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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Or take his comment on Genesis 37.3:

"Now Israel loved Joseph more than anyof his sons because hewas a son-of-old-age to him."

Rashi sees in the phrase son-of-old-age three levels of meaning: the direct sense, the implied sense, and a sense drawn out by permutating the Hebrew sounds into a like-sounding Aramaic idiom:

"A son-of-old-age. [This means] that he was born to him in the period of his aging. Onkelos [the author of an authoritative Aramaic interpretive rendering of the Torah] translates, 'a wise son is he to him'; all that he learned from Shem [the founder of the first academy in rabbinic lore] and Eber [his son, the namesake of the Hebrews] he handed down to him. Another interpretation [a clear signal of a Midrash (that is, that Rashi is about to offer a derash)]: his facial features [ziv ikonin] were similar to him."

The Hebrew phrase ben zekunim suggested the Aramaic ziv ikonin. Israel (that is, Jacob) favored Joseph for three reasons: Joseph studied with him and resembled him as well as delighted him unexpectedly in his advanced age. The biblical text, the words of God, were calculated to proliferate interpretation.

Rashi on Prophets and the Writings

In his commentaries to the Prophets and the Writings, the latter, less sacred parts of the Hebrew Bible, Rashi tends to comment less and present less midrashic material than he does on the Torah. One can imagine at least two good reasons for this disparity.

First, Rashi sought to use the commentary as an instrument of religious education. The Torah is studied most and is read over and over from year to year in the synagogue. It would, accordingly, be most effective to attach one's teachings to the most frequently encountered Jewish book, the Torah.

Second, most of the essence of God's revelations, the commandments or mitzvot, are contained in the Torah. The Torah embodies more precepts per square foot, so to speak, than the rest of the Bible. Since there is so much more to be learned from the Torah, one's commentary should be more extensive and multifaceted. This is certainly true of Rashi's.

Rashi on the Order of the Torah’s Topics

That Rashi sees the core of the Torah in its laws stands out in the introduction to his Torah commentary. If the primary objective of the Torah is to instruct us in the mitzvot, why does it defer the mitzvot by first setting out the story of Creation, of the early peoples, of the patriarchs and their families? He begins, as usual, by adducing a Midrash:

"Said Rabbi Isaac: It was unnecessary to begin the Torah except from May this month be to you . . . [Exodus 12, the first chapter in the Torah packed with mitzvot, in this case the laws of Pass­over], which is the first mitzvah which the Israelites were com­manded. So for what reason does it begin with Genesis?

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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.