Sunday, 26 February 2017


'Rashbam's commentary to Psalms' - which may not have been written by Rashbam.



One of the most enigmatic rabbinic personalities to emerge from the late 1700’s must be R. Isaac Satanow (1732-1804).

He was a prolific writer and publisher of seforim. HebrewBooks has about 16 of his works in their database, but he wrote many more. He is referenced numerous times in at least 33 other seforim as an apparently authoritative source. He also received approbations for some of his works from numerous respected rabbis of his generation.

Yet he is regarded by many as a supreme charlatan.

It is not the purpose of this essay to determine whether that accusation is true or not, but rather to simply explore his fascinating story.


R. Isaac Satanow was born in Sataniv (then in Poland, now the Ukraine)[1] in 1732. From a historical perspective, this would place him around the time of the Baal Shem Tov and the Vilna Gaon.

The old Synagogue in Satanow (Picture from 1910)

Picture taken ninety-nine years later in 2009

As a young man, he left his village and travelled to Berlin. There he joined the yeshiva of R. Daniel Itzig[2] where he studied together with the Pri Megadim[3] and R. Tzvi Hirsch Berlin (who later became the Chief Rabbi of Berlin and who is also known for his glosses in the Vilna Edition of the Talmud[4]).

R.Tzvi Hirsch Berlin's glosses to the Vilna Shas (mentioning in parenthesis that he was a grandchild of the Chacham Tzvi).

During this time, R. Satanow was appointed as director of the printing press of the Chevrat Chinuch Ne'arim (Society for the Education of the Youth) which was probably where he acquired his knowledge and skills for his later publications.

R. Isaac Satanow's Siddur, Vayetar Yitzchak, published by Chevrat Chinuch Ne'arim 1785


R. Satanow wrote profusely on matters of Jewish law, lore and Hebrew grammar. He is regarded as an expert in the latter and some halachic works refer to him (some with respect and others with disdain). 

The Pri Megadim quotes him often and confirms that they both studied R. Yehudah haLevi’s Kuzari and Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim while they were together in yeshivah. R. Satanow even wrote a commentary on  Moreh Nevuchim entitled Moreh leMoreh. He additionally published an edition of R. Yehudah haLevi’s Kuzari with his own commentary on it:

1795 Berlin KUZARI with commentary by R. Isaac Satanov.
He was also drawn to mysticism, and around 1784 he travelled to Galicia where he printed the kabbalistic work Eitz Chaim of the Ari Zal.


His genius and scholarly contribution, however, were clouded by widespread allegations that he occasionally falsely claimed he was publishing classical writings, while they were, in fact, his own forgeries. The commentaries to these fake texts, however, were his own.

One of his most famous forgeries is said to be the ‘Rashbam’s Commentary to Psalms’ (pictured above). 

Although he writes on the front page that the original manuscripts of this commentary were found in archives in Berlin (and some do not dispute this) - this book is regarded as an absolute forgery and is considered to have been written entirely by R. Isaac Satanow instead of by Rashbam centuries earlier. 

It appears that he was exposed by a critic, who used the pseudonym Heyman, who produced a sixteen-page criticism of both his personality as well as his misleading literary practices.[5]

The following is an extract from R. Matityahu Strashun’s[6] Likutei Shoshanim which points out that that this commentary to Psalms is only ‘ascribed’ to Rashbam:

R. Isaac Satanow’s publication of the alleged ‘Rashbam’s Commentary on Psalms’ prompted R. David Rosin to ridicule him by referring to his (biblical) name Isaac - which means: ‘whoever hears this will laugh’.

R . Satanow’s study partner, the Pri Megadim, had this to say in reference to another of his works entitled Mishle Asaf, regarding which he was accused of the very same misrepresentation.[7]:

 “I do not really know to whom to ascribe these sayings - it may be that the publisher himself (Satanow) has composed them - for I know him to be a plagiarist. He, however, differs from the rest of that class in this respect: - they plagiarise the works of others and pass them for their own, while he plagiarises his own works and passes them for those of others.”[8]

These allegations of forgery did not endear R. Isaac Satanow to the rabbinic world. So much so that in another published work entitled Cheshbon haNefesh by R. Mendel Lefin also of Satanow, there is a warning on the title page; ‘Do not confuse this author with his contemporary Isaac of Satanow’!

R. Dovber Schneuri (1773-1827) the second Rebbe of Chabad known as the Mitteler Rebbe, quoted his father as having referred to R. Satanow as ‘Keter deNogah’, a type of evil.

In an interesting twist of irony, today the Chabad Library is the custodian of a number of books by R. Isaac Satanow.

These include important issues such as his: ‘notes on prayer and blessings’ as well as his teachings ‘on the essence of perfect guide one in this world and the next’. 

As can be seen, the Chabad Library stamp lays claim to these and many more of R. Satanow's publications.


Notwithstanding all the negative comments and disclaimers, R. Satanow managed to garner a number of approbations from some very respected rabbis. [Including;  R. Tzvi Hirsch Chief Rabbi of Berlin.]

The following list of approbations attesting to his scholarship and integrity reads like a ‘Whose Who’ and is from his Sefat Emet. (Apparently, there is no evidence that he ever forged approbations!):

Then, to add to the confusion, Arugat haBosem 3, mentions R. Isaac Satanow as a seemingly reliable source in reference to Selichot texts:


In the Prayer for Rain, there is some debate as to whether the correct pronunciation for ‘rain’ is ‘gashem’ or ‘geshem‘.

In R. Satanow’s Siddur, known as Va’Yetar Yitzchak, he used the expression ‘gashem’, and some people took him seriously from a grammatical (and halachic) point of view.[9]

However - as a form of protest against R. Satanow  - others felt we should not use his suggested term ‘gashem’ even though they conceded that he may technically have been correct. They suggest we use 'geshem' (incorrectly) instead.

In a Halachic Responsum on this very issue, Dayan Yisrael Fisher writes that it would be ‘impropper’ to follow such punitive reasoning, notwithstanding the fact that he was from the Enlightenment Movement:

Amongst other things, the responsum states that the Pri Megadim quoted many times from the Siddur of R. Isaac Satanow - and also mentions that the Pri Megadim was one of ten leaders of that generation who gave their approbations to R. Satanow (referring to his Sefat Emet, as we pointed out above).

Then, in another work, R. Satanow is also referenced as advocating 'gashem', except that in this instance, his name is not mentioned. He is simply referred to as 'someone from Berlin, who published a siddur called Vayetar Yitzchak.'

From Tzlotah deAvraham, by R. Avraham Landau, 1789-1875.

[I don't know if I'm imagining it but when I looked at the online version of his Siddur, the page referring to 'gashem' was missing and all I could see was the next page beginning with:

It was one word out. Perhaps it was just an incomplete text?]

Also, the pronunciation of the opening words of the kaddish, ‘Yitgadeil veYitgadeish’ is said to be in accordance with R. Satanow’s  explanation of the grammar.[10]



What struck me was that it would be unfair to assume that R. Isaac Satanow was a lone maverick in terms of some of his apparent forgeries. It seems as if this may have been a pattern which was relatively common practice for those times. For example, R. Saul Berlin - the son of one of R. Satanow’s study partners in yeshiva, R. Tzvi Hirsch - is similarly suspected of having forged the famous halachic work, Besamim Rosh, by claiming it was written centuries earlier by the Rosh. See KOTZK BLOG 96.

R. Saul Berlin's allegedly fraudulent Besamim Rosh, with his own commentary Kasa deHarsena.

(It would be fascinating to understand why R. Saul Berlin 'got away' with his alleged forgery of Besamim Rosh, whereas R. Isaac Satanow was treated much harsher by history for effectively the same thing.)


In Dayan Fisher’s responsum where he mentions the approbations from “ten of the greatest (sages) of the generation”, he concludes “What more can I say to that.” Also, his choice of words is interesting in that writes; "even if it is true that he was a maskil," - which implies that he may not have bought into the notion that R. Satanow was a fraud.

Another point that must be made in the interest of fairness is that R. Satanow openly acknowledged in his publication of Rambam's Commentary to Psalms that:

"I advise that the manuscript from which I copied was eaten through, at timed half leaves, other times entire leaves. Therefore the reader should be aware that most of the commentary is mine. And the rule is that if the reader sees something good, he should attribute it to the rabbi (Rashbam), - and if an error, it is my error."

In light of this clear acknowledgement, it does seem unfair to label him as a forger.


Then there is the view that R. Isaac Satanow’s motivation for some of his misrepresentations may not have been malicious or sinister, but simply the result of his well-known sense of wit and humour. According to Israel Zinberg: “The frivolous Satanow, however, did not have the responsibility requisite to a serious scholar...He derived great pleasure from the fact that he deceives the naive reader and led him by the nose.”[11]  


Others contend that he sincerely believed that the only way Judaism would survive into the future would be if it adopted a more rational approach to faith.[12] 
R. Satanow wrote; “There is no belief or knowledge in the Mosaic religion which contradicts reason.[13]
In this sense, although he may have been an over-zealous and misguided religious rationalist, he may not necessarily have had malicious intent.


On the other hand, some would disagree and claim that he was simply an agent of the Haskalah Movement - and being one of its founding architects - he intended to use his intimate knowledge of halachic Judaism to undermine Orthodoxy. In R. Satanow’s own words: ’It is appropriate for the healer of souls to agree with them [the fools] and then to transform them from one extreme to the other.’[14]

So who, then, was R. Isaac Satanow?

How does one interpret all these paradoxes and define this unfathomable rabbinic personality whose legacy vacillates between responsa and ridicule?  

Was he a genius in the literary style of his times...or a sage...a extreme rationalist...a devious manipulator – or somewhere in-between?



The Age of Haskalah: Studies in Hebrew Literature of the Moshe Pelli.

Isaac Satanow: Metamorphosis of Judaic Values, by Moshe Pelli. Hebrew Studies Vol. 18 (1977).

Renewing the Past, Reconfiguring Jewish Culture: From Al-Andalus to the Haskalah, by Adam Shear.

The Berlin Haskalah, by Israel Zinberg.

[1] Interestingly, the settlement of Sataniv had a synagogue (pictured above) which in the late 1600’s, was built like a fortress to protect the Jews from attacks by the Cossacks.
[2] Also known as Daniel Jaffe. It should also be pointed out the Jaffe/Itzig, in addition to his yeshiva, also founded a significant haskalah school in Berlin.
[3] R. Joseph ben Meir Teomim.
[4] The glosses appear under the title of R. Tzvi Hirsch Berlin. He was also the father of the (in)famous R. Saul Berlin who allegedly forged the great halachic work,  Besamim Rosh. See KOTZK BLOG 96.)

[5] See: The Age of Haskalah: Studies in Hebrew Literature of the Enlightenment, by Moshe Pelli, p. 153. 

[6] Son of the Rashash (of Europe).
[7] It must be said though, that others did regard this works a genuine and ancient piece of writing.
[8] According to Moshe Pelli, Satanow said this statement about himself. See Age of Haskalah, ibid. p.155
[9] R. Satanow wrote in the style of Biblical and classical Hebrew but he wanted the language to develop a modern style and he encouraged people to introduce newly coined words so that Hebrew could be used in a progressive society. See his Iggeret Beit Tefillah.
[10] See his siddur, Va’Yetar Yitzchak (Vienna, 1815) p.p. 47- 48. (As an aside, the Vilna Gaon gives the reason for the ‘tzeirei’ as being that these first two words are Hebrew while the rest of the kaddish is Aramaic.)
[11] The Berlin Haskalah, by Israel Zinberg, p. 191. He is, furthermore, sometimes criticised for his prolific publications which appear to be rushed, haphazard and unprofessional.
[12] This would explain his obsession with the Kuzari, where (in his commentary he explains that) even after the King converts to Judaism, he continues his rational and philosophical investigation of Judaism in order to strengthen his faith.

See: Renewing the Past, Reconfiguring Jewish Culture: From Al-Andalus to the Haskalah, by Adam Shear, p.76.

[13] See Satanow; Holech Tamim (Berlin 1795) p. 6b.
[14] As Professor Moshe Pelli writes; “Satanow is aware of the pitfalls of presenting his readers with completely new and revolutionary ideas. His objective here is not to shock or surprise his reader, but rather to teach and persuade. Therefore, he introduces an idea in a manner acceptable to the reader; at first it appears as though Satanow agrees with the traditional view. However he soon does an about-face and expresses his critical and at time heretical views in the open.”  
See: See Age of Haskalah, ibid. p.156, by Moshe Pelli.


  1. "Notwithstanding all the negative comments and disclaimers, R. Satanow managed to garner a number of approbations from some very respected rabbis. [Including; R. Chaim Halberstam of Sanz (1793-1876) the founder of the Sanzer Chassidic dynasty, also known as the Divreie Chaim; and R. Tzvi Hirsch Chief Rabbi of Berlin.]"

    The haskama is from Reb Chaim Sanzer (1st) Rosh Chacmei Brod. The date ans signature are not from Reb Chaim Halberstam Sanzer Rav.

    1. Thank you for that correction. Have ammended text accordingly.
      You are absolutely correct. This Sefat Emet was published in 1987 and the R. Chaim of Sanz I referenced was only born in 1793. Much appreciated.

    2. Should read: This Sefat Emet was published in 1787

  2. Kedem-auction sold a manuscript. Here is their description:
    Tehillim with the Fake Rashbam Commentary - Berlin, 1794-1797
    Tehillim, with the Rashbam [Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir] commentary "found in a manuscript in the library of His Majesty, the King". With glosses by the grammarian Yitzchak HaLevi [Satanow]. Berlin, 1794-1797. Printed by "Chevrat Chinuch Ne'arim".
    This commentary which is attributed to the Rashbam was apparently forged by the publisher Rabbi Yitzchak Satanow. At the end of the book the publisher half-admits to this and writes: "…I now advise that the manuscript from which I copied the commentary was eaten through, at times half-leaves and sometimes entire leaves, therefore the reader should be aware that most of the commentary is mine…and the rule is that if the reader sees something good he should attribute it to the rabbi (Rashbam), and if an error – it is my error…".

    In an analysis of the authorship of sefer Tehillim blog by Marc B. Shapiro writes:
    According to Rashbam, Commentary to Pesahim 117a s.v. Yehoshua, R. Yose ha-Gelili was of the opinion that the Hallel in Psalms (Ps. 113-118) originated with Mordechai and Esther, i.e., in the Persian period.[16]

    In Rashbam’s commentary to Tehillim (which we can expect ArtScroll to censor if it ever publishes it), he points to psalms which were composed during the Babylonian Exile and also states that other psalms were written after Ezra’s return to Jerusalem. For example, Psalm 122:3 states: “Our feet are standing within thy gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem, that art builded as a city that is compact together.” According to Rashbam, these references to Jerusalem must date from after the return from exile.[17]"