Is Rashi’s Bible Commentary Rational?
Certainly Rabbi SolomonYitzchaqi (or Shlomo ben Isaac, 1040–1105), known by the acronym Rashi because of the initials of his name, is the most beloved and most popular of all Bible commentators. The Encyclopedia Judaica calls him “the leading commentator on the Bible and Talmud.” Virtually every Jewish child, boy or girl, who attends a Jewish school of any kind and studies Bible, learns the biblical text with the colorful explanations of the text provided by Rashi. Growing older, whether or not they learn more, Jews are unable to forget Rashi’s interesting and well-written interpretations. Most Jews, for example, are convinced that the story of Abraham crushing his father’s idols in the back room of his father’s idol shop is in the Bible, even though the biblical text does not even hint at the story; Rashi relates it in his commentary to Genesis 11:29, and this is what they were taught as children.
Rashi’s Bible commentary was so popular that more than two hundred super-commentaries (commentaries on commentary) were written on his Pentateuchal commentary alone.
Rashi’s commentary was so beloved that while the talmudic rabbis mandated that the weekly Torah portion be read twice in the original Hebrew and once in the Aramaic of Targum Onkelos, German and French Jewry, and later much of the entire world, determined that the second obligation could be fulfilled by reading the commentary of Rashi. Because of this love, Rashi’s Torah commentary was the first Hebrew work printed, in 1475.
If asked, most Jews would swear that Rashi presents the plain meaning of the scriptural text in his commentary, as he himself writes, “I am only concerned with the literal meaning of Scripture and with such aggadot [stories] that explain the biblical passages in a fitting manner” (commentary on Genesis 3:8). They would also be convinced that his was a rational understanding of the Torah. In reality, both facts are entirely untrue.
- Who was Rashi?
- What was the source of his commentary?
- Why did he say that he was offering the plain meaning of the Torah when he did not do so?
- What are some ideas in Rashi’s commentary that many modern people would consider irrational?
- What was the impact of Rashi’s commentary?
Who Was Rashi?
Very few facts are known about this great and beloved Bible and Talmud commentator, and virtually all that people think they know of his life is, in reality, only legend. We know that he was born in Troyes, France, the capital city of Champagne. He had no sons. His three daughters married Judaic scholars. His final years were punctuated by the cruel inhuman massacres of the first crusade (1095–1096) during which he probably witnessed the murder of relatives and friends.
Sometime around 1070, Rashi established a school in Champagne that became the leading Jewish institution of learning of French and German Jewry (known as Ashkenazic Jewry). The method of interpreting the Torah employed by Rashi and his students influenced Ashkenazic thinking, continuing to do so until the present day. His sons-in-law and grandsons started the outstanding group of scholars known as Tosaphists, a word meaning “additions,” because they began their commentaries by adding to those that Rashi wrote.
At times, like many other Bible commentators, Rashi interprets a verse according to its plain meaning, contrary to the rabbinic understanding of the passage, which contain halakhah. However, at other times, he inserts halakhah and theological notions that are not apparent in a literal reading of the text.
Philosophy, which was explored by Spanish Jewry, had not penetrated German and French culture at the time, during the middle or dark ages of Christian Europe, and therefore philosophical problems, so frequently addressed by Abraham ibn Ezra and Maimonides, make no appearance, indeed no impression, in Rashi’s commentary.
Hardly any of Rashi’s comments on the Bible are original. Virtually all are based on Targum Onkelos and Midrashim. However, he rewrote the midrashic comments in a more lucid, colorful and understandable manner.
Targum Onkelos and Midrashim as Sources for Rashi’s Commentary
Like many others scholars of his time and later, Rashi was convinced that the fifth-century Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch called Targum Onkelos was so holy that it must have been given by God to Moses at the same time that God revealed the Hebrew text. He felt that the Aramaic in Onkelos contained the literal meaning of the biblical Hebrew and he used the translation in his commentary to explain the meaning of scriptural words. It was as if Rashi used four fingers when he composed his commentary: one finger followed the original Hebrew Bible wording word for word; one finger tracked the same word as it was rendered by Onkelos; the third finger, as we will see, pointed to the midrashic elaborations contained in the various midrashic books that were available to him; and with the fourth finger, he wrote.
Rashi, like Nachmanides and many others before and after him, was convinced that the elaborations and legends contained in the early and late Midrashim were not simply homiletical sermons designed to provoke thought, but literal truth. These included stories that appear to be impossible to rational readers. Maimonides, as we discussed earlier, insisted that Midrashim should not be taken literally, but seen as parables with lessons that the rabbis used to teach their unsophisticated audiences. Since Rashi saw the Midrashim as reports of actual events, he felt obligated to record them as true interpretations of the Torah. He knew, of course, that the midrashic elaborations were not explicit in the Bible, but felt that many or most of them were hinted at by the wording of the biblical text. He therefore decided to include only those midrashic interpretations that he felt were hinted at by the wording of the text and fit closely with the plain reading of the general context of the text. This is what he meant when he stated he was explaining the Torah’s plain meaning.
Rashi’s grandson Rashbam (c. 1080–1158) writes in his own Bible commentary to Genesis 37:2 that he confronted his grandfather about the use of Midrashim to explain the Torah. He reports that his grandfather admitted in his old age that his commentary did not present the plain meaning of the text and that if he had had time he would have rewritten it to present the plain, non-midrashic understanding of the Torah.
In short, Rashi explains the Bible as various imaginative Midrashim interpret it. Since he writes in such an interesting and picturesque manner, his ideas caught the fancy of many people. Even today most pulpit rabbis tell their congregants that certain events occurred, though what they say is not even hinted in the Bible – simply because Rashi said it happened.
Concepts Taught by Rashi That Are Rejected by Rational Thinkers
- Rashi was convinced that God is corporeal, that He has a body, including hands, feet and head. Commenting upon Exodus 7:4, “I will lay My hand upon Egypt,” he emphasizes that “hand” is not a metaphor for “power,” as Maimonides would say, but “an actual hand to smite them.” In Exodus 14:31, “Israel saw the great hand, what God did to Egypt,” he tells the reader that when the Torah speaks of God’s “hand,” it is yad mamash, an “actual hand.” He expresses the same view in his commentary to the Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 21a and Yevamot 49b, where he refers to God’s arm and face. Similarly, in his comment upon Genesis 1:26, where the Bible states that man was created in God’s image, and where Maimonides is quick to note that this means that God gave humans intelligence, Rashi writes, “Image means God’s form.” So, too, in 1:27, “And God created man in His own image,” Rashi elaborates, “This means that the form that was established for him [man] is the form of the Creator.”
- While Maimonides and many rationalists dismiss the idea that angels exist, believing that the word should be understood figuratively as the natural forces of nature, or asserting that if they do exist they do so in incorporeal form, Rashi insists that a pious person can summon a corporeal angel to serve his mundane needs, act as his messenger, deliver a message and return with a report of what he sees. Thus in Genesis 32:4, Jacob, according to Rashi, sends malachim mamash, “actual angels,” as messengers to his brother Esau.
- In Genesis 19:22, Rashi advances his belief in “fallen angels.” God punishes these angels because, in a paroxysm of hauteur, they took personal credit for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:13.
- Rashi’s interpretation of Genesis 19:22 is based on the non-rational view that God, like an insecure human, can become angry and offended when someone seeks recognition and praise for what He did.
- In Genesis 6:4, Rashi informs his readers that angels are able to have sexual intercourse with human females and did so.
- Not only God and angels, but also even demons, according to Rashi, exist and are corporeal. They can, in fact, drown; Noah saved them from extinction in the flood in Genesis 6:19, which was designed to eradicate evil. In the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 6a, Rashi describes the demon: “the feet of a demon are like a rooster’s.”
- Commenting on Genesis 6:20, Rashi states that Noah’s ark performed a miraculous moral selection process: it did not allow animals that had corrupted themselves with sexual perversions to enter the ark.
- Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, criticizes his grandfather’s methodology with strong words in his commentary to Genesis 37:2 (“These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock of his brother, being still a lad, even with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought evil reports of them unto their father”) and 49:16 (“Dan will judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel”). In 37:2, Rashi explains each of the many phrases of the passage with a host of elaborate imaginative midrashim that are not hinted in the biblical words. Rashbam criticized his grandfather, as mentioned above. In the latter commentary, Rashbam writes: “Those [meaning Rashi and those like him] who explain the verse to refer to Samson do not know anything about the manner of interpreting Scripture’s simple meaning. Would Jacob prophesy about a single individual who fell into the hands of the Philistines, who blinded him, and who died with the Philistines in a terrible situation!? Chalilah chalilah [God forbid! God forbid! ]!”
- The Babylonian Talmud, Pessachim 112a, as we saw earlier, warns people from drinking “water from rivers during the night.” The Talmud explains that the danger is sabriri. Rashbam reasonably explains that sabriri means that polluted water can cause blindness. However, his grandfather states that sabriri is the demon that has the power to inflict blindness, who may lash out in revenge for being disturbed and blind people drinking from his water.
The fact that a biblical commentator is popular and even quoted frequently by a pulpit rabbi does not certify that his views are rational.
It is essential to differentiate between approaches to reading the Bible and to recognize that an interpretation by a scholar as renowned, respected and beloved as Rashi may not constitute literal truth. The Bible does not necessarily state what certain scholars or rabbis think it states. Despite Rashi’s claim, for example, the Bible never reports that demons exist and that the demons needed Noah’s protection against drowning in the flood, or that angels lust after pretty women and have sex with them, or that God has a human-like body and wields His arms like a warrior in combat to save Jews.
 They seem to have missed the point. The rabbis who composed the Midrashim and Talmuds, which are filled with aggadic imaginative elaborations that are in most cases not even hinted at in the biblical text, strongly suggested that their co-religionists read the translation of Onkelos because it presented the plain unadulterated meaning of the scriptural passages. Ironically, the European Jews were told to read Rashi, which is filled with such elaborations.