From his day until the present, Rashi has been the most beloved of all medieval teachers.
This article is reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
The Model Ashkenazic Life
Foremost French commentator, called Rashi after the initial letters of his name, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhak (1040-1105). Rashi was born in Troyes in northern France and spent most of his life in this city. In his youth Rashi studied for a number of years at the great center of Jewish learning, Mayyence in Germany, where his teachers, to whom he refers repeatedly in his commentaries, were the disciples of Rabbenu Gershom of Mayyence, the spiritual father of Ashkenazi Jewry.
Returning to his native city, Rashi taught without a fee a number of chosen disciples, earning his living by means of the vineyards he owned. The Rabbinic injunction not to receive payment for teaching the Torah was rigorously adhered to in the Middle Ages.
Rashi’s daughters married scholars, members of whose family established the school of the Tosafot glosses to the Talmud. [Tosafot, lit. “additions,” were glosses added to Rashi’s commentary by Talmudic scholars in France (the tosafists) in the 12-14th centuries.] Rashi’s two most famous grandsons were Rashbam and his younger brother, Rabbenu Tam.
Humash with Rashi
Rashi’s undying fame rests on his commentaries to the Bible and the Babylonian Talmud, printed together with the text in practically all editions. Rashi’s commentary to the Humash (Pentateuch) was first printed in Reggio, Italy, in 1475 and seems to have been the first Hebrew book ever printed. Over the generations this commentary has been used as the prime guide, so that the term “Humash and Rashi” became part of the universal Jewish vocabulary. Rashi was jocularly called the “brother” of the Humash.
Rashi’s method is to state what he considers to be the plain meaning (peshat) of the text and also homiletical comments (derash) culled from the Midrash. For instance, in Rashi’s comment on the first word of Genesis, bereshit, “In the beginning,” he notes that on the plain meaning this word, in the construct state (Rashi was a gifted grammarian), should be rendered as “in the beginning of,” that is, the word is connected with what follows in the verse: “In the beginning of God’s creation of the heaven and the earth, the earth was…” But he also quotes a Midrashic comment according to which bereshit means “because of the beginning,” both the Torah and Israel being referred to in Scripture as “The beginning,” so that the verse states, homiletically, that “God has created the world because of the Torah and because of Israel;” in other words, God’s ultimate purpose in creation was for Israel to receive the Torah.
Rashi's Intellectual Horizon
Unlike Maimonides and the Spanish school generally, Rashi, like the rabbis of the Midrash, was not bothered by the philosophical question of what it can mean to say that God has a purpose, or of why his purpose should be so particularistic. The French and German school, to which Rashi belonged, was not interested in philosophical niceties. In Solomon Schecter’s felicitous phrase, they “neither understood nor misunderstood Aristotle.”
Rashi lived at the time of the First Crusade (1095) which created havoc among the Jewish communities of the Rhineland where he had studies in his youth. It is therefore not surprising that his commentary to Psalms contains veiled attacks on Christian dogmas and the Christian interpretation of Scripture.
The Talmud Teacher
Rashi’s great genius as a commentator is particularly evident in his massive running commentary to the Talmud. Rashi here rarely raises questions of his own but, with uncanny anticipation of the difficulties the student will find, supplies that required solution in a few well-chosen words. He also records variant texts he had discovered in his travels and, where necessary, suggests a plausible emendation of the text. The Tosafot and other commentators often take issue with Rashi’s explanation but all students agree that without Rashi the Talmud would have remained a closed book. Rashi often explains Talmudic terms by giving the french equivalent. These laazim (“foreign words”) have become a major source for scholars of Old French.
In all Rashi’s writings there is evidence of his close familiarity with the world around him. The most loveable of all medieval teachers was interested in buildings, food and drink, politics and economics and many other topics, all of which he uses for the elucidation of the biblical and Talmudic texts. From the responsa he wrote Rashi emerges as a very kind and gentle scholar sensitive to human needs. As his biographer, Liber, has observed, there is an effervescence in Rashi reminiscent of the Champagne country in which he lived for most of his life.
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