Every little child in 'Cheder' knows the name. How much all the little Jewish children look forward to the happy day when they will begin to learn Chumash with Rashi! The very script of Rashi is fascinating! Once Chumash with the Rashi commentary is begun, the children know they have reached a new milestone on their wonderful and enchanting road to scholarship and wisdom.
But who was Rashi? When did he live? Where did he live? How did he live? These are some of the questions that many children ask themselves when they begin to learn Rashi, and these are some of the questions that I am going to answer here.
"Rashi" is not the full name of that great man. It is merely a combination of the three Hebrew letters, Resh, Shin, Yud, which stand for Rabenu Shlomo Yitzchaki - our Rabbi Solomon, the son of Yitzchak.
Rabenu Solomon Yitzchaki, or Rashi as he is generally referred to, was born almost exactly 900 years ago, in the year 4800. He lived 65 years. Rashi is said to be a descendant of King David.
Rashi was born in the town of Troyes in France; some people believe he was born in Worms. His father Yitzchak was a great scholar, but very poor. He made a meager living from the sale of wine.
A wonderful story is told about the birth of Rashi: His father, Rabbi Yitzchak once found a rare diamond. "Now, there would be no more poverty," he thought and went to sell the precious stone to the local jeweler. The jeweler hadn't enough money to pay for such a large diamond, and suggested to the bishop to buy it. Now the bishop had been looking for such a diamond for he wanted to put it on his cross. He offered a huge amount of money for it. When Rabbi Yitzchak heard for what purpose the bishop wanted the stone, he refused to sell it. He knew, however, that if he did not sell the stone, it would be taken from him forcibly, and so he threw it into the sea. A Heavenly Voice then resounded: "For this great sacrifice you will be blessed with a son that will outshine all the precious stones in the world, and the light of his Torah will shine for ever." The following year a son was born to him, and he called him Solomon, saying, may G‑d grant him wisdom like unto King Solomon.
Rashi was still a youngster when he left his home town and went to Worms and other towns that were known for their great Torah scholars. With great zeal Rashi learnt Torah and Talmud, and after some eight years of ardent study, he returned to his home town again. He was then about 25 years of age, but he continued to study on his own. Soon he became known as a very great scholar, and thousands of students and scholars flocked to him, to learn from him. Rashi, was elected Rabbi of his town Troyes, but he did not accept any wages, and made his living from the sale of wine, like his father used to do.
Rashi began to write his famous commentary on the Tanach and Talmud at an early age. The Torah was very difficult to understand properly, and the Talmud was even more difficult. Rashi decided to write a commentary in simple language that would make it easy for every one to learn and understand the Torah. But Rashi was very modest, and even after he had become famous far and wide, he hesitated to come out into the open with his commentary. He wanted to make sure that it would be favorably received. So what did he do? He wrote his commentaries on slips of parchment and set out on a two years' journey, visiting the various Torah academies of those days. He went 'incognito,' never disclosing his identity.
Rashi came to a Yeshivah and sat down to listen to the lecture of the Dean of the Yeshivah. There came a difficult passage in the Talmud which the Rabbi struggled to explain to his students; but did not succeed very well. When Rashi was left alone, he took the slip with his commentary, in which that passage of the Talmud was explained simply and clearly, and put it into the Gemora of the head of the academy. On the following morning, when the Rabbi opened his Gemora he found a mysterious slip of parchment in which the passage of the Talmud was so clearly and simply explained that he was amazed. He told his students about it, and they all decided it must have been sent from heaven. Rashi listened to their praises of his commentary and was very happy to know how useful it was to the students, but he did not say that it was his. And so Rashi went on visiting various academies of the Torah in various lands and cities, and everywhere he planted his slips of commentaries secretly. The way these slips were received, made Rashi realize more and more how needed they were, and he continued to write his commentaries on the entire Chumash, Prophets, and all the tractates of the vast 'Sea of the Talmud.' These "mysterious" slips of parchment were copied and widely circulated throughout all the academies of the Torah, but nobody knew who the author was.
Once Rashi was discovered planting a slip of his commentary in the usual manner, and the secret was out. Immediately he was acclaimed by all as the great author of that wonderful commentary. Rashi's name became known throughout the world. In every Yeshivah, in every Torah school, Rashi's commentary was used by young and old, and he literally opened the eyes of all the Torah scholars. No other Rabbi or commentator gained so much popularity as Rashi. There are very few Chumashim or Gemoras printed without Rashi, and the study of the Torah and Talmud is now almost unthinkable without the aid of Rashi's explanation.
Rashi had no sons, but he had several daughters, some say two, some say three.
His sons-in-law and grandchildren were famous scholars and commentators of the Torah and Talmud. One of his grandsons was Rabenu Tam, another one - Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir). Rashi's grandsons and disciples were the authors of the 'Tosefoth' known to all students of the Talmud.
In the last years of his life Rashi lived to see troubled times. It was the time of the crusaders, when thousands of Jews were massacred by wild and mad mobs that participated in the crusades, and wiped out whole communities on their way. Rashi's heart was broken and full of sorrow about the plight of his unfortunate brethren, and he wrote Piyutim, some of which have become part of our prayers (especially in the 'Selichoth').
At his old age Rashi's health failed him. He was weak and ailing and could no longer write. His daughter then acted as his secretary, and he dictated to her his answers to the many queries that used to come in to him from the greatest scholars of his time.
On the 29th day of Tammuz, in the year 4865, Rashi passed away. Rashi, however, continues to live in his works which are studied by all the students of the Talmud Torahs and Yeshivoths, and by the adult scholars too.
For hundreds of years there stood the ancient Beth Hamidrash in Worms in which Rashi used to learn. In it stood the ancient stone chair upon which he used to sit. Many people would come and look with awe upon these ancient relics. But in the beginning of the month of Teveth in the year 5698 (1937) some vandals set it on fire and destroyed it.