By Israel Drazin
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by the acronym of his name Rashi (1040-1105), is considered by most Jews as the foremost Bible and Talmud commentator. His commentary is well-written and interesting to read. Very little is known about his life. Even the well-known “fact” that he ran a vineyard is most likely a legend. Many people quote him, including rabbis, without knowing why and how he developed his Bible explanations, although it is known that he took many interpretations from legends and stories in the Talmud and Midrashim. But why did he do so and why did the Talmudic and Midrashic rabbis develop these tales? It is only when we know Rashi’s methodology and compare it to the general biblical style that we can evaluate the validity of his comments.
There were two radically different methods of interpreting the Bible around 130 CE. Rabbi Akiva felt that since the Bible is a word for word revelation from God, and since God is perfect and would never place any superfluous or non-relevant materiel in a book he composed, 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, he 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, 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, he wouldn’t have hidden it in a repetition that doesn’t mean what people read into it; God could have made an explicit statement.
Rabbi Akiva’s students compiled the Midrashim and influenced most of the Talmudic rabbis. While the famed philosopher Maimonides and other rationalists accepted the view of Rabbi Ishmael, many Bible commentators, including Rashi, 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 how and why the interpretations were developed. 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.
- Genesis 9:10 repeats that God will establish his covenant in Noah’s post-flood generation with humans and animals “all that go 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.)
- 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.)
- 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 informs readers that despite difficulties that Sarah had in her life, she felt that they were all good. (There are hundreds of repetitions in the Torah without any intrinsic meaning, especially in the poetic books such as the prophets and Psalms, and they abound also in the Pentateuch.)
- When Abraham negotiates with Efron to purchase burial ground for his deceased wife Sarah, the Bible states in 23:10 that Efron 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 of the importance of Abraham who needed him [for Abraham should not need to negotiate with a common person].”
- 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 Efron’s name omits a vav in 23:16. There Rashi says the Torah omits the vav to inform readers that Efron diminished himself during his negotiations with Abraham. (Thus in example 4 the missing vav is said to elevate and in example 5 to diminish.)
- Rashi also interpreted the Torah by using gemmatrias. A gemmatria 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. (The twelfth century rational sage Abraham ibn Ezra sarcastically commented, “God does not speak in gemmatrias.”)