Restoring a Commentary Maligned

By :  JTS Alumni Posted On Dec 8, 2017 | Speaking of Text: The Jewish Bookshelf

By Dr. Morris M. Faierstein, JTS Alumnus (GS ’75 and Doctor of Divinity honoris causa ’01)

Ze’enah U-Re’enah: A Critical Translation into English, Studia Judaica 96. Edited and translated by Morris M. Faierstein (De Gruyter, 2017).

The first page of the Amsterdam 1711 edition of Ze’enah U-Re’enah, from Dr. Faierstein’s personal collection.

The Ze’enah U-Re’enah was first published about 1610 and has since been reprinted 275 times. Despite this great popularity, this edition is the first complete annotated critical translation of this classic to be published. Since the end of the nineteenth century, conventional wisdom has held that the Ze’enah U-Re’enah was a Yiddish translation of the humash written for women and ignorant men who could not understand the text in Hebrew.

This misleading characterization was perpetuated by three groups, each with its own agenda: modernizing Jews who argued for a Judaism conducted in a modern language, Wissenschaft scholars who disdained anything that smacked of the popular, and finally anti-religious Yiddish speaking secularists. Ze’enah U-Re’enah was the symbol of all that was, at turns, old, unlearned or religious. Hence the image of the book as a tome that one’s Yiddish-speaking grandmother in the “old country” read on Shabbat afternoon.

The reality is markedly different. The Ze’enah U-Re’enah is a sophisticated Yiddish commentary on the Jewish liturgical Bible, which is composed of the humash, the haftarot, and the megillot, that are read in the synagogue as part of the religious calendar. The author, a learned scholar, wove together a commentary that is based on the whole rabbinic tradition: Talmud, Midrash, and medieval commentaries including Rashi, Ramban, Bahya ben Asher, Hizkuni, Toledot Yizhak, and Radak. He chose those comments that he found most informative and combined them into a clear and understandable narrative.

The importance of the work is alluded to in a commentary on the Shulhan Arukh stating that those who follow the tradition of reviewing the weekly Torah portion twice and the Targum, the translation into Aramaic, once, may substitute the Targum with Ze’enah U-Re’enah—a status usually only conferred on the preeminent biblical commentary of Rashi (Ta”Z on OH 265. 2).