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   Chapter 5 THE COMMENTARIES-GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS

Rashi By Maurice Liber Characters: 23880

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


Rashi stands before us a teacher distinguished and original, a religious leader full of tact and delicate feeling, a scholar clear-headed and at the same time loving-hearted. In which capacity, as teacher, religious leader, scholar, does he evoke our deepest admiration? Shall we accord it to the one who made a home for Talmudic studies on the banks of the Seine, and so gave a definite impetus to French Jewish civilization? Or shall we accord it to the one who for nearly forty years presided over the spiritual destinies of an active and studious population and fulfilled the duties of a rabbi; with all the more devotion, without doubt, because he did not have the title of rabbi? Or should we not rather pay our highest tribute to Rashi the man, so upright and modest, so simple and amiable, who has won for himself the veneration of posterity as much by the qualities of his heart as by those of his intellect, as much by his goodness and kindliness as by the subtlety and acumen of his mind, in a word, as much by his character as by his knowledge? Nevertheless his knowledge was extraordinary and productive of great works, which we shall consider in the following chapters.

As spiritual chief of the French Jews, it was natural that Rashi should occupy himself with the source of their intellectual and religious activity, with the Bible. But in his capacity of Talmudist and teacher, it was equally natural that he should devote himself to the explanation of the Talmud, which formed the basis of instruction in the schools, besides serving to regulate the acts of everyday life and the practices of religion. And as a rabbinical authority he was called upon to resolve the problems that arose out of individual difficulties or out of communal questions. We need no other guide than this to lead us to an understanding of his works. But not to omit anything essential, it would be well to mention some collections which were the result of his instruction, and some liturgical poems attributed to him.

* * * * *

Rashi owes his great reputation to his commentaries on the two great works that comprehend Jewish life in its entirety, and lie at the very root of the intellectual development of Judaism, the Bible and the Talmud. His commentaries involving an enormous amount of labor are all but complete; they fail to cover only a few books of the Bible and a few treatises of the Talmud. The conjecture has been made that at first he set himself to commenting on the Talmud, and then on the Bible, because at the end of his life he expressed the wish that he might begin the Biblical commentary all over again. But this hypothesis is not justified. The unfinished state of both commentaries, especially the one on the Talmud, shows that he worked on them at the same time. But they were not written without interruption, not "in one spurt," as the college athlete might say. Rashi worked at them intermittently, going back to them again and again. It is certain that so far as the Talmudic treatises are concerned, he did not exert himself to follow the order in which they occur. He may have taken them up when he explained them in his school. But in commenting on the Bible, it seems, he adhered to the sequence of the books, for it was on the later books that he did not have the time to write commentaries. Moreover, he sometimes went back to his commentary on a Biblical book or a Talmudic treatise, not because he worked to order, like Ibn Ezra, and as circumstances dictated, but because he was not satisfied with his former attempt, and because, in the course of his study, the same subject came up for his consideration. Though the commentaries, then, were not the result of long, steady application, they demanded long-continued efforts, and they were, one may say, the business of his whole life. The rabbi Isaac of Vienna, who possessed an autograph commentary of Rashi, speaks of the numerous erasures and various marks with which it was embroidered.

The commentaries of Rashi, which do not bear special titles, are not an uninterrupted exposition of the entire work under consideration, and could not be read from cover to cover without recourse to the text explained; they are rather detached glosses, postils, to borrow an expression from ecclesiastical literature, upon terms or phrases presenting some difficulties. They are always preceded by the word or words to be explained.

It is evident, then, that Rashi's works do not bear witness to great originality, or, better, to great creative force. Rashi lacks elevation in his point of view, breadth of outlook, and largeness of conception. He possessed neither literary taste nor esthetic sense. He was satisfied to throw light upon an obscurity, to fill up a lacuna, to justify an apparent imperfection, to explain a peculiarity of style, or to reconcile contradictions. He never tried to call attention to the beauties of the text or to give a higher idea of the original; he never succeeded in bringing into relief the humanity of a law, or the universal bearing of an event.

Rashi failed also to regard a thing in its entirety. He did not write prefaces to his works setting forth the contents of the book and the method to be pursued.[51] In the body of the commentaries, he hardly ever dwells on a subject at length, but contents himself with a brief explanation. In short, his horizon was limited and he lacked perspective. It is to be regretted that he did not know the philosophic works of Saadia, who would have opened up new worlds to him, and would have enlarged the circle of his ideas. If he had read only the Biblical commentaries of the great Gaon, he would have learned from him how to grasp a text in its entirety and give a general idea of a work.

Even if he had limited himself to the Talmud, Rashi, without doubt, would have been incapable of raising a vast and harmonious edifice, like the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides. He did not possess the art of developing the various sides of a subject so as to produce a well-ordered whole. He lacked not only literary ambition, but also that genius for organizing and systematizing which classifies and co-ordinates all the laws. Though methodical, he lacked the power to generalize.

This defect, common to his contemporaries, arose, possibly, from a certain timidity. He believed that he ought to efface himself behind his text, and not let his own idea take the place of the author's, especially when the text was a religious law and the author the Divine legislator. But it seems that his power of creative thought was not strong, and could exercise itself only upon the more original works of others. We find analogous features in scholastic literature, which developed wholly in the shadow of the Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, and Aristotle.

This narrow criticism, this eye for detail, this lack of general ideas and of guiding principles at least guarded Rashi against a danger more original spirits failed to escape, namely, of reading preconceived notions into the text, of interpreting it by an individual method, and, thus, of gathering more meaning, or another meaning, than was intended by the author. Unlike the Jewish and Christian theologians, Rashi felt no need to do violence to the text in order to reconcile it with his scientific and philosophic beliefs.

Though Rashi, as I said, had not a creative intellect, he yet had all the qualities of a commentator. First of all, he possessed clearness, the chief requisite for a commentary, which undertakes to explain a work unintelligible to its readers. "To write like Rashi" has become a proverbial expression for "to write clearly and intelligibly." Rashi always or nearly always uses the expression one expects. He finds the explanation that obtrudes itself because it is simple and easy; he excels in unravelling [unraveling sic] difficulties and illuminating obscurities. To facilitate comprehension by the reader Rashi resorted to the use of pictures and diagrams, some of which still appear in his Talmudic commentary, though a number have been suppressed by the editors. Once, when asked for the explanation of a difficult passage in Ezekiel, he replied that he had nothing to add to what he had said in his commentary, but he would send a diagram which would render the text more intelligible. It is remarkable with what ease, even without the aid of illustrations, he unravelled [unraveled sic] the chapters of Ezekiel in which the Prophet describes the Temple of his fancy; or the equally complicated chapters of Exodus which set forth the plan of the Tabernacle.

Essentially this power of exposition is the attribute of intelligent insight. Rashi's was the clearest, the most transparent mind-no clouds nor shadows, no ambiguities, no evasions. He leaves nothing to be taken for granted, he makes no mental reservations. He is clearness and transparency itself.

But Rashi's language is not merely clear; it is extremely precise. It says with accuracy exactly what it sets out to say. Rashi did not hesitate sometimes to coin new words for the sake of conveying his thought. He always heeded the connotation of a word, and took the context into account. Once, in citing a Talmudic explanation of a verse in Jeremiah, he rejected it, because it did not square with the development of the thought; and often he would not accept an interpretation, because a word in the text was given a meaning which it did not have in any other passage. He grasped, and rendered in turn with perfect accuracy, shades of meaning and subtleties of language; and the fine expression of relations difficult to solve surprises and charms the reader by its precision.

Commentators in the effort to be clear are often wordy, and those who aim at brevity often lack perspicuity. The latter applies to Abraham Ibn Ezra, who might have said with the poet, "I avoid long-windedness, and I become obscure." Samuel ben Meir, on the other hand, grandson and pupil of Rashi, is, at least in his Talmudic commentaries, so long-winded and prolix that at first glance one can detect the additions made by him to the commentaries of his grandfather. It is related, that once, when Rashi was ill, Samuel finished the commentary Rashi had begun, and when Rashi got well he weighed the leaves on which his pupil had written and said: "If thou hadst commented on the whole Talmud after this fashion, thy commentary would have been as heavy as a chariot." The story, which attributes somewhat uncharitable words to Rashi, yet contains an element of truth, and emphasizes the eminent quality of his own commentaries.

He rarely goes into very long explanations. Often he solves a difficulty by one word, by shooting one flash of light into the darkness. The scholar and bibliographer Azulai scarcely exaggerated when he said that Rashi could express in one letter that for which others needed whole pages. A close study of the Talmudic commentaries shows that he replied in advance and very briefly to the questions of many a Talmudist.

It is only in considering the difficult passages that he goes to greater length to note and discuss explanation previously propounded. Take for example what he says on the words 'al mut Laben', the superscription of Psalm ix, which are a crux interpretum. At the same time the reader will observe how ancient are certain interpretations of modern exegetes. Rashi begins by refuting those who allege that David wrote this Psalm on the death of his son Absalom; for in that case Haben and not Laben<\H> would have been necessary, and nothing in the text bears out this explanation. Others transposed the letters of Laben to read Nabal, but there is no reference to Nabal in this Psalm. Others again, like the Great Massorah, make a single word of almut<\H>. Menahem and Dunash,[52] each proposes an explanation which seems to be i

ncorrect. The Pesikta, in view of verse 6, thinks the Psalm refers to Amalek and Esau; and this, too, is not satisfying. Finally, Rashi gives his own explanation, scarcely better than the others,- that the Psalm deals with the rejuvenation and purity of Israel when it will have been redeemed from the Roman captivity.

When difficult questions are propounded by the Talmud, or arise out of a consideration of the Talmud, Rashi cites previous explanations or parallel texts. But this is exceptional. As a rule he finds with marvellous [marvelous sic] nicety and without circumlocution the exact word, the fitting expression, the necessary turn. One or two words suffice for him to sum up an observation, to anticipate a question, to forestall an unexpressed objection, to refute a false interpretation, or to throw light upon the true meaning of word or phrase. This is expressed in the saying, "In Rashi's time a drop of ink was worth a piece of gold." It was not without justification - though, perhaps, the practice was carried to excess - that for centuries commentaries were written upon these suggestive words of his under the title Dikduke Rashi, the "Niceties of Rashi." Even at the present day his commentaries are minutely studied for the purpose of finding a meaning for each word. In fact, because of this concise, lapidary style, his commentaries called into existence other commentaries, which set out to interpret his ideas, - and frequently found ideas that did not belong there. Though the authors of these super - commentaries were Rashi's admirers, they were scarcely his imitators.

In this regard it is of interest to compare the commentary of Rashi upon the beginning of the treatise Baba Batra with that of Samuel ben Meir upon the end of the treatise, which Rashi did not succeed in reaching. An even more striking comparison may be made with the commentary of Nissim Gerundi upon the abridgment of the Talmud by Alfasi, which is printed opposite to that of Rashi.[53] Rashi's style is unmistakable, and prolixness in a commentary attributed to him is proof against the alleged paternity.

By virtue of these qualities, possessed by Rashi in so high a degree, he is true to the traditions of French literature, which is distinguished for simplicity and clearness among all literatures. Besides, he compares with the French writers of the middle ages in his disregard of "style." It is true, he handles with ease Hebrew and Aramaic, or, rather, the rabbinical idiom, which is a mixture of the two. But he is not a writer in the true sense of the word. His language is simple and somewhat careless, and his writing lacks all traces of esthetic quality.

* * * * *

Since the Bible and the Talmud made appeal to readers of another time and another language than those in which they were written, Rashi's first duty was to explain them, then, if necessary, translate them, now to add clearness to the explanation, now to do away with it wholly. These translations, sometimes bearing upon entire passages, more often upon single words, were called glosses, Hebrew laazim (better, leazim), the plural of laaz. They were French words transcribed into Hebrew characters, and they formed an integral part of the text. Rashi had recourse to them in his teaching when the precise Hebrew expression was lacking, or when he explained difficult terms, especially technical terms of arts and crafts. The use of a French word saved him a long circumlocution. Sometimes, the laaz followed a definition or description, in a striking manner giving the meaning of the word or expression.

In employing these French laazim, Rashi introduced no innovation. His predecessors, especially his masters, had already made use of them, perhaps in imitation of the Christian commentators, who likewise inserted words of the vernacular in their Latin explanations. The Latin - speaking clergy were often forced to employ the common speech for instructing the people; and in the eleventh century beginnings were made in the translation of the Old and New Testament by the rendition of important passages. But while it perturbed the Church to see the Scriptures spread too freely before the gaze of the layman, the rabbis never feared that the ordinary Jew might know his Bible too well, and they availed themselves of the laazim without scruple. The frequent occurrence of the laazim is one of a number of proofs that French was the current speech of the Jews of France. Hebrew, like Latin among the Christian clergy, was merely the language of literature and of the liturgy. It is noteworthy that the treatises containing most laazim bear upon questions affecting the common acts of daily life - upon the observance of the Sabbath (treatise Shabbat), upon the dietary laws, (Hullin), and upon laws concerning the relations of Jews with non-Jews (Abodah Zarah). Rashi extended the use of the laazim, developing this mode of explanation; and the commentaries of his disciples, who continued his method, are strewn with French words, which were then inserted in the Hebrew - French glossaries. Several of these glossaries are about to be published. After Rashi's commentaries became a classic wherever there were Jews, the laazim were often translated into a foreign language, as into German or Italian. The Pseudo - Rashi on Alfasi,[54] following the manuscripts, sometimes presents a German translation now with, now without the French word.

Rashi's Biblical and Talmudic commentaries contain 3157 laazim, of which 967 occur in the Biblical commentaries and 2190 in the Talmudic, forming in the two commentaries together a vocabulary of about two thousand different words. In the Biblical commentaries, concerned, as a rule, not so much with the explanation of the meaning of a word as with its grammatical form, the laazim reproduce the person, tense, or gender of the Hebrew word; in the Talmudic commentaries, where the difficulty resides in the very sense of the word, the laazim give a translation without regard to grammatical form.

At the present time these laazim are of interest to us, not only as the expression of Rashi's ideas, but also as vehicles of information concerning the old French. As early an investigator as Zunz remarked that if one could restore them to their original form, they would serve as a lexicon of the French language at the time of the Crusades. But even Zunz did not realize the full value to be extracted from them. The rare specimens that we possess of the langue d'oil[55] of the eleventh century belong to the Norman dialect and to the language of poetry. Written, as they were, in Champagne, the laazim of Rashi represent almost the pure French (the language spoken in Champagne lay between the dialect of the Ile-de-France and that of Lorraine [56]), and, what is more, they were words in common use among the people, for they generally designated objects of daily use. These laazim, then, constitute a document of the highest importance for the reconstruction of old French, as much from a phonetic and morphologic point of view, as from the point of view of lexicography; for the Hebrew transcription fixes to a nicety the pronunciation of the word because of the richness of the Hebrew in vowels and because of the strict observance of the rules of transcription. Moreover, in the matter of lexicography the laazim offer useful material for the history of certain words, and bring to our knowledge popular words not to be found in literary and official texts. In the case of many of these terms, their appearance in Rashi is the earliest known; otherwise they occur only at a later date. And it is not difficult to put the laazim back into French, because of the well-defined system of transcription employed. Even the laws of declension (or what remained of declension in the old French) are observed.

Unfortunately, the great use made of Rashi's commentaries necessitated a large number of copies, and frequent copying produced many mistakes. Naturally, it was the laazim that suffered most from the ignorance and carelessness of the copyists and printers, especially in the countries in which French was not the current language. Efforts have been made within the last two centuries to restore the laazim. Mendelssohn and his associates applied themselves to the commentary on the Pentateuch, Lowe, to the Psalms, Neumann, to the Minor Prophets, Jeitteles and Laudau, to the whole of the Bible, and the Bondi brothers, Dormitzer, and, above all, Landau, to the Talmudic commentaries. But these authors, not having consulted the manuscripts and knowing the French language of the middle ages only imperfectly, arrived at insufficient results. Even the identifications of Berliner in his critical edition of the commentary on the Pentateuch are not always exact and are rarely scientific.

Arsene Darmesteter (1846-1888), one of the elect of French Judaism and a remarkable scholar in the philology of the Romance languages, realized that in the commentaries of Rashi "the science of philology possesses important material upon which to draw for the history of the language in an early stage of its developinent." With the aim of utilizing this material, he visited the libraries of England and Italy, and gathered much that was important; but his numerous occupations and his premature death prevented him from finishing and publishing his work. In the interests of French philology as well as for a complete understanding of the text of Rashi, it would be advantageous to publish the notes that he collected. In fact, such a work will appear, but unfortunately not in the proportions Darmesteter would have given it. Nevertheless, it will be found to contain information and unique information, upon the history, the phonetics, and the orthography of medieval French; for the first literary works, which go as far back as the eleventh century, the life of Saint Alexius and the epic of Roland, have not come down to us in the form in which they were written. "What would the trouveres of Roland and the clerics of Saint Alexius have said if they had been told that one day the speech of their warrior songs and their pious homilies would need the aid of the Ghetto to reach the full light of day, and the living sound of their words would fall upon the ears of posterity through the accursed jargon of an outlawed race?"[57]

In this chapter I have made some general observations upon the composition and the method of the Biblical and Talmudic Commentaries of Rashi. Concerning their common characteristics there is little to add, except to remark that the explanations are generally simple, natural, and unforced. This is especially true of the Talmudic commentaries. Rashi in large part owes the foundations upon which his works are built to his predecessors, and no higher praise could be accorded him than to say that he knew the great mass of traditions and the explanations made before him.

However, Rashi rather frequently gave his own personal explanation, either because he did not know another, or because those propounded before him did not seem adequate or satisfying. In the latter case, he usually put down the rejected explanation before setting forth his own. Yet there are cases in which intelligence and imagination fail to supply knowledge of some special circumstance; and such lack of knowledge led Rashi into many errors. On the whole, however, the commentaries contain invaluable information, and are of the very highest importance for Jewish history and literature, because of the citations in them of certain lost works, or because of hints of certain facts which otherwise would be unknown. Modern historians justly recognize in Rashi one of the most authoritative representatives of rabbinical tradition, and it is rare for them to consult him without profit to themselves.

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