History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Rashi and His Times.

Let us now retrace our steps from the days of the last crusade to the period just before the first. Times were quieter then. For even outside the Peninsula there were sheltered spots and moments. Let us look into the life and days of Rashi, the great French master.

While Spain had established some rabbinic schools, which had produced legalists of no mean repute, still, in the specific realm of Jewish law, she never attained greatness. The real successors of the Babylonian schools of Sora and Pumbeditha were France and Germany. It was France that gave birth to one of the greatest of our commentators.

Rabbi Shalomo Yitzchaki, better known by his initials, Ra-sh-i, was born in Troyes, capital of the French Champagne, in 1040, a dozen years after the death of Rabenu Gershom and just about the time when the Babylonian schools were closing.

In his youth, Troyes offered little opportunity for Hebrew education, and to obtain it he had to travel to Mayence and Worms. Like Hillel and Akiba of old, he found that privation was the price of knowledge: occasionally he lacked the elemental necessities — clothing and food.

Through that discipline has passed many a hero cholar since his day.

Education in France and Germany.

What did he learn at Mayence and elsewhere? Not all with which tradition once credited him. We must bear in mind the times and the surroundings. Spain, the sole centre of European culture, was the only land that trained its sons in natural science or philosophy and made physicians of its rabbis. The Jews of Rashi's day and to a greater degree their Christian contemporaries, lacked what we would call general culture; they had vague notions of history and geography, and knew not the classic tongues, Greek and Latin. Their ideas of religion were naive and not entirely free from superstition. Many believed that all science was contained within rabbinic literature. Be it not forgotten that outside the Peninsula prevailed the Dark Ages.

But within the limitations of his environment Rashi was a great scholar. He read practically all that was extant on the subject of Jewish law except what lay hidden from him in the Arabic tongue.

He returned to Troyes master of all rabbinic literature. When fitness placed him as the spiritual head of this community, he would not use the law as "a spade to dig with." He followed the time-honored precedent of making teaching a labor of love. Though, like Bachya, a judge (Dayan), unofiicial rabbi and "scribe," he earned his living as a distiller of wine. His mind was rich, but his fare was frugal. Here was "plain living and high thinking." Rashi, like many of the rabbis of the olden time, was a saint indeed, lacking only the title.

Rashi's Commentary on the Talmud.

A genius is soon discovered, and a genius in Talmudic and Biblical exposition Rashi certainly was. In the "sea of the Talmud" Rashi looms forth as the great clarifier, and in its study he made a new epoch. He gave the best years of his life in writing a commentary upon it. He began with a revision of the text by a comparison of the different manuscripts extant, for errors crept into books more commonly than not, in ante-printing days.

Without this commentary (which since the year 1520 has always been printed with the Babylonian Talmud as part and parcel of it) it would almost be a sealed book. It supplanted all previous expositions, the best of which Rashi doubtless absorbed.

Rashi's commentary became, from his day, the standard interpretation and his text the standard text. His commentary is chiefly concerned with explaining the language, the grammatical forms and here and there the general thought. He further introduced additional information on the laws contained in the Talmud and on its teachers. In his style Rashi is a model commentator; though thorough, he is yet simple and terse. He had the gift of condensed expression.

Rashi's Commentary on the Bible.

While his commentary on the Talmud is his great achievement, his commentary on the Bible is more famous in a way. There is more of himself in it. His exposition on the Talmud was for the students; that on the Bible was for the masses. It has given religious stimulus to whole communities. Rashi's Pentateuch particularly became a textbook for youth. It comprised both an exposition of the grammatical construction of the words and an explanation of the text as he understood it. It is true that Spain was the home of the science of grammar, but some of its teachings reached France even in Rashi's day. Here and there his commentary consists of the translation of difficult and doubtful words into French, his vernacular; showing that the Jews of his day spoke the language of the country. His commentary contains more than two thousand words in the French of the time of the crusades.

His interpretation of the Bible is, on the whole, rational and simple. He usually sought the plain meaning of the text, p'shat, as it is called. This was the more remarkable in an age that looked for mystic interpretation rather than for the obvious meaning. (This was even truer of Christian exegesis of that day than of Jewish.) Not that his exposition is entirely free from the fanciful and fantastic, such as we at times find in the Midrash. There is much of this. But even where his reverence for tradition led him to introduce some of its theories, he did so with misgiving. In his old age he seriously considered a revision of his commentary on more rational lines. As it is, we must not be surprised to find references to the "evil eye" and to see post-biblical history and Talmudic law strangely interwoven in the stories of the patriarchs.

But it has remained the most popular exposition of the Bible in spite of later ones showing riper learning. Ibn Ezra's never superseded it. Commentaries have been written on his commentary. Christian humanists have translated it into Latin. Luther's Bible translation, so largely responsible for the Reformation, was greatly indebted to Rashi's exposition.

Rashi's Method of Interpretation.

Let it be understood that Rashi's commentaries are not general surveys of the works he expounds, but specific exposition of the text. He comments on a verse rather than on a chapter, and on a word rather than on a verse. Broad surveys of Scripture and Tahnud were to be the tasks of later hands. For their complete understanding we need both — the general and the minute exposition. (See note.) Both his commentaries are remarkable for conciseness. He never wastes a word.

This microscopic study of the Bible that never missed the slightest variation of its word forms, made the Jews of the eleventh century the most complete masters of Scripture of their day.

The Talmud for Rashi carried complete religious authority: it was for him a work without error or limitation. He explains the text, he does not venture to criticize it. Let us realize that for that age the Bible and the Talmud included the whole of its intellectual as well as its religious life, in a more complete sense than they do to-day in this era of many books, of new fields of thought and discovery, of new arts and sciences, and new interests generally. Nor was the Talmud studied then as many study it to-day, as a literature or to obtain the impression of the civilization and atmosphere, the beliefs about the world and the theories of life of the age in which it was written. It was studied wholly for its explanation of civil and ritual law.

Rashi's Influence.

Emerson said that "when a man does better work than those of his kind, though he build his house in the depths of the forest, men will make a path to his door."

Rashi made Troyes a centre whence "went forth the Law." Verily an academy is not a building but a man. Soon the French schools came to surpass those of the Rhine. He gave an impetus to Jewish learning and widened the circle of scholars.

His influence was partly due to his character. He was esteemed for his learning, but he was loved for his gentleness and benevolence. Nor can we always separate scholarship from character. There is a conscientiousness peculiar to the scholar. Rashi possessed it in high degree. He is always honest with his readers as to his sources and his doubts. So we are prepared for the picture given us of his students hovering around him with loving awe. He used his influence to promote peace and good-will in Israel; a Hillel in his way. We see him chivalrous in defense of maid or wife against faithless lover or harsh husband.

Rashi's Responsa form a not unimportant part of his writings and were elaborated into separate works by his disciples. His counsel was sought for at a distance and his word carried throughout France and was accepted as law. For he was not only consulted on academic questions, but on the practical religious issues of life. Thus his correspondence reveals the life of his times.

Jew and Gentile.

He is broad enough to discriminate between heathen and Christian, refusing to apply Talmudic law touching the former against the latter. He realized the necessity of Jews trading with Christians among whom they now lived interspersed.

But those rough times hardly encouraged an entente cordiale though his Responsa suggest an approach toward it. Jew and Christian looked upon one another with suspicious hostility, even before the first crusade. But when Peter the Hermit had carried his message of frenzy through Europe — and the libertine, the adventurer and the robber used the cloak of religion to sanction spoliation, fanaticism ran riot; then came the rupture. The First Crusade occurred during the last years of Rashi's life; perhaps it hastened his death. When the Emperor Henry IV permitted those Jews converted under the crusader's sword to return to their faith, some of the severer brethren would not receive them. Rashi rebuked this severity. "Reject them not," nor were they to be reproached. (Compare similar attitude of Rabenu Gershom, p. 55.) He even approved accepting the testimony of those who had become apostates under duress.

In 1105 Rashi passed away. The legends that grew around his name testify to the reverence with which he was regarded. Fables do not cluster about the memory of commonplace people. His fame went through Europe and reached the East. A bench is still preserved in Worms, where sat — so says tradition — the illustrious scholar, his pupils grouped about him, many of whom were members of his own family.

Greatness is further indicated when a man's influence persists after his death. Rashi most lived after he had passed away. His pupils became a school and the founders of schools. He shaped the character of Jews and Judaism in France and Germany for many centuries after his day.


Rashi and the Mishna:—Just as Rashi's commentary absorbed many of those of previous teachers, so it will be recalled, Jehuda Ha-Nasi summarized compilations of Jewish Law already in existence (7". v., p. 222). This procedure adds to the value of both works.

Higher Criticism:—This term, often misunderstood, means a comprehensive survey of the work as a whole, its style, age, authorship, and comparative treatment. It is distinct from "lower criticism," which is a scrutiny of the text. Rashi's comments were of the latter class.

Rashi's Comemntaries:—In the Rashi commentaries, a few of the Talmudic treatises and a few of the Bible books are not from Rashi's hand.

For some actual examples of Rashi's commentaries, the reader is referred to the work on Rashi, by Maurice Liber (J. P. S. of A.), chaps, vi and vii. This book as a whole is recommended to those who would like to know more of the subject. See, too, in the appendix, Rashi's genealogy.

In German, Zunz's article is famous: "Solomon b. Isaac genannt Rashi" contained in Zeitschrift fur die Wissenschaft des Judenthums. Erster Band pp. 277-385.

Theme for Discussion:—Compare the study of the Talmud as literature with its study as a code of Jewish law.