Rashi (1040-1105) is the most popular Bible and Talmud commentator. Children attending Hebrew Schools are taught the Torah with Rashi’s commentary. Yet, many rabbis and scholars recognize that Rashi generally does not give his readers the true meaning of the biblical verses. Instead, Rashi all too often simply repeats what he sees in ancient Midrashim – parables and sermons – designed to teach lessons rather than address the text literally.
Examples of Rashi’s style of commentary
An example is the very first interpretation by Rashi on Genesis 1:1 where he writes that the Torah starts by telling readers that God created the world to inform readers that the world belongs to God, and non-Jews should not complain that God gave the land of Israel to Jews. This moral/political lesson is not even hinted in Genesis 1. Another example is Rashi’s commentary on Exodus 3:15 that when God tells Moses the divine “name,” and says “this is my name forever,” the Hebrew word for “forever” misses the letter vav’ Rashi writes that the missing letter is “implying that God’s name should not be read as written.” Rashi ignores the fact that there are many words spelt differently in different verses, even including the two versions of the Decalogue in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 with no sermon derived from the inconsistency. Still another example is Rashi’s commentary on Exodus 4:3 where God shows Moses a miracle by turning his staff into a snake. Rashi writes that God was hinting to Moses that since he spoke ill of the Israelite slaves, he spoke slander as the snake did in Genesis 3. The plain meaning of the chapter is that God was showing Moses the divine power.
Praise given to Rashi’s commentary
Despite Rash generally failing to give his readers the plain meaning of biblical verses, there have been many rabbis who complimented his writings. The mystic Rabbi Isaiah Halevi Horowitz (1558-1630), for example, claimed that Rashi received what he wrote by means of the Holy Spirit (ruach hakodesh).
Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam (about 1085-1158) felt differently. He was the son of one of Rashi’s three daughters, who wrote a generally rational Bible commentary, criticized his grandfather harshly for failing to stick to the plain meaning of the biblical passages.
In his commentary on Genesis 37:1, Rashbam told his readers that he upbraided his grandfather for the way he explained the Torah, and that Rashi assured him that he agreed with him. Rashi told him that if he had years to write new explanations, he would write a book in the way that Rashbam wrote his commentary.
Similarly, In Genesis 49:17, where the Torah reveals the blessings that Jacob gave to his children, Rashi states that when Jacob was blessing his son Dan, the verse is referring to the judge Samson, who would not be born for another couple of centuries, Rashbam angrily writes that anyone who thinks that this passage is speaking about Samson doesn’t know how to understand the Torah.
In Deuteronomy 15:18, Scripture mandates that slave owners must give their Hebrew slaves gifts when they set them free. The Torah continues: “It should not seem hard to you … because he gave you double the service of a hired man.” Rashi (based on Midrash Sifrei) proposes that Scripture’s “double” means that Hebrew slaves work day and night, while hired employees works only during the day; the nighttime work is when the master gives the slave a Canaanite slave so that he can have children from the union that would belong to him as slaves. Rashbam calls this interpretation “foolish” and “vapor.” The plain meaning of the verse, he says, is that the “master” should not feel bad in having paid for slaves twice, once when he purchased slaves and now again when he must also give the slaves gifts.
Abraham Ibn Ezra
Rashbam was not alone in mocking Rashi harshly. The eleventh century rationalist Abraham ibn Ezra, who lived around the same time (about 1089-1167), wrote that Rashi stated that he translates the Torah according to its plain meaning and he is correct—one time out of a thousand.
Nachmanides (about 1194-1270) was another who disliked Rashi’s commentaries. He organized his Bible commentary by repeatedly criticizing the views of both Rashi and ibn Ezra, especially Rashi. He usually also disagreed with Maimonides’ views but unlike his unkind attacks on Rashi and ibn Ezra, he was always very respectful to Maimonides.
Maimonides (1138-1204) was born over thirty years after Rashi’s death in 1105 but never mentions Rashi. Some scholars speculate that since Rashi died in France and Maimonides lived in Egypt, he never heard of Rashi. Still others suggest that he did know about Rashi’s commentary but so disliked it that he never mentioned it.
Rashi’s commentary is certainly interesting but since he did not give the plain meaning of biblical verses, a reader who wants to understand what the Torah is stating needs to also examine the views of other commentators.