The virtue of the famous Bible commentary by Rashi, grape grower and teacher, lies in its diversity--and its lack of originality.

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His commentary to a great extent comprises a digest of rabbinic law and teaching. By virtue of his lack of originality, he is the most representative rabbi among the medieval commentators.

Rashi's anthological mode of commentary encourages the typical view in yeshivot that what the Written Torah means is what the Oral Torah (the Talmud and Midrash) explains; and what the Oral Torah explains is selectively distilled by Rashi. Thus the most essential or relevant meaning of the Torah, in the traditional view, is that which found in Rashi's commentary.

A modern, critical student of the Bible however, will maintain a historical distance between what the Bible meant in its own period and what it came to mean to later generations. We read Rashi's commentary not as the historical meaning of the biblical text but rather as an acute testimony to what rabbinic Jews of the classical and medieval periods found the text to mean. We read Rashi’s commentary, in other words, as a text unto itself, and one with a spiritual significance and suggestiveness to us, too.

The Relationship between Peshat and Derash

Much has been made of the difficulty in classifying Rashi's exegetical procedure. Here he gives derash [an interpretive reading], there he gives peshat [the plain meaning]. Rashi himself does not appear to have been quite so method-conscious as his critics. He does not distinguish between what we [call]  peshat and derash,but rather between what the text says without interpretation and what the text conveys once its full significance has been homiletically drawn out.

He explains himself most clearly in his comment on Genesis 3.8, the verse that relates how the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden heard the Lord moving about on the premises:

"There are many aggadic [interpretive narrative] homilies [on this verse], and our rabbis have already arranged them in their place in Genesis Rabbah and the other Midrash collections. I come only to present what the text says directly and such aggadah that sets the wording of the text on its proper bearings."

What he means, and what he in fact obeys in his practice, is that he will restrict the aggadah that he adduces to that which responds to some peculiarity or outstanding feature of the language of the text.

An example from his commentary to Exodus 1.7: The Torah says that in Egypt the Israelites grew very numerous, from 70 to 600,000 able-bodied men plus women, children, and the elderly. How did they do it? One of the verbs that the Hebrew employs to denote the multiplying of the Israelites is vayishretzu, "they swarmed," a word that connotes reptiles and other swarming creatures. In response to this pe­culiar wording, Rashi sees fit to present a midrashic interpretation from Exodus Rabbah:

"They swarmed. [This means] that the women would give birth to six in each womb."

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Edward L. Greenstein is professor of Bible at Tel Aviv University and author of Reader Responsibility: The Making of Meaning in Biblical Narrative.