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Recalling the Covenant: A Contemporary Commentary on the Five Books of the Torah Hardcover – November 3, 2015
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Is it possible to have too many Bible commentaries? I don't think so. Each new commentary provides new insights into the Tanakh, and I find that reading new commentaries help to keep my studies vibrant and exciting, while also helping to enhance my understanding of such classic commentators as Rashi and Ramban. One of the newer commentaries on the Tanakh, to recently become available, is Recalling the Covenant.
Recalling the Covenant was written by the Sephardic scholar, Rabbi Moshe Shamah. In writing these commentaries he has taken a contemporary but traditionally grounded approach to this work, and has created a synthesis of modern scholarship combined with an in-depth traditional understanding and appreciation of the Chumash (Five Book of Moses). In writing these commentaries, Rabbi Shamah draws from not only traditional interpretations, but also from such diverse, modern fields of study as linguistics, archaeology, and literature. Rabbi Shamah is the founder of Sephardic Institute, he currently leads Brooklyn's Sephardic Synagogue, and he was the principal of Sephardic High School.
The commentaries in Recalling the Covenant are organized into chapters keyed to the weekly Torah reading. Throughout, Rabbi Shamah provides both a textual interpretation of the text and an outline of the biblical narrative with a detailed analysis of the underlying meaning of the text and the historical context from which it developed. This book contains only Rabbi Shamah's commentaries, and it can be used in conjunction with any edition of the Torah that you desire. In addition, it is suitable for use by both general readers and advanced biblical scholars. The commentaries are presented in English, although short Biblical quotations, in Hebrew, are included. In all cases, these quotations are accompanied by an English translation.
Throughout, Rabbi Shamah's tone is conversational, and never pedantic. This gives readers the feeling that they are having a one on one lesson with a great scholar. Best of all, Rabbi Shamah's commentaries are relevant to students of all levels, and they help to bring out the true depth, vitality, and meaning of the Torah. Along the way, his commentaries serve as a reminder just why the Torah is the foundation stone of Judaism, and the backbone of Jewish religious life, culture, literature, and history.
At more than 1,000 pages, Recalling the Covenant is not a quick read. Rather it is a book to be studied, to be savored, and to be used as a reference for years to come. Rabbi Shamah will help you to see aspects of the Torah that you never saw before, no matter how learned you are. For those new to Torah study, you will find Recalling the Covenant to be an excellent guide that will introduce you to the nuances of the biblical text, and also to it's vibrancy and continuing relevance. This book belongs in every Jewish home and in both public and private libraries. --Herbert White
About the Author
Rabbi Moshe Shamah studied in some of the finest rabbinical seminaries, including Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Beth medrash Govoha of Lakewood. He received a Master's degree in education from Loyola College of Maryland. He went on to found Sephardic Institue in 1968, which he actively heads until this day. Also in 1968, he began studying with Rabbi Solomon D. Sassoon and became his close disciple.
Rabbi Shamah served as the long-time principal of Sephardic High School, and leads a congregation in Brooklyn, NY where he currently resides with his wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
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About the book, anyone who studies our Mesora, without synthetic fences imposed, cannot help but recognize the importance of this text. Firstly, it does not read like an artscroll publication...it actually references the many commentators rather than simply Rashi and Nachmanides (the synthetic fence). Even the most casual, fenced in, reader will recognize the importance of this text and run for the exits with their hair on fire. :) This books reflects a lifetime of study and contemplation unlike any I have read before.
About the author - I did some homework prior to buying the text. What struck me most importantly was his clear understanding of context and time insofar as interpretation of Halachot. For instance, H. Shammah argues that halachot of tzniut are defined by time and place, according to what people are accustomed to, and what gives them sexual pleasure. He quotes the Maharam Alkashar who says:
..."Indeed, there is no concern about that hair, because it is customary to reveal it ... and that `a woman's hair is a sexual enticement' is only referring to hair that it is usual to be covered, but a person is accustomed to that which is usually uncovered and it is permitted".
In other words, the dust-up over covering a woman's hair is an irrelevant topic in a community where "the norm" is not to be covered. I like this because it reflects awareness our surroundings, and a sensitivity to not being a spectacle by our manner of dress. Astutely sensible as far as I am concerned.
H. Shammah is an erudite scholar among others I can count on one hand. His knowledge of biblical prose and it's concomitant interpretation are heads-and-shoulders above all I have previously read. I'll cite a section of one of his commentaries then illustrate my take-away:
Genesis 17 opens with, "When Abram was ninety nine years of age Hashem appeared to Abram." This verse fast-forwards from the previous verse (16:16),
which stated, "Abram was eighty-six years of age when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram" (Gen. 16:16). There is a significant degree of similarity in the general structure of these two verses, including several semi-poetic features. In both, Abram ís name is specified at the beginning and at the end of the verse instead of the usual form whereby the second citation would be with a pronoun; in both, the number of years is cited in two groups, with repetition of the year stem. Both statements are composed of eleven words. This creates a unit of the two verses and highlights the time interval between them, which, as we shall soon see is significant, is a period of thirteen years. At this point Hashem calls upon Abram to "Walk in My presence (before me) and be wholehearted." One who "walks in G-d's presence lives his life in the continuous consciousness of His proximity and conducts himself with full dedication to His will. This is similar to the concept "In all your ways be conscious of Himî (Prov. 3:6). Tamim basically means 'complete,' thus 'wholehearted' with G-d; it rules out multiple loyalties and hypocrisy. These most excellent of qualities were previously attributed to Noah (Gen. 6:9). It should not be thought that asking Abram to 'walk in My presence' indicates that he had not as yet achieved that status. The precise Akkadian cognate for 'walk in my presence' was a formula used by Mesopotamian kings on various occasions with loyal subjects, calling upon them to remain fully loyal. Ancient Assyrian documents speak of kings granting land to loyal subjects, to be inherited by their descendants after them, with the understanding that they 'walk in my presence and be wholehearted.' Since in this theophany the land of Canaan is to be officially granted to Abraham and his descendants with a covenant, it is likely that Hashem employed terminology well known in the ancient world to be closely associated with this purpose. In this way, others understand more clearly what was transacted.
My take away. H. Shammah makes a point to pinpoint context and time of Abraham's dialogue with Hashem...casting it in meaning and terms of Akkadian practices of that period.. This is important to understanding how people who do not study history, outside of Torah texts, can ascribe anthropomorphic qualities to the other 'voice' in Abraham's dialog. In fact, it is illuminating that Akkadian practices are cited - it harkens to a tradition of legal exegesis gaping way back in tome before law-givers were descendants of Abraham. More importantly, in my way of thinking, H. Shammah goes to great length to instruct us to be wary of the significance of repetition of themes, words and word-counts...revealing deeper meaning and understanding of the texts...something lost on megoobls.
Rabbi Shamah provides a thorough discussion on understanding Midrash and Aggadah and how it applies to parasha Beshalach, and gives very good references to support his understanding regarding using common sense and the traditions of the Sages.
I'm very excited and look forward to reading the rest of the Torah commentary.
For those who prefer Rabbi Scroll-style sanitized scholarship, Rabbi Shamah's willingness, and eagerness, to delve into non-traditional sources will be a big turn-off. But if you are interested in reading a fresh, scholarly-based perspective that works within traditional guidelines, and won't be put off by an overt rejection of non-rationalist concepts that are part of mainstream Orthodox Judaism, this commentary is an absolute gem.
Do I wish Rabbi Shamah showed more respect for at least some of the concepts he dismisses, since they were accepted by many great scholars and rabbis? Sure. He doesn't have to accept them, but he can explain why he doesn't without the almost-contempt he shows for such viewpoints. Nevertheless, his approaches are a valuable addition to Torah scholarship, and enhance the understanding of the holiest book in the Jewish religion. For that, I am very much appreciative.
His understanding of the Ancient Near East, will help any student trying to understand the context of the material and will give them a solid foundation. I highly recommend it.