Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Era 5765/ January 8, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


From Benno Jacob’s Commentary on Exodus

Dr. Meir Seidler
Department of Jewish Philosophy


Any intelligent Jew who has a knowledge of Hebrew and wishes to devote himself to studying the Bible can take an independent stand on most (exegetical) questions that arise … provided that one combines fined-tuned attention to the verses of Scripture – a skill that must be acquired in the process of studying – with independent thinking that refuses to give up its right to form judgments independent of authorities on the subject, even such as have become sacredly venerated names in the course of generations. [1]

The above quotation comprises the essence of the research ethic of one of the deepest and most thorough Bible commentators of the twentieth century:  Benno Jacob (Breslau 1862 –London 1945).  Benno Jacob’s contribution to modern biblical exegesis was brought to the attention of the Hebrew reader by Nehama Leibowitz, a great admirer of his, who cited him in her commentaries, Iyyunim (Studies).   Benno Jacob was a liberal rabbi who officiated in several German communities.  Precisely because he was affiliated with liberal Judaism his strenuous opposition to Bible criticism is all the more notable.  Its conclusions, he maintained, were tainted by theological tendentiousness, and its method was lacking insofar as it assumed that which it sought to show.  Jacob, in contrast, even though he did not feel bound to the traditional position in his exegesis, often arrived at identical exegetical conclusions to those of the traditional Jewish Bible commentators.  His main contribution to exegesis in these instances lies in the linguistic and contextual arguments he brings to support his conclusions.   These arguments give his commentaries added scholarly value.  We shall illustrate his method through his commentary on one of the better-known questions that arises in this week’s reading.

The first two verses of the reading have received especial attention from Bible commentators and philosophers.   The statement that the Holy One, blessed be He, appeared to the patriarchs as El Shaddai but did not make Himself known to them by His name Y-H-W-H (the Lord) has invited numerous interpretations dealing with central theological questions.  The various names of the Holy One, blessed be He, as they appear in Scripture have always been an important focus of theology and philosophy, and it is little wonder that Biblical criticism was born out of the investigation, albeit tendentious, of the appearance of different names for  G-d.

Of the various commentaries on these verses (Ex. 6:2-3), Rashi’s stands out for its simplicity and clarity:

I am the Lord – Who am faithful to recompense, … And I appeared – to the patriarchs, by the name of El Shaddai – I made certain promises to them and in all of these I said to them, “I am El Shaddai.”  But by my name the Lord (Y-H-W-H) was I not known to them – It is not written here that I did not make known to them, but that I was not known to them, in the sense that I was not recognized by them in terms of My attribute of keeping My word, by reason of which My name is called Y-H-W-H, indicating that I am certain to substantiate My promises, for I made promises to them but did not fulfill them [during their lifetime].

In his commentary on Exodus [2] Benno Jacob devotes fourteen pages to these verses (pp. 139-152). Part of what he has to say is a response to Bible criticism, which saw the Torah’s announcement of the transition from the name El Shaddai to the tetragrammaton (the ineffable name of four letters) as further proof of its central hypothesis that the Torah was written by several authors who used different names for the Deity.  Rashi’s interpretation, “It is not written here that I did not make known to them, but that I was not known to them,” explains the change in name as a change in behavior (from a G-d who makes promises to a G-d who fulfills them), and not as the announcement of a new name for G-d.

Benno Jacob backs this idea by citing additional verses from the Torah and the Prophets and Writings.  For example, when the patriarch Jacob said retrospectively to his son Joseph, “El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan” (Gen. 48:3), he was referring to the nature of G-d’s revelation to him upon his departure from Beer Sheba for Haran, and he put it in this way, despite the fact that the text at that earlier point never mentioned the name El Shaddai at all, but rather used the tetragrammaton (Gen. 28:13:  “And the Lord was standing beside him and He said, ‘I am the Lord [Y-H-W-H]’”).   The patriarchs knew the name Y-H-W-H as the One who “says and promises,” but they had not yet experienced its realization as the One who “does and fulfills.”

The latter characterization, as the central meaning of the tetragrammaton, is supported in Benno Jacob’s commentary by verses from Numbers (14:35:   “I the Lord have spoken:   Thus will I do”) and Ezekiel:  “I the Lord have spoken and I will act” (22:14; also cf. 12:25, 24:14, 36:36, and 37:14), where the tetragrammaton is used to indicate “saying and doing, … decreeing and fulfilling.”  In his words, the tetragrammaton is the sole “personal” name of the Holy One, blessed be He:

…The name Y-H-W-H does not denote one of the names of the Holy One, blessed be He; rather it is The Name, as it is said in Isaiah 42:8:  “I am the Lord (Y-H-W-H), that is My name; I will not yield My glory to another.”  Therefore, it cannot be that El Shaddai denotes an earlier name of the Deity (from the patriarchal period), as Bible criticism dogmatically insists.   For if that were so, the beginning of the verse would have to have been phrased, “I appeared … in the name of El Shaddai.”   Moreover, we do not find even a single instance in which it is written, “and El Shaddai said,” or “El Shaddai spoke” (p. 146).

In addition, Benno Jacob further reinforces his view that we are dealing with the manifestation of G-d’s ways in the world and not with His name by pointing to the fact that nowhere in Scripture does the root y–d–‘ (to know) denote making a new name known, rather it always indicates a deeper sort of understanding or a greater awareness (this word, awareness, uses the same Hebrew root, y-d-‘; pp. 144-145).  One outstanding example out of the many that he cites comes from the continuation of our parasha:   “And you shall know that I, the Lord (Y-H-W-H), [am your G-d]” (Ex. 6:7).  According to Jacob, this verse reverberates in contrast to what was said several verses earlier, “but I did not make myself known to them [the patriarchs] by My name Y-H-W-H.”

Moreover, if we were truly dealing with revelation of a name that had not previous been known (as Bible criticism tries to maintain), then the root g-l-h, to reveal, would have been used, and not y-d-‘, to know (p. 148).   According to Benno Jacob, the distinction between the name El Shaddai and the tetragrammaton in our parasha is also reflected in the verbs that are used in conjunction with these two names:  “appeared” and “made myself known:”

These verbs do not denote a greater or lesser intimacy in G-d’s revelation to the individual human being.  It is a fact that Numbers 12:6 states with respect to the lower degree of prophecy, “I make Myself known to him in a vision” (using both the roots, r-a-h, to see, and y-d-‘, to know)…  This is not the sense in which G-d’s revelation to the patriarchs differed from His revelation to Moses; rather, here one sort of revelation is contrasted with another, where the second kind of revelation [that given to Moses] could not yet have occurred [in the time of the fathers], insofar as it is destined only for an entire people and not for individuals.  This sort of revelation necessitates that the Lord’s might be revealed in deeds of such magnitutde that only the name Y-H-W-H suits them.

In contrast to the verb “to see,” here the verb “to know” (vida’atem) is interpreted as   pertaining to realization of something, in the current case realization of the deeds necessary for the promise to be fulfilled. Benno Jacob rests his argument on such verses as:   “But I acted for the sake of My name, … For it was before their eyes that I had made Myself known to them [Israel] to bring them out of the land of Egypt” (Ezek. 20:9) and “when I made Myself known to them in the land of Egypt, I gave my oath to them” (Ezek. 20:5).  In these verses, G-d’s making Himself known (root y-d-‘) to His people finds expression in the deeds which He wrought for them to take them out of the land of Egypt.

In this article I have tried to give the reader a small example of Benno Jacob’s extensive commentary on Exodus. Like the rest of Benno Jacob’s works (among them his commentary on Genesis and other important compositions that include his unique attempts to cope with Bible criticism), this commentary has not yet been translated into Hebrew.  As for the liberal identification of their author, which made Nehama Leibowitz feel she had to apologize for citing him, [3] I turn to what Maimonides wrote in Hilkhot Kiddush Ha-Hodesh (17.24):  “Wherever there is something whose reason is revealed or whose truth known through faultless evidence, one relies not on the person who said the things or who deduced them, but on the proof that was revealed or the reason that became clear.”

Benno Jacob is among the more profound and sensitive of Bible scholars in modern times, and indeed remained true to the research ethic which he established for himself as a Jewish scholar:  loving the Bible, attending to the fine nuances of its verses, and thinking independently.

[1] Torat Moshe, p. 8 (German:  Die Thora Moses, Frankfurt 1912/1912).

[2] This commentary appeared in English translation in 1992 (Benno Jacob, The Second Book of the Bible: Exodus, Hoboken 1992); the original German was not published until 1997, that is, more than fifty years after the author’s death (Benno Jacob, Das Buch Exodus, Stuttgart 1997).   His commentary on Genesis was published in 1934 (Das erste Buch der Tora, Genesis, Berlin 1934).

[3] She writes, “Benno Jacob was an extremist Reform Jew … and surely transgressed a vast number of commandments of our sacred Torah … yet I have learned from his works more than from many books written by perfectly pious people…   He has opened our eyes to see things that we had not seen, revealing the truth of the Torah,” in a letter quoted by Rivka Horowitz, in A. Strikovsky (ed.), Daf Le-Tarbut Yehudit 256, Jerusalem 2002, p. 16.