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Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel) wrote a commentary on most of Tanach. In his introduction (to Yeshayahu) he writes the assumptions with which he operates in his commentary:

:עמודי התוך אשר הפירוש נשען עליהם הם שלשה

א) לא נמצא במליצות הנביאים כפל ענין במלות שונות, לא כפל ענין, לא כפל מאמר, ולא כפל מליצה, לא שני משפטים שענינם אחד, לא שני משלים שהנמשל אחד, ואף לא שני מלות כפולות

ב) לא נמצאו במליצות הנביאים ובמאמריהם הפשוטים או הכפולים, מלות או פעלים הונחו במקרה מבלתי כונה מיוחדת, על שכל המלות והשמות והפעלים שמהם הורכב כל מאמר, לא לבד שהם מוכרחים לבא במאמר ההוא, כי גם לא היה אפשר להמליץ האלהי להניח תחתיהם מלה אחרת,כי כל מלות המליצה האלהית שקולה במאזני החכמה והדעת, ערוכים ושמורים מנוים וספורים במדת החכמה העליונה, אשר אך היא לבדה תשגיב בכחה לדבר כן

ג) לא נמצא במליצות הנביאים קליפה בלא תוך גויה בלא נשמה, לבוש בלא מתלבש, מאמר רק מרעיון נשגב, דבור לא תשכון תבונה בו, כי דברות אלהים חיים כולם אל חי בקרבם, רוח חיים באפם רוח איום אביר אדיר ונורא

To summarize in English:

  1. There are no two phrases or even two words that mean exactly the same thing. There is no such thing as "repetition of the same idea with different wording".
  2. All words and phrases in Tanach are necessary. Not only would the idea that the author is trying to get across be deficient without the specific phrase he uses, but also that no other phrase with different wording could take its place and convey the same idea.
  3. No phrase, verse, or section in Tanach is pointless. Everything that is written has profound meaning.

Anyone who had read part of Malbim's commentary can see how these "axioms" are incorporated. What has always bothered me, though, is that Malbim seems to be saying with (1) and (2) that Tanach is devoid of poetic style. The author did not have a choice with his wording, but rather used the only phrasology available to convey the exact point he was trying to make. Not only is this uncomfortable for me to accept, but it also seems to be in direct opposition to the multitude of Rishonim that wrote commentaries on Tanach.

Radak seems to be especially fond of saying that certain wordings are "כפל ענין במלות שונות" - "repetition of the same idea with a different wording". Ibn Kaspi is especially well-known for saying that the way the Torah writes many things is a matter of style, and that anyone who tries to learn things from the fact that the Torah wrote something one way and not another way is attributing meaning to something that has none. Now, perhaps Ibn Kaspi is an extreme example, but I cannot find a single Rishon that would agree with Malbim's axioms (1) and (2).

Now, I have thought of several options to explain this phenomenon:

  • Malbim is an innovator. He effectively rejects the approach of all those that came before him to introduce a completely novel approach to Tanach. The problem with this is that in general, the religious Jewish community is not fond of commentaries with approaches that are "too novel". I have often heard that certain newer commentaries should not be learned because they strayed from the path of the earlier commentaries in their approach. Malbim, however, is so popular, that it is difficult to find a set of Mikraot Gedolot on Nach that does not include his commentary.
  • Malbim is not a p'shat commentary. Being that most of the Rishonim under question were of the p'shat approach, the earlier discussion would not pose a problem. Also, this can be seen by the fact that one of Malbim's main tasks is to justify Chazal's midrashim based on the text, especially the midrash halacha, which seems to be his entire commentary to Shemos through Devarim. And midrash halacha has, for the most part, already been identified as part of the d'rash approach, in opposition to p'shat, by such commentators as Ramban and Ibn Ezra.
  • Malbim himself didn't really believe what he wrote. Historically, Malbim had a lot of trouble with the reform movement. Perhaps he wrote this commentary in opposition to the maskil philosophy, which perhaps emphasized the poetic nature of Tanach over its technical nature (that is, the messages being conveyed in the text). Perhaps, even though Malbim agreed with the earlier approach of the Rishonim, he wrote his commentary stressing the other extreme particularly for his time and place. (Generally, I don't like saying these types of explanations.)

I apologize for writing such a long question, but my question, succinctly, is:

How do you explain the Malbim's deviation from earlier commentators in light of his unbelievable popularity in the modern religious community?

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Thought I'd better post some "commentaries" questions, being that it was my suggestion for the weekly topic challenge. – jake Dec 25 '11 at 18:46
I really like this question! Although when I first read it, I thought: "this is a question for Jake". Then I noticed that you were the one who asked it. – HodofHod Dec 25 '11 at 19:00
@HodofHod, Thanks! This is a question that has bothered me for a while. One of those things that I've kept in the back of my head. – jake Dec 25 '11 at 19:05
related (based on discussions below): page 19 of this pdf - magnespress.co.il/pdf_files/upload/101106.pdf - an abstract of Jair Haas' article ABARBANEL’S ATTITUDE TOWARD ‘REPETITION OF MEANING IN DIFFERENT WORDS’ – Menachem Jun 24 '12 at 22:55

To summarize (and perhaps embellish) Prof. Yaakov Elman's The Rebirth of Omnisignificant Biblical Exegesis in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, which addresses all this at length, Chazal seemed to assume that every word in the Torah was deliberate, meaningful, and not mere stylistic flourish. However, in response to Karaism, Rav Saadya Gaon greatly downplayed the role of exegesis, and promoted instead tradition as the true tradition. This exegetical approach applied all the more so to non-legal matters. This methodology became popular among the Rishonim. However, the 19th century saw the rise of attack on the Written Law itself. To combat this, the Malbim and others resurrected the approach that each word in Scripture is deliberate and meaningful.

Thus: was Malbim an innovator? Yes as his approach was in contradistinction to that of the previous millenium of Bible commentary. But it largely folowed the approach of Chazal.

Some relevant quotations and paraphrasing from Elman:

One passage that relates to omnisignificance is the rabbinic interpretation of Deut 32 47: “For it is not an empty thing for you it is your very life. An if [it appears] devoid [of moral or halakhic meaning] it is you [who have not worked out its moral or legal significance]." (Yerushalmi Ketubot 8:11).

Rav Saadya Gaon attacks Karaite methods of biblical exegesis, in particular their use of analogy. Since many midrashic middot may be categorized as forms of analogy (hekesh, gezerah shavah, binyan av or mah matzinu) or work by analogy (kelal u-ferat and its near relations, ribbuy and micut, etc.), we may understand his strategic retreat from this battleground and his insistence on tradition alone. Depriving halakhic midrash of real authority prepared the ground for his counterattack on Karaite legal exegesis. This view continued to exercise influence so long as Karaism remained a threat, and its traces are to be found in the works of later Geonim, R. Shmuel ha-Nagid, R. Yehudah ha-Levi, and Ibn Ezra.

That is Rav Saadya Gaon minimized the textual role played even by halachic portions of the Torah, explaining the ultimate source for the derived laws as being the tradition.

Thus, when faced with the anti-rabbinic challenges of nineteenth-century heterodox movements, one influential representative of Orthodox thinking on the matter, R. Y. I. Halevy Rabinowitz (1847-1914), author of Dorot Rishonim, took a similar stance. Note the following, from a volume published in 1875/6.

All the derashot in the Talmud [intended] to provide prooftexts (lehasmikh) for the words of the Mishnah are only hints in the biblical texts, ...And the derashah is nothing but a hint for the matter...for from biblical proof-texts (derashah di-qeraei) we learn nothing.

However, the modern challenge was far more serious. While the Karaites rejected rabbinic interpretation and authority, nineteenth-century thought challenged those and more; scriptural authority and divinity were eventually threatened as well. The new challenge thus required a response broader than R. Saadiah's polemics against Karaism.

It thus fell to the lot of nineteenth-century scholars such as R. Yaakov Zevi Mecklenberg (1785-1865), R. Meir Leibush Weiser (1809-1879, known by the acronym Malbim), and Samson Rafael Hirsch (1808-1888) to attempt to come to grips with omnisignificance again.

Regarding Malbim's approach to peshat in contradistinction to that of his predecessors:

It differs from Nahmanides' revival of the omnisignificant program in the Middle Ages. Nahmanides dealt with issues of proportion, repetition and sequence, as I have shown elsewhere. But he did so within a context that allowed for peshat as an independent area of interpretation, a point that Malbim is at pains to disavow. For Malbim, the medieval distinction between peshat and derash is all but obliterated; in his oft-quoted phrase, to use Harris rendering, the peshat that accords with the true and clear rules of language is only to be found in [what we conventionally refer to as] the derash.

Regarding whether Malbim himself was 100% serious with all of this:

Kugel, in his history of the study of parallelism, notes that Malbim was clearly aware of the binary structure and semantic pairing of parallelism..., [but] he frequently stated that repetition as such did not exist. He rejected utterly the approach to biblical style that had been adopted increasingly by Jews and Christians since the Renaissance.

Elman further documents examples where Malbim extends Chazal's exegetical techniques. Thus, he was certainly an especially when compared with Rishonim, but his approach was broadly consistent with his contemporaries such as Rav Hirsch, and was broadly based on Chazal.

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I am interested to know about the end of the answer if Malbim and R. Hirsh are not caracteristic from an "anti aufklarung" current that emphasize the war against biblists. – kouty May 22 at 10:09

It is true that Malbim may have gone further than many rishonim, probably as a reaction to the Maskilim. However, this doesn't mean he was a radical innovator. Like the question and other answers mention, there are different levels of interpretation and explanation. So a text may repeat something for poetic effect, but still choose words that have a meaning. When Radak says something is repeated poetically, it doesn't mean he would reject any additional explanation of the matter. While he may not have agreed with the need to explain every repetition, it doesn't mean he would reject every individual explanation of the Malbim.

So Malbim was a natural development in Biblical exegesis, something that could be accepted as a commentary. More surprising perhaps is that Ralbag is so many editions of Tanach, or that the Brisker approach to Gemara became so widespread.

The author did not have a choice with his wording, but rather used the only phrasology available to convey the exact point he was trying to make.

It seems preferable to say a word has a specific meaning and isn't just there stylistically, since that gives more significance to the words of Tanach. I don't think it means there's no style either, just that the words were chosen to be able to accomplish both purposes. The only question is how well such an approach holds up in practice. Although is commentary his studied, I don't think his approach is necessarily accepted as always being correct.

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+1 for the first paragraph. Some Rishonim seem to agree with the idea that sometimes phrases are added to show something additional, but just don't always employ this tactic. Abarbanel is known to do this all the time. Although he says specifically that there are synonyms in Biblical hebrew, he will sometimes explain "extra" phrases as teaching something extra. Also, kudos on the Ralbag comment. I was going to ask that as a question; why is Ralbag so standard when his commentary and theology is so nonstandard. – jake Dec 25 '11 at 22:49

While the Malbim differs in his approach to other commentators, he did not innovate the approach.

The gemora itself sometimes uses this technique to learn halachot. You will also find phrases in the Midrashim which use this approach as well.

What Malbim did do differently, was systematically applying this approach to all of Tanach.

As you stated, the Malbim is not talking about pshat, while others are doing so. In fact, the Malbim even says that the Drashot are Pshat Peshut. So for the Malbim to write "pshat" is to write what everyone else calls "Drash"

Just because something is true and believed, does not mean it is the only truth or only valid belief. As the gemora says, there are 70 faces to the Torah. Also, Eilu v'Eilu.

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So you are saying that Malbim is not a p'shat commentary? – jake Dec 25 '11 at 19:01
This answer sounds plausible, but do you have any source for your claim that "the Malbim is not talking about pshat"? – msh210 Dec 25 '11 at 19:02
Have you ever read the Malbim? It's very far from pshat. – avi Dec 25 '11 at 19:17
I see where the confusion comes from, edited the answer. – avi Dec 25 '11 at 19:26
@avi Malbim is not off the peshat per se. I believe he sourced his opinions throughout Hazal. As we know he was trying to simplify the Tanach for those saw it as strange or contradictory. Thus, he was in a sense changing Peshat. – Hacham Gabriel Dec 25 '11 at 19:55

I always understood it as a deeper way of looking at the words of Tanach.

When learning Tanach, the question arises, "Why is the writer/composer saying the same thing twice".

A superficial (not in the negative sense) answer is that it is poetic. This answers all the questions. We don't have to find a deeper meaning for the repetition.

On a deeper level however, one can say (as the Malbim does) that even the repetition has a purpose. It's not just saying the same thing twice, but saying (and teaching us) something slightly different.

So (as I understood it), the Malbim is telling us that, while it is true that the writer/composer was being poetic, every word and phrase is exact, and there is something we can learn from it.

While not entirely the same, there is an argument between R' Akiva and R' Yishmael (Sotah 3A) with regards to the Torah repeating a law. R' Yishmael says that there may be a whole extra sentence just to teach us one thing. R' Akiva on the other hand, says that the sentence is not extra, and is coming to teach us something.

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I'm not sure if you're saying the same thing as @avi or not. This superficial vs. deeper level that you speak of; would you identify that as p'shat vs. d'rash? And I still don't understand. If Malbim feels that every phrase/word is exact, how can the composer be poetic? Poetic implies a particular choice of words over another purely for stylistic reasons, not for technical reasons. – jake Dec 25 '11 at 21:52
@jake: A) I'd call it giving p'shat to phrases that other commentators overlooked. B) one of the differences between good (or bad) poetry and great poetry is in the rhyming structure. If the person just chose words to fit the poem structure, it may rhyme, but it isn't great poetry. By contrast, if every word in the poem is necessary, AND fits the rhyming structure, that's great poetry. – Menachem Dec 25 '11 at 22:01
A) Other commentators did not overlook! They just waved them away as stylistic instead of attributing extra meaning to them. B) Yes, but if every word is only there because it is necessary, then "structure" is meaningless. If a poet and I both write something to convey the exact same idea, we will certainly end up using totally different wording; the poet's with "poetic structure", and mine lacking. But according to Malbim, this is not possible in Tanach. If two neviim say something with slightly different wording, then they mean something slightly different. There is no "poetic structure". – jake Dec 25 '11 at 22:07
@jake: A) bad choice of words. I meant what you said. B) by "necessary" I mean that the poet was using that specific word for a very specific reason, not just because the general idea made sense. Since every word that means something similar has a slightly different connotation (e.g. does Gevurah and Ko'ach mean exactly the same thing), choosing one over the other was an intentional choice. – Menachem Dec 25 '11 at 22:23
I think our (A) and (B) now converge. Yes, choosing one word over another was an intentional choice, but intentional for poetic purposes (i.e. I will pick this word because the connotation brings out an extra point that wouldn't otherwise be there) or intentional for technical purposes (I am a navi that must convey exactly the idea that God conveyed to me through nevua. This word will convey the point exactly, but the other will not.)... – jake Dec 25 '11 at 22:26

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