Shlomo ben Yitzhak (Rashi)
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Rashi רש"י is a Hebrew acronym for רבי שלמה יצחקי (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), or רבי שלמה ירחי (Rabbi Shlomo Yarchi) (February 22, 1040 – July 13, 1105), author of the first comprehensive commentaries on the Talmud and Tanakh. Acclaimed for his ability to present the basic meaning of the text in a concise yet lucid fashion, Rashi appeals to both beginning students and learned scholars. His commentaries, which appear in all printed editions of the Talmud and Torah (especially the Chumash), are an indispensable companion to both casual and serious students of Judaism's primary texts.
Sources variously give Rashi's surname as Yitzchaki, deriving from his father's name, Yitzchak, or Yarchi (ירחי), indicating that his family came from Lunel (ירח, Yareach, in Hebrew). The acronym is sometimes also fancifully expanded as Rabban Shel Israel (רבן של ישראל), Teacher of Israel [i.e. the Jewish People]), or as Rabbenu SheYichyeh" (רבינו שיחיה), our Rabbi, may he live.
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Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak, the great eleventh-century commentator on the Bible and Talmud is a standard in the Jewish curriculum. Because Rashi is seen as the indispensable commentator, it is difficult to overstate his influence on contemporary discourse. In traditional settings, Torah and, later, Talmud are approached first, and often exclusively, through the lens of Rashi’s commentary. He cites many of the polemical and negative rabbinic statements about gentiles or their typological equivalents in Noah, Esau, and Bilaam. Even his very first comment on the Bible contains his own gloss on the Midrash, viewing the gentiles as armed robbers. His particularism is shown in statements such as: “I ask from You that Your Shekhinah should not rest anymore on the nations of the world and we will be separate from all other nations. (Commentary to Exodus 33:16)
Rashi typified the particularism of many of his successors in Franco-German Jewish culture. I will not delineate these variants, nor will I relate all the negative images of Christianity left in the writings of medieval Ashkenaz Jewry.
Ours is not the first generation of Jews bothered Rashi’s exclusionist, anti-gentile tone. Sifthei Hakhamim, by Rabbi Shabbatai Bass, a sixteenth-century commentary on Rashi, consistently reworks Rashi to impose a more ethical reading. However, the role of these comments of Rashi in the Jewish education system today remains problematic.
Perhaps the best known and most basic of all Rishonim, Rav Shlomo Yitzchaki (son of Yitzchak) lived in Troyes, France from 1040 until 1105. His most important work is his commentary on the Talmud, which appears on the inside margin of almost every page (except for in a few select areas where his commentary is unavailable to us) and is responsible for opening up the Talmud to a much wider range of students than ever before possible. His commentary explains the text phrase by phrase, and thus is an invaluable guide for reading through a page of the Talmud. In addition, Rashi authored an equally famous commentary on the Torah, which incorporates his own views, as well as many Midrashim and grammatical notes. He also wrote a commentary on the rest of the Bible, as well as supplications for mercy written in the wake of the First Crusade (1096), which ravaged many communities in Europe. His grandsons include the Tosafists Rashbam and Rabbeinu Tam, and his students also included Rav Simcha of Vitri and Rav Shemaya.
In 2006, the Jewish National and University Library at Hebrew University put on an exhibit commemorating the 900th anniversary of Rashi's death, showcasing rare items from the library collection written by Rashi, as well as various works by others concerning Rashi.
Rashi was the only child born to his parents, Yitzchak and Leah, at Troyes, Champagne, northern France. On his father's side, he was a 33rd generation descendant of Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar, a student of Rabbi Akiva, who was reputedly descended from the royal house of King David. His mother's brother was Rabbi Simon the Elder, community leader of Mainz.
Several legends surrounding Rashi's birth have passed into Jewish folklore. Two of the most famous stories concern his conception and birth.
Rashi's parents were childless for many years. One day, his father, a poor vintner, found a rough stone which he took to the local jeweler for an appraisal. The jeweler informed him that the stone was worth 100,000 francs, far more than anyone in their region could afford to pay. Word of the find spread. One day, two messengers of a distant emperor arrived at Yitzchak's home with orders to bring both Yitzchak and the gemstone to the emperor. The emperor was willing to pay anything for the stone, which he would place into one of the eyes of his giant idol.
En route to the palace, Yitzchak desperately thought of a scheme to avoid having his stone fall into the hands of an idol-worshipper. As they sailed to the palace, Yitzchak began boasting of his gemstone and showing it off to everyone on deck. One day, when the seas were particularly rough, he offered to show the stone to the captain, but as he pulled it out of his pocket, he lost his footing and the gemstone flew into the raging waters. Feigning grief, he began screaming and moaning and even fainted.
When Yitzchak reached the palace, heartbroken and distraught, the emperor felt sorry for the Jew who had lost a fabulous treasure. He gave him money to buy food and transportation and sent him home. But in his heart, Yitzchak was happy and relieved. When he arrived home, a man was waiting for him. "You threw the gemstone into the ocean so it wouldn't be the eye of an idol," the man told him. "Now your wife will have a son who will illuminate the world with his Torah." This harbinger was none other than the Prophet Elijah; the following year, Yitzchak and Miriam were blessed with a son.
After this incident, Yitzchak decided to move temporarily to the city of Worms, Germany in case the emperor came looking for him again. He and his wife lived in the Jewish quarter and attended the small synagogue there, awaiting the birth of their child. At the time, a wicked bishop was harassing the Jews of Worms, pestering them to convert to Christianity.
One day, as Miriam was walking down the narrow alley to pray at the synagogue, a massive chariot carrying the bishop came charging through the alley. There was no room to escape; Miriam turned to the wall and pressed herself against it. According to legend, the wall softened and accommodated her pregnant form. The chariot rushed by and she was unscathed. To this day, a crevice in the wall is still visible; the neighboring building houses the Rashi Synagogue, where Rashi is believed to have taught.
Scholar and teacher
According to tradition, Rashi was first brought to learn Torah by his father on Shavuot day at the age of five. His father was his main Torah teacher until his death when Rashi was still a youth. At the age of 17 Rashi married, and in the manner of young Torah scholars of the time, soon after went to learn in the yeshiva of Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar in Worms, returning to his wife at the end of each semester. When Rabbi Yaakov died in 1064, Rashi continued learning in Worms for another year in the yeshiva of his relative, Rabbi Isaac ben Eliezer Halevi, who was also chief rabbi of Worms. Then he moved to Mainz, where he studied under another of his relatives, Rabbi Isaac ben Judah, the rabbinic head of Mainz and one of the leading sages of the Lorraine region straddling France and Germany.
Rashi's teachers were students of Rabbeinu Gershom and Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol, leading Talmudists of the previous generation. From his teachers, Rashi imbibed all the oral traditions pertaining to the Talmud as they had been passed down for centuries, as well as an understanding of the Talmud's unique logic and form of argument. Rashi's fellow yeshiva students contributed to the learning with their knowledge of international business, commodities production, farming, craftsmanship, sailing and soldiering. Rashi took concise, copious notes of everything he learned in yeshiva, incorporating much of this material in his later commentaries.
He returned to Troyes at the age of 25, at which time his mother died, and he was asked to join the Troyes beth din (rabbinical court). He also began answering halakhic questions. Upon the death of the head of the beth din, Rabbi Zerach ben Abraham, Rashi assumed the court's leadership and answered hundreds of halakhic queries.
About 1070, he founded a yeshiva which attracted many disciples. It is thought by some that Rashi earned his living as a vintner, but there is no evidence for this. . Although there are many legends about his travels, Rashi likely never went further than from the Seine to the Rhine; the utmost limit of his travels were the yeshivot of Lorraine.
In 1096, the First Crusade swept through the Lorraine, murdering 12,000 Jews and uprooting whole communities. Among those murdered in Worms were the three sons of Rabbi Isaac ben Eliezer Halevi, Rashi's teacher. Rashi wrote several Selichot (pentitential poems) mourning the slaughter and the destruction of the region's great yeshivot. Seven of Rashi's Selichot still exist, including "Adonai Elohei Hatzivadot", which is recited on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, and "Az Terem Nimtachu", which is recited on the Fast of Gedalia.
Rashi had no sons, but his three daughters, Yocheved, Miriam and Rachel, all married Talmudic scholars. Yocheved married Meir ben Shmuel—their four sons were Shmuel (the Rashbam) (1085-1174), Yaakov (Rabbeinu Tam) (c. 1100- c. 1171), and Yitzchak (the Rivam)—who were known as the Baalei Tosafos—and the grammarian Shlomo, who died young. Yocheved's daughter, Chanah, was a teacher of laws and customs relevant to women. Rashi's daughter Miriam married Judah ben Nathan; their daughter, also named Miriam, was a learned woman whose customs served as the basis for later halakhic decisions. Rachel married (and divorced) Eliezer ben Shemiah.
Rashi died on the 29th of Tammuz 4865 (July 13, 1105) at the age of 65. He was buried in Troyes. The approximate location of the cemetery in which he was buried was recorded in Seder Hadoros, but over time the location of the cemetery was forgotten. A number of years ago, a Sorbonne professor discovered an ancient map depicting the site of the cemetery, which now lay under an open square in the city of Troyes. After this discovery, French Jews erected a large monument in the center of the square—a large, black and white globe featuring a prominent Hebrew letter, Shin (presumably for "Shlomo," Rashi's name). The granite base of the monument is engraved: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki — Commentator and Guide.
In the summer of 2005, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Gabbai, who renovates and repairs neglected gravesites of Jewish leaders around the world, erected an additional plaque at this site to alert visitors to the fact that the unmarked square was also a burial ground. The plaque reads, The place you are standing on is the cemetery of the town of Troyes. Many Rishonim are buried here, among them Rabbi Shlomo, known as Rashi the holy, may his merit protect us.
Commentary on the Talmud
Rashi wrote the first comprehensive commentary on the Talmud. His commentary, drawing on his knowledge of the entire contents of the Talmud, attempts to provide a full explanation of the words and of the logical structure of each Talmudic passage. Unlike other commentators, Rashi does not paraphrase or exclude any part of the text, but elucidates phrase by phrase. Often he provides punctuation in the unpunctuated text, explaining, for example, "This is a question"; "He says this in surprise," "He repeats this in agreement," etc.
As in his commentary on the Tanakh, Rashi frequently illustrates the meaning of the text using analogies to the professions, crafts, and sports of his day. He also translates difficult Hebrew or Aramaic words into the spoken French language of his day, giving latter-day scholars a window into the vocabulary and pronunciation of Old French.
Rashi also exerted a decisive influence on establishing the correct text of the Talmud. Up to and including his age, texts of each Talmudic tractate were copied by hand and circulated in yeshivas. Errors often crept in: sometimes a copyist would switch words around, and other times incorporate a student's marginal notes into the main text. Rashi compared different manuscripts and readings in Tosefta, Jerusalem Talmud, Midrash, Targum, and the writings of the Geonim, and determined which readings should be preferred. However, in his humility, he deferred to scholars who disagreed with him. For example, in Chulin 4a, he comments about a phrase, "We do not read this. But as for those who do, this is the explanation…"
Rashi's commentary, which covers nearly all of the Babylonian Talmud (a total of 30 tractates), has been included in every version of the Talmud since its first printing in Italy. It is always situated towards the middle of the opened book display; i.e., on the side of the page closest to the binding.
Some of the other printed commentaries which are attributed to Rashi were composed by others, primarily his students. In some commentaries, the text indicates that Rashi died before completing the tractate, and that it was completed by a student. This is true of the tractate Makkot, the concluding portions of which were composed by his son-in-law, Rabbi Judah ben Nathan, and of the tractate Bava Batra, finished (in a more detailed style) by his grandson, the Rashbam.
Without Rashi's commentary, the Talmud would have remained a closed book. With it, any student who has been introduced to its study by a teacher can continue learning on his own, deciphering its language and meaning with the aid of Rashi.
Commentary on the Tanakh
Rashi's commentary on the Tanakh—and especially, the Chumash (Five Books of Moses)—is the essential companion for any study at any level, beginning, intermediate and advanced. Drawing on the breadth of Midrashic, Talmudic and Aggadic literature (including literature that is no longer extant), as well as his knowledge of grammar, halakhah, and how things work, Rashi clarifies the "simple" meaning of the text so that a bright child of five could understand it. At the same time, his commentary forms the foundation for some of the most profound legal analysis and mystical discourses that came after it. Scholars debate why Rashi chose a particular Midrash to illustrate a point, or why he used certain words and phrases and not others.
Legend also surrounds the writing of this commentary, which is seen by many to have been written with Ruach Hakodesh (divine inspiration) to explain its mass appeal. The Chida wrote, "Apparently, Rashi wrote his commentary by using a secret [technique to gain Godly inspiration], and therefore he fasted 613 times [before undertaking this project]" (Shem Hagedolim). According to others, Rashi wrote three versions of his commentary—one long, one short, and one mid-length; the latter version is the one we have today.
Scholars believe that Rashi's commentary on the Torah grew out of the lectures he gave to his students in his yeshiva, and evolved with the questions and answers they raised on it. Rashi only completed this commentary in the last years of his life. It was immediately accepted as authoritative by all Jewish communities, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike.
The first known Hebrew book to be printed in Italy was Rashi's commentary on the Chumash in 1475. (This version did not include the text of the Chumash itself.)
Rashi wrote commentaries on all the books of Tanakh except Chronicles (I & II). Scholars believe that the commentary which appears under Rashi's name in those books was compiled by the students of Rabbi Saadiah of the Rhine, who incorporated material from Rashi's yeshiva. Rashi's students, Rabbi Shemaya and Rabbi Yosef, edited the final commentary on the Torah; some of their own notes and additions also made their way into the version we have today.
Voluminous supercommentaries have been published on Rashi's work, including Gur Aryeh by Rabbi Judah Loew (the Maharal), Sefer ha-Mizrachi by Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi (the Re'em), and Yeri'ot Shlomo by Rabbi Solomon Luria (the Maharshal). Almost all rabbinic literature published since the Middle Ages discusses Rashi, either using his view as supporting evidence or debating against it.
Rashi's explanations of the Chumash were also cited extensively in Postillae Perpetuae by Nicholas de Lyra (1292-1340), a French Franciscan, earning that author the name Simius Solomonis ("the ape of Solomon (Shlomo)").
Today, tens of thousands of men, women and children study "Chumash with Rashi" as they review the Torah portion to be read in synagogue on the upcoming Shabbat. According to Halakha, a man may even study the Rashi on each Torah verse in fulfillment of the requirement to review the Parsha twice with Targum (which normally refers to Targum Onkelos). Since its publication, Rashi's commentary on the Torah is standard in almost all Chumashim produced within the Orthodox Jewish community.
About 300 of Rashi's responsa and halakhic decisions are extant. These responsa were copied and preserved by his students. Machzor Vitry contains Rashi's responsa on prayer; this work was edited by Rabbi Simchah of Vitry, whose son, Rabbi Shmuel, married Rashi's granddaughter Miriam (daughter of Yocheved). Siddur Rashi, compiled by an unknown student, also contains Rashi's responsa on prayer. Other compilations include Sefer Hapardes, edited by Rabbi Shemayah, Rashi's student, and Sefer Haoraah, prepared by Rabbi Nathan Hamachiri.
The semi-cursive typeface in which Rashi's commentaries are printed both in the Talmud and Tanakh is often referred to as "Rashi script." This does not mean that Rashi himself used such a script: the typface is based on a 15th century Sephardic semi-cursive hand. What would be called "Rashi script" was employed by early Hebrew typographers such as the Soncino family and Daniel Bomberg, a Christian printer in Venice, in their editions of commented texts (such as the Mikraot Gedolot and the Talmud, in which Rashi's commentaries prominently figure) to distinguish the rabbinic commentary from the text proper, for which a square typeface was used.
- Biography, the Legend, the Commentator and more rashi900.com
- Rashi by Maurice Liber - Biography written in 1905, published by the Jewish Publication Society of America
- Article on chabad.org
- Family Tree
- Rashi's Daughters: A Novel of Life, Love and Talmud in Medieval France
- Shulman, Yaacov Dovid (1993). Rashi: The Story of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki. Lakewood, NJ: C.I.S. Publishers. ISBN 1-56062-215-6