June 19, 2024
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Rashbam Part II: Life and Works

I previously addressed the interpretive approach of the Rashbam. Now I would like to share some further insights about his life and works. Most of this column is based on Ephraim Urbach, Baalei HaTosafot (1980), and Rabbi Yonatan Kolatch, Masters of the Word, vol. II (2007).

1. R. Shmuel son of Meir was born around 1080 and died around 1174. (Both dates are uncertain.) He lived most of his life in Ramerupt, in northern France. His mother was Rashi’s daughter Yocheved. His brother was Jacob b. Meir, also known as Rabbeinu Tam. Their father Rabbeinu Meir was a founder of the Tosafist movement.

Upon Rashi’s death in 1105, Rashbam took over the leadership of Rashi’s yeshiva in Troyes, but he later returned to Ramerupt and opened his own yeshiva there.

In 1147, on the second day of Shavuot, Crusaders came and attacked the Jewish community of Ramerupt. Rabbeinu Tam, also living there at the time, was attacked and almost killed.

2. As to Rashbam’s livelihood, Kolatch writes: “Like many Jews in northern France, Rashbam made his living as a wine and wool merchant. He had flocks of sheep, and his daughter…supervised the kashrut of their milking.” (This daughter is the only child of his that we know about. Milk had to be supervised to prevent the addition of milk of dubious origin.)

The following interesting story is told by someone about the milking of his sheep: “I saw that Rabbeinu Tam was very irritated with Rabbeinu Shmuel, who had many sheep, and they were a bit far from the Jewish houses and kept on the property of a non-Jew. Rabbi Shmuel used to send his daughter Merona to supervise. But by the time she got there, half or all had already been milked.” (Obviously the two brothers loved one another and respected one another. This is just one weird story. It is found at Urbach, p. 46.)

3. Aside from his commentary on the Torah, it is believed that Rashbam wrote on the entire Nach. His commentary on Esther and fragments of his commentary on Ruth and Eichah have been published.

Kolatch mentions commentaries on Iyov, Kohelet and Shir HaShirim that have been attributed to Rashbam, but he adds that Rashbam’s authorship of these is questionable. Critical editions of these commentaries have been published. Also, in 1984 Moshe Sokolow published a manuscript that included Rashbam’s comments to Zech. 14:7 and Jer. 32:12 as well as part of his commentary to Devarim (see below). Rashbam’s commentary on Psalms 42-141 was recently discovered in a manuscript in the National Library of Russia.

The website AlHatorah.org has been reconstructing Rashbam’s commentary on the various books of Neviim and Ketuvim and has put his comments on its site with references as to where each comment came from.

4. Rashi often gives multiple interpretations in his commentary on the Torah. But Rashbam, in his commentary on the Torah, consistently limits himself to one explanation. Also, while Rashi often says “I do not understand” in his commentary on the Torah, Rashbam never makes such an admission. (Of course, perhaps he just did not write when he was not sure.)

5. In the first two centuries after it was written, Rashbam’s commentary was cited by many. (On the other hand, there were many who it seems to have never reached, such as Ramban, R. Bachye, Baal Ha-Turim, and Abarbanel.) It seems to have been unavailable from the 14th century until it was first printed in Berlin in 1705, after Rabbi David Oppenheim found a manuscript in an attic. In the mid-18th century, Mendelssohn and his colleagues often cited Rashbam in their Bei’ur. It has been speculated that Rashbam’s commentary may have been ignored in the earlier period because his divergence from the interpretations of Chazal was not appealing to those generations.

Also, the Iggeret HaShabbat of Ibn Ezra strongly attacked anyone who believed that Jewish days begin in the morning. Rashbam said something like this in his commentary to Gen. 1:5. Although Ibn Ezra did not mention Rashbam by name in this work, many scholars believe that this work was intended as a critique of Rashbam. It has been speculated that this work of Ibn Ezra may also have contributed to Rashbam’s work being ignored.

Ibn Ezra was able to befriend Rabbeinu Tam. They exchanged poems and correspondence. See, e.g., Tos. to Rosh Ha-Shanah 13a. Also, according to Kolatch, p. 276, they “developed a close and mutually respectful relationship” when Ibn Ezra spent time in northern France.

6. Regarding the text of Rashbam’s Torah commentary, the manuscript printed in 1705 was missing the first 17 chapters of Bereishit, and Parshat Pinchas, and from Devarim 33:4 until the end. (It had been eaten by rodents on both ends!) Some of the missing sections have been found: 1) the commentary to Bereishit chapter 1 was published by Abraham Geiger in 1854, and the commentary to Devarim chapter 34 was published by Moshe Sokolow in 1984.

The website AlHatorah.org has been attempting to reconstruct the missing comments of Rashbam. The individual who runs the site, Hillel Novetsky, did his PhD thesis on the topic of reconstructing Rashbam to Genesis chapters 1-17. I have written about this previously. Briefly, the Mikraot Gedolot in the AlHatorah.org site divides the reconstructed interpretations into two categories: 1) almost definite, and 2) questionable. The latter are presented in brackets. The site has notes to briefly explain the basis of each reconstruction and refers the reader to the pages in his dissertation for the extensive analysis. (A copy of the dissertation can be obtained from the site.)

It is of interest that Rashbam’s commentary did not appear in the Mikraot Gedolot until 1885! The first edition of the Mikraot Gedolot was published long before, in the early 16th century.

7. We all know of Rashbam’s commentary on the tenth chapter of Pesachim, and on Bava Batra, starting on p. 29a (after Rashi’s comments end). As to Bava Batra, there is evidence that Rashbam wrote even on the earlier pages. See Urbach, p. 49.

With regard to Pesachim, there is a commentary by Rashi on the tenth chapter. So why do we have Rashbam as well? Based on a variety of clues, Urbach suggests what happened. Rashi wrote drafts of a commentary to this chapter. But once he saw Rashbam’s commentary, he decided it was not necessary to finish his own.

Rashbam wrote commentaries on many other tractates. We know this because of mention of these in other Rishonim. AlHatorah.org has part of his commentary on Avodah Zarah. Rashbam also composed works of halachah that have not survived (on topics like the laws of Yom Tov and the laws of shechita). See Urbach, p. 57.

8. Tosafot typically refer to Rashi as “peirush ha-kuntres.” “Kuntres” means pamphlet. This term was used because Rashi’s students copied his comments into pamphlets. There are Tosafot on Pesachim and Makot that refer to Rashbam’s commentaries with this same phrase: “peirush ha-kuntres.” See Urbach, pp. 49 and 54.

9. Finally, aside from being a Bible and Talmud commentator, Rashbam was a communal leader as well, authoring takkanot and gezerot. Also, “hundreds of Rashbam’s legal decisions in all areas of Jewish law appear in the responsa of Rosh and Ra’avya, among others.” (See Kolatch, p. 91.)


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. The word קונטרס derives from the Latin “commentarius.” So obvious (but not until it is pointed out!).

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