I haven’t looked forward to a book’s release so much since the final installment of Harry Potter. Here is a new biography of Rashi [1040-1105], part of Nextbook’s Jewish Encounter series, written by one of Judaism’s most revered living authors, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. Who better to write about Rashi, the French Talmud scholar, than Wiesel, who attended yeshiva as a youth, found asylum in France after surviving Auschwitz, and went on to study at the Sorbonne?
Wiesel’s Rashi, originally written in French, is a love story between the author and Rashi, who lived and died in Troyes, capital of the province of Champagne. Rashi, an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, wrote commentaries on the entire Hebrew Bible and nearly the entire Talmud. The greatest of Jewish scholars, more Jews study his words every day than all the other scholars put together.
But Rashi isn’t just words on a page; he was a writer whose personality and opinions permeate his works, a father with three learned daughters in a time when women were forbidden to study the holy texts, and a teacher who attracted a cadre of disciples who wrote devotedly of the teachings they’d “received from his mouth.”
In this slim volume, Wiesel writes a ‘stream-of-consciousness’ remembrance beginning with what he learned from Rashi as a child, then expanded with legends, musings about Rashi’s commentary on Genesis, and finally, comparisons between the First Crusade, which took place towards the end of Rashi’s life, and the Holocaust, which stole Wiesel’s youth and became the force behind his own prodigious writings. Throughout the book, Wiesel asks questions about the medieval scholar who so influenced his childhood. Yet not all his questions get answered. Like Rashi, Wiesel admits that there are things he doesn’t know.
There are only four chapters, less than 80 pages of text. The first chapter, titled “Impressions,” recounts Rashi’s life and places him in a community, country, and historical setting. Legends abound, and Wiesel is careful to label them as such. Considering his own history, Wiesel can be forgiven for focusing so heavily on the adversities that Jews of Rashi’s time suffered, yet he admits that “in the eleventh century â€¦ Jews in Europe and in the Holy Land lived in relative safety.”