Image of Me’ir Leib ben Yeḥi’el Mikha’el (Malbim), with a stamp of Jewish scholar and librarian Khaykl Lunski on reverse. Lithograph by Moyshe Dantsigerkrohn, Vilna, 1885. Folk prints of revered scholars and rabbis were produced for sale to pious Jews, for display in homes and yeshivas. (YIVO)

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Me’ir Leib ben Yeḥi’el Mikha’el

(Weisser; 1809–1879), rabbi and biblical commentator, known by the acronym Malbim. Born in Volochisk (in Volhynia), Me’ir Leib was a child when his father died, after which he studied under the local rabbi, Mosheh Leib Horowitz. Married at 14, Me’ir Leib divorced four years later, leaving a son (of whom little is known except that he attended Moscow University) and daughter (Freida, who married Eliyahu Heilpern of Vilna). After the trauma of divorce, Malbim immersed himself in rabbinic scholarship, and in 1834 traveled throughout Europe—visiting Pressburg, Trieste, Amsterdam, and Breslau—to publicize his first halakhic work, Artsot ha-ḥayim (1837; on , Oraḥ ḥayim), among the prominent rabbis of his day.

In 1837, the recommendation of Shelomoh Zalman Tiktin of Breslau secured Malbim his first post, as rabbi of Wreschen (near Posen), where he married a young widow, Ḥayah, daughter of the wealthy businessman Feivel Opochinsky of Luntshits (Łęczyca). In 1839, he published Artsot ha-shalom, a collection of nine sermons, and continued work on the second volume of Artsot ha-ḥayim (published in 1860). Frustrated by his meager salary and turbulent relationship with the community in Wreschen, Malbim became rabbi of the larger town of Kempen in 1841, where he served for 17 years, becoming known as “the Kempener.”

Since the Polish towns of Wreschen and Kempen had been incorporated into Prussia, Malbim learned German in order to earn Prussian citizenship. Thus equipped, he read widely in the literature of the day and showed special interest in Kantian philosophy (the basis of his treatise on logic, Yesode ḥokhmat ha-higayon, published posthumously in Warsaw in 1900, though some question Malbim’s authorship of this work). Perhaps because Talmud study was losing appeal to Jewish youth, Malbim shifted his scholarly emphasis to Hebrew language and poetry and scripture, favorite disciplines of the Haskalah.

Yet Malbim vehemently opposed religious reform, expressing his sentiments in his publications, primarily his biblical commentaries. His first commentary, on the Book of Esther (1845), was followed by one on Isaiah (1849), with a methodological introduction. His polemical intent particularly emerges in “Ayelet ha-shaḥar”—the preface to Ha- veha-mitsvah (1860), a commentary on Leviticus and Sifra’—wherein Malbim condemns the 1844 Brunswick Reform Synod and its conception of scripture (“written law”) as an ancient mythological text, with rabbinic interpretation (oral law) constituting a spurious distortion. Advancing a project initiated in Ya‘akov Mecklenberg’s Pentateuch commentary, Malbim formulates 613 grammatical principles to justify rabbinic halakhic exegesis in Sifra’ and elsewhere. To demonstrate the sanctity of scripture, Malbim devised a unique hermeneutic that he ambitiously applied to the entire Bible, resulting in one of the monumental Jewish scholarly achievements of the era: a wide-ranging, comprehensive commentary (published in full during the years 1867–1876 in Warsaw) that infuses traditional Hebrew linguistic, philosophical, and mystical learning with contemporary concepts from science, psychology, epistemology, logic, and metaphysics.

Although Kempen provided congenial conditions for his scholarship, in 1858 Malbim accepted an invitation from Bucharest to become chief rabbi of Romania. Whereas the established communal structure in Wreschen and Kempen had enabled Malbim to subdue the incipient Reform factions there, Jewish legal status was in flux in the newly formed state of Romania. In the 1850s, a group of Jews led by Iuliu Barasch (“the Mendelssohn of Romanian Jewry”) had fought for Jewish emancipation and Jewish cultural advancement through secular schools and through the establishment of a choral temple with an organ and choir. Upon his arrival, Malbim sought to bolster Orthodox observance (by setting kashrut standards, building an ‘eruv [boundary permitting Jews to carry on the Sabbath], establishing a Hebrew press in Bucharest, popularizing Torah study, and preaching Sabbath observance) and took drastic steps to thwart the Reform movement by withdrawing funding from modern schools, halting the choral temple’s construction, and even prohibiting kosher butchers from selling to those who did not observe the Sabbath. The influential reformers attacked Malbim as a fanatic and, turning to the government, accused him of impeding Jewish assimilation into society, of being unpatriotic, and, most seriously, of blaspheming Christianity in his commentaries. The government responded in 1862 by banning Malbim from preaching, removing his title of chief rabbi, and withdrawing the Bucharest Jewish community’s authority to raise taxes and manage its own affairs.

Malbim’s family life during this period was unsettled, as Aharon, the only child from his second marriage, died in childhood, and Ḥayah, suffering from depression, behaved erratically, spent beyond the family’s means, and maligned her husband openly. In the public sphere, Malbim benefited from the support of Orthodox Bucharest Jews who petitioned the government to lift the ban on his preaching, an opportunity Malbim took to condemn his opponents publicly. Continuing battles ultimately led to his imprisonment and to his expulsion from Romania in 1864. Unwilling to capitulate, Malbim traveled to Constantinople to sue the Romanian government, demanding reinstatement and back wages; he received support from Sir Moses Montefiore and from the Prussian consulate, which protested his mistreatment as a Prussian national. He also traveled to Paris to enlist the help of Adolphe Crémieux (president of the Alliance Israélite Universelle), who sent a protest letter directly to the Romanian ruler, Alexandru Cuza. Malbim won reparations on condition that he officially resign as rabbi of Romania.

After six months in Paris (where in 1865 he published, in Ha-Levanon, a versified autobiography detailing his Romanian tribulations), Malbim returned to Luntshits as a private scholar, supported by an inheritance left by his recently deceased father-in-law. But within a few years the family business that Ḥayah managed with a dishonest partner failed, forcing Malbim to return to the rabbinate. His contentious personality made maintaining any steady post difficult, as he clashed not only with reformers and maskilim, but also with Hasidim suspicious of his philosophical bent. In 1869, he became rabbi of Kherson (Ukraine); in 1870 he returned to Luntshits as its rabbi. He served in Mogilev (Russia; mod. Mahilyow, Belarus) from 1872 to 1875; and his final post was in Königsberg (Kaliningrad) from 1875 to 1879. He died in Kiev in 1879 en route to another rabbinic post in Kremenchug (Ukraine).

Malbim’s chief legacy, the richly detailed biblical commentary that has been reprinted numerous times, embodies the tensions between his traditional Talmudic background and his eclectic, self-taught modern learning. Applying the ideology articulated in Mashal u-melitsah (1867), his versified allegorical drama that renders wisdom subservient to piety, Malbim educes Scripture’s profound wisdom by projecting nineteenth-century science and philosophy—from new discoveries in medicine and astronomy to Kantian epistemology—onto the biblical text. Aiming to offer an intellectually viable traditional alternative to modern critical biblical scholarship (embraced, e.g., in Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur), Malbim, a fine Hebraist, employed a peshat (linguistic-contextual) methodology and accepted some modern views—for example, that the early Genesis stories were intended to combat ancient mythology and that many psalms are post-Davidic. Yet his commentary largely retains the characteristics of rabbinic exegesis. He interprets the Song of Songs allegorically rather than as a literal love lyric; he regularly reads Talmudic into biblical dialogues; and, following a time-honored medieval tendency, he calculates, in his commentary on Daniel, the dates for the Messiah’s arrival (1868), for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple (1925), and for the resurrection of the dead (2003).

Malbim’s most remarkable hermeneutical achievement is the consistent, rigorous application of his principle that “in the poetry of the prophets, there is no husk devoid of interior, body without soul, clothing without a wearer, language devoid of a lofty idea, saying within which wisdom does not dwell, for the spirit of the living God is in all the words of the living God” (from the introduction to his commentary on Isaiah)—this being his adaptation of the midrashic “omnisignificance” doctrine, to combat the modern critical tendency to regard many features of scripture as mere literary flourish. Though medieval exegetes such as Avraham ibn Ezra, Maimonides, and David Kimḥi had employed similar literary principles, Malbim believed that they diminished the sanctity of scripture. Rejecting the concept of “synonymous parallelism”—that is, in biblical verse, the repetition of an idea in different words for poetic purposes—Malbim manifested a sensitivity to nuance and philological acumen, along with extensive scientific and philosophical knowledge, in resourcefully infusing every biblical word with religious, ethical, or conceptual significance.

In the 1950s, the biblical scholar M. H. Segal dismissed Malbim’s commentary as a product of “the ghetto” because of its Talmudic perspective. But developments in biblical scholarship later in the twentieth century—informed by literary theories that favor nuanced “close readings” (as opposed to the older formalist poetics) and a fresh conception of biblical parallelism as a vehicle for expressing meaning—have generated new appreciation for Malbim’s minutely discriminating attention to the language of scripture.

Suggested Reading

Mordechai Z. Cohen, “‘The Best of Poetry . . . ’: Literary Approaches to the Bible in the Spanish Peshat Tradition,” Torah U-Madda Journal 6 (1995–1996): 15–57; Amos Frisch, “Parshanuto shel ha-Malbim la-Mikra,” Maḥanayim 4 (1992/93): 370–379; Jacob Geller, Ha-Malbim: Ma’avako ba-haskalah uva-reformah be-Bukarest (Lod, Isr., 2000); James L. Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History (New Haven, 1981), pp. 287–292; Noah Rosenbloom, Ha-Malbim: Parshanut, filosofyah, mada‘ u-mistorin be-khitve ha-Rav Me’ir Lebush Malbim (Jerusalem, 1988).