We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more

Citation for The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries

Citation styles are based on the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Ed., and the MLA Style Manual, 2nd Ed..


Walfish, Barry D. . "Medieval Jewish Interpretation." In The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Oct 30, 2020. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195297515/obso-9780195297515-div1-1077>.


Walfish, Barry D. . "Medieval Jewish Interpretation." In The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195297515/obso-9780195297515-div1-1077 (accessed Oct 30, 2020).

The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries

In the 14th and 15th centuries, commentaries tended to veer away from the peshat to follow homiletical, philosophical, or mystical lines. Nevertheless, peshat commentary was never completely abandoned. Jacob ben Asher (1270?–1340), who immigrated to Toledo, Spain, with his family in the early 14th century and was the author of a famous law code, Sefer ha‐Turim (The Book of Columns), wrote a lengthy peshat commentary in which he anthologized many of his famous predecessors, but also included many original comments. He prefaced each section with gematriot and explanations of the Masoretic tradition, in order to whet his reader's appetite. Ironically, it is these comments that proved to be most popular, and were frequently reprinted, while his long commentary languished in manuscript until 1806 and has never gained a wide readership. This is an indication of the low level of interest in peshat commentary in the later Middle Ages.

Exegetes of a philosophical bent tended to interpret Scripture through the prism of the philosophical school to which they adhered. (See “The Bible in the Philosophical Tradition,” pp. 1948–75 .) Two important examples are Levi ben Gershom (Ralbag; 1288– 1344) and Joseph Ibn Kaspi (1279–1340), both Aristotelian rationalists, who followed the teachings of Maimonides. Ralbag was probably the most significant and original Jewish thinker of the later medieval period. He was also a prolific exegete, writing lengthy commentaries on the Torah, Early Prophets, Five Scrolls and Job. While his exegesis is certainly informed by his philosophical worldview, there is much in it that can be characterized as peshat. To give but one example of his rationalistic exegesis, he offers a daring interpretation of Joshua's miraculous victory at Gibeon (Josh. 10.12 ): the miracle that occurred was not that the sun actually stood still for Joshua and the Israelites, but that the Israelites enjoyed such a swift victory that it made it seem as if the sun stood still. In general, except for his commentary on Song of Songs, Ralbag did not engage in philosophical allegory. He typically divided his commentaries into three sections: (1) an explanation of the difficult words in a passage; (2) an expanded paraphrase of the text; and finally, at the end of the section, (3) a list of lessons, both moral and philosophical, which could be derived from it. Ralbag was the first exegete to provide such lessons in his commentaries, and in this he may have been influenced by Christian exegesis.

Ibn Kaspi, who hailed from Argentière in Provence (hence his name, meaning “silver”), wrote commentaries on almost the entire Bible. While primarily devoted to an understanding of peshat, these display his philosophical learning and his knowledge of Christian sources as well. He stresses numerous times in his commentaries the importance of a thorough knowledge of Hebrew grammar and a mastery of the science of logic in order to properly understand the Bible. For example, his entire commentary on the book of Esther is a critique of a comment by Ibn Ezra, which he refutes through logical analysis.

In this period, the Karaite community in Byzantium continued to develop biblical studies as it struggled to maintain its identity in the face of the overwhelming influence of the great medieval Rabbanite thinkers such as Maimonides and Ibn Ezra. The two great Karaite exegetes of the period were Aaron ben Joseph, the “elder” (ca. 1250–1320), and Aaron ben Elijah, of Nicomedia, “the younger” (ca. 1317–1369). Aaron ben Joseph produced commentaries on the Torah (Sefer ha‐Mivḥar; The Book of the Most Select), on the Former Proph‐ets, Isaiah, and Psalms (Mivḥar yesharim; The Most Select of the Righteous), and on Job (lost), while Aaron ben Elijah produced, inter alia, a commentary on the Torah (Keter Torah; The Crown of the Torah). Both authors cite Rabbanite sources extensively, including Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Radak, and Ramban. Ibn Ezra was especially popular, as he was among Rabbanite authors of the period. The commentaries of these exegetes follow in the Spanish tradition, relying on grammar and reason, rejecting aggadah, and, in halakhic matters, highlighting the differences between Rabbanites and Karaites.

In rabbinic circles, the sermons on the Torah ('Akeidat Yitzḥak; The Binding of Isaac) and the commentaries on the Five Scrolls of Isaac Arama (ca. 1420–1494) are exemplary models of homiletic exegesis, blending exegetical innovation and homiletic genius with psychological and philosophical insight. Arama was one of the first exegetes to use the method of problematization consistently, whereby the exegete raises a number of issues at the beginning of a passage, and then proceeds to solve the problems in the course of his discussion. This method was also followed by Don Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508), Arama's student, undoubtedly the greatest exegete of the 15th century. Abravanel produced voluminous commentaries on the Torah, Prophets, and Daniel, which are thoughtful, thought‐provoking, and challenging. Abravanel was very much concerned with peshat exegesis, which he declared to be his primary focus. He also grapples seriously with the rabbinic midrashic tradition, displaying a nuanced approach to midrashic interpretations, carefully selecting those that he found acceptable and rejecting others. More traditional in his theology than the rationalists of the later Middle Ages, he advocated a faith‐based religious position which he considered to be more in line with the rabbinic tradition. For instance, he rejects Ralbag's rationalization of Joshua's miracle ( 10.12 ; see above) and declares that this was a divinely decreed deviation from the natural order. A true child of the Renaissance, he was open to the cultural innovations being articulated in his times and introduced much contemporary thought into his exegesis. He was particularly well‐versed in Christian theological and exegetical literature, often quoting approvingly from Christian sources. Especially important are his ideas on the monarchy, expressed in his commentaries on Samuel and Kings. Drawing on his experience as a courtier and his deep familiarity with medieval history and political theory, he made a strong case against the monarchy, which he considered to be an inferior form of government.

© Oxford University Press 2009. All Rights Reserved