Rashi: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki

    February Purim 1999            
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By Eliezer Cohen

It is very difficult to mention any part of the Jewish Bible with out mentioning the commentary of Rashi. No one person seems to have had such a deep impact on Jewish learning in the past thousand years as this man has had. In addition to the monumentous and basic commentary on the five books of Moses, Rashi commented on most of the books of the Tanach, meaning the prophets and other biblical writings, plus most of the often-studied tractates of the Babylonian Talmud. His explanation is often the basis for all Jewish understanding of the scriptures and legal principles in Judaism.

Many people today wear the "tephilin of Rashi" and a type setting in Hebrew is called the Rashi script or font due to the popularity of his commentary that was written using it.

Who was Rashi?

Rashi is the acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, a French Jew who was born in Troyes, a city in the north of France in 1040. Rashi lived sixty-five years and died on 1105.

Legend has it that before Rashi was born, his father, Yitzchak had in his possession a very beautiful and precious gem. Some idolaters heard about this gem and wanted to acquire it to place it in the crown of their idol. The idolaters were incessant in their demands for the precious stone and offered exorbitant sums of money to Rashi's father. When he refused to sell it to them they threatened him physically. Fearing that his stone would be used for idolatry, his father threw the gem into the ocean. In the merit of self-sacrifice, it was decreed in heaven that the special soul of Rashi should come down and be the son of this man.

It is related that the prophet Eliyahu was given the honor of holding the baby Rashi on his lap for his circumcision. Dressed as a beggar he arrived at the circumcision close to the end of the eighth day. A crowd had assembled earlier in the day for the circumcision, as is the custom to make it early in the day. Rashi's father, however, refused to start until a strange beggar appeared close to the sunset. However, Rashi's father recognized that this beggar was the prophet Eliyahu and gave him the special honors reserved for important personages.

As a youth, Rashi studied the traditional Jewish subjects with some of the greatest Talmudic scholars of that period. One of the known teachers of Rashi was Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar who lived in Germany, who himself was a student of the famous Rabbeinu Gershom who is still known today for placing the ban on polygamy. Since the ban of Rabbeinu Gershom, Jewish men ceased to have more than one wife, even though the Bible permitted it.

Although Rashi became one of the greatest scholars of his time and wrote on most of the basic Jewish texts, he had a house of study where he taught students also. Rashi, in keeping with the custom of not taking money for teaching, was a successful wine merchant.

Rashi had no sons. He had two daughters (some say he had three daughters). These two daughters were married to outstanding Torah scholars. His grandsons became the very famous "tosepoth" scholars whom are the prime dissenters on the famous commentary of Rashi on the Talmud. Although they argue strongly against many of Rashi's explanations in the Talmud, it is only with the greatest respect that they differ with him. The chief of this group was his grandson, Yaakov, known as Rabbainu Tam. His numerous grandsons, due to their constant use of Rashi's explanations on the Talmud and their disagreement with it, caused a great increase in the study of the Talmud and in the level of understanding. In addition to becoming outstanding scholars, Rashi's grandchildren dispersed though out Europe and were responsible for the increase in the level of Talmudic learning among the European Jewry. Many new Talmudic academies (yeshivot) were created by these grandchildren.

In addition to the famous "tosephot" explanations and commentaries of the Talmudic literature, another grandson, Shlomo, known as the Rashbam, who was literally raised on the lap of his illustrious grandfather wrote a commentary on the five books of Moses which differs sharply with that of Rashi.

It must be mentioned that although his grandchildren wrote many differing commentaries and explanations to the Talmud and the five books of Moses, Rashi's commentary still remains the undisputed prime source for understanding. Subsequent scholars have labored through out the generations to explain Rashi's ideas against those of his grandchildren.

Rashi left a legacy of scholarship and piety that continues to influence all Jewish thought through out all generations. It is difficult to find an institution of Jewish learning today that does not learn Rashi's various explanations. There is no article on Rashi that can take the place of actually learning his commentary. His explanation on the Torah has been translated by several different translators into English and is available at most Jewish bookstores. This is perhaps the best place to understand the traditional Jewish ideas and philosophies in the Bible.


from the February Purim 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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