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SECTION 6 Sacred Writings and Commentaries
Topic 6.4 6.4 Rashi
The life and work of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, i.e. Rashi
Facts about Rashi’s life and works
The impact of his writings on the Torah and Talmud
Write a paragraph about Rashi’s life; explain the
importance of Rashi’s writings on the Torah and Talmud;
relate, with examples, how one of his commentaries is
applied today of Rashi’s writings on the Torah and
Talmud; relate, with examples, how one of his
commentaries is applied today
The virtue of the famous Bible commentary by Rashi, grape grower and
teacher, lies in its diversity - and its lack of originality.
By Edward L. Greenstein
Reprinted from Back to the Sources, edited by Barry Holtz
Rashi is Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, that is, Solomon ben Isaac, whose Hebrew initials
spell Rashi (1040-1105). Like many Jews in northern France, he made his living
growing grapes. Somehow he managed to find the time to study all the classic
Jewish texts thoroughly and write commentaries on them. His most monumental
achievement was his running commentary to the Babylonian Talmud, a
masterpiece of peshat [a method devoted to uncovering the plain, contextual
meaning of the text] and an indispensable aid for interpreting that complex body
of legal dialectics.
The Nature of His Commentaries
Many of the didactic techniques that he utilized in composing the Talmud
commentary he also applied in his biblical commentaries: disambiguation
[establishing a clear interpretation] of language and references, translation of
technical terms and realia (objects from real life used in classroom instruction)
into contemporary French, and line drawings as illustrations. (Unfortunately,
printers often omitted these graphic aids from their editions.)
Thus, although Rashi was a scholar of astounding breadth, he saw his role chiefly
as a teacher. He wrote textbooks rather than treatises. With pious soul and
gentle humility he wished to share the learning of the ages with the Jewish
community of his time. His work has received much attention in English, too.
It should be stated, however, that he was not, as is often claimed, writing for the
"masses." He writes with a concise, though elegant, learned Hebrew style, which
generally presupposes the reader's sensitivity to the problem that sparks his
explanations. He alludes to sources that only an advanced student would
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Nonetheless, Rashi has been by far the most widely read Jewish Bible
commentator: His Torah commentary was the very first Hebrew book to be
printed mechanically, even before the Bible itself. [It was initially debated
whether or not it was appropriate to use this new technology for sacred text.]
The sparest edition of Mikra'ot Gedolot, the Rabbinic Bible, will include his
commentary, and students in traditional Jewish schools, yeshivot, usually begin
to learn Rashi's interpretations as soon as they begin to learn the Torah.
Seeing the Torah through Rabbinic Lenses
In traditional circles, Rashi's is the key version of what the Torah means. While
very little of medieval commentary exists in any English edition, Rashi's
commentary on the Torah may be found in two English editions. The main
reason for Rashi's far-reaching success is that more than presenting innovative
insights into the meaning of the Bible, he encapsulates traditional rabbinic
His commentary to a great extent comprises a digest of rabbinic law and
teaching. By virtue of his lack of originality, he is the most representative rabbi
among the medieval commentators.
Rashi's anthological mode of commentary encourages the typical view in yeshivot
that what the Written Torah means is what the Oral Torah (the Talmud and
Midrash) explains; and what the Oral Torah explains is selectively distilled by
Rashi. Thus the most essential or relevant meaning of the Torah, in the
traditional view, is that which found in Rashi's commentary.
A modern, critical student of the Bible however, will maintain a historical
distance between what the Bible meant in its own period and what it came to
mean to later generations. We read Rashi's commentary not as the historical
meaning of the biblical text but rather as an acute testimony to what rabbinic
Jews of the classical and medieval periods found the text to mean. We read
Rashi’s commentary, in other words, as a text unto itself, and one with a spiritual
significance and suggestiveness to us, too.
The Relationship between Peshat and Derash
Much has been made of the difficulty in classifying Rashi's exegetical procedure.
Here he gives derash [an interpretive reading], there he gives peshat [the plain
meaning]. Rashi himself does not appear to have been quite so method-conscious
as his critics. He does not distinguish between what we [call] peshat and derash,
but rather between what the text says without interpretation and what the text
conveys once its full significance has been homiletically drawn out.
He explains himself most clearly in his comment on Genesis 3.8, the verse that
relates how the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden heard the Lord
moving about on the premises:
"There are many aggadic [interpretive narrative] homilies [on this verse],
and our rabbis have already arranged them in their place in Genesis
Rabbah and the other Midrash collections. I come only to present what
the text says directly and such aggadah that sets the wording of the text
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on its proper bearings."
What he means, and what he in fact obeys in his practice, is that he will restrict
the aggadah that he adduces to that which responds to some peculiarity or
outstanding feature of the language of the text.
An example from his commentary to Exodus 1.7: The Torah says that in Egypt
the Israelites grew very numerous, from 70 to 600,000 able-bodied men plus
women, children, and the elderly. How did they do it? One of the verbs that the
Hebrew employs to denote the multiplying of the Israelites is vayishretzu, "they
swarmed," a word that connotes reptiles and other swarming creatures. In
response to this peculiar wording, Rashi sees fit to present a midrashic
interpretation from Exodus Rabbah:
"They swarmed. [This means] that the women would give birth to six in
Or take his comment on Genesis 37.3:
"Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his sons because he was a son-
of-old-age to him."
Rashi sees in the phrase son-of-old-age three levels of meaning: the direct sense,
the implied sense, and a sense drawn out by permutating the Hebrew sounds
into a like-sounding Aramaic idiom:
"A son-of-old-age. [This means] that he was born to him in the period of
his aging. Onkelos [the author of an authoritative Aramaic interpretive
rendering of the Torah] translates, 'a wise son is he to him'; all that he
learned from Shem [the founder of the first academy in rabbinic lore] and
Eber [his son, the namesake of the Hebrews] he handed down to him.
Another interpretation [a clear signal of a Midrash (that is, that Rashi is
about to offer a derash)]: his facial features [ziv ikonin] were similar to
The Hebrew phrase ben zekunim suggested the Aramaic ziv ikonin. Israel (that is,
Jacob) favored Joseph for three reasons: Joseph studied with him and resembled
him as well as delighted him unexpectedly in his advanced age. The biblical text,
the words of G-d, were calculated to proliferate interpretation.
Rashi on Prophets and the Writings
In his commentaries to the Prophets and the Writings, the latter, less sacred
parts of the Hebrew Bible, Rashi tends to comment less and present less
midrashic material than he does on the Torah. One can imagine at least two good
reasons for this disparity.
First, Rashi sought to use the commentary as an instrument of religious
education. The Torah is studied most and is read over and over from year to year
in the synagogue. It would, accordingly, be most effective to attach one's
teachings to the most frequently encountered Jewish book, the Torah.
Second, most of the essence of G-d's revelations, the commandments or mitzvot,
are contained in the Torah. The Torah embodies more precepts per square foot,
so to speak, than the rest of the Bible. Since there is so much more to be learned
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from the Torah, one's commentary should be more extensive and multifaceted.
This is certainly true of Rashi's.
Rashi on the Order of the Torah’s Topics
That Rashi sees the core of the Torah in its laws stands out in the introduction to
his Torah commentary. If the primary objective of the Torah is to instruct us in
the mitzvot, why does it defer the mitzvot by first setting out the story of
Creation, of the early peoples, of the patriarchs and their families? He begins, as
usual, by adducing a Midrash:
"Said Rabbi Isaac: It was unnecessary to begin the Torah except from May
this month be to you . . . [Exodus 12, the first chapter in the Torah packed
with mitzvot, in this case the laws of Pass-over], which is the first mitzvah
which the Israelites were commanded. So for what reason does it begin
“On account of: The power of his acts has he [G-d] related to his people, to
give them the territory of nations. (Psalm 111:6) If the nations of the world
say to Israel, 'Robbers are you, for you have conquered the lands of the
seven nations!'—Israel can say to them: 'All the land is the Holy One
blessed be He's. He created it, and he has given it to those who are right in
his eyes. By his will he gave it to them, and by his will he took it back from
them and gave it to us.'"
The Book of Genesis places seven peoples in the land of Canaan before Abraham
came to possess it by the command of G-d. The Torah introduces in Genesis the
notions of G-d's dominion over all that he created and of G-d's covenant with the
ancestors of Israel. [Thus] Rashi elucidates the logic underlying the topical
arrangement of the Torah.
RASHI: Shlomo Yitzhaki (1040-1105)
Rashi wants to tell you a little about himself:
Shalom or Bonjour!
I greet you in both languages because I speak both! My name is Shlomo Yitzhaki,
or Solomon ben Isaac but even better is to call me RASHI for short! I was born in
Troyes, in France. I grow grapes and these provide a great source of income for
me. I got married at 17 years of age and then I went to the yeshiva in Worms
which meant that I was at quite a distance from home and could only meet with
my wife three times in the year: for the Days of Awe, Passover and Shavuot. I
moved to Mainz and there, continued to study and made copious notes on what I
was reading. At 25 years of age I moved back to Troyes and took up a position at
the Bet Din (Rabbinical court). I got plenty of practice there in halakhic material,
all matters of Jewish legal situations and we had many dynamic conversations on
While I don’t mind my grape-growing - and it’s lovely to be able to look out at the
vineyards, and we are making enough to live on - you know I really love stories,
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words and language. I particularly love the Tanakh and the Talmud. I suppose I
really wanted to be a teacher and I founded a yeshiva in France. In fact, when I
speak about the sacred texts, my students ask questions and they provoke me to
ask even more questions. They say to me that I ask too many questions! When I
explain, I noticed that they were jotting things on their notes. They were writing
what I had said and recording it for future generations. Wow! Imagine that!
People in 2013 could be reading about what I’ve said! Awesome!
I’ve always tried to make the sacred texts accessible to people, writing
commentaries and explanations on Biblical texts and creating midrash on the
stories; people like that very much. Most people speak of the work I’ve done on
my commentaries on the Talmud (Mishnah) explaining the context, grammar,
root meanings of words, and the principles and concepts which the sages might
have assumed us all to know. If I might say so myself, I’ve a very good
background in Hebrew and Aramaic so I’m familiar with the great works of my
ancestors in those languages. Of course, I’ve invested a lot of time and energy in
that pursuit. I’ve sometimes translated Hebrew words into French though I
write them in Hebrew characters. They call these words la’azim. Some say it
makes it all much easier to understand. I am glad I’ve made some lasting legacy
for future generations.
I forgot to mention that I have three beautiful daughters - Miriam, Yocheved, and
Rachel – all of whom are married to Talmudic scholars. I know that they will
make their contribution by having many generations of children and, with my
daughters’ husbands’ scholarship, I have no doubt that my grandchildren and
great-grandchildren might include some rabbis in years to come!
We’ve endured a lot of suffering and violence here recently because of the
Crusades. These were Christians under the Pope Urban II who tried to capture
Jerusalem but they massacred 12,000 Jews in the French region of Lorraine
along their way through Europe. I was lucky; I survived, though some relatives
and friends of mine were killed. I wrote some penitential poems (selichot)
mourning those who had died and commemorating what happened.
It’s been nice talking to you but I must return to my learning. I still have much to