I am trying to learn the book of the prophet Yeshaya (Isaiah). I am finding the early (unfamiliar) chapters very difficult. Rashi’s commentary does not help me enough. Is there a book which gives a good background understanding to the prophecies?
I have studied Isaiah several times, and I will share a few options, all of which I have tried.
- Judaica Press Isaiah. You can read the prophecies with translation right alongside to help with difficult words or phrases. The commentary is combination of Rashi and whatever other classic commentaries R' A. J. Rosenberg found useful (mostly Radak, Ibn Ezra, Joseph Kara, Abarbanel, Malbim). This is essentially an efficient and English-friendly way of learning Isaiah in the classical fashion, i.e. by poring over a Mikraos Gedolos. I found that it was helpful enough that I didn't get stuck wondering what prophecies were about or what Isaiah meant by something, but I didn't really come out with a clear picture of the organizational structure of Isaiah, nor a full appreciation of his style. At times it becomes confusing because of the several different understandings of the commentators that R' Rosenberg often tries to blend together, mixing and matching comments on various phrases.
Abarbanel on Isaiah. This was my personal choice, but could work just as well with another comprehensive commentary on Isaiah. Abarbanel in particular is attractive because he addresses pretty much every single issue that comes up exegetically, and he divides up the book into units (nevuos), each one introduced with its overall subject and purpose and relation to the previous unit. The pros: It was very helpful to have a single unified approach to the book, and a very organized one at that, and one that adheres strictly to pshat interpretation. The cons: Abarbanel in particular is quite prolix and verbose, and often gets caught on tangents. He often feels the need to quote all the previous commentators' opinions and debate them one by one, or other such time consuming antics. He also takes as axiomatic certain things that one may easily disagree with (e.g. the chronological nature of the prophetic books), which will influence his understanding of many of the prophecies. If one were to choose a commentator that he feels he mostly agrees with their approach, that would of course be more ideal.
Daat Mikra on Isaiah. This was written by the great scholar Amos Hacham, whose expertise in biblical studies is readily apparent in the commentary he provides. He too divides the book into sections and subsections. Each section is labeled with a title, elucidated with a brief commentary, and then followed by a discussion of its contents. When I used it, I read the verses without the help of his commentary (except when necessary), then read the concluding discussion for a very well-crafted summation of the overall purpose and context of the prophecy. Hacham is in general more "academically friendly" in the sense that he pays attention to the linguistic style of Isaiah and things like scribal additions and archaeological/historical findings, but he is also without a doubt an expert in Talmudic and midrashic literature, and of course familiar with the classic Rishonim, whom he does not hesitate to quote liberally. I found using this commentary to be especially helpful in gaining an understanding of the orginization of Isaiah as a whole as well as the overarching themes of the book, which I did not get with Judaica press or even Abarbanel.
Malbim's commentary is very helpful, especially for the parts of Tanach that are not in a narrative form. He explains the relevance of one idea to the next, etc. In addition, Metzudas David (printed in that edition and in every Mikra'os Gedolos) is significantly shorter and does include many essential things that Rashi omits.
If you have access to the collected writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, see volume four. He has an extensive overview and insight into seffer Yeshaya.
It doesn't go in order of the navi (but then again neither did Yeshaya, see Rashi in the beginning of the seffer), but his goal was a deeper, broader understanding.
Recently, Feldheim(?) reprinted this as a standalone work on Yeshaya. In this version Rabbi Hirsch's thoughts were arranged by order of psukim. I can't comment on whether it is easier to follow along with this version or not.
You can also check out The Book of Yeshayah by Julius Hirsch (Feldheim Publishers, 2015). This is a translation and comprehensive commentary on Isaiah, following the same interpretative method of his father, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch.