Rashi—An Influential Bible Commentator
WHAT was one of the first books ever printed in Hebrew? A commentary on the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses). It was published in Reggio Calabria, Italy, in 1475. Its author? A man known as Rashi.
Why would a commentary be granted this unique distinction? In his book Rashi—The Man and His World, Esra Shereshevsky states that Rashi’s commentary “became a basic text in the Jewish home and in the house of study. No other work of Jewish literature has ever been accorded such appreciation . . . More than 200 supercommentaries are known that deal directly with Rashi’s commentary on the Pentateuch.”
Have only Jews been affected by Rashi’s commentary? Though not discerned by many, Rashi’s commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures has influenced Bible translations for centuries. But who was Rashi, and how did he come to have so much influence?
Who Was Rashi?
Rashi was born at Troyes, France, in the year 1040.a As a young man, he went to Jewish religious academies at Worms and Mainz in the Rhineland. There he studied under some of the most prominent Jewish scholars in Europe. At about the age of 25, his personal circumstances necessitated returning to Troyes. Already acknowledged as an outstanding scholar, Rashi quickly became the religious leader of the local Jewish community and established his own religious academy. In time, this new center of Jewish learning became even more influential than those of Rashi’s teachers in Germany.
At that time the Jews in France enjoyed relative peace and harmony with their neighbors who professed Christianity, allowing greater freedom for Rashi’s scholarly pursuits. Yet, he was no aloof scholar. Despite his prestige as a teacher and head of the academy, Rashi earned a living as a wine maker. This intimate knowledge of common trades put him in closer touch with average Jews, helping him to understand and sympathize with their circumstances. The location of Troyes also contributed to Rashi’s insights. Situated along major trade routes, the city served as a cosmopolitan center, and this enabled Rashi to become well-acquainted with manners and customs of various nations.
Why Was a Commentary Needed?
The Jews were known as the people of the book. But “the book”—the Bible—was in Hebrew, and “the people” now spoke Arabic, French, German, Spanish, and a multitude of other languages. Though most Jews were still taught Hebrew from childhood, they did not clearly understand many Biblical terms. Additionally, for centuries a strong trend within rabbinic Judaism led people away from looking into the literal meaning of the Bible text. Allegories and legends relating to Biblical words and verses abounded. Many such comments and stories were recorded in voluminous writings, collectively called the Midrash.b
Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam), was also a Bible scholar. In his commentary on Genesis 37:2, he said that “the older commentators [before Rashi] . . . were inclined to preach sermons (derashot), which they regarded as the most important objective, [but] were not accustomed to delve into the depths of the literal meaning of the Biblical text.” Commenting on this trend, Dr. A. Cohen (chief editor of the Soncino Books of the Bible) writes: “It is true that the Rabbis laid down a rule that no interpretation was to be admitted which was incompatible with the peshat or plain meaning of the text; but in practice they paid little regard to this rule.” In such a religious environment, the average Jew felt lost when approaching the Biblical text and felt a need for some explanatory tool.
Rashi’s Goal and Methods
Rashi’s lifelong goal was to make the text of the Hebrew Scriptures understandable to all Jews. To accomplish this, he began to collect notebooks of comments on specific words and verses that he felt would present difficulty to the reader. Rashi’s notes mention his teachers’ explanations and draw from his encyclopedic knowledge of the full gamut of rabbinic literature. In linguistic research, Rashi exhausted all available sources. He gave attention to how the pointing and accent marks of the Masoretes affect textual understanding. To elucidate the meaning of a word, his commentary on the Pentateuch often refers to the Aramaic translation (Targum of Onkelos). Rashi displayed flexibility and ingenuity as he examined previously unexplored possibilities in explaining prepositions, conjunctions, verb meanings, and other aspects of grammar and syntax. Such comments made a valuable contribution to understanding the syntax and grammar of the Hebrew language.
In contrast with the dominant trend in rabbinic Judaism, Rashi always sought to highlight the simple, literal meaning of a text. But the vast Midrashic literature, so well-known by the Jews, could not be ignored. A striking feature of Rashi’s commentary is the way he relates to the very Midrashic writings that had often obscured the literal meaning of the Bible text.
In his comment on Genesis 3:8, Rashi explains: “There are many aggadicc midrashim which our Sages have already arranged suitably in Bereshit Rabbah and other midrashic anthologies. I, however, am concerned exclusively with the straightforward meaning (peshat) of the verse, and with such aggadot as explain the Scriptural account in its context.” By selecting and editing only those midrashim that in his opinion helped to clarify the meaning or context of a verse, Rashi edited out, or excluded, midrashim that caused contradiction and confusion. As a result of this editing, future generations of Jews became familiar mostly with Rashi’s choice selections of the Midrash.
While generous in giving credit to his teachers, Rashi was not hesitant to disagree when he felt that their explanations contradicted clear reasoning on a text. When he did not understand a certain passage or felt that he had previously explained it incorrectly, he was willing to admit this, even mentioning cases where his students helped correct his understanding.
Influenced by His Times
Rashi was very much a man of his times. One author summed it up this way: “[Rashi’s] great contribution to Jewish life was his reinterpretation of all relevant passages into the vernacular of the day, in such clear, lucid language, with such warmth and humanity, with such rare skill and scholarship, that his commentaries became revered as scripture and loved as literature. Rashi wrote Hebrew as though it were French, with wit and elegance. Whenever he lacked the precise Hebrew word, he used a French word instead, spelling it with Hebrew letters.” These transliterated French terms—Rashi used over 3,500 of them—have become a valuable source for students of Old French philology and pronunciation.
Although Rashi’s life began in an atmosphere of relative tranquillity, his later years witnessed increasing tension between Jews and professed Christians. In 1096 the First Crusade brought devastation to the Jewish communities of the Rhineland, where Rashi had studied. Thousands of Jews were massacred. It seems that news of these massacres had an impact on Rashi’s health (which steadily deteriorated until his death in 1105). From that point on, there was a marked change in his Scripture commentaries. One outstanding example is Isaiah chapter 53, which speaks of Jehovah’s suffering servant. Earlier, Rashi applied these texts to the Messiah, as does the Talmud. But it appears that after the Crusades, he thought that these verses had an application to the Jewish people, who had faced unjust suffering. This proved to be a turning point in Jewish interpretation of these texts.d Thus, Christendom’s unchristian behavior was turning many, including Jews, away from the truth about Jesus.—Matthew 7:16-20; 2 Peter 2:1, 2.
How Did He Influence Bible Translation?
Rashi’s influence was soon felt beyond Judaism. The French Franciscan Bible commentator Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1349) referred so frequently to the views of “Rabbi Solomon [Rashi]” that he was nicknamed “the Ape of Solomon.” In turn, many commentators and translators were influenced by Lyra, including the forerunners of the translators of the English King James Version and reformer Martin Luther, who revolutionized Bible translation in Germany. Luther leaned so heavily on Lyra that a popular rhyme went: “Had Lyra not played the lyre, Luther would not have danced.”
Rashi was deeply influenced by rabbinic thought that is out of harmony with Christian truth. Yet, with his deep insight into Biblical Hebrew terms, syntax, and grammar and his constant effort to discern the plain and literal meaning of the text, Rashi provides a meaningful source of comparison for Bible researchers and translators.
a “Rashi” is a Hebrew acronym formed from the initial letters of the words “Rabbi Shlomo Yitzḥaqi [Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac].”
b The word “Midrash” comes from a Hebrew root meaning “to inquire, study, investigate,” and by extension “to preach.”
c Aggadah (plural aggadot) literally means “narration” and refers to the nonlegal elements in rabbinic writings, often involving non-Biblical tales of Biblical characters or legends about rabbis.
d For further information on this Scriptural passage, see the box “My Servant”—Who Is He?, on page 28 of the brochure Will There Ever Be a World Without War?, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
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Text: Per gentile concessione del Ministero dei Beni Culturali e Ambientali