Article from the SD Jewishworld: Rabbi Samuel Introduces Philo to the Modern World

Rabbi Samuel introduces Philo to the modern world


By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel and his 5-volume set on Philo’s Torah commentaries

CHULA VISTA, California  – The 1stCentury Jewish philosopher and religious scholar, Philo, was very familiar with the Torah, commenting here and there on different portions of the Five Books of Moses in writings that were spread over approximately 40 publications in the native Greek language that he spoke in his home of Alexandria, Egypt.

Growing up in a Reform Jewish home, Michael Leo Samuel had been a fan of Philo’s since his early teenage years. His passion for reading Jewish texts eventually led to Samuel being ordained through the Lubavitcher (Chabad) movement, and then going on to serve as a Hebrew school teacher and a pulpit rabbi in Modern Orthodox and Conservative congregations.  Recently, Samuel, who serves today as spiritual leader of Conservative Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista, has completed publication of a five-volume work, Rediscovering Philo of Alexandria,  in which he pulls together Philo’s thoughts about Jewish scripture from Philo’s many writings and puts them into sequential order, thus creating for the first time Philo’s comprehensive commentary on the Torah.  The books are available via Amazon.

To undertake this project, Samuel, who speaks Hebrew also taught himself Greek so he could read Philo in the original.  He also drew upon the thoughts of some of Judaism’s later, and perhaps better known, commentators like Rashi, Maimonides, Nachmanides, and Ibn Ezra to illustrate how Philo’s commentaries in some cases presaged the thoughts of these great commentators and in other instances contradicted them.

Rediscovering Philo of Alexandria relates in order Philo’s commentaries on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

In a wide-ranging interview, Samuel, who contributes occasional columns to San Diego Jewish World, discussed his books and the philosopher who inspired it.  He also is accepting invitations to discuss the book at synagogue, chavurah, and club gatherings.

He said that while living in First Century C.E. Alexandria, Philo faced two conflicting forces during his life.  On the positive side, Alexandria was a cosmopolitan port city which treasured learning, as was exemplified by its world-famous library.  On the other hand, many native Egyptians harbored anti-Semitic attitudes, making life in Alexandria a wary experience for Jews.  “One of the great pogroms in Alexandria that took place in the year 30 or so, resulted in the death of 50,000 people,” Samuel commented.  “It was the first modern pogrom of late antiquity.  Philo gives eye witness to how Jews were not even allowed to bury the dead, and the Roman prefect in Alexandria, Flaccus, was always trying to curry favor with the local anti-Semitic population.”

Nevertheless, Philo manage to enjoy some of what life had to offer.   “One of the things that I like about Philo was that he was an Alexandrian Jew, much like today we are American Jews,” said Samuel. “He would attend the gymnasium, watch wrestling matches. He would attend Olympic-style games.  He would go to horse races, and he had an interest in sports and would often draw some profound spiritual analogies about Jewish spirituality from sporting events that took place in his time.”

As a commentator, Philo was willing to opine on issues that continue to be controversial to the present day.  Abortion, homosexuality, and how Jews should treat other religions were among the subjects to which Philo gave deep thought.  Living in the pre-rabbinic era of Judaism, his commentaries often were in sharp contrast to those of later Jewish scholars, according to Samuel.

Whereas many later commentators took every word of the Torah literally, Philo was one of the first Jewish scholars to suggest that it must instead be understood as an allegory from which lessons may be learned, even if every word is not true.  In Philo’s view, according to Samuel, the Torah was given to the Jewish people at a time when they were not far removed from slavery.  Intellectually, they were like children, unable to understand complex rationales.  So, in the Torah, God warns the Jews of adverse consequences if they don’t follow His law, much like a parent warning a child, “Eat your dinner, or there will be no dessert.”

Philo differed with more recent commentators over the passage in Leviticus which describes as an “abomination” or an “abhorrence” the situation of a male lying with another male as with a woman.  Samuel said, “Philo explains that this is a statement that deals primarily with pedophilia and he gives many examples from Greek society how boys were often paraded around like women, under the tutelage of an older male adult.  He said this was what the Torah forbids; the reason that he said this was forbidden was a man has to be manly; to make a man womanly is degrading …. That approach might not fly in modern times, but his concern about the exploitation about children is definitely an important issue to bring up.”

Most rabbinical commentators in later periods did not address the problem of pedophilia at all, according to Samuel.  What little discussion there was seemed to wink at the problem, Samuel said.  “The rabbis (of the Talmud) did not have a concept of pedophilia, one of the shocking aspects of Talmudic history that frankly is very embarrassing,” he added.  “Philo stands head and shoulders above.”

On the issue of abortion, Philo definitely would have been on the “pro-life” side of the debate, rather than the “pro-choice” side, said Samuel.

“Philo had tremendous respect for prenatal life,” Samuel said. “He considered abortion to be immoral.  It is not clear whether he believed that life began at conception, but certainly in the last trimester of a fetus’s life, he said that the fetus is like a statue that has been prepared—only needs to be uncovered and exposed to the world.  Beautiful analogy.”

In contrast, others in the ancient world seemingly were unconcerned with the unborn babies.  “If a woman was accused of adultery, she would drink this potion that came from the earth of the sanctuary—and if she was guilty her stomach would explode,” Samuel said.  “So, if she were pregnant with another man’s child, she would die and the child would also.  That’s implied in Scripture,” Samuel said.

In some early rabbinic writings, he added, “If a woman is a murderess and is about to be condemned for that murder, but she is pregnant, the rabbis say you take a club and you smash her stomach even to the time till she is almost ready to deliver, to kill the baby.  Because the mother is so unhappy that the child is going to grow up without a parent; better for the child to die than to endorse such a sadness.  Rabbinic thinking!  If those rabbis had been familiar with Philo’s argument, he had turned that argument on its head.  He said, just as you are not allowed to slaughter a calf and its mother on the same day, this applies to animals, how much more so to human beings.  So, if you have a case where a woman is condemned, and she is about to give birth, you do not execute her with the child – that would be an act of murder.  That would be treating a human with less dignity than an animal with its young.  Therefore, you have to wait for the mother to give birth, nurse the child, and a later time execute the mother.”

Samuel added, “These discussions were really theoretical, the reason being that Rome did not allow Jews to practice the death penalty.”

Respect for all religions was a hallmark of Philo’s thinking, Samuel said.  “One of the laws in the Torah is that we are not allowed to curse God – and Philo understood this to mean not only are you not allowed to curse God; you are not allowed to curse the gods of other peoples.  Now when I was a yeshiva student many years ago, I remember how many of my friends in the Lubavitcher community would walk by a church and they would always spit on the sidewalk.  In fact, they spit whenever they mentioned idols in the Aleinu prayer, and even from the most Orthodox perspective that is considered a risqué and halachically scandalous behavior.  You don’t spit in a synagogue; it is considered inappropriate.”

Samuel’s first book was an outgrowth of his doctoral thesis at the San Francisco Theological Seminary.  The Lord is My Shepherd: The Theology of a Caring God was followed by five other books on diverse topics, and then this five-book series.  A workaholic, Samuel said he never lets a day go by without writing at least three pages and sometimes, if the juices are flowing, he might write 20.  He said that he has as many as 50 books in various stages of completion, with some of them likely to be published later this year or early in 2019.

Rabbi Israel Drazin, one of the most prolific writers on biblical topics with books to his credit about the Prophet Samuel, King David, King Solomon, Jonah, Amos, The Aramaic translation of the Bible known as the Targum Onkelos, and various other commentaries, has reviewed Rabbi Samuel’s work on Amazon, giving it a five-star rating.   “Until recently, it was Harry Wolfson’s 1962-1968 two-volume work Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that was considered the authoritative book on Philo of Alexandria, Egypt (ca. 20 BCE to about 50 CE),” Drazin wrote. “Today, because of the wealth of scholarly material contained in his five volumes and their presentation in a very readable manner, Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel’s books can now be considered the authoritative work on the great Greek Jewish philosopher.”

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via


Philo’s Commentary on Numbers & Deuteronomy will soon be released…

Yes, I have great news for everyone who has inquired when the last volumes of the Philo Torah commentary series will be released, the answer is hopefully within the next couple of weeks. In fact, I will also be releasing Philo’s Commentary on Deuteronomy, which I must confess is my favorite volume of the entire series. The rest of the Philo series from Genesis to Leviticus will soon be out as well, newly edited, along with brand new introductions and commentary selections, notes, and so on.

Here is what the new cover looks like: (Click below)


Rabbi Israel Drazin’s Review of Torah from Alexandria on Leviticus


An excellent introduction to an ancient philosopher

By Israel Drazin TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 20, 2015

Philo (about 20 BCE to about 50 CE) of Alexandria, Egypt, is one of Judaism’s great philosophers. The noted scholar Harry Wolfson wrote in his book Philo that Philo was the first Jewish philosopher who “contributed anything new” to Jewish-Greek philosophy. Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel offers readers a good introduction to this famous thought-provoking philosopher in this third volume in his series “Torah from Alexandria: Philo as a Biblical Commentator.” Samuel’s prior two volumes were on Genesis and Exodus. This one is on Leviticus. Samuel gives us an easy to read translation of Philo’s own words and adds extensive explanatory notes.
Philo’s philosophy incorporated the somewhat mystical views of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (about 428 to about 348 BCE). About forty books that Philo wrote still exist. They were not composed as a systematic philosophy, as is Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, who based his philosophy on Aristotle (384-322 BCE). Philo’s books are, in essence, a collection of intelligent sermons and commentaries in which he explains the Bible frequently from an allegorical perspective.
Philo was convinced that the Bible should be understood on two levels. The first level contains its literal or plain meaning, words mean what they say. The second is an underlying or allegorical layer, which requires that the alert intelligent reader go beyond the obvious and delve deeper into the text. Philo used allegory to interpret virtually everything in Scripture, including names, dates, numbers, and events. Maimonides also read Scripture on two levels, but his second level was rational, not as mystical as those of Philo, and he used far less allegory.
Philo taught that although parts of the Torah are not literally true, they should be understood metaphorically or allegorically, for they transmit truth. Unrealistic tales, such as a snake enticing Eve or Balaam’s donkey having a conversation with him, can be mined and understood by using the allegorical or metaphorical approaches. Thus, Philo states that the tales of creation, which are not true facts or even remotely real science, are parables with profound truthful life-essential significance below their false literal surface.
Samuel states that Philo’s ultimate aim in interpreting Leviticus is “to teach us how to instill virtue in our daily lives.” One of many instances is the law prohibiting the slaughter a mother animal and its young on the same day which teaches that even among animals a mother feels for its young, and we must treat all God’s creations with respect.
The following examples are only a few of the many Philo ideas contained in this book on Leviticus on just the subject of food laws:

Philo saw the teachings of moderation and self-control in many biblical laws. During the temple days, for instance, the Torah forbid the Israelites from even tasting any foods before separating the first fruits and bringing it to the temple, for this teaches temperance and self-control. The Torah forbids consuming certain animal fats because fat represents gluttony and self-indulgence. Animals in the air, land, and water that are fleshy, fat, and tasty, such as swine and fish that have no scales, are forbidden because they are likely to excite treacherous pleasures. Also, carnivorous animals that feed on other animals are proscribed with only domestic animals being permitted to teach Jews to be gentle, not plot evil, and treat others, Jews and non-Jews, humans and animals, humanely.
Philo goes deeper into this subject by reading the laws allegorically. Scripture gives two signs concerning the animals that may be eaten: they must have split hoofs and chew the cud. The split hoofs teaches that “the course of life is two-fold, one leading to wickedness and the other to virtue,” and we must renounce the first and never forsake the other. The chewing of cuds teaches that just as animals chew the cud slowly, softening it, and then allowing it to descend unhurriedly to the belly, so people must consider new ideas carefully and hold the idea in mind until it is fully understood.
Similarly, fish must have fins and scales which make the fish capable of navigating difficult waters. This teaches allegorically that humans should fight against the turbulence of self-indulgence and incorrect philosophies that lead people astray. Only two classes of birds may be offered as sacrifices, turtledoves and pigeons, because these are gentle birds. Similarly only three species of animals may be offered – cattle, sheep, and goats – because these animals are domestic, even a child could lead them. People are forbidden to eat dead animals torn by wild beasts because it is not fitting for people to share a feast with untamable beasts and become a fellow reveler in carnivorous activities and, besides, it may cause disease.
Leaven bread is banned in temple sacrifices as well as honey. Philo writes that leaven represents arrogance and honey is outlawed because a bee is not a kosher animal and, again, because sweetness and pleasure needs to be moderated.

Modern readers may not agree with every Philo interpretation, especially his overuse of allegory. Maimonides, for example, gave radically different rational reasons for the food laws. Philo’s view that only male animals could be sacrificed because “the female is imperfect” and overly passive, is certainly sexist, as Samuel notes. Samuel explains that Philo was influenced by the Greek misconceptions of women. But even when we disagree this does not detract in any way from learning Philo’s views and certainly not from Samuel’s interpretations of them, because the book teaches us new ideas, many clearly acceptable, and prompts readers to think.

Symbolism of the Breastplate Stones


Note: I wrote this back in 1988 and it probably needs a new revision. But for those who find such topics interesting, here it is for your enjoyment.

Q.  What were the types of stones used in Aaron’s breastplate? What were the reasons a particular stone represented a particular tribe?

A. Ibn Ezra in his commentary to Exodus 28, noted that we really have no way to positively identifying the stones that were set in the breastplate and that when Saadia translated these stones as he saw fit, and had no tradition to rely upon. Ibn Ezra’s point is very important, for anything we say about this subject is nothing more than conjecture. The problem is especially compounded when we consider that there is no agreement as to what tribe corresponded to the correct stone. In light of this, let’s wade our way through these murky waters and see how these stones have been identified. Some scholars have attempted to establish a relationship between the 12 stones in Aaron’s breastplate, the 12 months of the year, and the 12 signs in the zodiac; however, there is no evidence of this in Scripture. Precious stones are used in Scripture in a figurative sense, to signify value, beauty, durability. Philo of Alexandria felt that each stone correspond exactly to the temperament of each given tribe.

 The First Row of Stones:

Odem ‑‑sardius, or, ruby. Ex 39:10. The Hebrew odem, from adam, to be red, ruddy, seems to denote the ruby; as adam does in Persian a beautiful gem, of a fine deep red color, with a mixture of purple. Jb 28:18. Pr 3:15. 8:11. 20:15. 31:10. La 4:7. The Targum of Yonatan identifies this stone with the tribe of Rueben; some identify this stone with the tribe of Judah. [Note that Judah was known for his passionate nature, as was Rueben]

Pitdah ‑‑ is constantly rendered by the LXX. topadzion, and Vulgate, topazius, with which agrees Josephus. The topaz is a precious stone, of a pale, dead green, with a mixture of yellow, sometimes of a fine yellow; and hence called chrysolyte by the moderns, from its gold color. Job 28:19. According to Saadia Gaon, Kimchi, and Chizkuni this stone is most likely the emerald.  According to the Septuagint, pitdah is identified with the sardian ‑‑  a deep orange‑red chalcedony considered by some to be a variety of carnelian. The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabba 2:7 identify the Pitda with Simon, while some say it was the stone of Issachar.

Bareket ‑‑ is possibly a carbuncle, from the Hebrew word Bareketh, from barak, (lightning) to lighten, glitter, a very elegant gem, of a deep red color, with a mixture of scarlet. It has been suggested that possibly the breastplate stone was not green but of bluish‑ red color, in which case it may have been an almandine (garnet). Is 54:11, 12.. Saadia notes that this stone may well have been the yellow topaz, possibly a citrine. The Midrash identifies this stone with Gad, while others identify Bareket with Benjamin

The Second Row of Stones

Nofech ‑‑ Ex 28:18. The Targum, KJV, and Bahya identify this as the emerald, others would argue that the emerald was unknown in Mosaic times. This last opinion is debatable for emeralds were recently  rediscovered in Upper Egypt, at Mt. Zabarah. and in Cyprus, and Ethiopia.

Another alternative might be turquoise which was certainly mined in Egypt during Mosaic times. Chizkuni identifies this stone with the carbuncle, whereas the Septuagint renders nofech as coal. Some identify this stone with the tribe of Judah while others identify it with the tribe of Rueben.

Sapir ‑‑  Vulgate (Jerome’s Latin Bible, 390‑ 405 C.E..) translates this stone as sapphirus; Pliny describes sapphirus as “refulgent with spots like gold. It is also of an azure color, though sometimes, but rarely, it is purple; the best kind being that which comes from Media. In no case, however, is this stone transparent.”  However, there is ample reason to believe that the sapphire stone of today which is really the corundum, a stone that was not known in ancient times. Pliny 37:39 and Theophrastos, a Greek scholar were of the view that the sapphire of ancient times was really the lapis lazuli.  The Midrash identifies this stone with the tribe of Issachar, while other identify this stone with the tribe of Dan.

 Yahalom ‑‑  This stone has been identified as a rock crystal; clear and colorless gem,  a pearl,  or a bluish glass (considered valuable in very early times), or blue chalcedony, or perhaps even beryl. Ibn Ezra in his commentary notes that Yahalom is most likely a diamond because it has the ability to break up all other stones.  Its root word is according to Ibn Ezra derived from the Hebrew word holem which means “to smite” (Cf. Isa 41:7). Some translations of the Bible translate Yahalom as “diamond” which is incorrect for the diamond was not known before the Middle Ages. Moreover,  for the Biblical stone had a name engraved on it and the method of engraving a diamond was not invented till 2,000 or 3,000 years after the breastplate was made; nor were diamonds, if known at that time and place in history. The Midrash identifies this stone with the tribe of Zevulun, while others say it was Naphtali’s stone.

The Third Row of Stones:

Leshem‑‑ This stone might be jacinth, zircon; amber yellow or orange  The Septuagint renders it  as liguron . Other scholars identify it with aventurine, a quartz containing very fine crystals of hematite, limonite or mica, which sparkle when the light catches them. It has also been identified as  turquoise which is used in jewelry. This stone may have been a  tourmaline, or more definitely the red variety known as rubellite.  Rubellite is a hard stone, and used as a gem, and is sometimes sold for red sapphire. The Midrash associates this stone with the tribe of Dan because the city of Leshem was located in his tribe [Cf. Joshua 19:47].

She’voh‑‑‑  Variegated black and white agate; The Septuagint identifies this stone as  achatis. This  identification with agate is accepted by all scholars.  White‑gray agates were found in Egypt. This is a stone that assumes such a variety of hues and appearances it may  derive its name from the root shuv  (heb 7725), “to turn, to change”; and are capable of changing its appearance without end. Some identify Midrashic sources identify this stone with the tribe of Naphtali, while others suggest it was the stone of Asher or Menashe.

Achlamah  ‑‑‑ which the Septuagint renders as  ‘amethustos  the Greek word for without being drunk’ the Greeks believed that this stone was supposed to  prevent inebriation. This a gem generally is purple or violet in color. Pliny says that it was crimson, that there were four shades of that color and that it was translucent. Ibn Ezra writes that the amethyst was sometimes identified as the dream stone, for it was could induce dreams in anyone who wears it. [note that the word achlamah is related to the Hebrew word  for dream “cholem.” The Targum identifies this stone with the tribe of Gad or Issachar. If this is indeed the dream stone, then it seem logical to identify this stone with Joseph.

The Fourth Row of  Stones

Tarshish ‑‑beryl, a precious stone of a sea‑ green color. Emerald and aquamarine are two types of beryl. It may also be citrine quartz or green jasper; The Septuagint calls this  chrisolythos or  berullion; . In the Hellenistic period this name was applied to the topaz, a stone not known in the earlier periods. Now believed to have been identical with mother‑of‑ pearl. Jerome’s  Vulgate translates it as the hyacinthus. Beryl  is a transparent gem of a bluish‑green colour, found in the East Indies [Saadia, Kimchi and the KJV].  Only the green beryl was known and used in Egypt in Moses’ time, the aquamarine and the yellow and white beryls not being known. The name Tarshish is also the ancient Biblical name for Spain, and if this applies here, then we may assume that it is the yellow rock crystal or citrine quartz. known as “chrysolith” according to Pliny (Natural History, xxxvii. 43). This stone is identified with the tribe of Zebulon who dwelled by the sea (Bahya).

Shoham ‑‑ Onyx sardonyx; variegated red and white Onyx is a member of the agate family and is characterized by its non‑transparency and its parallel layers of alternating colors, as red and white, brown and white, black and white. The Vulgate translates it as the sardonyx, a red and white variegated gem. New English Bible renders shoham as “(red) carnelian.” which is frequently found in the desert. In the Book of Job, Job regarded God’s wisdom as a greater possession than even  costly onyx  (Job 28:16). The Targum identifies this stone with the tribe of Asher.

Yashfeh ‑‑  Jasper jasper; green ; the jasper stone was originally  carved by the Babylonians and was usually green and sometimes even transparent. The Greek and Latin jaspis, and has been found in excavations in ancient Judea and in the neighboring countries. This stone may possibly be the opal or jade or green quartz. The Midrash identifies this stone with the tribe of Naphtali or Benjamin.

According to Philo, Josephus, Maimonides, Rashi, the four rows was arranged according to the order of their birth, others suggest that the rows corresponded to they encamped in the wilderness (T.B. Yoma 73b, Saadia, and the Abravanel). According to the Minchat Chinuch, the rows were arranged vertically by the order of birth (cf. Kaplan’s Living Torah for more details). The purpose of the choshen (breastplate) was to remind the High Priest that he had to represent the Jewish people wherever he would go, and that he was their servant at all times.

I would like to make a few concluding comments about the purpose of these stones and why they were so important .Stones had a wide range of  meanings in the ancient world. They represented   indestructibility, constancy, the unyielding, and dominance. Many of the transparent shiny stones symbolically represented the synthesis of earthly matter bound up with the brilliance of spiritual.  These gems represented clarity and light, and were used by the High Priest when he meditated on the Urim ve Tumim.

At the beginning of this article, I pointed out that the twelve stones corresponded to the twelve signs of the Zodiac. There is also a stone for every month, and these are often featured in brooches inscribed with zodiacal signs portraying a person’s horoscope. According to Eliade, stones were adored by the ancients because they were believed to be instruments of spiritual action and vitality. These stones were believed by many peoples throughout history as carrying the charisma of the sun, the moon and the seven planets. Yellow and white stones bore the influence of the sun, blue stones were associated with the heavenly realm [Cf. the color of techeylet found in the Tzitzit symbolizing the heavens and the waters], red stones bore the influence of Mars and passion, Venus was associated with green stones such as the emerald, Saturn was characterized by black stones such as onyx and so on. These stones were used also as a weapon warding off the baneful influence of the evil eye.

Precious stones were believed to have certain curative powers. Abraham wore a precious stone, hanging from his neck, any sick person who gazed upon it was instantly healed (Bava Bathra 16b); cf. the pearl-bag worn by animals that contained a pearl for medicinal purposes. (Cf.Sanh. 68a and Rashi ad loc.). They were also believed to promote human passions and affections. According to Josephus mentions that the Essenes used precious stones for healing purposes (Wars 2:136) Beryl gives hope; emeralds brought wealth, carbuncle, energy and assurance; rubies and red agates were associated with love.

With regard to the tribes and their respective stones, we find in the Midrash

There were distinguishing signs for each prince; each had a flag and a different color for every flag, corresponding to the precious stones on the breast of Aaron… Reuben’s stone was odem and the color of his flag was red; and embroidered thereon were mandrakes. Simeon’s was pitdah and his flag was of a yellow (or green) color… Levi’s was bareqet and the color of his flag was a third white, a third black, and a third red… Judah’s was nofekh and the color of his flag was like that of the sky… Issachar’s was sappir and the color of his flag was black like stibium… Zebulun’s was yahalom and the color of his flag was white… Dan’s was leshem and the color of his flag was similar to sappir… Gad’s ahlamah and the color of his flag was neither white nor black but a blend of black and white… Asher’s was tarshish and the color of his flag was like the precious stone with which women adorn themselves… Joseph’s was shoham and the color of his flag was jet black… Benjamin’s was yashfeh and the color of his flag was a combination of all the 12 colors.[This Midrash was adapted from the Encyclopedia Judaica]


Bar Ilan University Review on — Torah from Alexandria: Genesis

Torah from Alexandria, Volume I: Genesis

Kodesh Press 2014

Edited by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel 

Reviewed by Rabbi Ari D. Kahn, Echoes of Eden on the Pentateuch 

A very new, very old book has been published recently. Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel has set out to perform the herculean task of translating Philo of Alexandria’s commentary on the Book of Genesis into smooth, readable English, presented in the order of the verses and chapters of the Torah. This volume is the first in a projected series on all five books of the Pentateuch.

 At the outset, I should make it clear that my limited knowledge of Philo’s philosophical milieu limits my ability to write a comprehensive review of Torah from Alexandria. I leave it to scholars well-versed in the Hellenistic Roman and Egyptian philosophical traditions to examine Rabbi Samuel’s efforts to compare and contrast Philo’s commentary with the philosophical trends of his age. Instead, I approached the material hoping to discover the Torah insights of an ancient Jewish philosopher, and to consider these insights in their historical and masoretic context. 

I was not disappointed. In addition to translating Philo’s writings, Rabbi Samuel explains the texts when necessary, often with the aid of references and notes, thus allowing the modern reader to access and understand Philo’s interpretation of the Torah. Even more importantly, through Torah from Alexandria we are able to reveal the underlying exegetical approach with which Philo explained the Torah to readers of his own generation. The relevance of his approach to our own generation is striking. 

In recent years, students of Tanach, especially among the religious Zionist community in Israel, have been engaged in a debate (some might characterize it as a battle) regarding authentic and legitimate interpretation of the sacred biblical text. The debate centers around two related points: First, to what extent is fidelity to classical rabbinic commentary requisite (or even desirable); and second, to what extent is it legitimate to interpret the text in a manner that implies that the heroes of the biblical narrative were less than perfect? This debate has come to be known as interpretation b’govah ha- einayim – looking biblical heroes in the eye, as opposed to gazing up at them as a mere mortal would view a titan. 

One maverick in the new school of Israeli interpretation, the late Rav Mordechai Breuer, was fond of saying that he reads the text just as the sages of old did — without the commentary of the sages. In other words, Rav Breuer’s insights were based upon an unfettered reading of the text itself, stripped of the layers of traditional rabbinic exegesis. Opponents of this approach decry the deconstruction of our spiritual forebears, denounce the abandonment of our traditional view of the forefathers and our accepted understanding of their behavior. According to the more traditional approach, looking biblical characters in the eye borders on heresy and undermines the very foundations of Jewish spirituality. According to this approach, deconstructing our spiritual heroes diminishes us all, and leaves us empty and bereft of role models. At the same time, discarding traditional rabbinic explanations of the biblical text casts a shadow on our masorah, subtly calling into question the centrality of teachings attributed all the way back to Moses and passed down to the sages of each subsequent generation.


With the help of Rabbi Samuel, we are now able to look back to the exegetical method used by Philo in Alexandria some two thousand years ago, and what we find may have important ramifications for our current debate.  In Torah from Alexandria, we find a biblical commentator whose work is remarkably in sync with rabbinic tradition — which is no small feat given that a good number of the interpretations he offers are found only in much later rabbinic writings. We must therefore assume that Philo, like the authors of those later rabbinic texts, recorded ideas and exegetical traditions that had previously been transmitted orally (or, alternatively, that these rabbinic interpretations originated in Alexandria). The masorah’s centrality and antiquity are clearly reinforced. 

Even more fascinating is the impact Philo’s approach should have on the govah ha’einayim debate. Philo proves to be a staunch supporter of the classical approach to biblical characters, immediately and unequivocally defending them and dispelling any possible negative interpretation of their behavior.  In situations where such “mainstream” commentaries as Nachmanides or Rabbi S.R. Hirsch find fault in the behavior of the matriarchs or patriarchs, Philo is quick to defend; in fact, there are many instances in which he inserts a virtuous spin on seemingly neutral situations .


For example:


  • ·         Abraham could have resolved the problem with Lot by force, but did not wish to humiliate him, and sought a peaceful resolution. (p. 156)
  • ·         When Abraham seems to complain to God that he has no children, Philo reads it as a virtue: “A servant must be direct and honest with his superior.” (p. 164)
  • ·         While Lot’s daughters’ behavior is “unlawful,” their intentions were “not without some merit.” (p. 199)
  • ·         Sarah suggested that Abraham have a child with Hagar; her motivations were “selfless and altruistic.” (p. 171)
  • ·         Sarah’s treatment of Hagar was “disciplinary, and not abusive, in nature.” (p. 174)
  • ·         Philo turns Abraham’s false claim that Sarah is his sister into a virtue, explaining that a person who speaks only the truth in all situations is “unphilosophical as well as an ignoramus.” (p. 154)
  • ·         Sarah’s demand that Hagar and Yishmael be banished was not motivated by spite or jealousy. It was a well-earned response to their having spread malicious rumors that Isaac was illegitimate child. (p. 206)
  • ·         Abraham acquiesces to his wife’s demand; this behavior always has “the best and happiest kind of outcome.” (p. 206)
  • ·         The expulsion of Yishmael is compared to the expulsion of Adam from the Garden of Eden: “Once the mind contracts folly, it becomes almost an incurable disease…their penchant for superficiality and mediocrity.” (p. 207)
  • ·         “The animus against Abraham stems from an envy and hatred of everything that is good.” (p. 209)
  • ·         The sacrifice of Isaac (whose name connotes joy) teaches us that “even joy must be subordinated to God.” (p. 210)
  • ·         Isaac was not misguided or mistaken in his love for Esau. Isaac’s love for Esau was compartmentalized or limited, conditional; he was attracted to Esau’s skill as a hunter, because Isaac himself sought to “hunt down his passions and keep them at bay.” (p. 233)
  • ·         Esau had always been a slave, and was destined to remain enslaved for all time – with or without the blessing Jacob took. By selling the birthright, Esau proved that he was a slave to his “belly’s pleasures.” (p. 233)
  • ·         When Jacob buys the birthright from Esau, it is an act of virtue intended to save his brother from rampant materialism that would bring about Esau’s downfall. (p. 234)
  • ·         Isaac wants to bless Esau because he sees that Esau is limited and lacking, while Jacob is perfect and does not need his blessing. (p. 240)
  • ·         Jacob should be admired for respecting both his parents and carrying out his mother’s instructions to the letter, rather than being vilified for taking Esau’s blessings through subterfuge. (p. 242)
  • ·         “Malicious people never tire of accusing Scripture of excusing Jacob’s deceit and fraud… subterfuge and maneuvering have their place in life…sometimes a general will make a threat of war, while he is actually working in the interest of peace.”  (p. 243) “A good man may do something that appears wrong, but [he] acts with noble intention.” (p. 245; also see p. 248)
  • ·         Simeon and Levy “acted as a vanguard of justice and fought to protect their family’s purity.” (p. 272)
  • ·         Joseph treats the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah as equals, hence drawing the ire of his other brothers. (p. 275)
  • ·         Jacob’s love for Joseph was not arbitrary favoritism. Rather, he loved Joseph because of his skills, his virtue, and his nobility. (p. 275)
  • ·         Regarding Tamar: “Virtue is subtle –sometimes she veils her face like Tamar.” (p. 284)
  • ·         Joseph was physically assaulted by Madame Potiphar, but never succumbed to her advances. (p. 287)
  • ·         Joseph does not seek revenge; he wants to see how the brothers will treat Benjamin, another son of Rachel. (p. 301) Joseph sees the entire episode as divine providence (p. 313).
  • ·         Even in prison, Joseph behaves virtuously toward all the other prisoners. (p. 288)
  • ·         Joseph does not gain personally from any of the wealth accrued in Egypt; rather, he is a dedicated civil servant. (p. 318f)
  • ·         Joseph completely forgave his brothers and never sought vengeance, not only out of respect for their father, but because of his love for his brothers. (p. 326)
  • ·         Jacob enters the palace and all those present are aware of his dignity. (p. 318) 

Philo proves to be a sensitive reader of the text – sensitive to the underlying philosophical issues as well as a staunch defender of Judaism. Perhaps because he lived among non-Jews, within the general society, he intuited that attacks on Abraham and Sarah are tantamount to attacks on the underpinnings of Judaism and, through a subtle process of anti-Semitism, on every Jew. Alternatively, he may simply have seen the patriarchs and matriarchs as spiritual giants – people whose thoughts and actions were far more elevated than those of common men, people who were far above the petty jealousies and foolish mistakes more cynical readers ascribe to them, people who actually were “larger than life.” Philo teaches us that in order to look at them at all, to see and understand them, to learn from them – we must look up.

 Rabbi Leo Samuel has done an outstanding service, both to Philo and to modern readers. In Torah from Alexandria, Philo’s ancient Torah commentary becomes readable and meaningful, exciting and contemporary. I look forward to future volumes.


Torah from Alexandria is now available on!

Dear friends,

It’s hard to believe that the birth of a concept I had when I was about 18, has finally come to fruition! The rest of the series is moving at warp speed and Exodus will be coming out sometime in November or possibly December. It looks to be a longer work, perhaps the longest of the series.

Leviticus will be out around Purim and Numbers will be out in the early spring of 2015. By summer of 2015, Deuteronomy will be out as well.

For anyone who has ever studied the weekly parsha with Rashi, Ramban, or Ibn Ezra, you will discover a new but long forgotten Jewish exegete–Philo of Alexandria.

Philo has a unique way of making the simple meaning of the Torah come alive! Volume 1 of Torah from Alexandria has lots of notes and comparisons between Maimonides and Philo, not to mention many other unique insights long forgotten by Jewish tradition. Arguably, Philo could be considered one of the very first Torah commentators of the 1st century. If nothing else, he certainly composed the first philosophical exposition of the Torah.