December 9, 2023
December 9, 2023

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Rashi: Insights Into His Life and Works

Part I

The scholar Avraham Grossman, who was a professor of Jewish history at Hebrew University for many years, came out with an important book on Rashi in 2006. It was translated into English in 2012 with the simple title “Rashi.” I would like to share some of the things I learned from it.

1. As to the name “Rashi,” Grossman suggests that it may have originally been applied to him by his students as an abbreviation of “Rabbeinu She-Yichyeh” (“our rabbi, may he live”). Only later did it come to be understood as an abbreviation for “Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki” (son of Yitzchak).

2. Rashi (1041-1105) was born and died in Troyes, a city in northern France. He lived most of his life there, except that at about age 18, he went to the yeshiva in Mainz and later switched to the yeshiva in Worms. Without his approximately 10 years of study in Germany, and the traditions and manuscripts he saw there, he could never have written the works that he did. Grossman writes that “he returned to Troyes as a mature scholar and began to engage in literary production and community activity,” and “assumed a central position in the leadership of the small Troyes community.” Many of Rashi’s comments on the Talmud are derived from his teachers at the German yeshivas. This is true to a lesser extent of his biblical interpretations.

We know very little about Rashi’s father, mother and wife. (At least, with respect to his father, we know his name!)

Rashi had three daughters. Yocheved married Rabbi Meir ben Samuel, and they had four sons, including Rashbam and Rabbeinu Tam. Miriam married Rabbi Yehudah ben Nathan (Rivan). Rachel married a Rabbi Eliezer, of whom nothing else is known, and they divorced after a brief period. There was perhaps a fourth daughter who died in childhood

In Germany and France, Sages were not paid for teaching in yeshivas. So how did Rashi earn a living? Various scholars maintained that Rashi made his living from the wine business. But Haym Soloveitchik disagreed, arguing that the agricultural conditions where Rashi lived were not suited to growing grapes. Grossman agrees with Soloveitchik and concludes that Rashi earned his living in commerce with non-Jews, as did most Jews in France and Germany.

Rashi is famous for a wine leniency he gave. Rashi held that non-Jews in his time were not well-versed in the nature of idolatry, and therefore they should be considered like newborn infants whose touch does not make wine into “yayin nesech.” Accordingly, he permitted drinking wine that had been touched by non-Jews. This view was contrary to the ruling of his teachers and colleagues in Germany. Rashi’s leniency made it much easier for Jews in his area to acquire wine from elsewhere, as it facilitated the shipping by non-Jews. (This leniency was very helpful, because travel on the roads outside the cities was dangerous.)

3. The comments that appear in the name of Rashi in the books of Ezra, Nechemiah, Chronicles and the end of Job (starting with 40:25) are not his.

4. Regarding the text of Rashi’s Torah commentary, there are dozens of manuscripts and early printed copies. This makes the task of ascertaining the original text a very difficult one. An important attempt was made by the scholar Abraham Berliner. He published a critical edition in 1866 based on more than 100 manuscripts and numerous printed editions.

The earliest manuscripts that we have are from the second quarter of the 13th century. This is over 100 years after Rashi’s death. Sages and teachers who worked with Rashi’s Torah commentary often made marginal notes, and what was originally in the margins was placed by later copyists into the text. Grossman thinks that about 10% of what we have today is not from Rashi himself.

Also, Rashi himself made changes in his commentary, so multiple versions already existed in his lifetime.

5. Rashi rarely cited the Jerusalem Talmud. It seems that Rashi had only selections of the Jerusalem Talmud available to him. Rashi never cites R. Hananel’s commentary on the Talmud, but it is possible that, late in life, he heard some of its ideas and used them.

6. Rashi’s biblical commentaries were already widely respected in Germany and France in his own lifetime. But I cannot resist quoting a different view by Ibn Ezra, whose roots are in Spain: “He thinks he is on the path of peshat, but in his books only one of a thousand comments is peshat; yet the Sages of our generation glory in these books.” (This statement is found in the introduction to the Safah Berurah. Ibn Ezra is obviously exaggerating in his criticism.)

Rambam (1138-1204, Spain and Egypt) never explicitly refers to Rashi’s commentaries. But Grossman adds that “he may well have been influenced by them.” (Unfortunately, Grossman does not explain further.)

7. Eventually we are all taught that what motivated Rashi to make a comment in his biblical commentaries was that he saw a question. I think I was first taught this late in elementary school. At the time, we all used those blue linear translations of Rashi into English. I don’t think this work ever mentioned this idea! It just translated, giving us the misleading impression that Rashi was just writing without a question. (Ok, I should not criticize them. It was probably hard enough to do an accurate linear translation into English, without getting into any analysis. That could be left to the next generation of works of Rashi in English, which has amply fulfilled this task.)

Grossman points out that many times, Rashi saw a question where most would see no question. For example, when the Torah mentions names of people or places, Rashi would often make a comment because he tried to explain the additional message in the names. (See, e.g., his comments on Bereishit 38:5 to the place name “Cheziv.”) But did place names and names of individuals really warrant a comment? Cannot the Torah mention a place name or the name of a person without it having an underlying message? Grossman writes that Rashi saw significance in every detail mentioned in the Torah.

Conversely, Grossman observes that there are many kinds of questions that Rashi fails to ask. For example, regarding the akeidah, Rashi explains the verses, but does not ask all of the philosophical questions that arise. (E.g., did God not know Abraham’s thoughts and the profundity of his faith even without the test? Why does God test individuals in general?) Ramban asks these broader questions. Rashi was content to consider the local problem. Grossman writes that, for the most part, there are two different approaches that biblical exegetes follow: “One considered only the specific words; the other looked at the broader unit and concentrated on the problems that it raised. Rashi fell within the first category. He interpreted individual words or phrases, only rarely examining the structure and characteristics of the unit as a whole…”

8. We have just discussed Rashi’s questions. The more important topic is Rashi’s answers. I will address this next week.

Mitchell First is a Jewish history scholar. He still does not know what color tie Rashi wore. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more of his articles, visit his website at

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