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Rashi By Maurice Liber Characters: 22731

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

Not only is there little information concerning the incidents of Rashi's life, but also there are only a few sources from which we can learn about his mental makeup and introduce ourselves, so to speak, into the circle of his thoughts and ideas. Generally one must seek the man in his work. But into writings so objective as those of a commentator who does not even exert himself to set forth his method and principles in a preface, a man is not apt to put much of his own personality. Moreover, Rashi was disposed to speak of himself as little as possible. From time to time, however, he lets a confidence escape, and we treasure it the more carefully because of its rarity.

Fortunately we can get to know him a little better through his letters, that is, through the Responsa addressed by him to those who consulted him upon questions of religious law. Another source, no less precious, is afforded by the works of his pupils, who noted with pious care the least acts or expressions of their master that were concerned with points of law.

I shall endeavor to sum up all this information, so that we may get a picture of the man and trace his features in as distinct lines as possible.


Needless to say, Rashi's conduct was always honorable and his manners irreproachable. To be virtuous was not to possess some special merit; it was the strict fulfilment [fulfillment sic] of the Law. We have seen that Rashi's life was pure; and his life and more particularly his work reveal a firm, controlled nature, a simple, frank character, clear judgment, upright intentions, penetrating intelligence, and profound good sense. The Talmudic maxim might be applied to him: "Study demands a mind as serene as a sky without clouds." His was a questioning spirit, ever alert. He had the special gift of viewing the outer world intelligently and fixing his attention upon the particular object or the particular circumstance that might throw light upon a fact or a text. For instance, although he did not know Arabic, he remembered certain groups of related words in the language, which had either been called to his attention or which he had met with in reading. He noticed of his own accord that "Arabic words begin with 'al'." To give another example of this discernment: he explains a passage of the Talmud by recalling that he saw Jews from Palestine beating time to mark the melody when they were reading the Pentateuch.

The clearness and poise ef Rashi's intellect-qualities which he possessed in common with other French rabbis, though in a higher degree-stand in favorable contrast with the sickly symbolism, the unwholesome search for mystery, which tormented the souls of ecclesiastics, from the monk Raoul Glaber up to the great Saint Bernard, that man, said Michelet, "diseased by the love of God."

Yet the Jews of Northern France were not, as one might suppose from their literature, cold and dry of temperament. They were sensitive and tender-hearted. They did not forever lead the austere life of scholarly seclusion; they did not ignore the affections nor the cares of family; they knew how to look upon life and its daily come and go.

But they did not go to the other extreme and become philosophers. Traditional religion was to them the entire truth. They never dreamed that antagonism might arise between faith and reason. From a theological point of view-if the modern term may be employed-Rashi shared the ideas of his time. In knowledge or character one may raise oneself above one's contemporaries; but it is rare not to share their beliefs and superstitions. Now, it must be admitted, the Jews of Northern France did not cherish religion in all its ideal purity. The effect of their faith, their piety, upon these simple souls was to make them somewhat childish, and give their practices a somewhat superstitious tinge. Thus, Rashi says in the name of his teacher Jacob ben Yakar, that one should smell spices Saturday evening, because hell, after having its work interrupted by the Sabbath, begins to exhale a bad odor again in the evening. This naive faith at least preserved Rashi from pursuing the paths not always avoided by his co-religionists of Spain and the Provence, who dabbled in philosophy. Rashi never was conscious of the need to justify certain narratives or certain beliefs which shocked some readers of the Bible. Not until he came upon a passage in the Talmud which awakened his doubts did he feel called upon to explain why God created humanity, though He knew it would become corrupt, and why He asks for information concerning things which cannot escape His omniscience. But Rashi was not bewildered by certain anthropomorphic passages in the Bible, the meaning of which so early a work as the Targum had veiled. Nor was he shocked by the fact that God let other peoples adore the stars, and that altars had been consecrated to Him elsewhere than at Jerusalem. Thus his plain common sense kept him from wandering along by-paths and losing himself in the subtleties in which the Ibn Ezras and the Nahmanides were entangled. His common sense rendered him the same service in the interpretation of many a Talmudic passage that Saadia and Nissim had thought incapable of explanation unless wrested from its literal meaning. Since justice requires the admission, I shall presently dwell upon the points in which Rashi's lack of philosophic training was injurious to him. Here it is necessary merely to note wherein it was useful to him. It was not he, for instance, who held Abraham and Moses to have been the precursors-no, the disciples-of Aristotle. Ought we to complain of that?

In discussing the fundamental goodness of Rashi's nature, no reserves nor qualifications need be made. Historians have vied with one another in praising his humanity, his kindliness, his indulgent, charitable spirit, his sweetness, and his benevolence. He appealed to the spirit of concord, and exhorted the communities to live in peace with one another. His goodness appears in the following Responsum to a question, which the interrogator did not sign: "I recognized the author of the letter by the writing. He feared to sign his name, because he suspects me of being hostile to him. But I assure him I am not; I have quite the contrary feeling for him." A still quainter characteristic is illustrated by the following decision which he rendered: "If, during the prayer after a meal, one interrupts oneself to feed an animal, one does not commit a reprehensible act, for one should feed one's beasts before taking nourishment, as it is written: 'And I will send grass in thy fields for thy cattle, that thou mayest eat and be full.'" But the quality Rashi possessed in the highest degree was simplicity, modesty, one may almost say, humility; and what contributed not a little to the even tenor of his existence was his capacity for self-effacement.

Such was his nature even when a youth in the academies of Lorraine. He himself tells how once, when he was in the house of his teacher, he noticed that a ritual prescription was being violated in dressing the meat of a sheep. His teacher, occupied with other matters, did not notice the infringement of the law, and the pupil was in a quandary. To keep quiet was to cover up the wrong and make it irreparable; to speak and pronounce a decision before his master was to be lacking in respect for him. So, to escape from the embarrassing situation, Rashi put a question to his master bearing upon the dressing of the meat.

Toward all his teachers Rashi professed the greatest respect. On a certain question they held wrong opinions, and Rashi wrote: "I am sure they did not cause irremediable harm, but they will do well in the future to abstain from such action." This shows at the same time that Rashi did not hesitate to be independent, did not blindly accept all their teachings. When he believed an opinion wrong, he combated it; when he believed an opinion right, he upheld it, even against his masters. On one occasion, Isaac ha-Levi delivered a sentence which to his pupil seemed too strict. "I plied him with questions," says Rashi, "to which he would not pay attention, although he could not give any proof in support of his opinion." To the pupils of Isaac, he wrote: "I do not pretend to abolish the usages that you follow, but as soon as I can be with you, I shall ask you to come over to my opinion. I do not wish to discuss the stricter practices adopted in the school of Jacob ben Yakar (Isaac's predecessor), until I shall have established that my idea is the correct one. He will then acknowledge that I am right, as he did once before."

This is the circumstance referred to. While still a pupil of Isaac ha-Levi, Rashi had accepted a decision of his without having thoroughly studied it. Later he became convinced that his teacher was mistaken, but he bore it in mind until he went to Worms and persuaded his teacher to his own belief.

Rashi displayed the same reserve in the exercise of his rabbinical functions, especially when the community appealing to him was not that of Troyes. That of Chalons-sur-Saone once consulted him concerning an interdiction imposed by R. Gershom, and asked him to repeal it; but Rashi modestly declined to give an opinion.[29]

Rashi's modesty is also illustrated by the tone of his correspondence. Deferential or indulgent, he never adopted a superior manner, was never positive or dogmatic. When his correspondents were wrong, he sought to justify their mistakes; when he combated the explanation of another, he never used a cutting expression, or a spiteful allusion, as Ibn Ezra did, and so many others.

Finally, it seems, he did not hesitate to recognize his own mistakes, even when a pupil pointed them out to him, and it is possible to select from his commentaries a number of avowals of error. In his Responsa he wrote: "The same question has already been put to me, and I gave a faulty answer. But now I am convinced of my mistake, and I am prepared to give a decision better based on reason. I am grateful to you for having drawn my attention to the question; thanks to you, I now see the truth." This question concerned a point in Talmudic law; but he was willing to make a similar admission in regard to the explanation of a Biblical verse. "In commenting on Ezekiel I made a mistake in the explanation of this passage, and as, at the end of the chapter, I gave the true sense, I contradicted myself. But in taking up the question again with my friend Shemaiah,[30] I hastened to correct this mistake."

An old scholar named R. Dorbal, or Durbal, addressed a question to Rashi, and Rashi in his reply expressed his astonishment that an old man should consult so young a man as he. Assuredly, said Rashi, it was because he wanted to give a proof of his benevolence and take the occasion for congratulating Rashi on his response, if it were correct.

It would take too long to enumerate all the passages in which Rashi avows his ignorance, and declares he cannot give a satisfactory explanation.

We have seen that Rashi did not hesitate to acknowledge that he owed certain information to his friends and pupils, and that his debates with them had sometimes led him to change his opinion. The confession he made one day to his grandson Samuel about the inadequacy of his Biblical Commentary[31]

has become celebrated, and justly so. There is something touching in the way he listened to the opinions of his grandson, and accepted them because they appeared correct to him-the man who loved truth and science above everything else. Like many noble spirits, he considered his work imperfect, and would have liked to do it all over again. This modesty and this realization of the truth are the ruling qualities of his nature.


The ideal Jew combines virtue with knowledge, and tradition ascribes to Rashi universal knowledge. In the first place he was a polyglot. Popular admiration of him, based upon the myth concerning his travels and upon a superficial reading of this works, assigned to him the old miracle of the Apostles. The languages he was supposed to know were Latin, Greek, Arabic, and Persian. He was also said to be acquainted with astronomy, and even with the Kabbalah, of which, according to the Kabbalists, he was an ardent adept. After his death, they say, he appeared to his grandson Samuel to teach him the true pronunciation of the Ineffable Name. Medical knowledge was also attributed to Rashi, and a medical work ascribed to his authorship. One scholar went so far as to call him a calligrapher.[32] From his infancy, it was declared, he astonished the world by his learning and by his memory; and when, toward the end of his life, he went to Barcelona, he awakened every one's admiration by his varied yet profound knowledge.

These errors, invented, or merely repeated, but, at all events, given credence by the Jewish chroniclers and the Christian bibliographers, cannot hold out against the assaults of criticism. To give only one example of Rashi's geographical knowledge, it will suffice to recall how he represented the configuration of Palestine and Babylonia, or rather how he tried to guess it from the texts.[33] His ignorance of geography is apparent in his commentaries, which contain a rather large number of mistakes. In addition, Rashi was not always familiar with natural products, or with the creations of art, or with the customs and usages of distant countries. Still less was a rabbi of the eleventh century likely to have an idea of what even Maimonides was unacquainted with, the local color and the spirit of dead civilizations. Rashi-to exemplify this ignoranceexplained Biblical expressions by customs obtaining in his own day: "to put into possession," the Hebrew of which is "to fill the hand," he thinks he explains by comparing it with a feudal ceremony and discovering in it something analagous [analogous sic] to the act of putting on gauntlets. In general, the authors of Rashi's time, paying little regard to historic setting, explained ancient texts by popular legends, or by Christian or feudal customs. Therefore, one need not scruple to point out this defect in Rashi's knowledge. Like his compatriots he did not know the profane branches of learning. He was subject to the same limitations as nearly the entire body of clergy of his day. While the Arabs so eagerly and successfully cultivated philosophy, medicine, astronomy, and physics, Christian Europe was practically ignorant of these sciences. Finally, one will judge still less severely of Rashi's knowledge-or lack of knowledge-if one remembers what science was in the Christian world of the middle ages-it was childish, tinged with superstition, extravagantly absurd, and fantastically naive. Rashi believed that the Nile flooded its banks once every forty years; but Joinville, who lived two centuries later, and who was in Egypt, tells even more astonishing things than this about the marvellous [marvelous sic] river, which has its source in the terrestrial Paradise.

Besides French, the only profane language Rashi knew was German. The explanations he gives according to the Greek, the Arabic, and the Persian, he obtains from secondary sources. Indeed, they are sometimes faulty, and they reveal the ignorance of the man who reproduced without comprehending them. No great interest attaches to the mention of his chronological mistakes and his confusion of historical facts. His astronomic knowledge is very slight, and resolves itself into what he borrowed from the Italian Sabbatai Donnolo, of Oria (about 950).

But limited as his knowledge was to Biblical, Talmudic, and Rabbinical literature, it was for that reason all the greater in the province he had explored in its inmost recesses. This is shown by his numerous citations, the sureness of his touch, and his mastery of all the subjects of which he treats.

Thanks to the citations, we can definitely ascertain what we might call his library.

Needless to say, the first place was held by the Bible, which, as will be seen, he knew perfectly. He wrote commentaries upon the Bible almost in its entirety, besides frequently referring to it in his Talmudic commentaries. His favorite guide for the explanation of the Pentateuch is the Aramaic version by Onkelos. For the Prophets he used the Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel.[34] He was entirely ignorant of the Apocryphal books. The Wisdom of Ben Sira, for instance, like the Megillat Taanit, or Roll of Fasts,[35] were known to him only through the citations of the Talmud.

On the other hand Rashi was thoroughly conversant with the whole field of Talmudic literature-first of all the treatises on religious jurisprudence, the Mishnah,[36] Tosefta,[37] the Babylonian and, in part, the Palestinian Gemara;[36] then, the Halakic Midrashim, such as the Mekilta, the Sifra, the Sifre,[38] and Haggadic compilations, such as the Rabbot,[39] the Midrash on the Song of Songs, on Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, and Samuel, the Pesikta,[40] the Tanhuma,[41] and the Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer.[42]

According to tradition, Rashi has set the Talmudic period as the date of composition of two works which modern criticism has placed in the period of the Geonim. These works are the historic chronicle Seder Olam[43] and the gnostic or mystic treatise on the Creation, the Sefer Yezirah; the forerunner of the Kabbalah. Besides these anonymous works, Rashi knew the Responsa of the Geonim, which he frequently cites, notably those of Sherira[44] and his son Hai,[45] the Sheeltot of R. Aha,[46] and the Halakot Gedolot, attributed by the French school to Yehudai Gaon.[47] In the same period must be placed two other writers concerning whom we are not wholly enlightened, Eleazar ha-Kalir and the author of the Jewish chronicle entitled Yosippon. Eleazar, who lived in the eighth or ninth century, was one of the first liturgical poets both as to time and as to merit. The author of the Yosippon undoubtedly lived in Italy in the tenth century. Rashi, like all his contemporaries, confounded the two respectively with the Tanna R. Eleazar and the celebrated Josephus. They were considered authorities by all the rabbis of the middle ages, the first for his language and his Midrashic traditions, the second for his historical knowledge.[48]

So far as the literature contemporary, or nearly contemporary, with Rashi is concerned, it must be stated that Rashi had read all the works written in Hebrew, while the whole of Arabic literature was inaccessible to him. Without doubt he knew the grammarian Judah Ibn Koreish[49] only by the citations from him. On the other hand he made much use of the works of the two Spanish grammarians, Menahem ben Saruk and Dunash ben Labrat,[50] likewise the works of Moses haDarshan, of Narbonne. Naturally, he was still better versed in all the rabbinical literature of Northern France and of Germany. He frequently cites R. Gershom, whom he once called "Father and Light of the Captivity," as well as his contemporaries Joseph Tob Elem, Eliezer the Great, and Meshullam ben Kalonymos, of Mayence. I have already mentioned-and will repeat further on how much he owed his teachers.

For the sake of completeness, it is necessary to add to this list all the contemporaries from whom Rashi learned either directly or indirectly. For information concerning the Talmud, Isaac ben Menahem the Great, of Orleans, may be mentioned among these; and for information concerning the Bible, Menahem ben Helbo, whom Rashi probably cited through the medium of one of his pupils or his writings, for he himself was not known to Rashi, his younger contemporary.

If one also takes into consideration the less important and the anonymous persons whose books or oral teachings Rashi cited, one will be convinced that he had what is called a well-stocked brain, and that his knowledge in his special domain was as vast as it was profound, since it embraced the entire field of knowledge which the Jews of Northern France of that time could possibly cultivate. His learning was not universal; far from it; but he was master of all the knowledge his countrymen possessed.

Thanks to this erudition, he could fill, at least in part, the gaps in his scientific education. In fact, an understanding of Talmudic law presupposes a certain amount of information-geometry and botany for questions concerning land, astronomy for the fixation of the calendar, zoology for dietary laws, and so on. Rashi's knowledge, then, was less frequently defective than one is led to suppose, although sometimes he lagged behind the Talmud itself. It has been noted that of 127 or 128 French glosses bearing upon the names of plants, 62 are absolutely correct. In history Rashi preserved some traditions which we can no longer verify, but which seem to be derived from sources worthy of confidence; and if it had not been for Rashi, we would not have become acquainted with them.

What he knew, therefore, he knew chiefly through reading and through the instruction of his teachers, to whom he often appealed; for he possessed that most precious quality in a scholar, conscience, scientific probity. One example will suffice to give an idea of his method. Once, when he was searching for a text in his copy of the Talmud, he found it corrected. But he did not remember if he himself or his teacher had made the correction. So he consulted a manuscript in which he had noted down the variants of his teacher Isaac of Mayence. Not being able to determine from this, he begged his correspondent to look up the manuscript of Isaac and to let him know the reading.

This characteristic leads us back to a consideration of Rashi's nature, upon which one likes to dwell, because it makes him a sage in the most beautiful and the largest meaning of the word, because it makes him one of the most sympathetic personalities in all Jewish history. If Rashi had left nothing but the remembrance of an exemplary life and of spotless virtue, his name would have merited immortality.

But Rashi bequeathed more than this to posterity; he left one, nay, two monuments to awaken admiration and call forth gratitude. They assure him fame based on a solid foundation. What matter if we Jews fail to honor our great men with statues of marble and bronze, if they themselves establish their glory on pedestals that defy the ravages of time? Statues raised by the hand of man are perishable as man himself; the works constructed by a genius are immortal as the genius himself.



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