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.

Seeing the Torah through Rabbinic Lenses

In traditional circles, Rashi's is the key version of what the Torah means. While very little of medieval commentary exists in any English edition, Rashi's commentary on the Torah may be found in two English editions. The main reason for Rashi's far-reaching success is that more than presenting innovative insights into the meaning of the Bible, he encapsulates traditional rabbinic understandings.

His commentary to a great extent comprises a digest of rabbinic law and teaching. By virtue of his lack of originality, he is the most representative rabbi among the medieval commentators.

Rashi's anthological mode of commentary encourages the typical view in yeshivot that what the Written Torah means is what the Oral Torah (the Talmud and Midrash) explains; and what the Oral Torah explains is selectively distilled by Rashi. Thus the most essential or relevant meaning of the Torah, in the traditional view, is that which found in Rashi's commentary.

A modern, critical student of the Bible however, will maintain a historical distance between what the Bible meant in its own period and what it came to mean to later generations. We read Rashi's commentary not as the historical meaning of the biblical text but rather as an acute testimony to what rabbinic Jews of the classical and medieval periods found the text to mean. We read Rashi’s commentary, in other words, as a text unto itself, and one with a spiritual significance and suggestiveness to us, too.

The Relationship between Peshat and Derash

Much has been made of the difficulty in classifying Rashi's exegetical procedure. Here he gives derash [an interpretive reading], there he gives peshat [the plain meaning]. Rashi himself does not appear to have been quite so method-conscious as his critics. He does not distinguish between what we [call]  peshat and derash,but rather between what the text says without interpretation and what the text conveys once its full significance has been homiletically drawn out.

He explains himself most clearly in his comment on Genesis 3.8, the verse that relates how the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden heard the Lord moving about on the premises:

"There are many aggadic [interpretive narrative] homilies [on this verse], and our rabbis have already arranged them in their place in Genesis Rabbah and the other Midrash collections. I come only to present what the text says directly and such aggadah that sets the wording of the text on its proper bearings."

What he means, and what he in fact obeys in his practice, is that he will restrict the aggadah that he adduces to that which responds to some peculiarity or outstanding feature of the language of the text.

An example from his commentary to Exodus 1.7: The Torah says that in Egypt the Israelites grew very numerous, from 70 to 600,000 able-bodied men plus women, children, and the elderly. How did they do it? One of the verbs that the Hebrew employs to denote the multiplying of the Israelites is vayishretzu, "they swarmed," a word that connotes reptiles and other swarming creatures. In response to this pe­culiar wording, Rashi sees fit to present a midrashic interpretation from Exodus Rabbah:

"They swarmed. [This means] that the women would give birth to six in each womb."

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?

“On account of: The power of his acts has he [God] related to his people, to give them the territory of nations. (Psalm 111:6) If the nations of the world say to Israel, 'Robbers are you, for you have conquered the lands of the seven nations!'—Israel can say to them: 'All the land is the Holy One blessed be He's. He created it, and he has given it to those who are right in his eyes. By his will he gave it to them, and by his will he took it back from them and gave it to us.'"

The Book of Genesis places seven peoples in the land of Canaan before Abraham came to possess it by the command of God. The Torah intro­duces in Genesis the notions of God's dominion over all that he created and of God's covenant with the ancestors of Israel. [Thus] Rashi elucidates the logic underlying the topical arrangement of 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.