February 22, 2024
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February 22, 2024
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Was Rashi Motivated by Non-Exegetical Factors in His Torah Commentary?

As we all know, Rashi generally took his answers from the midrash instead of offering suggestions of his own. In the view of Nehama Leibowitz, Rashi was strictly an exegete and consistently chose the midrash that best fit with the plain sense of the verses, and adapted it slightly if necessary. No other considerations influenced him.

But perhaps Rashi did have goals in his commentary other than correct exegesis. Much ink has been spilled on this issue. I am going to base my discussion on an article by Rabbi Hayyim Angel, in “Peshat Isn’t So Simple” (2014) and on a book and article by Avraham Grossman. Grossman discusses this issue in his book “Rashi” (2006; Eng.tr. 2012). Earlier he discussed the issue in an article “Religious Polemic and Educational Purpose in Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah.” It is included in Pirkei Nehama (2001).

We are going to focus on Rashi’s Torah commentary. That is where the battle among the Rashi scholars really occurs. (In his Nach commentaries, there are times that he explicitly states that he prefers to give explanations to answer the heretics rather than give the interpretations of the Sages.)

Grossman writes (Rashi, pp. 84-85): “All agree that Rashi devoted much care to selecting the midrashim that he incorporated into his commentary. He referred to his method at several points…[Although] he is not fully consistent in applying the method, he clearly imposed certain standards in selecting the midrashim. Were those standards solely exegetical, or were they also aesthetic and conceptual? Did Rashi ever cite a midrash for which there was no exegetical need, doing so solely for literary or pedagogical purposes?…”

One place in which Rashi sets forth his standard for including midrashim is his commentary on Gen. 3:8: “I come only [to deal with] the plain meaning of the text and with aggadah that resolves the words of scripture, davar davur al afnaiv (Prov. 25:11).” The precise idiom intended in those last four words is unclear. A standard translation of the phrase is: “as a word fitly spoken.”

Grossman writes that “other statements made by Rashi suggest that the term ‘as a word fitly spoken’ encompasses two principal components: an interpretation that adheres to the rules of grammar and that corresponds to the subject and compositional context.” See also Rashi’s comm. to Isa. 26:11.

But a close examination of Rashi’s commentaries shows that he sometimes uses rabbinic midrashim that fail to meet his two criteria of linguistic and substantive compatibility. He sometimes cites midrashim that are far removed from the plain meaning, linguistically and substantively.

Here is one example that Grossman cites. I am now quoting from his “Rashi,” pp. 86-87:

“The injunction against eating forbidden foods begins as follows: ‘These are the living things [haḥayah] which ye may eat among all the beasts [habehemah] that are on the earth’ (Lev. 11:2). The difficulty is obvious: Why are ‘beasts’ referred to initially as ‘living things’? Rashi [later] offers a plain-meaning interpretation…according to which ‘beasts’ are included within the category of ‘living things,’ that is, hayah is a general noun that includes behemah. But Rashi…first offers a rather remote midrash: ‘These are the living things’—it refers to life, for Israel is bonded to God and ought to be alive. He therefore separated them from impurity.’

“In other words, the statement ‘These are the living things which ye may eat’ means that the commandment instills life into the Israelites… Is it conceivable that Rashi did not sense the magnitude of the divide between the midrash and the plain meaning of the verse? It is evident that he—like the author of the midrash—was motivated by pedagogical considerations whose purpose was to energize the Jews to avoid forbidden foods and to emphasize the advantage that they enjoyed over the non-Jews who ate them. That…is what led Rashi to make use of this midrash.” (See the parable from Midrash Tanchuma that Rashi cites at the end about the physician.)

Grossman concludes that Rashi had certain goals that exceeded that of linguistic and substantive exegesis and led him to stray from his declaration of intent. These goals were “to educate Jews and to fortify them and equip them for the difficult confrontation with Christian supercessionist propaganda… When he found a rabbinic midrash that promoted one of these goals, he did not hesitate to cite it, even if it was far removed from the plain meaning of the verse.” Rashi, pp. 87-88. Grossman also concludes that it is evident that Rashi sometimes felt deep affection for some of the midrashim and found it hard to refrain from citing them, even if this clashed with his declaration of intent.

Rabbi Angel (p. 41) summarizes the view of Grossman: “Rashi saw assimilation and persecution among French Jews, and therefore used his commentary to inspire them during the grim period surrounding the First Crusade… Rashi may have selected midrashim he knew were far from peshat in order to convince his community that they are loved by God and should remain faithful to the Torah and mitzvot.”

Another scholar, Yitzchak Gottlieb, adopts a similar conclusion. He concludes that Rashi cited certain midrashim instead of others as part of his desire to provide comfort for persecuted Jews, to affirm God’s love of Israel, and to defend Judaism against Christian polemical accusations.

One of the most famous Rashis in this regard is his reinterpretation of Jacob’s statement to Isaac at Gen. 27:19. Rashi offers a change in punctuation so the words should be read: “Anochi. Esav bechorecha.” As Rabbi Angel writes (p. 42, summarizing the view of Grossman), “Rashi knew he was deviating from peshat in this instance… He did so, in all likelihood, because Christians regularly accused Jews of being deceitful in business, emulating their ancestor Jacob. By writing that Jacob did not use deceit (even translating “mirmah” as “wisdom” on 27:35), Rashi deflated the Christian indictment at its roots.”

Angel continues: “Grossman also demonstrates that Rashi consistently quoted midrashim that defended the character of Jacob and those that lambasted Esau… Rashi used Jacob as a symbol for the Jews, and Esau represented a combination of Edom, Rome and Christianity. Although several of Rashi’s comments [on Jacob and Esau] also may address textual anomalies, the consistent pattern of midrashic selections can be understood more fully against the polemical backdrop.”

Angel concludes (summarizing Grossman’s conclusion): “The primary, overarching goal of [Rashi’s] commentary was to provide religious guidance to Jews. If his educational goals coincided with peshat—which they usually did—then Rashi could teach biblical text and Judaism simultaneously. If not, Rashi favored religious teaching over a sterile, ‘scientific’ response to the biblical text.”


Rashi’s repunctuating of Esau’s statement at Gen. 27:19 reminds me of a passage in a book by Ezer Weizman, “The Battle for Peace”: “The switch from peace to war could be sharp and swift. Sadat would not have to retract a single word; even his famous declaration in Jerusalem, ‘No more war!’ only needed repunctuating to read: ‘No more! War!’”

I can be reached at [email protected]. Last week, I alluded to a joke about Rashi’s tie. I realize now that I erred. There are two versions to the joke. In one version, the reference is to academic scholars knowing what color shirt he wore. In the other version, academic scholars know what kind of tobacco he smoked. This is all in contrast to traditional students of Rashi who concentrate on what he wrote.

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