Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki – Rashi

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (1040-1105), known by the acronym Rashi, was one of the major commentators on the Bible, and the most important commentator on the Talmud.

Introduction

The House of Rashi - from JewishHistory.org

Rashi was born in Troyes, France, and received most of his Judaic education in yeshivot in Germany. In addition to his breadth of knowledge in Judaism, Rashi was a “man of the world” – he was fluent in a number of languages and had an extensive knowledge of agriculture, commerce and various trades.

Rashi also established ties with Jewish communities in Germany (Ashkenaz), as well as with the surrounding Christian society – rulers, traders and members of the Church. This familiarity with the world around him is reflected in his commentaries on the Bible and on the Babylonian Talmud, which include thousands of words and terms in Old German and Old French, associated with the lifestyle of his times. The yeshiva that Rashi established in Troyes was innovative and open, in comparison with the more conservative Ashkenaz yeshivot, and it attracted many students. The innovative side of the yeshiva lay in the fact that discussion within the Beit Midrash was more democratic and critical than in the past.

Rash was also a linguist and philologist, a leader and halachic authority. He was a key figure in Ashkenaz Jewry, and his influence has spread beyond his own times and community to the whole of the Jewish world. Rashi died at the age of 65, but his burial place is not known.

Life and Character

Woodcut portraying Rashi, 1539. From Wikimedia Commons.

Rashi was born in the city of Troyes, the principal town of the province of Champagne in France. He married at the age of 18, and had three daughters. With his family he moved to Worms in Germany, where he entered the yeshiva headed by Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar – a leading disciple of Rabbenu Gershom (referred to as Meor Hagolah – “Light of the Exile”). In the yeshiva, Rashi acquired a thorough familiarity with the Talmud, as well as extensive knowledge of the life of the wider world, since the Beit Midrash in Worms attracted young students from Jewish families in Germany and France, whose fathers were involved in international commerce.

Why was it important to tell us that Rashi not only studied Jewish religious texts, but was also exposed to knowledge of the wide world that was not specifically related to Judaism?

 


Later Rashi moved to Mayence (Mainz), where he became familiar with other aspects of Ashkenazi tradition, in the area of Jewish law and the study of Talmud. The influence of the Beit Midrash in Mainz on Rashi was crucial.

He returned to Troyes, and although he did not fill any public office in the community, he quickly became known for his breadth of knowledge, and became one of the halachic authorities there. Many turned to him with difficult questions in Jewish law, or sought his advice. Like many of the residents of the region, he made his living from growing grapes and producing wine.

Sometime later Rashi established a Torah study circle in Troyes. His sons-in-law played a key role in it, and this helped transform the study circle into a major yeshiva, which attracted students from the communities of Northern France. Because of the yeshiva, Troyes became a major center for French Jewry from the 11th century onwards. Rashi’s yeshiva attracted scholars not only from all parts of France and Germany, but even from as far as Bohemia and Russia. In 1096, when the yeshivot of the Rhineland were destroyed during the First Crusade, the yeshiva in Troyes was even more significant, becoming the most important center of Torah in Germany and France.

Map of Troyes area.

Like many of the scholars of Germany and France, Rashi also wrote piyyutim, liturgical poems, of which seven have survived. These piyyutim reflect an awareness of the suffering of the Jews, apparently on the background of the First Crusade.

Demand revenge for the insult of your pious ones /
and the blood-letting of your scholars
at the hand of the illegitimates [Christians] /
the destroyers of your students
who tore the parchment [of the Torah scrolls] /
and stepped on its writing
and with great ferocity /
destroyed our sanctuary

From: Gevaryahu.com

Rashi’s daughters were apparently educated women who married scholars. The names of two of Rashi’s daughters are known to us: Yocheved and Miriam. Yocheved and her husband Rabbi Meir had two daughters and four sons. Rashi’s second daughter, Miriam, married Rabbi Yehuda; they had one son, named Yom-Tov, and two daughters, Elvina and Rachel. Rashi’s grandsons also became famous as scholars, known for their teachings and commentaries: Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir), Rabbenu Tam and Rabbi Yitzhak and also his great grandson – Rabi Yitzchak Hazaken, the Tosafist (see also).

There are two outstanding character traits in Rashi’s personality, and these can be seen throughout his works: simplicity and humility. In spite of his breadth of knowledge and his amazing command of numerous subjects, Rashi did not hesitate to admit it when he did not known something; we often find, in his commentaries, the expressions: “I don’t know the explanation,” or “I don’t know what this teaches us,” or simply “I don’t know.” Rashi encouraged his students to think independently and critically, and emphasized the search for the truth. He was willing to accept criticism and even to acknowledge his errors.

At the same time, Rashi was not deterred from taking a clear, unhesitant stand regarding Jewish law, even when his view was opposed to that of other contemporary sages. Rashi came out against certain Ashkenaz Jewish customs that contradicted the halacha as stated in the Babylonian Talmud, and did not hesitate to abolish them.An example of an Ashkenazi custom that was not in accordance with the Talmudic law: the custom of separating hallah from the dough as practiced in Ashkenaz (Avraham Grossman, “The Historical Background – the Environment in which Rashi Lived, Worked and Wrote,” in Nehama Leibowitz and Moshe Arend, Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah, Open University, 1990, vol. 2, unit 10, pp. 516-518)

 Rashi also worked to improve the status of women – he wrote in praise of women, and was particularly strict with men withdrew a promise to marry, or with husbands who demanded a divorce without reason, or those who evaded payment of their obligations to their divorced wives. Regarding Rashi’s attitude to women and to issues relating to marriage, divorce, yibum and so on – see Avraham Grossman, Chassidot u-Mordot, Shazar Center, 2001, pp. 160, 162, 406, 502. (English version: Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe, Brandeis, 2004)

 Rashi was also known as one who loved peace and pursued peace; he showed a more lenient attitude toward Jews who had temporarily felt constrained to convert to Christianity, but who later wished to revert to their Jewish faith.

For further discussion on Rashi as a Commentator please see the chapter under such name.

The House of Rashi - from JewishHistory.org

Linguist

Interview with Elie Wiesel on his book Rashi

Rashi’s Style

Rashi’s style is noteworthy for its simplicity and clarity. It is an elegant style, combining both Biblical and Mishnaic forms. At times he created new idioms from existing words, and his innovations are both beautiful and useful. Many idioms commonly used by Hebrew speakers have their origin in Rashi. For example: פליאה בעיני peliah be’einai (it makes me wonder), פשוטו כמשמעו pshuto kemashma’o (literally), מעשה שטן ma’aseh satan (devilry or “the devil’s work”).

Rashi as a Linguist

Rashi had extensive knowledge of language, and was fluent in a number of them: Hebrew, Aramaic, German and French. Rashi introduced over 1,300 words into the Hebrew language – some totally new, such as הצלחה hatzlacha (success), or תגבורת tigboret (reinforcements) – and others existing words, to which Rashi gave a new meaning – for example, צמאון tzimaon (thirst), כפוף kafuf (surrendered), ניקוד nikud (adding vowels, in Hebrew grammar). Rashi gave interpretations for words that only appear once in whole of the Bible (e.g. משקוף mashkof, or lintel, above the door), researched Hebrew syntax, and also established grammatical rules. Rashi’s commentary on the Bible and on the Babylonian Talmud are also an important source for the study of Old French (the language spoken in Rashi’s time): in his commentaries he mentions about 3,000 names for objects, tools, instruments, plants, and animals in Old French.

Rashi as a Commentator

Rashi's Script typeface. From Wikimedia Commons

Rashi’s writings and commentaries covered most of the areas of Jewish writing in his time – Bible, Talmud, Jewish law and piyyut. “One cannot conceive of studying Gemara [= the Talmud], its interpretation and the literature of halacha as a whole in the Ashkenaz communities… without Rashi’s commentary.” (Avraham Grossman, Hakhmei Tzarfat ha-Rishonim [The early Sages of France] (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Magnes Press, 1995), p. 175.)

When Rashi’s commentary was first printed, about 370 years following his death, the original text was typeset in one style of letters, while the commentary was typeset using a different set of letters, a special style known to this day as “Rashi script.”

Commentary on the Bible

Rashi commented on all the books of the Bible, and was the principal commentator of the French school. In his commentary on the Bible, and particularly his commentary on the Torah, Rashi uses rabbinic midrashim, among them collections that had been composed hundreds of years before. Because of Rashi’s commentaries, which explained the text clearly and simply, the spiritual heritage of Judaism became available to the whole of the Jewish people.

He commented on the whole of the Torah – both the Written Law and the Oral Law – as well as the books of the Prophets and most of the books of the Writings (the third part of the Bible). His commentary was based on the simple meaning of the text, rather than homiletical interpretations (a common expression that Rashi uses is “A Bible verse cannot lose its literal sense”).

To explain the text to his readers, he often translated the words into the spoken language, generally French (it is almost certain that French was the spoken language in Rashi’s home). When he quotes a midrash, he often prefaces it by stating that it should not be seen as the plain meaning of the text. He makes regular use of Targum Onkelos (the translation of the Bible into Aramaic) and interpretations that had been handed down orally or in writing. Rashi’s commentary had a major influence on many of the Bible commentators that followed him. His commentary on the Torah was the first Hebrew book to be printed (in 1475), and about 200 commentaries have been written on it. It was translated into a number of languages, and it had an influence on Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible, and the King James translation of the Bible to English.

Page from the Book of Genesis

Page from the Book of Genesis with Rashi’s commentary. From Five Homshei Tora with Rashi's commentary, Hirtz Levy Print, Amsterdam 1749 (Wikimedia Commons).

Commentary on the Talmud

Rashi was a prolific commentator, and his commentaries to the Babylonian Talmud are amazing in their scope. He was blessed with an amazing ability to concentrate, and an excellent memory, which aided him immensely in his work. His commentaries are a key aspect of Torah study. This is because of the unique character of Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud – Rashi offers an overall explanation of the passage, and not just of the difficult phrases, in a clear, succinct style. Rashi has the fantastic ability to accompany a student in his studies, so that the commentary does not replace the need for the student to delve into the passage itself, but on the other hand it helps him wherever there is a difficulty. Furthermore, his commentary on the Talmud offers a general understanding for the beginner, alongside an understanding of the complexity of the text for the student who wishes to delve deeper into the text.

His method of explanation was influenced by the fact that he was a teacher and educator. He was able to predict the questions that might bother the students, and what arguments they might offer, and he responded to them briefly, sometimes with a single word.

From the first printed editions of the whole Talmud, Rashi’s commentary has been an integral part of each page of the Talmud, and of its study. It is customary to say that, “Were it not for Rashi, the Talmud would have been forgotten.” 

A page of the Talmud

A page of the Talmud with Rashi’s commentary. From: The first page of the Babylonian Talmud, the Vilna edition (Wikimedia Commons)

An early printing of the Talmud

Printing of the Talmud with Rashi's commentary. From an early printing of the Talmud (Wikimedia Commons)

Why did the fact that Rashi was a teacher and educator assist him in writing clear commentaries?