R. Yosef Kara's Commentaries on Esther
R. Yosef Kara, a student/colleague of Rashi, was one of the intellectual giants of Biblical exegesis in Northern France in the 11th-12th centuries,1 and his scholarly efforts spanned also the fields of liturgy and Midrash. He authored commentaries on most of the books of Tanakh, and perhaps on all of them. In recent years, portions of several of his commentaries have been rediscovered and recovered,2 and this has led to a greater appreciation of the centrality of the role he played in the development of the plain sense (peshat) Biblical exegesis in Northern France.
Multiple Commentaries on Esther
On a few books of Tanakh, multiple commentaries of R. Yosef Kara have survived. Megillat Esther is one of these books, and we possess textual witnesses for three different commentaries of R. Yosef Kara on Esther.
- The commentary of R. Yosef Kara which survived in whole or in part in the most manuscripts is labeled "1st Commentary" in ALHATORAH.ORG's Mikraot Gedolot. A full text of this commentary is found in MS Prague F6,3 and the beginning of the commentary (Esther 1:1-9 only) is found in MS Erlangen 1263. Virtually all of the numerous citations of R. Yosef found in MS Hamburg 32 match this commentary nearly verbatim, thus providing strong support for the identification of R. Yosef Kara as its author.4
- An additional commentary of R. Yosef Kara is found in MS St. Petersburg Evr. I.21, and it is labeled "2nd Commentary" in ALHATORAH.ORG's Mikraot Gedolot.5 The identification of R. Yosef Kara as its author rests upon the extensive content parallels to the first commentary and stylistic similarities to other commentaries of R. Yosef Kara.
- Two non-overlapping portions of an additional commentary of R. Yosef Kara, each presented as part of a "3rd Commentary" in ALHATORAH.ORG's Mikraot Gedolot, can be found in MS Corpus Christi College 6 and MS Neuengronau 150-151 (from Esther 8:5 – 10:3).6 The Corpus Christi College manuscript contains Rashi's commentary on most of Nakh. However its commentary on Esther 1:1 – 7:4 is not from Rashi, and it is being published here for the first time and being identified as that of R. Yosef Kara based on the overwhelming number of parallels in much of its material to the other commentaries of R. Yosef Kara and on the fact that the remaining non-parallel material also shares many of the hallmarks of R. Yosef Kara's exegesis.
It should be emphasized that it is unclear that the two parts of the "3rd Commentary" derive from the same commentary (they are presented as one in the Mikraot Gedolot simply for technical reasons), and it is possible that, in sum total, we have texts or portions of texts deriving from four separate commentaries of R. Yosef Kara.
Origin and Relationship Between Commentaries
The existence of multiple commentaries raises the question of the relationship between these texts. Are these merely different recensions or transmissions of a single original commentary,7 or did R. Yosef Kara, in fact, author multiple commentaries? If the former, were these commentaries produced by different students of R. Yosef Kara who were all working off of the same set of oral lectures,8 or do the differences result simply from copyists exhibiting free license to edit, modify, and abridge at will. On the other hand, if the commentaries were all authored by R. Yosef Kara himself, can we determine the order in which the commentaries were produced and what factors may have influenced the distinctions between them?
While arriving at definitive answers to these questions necessitates a more in depth study of not only the Esther commentaries but all of R. Yosef Kara's works,9 an examination of the Esther commentaries does not reveal any blatant signs of major student or scribal input. Each of the commentaries is plagued by standard scribal errors, but there are neither obvious glosses nor citations of R. Yosef Kara in the third person. The commentaries share a very high percentage of interpretations, but they also offer differing and conflicting approaches in a minority of cases. Moreover, while there are many similar phrasings (of the type which one would also expect from an author writing multiple commentaries on the same work), the linguistic differences between the commentaries are very significant and would have required wholesale student or scribal rewriting at a level not often seen in medieval commentaries.10 Given all of this, it would appear more likely than not that R. Yosef Kara himself authored multiple commentaries on Esther, and while he maintained consistency in methodology and regarding the majority of his interpretations, there was also no shortage of cases in which he changed his mind over the course of time.
Unique Interpretations of R. Yosef Kara
Unique interpretations shared by all three commentaries:
- The reason for the non-coercion in imbibing wine (1:8)
- The impact of wine on Achashverosh's behavior (1:8-12)
- The need to record the decree against Vashti to prevent the king from changing his mind and repealing it (1:19, 2:1)
- Esther's refusal to divulge her identity due to anti-Semitism (2:10)
- The connection between the Esther not disclosing her identity and every woman's option to choose who accompanies her to the king (2:12-15)
- Why Achashverosh refused Haman's monetary offer (3:11)
- Why Esther invited only Haman to the parties (5:4-8)
- Haman's advisors were trying to give him advice which could have saved him, but they were interrupted by the king's messengers (6:14)
Unique interpretations shared by the 1st and 3rd commentaries:
- The impact of the cantillations on the understanding of 3:7
Unique interpretations shared by the 2nd and 3rd commentaries:
- The nature of the preferential treatment given to Esther (2:8-9)
- Mordekhai lived "בְּשַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ" (4:2)
- Mordekhai's warning that the rest of the Jews will be able to flee, but Esther and her family who live in Shushan will not be able to flee (4:12-14)
- Had the king not been on his throne when Esther came, the guards would have killed her (5:1)
Unique interpretations found only in the 2nd commentary:
- The meaning of הדסה (2:7)
Unique interpretations found only in the 3rd commentary:
- Vashti's refusal to appear was motivated by the status of those sent to fetch her11 (1:12)
- The meaning of "וְלַמֶּלֶךְ אֵין שֹׁוֶה לְהַנִּיחָם" (3:8)
- Mordekhai removed his sackcloth upon coming to the King's gate in order to enter his home (4:2)
Acknowledgments and Manuscript List
It is a great pleasure to thank Yael Okun and Yisrael Dubitsky of the Department of Manuscripts at the National Library of Israel for bringing the significance of MS CCC 6 to our attention, and we also gratefully acknowledge the assistance provided by Joanna Snelling, Librarian of Corpus Christi College.
The following is a list of manuscripts containing material from R. Yosef Kara's commentaries on Esther (with links to their records):
- Erlangen 1263 – Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg
- Hamburg Hebr. 32 – Staats und Universitaetsbibliothek Hamburg
- Neuengronau 150-151 – with permission of Landeskirchliches Archiv Kassel
- Oxford CCC MS 6 – By permission of the President and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Oxford
- Paris 334 – Bibliothèque nationale de France
- Parma 2868 – Biblioteca Palatina
- Prague NK XVIII F 6 – Prague National Library
- St. Petersburg Evr. I 21 – National Library of Russia