Author Archives: Edward L. Greenstein

About Edward L. Greenstein

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

Who Was Rashi?

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.

A Divine Integration

The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, has been known by Jewish tradition as a single, unified text—as a book—since at least the fifth century B.C.E., from the beginning of what, from a historical point of view, can be called “Judaism proper.” Judaism proper may be said to begin when Jews seek the will of God not by way of prophecy but rather by means of interpreting Scripture. One of the most fundamental principles of interpretation that was applied at that point, and then later in the rabbinic tradition, is that the Torah is a unity. That understanding has been difficult to maintain in light of scholarship that identifies the Torah’s constituent literary sources. Building upon the work of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, Greenstein offer his view of how the editor of the Torah created a unified, integrated document that allows the reader to engage God.

god in bibleSince the fifth century BCE, Jews have treated the Torah as a unity; the rabbinic tradition employed this principle most obviously by interpreting laws in such a way that they would never contradict each other; or by smoothing over apparent inconsistencies in the Torah’s narratives. In modern times, readers have become particularly sensitive to differences in content and style between one passage in the Torah and another. In the course of the 19th century, scholars developed an elaborate theory holding that the differences in style and content among the various books and passages of the Torah could best be explained historically.


According to this documentary theory, the Torah was compiled and edited—“redacted”—from at least four major sources or documents, each of which originated in a different time and/or place. The earliest source, J, was thought to be produced in the relatively early monarchy in the southern kingdom of Judah; the E source was thought to have been written not long thereafter in the northern kingdom of Israel; the D document, comprising primarily the Book of Deuteronomy, was written toward the end of the Judean monarchy, in the late seventh century B.C.E.; and the P or Priestly source was thought to be a product of the Judean exile (sixth century) or as late as Ezra.