June 3, 2024
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The Unusual Interpretive Approach of Rashbam

I have read hundreds of Rashbam’s insights into verses and know him as a “peshat” commentator, one of the earliest in the Ashkenazic world. He lived in northern France in the 12th century and was a grandson of Rashi. I have also long been aware of his comments at Gen. 37:2: Rashi admitted to him that “if only he [=Rashi] had the time, he would need to revise his commentaries based on the insights into the plain meaning that arise anew every day.”

But what I did not know until recently were Rashbam’s comments on the first verse in Genesis: “All the words of the Sages and their drashot are correct and true.” Also, he states elsewhere that when he offers a plain-sense interpretation that is different than the halachic one, it is the halachic interpretation that overrules the plain-sense interpretation. See his comments at the beginning of Exodus, chap. 21. (See also Rabbi Amnon Bazak, To This Very Day, pp. 389-90. Bazak points out that the correct text of the end of the Rashbam here is probably halacha okeret mikra=the halacha uproots the verse. See Sotah 16a.)

So the question arises why Rashbam troubled to write a plain-sense commentary at all on verses involving halacha. Why bother if he is just going to conclude that the Sages’ interpretations override his own? (If he was on the Supreme Court, he would definitely not rule as an “originalist.” He might write interesting footnotes about original intent but then he would disregard them!)

Of course, it makes sense that he is fully in agreement with the words of the Sages. He took over the yeshiva that his grandfather had led and later opened his own yeshiva in Ramerupt. He wrote commentaries on the Talmud. So what motivated him to write a commentary that he himself would disregard for purposes of halacha?

Here are some famous examples of interpretations by Rashbam that differ from the ones accepted in the Talmud:

-According to Ex. 21:6, if a Jewish slave wants to extend his servitude, he submits for an ear piercing and he is allowed to serve his master לעלם. The Talmud (Kidd. 21b) interprets this to mean “until the jubilee.” But Rashbam takes the word literally to mean the slave’s entire life.

-According to Ex. 21:10, a man is obligated to provide his wife with she’eir, kesut and ענה. The first two words mean “food” and “clothing.” As to the last word, the Sages interpret it to mean marital relations (based on the “time” meaning of the root ענה, related to עת). But Rashbam interprets the word as “living quarters” (similar to the word מעון, with its root perhaps being עון). In Rashbam’s plain-sense interpretation, the husband’s obligation to provide relations to his wife has been completely eliminated.

-The Sages interpret Ex. 13:9 as a reference to arm and head tefillin. But Rashbam reads the verse metaphorically as instructing the Israelites to preserve the memory of the Exodus as if it were imprinted on their arm and as an adornment on their head. (A non-observant scholar once joked that he wore the “tefillin of Rashbam”!)

-See also Rashbam to Lev. 21-1-4 on the subject of a priest defiling himself for his deceased wife.

Aside from what motivated Rashbam to write plain-sense comments on matters of halacha, the other issue that must be addressed is why Rashbam believed that interpretations that seem to be essentially rabbinic in origin take precedence over the plain sense of the biblical passages.

Scholars have pointed out that Rashbam did not seem troubled by the inconsistency in result between “peshat” and “derash” interpretations (=interpretations based on derashot using traditional midot). In the mind of Rashbam, “peshat” was one category of interpretation and “derash” was another.

As to what motivated Rashbam to write plain-sense interpretations on matters of halacha, Yonatan Kolatch writes: “The Sages derived halachot and derashot from peshat problems in the text, such as extra words or sentences or unusual expressions. Chazal viewed these ‘aberrations’ as concealing information revealed by derash. Thus, to appreciate Chazal’s midrashic interpretations, it is imperative first to understand the peshat.” See his Masters of the Word, vol. II (2007), p. 97.

Kolatch also writes (p. 115) regarding the tefillin passage: “While the legal ramifications of a ‘sign upon your arm’ may require the wearing of tefillin, there may be another level beyond the letter of the law—a metaphorical level, in which the spirit of the law demands a constant awareness of God.”

But we still do not have an explanation for matters like the complete redefinition of the obligation of ענה. (It would be interesting if Rashbam wrote a work of halacha related to marriage and if he wrote there that a husband has an underlying moral—but not halachic—obligation to provide living quarters for his wife. But there is no such work or passage.)

Ephraim Kanarfogel writes that “in the medieval Jewish mindset in general, and especially within medieval Ashkenaz, peshat, derash, remez (and perhaps even sod) were equally valid ways of ascertaining and presenting the truths of the Torah, given the possibility of multiple interpretations and exegesis inherent within the Torah itself… Thus Rashbam and others could engage in ‘enlightened’ peshat and other critical forms of biblical interpretation while maintaining their roles as leading Tosafists and talmudists…” See his “The Intellectual History and Rabbinic Culture of Medieval Ashkenaz” (2013), p. 31. This is part of a section called “Multiple Truths and Interpretations.”

(There are sometimes contradictions between Rashbam’s interpretation of a biblical verse in his Talmud commentary and his interpretation of the same verse in his Torah commentary. Rashbam was probably not bothered by such contradictions. He was taking a different approach in each commentary.)

But why would Rashbam take the position that the Sages’ halachic interpretations, based on their use of traditional interpretive midot, were controlling? After all, aren’t the resulting interpretations essentially rabbinic ones? (This position is taken by Maimonides.)

An interesting suggestion was made by Mordechai Cohen in an article in “Regional Identities and Cultures of Medieval Jews” (2018). Cohen suggests that both Jews and Christians in the time of the Rashbam viewed the Bible as “essentially a cryptic text, the deeper meaning of which lies beneath its surface” and “both assumed that the deeper meaning of the Bible is the more important, even truer, one.” Cohen suggests that Rashbam believed that, in using traditional midrashic interpretive methods, the Sages were not drawing their own creative inferences, “but were actually discovering the deep intention implanted in the Bible by God Himself.”

But Rashbam repeatedly writes that he is looking for the “omek peshuto” (=the deep plain sense) of the verse when he gives his plain-sense interpretations (that are going to be overruled).

To be consistent with Cohen, we would have to suggest that the motivation for Rashbam’s commentary was to help us understand the deep plain sense. That way we can better understand the distinction between that and the other sense that God wanted, the one that is hidden and must be drawn out by exegetical methods. (This distinction is obviously a subtle one.)

P.S. There is a great podcast on Rashbam by Prof. Martin Lockshin at www.seforimchatter.buzzsprout.com.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He recently heard a shiur that pointed out that with regard to legal verses in the Torah, it is sometimes Moses Mendelssohn who is agreeing with the Sages’ interpretations, and Rashbam who is disagreeing!

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