Sforno: Commentary on Pirkei Avos
(Ethics of the Fathers)
By Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz
ArtScroll / Mesorah
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - February 8, 2010
The fifteenth century Jewish Italian Bible and Talmud commentator Ovadiah Sforno is an interesting person because of his attempt, not always successful, of combining traditional, philosophical and scientific ideas. In his commentary on the third century Pirkei Avos, the Ethics of the Fathers, for example, he states, like the twelfth century rationalist Maimonides, that God gave the Israelites a Torah at Sinai containing two essential items: philosophy and the practical. He also copies Maimonides in regard to the comment of Rabbi Chanania ben Akavia, who said, "The Holy One , blessed be He, wanted to confer merit upon Israel; therefore He gave them Torah with many commands." Maimonides wrote that this statement does not mean that God wanted to burden Israel; just the opposite. Rabbi Chanania was saying that God gave Israel many commands so that they can choose among them and observe one of them; for if they even observe only one command, they will merit the world to come. (Readers must read the notes on the volume carefully. The note here states that Sforno insisted that the performance of the command must be "for the sake of heaven, and not perfunctorily, or for personal gain or honor." This statement is not in Sforno's commentary.) Despite many rational comments, Sforno occasionally swerves off to the near mystical. For example, in 1:3, he states that a person should serve God as a servant serving a master and must recognize God's greatness with a feeling of awe.
R’ Ovadiah Sforno was one of the glories of Italian Jewry, a community that, for many centuries, produced Torah luminaries far out of proportion to its size. Born in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, he experienced the agony and trauma of the Spanish Inquisition, new persecutions in Italy, and Papal enmity. Despite these travails, Sforno grew constantly in Torah, personal stature, and in his gifts to posterity.
Though he was one of the great halachic authorities of Italy, his fame rests primarily on his commentaries to many books of the Scripture. However, he wrote extensively on other areas of the Torah as well, and his commentary on Pirkei Avos/Ethics of the Fathers is one of his little known gems. Hardly ever published, this masterpiece is now available in the original Hebrew and with an exceptional translation and commentary.
As Sforno writes in the introduction to his classic commentary on the Torah, he wrote "because our people dwell in an alien land and concentrate their efforts on the accumulation of wealth, feeling that this will protect them from the exigencies of their time. This in turn results in a condition where they have no proper time to consider the wonders and wisdom of our Torah, and even brings them to question the importance of our holy Torah, becoming critical of its teachings, for they do not understand it properly."
Was not Sforno speaking to our generation as well as to his own?
The first to render Sforno in English was Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz, the renowned rabbi emeritus of Congregation Knesseth Israel in Far Rockaway, New York. He distinguished himself with his magnificent rendering of Sforno’s Commentary on the Torah. Now he continues his pioneering work with this new volume.
In this capstone to an eminent career as a scholar, teacher, and leader, Rabbi Pelcovitz performs an enduring service, both to the Sforno and to English-speaking Jews everywhere.