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Rashi's Method of Biblical Commentary

Rashi's Method of Biblical Commentary

Rashi's Method of Biblical Commentary, and the Rebbe's approach to Rashi's works

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Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose -- The more things change, the more they stay the same. While the Jewish people may be scattered over the globe, immersed in a variety of different modern cultures, one thing that has not changed is their unfaltering dedication to the teachings of Rashi -- an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, French scholar of 11th century France.

Unlike Moses, Rashi did not receive the Torah from G-d at Sinai, nor was Rashi revered as a prophet. Yet 900 years after his passing, Jews of all ages and persuasions still seek their weekly guidance and inspiration from Rashi’s commentary to the Torah; and Rashi remains the primary exponent of the Talmud, the core of Judaism’s vast intellectual heritage. Rashi’s commentaries have gained such an authority that they have become inseparable from the text -- one does not learn Torah, but Torah with Rashi. He has thus become the undisputed father of all commentators, as Nachmanides wrote, “He [Rashi] has the firstborn right” (after Deut. 21:17).

Even in Rashi’s own lifetime, his fame spread beyond the boundaries of northern France and the German provinces of the Rhine. Shortly after his passing he was known not only in Provence, but in Spain and even in the East. The Spanish exegetes, among them Avraham ibn Ezra and Nachmanides, and Talmudists such as Zerahiah Gerondi, recognized his authority (although they frequently disputed his opinions).

A further testament to Rashi’s success is that his commentary on the Torah was the first printed Hebrew book (in Reggio, 1475), and since then, virtually all Hebrew Bibles have been printed with Rashi’s commentary.

And if the merit of a work is proportionate to the activity which it evokes and the literature to which it gives rise, few books can surpass those of Rashi. On Rashi’s commentary to the Torah alone there are over 300 published works of “super-commentary” re-evaluating his words, again and again, and his Talmudic commentaries have prompted even more widespread analysis and debate.

So, after 900 years, the question has only become stronger: How did Rashi achieve such extraordinary success? And what can we learn from Rashi’s approach in our daily lives?

A Master of Simplicity

The predominant theme of Rashi’s life and teachings was simplicity. Rashi had no formal secular education. He wrote no major philosophical works. His books were not surrounded by controversy. His goal was to clarify the texts of the Torah, without scholastics, so that people would be able to study them properly. He possessed no graces of style, created no new literature, but he represented Judaism at its simplest and warmest core.

Rashi’s primary quality was his perfect clearness: Rashi’s explanations always seem adequate. Rashi rarely raises questions of his own but, with uncanny anticipation of the difficulties the student will encounter, offers the required solution in a few well-chosen words. Yet Rashi is never diffuse; his terseness is universally conceded. A single word frequently suffices to summarize a remark or anticipate a question.

So, on the surface, Rashi appears to have been successful simply because he took so many classic texts and rendered them accessible to a broad readership.

As Jews, however, we have always been taught to perceive success in the broader context of Divine assistance and approval. As Moses warned the Jewish people before entering the Land of Israel, “You will say in your heart, ‘My own ability and the strength of my own hand has accumulated this wealth for me!” Then you must remember G-d, your G-d, for it is He who gives you the ability to make wealth” (Deut. 5:17).

Rashi’s unparalleled success was, therefore, clearly a sign of Divine approval, of both his work and the refinement of his character.

Judaism encompasses three inseparable forms of love: Love of G-d, love of the Torah and love of the Jewish people and all of humanity. A weakness in any one of these three loves undermines the others. I believe it was Rashi’s exceptional dedication to all of these areas that prompted his meteoric rise.

Rashi’s remarkable ethical caliber has already been documented at length. While he was a scholar par excellence, Rashi did not allow himself to withdraw from attending to the needs of his fellow Jews and he maintained a highly active communal role, as is evident from the numerous Responsa which remain to this day.

What is less noted is that even Rashi’s written works were motivated, not only by a love of Torah, but by a profound love of the Jewish people. Most authors are scholars who wish to publicize and eternalize their own views. Even if a book is written with the reader in mind, the author does not totally relinquish his own interests for the benefit of his readership, but rather, tries to harmonize his own agenda with that of his readership.

Rashi, however, stands out as being motivated entirely by the needs of the reader. Rashi appeared to care solely that Jews should be able to study their heritage properly, which is why he steadfastly adhered to the most uncomplicated interpretations. He glossed over issues that he felt would confuse the reader, and never allowed himself to indulge in scholastics  --  for what would be the point in displaying his own intellectual prowess at the risk of alienating the less adept student? (Of course, in his Responsa, where it was demanded, we see Rashi’s original thought and hair-splitting analysis of many issues, which indicates all the more how much he must have restrained himself from scholastics when writing his commentaries).

Another remarkable point is that Rashi’s commentary to the Torah, which was written primarily for children, was authored at the end of Rashi’s life after he had written most of his commentary to the Talmud. One would think that, after explaining the Talmud, Rashi would have advanced to something more complicated or more esoteric, thus furthering his academic career. But, once again, Rashi opted for inclusivity rather than exclusivity,1 and chose to write a basic commentary on the Torah to ensure that Jewish children would be able to appreciate their heritage from an early age.

So, in addition to a love of Torah, Rashi’s works are infused with a love and care for the Jewish people, and this, I believe, secured the Divine approval which was the cause of Rashi’s success.

Criticisms of Rashi

While Rashi’s greatness has been so universally accepted, there is one specific area in which he has been criticized, and that is the suggestion that Rashi lacked an underlying, unified approach; or, to put it in other words, he lacked a “scientific method.” Apparently, Rashi did not follow a systematic approach when writing his commentaries, nor does he seem to have rigorously adhered to any underlying principles.

A number of points serve to illustrate this assertion. For example, unlike most other commentators, Rashi wrote no introduction to his work, which suggests that his comments were made somewhat haphazardly, without being guided by a broader overview or purpose.

To make matters worse, the only “mission statement” which Rashi does make (in his commentary to the Torah), he appears to have later disregarded. In his commentary to Genesis 3:8, Rashi writes, “I come only to explain the literal meaning of scripture,” yet later in his commentary we find countless instances where Rashi appears to have abandoned the literal approach (adhered to by many other commentators), for a totally non-literal, midrashic interpretation.

Ultimately, Rashi has been forgiven for this apparent inconsistency, because his blend of pshat, literal interpretation, with derash, homiletic interpretation, adds depth to his commentaries, and connects the reader with the more mystical aspects of Jewish thought. In Rashi’s defense it has been argued that he did not intend to confine himself to a purely literal interpretation, but rather, to the more simple and straightforward ideas found in the midrashic tradition.

Nevertheless, Rashi’s “mission statement” which, at face value, promises a purely literal approach, has always troubled scholars as exhibiting some level of inconsistency.

A further example of Rashi’s apparent lack of systematization is the fact that many key issues, which are the subject of copious commentary from virtually all other authors of note, are not addressed by Rashi. When the Jews worshipped the Golden Calf just days after witnessing Divine revelation, all commentators are perplexed, but Rashi is silent. When Bilam’s donkey speaks, many comment on the purpose of this peculiar phenomenon, and debate whether it was real or imaginary, but Rashi says nothing. And the list goes on. There are literally hundreds of such “gaps” in Rashi’s commentary which, once again, appear to be evidence of a lack of solid methodology.

Re-examining Rashi after 860 years

Unlikely as it may sound, the classical understanding of Rashi has been challenged and substantially revised in the past 40 years.

In 1964 the Lubavitcher Rebbe began his delivery of some 800 public talks over a period of over 25 years on the subject of Rashi’s commentary to the Torah. The Rebbe’s single-minded goal, I believe, was to expose as a fallacy the popular conception that Rashi lacked “scientific method.” In each talk, the Rebbe would offer a novel interpretation of one of Rashi’s comments, based on principles which Rashi had apparently followed when writing his entire commentary. Each lecture of the Rebbe built on the previous one, gradually assembling a picture of Rashi’s commentary as an extremely organized, unified system of Torah exegesis.

Many who were present at these lectures at their inception in the late sixties and early seventies, recall how the “Rashi talk” was literally the highlight of the entire Sabbath afternoon gathering.2 Guests of honor who spent time in Crown Heights were surprised to find a scholarly discussion of the “Scientific principles” of Rashi delivered amidst a Chassidic, Sabbath afternoon gathering, and soon, news spread amongst Rabbinic circles worldwide that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was in the process of formulating a remarkable, new approach to the study of Rashi.

Of course, not everybody agreed with the Rebbe’s approach, but no true scholar could ignore such a large body of fresh commentary that was meticulously researched, highly original in nature, presented rationally, lucidly and passionately.

Needless to say, this new approach to understanding Rashi became the “talk of the town” among many circles. When it was made known in advance which comment of Rashi would be the subject of the Rebbe’s talk, thousands of followers spent the entire week in anticipation of what might be discussed. In later years, a number of scholarly journals arose for students to analyze these new interpretations of Rashi, and in his talks the Rebbe would frequently refer to articles published in these journals.

While all of the talks were published immediately in transcript form (almost word for word), many hundreds of them underwent a thorough review by a team of Chabad scholars who re-analyzed the arguments according to strict academic criteria and reconstructed the talk as a scholarly paper, supported by numerous footnotes (later published in the 39-volume Likutei Sichot). This team would work together with the Rebbe, who edited the paper often a number of times, and guided the process. According to the testimony of one of his personal assistants, the Rebbe would often dedicate as much as 18 hours a week to this task.

In 1980, Rabbi Tuvia Bloy, published a collection of the “scientific principles” of Rashi’s commentary which the Rebbe had suggested, highlighting some 207 principles. The Rebbe asked him to prepare, a second, more comprehensive volume, and the resultant 1991 edition identified some 389 principles.3 (Another scholar told me privately that he had identified more principles in the Rebbe’s talks of the book of Genesis alone).

My involvement came later. I was not born into the Lubavitcher movement, but in the early nineties, I befriended a number of Lubavitcher Chasidim and began to study the “Rashi talks.” Besides the academic brilliance of these talks, I was particularly inspired by the Rebbe’s intellectual courage to re-evaluate the classical understanding of an 850 year old text, and by his sober mind, and the strength of his convictions. The Rebbe appeared to be very orthodox in his reverence for the classic commentaries and his respect for tradition, and yet, at the same time, a totally new and refreshing light emerged from his analysis. The solutions were always brilliant, and yet simple. Initially, as more questions were posed and apparent flaws in Rashi’s reasoning exposed, you began to get the impression that there was simply “no way out of this one”; and then, when the answer came it was so “obvious” that you kicked yourself that you had not thought of it. I had never dreamed of following a career (or lifestyle) of Rabbinics, but the Rashi talks offered me a form of scholastics that I could not resist due to their beautiful harmonization of detail, fast pace and overt genius which I had not experienced in any other academic arena.

It always bothered me that these talks were so brilliant and yet were unavailable to the English reader, and over the next ten years, I dreamed and gradually formulated an approach by which to share them -- together with many of the Rebbe’s other fascinating insights -- to the broader public. Thus, in 2002 the “Gutnick Edition” of the Torah was born, and this year  -- 900 years after Rashi’s passing, and 40 years after the Rebbe began his Rashi talks -- its publication was completed. The five volumes span some 1600 pages and contain an adaptation of approximately 500 Rashi talks along with insights gleaned from another 500 or so other talks of the Rebbe. It also contains a new translation of the Torah which is the first to integrate much of Rashi’s commentary into the actual text, and more than 80 classical sources have been anthologized in a running commentary. Needless to day, the thought of representing such giants makes me, quite literally, “rejoice in trepidation” (Psalms 2:11).

Rashi’s Principles

You have probably sensed already that the subject of Rashi’s “scientific method” is vast and that its logic is intricate, but in the remaining few lines let me share with you a glimpse, at least, into the “scientific” mind of Rashi of which we have now become aware.

Here is not the place to discuss all 389 principles, but let us at least address a few points, including the criticisms leveled against Rashi that were discussed above:

1. Lack of Introduction. The reason why Rashi did not write an introduction to his commentary is not because he lacked a serious methodology, but because he was writing for children whom he felt would best learn the principles of study as they went along. An adult can be lectured on theory before beginning actual practice, but children need to learn the principles from experience and not from an abstract dissertation.

2. Non-adherence to mission statement. Perhaps the “center-piece” argument of all the Rebbe’s talks is that Rashi did adhere strictly and loyally to his mission statement that, “I come only to explain the literal meaning of scripture.” On countless occasions, a talk would begin with a case where many commentators seemed to have offered a literal interpretation, whereas Rashi had “drifted off” into the allegorical, the miraculous or even the mystical, in apparent defiance of his mission statement.

The Rebbe argued that this was not the case at all. A major distinction between a literal and a non-literal interpretation is the issue of consistency. Unlike drash (non-literal interpretation) which does not need to exhibit any consistency between one verse and the next, p’shat (the literal interpretation) is a single, unified system which must be consistent throughout the entire Torah. Each detail must be a logical progression of those that preceded it, and each phrase or idea must fit into the context. Furthermore, every event or action must undergo the scrutiny of reason: Unless there is an indication to the contrary, a journey must take a reasonable amount of time, a war can only be won with a reasonably powerful army, and the laws of nature will generally prevail.

So, if Rashi appears, at first glance, to reject the more simple interpretation of other commentators and offer instead an apparently non-literal interpretation it is because in context the apparently simple answer is inconsistent with another verse or phrase, or the midrashic solution is required to tie up a “loose end.” We must therefore “broaden our lens” to discover how Rashi’s comment was in fact necessary to maintain the overall, unified consistency of literal interpretation.

As a brief example, consider Rashi’s comment to Exodus 4:20, where the Torah depicts how Moses mounted his family on a donkey to return to Egypt, in order to redeem the Jewish people. Rashi comments that this was a “unique donkey,” the very same donkey which Abraham had used at the binding of Isaac, and the very same donkey upon which the Messiah will reveal himself (!). Now, at first glance, this is a totally non-literal interpretation that is unwarranted in a work that comes, “only to explain the literal meaning of the text.” However, the Rebbe explains, if we “broaden our lens” to the previous passage it becomes evident that Rashi cited this midrashic teaching to answer an unsolved problem at the literal level. In verses 10-17, Moshe attempted to decline his mission from G-d arguing that a.) G-d should send instead his older brother Aharon, or b.) Since Moshe was not destined to be the final redeemer G-d should send just the actual Messiah instead. The astute reader will notice however, that G-d never responded to Moshe’s complaints. We merely read that G-d became angry, which soon silenced Moshe’s complaints, but what was the response to Moshe’s apparently valid arguments?

To answer this literal problem, Rashi teaches us that G-d sent Moshe a unique donkey for his mission, which was both the donkey of Abraham and the Messiah. God was intimating to Moshe, “You do not want to accept this mission, because you feel that your brother is greater. Why don’t you learn from Avraham, who did not question Me? And you asked Me to send the Messiah instead of you because you feel you are in no way connected to the final redeemer. But you are wrong! The Messiah will only come because you pioneered the process of redemption.” (See Likutei Sichos vol. 31, pp. 15-19).

Here we see just one of many hundreds of examples how a comment of Rashi which, at first glance appears to be bizarre and non-literal, is actually needed to ensure a unified consistency of narrative at the literal level.

3. “Gaps” in Rashi’s commentary. As for the argument that Rashi failed to explain many key issues, the Rebbe offered a marvelous response which leads us back to the beginning of our discussion -- Rashi’s love of the Jewish people. As a teacher par excellence, Rashi was wary of spoon-feeding his students. Too much information is just as dangerous as too little, for a student who has to make no effort of his own will not grow in his abilities.

So, in addition to guiding the reader with much helpful information, Rashi was also concerned about solving too many problems for the reader. If Rashi felt that the reader could resolve an issue with prior knowledge (from an earlier verse or comment of Rashi) and simple logic, then out of genuine concern for the reader’s growth, Rashi remained silent.

On this presumption the Rebbe explained how numerous apparent “omissions” of Rashi actually required no further commentary at all, because the reader could fathom the solution for himself with a simple knowledge of Rashi’s prior comments, a little effort and a lot of common sense.

4. Kabalistic messages in Rashi. One final point that cannot go unmentioned is the observation that Rashi’s commentary to the Torah contains oblique references to Kabalistic concepts. Whether or not this was Rashi’s intention is unclear, but we do know by tradition that Rashi fasted 613 times before writing his commentary to the Torah and therefore merited a certain level of Divine inspiration which could explain how mystical concepts crept into his words subliminally.

The presence of these Kabalistic ideas led Rabbi Shnueur Zalman of Liadi to declare, “Rashi’s commentary on Torah is the ‘wine of Torah.’ It opens the heart and uncovers one’s essential love and fear of G-d,” and in many of his talks the Rebbe expands upon this point and demonstrates the presence of sublime Kabalistic and Chasidic teachings in Rashi’s words.

In the merit of our study of Torah in general and Rashi in particular, may we soon witness the construction of the third temple -- which, according to Rashi, is already built in heaven and is waiting to descend here on earth -- with the coming of Mashiach speedily in our days.

FOOTNOTES
1. Here is another lesson that we can learn from Rashi. A person is often tempted to think that he might become more special and important by excluding others from his club, neighborhood or religious group etc. Rashi shows us that the true path to greatness is by being as inclusive as possible.
2. During which the Rebbe would deliver a series of talks, interspersed by the singing of chasidic melodies and toasts over wine.
3. Klalei Rashi (“Principles of Rashi [Study]) by Rabbi Tuvia Bloy, (expanded edition 1991, Kehos Publication Society)
Rabbi Chaim Miller is the author of the Gutnick Chumash published by Kol Menachem, New York. To purchase the Chumash click here.
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Discussion (5)
March 13, 2014
Self-restraint.
Rashi was the model of self-restraint.
Anonymous
March 19, 2012
when commentary on chumash was written?
You mentioned that Rashi wrote his commentary on Torah after he wrote his commentaries on Talmud. Is it so clear? what is the source for this information? I heard from a bible scholar otherwise and would be very interested to know one way or another.
Can you share your sources?
Ephraim
New York, NY
May 31, 2010
Rabbi Rashi
I am enthralled by Rabbi Rashi. I am learning so much from him. Rashi's love for G-d has given me a greater hunger and thirst for the presence of God in my life.
esther
chardon, ohio/U.S.A.
January 6, 2010
amazing!
Keep up the amazing work Rabbi Miller!!!
izzy
ny, ny
August 11, 2008
A Simple and Sure Guide
I'm so glado I found the Tanach commented by Rashi available on chabad.org, it's almost unbelievable. In Brazil it's hard to impossible to get the hands in a complete Hebrew Bible, so we are mostly left with the sorry compromise of going for something like a Catholic Jerusalem Bible. Now I have not only a formidable Jewish translation, but also such clarifying comments as Rashi's. I came looking for clarification on the issue of Atheism and Psalm 14, and Rashi turns everything around from my understanding of usual Christian understanding of the verse. He isn't in the end really talking about Atheists, but of heathens affronting the G-d of Israel, and specifically Babylonian heathens gathered around Nebuchadrezzar. Fascinating!
Ricardo Dirani
Campinas, Brazil
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