Bekhor Shor, Joseph ben Isaac

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BEKHOR SHOR, JOSEPH BEN ISAAC (12th century), northern French exegete, tosafist, and poet. Referred to as Joseph Bekhor Shor, he has been identified with Joseph b. Isaac of Orleans, an identification which has been proved despite the doubts of various scholars. The designation Bekhor Shor ("Firstling Bullock") derives from the expression applied to Joseph (Deut. 33:17). He was the pupil of R. *Tam, who esteemed him greatly and referred to him in terms of high praise. Abraham b. Joseph of Orleans, mentioned several times in tosafot, was apparently his son. Joseph's commentary on the Pentateuch, parts of which previously appeared in various publications, was issued in its entirety by Joseph Gad (1956–60), while excerpts from his commentary on Psalms have been published in Revue des Études Juives (vol. 58 (1909), 309–11). In his exegesis, he adopted his French predecessors' method of literal interpretation – that of Rashi, Joseph *Kara, and particularly Samuel b. Meir upon whom he largely based himself. Nevertheless, in many respects he pursued a new and original course, although in his efforts to produce novel interpretations his comments are sometimes rather strange and pilpulistic, particularly in the manner in which he relates passages to one another. He dwells at length on the biblical figures and investigates the motives for their actions but at times interprets these somewhat in terms of contemporary social conditions (Gen. 27:40). In many respects his exegesis is similar to that of the Spanish commentators, this being apparent in his efforts to explain away anthropomorphic expressions (Gen. 1:2; Num. 23:19); in defending the actions of the Patriarchs and rejecting any calumnies against them (Gen. 30:33); in interpreting miracles as almost natural phenomena (Gen. 19:26; Ex. 9:8); and in giving, to a greater extent than his French predecessors, a rational basis for the Commandments (Ex. 30:1; Lev. 19:27).

He pays little regard to grammar, nor is he as extreme as Samuel b. Meir in his homiletical comments, adding these occasionally alongside the literal interpretation (Gen. 3:24; Ex. 25:29). He makes use of gematria (Ex. 22:16), and at times incorporates in his comment a lengthy halakhic discussion of a passage, in these two respects being close to the exegetical method of the tosafists. He sharply opposes the allegorization of the Commandments, any neglect of which he vehemently assails (Lev. 17:13), adopting a similar attitude as regards the precepts of the tefillin and mezuzah (Deut. 6:9). This did not however prevent him from giving a literal interpretation of some passages contrary to the accepted halakhah (Ex. 23:19), which he naturally neither repudiates nor controverts. Joseph knew Latin, and both in speech and in writing refuted the christological interpretation of biblical passages, attacking in his comments both apostates and Christians, against whom he argued a great deal rejecting all attempts to find in the Bible allusions to Christian dogmas. He similarly repudiated their allegorical explanations that deny the validity of the Commandments. "Although they have translated the Bible from the holy tongue into the vernacular, the Lord has given them neither a heart to understand, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear" (Num. 12:18). In his commentary on Genesis and Exodus he adds at the end of each weekly portion a brief poem in which he expresses his hopes and those of the Jewish people. He also wrote piyyutim in the style of the German and northern French paytanim, describing in them the sorrows that afflicted his generation. Several of these were published by Habermann in Tarbiz (vol. 9, 1937–38); others have not yet appeared in print.

Joseph of Orleans, i.e., Bekhor Shor, is mentioned in the tosafot; four of his halakhic questions addressed to R. Tam are preserved in Sefer ha-Yashar, while excerpts of many others are quoted by earlier authorities.


Liber, in rej, 58 (1909), 307–14; N. Porges, Joseph Bechor Schor (Ger., 1908); S. Poznański (ed.), Perush al Yeḥezkel u-Terei Asar le-R. Eli'ezer mi-Belganẓi (1913), lv–lxxv; Urbach, Tosafot, 113–22; Abraham ben Azriel, Arugat ha-Bosem, ed. by E.E. Urbach, 4 (1963), index; G. Walter, Joseph Bechor Schor, Der letzte nordfranzoesische Bibelexeget (1890).

[Avraham Grossman]

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