From his day until the present, Rashi has been the most beloved of all medieval teachers.

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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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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.