Sunday 3 March 2019


R. Samuel David Luzzatto's Torah commentary.



Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865), known by the acronym Shadal, was a leading scholar and thinker in nineteenth-century Italy.

He was, however, a particularly free spirit and that comes across very clearly in his writings which were inspired by a wide range of sources, Jewish and non-Jewish, contemporary, historical and traditional. This, of course, placed him in an interesting position within the Torah observant spectrum. 

He certainly was outside the mainstream, but was he outside of Orthodoxy?


Shadal wrote a commentary on the Torah which focuses intensely on the pshat or plain meaning of the text.

R. Gil Student describes him as both:

 “ independent thinker and a fierce defender of tradition...His commentaries are completely within traditional Orthodox views of the divine origins of the Torah text.”[1]

So Shadal believed in the concept of Torah min haShamayim, or Torah from Heaven, but he also maintained that “many of the rules of law that were presented as derived from derash [non literal expanded and interpretative sources][2] were not handed down from time immemorial, but were newly crafted in response to changing times.”[3]

In other words, Shadal is saying that the Talmudic Sages’ derivation of laws through drash, were not actually derived from the text of the Torah.

This would make such laws mere:

 “...rabbinic enactments and the biblical connections were mere supports (asmacha’os).

Additionally, he argued that the Sages made these enactments in response to the times and not in a pure search for the Torah’s true meaning.”[4]

Interestingly, R. Student does acknowledge that Shadal’s point that laws derived from drash - which (in Shadal's view) may not be biblical but in fact rabbinic  - may be tenable, because:

“It is possible to argue that much of what we generally consider to be biblical law is actually rabbinic enactment.”

However, R. Student believes that:

“...turning those laws into historical contingencies deprives them of all sanctity. That is not the Orthodox way.”

Because of such views, R. Student continues:

The traditional yeshiva student will have no need for Shadal. 

However, the sophisticated reader will find many worthy interpretations in Shadal’s commentary. Prof. Nechama Leibowitz frequently quotes Shadal.

...and I consult it regularly.[5]


Shadal played a pivotal role in bringing many hitherto unknown writings of R. Yehuda haLevi to the attention of the modern world. 

Except for the Kuzari, most of R. Yehuda haLevi’s writings and poems were lost. Then, 1838 a book dealer accidentally discovered a ‘divan’(medieval collection) of his poems in Tunisia and bought it for Shadal – who, in 1840, went on to publish 66 poems under the title, Betulat bat Yehuda. Much of our knowledge about R. Yehuda haLevi, today, comes through Shadal’s work which incorporated annotations by the original compiler of the divan, Yehoshua bar Eliyahu haLevi (about whom very little is known).


Leaving aside his Torah commentary, let us look at another work by Shadal:

Shadal wrote what has been described as (a short) Guide for the Perplexed (in the style of Rambam, whom he wasn’t afraid to criticise).

Around 1839, a certain Jew from the north-eastern Italian seaport of Trieste, by the name of Giuseppe Almeda presented a number of deep and penetrating theological questions to Shadal.

Giuseppe Almeda was somewhat of an assimilated Jew of Spanish Sephardic origin, in the maritime insurance industry, with very little Torah education.

He put his angst-filled questions in writing to Shadal who, in response, addressed some of his perplexing matters.


I have drawn extensively from a translation by Daniel A. Klein of the correspondence between Almeda and Shadal.[6]

Almeda, although he lived two hundred years ago, expressed sentiments that many grapple with to this day. Amongst other questions, Giuseppe Almeda asks:

·         “Would a Jew who practices the rites and ceremonies, but does not believe in the revelation of Moses, be worthy of salvation in the minds of true believers?”

·         “How is it that to all these questions, religious and learned persons have given inconsistent answers?”

Notwithstanding his admission that he had very little Torah education, he said that the few prayers and ceremonies he attended left him cold.

However, he was still convinced of the existence of G-d and believed in basic morality. He also believed in the immortality of the soul.

He was prompted to express his theological angst and to ask these questions whilst in his thirties, having just become a father and concerned about how he was to raise his children.

Living in a strong Christian Italian society, he admits that he found certain aspects of Christianity appealing - and being a professional businessman, he would have found greater social standing were he to have adopted that faith. He wrote:

“I see the Christian imbibe his religion with his mother’s milk and absorb it in his blood, to the extent that reason most often comforts him in his faith.
In contrast, I see the Jew more and more disbelieving the more he seeks to delve into science.”

After contemplating turning to Christianity, he writes:

“No, my G-d! This I will never do...Because I was born into Judaism, I must persist in it...
After this, what remains for me? To seek within it, to the greatest extent possible, conviction and truth.”


Shadal is clearly taken by Almeda’s sincerity, openness and honesty - and by the “candor of a truly righteous and virtuous soul” as well as his “wise and judicious mind.”

In responding to Almeda, Shadal touches on some fundamental nuances of Jewish theology which are sometimes lost in the noise of the vastness of its literature.


Shadal points out that in his view:

 “Moses did not dictate articles of faith, because G-d does not command belief, that is, He does not command that which cannot be commanded...

He [G-d] never makes mention of the sin of disbelief, nor does he condemn antireligious speech, except for seduction to idolatry (since it leads to material acts condemned by the law).”

This is a very deep opening statement and it is so counter-intuitive to so-called religious thinking. G-d (and Moses) never commanded belief! 

This is because belief, by definition, cannot be commanded since it is a human reaction and thus cannot be prescribed. Just like one cannot command someone to be hungry - one cannot command someone to believe.

The latter Prophets and the early Sages, according to Shadal, also did not make mention of articles of faith or dogmas which required belief. Only later did rabbis such as Rambam begin to introduce principles of faith.

Moshe did not innovate a religion. That was done by Avraham. What Moshe did was legislate a religious system which already pre-existed. Moshe presented himself to the Israelites in the name of their forbearers who were well known to them - and gave them a code.

Until Moshe, there was very little Jewish legislation. Their sole ceremony was circumcision and one of their few practices was to refrain from eating the gid hanashe or sciatic nerve. They spontaneously prayed to G-d and were expected to follow a path of humanity and justice.

However, Shadal explains, when the Israelites were about to enter into the Promised Land:

“...G-d so chose to organize the people by means of civil and criminal legislation, to which religion was given as a base.”

This was brought about through Moshe, who did not propose any novel theoretical religious dogma but instead imposed new public ceremonies and practices which now became fixed and established - instead of what had been, until then, individual and spontaneous. In this sense, Moshe codified the basic morality of Avraham.

This important understanding, according to Shadal, has bearing on the future teaching of the rabbinic Sages.


A fascinating point now begins to emerge:

The Mishna[7]of the rabbinic Sages specifies three categories of people which are said to have no share in the world to come:

“And these are the ones who have no portion in the world to come:
[1]He who maintains that resurrection is not a biblical doctrine - [2]that the Torah was not divinely revealed - and [3]an apikoros.
Shadal suggests that a common theme is present in all these cases. Upon careful reading, one notices that the belief system of an individual is never questioned in any of these instances. The only issue is against a disregard for legislation and a lack of practices and observances.

Thus the three types of people excluded from the world to come are:

“(1) those violators of the law who, instead of pleading in their own defense human or individual frailty, claim that the Pentateuch does not teach of the Resurrection, thus after death there is nothing to hope for or fear, thus anything that pleases is lawful;

(2) those who, in other words, allege the non-divinity of the Torah;

And finally (3) the Epicurean, that is not merely the theoretical atheist, but the practising one.”

What emerges from this, is Shadal’s view that:

“…precepts demand observance, not belief.
One believes or does not believe in a dogma; one believes or does not believe in a miracle; but a precept is either observed or not observed.”


That being established the next question of Almeda is what is the status of a person who battles to believe in the revelation of G-d to Moshe, but nevertheless observes the commandments “out of a love for order”?

Shadal answers that while obviously, one who believes and observes is better - even one who observes without belief in revelation, is nevertheless still worthy. This is because lack of belief in principles of faith cannot, in his view, be a ‘deal breaker’.

He is quick to point out very brashly that:

 “Maimonides, the originator of the opinion to the contrary, did not draw it from sources of Judaism…”

It is clear that Maimonides, an early originator of principles of faith, would have upheld the importance of belief in revelation. And Shadal, who took the view that observance trumps principles of faith, was not afraid to criticize Maimonides.

He blamed Maimonides for being unduly influenced by Aristotelian thinking, which taught that “the soul is not a substance but a faculty”.


Almeda asks a very valid question:

“How is it that to all these questions, I receive answers that are inconsistent one from another, from persons who are religious and learned?”

To which Shadal responds that it is:

“…precisely because Judaism has no articles of faith and leaves full freedom to the thinker, making only material actions binding.

True Religion is not the science of divine matters (a science that is too far above the reach of man); it is an intimate belief, a filial devotion, that extends itself in the acts of a spontaneous and indeterminate cult, as in the case of the Judaism that preceded Moses, or - as in the case of Mosaism - in practices and observances that are determined by law.

The goal of such law is not that G-d may become known and worshipped by us, as if He were in need of our homage, but rather…to keep alive in our minds the idea of G-d and of Providence, the only idea that is capable of keeping us constantly attached to virtue…and…to accustom us to keep a rein on our desires…

…our betterment and perfection desired by G-d consist of the social virtues: compassion, humanity, justice; these are the things desired by G-d, and the only things for which He wishes to be known and worshipped by us.”


The purpose of this article was to neither promote nor criticize R. Samuel David Luzzatto, but simply to share some of his views as they manifest in his writings.

One thing, however that is striking about his theological opinions is his commitment to the primary role of Halacha. So much so that he seems to elevate it above almost everything else.

This is unusual for someone described as a free thinker, and sometimes accused of leaning too far to the left. He elevates the notion of chiyuv, or obligation to keep the commandments, to a primary position.

And interestingly, he does seem to underscore the oft-quoted adage that as long as one adheres to halacha, it doesn’t matter what hashkafa or theological stance a religious person chooses to adopt.
Philosophically, Shadal is hard to categorise because while sharply criticising the great rationalist, Maimonides - he simultaneously rejected mysticism and Kabbalah.[8]

If he was neither in the category of a mystic nor a rationalist, where did he position himself?

- We know that his Torah commentary was pshat. We also know his views on laws derived from drush, where he ‘downgrades’ them to rabbinic enactments. 

All things being considered, perhaps he was just expressing the views of an unusual third category of thinker - that of the pure pshatist or literalist.

And perhaps that’s why, being a theological pragmatist - in his world, it was virtuous deed and not mystical or philosophical creed that mattered most.

[1] Shadal and the Orthodox Canon, by R. Gil Student. R. Student currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. 
However, according to Daniel Klein, a graduate of Yeshiva University, who translated Shadal’s commentary on Shemot into English: “He firmly believed in Torah min ha-shamayim (the Divine origin of the Torah) as well as the Torah’s unity and accurate transmittal by Moses.” (Shadal on Exodus, Translated and edited by Daniel A. Klein, p. 16.)
[2] Parenthesis mine.
[3] Shadal on Exodus, p.22.
[4] Ibid., Shadal and the Orthodox Canon.
[5] Ibid., Shadal and the Orthodox Canon.
[6] See: A Letter to Almeda: Shadal’s Guide of the Perplexed, by Daniel A. Klein.
[7] Sanhedrin 10:1.
[8] He wrote his Vikuach al Chochmat haKabbalah which was a debate about Kabbalah, in which he brings views from ‘both sides’.


  1. To be honest, Shadal copied everything from Mendelssohn. Check out the Lavater controversy and his Jeursalem.

  2. To be accurate, this is not so. Although some of Shadal's ideas may resemble or overlap with some of Mendelssohn's, each one had his own approach. For one thing, Shadal once observed that although European Sephardi scholars esteemed the Torah more greatly than the "wisdom and lore of Greece and Rome," it was not so with Mendelssohn, who "was forced to a covert and forbidden study of secular lore, and that is why he exaggerated their worth" (Ha-Maggid, Sept. 17, 1863). See also the index to my translation of Shadal on Exodus [I'm Daniel A. Klein; "Sabi" is my nom de Google], where Shadal's copious references to Mendelssohn are divided evenly between those he agreed with or remained neutral about and those he disagreed with. As for Shadal's attitude toward belief and faith, it is important to note that he did not dismiss its importance entirely. He took the view that although belief cannot be commanded, it was precisely for this reason that Hashem chose Israel to receive the Torah -- because they had inherited belief in Hashem from Abraham, without having to be commanded about it, and thus they were uniquely receptive to the Torah (See again his commentary on Exodus, pp. 288-289).

  3. Thank you for your comments Daniel A. Klein.

  4. I just meant his ideas on belief and observance are clearly based on Mendelssohns argument, that the torah doesnt command to believe and that the revelation does not contain any rational doctrines.