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Rashi

RASHI

RASHI , acronym (RaSHI) of Rabbi Shelomoh ben Yitsaq of Troyes (10401105) was the most influential Jewish commentator on the Bible and the Babylonian Talmud. Nine hundred years after his death, Rashi's writings remain the standard commentaries for any serious student of the Hebrew Bible or the Babylonian Talmud, and new scholarly studies of his achievement continue to be published.

Rashi was born in Troyes, the political center of the county of Champagne, in northeastern France, but outside the close-knit rabbinical circles of the founding families of German Jewry. After pursuing his preliminary studies in Troyes, including studies with his father, he married and around 1060 traveled to the yeshivot of the Rhineland, then the most advanced in northwestern Europe. He studied there with the two heads of the Mainz academy, Yaʿaqov ben Yaqar, whom he considered his most important teacher of Talmud and Bible, and after the master's death in 1064, his successor, Yitsaq ben Yehudah, for a short time. Almost immediately, he went to Worms to study with Yitsaq ha-Levi, whose academy was superseding the Mainz school in advanced Talmud instruction. By the end of the decade he was back home, but he continued to correspond with Yitsaq ben Yehudah and Yitsaq ha-Levi.

Rashi attracted his own students in Troyes, and he served as the local rabbinical authority there. Though he wrote answers (responsa ) to hundreds of questions sent to him, he was not a professional rabbi. He made a living some other way; however, the often repeated assertion that he was a vintner has been disputed.

Rashi had no sons. His well-educated daughters married learned men; their sons became eminent rabbinical authorities. Yokheved married Meʾir ben Shemuʾel, and among their four sons were Shemuʾel ben Meʾir (known by the acronym Rashbam), one of the most important commentators on the Hebrew Bible and developer of the literal method of interpretation, and Yaʿaqov ben Meʾir (known as Rabbenu Tam), who dominated the new scholastic method of Talmud study in the form of additions (tosafot ) of questions and answers to his grandfather's running gloss. Rashi's daughter Miryam married Yehudah ben Natan, whose commentary to the end of Makkot is printed in the standard editions of the Babylonian Talmud. In this way, Rashi created his own French rabbinical family elite.

Rashi lived through the devastation of Jewish rabbinical leadership in the Rhenish academies of Mainz and Worms caused by the First Crusade riots of 1096, and some traces of early anti-Crusade polemic have been detected in his writings. Thus he says that the Bible begins with the creation of the world and not with the first law given to the Jewish people (Ex. 12:1), in order to teach that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people, and not to the Christians or Muslims who were fighting over it in the First Crusade. Why? Since God created the world, the entire earth belongs to him, including the Land of Israel, which he first gave to the nations of Canaan and then gave to Israel (Rashi on Gn. 1:1).

Rashi's major achievement was his composition of comprehensive running commentaries to most of the Hebrew Bible and Babylonian Talmud. Of the biblical commentaries attributed to him, those to Job from 40:25, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles are not his but may be based on his approach. Of the Talmudic commentaries, those to Taʿanit, Moʿed Qaan, Nedarim, Nazir, and Horayot are not his. The gloss he began to Bavaʾ Batraʾ was finished by his grandson Shemuʾel ben Meʾir, and the one to Makkot was completed by his student and son-in-law Yehudah ben Natan.

In his Talmud commentary, Rashi focused on each difficult term or passage in sequence and supplied punctuation or logical transitions that were not clear from the text itself. He used his profound knowledge of the Talmud and Jewish law to help the student by briefly introducing the general topic that the text is about to discuss in detail, and he provided reasons for particular laws and mentioned historical conditions in ancient times. At times, he indicated that he preferred a particular version of a passage, and later copyists corrected the text so that there is no difference between the Talmud and Rashi's correction. His commentary became widely used from the beginning of the thirteenth century and has been printed with the Talmud from the first editions to this day.

Although Rashi based about three fourths of his commentary to the Pentateuch on earlier Midrashic works, he integrated into his work a newer method of Jewish biblical exegesis that focused on the plain meaning of the text. When an ambiguity in the text created the possibility of different interpretations, Rashi explicitly contrasted a straightforward textual interpretation (pe-shuto shel miqraʾ )which could be arrived at through (1) a literal reading of the text, (2) a contextual approach, or (3) the use of a midrash that explains the plain meaning of the words as writtento an interpretation which he paraphrased from a Midrashic source. This dual method of interpretation is Rashi's most characteristic innovation, but it has sometimes been misunderstood. Whereas later twelfth-century French commentators like Shemuʾel ben Meʾir and Yosef ben Yitsaq (Bekhor Shor) developed a method of interpretation based on the systematic inquiry into the literal meaning of the text (pesha ) in preference to one based on earlier rabbinical homilies (derash ), Rashi himself did not explicitly distinguish between the two methods of reading; he did not use the terms pesha and derash and so certainly did not prefer the former. In his glosses to the other books of the Bible, such as Isaiah and Psalms, scholars have detected explicit or implied anti-Christian polemics. While there is no evidence that Rashi read Latin, he could have heard many Christological arguments and arguments derived from scriptural proof texts from Christian neighbors and introduced counterinterpretations for the benefit of his students.

From Rashi's commentaries and responsa, it is obvious that Jews and Christians lived in the same towns, walked the same streets, bought their household goods in the same markets, and paid for them with the same coinage. Although the medieval fairs at Troyes began only in the twelfth century, the town was already a manufacturing center and commercial depot in Rashi's day, and many travelers passed through. His commentaries include remarks about the city of Venice and about German currency. He observed firsthand in Troyes embroidery of silk with gold, soldering and engraving techniques, and the manufacture of parchment. He also comments about popular customs and street life: some women pierced their ears; butchers sometimes used their hands for scales, putting the meat in one hand and a weight in the other; the well-to-do slept in four-poster beds or else had rods constructed to support a tentlike curtain to keep flies away when they slept.

In addition to noting hundreds of such concrete references to everyday life, Rashi uses approximately a thousand medieval French terms or phrases to explain or illustrate Hebrew or Aramaic terms; these lexical items, written in phonetic Hebrew characters, have preserved important evidence about linguistic characteristics of eleventh-century French.

Apart from its value as a source for Jewish intellectual history and early French, Rashi's biblical commentary also influenced Christian biblical exegesis. Already in the twelfth century, Hugh of Saint-Victor and other Victorine scholars in Paris were interested in the Hebrew text and reflect familiarity with Rashi. But it was especially the Franciscan Nicholas of Lyra (c. 12701349), writing in Paris at the very time that a chair in Hebrew had been established in accordance with the Council of Vienne (1312), who made systematic use of Rashi's biblical commentary in his own running gloss on the whole Bible, the Postilla litteralis.

The immense influence of Rashi's commentaries in shaping the religious culture of European Judaism still awaits proper historical treatment. As a bridge between the Rhenish center of Jewish learning in Mainz and Worms and the newer dialectical methods of Bible and Talmud study that were developed in the twelfth century based on Rashi's own commentaries, his place in Jewish cultural history is secure. Through Nicholas of Lyra, Rashi also influenced subsequent Christian Hebraists down to Martin Luther and beyond.

See Also

Biblical Exegesis, article on Jewish Views; Tosafot.

Bibliography

Rashi's commentary to the Pentateuch has been translated into English by Morris Rosenbaum and Abraham M. Silbermann as Pentateuch with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth and Prayers for the Sabbath, and Rashi's Commentary, 5 vols. (London, 19291934).

An important interpretive sketch about him is Alexander Marx's "Rashi," in his Essays in Jewish Biography (Philadelphia, 1947) and the most comprehensive, if dated, biography is still Maurice Liber's Rashi, translated by Adele Szold (Philadelphia, 1906).

Rashi's influence on Christian Bible commentaries in the early Middle Ages is discussed in Beryl Smalley's The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, 2d ed. (1951; Notre Dame, 1964) and for the later period in Herman Hailperin's Rashi and the Christian Scholars (Pittsburgh, 1963). An illustration of Rashi as anti-Christian polemicist is Michael A. Signer's "King/Messiah: Rashi's Exegesis of Psalm 2," Prooftexts 3 (September 1983): 273278.

Esra Shereshevsky's Rashi: The Man and His World (New York, 1982) is of particular interest for his compilation of data from Rashi's oeuvre about everyday life.

Rashi's methodology as Bible exegete is discussed in Benjamin J. Gelles's Peshat and Derash in the Exegesis of Rashi (Leiden, 1981) and assessed in a review essay by Sarah Kamin in the Journal of Jewish Studies 36 (Spring 1985): 126130, based on her own sophisticated study of this tricky problem which she has summarized in "Rashi's Exegetical Categorization with Respect to the Distinction between Peshat and Derash," Immanuel 11 (1980): 1632.

New Sources

Banitt, Menahem. Rashi, Interpreter of the Biblical Letter. [Tel Aviv], Israel, 1985.

Berman, Scot A. Learning Talmud: A Guide to Talmud Terminology and Rashi Commentary. Northvale, N.J., 1997.

Bonchek, Avigdor. What's Bothering Rashi? A Guide to In-depth Analysis of His Torah Commentary. Jerusalem and New York, 19972002.

Doron, Pinhas. Rashi's Torah Commentary: Religious, Philosophical, Ethical, and Educational Insights. Northvale, N.J., 2000.

Ivan G. Marcus (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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