The Generally Unknown Mystery of Rashi’s Commentary

 

                                    The Generally Unknown Mystery of Rashi’s Commentary

  

Many individuals of all faiths use the commentary of the famed biblical and Talmudic French rabbi Rashi (1040-1105) to help them understand the Bible. Rashi is a master writer. His commentaries are short, to the point, clarifying, and interesting. People enjoyed his explanations so much that the first Hebrew book printed after the invention of the printing press around 1450 was Rashi’s Torah commentary in 1475. This book was printed before the printing of the Torah in Hebrew. But, as we will see, users of Rashi’s interpretations lose much by not understanding what the author’s goal is and how what he says implements his goal. Unless a person understands Rashi’s methodology, he or she will get the wrong idea what the sage is saying and why he made his comment.[1]

Following his five volume “What’s Bothering Rashi,” composed in English, Rabbi Dr. Avigdor Bonchek has written a short 136 page book, “Rashi: The Magic and the Mystery,” that addresses what Rashi students need to know. He writes in very readable English, with many examples for everything he explains. He addresses Rashi’s history, his style, why his explanations are unique, his use of Midrash, what he means when he states he will only address the plain meaning of the text, why his grandson Rashbam disagreed with his methodology, how everyone should question what Rashi is saying, and much more.

Bonchek points out that readers should not be fooled by the seemingly simple style of Rashi’s comments. Rashi was an extremely careful writer. Rashi’s primary goal was to address a problem he sees in the Torah text and he used a Midrash – in seventy percent of his commentaries – when what the Midrash states fits in with what he considers the plain meaning of the text.[2]

Bonchek states that Rashi does many things. Among much else, Rashi explain difficult passages and seeming contradictions, he helps folks avoid misunderstandings, he sometimes does so by translating familiar words not literally but in ways that enhance their meaning, he selects one of the many Midrashim that he feels answers a difficulty that he sees in the text – although he does not reveal the difficulty he sees. When using a Midrash, he may select one that is commenting on another verse and may change the Midrash’s wording and he may combine two separate Midrashim, if doing so helps him clarify a passage – for the goal of the Midrash is to teach a moral lesson, while Rashi uses the Midrash to explain a verse. Sometimes he even invents his own Midrash to meet his clarification goal. Sometimes Rashi has two comments one derash and the other peshat, usually because neither one by itself satisfied him in explaining the passage or word. But to repeat, while doing all of this, Rashi does not mention what is bothering him, what caused him to say what he is saying. And therein, is the main problem, which I will discuss below.

But there are other problems that hinder most readers of Rashi from understanding him. Besides not recognizing why Rashi comments as he does, not knowing Rashi’s style could mislead users of his commentary. For example, Rashi starts every parasha (weekly Torah reading) with lead words containing the name of the parasha for no other reason than to indicate where the parasha begins.[3] Many do not know that he is doing so, and mistakenly seek a textual difficulty that Rashi is addressing. He also begins each of the five books of the Torah with a comment showing God’s love of Israel and their land, a comment that is really unrelated to the passage.[4] He apparently did so to inspire Jews and teach Torah values. Failure to recognize this, led many individuals to misread what Rashi is doing.

This book is an excellent clear introduction to Rashi’s unique interpretative methodology. I had only two problems with it, one minor and one major. The minor one is that Rabbi Dr. Bonchek decided to use the current practice among many religious Jews of calling most sages, except Rashi, using the word “the,” as in “the Rashbam,” “the Ramban,” etc. I found this annoying. The other issue is that he did not identify what is really bothering Rashi, that Rashi is following the methodology of Rabbi Akiva.

Two Talmudic sages around 130 CE, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael, disagreed on how to interpret the Bible.[5] Rabbi Akiva, unfortunately in my opinion, won out, and Rashi, Nachmanides, and most ancient Bible commentators as well as most Midrashim follow his view.[6] Others, such as Rashi’s grandson Rashbam and Maimonides interpret the Torah as Rabbi Ishmael.

Rabbi Akiva felt that since the Bible is a word for word revelation from God, and since God is perfect, is able to say concisely exactly what is meant to be said, and would never place any superfluous or non-relevant materiel in the divine book, whenever an idea is repeated in the Bible or there is an unusual word or spelling, God must have placed it to teach a lesson. People need to spot these additions and changes, Rabbi Akiva said, and figure out what God meant to teach by placing them in the Bible.

Rabbi Ishmael disagreed. He felt that “the Torah [which is intended for humans] speaks in human language.” For example, just as people repeat themselves for emphasis, to gain attention, for the sake of clarity, or to make their statement more flowery or poetic, so too does the Torah. Nothing should be read into repetitions, of which there are many. If God meant to teach an additional lesson, God wouldn’t have hidden it in a repetition that doesn’t mean or even imply what people read into it; God would have made an explicit statement.

Rabbi Akiva’s students compiled the Midrashim and influenced most of the Talmudic rabbis, and later Bible and Talmud commentators such as Rashi, who based their teachings on Rabbi Akiva’s method. Most rabbinical sermons today, which are drawn from these sources, are also based on his method. Readers and listeners need to know that the interpretation was based on what the commentator or rabbi thought (erroneously according to Rabbi Ishmael) was an unnecessary repetition or an unusual spelling.[7] The following are examples from Genesis 23 and a couple of other passages where Rashi draws from the Torah text imaginative information that are usually non-sequiturs not hinted at in the text.

  1. Genesis 9:10 repeats that God will establish his covenant in Noah’s post-flood generation with humans and animals “all that goes out of the ark, every living thing of the earth.” Rashi, following the methodology of Rabbi Akiva, wonders why the Torah says “every living thing of the earth,” it already said that God made his covenant with “all that go out of the ark.” He answers: the latter refers to demons, which were also included in the covenant. (Rashi was not alone in believing in the existence of demons. There are over three dozen discussions of demons in the Talmud. But there is no explicit mention of demons in the Pentateuch.)[8]
  2. In Genesis 23:1, the Torah unnecessarily, according to Rashi, repeats years three times, “The life of Sarah [Abraham’s wife] was a hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years.” Rashi states that the repetition reveals that at 100 she was like 20 in regard to sin, and at 20 she was as beautiful as a girl of seven. (The repetition of years, as in this verse, is characteristic biblical phraseology, and has no hidden meaning. It is in Genesis 5:5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 23, 26: Exodus 12:40, 41, 25:10, and many other passages. None of them have the connotation Rashi sees here.)[9]
  3. Again in 23:1, after mentioning that she lived 127 years, Scripture repeats, “these are the years of Sarah’s life.” Why were these words added? Rashi says they inform readers that despite difficulties that Sarah had in her life, she felt that they were all good.[10]
  4. When Abraham negotiates with Ephron to purchase burial ground for his deceased wife Sarah, the Bible states in 23:10 that Ephron was sitting among the children of Heth, Rashi notes that the Hebrew word for “sitting” has an unusual spelling; it is missing the letter vav. He writes that the letter was omitted to inform readers that “on that day he was appointed ruler over them [the children of Heth]. He was elevated [apparently Rashi means by God] because Abraham needed the elevated rank [to be able to negotiate with the leaders of the children of Heth].”[11]
  5. Rashi ignores the fact that there are hundreds of different spellings in the Torah. For example, there are differences in spellings in the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Even Ephron’s name omits a vav in 23:16. There Rashi says the Torah omits the vav to inform readers that Ephron diminished himself during his negotiations with Abraham.[12] (Thus in example 4 the missing vav is said to elevate and in example 5 to diminish.)
  6. Rashi also interpreted the Torah by using gematriot. A gematria (the singular form of the word) is the numerical value of words. The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, an aleph, equals one, and so on. Commenting on 24:1, Rashi seems to be bothered by why the Bible needs to tell readers that God blessed Abraham “with everything”; haven’t we seen many instances of God’s blessing to Abraham before? The Hebrew word for “with everything” is bakol. Rashi notes that the numerical value of the Hebrew letters of bakol is 52, the very same number as the word ben, son. He writes that the Torah is stating that God blessed Abraham with a son, and then narrates how Abraham tried to secure a wife for this son.[13] (The twelfth century rational sage Abraham ibn Ezra sarcastically commented, “God does not speak in gematriot.”)

 

[1] There are many scholarly books that address this problem such as Sarah Kumin’s “Rashi’s Exegetical Categorization: In Respect to the Distinction between Peshat and Derash,” and Avraham Grossman’s “Rashi.”

[2] It was Rashi’s use of Midrash that bothered his grandson Rashbam who felt that one should read the plain meaning of the text (pshat) and not seek imaginative notions of what the text may be implying (derash).

[3] Most ancient scrolls did not indicate the beginnings of the weekly readings.

[4] For example, Rashi starts his commentary at the beginning of the book of Genesis by saying that the Torah begins by teaching readers that God created the world to teach that God gave Jews Israel and had a right to do it because God created the world.

[5] BT Berakhot 31b.

[6] Rabbi Akiva used derash, free association, imaginative interpretations that frequently was unrelated to the simple meaning of the verse and the general context of the paragraph and chapter. Rabbi Ishmael interpreted verses using peshat, the simple obvious meaning. The peshat method was not common in Talmudic times. The Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 63 has a sage saying that it was only after he had studied the entire Talmud that he learned “that a verse cannot depart from its plain meaning.” Rashi states that his goal is to interpret the Torah according to its peshat, but his understanding of peshat was based on Rabbi Akiva’s methodology that repetitions indicate that something entirely new is being said, unrelated to what the verse previously clearly stated.

[7] There are many times that words are spelt differently – one spelling in one passage and another spelling in another. See examples 4 and 5.

[8] This is apparently an original Rashi interpretation.

[9] This is based on Midrash Genesis Rabbah 58:1.

[10] This seems to be an original Rashi interpretation.

[11] This is a Midrash in Genesis Rabbah 58:6.

[12] Based on Genesis Rabbah 58:7 and BT Bava Metzia 87a.

[13] This interpretation is apparently original to Rashi.

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