13 April 2010

Mikraot Gedolot (מקראות גדולות)

In the first issue of the Jewish Review of Books (which was nicely sent to me for free (thanks!)), Professor Azzan Yadin (whom I heard speak at the AJS conference) wrote on מקראות גדולות (mikra'ot gedolot):
In 1517, four years before he would produce the first printed edition of the entire Talmud, Daniel Bomberg, the great Christian publisher of Hebrew books, published Mikraot Gedolot, containing the text of the Pentateuch together with several influential translations and commentaries.

The innovation of Bomberg’s Mikraot Gedolot was typographical, elegantly displaying the different commentators and the biblical verses they interpret on the same page. But, of course, it was not merely typographical. Like the printed Talmud, Mikraot Gedolot offers a synopsis in the most literal sense of the word—a seeing together—of commentators who lived generations and worlds apart.

First, placed immediately alongside the biblical text is an Aramaic translation by Onkelos (2nd century). Beneath it, we see the French contingent, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (known by his famous acronym, Rashi) and his grandson, Rabbi Shlomo ben Meir (Rashbam). Rashi’s commentary combines linguistic brilliance with an unflagging commitment to classical rabbinic midrash. He is the indispensable commentator to the Torah (and, amazingly, to the Talmud as well). Rashbam is deeply committed to the plain sense, or peshat, of the Torah. Further down the page, we find the great Spanish writers: Abraham Ibn Ezra, a contemporary of Rashbam, who was born in Muslim Spain but wandered throughout Europe and the Middle East, and Nahmanides (Ramban), whose expansive commentary investigates the biblical text in relation to its plain sense, to rabbinic midrash, and to kabbalistic interpretations. In addition, we have Rabbi David Kimchi (Radak), the outstanding representative of the Provençal philosophical tradition of exegesis, and Obadiah ben Ya’akov Sforno, the late Renaissance Italian doctor and commentator. The innumerable editions of Mikraot Gedolot that followed Bomberg’s collected these commentaries (and others besides, depending on the interests and whims of the publisher) and put them on the same page as the biblical text on which they commented.

The result was that "they created a new experience for the reader: the illusion of entering a timeless realm of conversation, a set of nested hyperlinks as it were, reaching all the way back to revelation."
As to how it got it's name, Professor B. Barry Levy explained
מקראות גדולות is the Hebrew translation of a latin term magna biblia. Magna Biblia means a big bible. It used to be the Hebrew term was מקרא גדולה – not מקראות....
מקרא is a masculine noun – not a feminine noun. So how could it be גדולה and קטנה? Because in latin, biblia is feminine. And so it’s literally a calque of the latin. Gradually, they cooked up a better term and called it מקראות גדולות, which is at least grammatically consistent. Around the time they did that, the size of these things started to shrink....