Who Was Rashi?

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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Reprinted from Back to the Sources, edited by Barry Holtz, with the permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Rashi is Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, that is, Solomon ben Isaac, whose Hebrew initials spell Rashi (1040-1105). Like many Jews in northern France, he made his living growing grapes. Somehow he managed to find the time to study all the classic Jewish texts thoroughly and write commentaries on them. His most monumental achievement was his running commentary to the Babylonian Talmud, a masterpiece of peshat [a method devoted to uncovering the plain, contextual meaning of the text] and an indispensable aid for interpreting that complex body of legal dialectics.

The Nature of His Commentaries

Many of the didactic techniques that he utilized in composing the Talmud commentary he also applied in his biblical commentaries: disambiguation [establishing a clear interpretation] of language and references, translation of technical terms and realia into contemporary French, and line drawings as illustrations. (Unfortunately, printers often omitted these graphic aids from their editions.)

Thus, although Rashi was a scholar of astounding breadth, he saw his role chiefly as a teacher. He wrote textbooks rather than treatises. With pious soul and gentle humil­ity he wished to share the learning of the ages with the Jewish community of his time. His work has received much attention in English, too.

It should be stated, however, that he was not, as is often claimed, writing for the “masses.” He writes with a concise, though elegant, learned Hebrew style, which generally presupposes the reader’s sensitiv­ity to the problem that sparks his explanations. He alludes to sources that only an advanced student would recognize.

Nonetheless, Rashi has been by far the most widely read Jewish Bible commentator: His Torah commentary was the very first Hebrew book to be printed mechanically, even before the Bible itself. [It was initially debated whether or not it was appropriate to use this new technology for sacred text.] The sparest edition of Mikra’ot Gedolot, the Rabbinic Bible, will include his commentary, and students in traditional Jewish schools, yeshivot, usually begin to learn Rashi’s interpretations as soon as they begin to learn the Torah.

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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.

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