Rashi (Rabbi Shelomoh Ben Yishaq)

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One of the most famous of medieval commentators on the Bible and the Talmud; b. Troyes, France, 1041; d. there, July 13, 1105. His popular name, Rashi, is formed on the initials of his title and name, R (abbi) Sh (elomoh ben) Y (ishaq), Hebrew for Rabbi Solomon, son of Isaac.

Life. Little is known with certainty of Rashi's life. After his boyhood at Troyes in northwestern France, he studied at Worms under Rabbi Jacob ben Yaqar and at Mainz under Rabbi Isaac ben Judah. At the age of 25 he returned to Troyes, where he remained for the rest of his life. The stories about his extensive travels in Egypt, Persia, Spain, Germany, and Italy to increase his knowledge are legends with no foundation in fact. At Troyes he established a school of Jewish studies, where numerous students attended his lectures. He supported himself, however, not by tuition from his students, but by the income from his vineyard. His last years were saddened by anti-Jewish riots in the Rhineland on the occasion of the First Crusade.

Writings. Besides several minor works, Rashi wrote commentaries on almost all the books of the Hebrew Bible and on most of the tractates of the Talmud. As a biblical exegete he is best known for his commentary on the Pentateuch. Printed at Reggio in 1475, it is the first book printed in Hebrew to bear a date. In its Bologna edition of 1482, the commentary was printed with the Hebrew text of the Pentateuch, the latter in the center of the page, the former in the margin. This way of printing rabbinical commentaries was later followed in the so-called rabbinical bibles, and the semicursive form of medieval script in which these commentaries are printed in these Bibles is commonly called "Rashi script." Also worthy of note among the Hebrew incunabula are his commentaries on the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Esther, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah (the last two probably not authentic), which were first printed at Naples in 1487. Both his commentaries on the Bible and those on the Talmud were in turn often commented on by Jewish scholars. The editio princeps of all his commentaries on the Bible was published in Venice in 1525. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries several Latin translations of his biblical commentaries were published.

Appraisal. With the exception of maimonides, Rashi probably exercised a greater influence on Jewish life and thought than any other rabbi of the Middle Ages. His principal contribution was made by his commentary on the Talmud, in which he combined sound judgment and practical sense with an extensive knowledge of rabbinical traditions. While not all his interpretations of Jewish laws were accepted by his contemporaries or by later generations, his opinions on these matters were always respected and in most cases followed.

His biblical commentaries, however, owed their popularity, more to their conciseness and general clarity than to their scientific value. For intrinsic value, the commentaries on the Sacred Scriptures by his grandson Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, popularly known as Rashbam, are superior. Yet Rashi has always been regarded by the Jews as the classical interpreter of the Bible, from whom the ordinary pious as well as students can receive spiritual nourishment. In fact, for centuries his commentaries on the biblical books constituted the manual from which young Jewish students learned to read the Holy Scriptures and obtained their first knowledge of rabbinical literature. "Every educated Jew knows that one must begin with Rashi to enter the world of the Bible" (A. Neher).

In his exegesis Rashi combines an interpretation of the literal sense with personal views and haggadic traditions (see haggadah). At times he does not hesitate to insert fables or allegories into his commentaries. While he thus allows considerable space to such midrash, he tries in general to give a rational exegesis and often repeats the statement of the Talmud: "A text must not be twisted from its natural sense." His commentaries on the Bible were read and studied also by certain Christian scholars of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, particularly by Nicholas of Lyra, who in turn had considerable influence on Martin Luther's translation and interpretation of the Bible.

The writings of Rashi have proved a boon in another field of study. Although on the whole he wrote in medieval Hebrew, for the sake of clarity he often inserted words or phrases taken from his native French but written in Hebrew script. More than 3,000 of such lă'āzîm (Hebrew for "foreign words") constituting a vocabulary of about 2,000 words occur in his works. Since he is consistent in his method of transcribing foreign words in Hebrew characters, these Old French words he uses are a valuable source for the recovery of the language that was spoken in the eleventh century in the province of Champagne in northern France.

Bibliography: m. liber, The Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. j. singer, 13 v. (New York 190101) 10:324328. rashi, Commentary on the Pentateuch, tr. m. rosenbaum and a. m. silbermann, 5 v. in 2 (London 1946). American Academy for Jewish Research, Rashi Anniversary Volume (New York 1941). s. m. blumenfield, Master of Troyes (New York 1946). e. i. j. rosenthal, "Rashi and the English Bible," The Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 24 (1940): 138167. s. federbusch, ed., Rashi, His Teachings and Personality (New York 1958). h. hailperin, Rashi and the Christian Scholars (Pittsburgh 1963). a. darmesteter and d. s. blondheim, Les Gloses françaises dans les commentaires talmudiques de Raschi, 2 v. (Paris 1929, Baltimore 1937).

[a. brunot]