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Meleches Machasheves is a little-known gem on Chumash that deserves fuller appreciation.[1] The author, R. Moshe Cheifetz (1663-1711), lived a short and often unhappy life during the stirrings of modernity that took hold in Italy before spreading to other areas of Europe. His sefer is often a mixture of the new and the old, of the creative and the traditional.

  1. Cheifetz claimed that he was interested only in pshat– the plain meaning of the text. In the time of the Rishonim / medieval commentators, that meant different things to do different authors, and R. Cheifetz is no different. His definition seems to include addressing each and every textual nuance that a careful reader could detect. This seems to be the most commanding feature of this work. While earlier works focused on overall meaning, missing elements in the narrative, and obvious unusual constructions, R. Cheifetz sets out to inventory all repetition and changes in word choice in a verse or paragraph. He would accept as pshatonly an approach that accounted for all of them.

To get there, he is not afraid to differ from all who came before, producing original approaches that we have come to regard as typical of much later times. Yet, he can be a fierce defender of older approaches, particularly of those of Chazal. Curiously, he does not often make mention of many early Rishonim, but shows deference to those closer to him in time, like the Keli Yakar, the Maasei Hashem, and Abarbanel. (Like the latter, he very often begins a piece with a long list of problems he detects in a section, before offering an approach that will address them.)

The colophon to the second edition called him Ha-Philosof /the philosopher. Indeed, his interest in the philosophy of his day is evident in this sefer, in the form of long essays on topics like the nature of angels and free-will. In a comprehensive index of topics discussed in the work, the author mingles philosophical issues with his treatment of the human personality and its midos.

My hope and expectation is that readers will not only delight in the insights of R. Cheifetz in and of themselves, but that they will deepen their appreciation of the marvelous way that HKBH gave us a text that lends itself to so many different approaches.  “Is not My word like fire…and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?”(Yirmiya 23:29). Just as this hammer breaks a stone into several fragments, so too, one verse is stated by Hashem and from it emerge several explanations. (Sanhedrin 34A)[2]

[1] The 1859 Koenigsberg edition contains a letter of approbation from the author of HaKesav V’HaKabbalah, R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg

[2] I am indebted to Professor Marc Shapiro for his suggestion of using Meleches Machasheves for a weekly treatment.

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