Excerpted from the Jewish Encyclopedia (Funk & Wagnall’s 1912).
[Rashi (Shlomo ben Yitzhak) was a] French commentator on Bible and Talmud; born at Troyes in 1040; (he) died there July 13, 1105. Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud covers the Mishnah (only in those treatises where there is Gemara) and the Gemara. In the various editions, Rashi is assumed to include all the treatises of the Talmud, with the exception of Makkot from l9b to [the] end, Baba Batra from 29b to [the] end, and Nedarim from 22b to [the] end. Modern scholars, however, have shown that the commentaries on the following treatises do not belong to Rashi: Keritot and Me’ilah,… Mo’ed Katan,…Nazir and Nedarim, and Ta’anit.
Rashi’s commentary on the treatise Berakhot was printed with the text at Soncino in 1483. The editio princeps of the whole of the Talmud with Rashi, is that of Venice, 1520‑22. Rashi’s mishnaic commentary was printed with the Basel 1580 (the order Toharot–purities) and the Leghorn 1654 (all six orders) editions. …Rashi’s Talmudic commentary was soon afterward the object of severe criticism by the Tosafists [commentators after Rashi, some of whom were his relative]), who designated it under the term “Kontres” (pamphlet). But in the seventeenth century Joshua Hoschel b. Joseph, in his “Maginne Shelomoh” (Amsterdam, 1715), a work covering several treatises, defended Rashi against the attacks of the Tosafists…
Rashi’s commentaries on the Talmud are more original and more solid in tone than those on the Scriptures. Some were revised by the author himself, while others were written down by his pupils. Here, as in his Biblical exegesis, he followed certain models, among them the commentaries of his teachers, of which he often availed himself, although he sometimes refuted them. Like them, and sometimes in opposition to them, Rashi began by preparing a rigid recension of the Talmud, which has become the received text, and which is the most natural and most logical, even though not invariably authentic.
To explain this text, he endeavored to elucidate the whole, with special reference to the development and discussions of the Gemara, striving to explain the context, grammar, and etymology, as well as obscure words, and to decide the meaning and import of each opinion advanced. He was seldom superficial, but studied the context thoroughly, considering every possible meaning, while avoiding distortion or artificiality. He frequently availed himself of parallel passages in the Talmud itself, or of other productions of Talmudic literature; and when perplexed he would acknowledge it without hesitation.
A list of general rules to which he conforms and which may be found in his Biblical commentaries presents the rudiments of an introduction to the Bible, resembling the collection of principles formulated by him in his commentaries on the Talmud and constituting an admirable Talmudic methodology. These commentaries contain, more over, a mass of valuable data regarding students of the Talmud, and the history, manners, and customs of the times in which they lived. Whether they were derived from written sources, oral tradition, or imagination, their consistency and ingenuity are praised by scholars, who frequently draw upon them for material.
As a rule, Rashi confined himself strictly to commentatorial activity, although he frequently deemed it necessary to indicate what was the halakhah, the definite solution of a problem in cases in which such a solution was the subject of controversy or doubt, or could not readily be discerned amid the mass of Talmudic controversy, or was indispensable for a clear comprehension either of a text under consideration or of passages relating to it.
In every case Rashi’s authority carried a weight equal to that of the leading posekim [halakhic authorities], and it would have had still more influence if his rulings and his responsa [answers to halakhic questions], which his disciples carefully noted–as they did also even his slightest acts and gestures–had been united in one collection, as was the case with the Spanish and German Talmudists, instead of being scattered through a number of compilations…
If the merit of a work be proportionate to the scientific activity which it evokes, the literature to which it gives rise, and the influence which it exerts, few books can surpass those of Rashi. His writings circulated with great rapidity, and his commentary on the Talmud greatly extended the knowledge of the subject, thus increasing the number of Talmudic schools in France, which soon came to be of great importance, especially those at Troyes, Ramerupt, Dampierre, Paris, and Sens.
His two sons‑in‑law, Judah b. Nathan (RIBaN) and Meir b. Samuel, and especially the latter’s three sons, Samuel (RaSHBaM), Judah, and Jacob (R. Tam), were the first of a succession of Tosafists who were closely identified in work and methods with Rashi… Rashi’s commentaries on the Talmud became the textbook for rabbis and students, and his commentary on the Pentateuch the common study of the people. The popularity of the works extended to their author, and innumerable legends were woven about his name, while illustrious families claimed descent from him.
Rashi’s lack of scientific method, unfortunately, prevents his occupying the rank in the domain of exegesis merited by his other qualities. Among the Jews, however, his reputation has suffered little, for while it is true that he was merely a commentator, the works on which he wrote were the Bible and the Talmud, and his commentaries carry a weight and authority which have rendered them inseparable from the text,
Even if his work is inferior in creative power to some productions of Jewish literature, it has exercised a far wider influence than any one of them. His is one of the masterminds of rabbinical literature, on which he has left the imprint of his predominant characteristics–terseness and clearness. His work is popular among all classes of Jews because it is intrinsically Jewish.
Pronounced: MISH-nuh, Origin: Hebrew, code of Jewish law compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era. Together with the Gemara, it makes up the Talmud.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.