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Rabbi's Blog: 29 Tammuz - Rashi's Yahrzeit

07/18/2023 03:24:55 PM



Dear OZ family,


Today, Tammuz 29, is Rashi’s 918th Yahrzeit. He left this world, according to tradition, while writing the word, “Tahor”, “Pure” in a revised Talmud commentary. Rashi revolutionized the study of Talmud and Bible in his straightforward and P’shat oriented commentary. After Jews were satisfied studying the Biblical text, mostly from the standpoint of D’rash, from the available sources of Talmudic Aggada, Midrashim, and Targumim, around the turn of the first millennium, there was a shift to study the Biblical text through the lens of P’shat. This word is similar to the Hebrew word, L’hafsheet, which means to skin an animal. As such, P’shat is the outer layer meaning of a word or statement, while D’rash represents a deeper meaning.


P’shat takes into account the philology of the word, the correct grammar and syntax of words and phrases, as well as the context of the story on the whole, in addition to notions of reality (What Rashbam calls “Derech Eretz”, the way of the world).

D’rash is more interested in the moral or Halakhic conclusion, which sometimes ignores some of the above rules of P’shat. Rashi did not institute this change in Biblical exegesis, but he was very much a part of it. Some scholars claim that with the approaching millennium, Christians began to force Jews into Bible disputations in the anticipation of a mass conversion that would lead to the second coming. Jews would rather avoid these disputations because winning or losing them both usually turned to disaster. The best response the Jews made in these disputations is that Christians were changing the face of Judaism based on Biblical verses that bore no resemblance to the plain and simple meaning of the Biblical text.


The  pursuit of P’shat is not the main focus of the Talmud. The phrase, often found in Rashi, “Ein Mikrah Yotzeh M’yedei Peshuto”, is found only 3 times in the entire Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud. It is interesting that Christians played a role in making our Bible commentary more in line with P’shat. Others point to the proliferation of responsa from the 10th and 11th centuries, to explain entire sections of Talmud, rather than simply to ask the bottom line of the Talmud, namely the moral or Halakhic conclusion. The decision to put Rashi and Tosafot on the printed page of the Talmud, was a conscious decision, that first and foremost, we must become familiar with the text before we draw the appropriate conclusions of the text. The codes of the Rif and the Rosh were therefore printed in the back of the Gemara.   


Later commentaries such as Ibn Ezra, and Rashi’s own grandson, Rashbam felt that Rashi resorted to D’rash too readily. These critics were not against the use of D’rash per se. They both say often that the main way for the Jew to read the Biblical text is through a multi-layered approach of P’shat and D’rash, but that in a commentary dedicated to P’shat one should not resort to D’rash unless absolutely necessary. Rahbam does in texts describing Tzara’at, the construction of the Mishkan, and to a greater extent, Ib’n Ezra tries to maintain certain Rabbinic traditions even in the face of P’shat, such as the identification of the “Isha Kushite” against whom Miriam spoke as Tzipora, or that an Eved Ivri works on, if he wishes, not “ad Olam”, the rest of his life, but until the Yovel. It seems that Ibn Ezra knew how to dish it out to Rashi for his abuse of P’shat (He writes in the introduction of his grammatical work, “Safah Berurah”, that he thinks Rashi gives P’shat, only one of every 1,000 comments), but could belt out a D’rash on his own when he felt necessary.


Rashbam, from his part was also quite critical of his grandfather’s resorting to D’rash. He writes in the beginning of his commentary to Parashat Vayeshev that Rashi had admitted to him that had he been younger he would have to review his own commentary because of all the new approaches to P’shat that are daily revealed. This is significant, considering that Rashbam was but a teenager when Rashi died on this day in 1105. Ramban often shows how Rashi balanced the P’shat and the D’rash to declare that they were often not contradictory, but complementary.


Rashi has engendered over 300 identifiable commentaries whose sole purpose is to trace Rashi’s sources, explain how he used them and to defend him against his critics. Rahbam and Ibn Ezra have but a handful of commentaries. Rashi’s characterisic humility would be amazed at all the works written on his commentary. Two great contemporary readers of Rashi, the Lubovitcher Rebbe, Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and the great Tanach Morah, Professor Nechama Leibowitz, both felt that Rashi’s goal was to present the Torah before us as a “Mechanech”, an educator, to make the Torah accessible and useful even to a five year old who is beginning his first journey of “Chamisha L’mikrah”. Rashi’s commentary speaks simply to that 5 year old and the same words speak to an 85 year old who has read through Rashi 80 times on 80 different levels. The first time that the root for “Chinuch”, “Education”, appears in the Torah, (Bereshit 14:14), Rashi says that the word means “To put something to good use”. That is what Rashi has done for the Tanach and Talmud for his people.


There are Halachot that tell us how to behave regarding someone who is our “Rebbe Muvhak”, from whom we have derived the bulk of out Torah learning. Some poskim consider that the role of Rebbe Muvhak no longer exists, because for the last 900+  years, the bulk of anyone’s Torah whas been derived from Rashi. As such the three Hebrew letters that comprise the acronym of his name can also stand for “Rabban Shel Yisrael”. May his memory be a blessing.   


Stay well and be healthy.

Rabbi Allen Schwartz



Rabbi Allen Schwartz

Congregation Ohab Zedek

118 West 95th Street | New York, NY  10025-6604

Phone 212.749-5150, ext 200 | Fax 212.663-3635





Sat, September 30 2023 15 Tishrei 5784