Sunday 14 March 2021



A commentary on the Book of Psalms by Rashbam (1085-1158) from just before the period of R. Eleazar of Worms. 


Pursuant to previous posts about lost texts (and even lost Talmudim) which were discovered in what became known as the “European Geniza”, this article - based extensively on the research of Professor Simcha Emanuel[1] - explores another fascinating text with interesting implications.

The European Geniza is a term that has come to refer to old texts that were glued together and ‘repurposed’ as binding material to form a hardcover for newer books. These books are scattered throughout Europe in various libraries and archives. Their often-accidental discoveries yield important information about works from towards the end of the Middle Ages[2] which were until recently either not known or thought to have been lost.



R. Eleazar of Worms (1176[3]-1238) was the last of the mystical group of German Pietists known as Chasidei Ashkenaz. The Chasidei Ashkenaz were a significant group who were to have some influence on the Tosafists. R. Eleazar of Worms wrote the Sefer haRoakeach as well as extensive commentaries on the Siddur (prayer book). As we shall see, the discovery of textual fragments which are now housed at the Bodleian Library, revealed hitherto unknown commentaries of R. Eleazar.

Manuscript Oxford, Ms. Heb. c. 66 contains a number of textual fragments which include some from the European Geniza.

Simcha Emanuel’s trained eye picked up the clues in one of the fragments which had:

“…precise folds of the parchment pages, which at times were sliced with a sharp knife and along straight lines, [and][4] clearly indicate that these pages had been used in bookbinding…

The first two pages of this manuscript (a single folio page) were obviously used in the binding of a book. The binder trimmed the edges of the page so they would suit his purpose, and the sharp creases in the page also eloquently attest to its new use.”

Upon further investigation, Emanuel identified what he first thought was an additional commentary (to an already large collection of commentary) on the Siddur by R. Eleazar of Worms.

Emanuel explains that R. Eleazar:

“…wrote an extensive commentary on the prayerbook, some of which is based on literal explanations, while the rest employs esoteric teachings, as was the practice of the Hassidei Ashkenaz. The several manuscripts of this commentary differ significantly from one another, attesting the author’s repeated revisions of his book over the course of at least thirty years.”

This discovery was therefore thought to be one of these additional commentaries which differed somewhat from the published version of R. Eleazar’s commentary on the Siddur, in Pirushey Siddur ha-Tefilah La-Rokeach.[5]

The words in the text which caught Emanuel’s attention and which were initially identified as R. Eleazar’s commentary on the Siddur, were as follows:

בשב׳ צריך לדרוש דברים הנחמדים מזהב [...] שצריך להקהיל קהילות בשבת ולדרוש

“On the Sabbath, things more pleasing than gold must be expounded [. . .] the people must be assembled on the Sabbath, to hear sermons.”[6]

Because this fragment contained words Emanuel was familiar with from his knowledge of the known version of R. Eleazar’s commentary on the Siddur, he naturally assumed he had discovered a new and unknown version of the commentary on the Siddur.

The fragment appeared to be from the section in the prayer book which contains the Psalms recited during the morning service, known as Pesukei deZimra (between Baruch She’amar and Yishtabach).

Thus, Emanuel thought he had found another version of R. Eleazar’s commentary on the Siddur.



However, on further investigation Emanuel realised that the fragment was not from R. Eleazar’s commentary on the Siddur but rather from his more formal commentary on the Book of Psalms itself.

Emanuel soon realised that since some of the Psalms are included in the morning service, R. Eleazar simply copied passages from his Siddur and placed it in his commentary on the Psalms. Apparently, R. Eleazar was quite adept at this practice which today we would call ‘cut and paste’.

Now that Emanuel had established that this commentary was in fact a commentary on the Book of Psalms and not on the prayer book, the comments carried more weight than the perhaps more incidental comments on the Siddur.

This is an important point because until then it was not known that R. Eleazar had even written a commentary on the Book of Psalms.

Emanuel writes:

“… until the present we did not know that R. Elazar of Worms had written a commentary on the book of Psalms, and the two pages at Oxford are the only extant remnant of this commentary.”

In keeping with R. Eleazar’s style in his commentaries, he first explains the literal meaning of the words, then moves on to gematriot (numerology) and then on to matters more mystical.


Two interesting observations emerge from these fragments:



According to tradition, there are 150 Psalms. According to R. Eleazar of Worms, there are 147 Psalms as his configuration of the Psalms differs from the traditional chapter division.

Emanuel writes:

“Thus, the division of the book of Psalms known to R. Elazar of Worms differed from the commonly accepted demarcation.”

Interestingly, putting the number of Psalms at 147 also happens to be the view of the Talmud Yerushalmi (the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud).[7]

And Emanuel brings another source for 147 Psalms from the first edition of Yalkut Shimoni:

“Yalkut Shimoni, a midrashic work composed in Germany in the late thirteenth century, also divides Psalms into 147 chapters, at least in the editio princeps of Salonika, 1521; in later editions, the printers brought the division into psalms in line with the traditional division.”

Nevertheless, Emanuel points out that:

“The earliest evidence of this numeration appears in the commentary by R. Elazar of Worms, which was revealed for the first time in the bookbinding at Oxford.”



Then, another and more astounding discovery was made.

We generally regard the Book of Psalms as the work of King David and they are often called the Psalms of David.

This is based on the Talmudic statement:

David wrote the book of Psalms by means of ten elders of previous generations, assembling a collection that included compositions of others along with his own. He included psalms authored by Adam the first man, by Melchizedek king of Salem, and by Abraham, and by Moses, and by Heman, and by Jeduthun, and by Asaph, and by the three sons of Korah.”[8]

Emanuel then makes a surprising observation from within the same fragment:

“In his commentary [on the Psalms][9], however, R. Elazar of Worms, as an aside, denies the authorship of Psalms to King David, and attributes it to Ezra the scribe.”

Although R. Eleazar expresses himself rather nonchalantly, this view is unconventional and non-traditional, and certainly not something one would expect from one of the members of Chassidei Ashkenaz.

Ezra the Scribe (480–440 BCE), who rebuilt the Second Temple and established the judicial body known as Anshei Kenesset haGedolah (Men of the Great Assembly), now emerges as the author of the Book of Psalms in place of King David (1010–970 BCE).



Emanuel continues to explain that this is not the only reference to Ezra as the Author of Psalms:

“This view appears in several midrashim, and is especially mentioned by the commentators on Psalms from Ashkenaz, the Franco-German center, who write, as a matter of fact, that Ezra was the author of this biblical book.

My late teacher Professor Ta-Shma wrote of this at length in several essays,[10] and now we see that this opinion was shared by R. Elazar of Worms.”

Emanuel thus shows that R. Eleazar of Worms’ theory about the authorship of the Psalms is not an isolated perspective as it does fit within some traditional parameters.



The notion that Ezra may, according to some views, have authored the Psalms is as interesting as it is unusual.

On a contemporary Ask the Rabbi section of an outreach institution website, a certain Julie asks:

Dear Rabbi,

How could King David have written "Shir Hama'alot" if it describes the Jewish return to Israel which happened long after his time?

The rabbi responds:

Excellent question. The Psalms, written by King David, describe events that happened long after David lived. Here's another example: In Psalm 137, King David describes the destruction of the Second Temple. He even names the nation, Edom (Rome), which is to destroy it. How can this be?

The answer is really very simple. Starting with Moshe and ending around the beginning of the Second Temple, the Jewish Nation enjoyed a period of prophecy. King David was one of the many prophets among the Jewish Nation during that period. We find the phrase "As G-d said to David" several times in the written Torah. King David wrote Psalms using his prophetic abilities.

Perhaps, with knowledge of different sources as to the authorship of the Book of Psalms, one could explain some difficult questions without having to revert to supernatural answers. If we mention that there is a view that Ezra wrote the Psalms, the answer becomes even more simple.

Of course, even if one did say that Ezra wrote the Psalms, by drawing attention to Psalm 137, a similar question begs: How could Ezra, who died about five hundred years before the destruction of the Second Temple by Edom (Rome), write about events yet to occur?

We would have to leave that to another Ask the Rabbi section to find the answer.

[1] Simcha Emanuel, New Fragments of Unknown Biblical Commentaries from the “European Geniza”.

[2] The Middle Ages or medieval period lasted from the 5th to the late 15th century. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and transitioned into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. In Jewish history, both dates are significant as the we transitioned out of the Talmudic period in around 450 [followed by the Savoraim (450-589), Gaonim (589-1038) and Rishonim (1038-1500)], and entered into period of Acharonim in 1500.

[3] Emanuel puts the birth date at around 1160.

[4] Parenthesis mine.

[5] Pirushey Siddur ha-Tefilah La-Rokeach, ed. M. Hershler and Y. A. Hershler (Jerusalem: Makhon ha-Rav Hershler, 1992), 81.

[6] Translation by Emanuel.

[7] Palestinian Talmud, Venice 1523, Shabat 16:1 (15c).

[8] b. Bava Batra 14b. Translation and commentary by Sefaria.

[9] Parenthesis mine.

[10] See See I. M. Ta-Shma, Studies in Medieval Rabbinic Literature, I (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2004), 278–288. See also R. C. Steiner, “A Jewish Theory of Biblical Redaction from Byzantium: Its Rabbinic Roots, its Diffusion and its Encounter with the Muslim Doctrine of Falsification,” JSIJ—Jewish Studies, an Internet Journal 2 (2003), 123–167.

1 comment:

  1. The concept of the "European Geniza" has really only come to the fore in the 21st Century, with earlier finds being verified and peer-reviewed The whole exercise appears to have received little or no approbation or approval from the "religious community" The publishers "Brill" have simply been "brill-iant" in having this whole area of our lost past recovered with numerous articles and the books. "Genizat Germania" by Andreas Lehnard and the follow-up "Books within Books" (both in English) have amazing chapters on the finds in different parts of Europe. Other prominent researchers such as the abovementioned Emanuel, Perani, Schlanger, Isserles and others have been no less awe-inspiring. The question as to the apparent paucity of these spectacular discoveries must be properly addressed. But one must also remember that, at the same time, many other researchers are also discovering non-Jewish documents which serve to enrich their cultures as well. All-in-all, it seems that the field is vastly underfunded. Who remembers, or was even aware of, the Afghan Geniza, heralded when it was found and now appears to have disappeared without trace due to lack of funding?