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Book Reviews of Baalei HaTosafot IV

Parts I, II, III

Probably one of the more critical reviews of Baalei haTosafot is that penned by Irving Agus in JQR 46,4, April 1956. While also pointing out the importance of Urbach’s work, Agus’s review is almost entirely a scathing criticism of the book. It should be pointed out that Urbach had previously reviewed Agus’s Teshuvot Baalei haTosafot (Kiryat Sefer 30, pp. 200-205=Mechkarim beMada’ei haYahadut, pp. 771-777) and had some harsh criticism for a number of his interpretations. Agus’s criticism of Urbach’s book focuses on two points. The first is that Urbach often brings large excerpts from texts, often without interpreting them, and when he does interpret them and attempt to draw historical conclusions, they are more often than not wrong.

Indeed, it is in the field of genealogy and history of literature, that Urbach has made valuable contributions. When, however, he attempts to appraise the literature itself, to interpret the text of his material, or to delve into the historical significance of the legal or personal statements made by the Tosaphists, he often meets with difficulty. In order to surmount this difficulty, he resorts to lengthy, direct quotations, allowing the sources to speak for themselves, without any attempt on his part at rigorous, scientific interpretation of these quotations; he merely makes very vague introductory remarks…

The greater part of the book is thus filled with lengthy quotations loosely strung together with hardly a unifying thought or logical connection between them…Thus he occasionally does express an opinion on a text, an opinion that requires understanding of the text itself, and he thereby reveals that he has had difficulty with it.

Hardly kind words to say the least. Agus often combines together a feeling of appreciation at the work that Urbach produced with extreme criticism.

One reads this large book, the result of enormous labor and concentration (it took the author 22 years to write it), and one looks in vain for an illuminating idea, for an inspired thought that would show deep historical comprehension.


Urbach may do very well as an historian of genealogy and literature, but he is no historian in the broader sense of the word; he can not evaluate correctly political, social and economic factors in the maelstrom of history nor the force and scope of historical movements and development.

Agus ends by emphasizing that in no way should people not use the book, just that they should be aware of its problems and use it with caution.

One Response to “Book Reviews of Baalei HaTosafot IV”

  1. 1
    Menachem Mendel:

    If memory serves, other books by Agus were also greeted with harsh criticism by some.
    andy | 02.08.07 – 8:15 pm | #

    Agus’s books were criticized too, but his comments here are right on the mark.
    Do you know anyone who has read through Ba’ale ha-Tosafot cover to cover? It doesn’t provide insights into broader themes in tosafist literature, like one finds in Haym Soloveitchik’s work. I’ve found this to be a problem with many works on the Tosafists. (Too many works on Tosafists read like [very useful] collections of things off of index cards with little broad insight into the Tosafist oevre. Kanarfogel’s works come to mind.)
    a | 02.08.07 – 10:21 pm | #

    I did go through the arduous task of reading it cover to cover years ago (I am too anal not to)but remember very little. It is a collection of data without too much analysis or insight. It is however a very useful reference book.
    david g. | Homepage | 02.09.07 – 5:19 am | #

    I remember seeing that someone recently wrote a thesis on R’ Tam. If and when it is published, we’ll see if progress has been made.
    andy | 02.09.07 – 3:33 pm | #

    Rami Reiner who now teaches at Ben-Gurion U. wrote an M.A. and Ph.D. on Rabbeinu Tam. I haven’t read them but he recently wrote a review of Hayyim Soloveitchik’s Yeinam, Manuscriptboy mentioned it, and he claimed that it was the R”i who might have been more responsible than Rabbeinu Tam for some of the more innovative hiddushim of the Tosafot. Hopefully some interesting things are in the pipeline.
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 02.12.07 – 6:47 am | #




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