Words of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch made more accessible in new book

In answer to the Enlightenment sweeping Europe in his day, this bold and brilliant German scholar shepherded Orthodox Judaism into modernity.

 RABBI SAMSON RAPHAEL HIRSCH. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I must begin this review with the disclosure that I am not unbiased regarding Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888). As one of his many great-great-great grandchildren, I was raised in a home where his monumental works and philosophy were a source of intellectual pride (and received plenty of bookshelf space).

In answer to the Enlightenment sweeping Europe in his day, this bold and brilliant German scholar shepherded Orthodox Judaism into modernity along a groundbreaking path of “Torah im derech eretz,” a Mishnaic concept that he interpreted as a practical philosophy for enriching the Torah-observant lifestyle with secular knowledge and culture.

This meant that, to a certain extent – defined diversely by different adherents of his philosophy – we may (perhaps should) involve ourselves in worldly pursuits, such as higher education, if only we are careful to hold the Torah above all else.

Hirsch was a prolific writer. Among his works are Horeb, The Nineteen Letters and commentaries on the Torah, Psalms, Pirkei Avot, the Haggadah and the siddur. I have long wondered how he managed these achievements without a word processor!

OVER THE years, various Hirsch descendants have taken on the difficult task of translating his writings from the original German into English or Hebrew – which usually involves condensing Hirsch’s complex prose into digestible bites. 

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

Nowhere have I seen a more accessible presentation of Hirsch’s biblical commentaries than in Rooted in Torah.

Its author is not a Hirsch descendant but, rather, a Hirsch follower/admirer; his biography explains that his interest was sparked by his father, who studied in Frankfurt in the early 1900s. Before his 1988 retirement to Jerusalem, Clark was a Jewish educator and principal in various North American day schools and presided over the Council for Jewish Education.

More than two decades ago, Clark produced the Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew: Based on the Commentaries of Samson Raphael Hirsch.

Although Hirsch wrote in German for the masses, his deep understanding of the structure and grammar of the Hebrew language greatly informed his interpretations and insights.

Rooted in Torah presents three short essays on each weekly portion, designed as a handy source for discussion at each Shabbat meal.

By summarizing a focused fraction of Hirsch’s commentaries in clear English, Clark has accomplished a feat like that of fellow American-educated rabbi Chanan Morrison. Morrison’s three books on the weekly Torah portion make accessible to the casual reader some of the sublime and complex concepts from the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook.

Punctuating every page-and-a-half essay in Clark’s book are shaded paragraphs exploring select words from that portion and how Hirsch understood them based on their three-letter roots.

For example, in parashat Mishpatim, Clark writes that the word “na’arim” (youths) is from the root nun-ayin-resh, “which means ‘to shake off.’ Youth generally reject adult advice.”

And in parashat Beshalah, he writes that hayom (“today”) is from the root yod-vav-mem, “meaning ‘to ascend.’ Daytime is when all creatures are alert, active, and productive.”

Of course, there are many other perspectives on the meaning of Hebrew roots and the light these meanings shed on biblical words and concepts, but Clark’s job here is to zero in on Hirsch’s approach.

As mentioned, the book is highly accessible, but it does require a basic familiarity with Hebrew, as key individual words in the main text and in the shaded paragraphs appear in Hebrew.

In my view, this is greatly preferable to transliterating into English, because only the Hebrew letters convey the full picture of the word. Presenting the key word in Hebrew also avoids the awkward and even divisive question of whether to transliterate using the Ashkenazi or Sephardi pronunciation of certain letters.

To illustrate the Hirsch approach as presented by Clark, I’ve chosen to share here his exposition of the name Menashe, Joseph’s older son.

The standard translation of the Torah verse in which Joseph himself explains this name reads: “God allowed me to forget [nashani] all my troubles and my upbringing in my father’s house.”

Hirsch doubts that Joseph would give his son “a name that celebrates the negation of all his experiences and even his life in his parents’ home.”

In his view, nashani does not mean “to cause to forget” but rather “to obligate” – from the root nun-shin-heh – and “implies a weakness vis-à-vis another person.”

If we understand the word in this way, then “Joseph is saying that God turned all of his trials and tribulations and even his childhood experiences into a springboard for Joseph’s success.... Joseph names his son Menashe in recognition of the tremendous debt of gratitude that he owes due to his earlier experiences.”

Clark is to be commended for packaging the wisdom of Samson Raphael Hirsch in a way that will surely whet readers’ appetites for further exploration of this great modern scholar’s writings. 

Rooted in TorahBy Matityahu Clark Gefen Publishing House465 pages; $34.95