Monday, May 17, 2010

Review: Bekurim with the Gra's Commentary

Review: Bekurim with Gra's Commentary
by: Eliezer Brodt
One of the most famous gedolim who lived in the past few hundred years was R. Eliyahu of Vilna, the Vilna goan, or Gra. Gra was known for his expertise in all areas of Torah literature including all of Tanach, Bavli, Yerushlami and the rest of Chazal. Additionally, he was an expert in dikduk, Kabbalah and Halacha. Gra did not print anything in his lifetime; however, shortly after his death, his works began to be printed and have been and continue to be until today. Not only has an incredible amounts of his own material been printed but dozens of seforim, books, and articles have been devoted to him, some devoted to his torah others to his life. Bibliographies have been written collecting everything related to Gra. The most recent listing of his work's was from Yeshayahu Vinograd in his Otzar Sifrei ha-Gra. This bibliography was printed in 2003 and contains 1,630 entries of materials related to Gra.From 2003 until today, many more could be added to this collection. Many people have worked on different aspects of Gra's works specifically explaining what he meant etc. As is well known Gra wrote very concisely and many of his manuscripts were his personal notes not intended to be published making it very hard to understand what he was getting at. This is true for most of what he had written such as his Biur ha-Gra on Shulchan Orach which has been worked on by many like the Demsek Eliezer, as well as R. Kook and more recently R. Rakover. These works are extensive commentary to explain exactly what Gra meant. His notes on Shas have been worked on and collected by many different people as has been many of his other works. In this post I would like to focus on recent project and organization called Mechon Maatikei Hashemua. This project is devoted to printing all Gra's Torah on Seder Zeraim. Recently this Mechon released their first publication, the works of Gra on the first Perek of Yerushalmi Bikurim. 

Many years ago, a small team of people headed by R. Yedidah Frankel, began studying Seder Zeraim. There is no Bavli devoted to Seder Zeraim only Yerushalmi which makes studying this seder more difficult as we are accustom to the Bavli.  [Regarding the question of if a Bavli on Zeraim existed but is no longer extant, see the  incredible doctorate of Yakov Zussman.] One of the reasons why Yerushalmi in general is very hard to learn is because our printed editions contain numerous textual errors. Aside from lacking the Bavli, Zeraim is more difficult to study because it has only a handful of the commentaries of the Rishonim and Achronim. One of the reasons for it not having some many commentaries was because Seder Zeraim contains little in the way of practical halacha. During the Middle Ages, the main focus of learning was on practical halacha. Thus, Seder Zeraim, among othes, was rarely studied during this period.  Another reason for the dearth of commentaries is that the Yerushalmi was simply not available - many cities during Middle Ages did not have even a single copy. However, in the past century aside from the Yerushalmi becoming more available, this part of Torah became much more relevant in light of it becoming practical halacha. Thus, many more people are studying the Yerushalmi today.
Just to cite a simple example demonstrating this phenomena.  Two hundred years ago there was almost no works devoted to Shevius  (Shmitah), today with each shmitah dozens of works have been written perhaps in the hundreds already. Now that Zeraim is more relevant and more are studying it, the periush of anyone, and more so a super star like Gra, is extremely important. This organization took upon themselves to print Gra's commentary on Zeraim. This work is not merely a reprint Gra's commentary on Zeraim, rather it contains much more. Frist, they found the Yerushalmi that the Gra actually used and wrote notes in when learning Yerushalmi! After carefully going through it they mapped out a plan how to go about printing it. In the past few years both the methods and benefits of this find have been written up in various Torah publications amongst them Yeshurun and Moriea. A very in-depth article was printed in the book released from Bar Ilan on the Gra a few years back, HaGra Ubeis Medraso. In each of these articles R. Frankel shows the importance of this find and how it enlightens our understanding of complex Sugyos in Seder Zeraim.

The manuscript was authenticated by experts in Gra's handwriting. The significance of this is we now more material to help us understand this complex seder which lacks seforim compared to other areas of Torah.

This beautiful edition is composed of many parts. First, they printed the Mishana with the Pirushim of the Rambam's Pirish Lemishna, Rash mi-Shantz, and Rosh. To ensure accuracy of these texts, all known manuscripts of these commentaries were used, in a critical edition, with many excellent and useful footnotes. Additionally, in this section they also included the perush of Gra on Zeraim - Shenoes Eliyahu reworking it with new additions from manuscripts including notes.

For the second section they use the type from the Yerushalmi printed in Amsterdam that contains R. Eliyhu Mifulda's work because this is the edition of the Yerushalmi that Gra used and wrote his notes on. In the footnotes, the editors compared this text of the Yerushalmi to other manuscripts. They also reworked the commentary of R. Eliyhu Mifulda adding in many notes to the text. This section also includes a commentary, Biurei ha-Gra. This commentary is from notes of students of Gra which had been printed before. Again, as with the other sections, there exists a few manuscripts of this work, all of which were used for this section. The editors also include many notes to explain this part. Additionally, this section also includes the complete version of Gra's notes based on the manuscript of his Yerushalmi. These notes were printed a few times but only partially. However, in this edition each one is put in its proper place with different fonts to make it less confusing. This part also has notes to explain what Gra meant. However, not to confuse the user, Gra's notes appear on the page in their proper places and an in-depth explanation is included after each daf.

After this section they have a part which is composed of in-depth discussion of Gra. For example, Gra, as mentioned above, wrote rather crypitically, and at times, at first glance when one looks at it you no idea what he was trying to say. This is especially true in Gra's own notes as they was not meant for anyone other than himself. At times, the commentary contains no words just lines, circles, dashes which, as one would imagine, are especially difficult to decipher. The only way one can properly understand  Gra is to have a great understanding of the whole sugyah. Now the whole sugyah means the comparative texts of  other sifrei chazal such as Bavli, Sifra, Sifri, and Mechilta. One also has to have a command of all the Rishonim on the particular Sugyah. This team spent a very long time going through each sugyah with great depth they presented their finds in this section. They did a excellent job of presenting the material they found in a clear and concise manner. The use charts at times and as many works as necessary to get to the bottom of the issues whether it means consulting critical editions or manuscripts of Chazal or Rishonim, dictionaries for the meaning of a word, rishonim and the works of the main achronim. After reading through each chapter in this section they explain exactly what Gra was trying to do, when one sees it one is just amazed to see what Gra meant with just a few words or dashes.

To explain what drives Gra to write in such a cryptic manner. The only reason why one is allowed to write Torah is because of a heter of עת לעשות לה'  that one will forget. Gra was not scared that he would forget so he just wrote very shorthand to remind him of what how he understand the Sugyah. I also assumed this was yet another legend that they say about Gra, but when one looks at this Yerushalmi where they reproduced the pages with Gra's notes one can see this very clearly its no legend. The pages are full of dots, cross outs, circles, dashes and one word here and there. To the untrained eye it looks like nothing. This Mechon has shown the incredible wisdom behind each one of those markings. Another Godol who used this style of Gra was R. Nosson Adler. R. Auerbach famous for the Eshkol printed these notes also they were one word here and there lines dashes and he explained them. People accused Auerbach of forging this work too but I believe it has been proven that it is an Authentic work. See Hurowitz, Rabbanei Frankfurt (pp. 151-152). R. Chanoach Erentru brings from his Rebbe,  R. Fevel Palut, a student of the Chasam Sofer the following:

ר' נתן אדלר אמר שהתירו לכתוב את התורה שבעל פה רק מפני החשש שמא תשכח התורה מישראל לפי זה אמר אין הוא רשאי להשתמש בהתיר זה כי אין הוא שוכח דבר. ואמר עליו שלא רק  שידע את כל התלמוד בעל פה אלא גם מעולם לא שכח דבר מכל ספרות הראשונים (עיונים בדברי חז"ל ובלשונם, עמ' סו).

In the last section of this work they show exactly what Gra wrote and each of Gra's notes, big or small, are reproduced in a high quality picture and blown up they than write underneath each photo exactly what they believe Gra was doing. This section at times due to spilling of ink and other problems they could not read some of the writing in the orginal manuscript they than consulted with the the Israeli police department to read some of the comments with infrared magnifiers. They even were helped by NASA to read some particularly difficult parts! I would assume this is the first time they were consulted for help in printing a rabbinical text.

This work is a labor of love as it is obvious from going through it. In the past bunch of years I do not recall any sefer that shows such meticulous preparation for publication. One can see how much the editor R. Frankel believes in the importance of his project. It is printed on beautiful paper, the the size of the volume is very tall making it very usable. The fonts and print of each page are also very well done making it not only beautiful in content but matching in looks. The editor was helped by a very small team of people who mastered Seder Zeraim over years of learning through it as did he. It took many years for this volume to be printed and it is a small part of the whole seder Zeraim very large sums of money were spent to get the project going but it still requires more to complete the project. For more information on purchasing this volume or helping with this project contact them at See also here.    

I wish them much luck in completing this very special important project. 

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