The truth about Rashi, by a scholar

 The following is information about Rashi  contained in a book by a very good scholar: Rashi, By Avraham Grossman, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2012, 327 pages

 

Very little is known about the personal life of the great beloved Bible and Talmud commentator Rashi. What is known is only a few minor facts, his writings, and legends about him, legends that many people mistakenly think are true. I once heard a rabbi deliver as a sermon “The Life of Rashi” without realizing that all he said, all he taught to educate his congregants, were untrue legends. Avraham Grossman, one of the world’s foremost scholars of medieval Judaica, Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, winner of the 2003 Israel Prize, tells us the truth in this easy to read, information-filled book. There is much in this 327-page book, including two key questions which are answered in his book: Did Rashi have a fully developed conceptual intellectual doctrine? Was he a revolutionary or conservative? As will be seen below, the answer to the first is “no” and the second “both.”

Rabbi Shelomoh Yitzhaki, later known as Rashi, based on the initials of his name, was born, lived, worked, died, and was buried in Troyes, France, a city with probably less than one hundred Jewish families. He was born in either 1040 or 1041 and died in 1105. We know nothing about Rashi’s childhood other than the names of his father and uncle, not the name of his mother, or the names of siblings, if he had any. The first confirmed information we have of him is that he attended the beit midrash (school) in Mainz, Germany when he was 20-years-old. He most likely began his studies in Germany at age 18. We also know that he continued his studies in Worms, Germany, where he lived for ten years before returning to Troyes. His studies in Germany had an important influence on his way of life and his thought. He generally followed the views of his German teachers, but not always, because he was more lenient than them. We do not know the name of his wife. He had three daughters, perhaps also a fourth who died in childbirth. Two married scholars. A third married a man and divorced after a brief while. Two of his grandsons, Rashbam and Rabbenu Tam, were great scholars.

Many people think that in Troyes, after years of study in Germany, Rashi made his living from viticulture; however, this is unlikely; agricultural conditions where Rashi lived were not suited to growing grapes. All we know is that he had students whom he taught, and who quoted him on occasions in their writings.

Grossman describes five qualities that stand out in his writings and his behavior: “humility and natural simplicity [which are most pronounced in his writings and acts], pursuit of truth, concern for human dignity, great confidence in his own abilities, and a sense of mission as a community leader.” He wrote that in making religious decisions for his community, “my heart has been inclined to follow those who rule leniently.” For example, against others of his time and even today, Rashi ruled that Jews may drink wine produced by non-Jews. He also ruled that a Jew who converted to Christianity can return to Judaism and should be accepted by all Jews as if he never converted.

In his Bible commentaries, Rashi frequently inserted imaginative midrashim to explain individual words, many of which describe unnatural events, rather than focusing on the context where the word appears, and do not address the problems that the sections raise. As a result, only some 25 percent of his commentary, dealing primarily with linguistic matters, is original. For example, in Genesis 22:12, after Abraham shows that he is willing to obey God’s command and sacrifice his son Isaac, God says, “Now I know that you fear God,” Rashi focused on “Now I know” and imagines that God said, “Now I can reply to Satan and to the nations of the world who wonder why I have affection for you.” Rashi does not address questions such as “Didn’t God know Abraham’s thoughts before the test? Why was there a need for the test? Rashi’s grandson Rashbam argued strongly against his grandfather’s method of inserting such midrashim and insisted that the proper way to understand scripture is by seeking the plain meaning of conversations and events. He wrote in his commentary to Genesis 49:16-18, for example, that to say, as Rashi did, that the patriarch Jacob was referring to the judge Samson when he was speaking about his son Dan, is patently wrong; there is nothing in the text to suggest this. Rashbam adds that his grandfather agreed with him. Grossman states that Rashi had two goals for his commentary “to educate Jews and to fortify them and equip them for the difficult confrontation with Christian supersessionist propaganda.” This prompted him to use sermonic midrashim.

In his commentaries, Rashi ignores history and philosophy, like other French and German Bible and Talmud commentators of the time, but not as Spanish Jews such as ibn Ezra and Maimonides did. He emphasizes humility and his views of the uniqueness of the Jewish people, the election of Israel, the importance of the Land of Israel (which he inserted into his very first commentary to the Bible, even though a plain reading of the text about creation does not say so), his belief in miracles, the meaning of exile and redemption, changes in human nature in the messianic period, love of Torah, the need to study Torah, devotion to God, how other nations relate to Jewry, and his hatred of Christianity. Grossman explains Rashi’s view on all these subjects. He suggests that Rashi’s animosity against Christianity was the result of the diabolical Christian pressure upon Jews to convert; we must keep in mind that Rashi lived during and saw the horrendous results of the first Crusade. Thus, for instance, while the Bible does not say that Jacob’s brother Esau was bad, Rashi constantly interprets all of Esau’s actions in a negative fashion because when Rashi lived Jews thought that Esau homiletically represented Christianity.

Rashi, like Maimonides after him, insisted that rabbis should teach without getting paid for the teaching, a view ignored today by rabbis. However, unlike Maimonides, he believed, for example, (1) in the existence of angels and demons, for example: he wrote that Jacob sent actual angels with a message to his brother Esau, and Noah saved demons from dying during the flood; (2) the prayers of a righteous person can cause God to change a divine decree; (3) a righteous person can produce a kind of mystical “merit,” called zechut avot in Hebrew, and that the merit of a righteous person can be used by a non-righteous person even centuries after the death of the righteous person to save him. (4) He generally treated women well in his commentaries, but felt that men should have dominion during sex and women must comply with their wishes, and like other men of his age, (5) he felt that women have frivolous minds.

What predominates in Rashi’s commentaries is his simple and engaging writing style and the stories from midrashim rewritten with such skill that they can be enjoyed by children and adults, both being captivated, indeed enchanted, by what they read, so much so that once read, many of his comments and rewritten midrashim are accepted as part of the Bible, despite they not being so, such as the tale that Abraham chopped up his father’s idols. I even heard a chief rabbi of Israel mistakenly saying this tale is in the Bible.

 

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