekha Daehu, Journal of Torah and Scholarship,6, 5 – 16.

Gutel, N. (2002) Guardian of the extant – a book review of Pirchei Nechama: Ha’aretz, Jun 28, p. B9.

Jacobson, B.S. (1956) Meditations on the Torah. Sinai, Tel Aviv.

Leibowitz, N. (1996) Studies in Bereshit–Genesis, Shemot–Exodus, Vayikra–Leviticus, Bamidbar–Numbers, and Devorim–Deutornomy. Eliver Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, The Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education, Jerusalem.

Newman, A. (1974) English translation of N. Leibowitz’ Studies, Subtitled, In the Context of Ancient and Modern Jewish Bible Commentary. Second Revised Ed., World Zionist Organization, Department for Torah Education and Culture, Jerusalem.

Salmon, R. (1988) Nechama Leibowitz: Scholar and Teacher. Textures, 6, Hadassah National Jewish Studies Bulletin.

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