Rashbam read the Torah according to its most literal reading--even in contradiction of Jewish law.

Rashbam was a French commentator to the Bible and the Talmud (died c.1174), called Rashbam after the initial letters of his name, Rabbi Shemuel ben Meir. Rashbam’s father, Rabbi Meir, married Yochebed, daughter of Rashi.

Rashbam studied with his grandfather in Troyes, France. Rashbam’s commentary to the Torah has become one of the standard commentaries, taking its place beside those of Rashi and Nahmanides.

Rashbam observes that Rashi had told him that if he could have had his time over again he would have put more emphasis on the plain meaning (peshat) of the text. Rashbam’s aim is to explain the text in its plain meaning, though not without reference to the Rabbinic Midrash.

Two Levels of Meaning

Rashbam, on occasion, gives the plain meaning of a verse even when it contradicts the Halakhah, the law which the Rabbis consider to be derived from the verse by their hermeneutics.

There has been much discussion around this question but it would seem that Rashbam held that the Torah has two levels of meaning, the plain and the Midrashic, so that the Halakhah, while not necessarily in accordance with the plain meaning, is still based on what the Torah really means on the other level.

Rashbam’s commentary to tractate Bava Batra of the Babylonian Talmud supplements that of Rashi who only commented on the first two chapters of the tractate and a small section of the third chapter. While Rashbam is more prolix than his grandfather, his commentary gains in its astonishing clarity. Every aspect of the topic under discussion is carefully weighed and analyzed, so that many students of the Talmud find it a special delight to study this tractate with Rashbam as a guide.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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