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Rashi by Maurice Liber

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the Pope bitterly reproached the Emperor.

What sadder, more curious spectacle than that which followed?
Many of those Jews who had remained faithful to their religion
would not consider the apostates as their brethren, unwilling
apostates though they had been, and strenuously opposed their
re-admission to the Synagogue.

This unwillingness to compound, showing so little generosity and
charity, must have distressed Rashi profoundly. For, when
consulted in regard to the repulsed converts, he displayed a
loftiness of view and a breadth of tolerance which Maimonides
himself could not equal. In similar circumstances Maimonides,
it seems, in intervening, yielded a little to personal
prepossession. "Let us beware," wrote Rashi, "let us beware of
alienating those who have returned to us by repulsing them. They
became Christians only through fear of death; and as soon as the
danger disappeared, they hastened to return to their faith."

Though the First Crusade affected the Jews of France only
indirectly, it none the less marks a definite epoch in their
history. The fanaticism it engendered wreaked its fury upon the
Jews, against whom all sorts of odious charges were brought.
They were placed in the same category as sorcerers and lepers,
and among the crimes laid at their door were ritual murder and
piercing of the host. The instigations of the clergy did not
remain without effect upon a people lulled to sleep by its
ignorance, but aroused to action by its faith. The kings and
seigneurs on their side exploited the Jews, and expelled them
from their territories.

Rashi had the good fortune not to know these troublous times. But
he discerned in a sky already overcast the threatening
premonitions of a tempest, and as though to guard his fellow-Jews
against the danger, he left them a work which was to be a
viaticum and an asylum to them. When one sees how Rashi's work
brought nourishment, so to speak, to all later Jewish literature,
which was a large factor in keeping Israel from its threatened
ruin, one is convinced that Rashi, aside from his literary
efforts, contributed no slight amount toward the preservation and
the vitality of the Jewish people.

Even if the Crusades had not involved persecution of the Jews and
so provoked the noble intervention of Rashi, they would
nevertheless have made themselves felt in Champagne. Count Hugo,
among others, remained in the Holy Land from 1104 to 1108; and
his brother was killed at Ramleh in 1102. According to a rather
wide-spread legend, Rashi stood in intimate relations with one of
the principal chiefs of the Crusade, the famous duke of Lower
Lotharingia, Godfrey of Bouillon. Historians have found that the
part actually played by the duke in the Crusades is smaller than
that ascribed to him by tradition, yet the profound impression he
made on the popular imagination has remained, and legend soon
endowed him with a fabulous genealogy, making of him an almost
mythical personage. A favorite trick of the makers of legends is
to connect their heroes with celebrated contemporaries, as though
brilliance was reflected from one upon the other. Thus Saladin
was connected with Maimonides and with Richard the Lion-Hearted,
and, similarly, Rashi with Godfrey of Bouillon.

The story goes that Godfrey, having heard rumors of the knowledge
and wisdom of the rabbi of Troyes, summoned Rashi to his presence
to consult with him upon the issue of his undertaking. Rashi
refused to appear. Annoyed, Godfrey accompanied by his cavaliers
went to the rabbi's school. He found the door open, but the
great building empty. By the strength of his magic Rashi had
made himself invisible, but he himself could see everything.
"Where art thou, Solomon?" cried the cavalier. "Here I am," a
voice answered; "what does my lord demand?" Godfrey not seeing a
living soul repeated his question, and always received the same
answer. But not a man to be seen! Utterly confounded, he left
the building and met a disciple of Rashi's. "Go tell thy
master," he said, "that he should appear; I swear he has nothing
to fear from me." The rabbi then revealed himself.[28] "I see,"
Godfrey said to him, "that thy wisdom is great. I should like to
know whether I shall return from my expedition victorious, or
whether I shall succumb. Speak without fear."

"Thou wilt take the Holy City," Rashi replied, "and thou wilt
reign over Jerusalem three days, but on the fourth day the Moslem
will put thee to flight, and when thou returnest only three
horses will be left to thee."

"It may be," replied Godfrey, irritated and disillusioned in
seeing his future pictured in colors so sombre. "But if I return
with only one more horse than thou sayest, I shall wreak
frightful vengeance upon thee. I shall throw thy body to the
dogs, and I shall put to death all the Jews of France."

After several years of fighting Godfrey of Bouillon, ephemeral
king of Jerusalem, took his homeward road back to France,
accompanied by three cavaliers, in all, 'then, four horses, one
more than Rashi had predicted. Godfrey remembered the rabbi's
prophecy, and determined to carry out his threat. But when he
entered the city of Troyes, a large rock, loosened from the gate,
fell upon one of the riders, killing him and his horse. Amazed at
the miracle, the duke perforce had to recognize that Rashi had
not been wrong, and he wanted to go to the seer to render him
homage, but he learned that Rashi had died meanwhile. This
grieved him greatly.

This legend was further embellished by the addition of details.
Some placed the scene at Worms; others asserted that the duke
asked Rashi to accompany him to Lorraine; but Rashi nobly
refused, as Maimonides did later. All forgot that Godfrey of
Bouillon after he left for the Crusades never saw his fatherland
again, but died at Jerusalem, five years before Rashi.

Rashi's life offers no more noteworthy events. He passed the
balance of his days in study, in guiding the community, and in
composing his works. Without doubt, our lack of information
concerning his last years is due to this very fact-to the peace
and calm in which that time was spent.

A naive legend has it that he wanted to know who would be his
companion in Paradise. He learned in a dream that the man lived
at Barcelona, and was called Abraham the Just. In order to
become acquainted with him while still on earth, Rashi, despite
his great age, started forth on a journey to Barcelona. There he
found a very rich man, but, as was alleged, he was also very
impious. However, Rashi was not long in discovering that for all
his life of luxury he was just and generous of spirit. Rashi
even composed a work in his honor entitled "The Amphitryon," in
Hebrew, Ha-Parnes. Do you think the work was lost? Not a
bit of it. It still exists, but it is called Ha-Pardes.
The legend is based upon a copyist's mistake. However, it is
found in different forms in other literatures.

Beyond a doubt Rashi died and was buried in his birthplace.
Nevertheless the story is told, that as he was about to return to
France with his young wife, the daughter of his host at Prague,
after his long trip of study and exploration, which I have
already described, an unknown man entered his dwelling and struck
him a mortal blow. But the people could not resign themselves to
accept so miserable an end for so illustrious a man, and the
legend received an addition. At the very moment Rashi was to be
buried, his wife ran up and brought him back to life by means of
a philtre. His father-in-law, in order not to excite the envy of
his enemies, kept the happy event a secret, and ordered the
funeral to be held. The coffin was carried with great pomp to
the grave, which became an object of veneration for the Jews of
Prague. In fact, a tomb is pointed out as being that of the
celebrated rabbi, and, as the inscription is effaced, the
assertion can safely be made that Rashi died in the capital of

Rashi's death was less touching and less tragic. We learn from a
manuscript dated Thursday, the twenty-ninth of Tammuz, in the
year 4865 of the Creation (July 13, 1105), that Rashi died at
Troyes. He was then sixty-five years of age.

It is as though the echo of the regrets caused by Rashi's death
resounded in the following note in an old manuscript: "As the
owner of a fig-tree knows when it is time to cull the figs, so
God knew the appointed time of Rashi, and carried him away in his
hour to let him enter heaven. Alas! he is no more, for God has
taken him." These few lines, without doubt the note of some
copyist, show with what deep respect the memory of Rashi came to
be cherished but shortly after his death. Like Rabbeun Gershom he
was awarded after his death the title of "Light of the
Captivity." But later the title was applied only to Gershom, as
though Rashi had no need of it to distinguish him.

Rashi died "full of days," having led a life of few incidents,
because it was uniformly devoted to study and labor. He was like
a patriarch who is surrounded by the affection of his children
and by the respect of his contemporaries. To future generations
he bequeathed the memory of his virtues and the greatness of his
work. And his memory has survived the neglect of time and the
ingratitude of man. Posterity has enveloped his brow with a halo
of glory, and after the lapse of eight centuries the radiance of
his personality remains undiminished.



Not only is there little information concerning the incidents of
Rashi's life, but also there are only a few sources from which we
can learn about his mental makeup and introduce ourselves, so to
speak, into the circle of his thoughts and ideas. Generally one
must seek the man in his work. But into writings so objective as
those of a commentator who does not even exert himself to set
forth his method and principles in a preface, a man is not apt to
put much of his own personality. Moreover, Rashi was disposed to
speak of himself as little as possible. From time to time,
however, he lets a confidence escape, and we treasure it the more
carefully because of its rarity.

Fortunately we can get to know him a little better through his
letters, that is, through the Responsa addressed by him to those
who consulted him upon questions of religious law. Another
source, no less precious, is afforded by the works of his pupils,
who noted with pious care the least acts or expressions of their
master that were concerned with points of law.

I shall endeavor to sum up all this information, so that we may
get a picture of the man and trace his features in as distinct
lines as possible.


Needless to say, Rashi's conduct was always honorable and his
manners irreproachable. To be virtuous was not to possess some
special merit; it was the strict fulfilment [fulfillment sic] of
the Law. We have seen that Rashi's life was pure; and his life
and more particularly his work reveal a firm, controlled nature,
a simple, frank character, clear judgment, upright intentions,
penetrating intelligence, and profound good sense. The Talmudic
maxim might be applied to him: "Study demands a mind as serene as
a sky without clouds." His was a questioning spirit, ever alert.
He had the special gift of viewing the outer world intelligently
and fixing his attention upon the particular object or the particular
circumstance that might throw light upon a fact or a text.
For instance, although he did not know Arabic, he remembered
certain groups of related words in the language, which had
either been called to his attention or which he had met with in
reading. He noticed of his own accord that "Arabic words begin
with 'al'." To give another example of this discernment: he
explains a passage of the Talmud by recalling that he saw Jews
from Palestine beating time to mark the melody when they were
reading the Pentateuch.

The clearness and poise ef Rashi's intellect-qualities which he
possessed in common with other French rabbis, though in a higher
degree-stand in favorable contrast with the sickly symbolism, the
unwholesome search for mystery, which tormented the souls of
ecclesiastics, from the monk Raoul Glaber up to the great Saint
Bernard, that man, said Michelet, "diseased by the love of God."

Yet the Jews of Northern France were not, as one might suppose
from their literature, cold and dry of temperament. They were
sensitive and tender-hearted. They did not forever lead the
austere life of scholarly seclusion; they did not ignore the
affections nor the cares of family; they knew how to look upon
life and its daily come and go.

But they did not go to the other extreme and become philosophers.
Traditional religion was to them the entire truth. They never
dreamed that antagonism might arise between faith and reason.
From a theological point of view-if the modern term may be
employed-Rashi shared the ideas of his time. In knowledge or
character one may raise oneself above one's contemporaries; but
it is rare not to share their beliefs and superstitions. Now, it
must be admitted, the Jews of Northern France did not cherish
religion in all its ideal purity. The effect of their faith,
their piety, upon these simple souls was to make them somewhat
childish, and give their practices a somewhat superstitious
tinge. Thus, Rashi says in the name of his teacher Jacob ben
Yakar, that one should smell spices Saturday evening, because
hell, after having its work interrupted by the Sabbath, begins to
exhale a bad odor again in the evening. This naive faith at
least preserved Rashi from pursuing the paths not always avoided
by his co-religionists of Spain and the Provence, who dabbled in
philosophy. Rashi never was conscious of the need to justify
certain narratives or certain beliefs which shocked some readers
of the Bible. Not until he came upon a passage in the Talmud
which awakened his doubts did he feel called upon to explain why
God created humanity, though He knew it would become corrupt, and
why He asks for information concerning things which cannot escape
His omniscience. But Rashi was not bewildered by certain
anthropomorphic passages in the Bible, the meaning of which so
early a work as the Targum had veiled. Nor was he shocked by the
fact that God let other peoples adore the stars, and that altars
had been consecrated to Him elsewhere than at Jerusalem. Thus his
plain common sense kept him from wandering along by-paths and
losing himself in the subtleties in which the Ibn Ezras and the
Nahmanides were entangled. His common sense rendered him the
same service in the interpretation of many a Talmudic passage
that Saadia and Nissim had thought incapable of explanation
unless wrested from its literal meaning. Since justice requires
the admission, I shall presently dwell upon the points in which
Rashi's lack of philosophic training was injurious to him. Here
it is necessary merely to note wherein it was useful to him. It
was not he, for instance, who held Abraham and Moses to have been
the precursors-no, the disciples-of Aristotle. Ought we to
complain of that?

In discussing the fundamental goodness of Rashi's nature, no
reserves nor qualifications need be made. Historians have vied
with one another in praising his humanity, his kindliness, his
indulgent, charitable spirit, his sweetness, and his benevolence.
He appealed to the spirit of concord, and exhorted the
communities to live in peace with one another. His goodness
appears in the following Responsum to a question, which the
interrogator did not sign: "I recognized the author of the
letter by the writing. He feared to sign his name, because he
suspects me of being hostile to him. But I assure him I am not;
I have quite the contrary feeling for him." A still quainter
characteristic is illustrated by the following decision which he
rendered: "If, during the prayer after a meal, one interrupts
oneself to feed an animal, one does not commit a reprehensible
act, for one should feed one's beasts before taking nourishment,
as it is written: 'And I will send grass in thy fields for thy
cattle, that thou mayest eat and be full.'" But the quality Rashi
possessed in the highest degree was simplicity, modesty, one may
almost say, humility; and what contributed not a little to the
even tenor of his existence was his capacity for self-effacement.

Such was his nature even when a youth in the academies of
Lorraine. He himself tells how once, when he was in the house of
his teacher, he noticed that a ritual prescription was being
violated in dressing the meat of a sheep. His teacher, occupied
with other matters, did not notice the infringement of the law,
and the pupil was in a quandary. To keep quiet was to cover up
the wrong and make it irreparable; to speak and pronounce a
decision before his master was to be lacking in respect for him.
So, to escape from the embarrassing situation, Rashi put a
question to his master bearing upon the dressing of the meat.

Toward all his teachers Rashi professed the greatest respect. On
a certain question they held wrong opinions, and Rashi wrote: "I
am sure they did not cause irremediable harm, but they will do
well in the future to abstain from such action." This shows at
the same time that Rashi did not hesitate to be independent, did
not blindly accept all their teachings. When he believed an
opinion wrong, he combated it; when he believed an opinion right,
he upheld it, even against his masters. On one occasion, Isaac
ha-Levi delivered a sentence which to his pupil seemed too
strict. "I plied him with questions," says Rashi, "to which he
would not pay attention, although he could not give any proof in
support of his opinion." To the pupils of Isaac, he wrote: "I do
not pretend to abolish the usages that you follow, but as soon
as I can be with you, I shall ask you to come over to my opinion.
I do not wish to discuss the stricter practices adopted in the
school of Jacob ben Yakar (Isaac's predecessor), until I shall
have established that my idea is the correct one. He will then
acknowledge that I am right, as he did once before."

This is the circumstance referred to. While still a pupil of
Isaac ha-Levi, Rashi had accepted a decision of his without
having thoroughly studied it. Later he became convinced that his
teacher was mistaken, but he bore it in mind until he went to
Worms and persuaded his teacher to his own belief.

Rashi displayed the same reserve in the exercise of his
rabbinical functions, especially when the community appealing to
him was not that of Troyes. That of Chalons-sur-Saone once
consulted him concerning an interdiction imposed by R. Gershom,
and asked him to repeal it; but Rashi modestly declined to give
an opinion.[29]

Rashi's modesty is also illustrated by the tone of his
correspondence. Deferential or indulgent, he never adopted a
superior manner, was never positive or dogmatic. When his
correspondents were wrong, he sought to justify their mistakes;
when he combated the explanation of another, he never used a
cutting expression, or a spiteful allusion, as Ibn Ezra did, and
so many others.

Finally, it seems, he did not hesitate to recognize his own
mistakes, even when a pupil pointed them out to him, and it is
possible to select from his commentaries a number of avowals of
error. In his Responsa he wrote: "The same question has already
been put to me, and I gave a faulty answer. But now I am
convinced of my mistake, and I am prepared to give a decision
better based on reason. I am grateful to you for having drawn my
attention to the question; thanks to you, I now see the truth."
This question concerned a point in Talmudic law; but he was
willing to make a similar admission in regard to the explanation
of a Biblical verse. "In commenting on Ezekiel I made a mistake
in the explanation of this passage, and as, at the end of the
chapter, I gave the true sense, I contradicted myself. But in
taking up the question again with my friend Shemaiah,[30] I
hastened to correct this mistake."

An old scholar named R. Dorbal, or Durbal, addressed a question
to Rashi, and Rashi in his reply expressed his astonishment that
an old man should consult so young a man as he. Assuredly, said
Rashi, it was because he wanted to give a proof of his
benevolence and take the occasion for congratulating Rashi on his
response, if it were correct.

It would take too long to enumerate all the passages in which
Rashi avows his ignorance, and declares he cannot give a
satisfactory explanation.

We have seen that Rashi did not hesitate to acknowledge that he
owed certain information to his friends and pupils, and that his
debates with them had sometimes led him to change his opinion.
The confession he made one day to his grandson Samuel about the
inadequacy of his Biblical Commentary[31] has become celebrated,
and justly so. There is something touching in the way he listened
to the opinions of his grandson, and accepted them because
they appeared correct to him-the man who loved truth and science
above everything else. Like many noble spirits, he considered
his work imperfect, and would have liked to do it all over again.
This modesty and this realization of the truth are the ruling
qualities of his nature.


The ideal Jew combines virtue with knowledge, and tradition
ascribes to Rashi universal knowledge. In the first place he was
a polyglot. Popular admiration of him, based upon the myth
concerning his travels and upon a superficial reading of this
works, assigned to him the old miracle of the Apostles. The
languages he was supposed to know were Latin, Greek, Arabic, and
Persian. He was also said to be acquainted with astronomy, and
even with the Kabbalah, of which, according to the Kabbalists, he
was an ardent adept. After his death, they say, he appeared to
his grandson Samuel to teach him the true pronunciation of the
Ineffable Name. Medical knowledge was also attributed to Rashi,
and a medical work ascribed to his authorship. One scholar went
so far as to call him a calligrapher.[32] From his infancy, it
was declared, he astonished the world by his learning and by his
memory; and when, toward the end of his life, he went to Barcelona,
he awakened every one's admiration by his varied yet profound

These errors, invented, or merely repeated, but, at all events,
given credence by the Jewish chroniclers and the Christian
bibliographers, cannot hold out against the assaults of
criticism. To give only one example of Rashi's geographical
knowledge, it will suffice to recall how he represented the
configuration of Palestine and Babylonia, or rather how he tried
to guess it from the texts.[33] His ignorance of geography is
apparent in his commentaries, which contain a rather large number
of mistakes. In addition, Rashi was not always familiar with
natural products, or with the creations of art, or with the
customs and usages of distant countries. Still less was a rabbi
of the eleventh century likely to have an idea of what even
Maimonides was unacquainted with, the local color and the spirit
of dead civilizations. Rashi-to exemplify this ignoranceexplained
Biblical expressions by customs obtaining in his own day: "to
put into possession," the Hebrew of which is "to fill the hand,"
he thinks he explains by comparing it with a feudal ceremony and
discovering in it something analagous [analogous sic] to the act
of putting on gauntlets. In general, the authors of Rashi's
time, paying little regard to historic setting, explained
ancient texts by popular legends, or by Christian or feudal
customs. Therefore, one need not scruple to point out this
defect in Rashi's knowledge. Like his compatriots he did not
know the profane branches of learning. He was subject to the
same limitations as nearly the entire body of clergy of his day.
While the Arabs so eagerly and successfully cultivated
philosophy, medicine, astronomy, and physics, Christian Europe
was practically ignorant of these sciences. Finally, one will
judge still less severely of Rashi's knowledge-or lack of
knowledge-if one remembers what science was in the Christian
world of the middle ages-it was childish, tinged with
superstition, extravagantly absurd, and fantastically naive.
Rashi believed that the Nile flooded its banks once every forty
years; but Joinville, who lived two centuries later, and who was
in Egypt, tells even more astonishing things than this about the
marvellous [marvelous sic] river, which has its source in the
terrestrial Paradise.

Besides French, the only profane language Rashi knew was German.
The explanations he gives according to the Greek, the Arabic, and
the Persian, he obtains from secondary sources. Indeed, they are
sometimes faulty, and they reveal the ignorance of the man who
reproduced without comprehending them. No great interest
attaches to the mention of his chronological mistakes and his
confusion of historical facts. His astronomic knowledge is very
slight, and resolves itself into what he borrowed from the
Italian Sabbatai Donnolo, of Oria (about 950).

But limited as his knowledge was to Biblical, Talmudic, and
Rabbinical literature, it was for that reason all the greater in
the province he had explored in its inmost recesses. This is
shown by his numerous citations, the sureness of his touch, and
his mastery of all the subjects of which he treats.

Thanks to the citations, we can definitely ascertain what we
might call his library.

Needless to say, the first place was held by the Bible, which, as
will be seen, he knew perfectly. He wrote commentaries upon the
Bible almost in its entirety, besides frequently referring to it
in his Talmudic commentaries. His favorite guide for the
explanation of the Pentateuch is the Aramaic version by Onkelos.
For the Prophets he used the Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel.[34]
He was entirely ignorant of the Apocryphal books. The Wisdom of
Ben Sira, for instance, like the Megillat Taanit, or Roll
of Fasts,[35] were known to him only through the citations of the

On the other hand Rashi was thoroughly conversant with the whole
field of Talmudic literature-first of all the treatises on
religious jurisprudence, the Mishnah,[36]
Tosefta,[37] the Babylonian and, in part, the Palestinian
Gemara;[36] then, the Halakic Midrashim, such as the
Mekilta, the Sifra, the Sifre,[38] and
Haggadic compilations, such as the Rabbot,[39] the Midrash
on the Song of Songs, on Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms,
and Samuel, the Pesikta,[40] the Tanhuma,[41] and
the Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer.[42]

According to tradition, Rashi has set the Talmudic period as the
date of composition of two works which modern criticism has
placed in the period of the Geonim. These works are the historic
chronicle Seder Olam[43] and the gnostic or mystic treatise
on the Creation, the Sefer Yezirah; the forerunner of
the Kabbalah. Besides these anonymous works, Rashi knew the
Responsa of the Geonim, which he frequently cites, notably those
of Sherira[44] and his son Hai,[45] the Sheeltot of R.
Aha,[46] and the Halakot Gedolot, attributed by the French
school to Yehudai Gaon.[47] In the same period must be placed two
other writers concerning whom we are not wholly enlightened,
Eleazar ha-Kalir and the author of the Jewish chronicle entitled
Yosippon. Eleazar, who lived in the eighth or ninth
century, was one of the first liturgical poets both as to time
and as to merit. The author of the Yosippon undoubtedly
lived in Italy in the tenth century. Rashi, like all his
contemporaries, confounded the two respectively with the Tanna R.
Eleazar and the celebrated Josephus. They were considered
authorities by all the rabbis of the middle ages, the first for
his language and his Midrashic traditions, the second for his
historical knowledge.[48]

So far as the literature contemporary, or nearly contemporary,
with Rashi is concerned, it must be stated that Rashi had read
all the works written in Hebrew, while the whole of Arabic
literature was inaccessible to him. Without doubt he knew the
grammarian Judah Ibn Koreish[49] only by the citations from him.
On the other hand he made much use of the works of the two
Spanish grammarians, Menahem ben Saruk and Dunash ben
Labrat,[50] likewise the works of Moses haDarshan, of Narbonne.
Naturally, he was still better versed in all the rabbinical
literature of Northern France and of Germany. He frequently cites
R. Gershom, whom he once called "Father and Light of the
Captivity," as well as his contemporaries Joseph Tob Elem,
Eliezer the Great, and Meshullam ben Kalonymos, of Mayence. I
have already mentioned-and will repeat further on how much he
owed his teachers.

For the sake of completeness, it is necessary to add to this list
all the contemporaries from whom Rashi learned either directly or
indirectly. For information concerning the Talmud, Isaac ben
Menahem the Great, of Orleans, may be mentioned among these; and
for information concerning the Bible, Menahem ben Helbo, whom
Rashi probably cited through the medium of one of his pupils or
his writings, for he himself was not known to Rashi, his younger

If one also takes into consideration the less important and the
anonymous persons whose books or oral teachings Rashi cited, one
will be convinced that he had what is called a well-stocked
brain, and that his knowledge in his special domain was as vast
as it was profound, since it embraced the entire field of
knowledge which the Jews of Northern France of that time could
possibly cultivate. His learning was not universal; far from it;
but he was master of all the knowledge his countrymen possessed.

Thanks to this erudition, he could fill, at least in part, the
gaps in his scientific education. In fact, an understanding of
Talmudic law presupposes a certain amount of information-geometry
and botany for questions concerning land, astronomy for the
fixation of the calendar, zoology for dietary laws, and so on.
Rashi's knowledge, then, was less frequently defective than one
is led to suppose, although sometimes he lagged behind the Talmud
itself. It has been noted that of 127 or 128 French glosses
bearing upon the names of plants, 62 are absolutely correct. In
history Rashi preserved some traditions which we can no longer
verify, but which seem to be derived from sources worthy of
confidence; and if it had not been for Rashi, we would not have
become acquainted with them.

What he knew, therefore, he knew chiefly through reading and
through the instruction of his teachers, to whom he often
appealed; for he possessed that most precious quality in a
scholar, conscience, scientific probity. One example will
suffice to give an idea of his method. Once, when he was
searching for a text in his copy of the Talmud, he found it
corrected. But he did not remember if he himself or his teacher
had made the correction. So he consulted a manuscript in which
he had noted down the variants of his teacher Isaac of Mayence.
Not being able to determine from this, he begged his
correspondent to look up the manuscript of Isaac and to let him
know the reading.

This characteristic leads us back to a consideration of Rashi's
nature, upon which one likes to dwell, because it makes him a
sage in the most beautiful and the largest meaning of the word,
because it makes him one of the most sympathetic personalities in
all Jewish history. If Rashi had left nothing but the remembrance
of an exemplary life and of spotless virtue, his name would have
merited immortality.

But Rashi bequeathed more than this to posterity; he left one,
nay, two monuments to awaken admiration and call forth gratitude.
They assure him fame based on a solid foundation. What matter if
we Jews fail to honor our great men with statues of marble and
bronze, if they themselves establish their glory on pedestals
that defy the ravages of time? Statues raised by the hand of man
are perishable as man himself; the works constructed by a genius
are immortal as the genius himself.





Rashi stands before us a teacher distinguished and original, a
religious leader full of tact and delicate feeling, a scholar
clear-headed and at the same time loving-hearted. In which
capacity, as teacher, religious leader, scholar, does he evoke
our deepest admiration? Shall we accord it to the one who made a
home for Talmudic studies on the banks of the Seine, and so gave
a definite impetus to French Jewish civilization? Or shall we
accord it to the one who for nearly forty years presided over the
spiritual destinies of an active and studious population and
fulfilled the duties of a rabbi; with all the more devotion,
without doubt, because he did not have the title of rabbi? Or
should we not rather pay our highest tribute to Rashi the man, so
upright and modest, so simple and amiable, who has won for
himself the veneration of posterity as much by the qualities of
his heart as by those of his intellect, as much by his goodness
and kindliness as by the subtlety and acumen of his mind, in a
word, as much by his character as by his knowledge? Nevertheless
his knowledge was extraordinary and productive of great works,
which we shall consider in the following chapters.

As spiritual chief of the French Jews, it was natural that Rashi
should occupy himself with the source of their intellectual and
religious activity, with the Bible. But in his capacity of
Talmudist and teacher, it was equally natural that he should
devote himself to the explanation of the Talmud, which formed the
basis of instruction in the schools, besides serving to regulate
the acts of everyday life and the practices of religion. And as
a rabbinical authority he was called upon to resolve the problems
that arose out of individual difficulties or out of communal
questions. We need no other guide than this to lead us to an
understanding of his works. But not to omit anything essential,
it would be well to mention some collections which were the
result of his instruction, and some liturgical poems attributed
to him.

* * * * *

Rashi owes his great reputation to his commentaries on the two
great works that comprehend Jewish life in its entirety, and lie
at the very root of the intellectual development of Judaism, the
Bible and the Talmud. His commentaries involving an enormous
amount of labor are all but complete; they fail to cover only a
few books of the Bible and a few treatises of the Talmud. The
conjecture has been made that at first he set himself to
commenting on the Talmud, and then on the Bible, because at the
end of his life he expressed the wish that he might begin the
Biblical commentary all over again. But this hypothesis is not
justified. The unfinished state of both commentaries, especially
the one on the Talmud, shows that he worked on them at the same
time. But they were not written without interruption, not "in one
spurt," as the college athlete might say. Rashi worked at them
intermittently, going back to them again and again. It is certain
that so far as the Talmudic treatises are concerned, he did not
exert himself to follow the order in which they occur. He may
have taken them up when he explained them in his school. But in
commenting on the Bible, it seems, he adhered to the sequence of
the books, for it was on the later books that he did not have the
time to write commentaries. Moreover, he sometimes went back to
his commentary on a Biblical book or a Talmudic treatise, not
because he worked to order, like Ibn Ezra, and as circumstances
dictated, but because he was not satisfied with his former
attempt, and because, in the course of his study, the same
subject came up for his consideration. Though the commentaries,
then, were not the result of long, steady application, they
demanded long-continued efforts, and they were, one may say, the
business of his whole life. The rabbi Isaac of Vienna, who
possessed an autograph commentary of Rashi, speaks of the
numerous erasures and various marks with which it was

The commentaries of Rashi, which do not bear special titles, are
not an uninterrupted exposition of the entire work under
consideration, and could not be read from cover to cover without
recourse to the text explained; they are rather detached glosses,
postils, to borrow an expression from ecclesiastical literature,
upon terms or phrases presenting some difficulties. They are
always preceded by the word or words to be explained.

It is evident, then, that Rashi's works do not bear witness to
great originality, or, better, to great creative force. Rashi
lacks elevation in his point of view, breadth of outlook, and
largeness of conception. He possessed neither literary taste nor
esthetic sense. He was satisfied to throw light upon an
obscurity, to fill up a lacuna, to justify an apparent
imperfection, to explain a peculiarity of style, or to reconcile
contradictions. He never tried to call attention to the beauties
of the text or to give a higher idea of the original; he never
succeeded in bringing into relief the humanity of a law, or the
universal bearing of an event.

Rashi failed also to regard a thing in its entirety. He did not
write prefaces to his works setting forth the contents of the
book and the method to be pursued.[51] In the body of the
commentaries, he hardly ever dwells on a subject at length, but
contents himself with a brief explanation. In short, his horizon
was limited and he lacked perspective. It is to be regretted that
he did not know the philosophic works of Saadia, who would have
opened up new worlds to him, and would have enlarged the circle
of his ideas. If he had read only the Biblical commentaries of
the great Gaon, he would have learned from him how to grasp a
text in its entirety and give a general idea of a work.

Even if he had limited himself to the Talmud, Rashi, without
doubt, would have been incapable of raising a vast and harmonious
edifice, like the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides. He did not
possess the art of developing the various sides of a subject so
as to produce a well-ordered whole. He lacked not only literary
ambition, but also that genius for organizing and systematizing
which classifies and co-ordinates all the laws. Though
methodical, he lacked the power to generalize.

This defect, common to his contemporaries, arose, possibly, from
a certain timidity. He believed that he ought to efface himself
behind his text, and not let his own idea take the place of the
author's, especially when the text was a religious law and the
author the Divine legislator. But it seems that his power of
creative thought was not strong, and could exercise itself only
upon the more original works of others. We find analogous
features in scholastic literature, which developed wholly in the
shadow of the Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, and

This narrow criticism, this eye for detail, this lack of general
ideas and of guiding principles at least guarded Rashi against a
danger more original spirits failed to escape, namely, of reading
preconceived notions into the text, of interpreting it by an
individual method, and, thus, of gathering more meaning, or
another meaning, than was intended by the author. Unlike the
Jewish and Christian theologians, Rashi felt no need to do
violence to the text in order to reconcile it with his scientific
and philosophic beliefs.

Though Rashi, as I said, had not a creative intellect, he yet had
all the qualities of a commentator. First of all, he possessed
clearness, the chief requisite for a commentary, which undertakes
to explain a work unintelligible to its readers. "To write like
Rashi" has become a proverbial expression for "to write clearly
and intelligibly." Rashi always or nearly always uses the
expression one expects. He finds the explanation that obtrudes
itself because it is simple and easy; he excels in unravelling
[unraveling sic] difficulties and illuminating obscurities. To
facilitate comprehension by the reader Rashi resorted to the use
of pictures and diagrams, some of which still appear in his
Talmudic commentary, though a number have been suppressed by the
editors. Once, when asked for the explanation of a difficult
passage in Ezekiel, he replied that he had nothing to add to what
he had said in his commentary, but he would send a diagram which
would render the text more intelligible. It is remarkable with
what ease, even without the aid of illustrations, he unravelled
[unraveled sic] the chapters of Ezekiel in which the Prophet
describes the Temple of his fancy; or the equally complicated
chapters of Exodus which set forth the plan of the Tabernacle.

Essentially this power of exposition is the attribute of
intelligent insight. Rashi's was the clearest, the most
transparent mind-no clouds nor shadows, no ambiguities, no
evasions. He leaves nothing to be taken for granted, he makes no
mental reservations. He is clearness and transparency itself.

But Rashi's language is not merely clear; it is extremely
precise. It says with accuracy exactly what it sets out to say.
Rashi did not hesitate sometimes to coin new words for the sake
of conveying his thought. He always heeded the connotation of a
word, and took the context into account. Once, in citing a
Talmudic explanation of a verse in Jeremiah, he rejected it,
because it did not square with the development of the thought;
and often he would not accept an interpretation, because a word
in the text was given a meaning which it did not have in any
other passage. He grasped, and rendered in turn with perfect
accuracy, shades of meaning and subtleties of language; and the
fine expression of relations difficult to solve surprises and
charms the reader by its precision.

Commentators in the effort to be clear are often wordy, and those
who aim at brevity often lack perspicuity. The latter applies to
Abraham Ibn Ezra, who might have said with the poet, "I avoid
long-windedness, and I become obscure." Samuel ben Meir, on the
other hand, grandson and pupil of Rashi, is, at least in his
Talmudic commentaries, so long-winded and prolix that at first
glance one can detect the additions made by him to the
commentaries of his grandfather. It is related, that once, when
Rashi was ill, Samuel finished the commentary Rashi had begun,
and when Rashi got well he weighed the leaves on which his pupil
had written and said: "If thou hadst commented on the whole
Talmud after this fashion, thy commentary would have been as
heavy as a chariot." The story, which attributes somewhat
uncharitable words to Rashi, yet contains an element of truth,
and emphasizes the eminent quality of his own commentaries.

He rarely goes into very long explanations. Often he solves a
difficulty by one word, by shooting one flash of light into the
darkness. The scholar and bibliographer Azulai scarcely
exaggerated when he said that Rashi could express in one letter
that for which others needed whole pages. A close study of the
Talmudic commentaries shows that he replied in advance and very
briefly to the questions of many a Talmudist.

It is only in considering the difficult passages that he goes to
greater length to note and discuss explanation previously
propounded. Take for example what he says on the words 'al
mut Laben
', the superscription of Psalm ix, which are a
crux interpretum. At the same time the reader will observe
how ancient are certain interpretations of modern exegetes.
Rashi begins by refuting those who allege that David wrote this
Psalm on the death of his son Absalom; for in that case
Haben and not Laben<\H> would have been necessary, and
nothing in the text bears out this explanation. Others
transposed the letters of Laben to read Nabal, but
there is no reference to Nabal in this Psalm. Others again, like
the Great Massorah, make a single word of almut<\H>. Menahem
and Dunash,[52] each proposes an explanation which seems to be
incorrect. The Pesikta, in view of verse 6, thinks the
Psalm refers to Amalek and Esau; and this, too, is not
satisfying. Finally, Rashi gives his own explanation, scarcely
better than the others,- that the Psalm deals with the
rejuvenation and purity of Israel when it will have been redeemed
from the Roman captivity.

When difficult questions are propounded by the Talmud, or arise
out of a consideration of the Talmud, Rashi cites previous
explanations or parallel texts. But this is exceptional. As a
rule he finds with marvellous [marvelous sic] nicety and without
circumlocution the exact word, the fitting expression, the necessary
turn. One or two words suffice for him to sum up an observation,
to anticipate a question, to forestall an unexpressed
objection, to refute a false interpretation, or to throw light
upon the true meaning of word or phrase. This is expressed in the
saying, "In Rashi's time a drop of ink was worth a piece of
gold." It was not without justification - though, perhaps, the
practice was carried to excess - that for centuries commentaries
were written upon these suggestive words of his under the title
Dikduke Rashi, the "Niceties of Rashi." Even at the
present day his commentaries are minutely studied for the purpose
of finding a meaning for each word. In fact, because of this
concise, lapidary style, his commentaries called into existence
other commentaries, which set out to interpret his ideas, - and
frequently found ideas that did not belong there. Though the
authors of these super - commentaries were Rashi's admirers, they
were scarcely his imitators.

In this regard it is of interest to compare the commentary of
Rashi upon the beginning of the treatise Baba Batra with
that of Samuel ben Meir upon the end of the treatise, which Rashi
did not succeed in reaching. An even more striking comparison may
be made with the commentary of Nissim Gerundi upon the abridgment
of the Talmud by Alfasi, which is printed opposite to that of
Rashi.[53] Rashi's style is unmistakable, and prolixness in a
commentary attributed to him is proof against the alleged paternity.

By virtue of these qualities, possessed by Rashi in so high a
degree, he is true to the traditions of French literature, which
is distinguished for simplicity and clearness among all
literatures. Besides, he compares with the French writers of the
middle ages in his disregard of "style." It is true, he handles
with ease Hebrew and Aramaic, or, rather, the rabbinical idiom,
which is a mixture of the two. But he is not a writer in the true
sense of the word. His language is simple and somewhat careless,
and his writing lacks all traces of esthetic quality.

* * * * *

Since the Bible and the Talmud made appeal to readers of another
time and another language than those in which they were written,
Rashi's first duty was to explain them, then, if necessary,
translate them, now to add clearness to the explanation, now to
do away with it wholly. These translations, sometimes bearing
upon entire passages, more often upon single words, were called
glosses, Hebrew laazim (better, leazim), the plural
of laaz. They were French words transcribed into Hebrew
characters, and they formed an integral part of the text. Rashi
had recourse to them in his teaching when the precise Hebrew
expression was lacking, or when he explained difficult terms,
especially technical terms of arts and crafts. The use of a
French word saved him a long circumlocution. Sometimes, the laaz
followed a definition or description, in a striking manner giving
the meaning of the word or expression.

In employing these French laazim, Rashi introduced no innovation.
His predecessors, especially his masters, had already made use of
them, perhaps in imitation of the Christian commentators, who
likewise inserted words of the vernacular in their Latin
explanations. The Latin - speaking clergy were often forced to
employ the common speech for instructing the people; and in the
eleventh century beginnings were made in the translation of the
Old and New Testament by the rendition of important passages.
But while it perturbed the Church to see the Scriptures spread
too freely before the gaze of the layman, the rabbis never feared
that the ordinary Jew might know his Bible too well, and they
availed themselves of the laazim without scruple. The frequent
occurrence of the laazim is one of a number of proofs that French
was the current speech of the Jews of France. Hebrew, like Latin
among the Christian clergy, was merely the language of literature
and of the liturgy. It is noteworthy that the treatises
containing most laazim bear upon questions affecting the common
acts of daily life - upon the observance of the Sabbath (treatise
Shabbat), upon the dietary laws, (Hullin), and upon
laws concerning the relations of Jews with non-Jews (Abodah
). Rashi extended the use of the laazim, developing this
mode of explanation; and the commentaries of his disciples, who
continued his method, are strewn with French words, which were
then inserted in the Hebrew - French glossaries. Several of
these glossaries are about to be published. After Rashi's
commentaries became a classic wherever there were Jews, the
laazim were often translated into a foreign language, as into
German or Italian. The Pseudo - Rashi on Alfasi,[54] following
the manuscripts, sometimes presents a German translation now
with, now without the French word.

Rashi's Biblical and Talmudic commentaries contain 3157 laazim,
of which 967 occur in the Biblical commentaries and 2190 in the
Talmudic, forming in the two commentaries together a vocabulary
of about two thousand different words. In the Biblical
commentaries, concerned, as a rule, not so much with the
explanation of the meaning of a word as with its grammatical
form, the laazim reproduce the person, tense, or gender of the
Hebrew word; in the Talmudic commentaries, where the difficulty
resides in the very sense of the word, the laazim give a
translation without regard to grammatical form.

At the present time these laazim are of interest to us, not only
as the expression of Rashi's ideas, but also as vehicles of
information concerning the old French. As early an investigator
as Zunz remarked that if one could restore them to their original
form, they would serve as a lexicon of the French language at the
time of the Crusades. But even Zunz did not realize the full
value to be extracted from them. The rare specimens that we
possess of the langue d'oil[55] of the eleventh century
belong to the Norman dialect and to the language of poetry.
Written, as they were, in Champagne, the laazim of Rashi
represent almost the pure French (the language spoken in
Champagne lay between the dialect of the Ile-de-France and that
of Lorraine [56]), and, what is more, they were words in common
use among the people, for they generally designated objects of
daily use. These laazim, then, constitute a document of the
highest importance for the reconstruction of old French, as much
from a phonetic and morphologic point of view, as from the point
of view of lexicography; for the Hebrew transcription fixes to a
nicety the pronunciation of the word because of the richness of
the Hebrew in vowels and because of the strict observance of the
rules of transcription. Moreover, in the matter of lexicography
the laazim offer useful material for the history of certain
words, and bring to our knowledge popular words not to be found
in literary and official texts. In the case of many of these
terms, their appearance in Rashi is the earliest known; otherwise
they occur only at a later date. And it is not difficult to put
the laazim back into French, because of the well-defined system
of transcription employed. Even the laws of declension (or what
remained of declension in the old French) are observed.

Unfortunately, the great use made of Rashi's commentaries
necessitated a large number of copies, and frequent copying
produced many mistakes. Naturally, it was the laazim that
suffered most from the ignorance and carelessness of the copyists
and printers, especially in the countries in which French was not
the current language. Efforts have been made within the last two
centuries to restore the laazim. Mendelssohn and his associates
applied themselves to the commentary on the Pentateuch, Lowe, to
the Psalms, Neumann, to the Minor Prophets, Jeitteles and Laudau,
to the whole of the Bible, and the Bondi brothers, Dormitzer,
and, above all, Landau, to the Talmudic commentaries. But these
authors, not having consulted the manuscripts and knowing the
French language of the middle ages only imperfectly, arrived at
insufficient results. Even the identifications of Berliner in
his critical edition of the commentary on the Pentateuch are not
always exact and are rarely scientific.

Arsene Darmesteter (1846-1888), one of the elect of French
Judaism and a remarkable scholar in the philology of the Romance
languages, realized that in the commentaries of Rashi "the
science of philology possesses important material upon which to
draw for the history of the language in an early stage of its
developinent." With the aim of utilizing this material, he
visited the libraries of England and Italy, and gathered much
that was important; but his numerous occupations and his
premature death prevented him from finishing and publishing his
work. In the interests of French philology as well as for a
complete understanding of the text of Rashi, it would be
advantageous to publish the notes that he collected. In fact,
such a work will appear, but unfortunately not in the proportions
Darmesteter would have given it. Nevertheless, it will be found
to contain information and unique information, upon the history,
the phonetics, and the orthography of medieval French; for the
first literary works, which go as far back as the eleventh
century, the life of Saint Alexius and the epic of Roland, have
not come down to us in the form in which they were written. "What
would the trouveres of Roland and the clerics of Saint Alexius
have said if they had been told that one day the speech of their
warrior songs and their pious homilies would need the aid of the
Ghetto to reach the full light of day, and the living sound of
their words would fall upon the ears of posterity through the
accursed jargon of an outlawed race?"[57]

In this chapter I have made some general observations upon the
composition and the method of the Biblical and Talmudic
Commentaries of Rashi. Concerning their common characteristics
there is little to add, except to remark that the explanations
are generally simple, natural, and unforced. This is especially
true of the Talmudic commentaries. Rashi in large part owes the
foundations upon which his works are built to his predecessors,
and no higher praise could be accorded him than to say that he
knew the great mass of traditions and the explanations made
before him.

However, Rashi rather frequently gave his own personal
explanation, either because he did not know another, or because
those propounded before him did not seem adequate or satisfying.
In the latter case, he usually put down the rejected explanation
before setting forth his own. Yet there are cases in which
intelligence and imagination fail to supply knowledge of some
special circumstance; and such lack of knowledge led Rashi into
many errors. On the whole, however, the commentaries contain
invaluable information, and are of the very highest importance
for Jewish history and literature, because of the citations in
them of certain lost works, or because of hints of certain facts
which otherwise would be unknown. Modern historians justly
recognize in Rashi one of the most authoritative representatives
of rabbinical tradition, and it is rare for them to consult him
without profit to themselves.



"Thanks to Rashi the Torah has been renewed. The word of the Lord
in his mouth was truth. His way was perfect and always the same.
By his commentary he exalted the Torah and fortified it. All wise
men and all scholars recognize him as master, and acknowledge
that there is no commentary comparable with his." This
enthusiastic verdict of Eliezer ben Nathan[58] has been ratified
by the following generations, which, by a clever play upon words,
accorded him the title of Parshandata, Interpreter of the
Law.[59] And, verily, during his life Rashi had been an
interpreter of the Law, when he explained the Scriptures to his
disciples and to his other co-religionists; and he prolonged this
beneficent activity in his commentaries, in which one seems to
feel his passionate love of the law of God and his lively desire
to render the understanding of it easy to his people. Yet it is
true that all scholars did not share in the general admiration of
Rashi, and discordant notes may be heard in the symphony of

Of what avail these eulogies and what signify these reservations?

If one reflects that the Bible is at the same time the most
important and the most obscure of the books that antiquity has
bequeathed to us, it seems natural that it should soon have been
translated and commented upon. The official Aramaic translation,
or Targum, of the Pentateuch is attributed to Onkelos and that of
the Prophets[60] to Jonathan ben Uzziel. Rashi constantly draws
inspiration from both these works, and possibly also from the
Targumim to the Hagiographa, which are much more recent than the
other two Targumim. Sometimes he simply refers to them,
sometimes he reproduces them, less frequently he remarks that
they do not agree with the text.

For the establishment of the text Rashi scrupulously follows the
Massorah, the "Scriptural Statistics," the work of scholars who
lived in the period between the seventh and the tenth century,
and who assured the integrity of the Bible by counting the number
of verses in each book and the number of times each word, phrase,
or expression recurs. The Massorah soon came to have great
authority; and many scholars, such as R. Gershom, for example,
copied it with their own hands in order to have a correct and
carefully made text of the Bible. The Massorah was Rashi's
constant guide. From a calculation made, of the number of times
he transgressed its rules, the infractions do not appear to be
numerous, and sometimes they seem to have been involuntary. As a
consequence, variants from the text of the Bible are extremely
rare in Rashi, and the copyists eliminated them entirely. In
general at his time the text was definitely established to the
minutest details, and variants, if there were any, were due to
blunders of the copyists. Rashi, who probably carefully compared
manuscripts, once remarked upon such faulty readings.

It is to the Massoretes that some attribute the accents which
serve to mark at once the punctuation and the accentuation of the
Biblical text. Rashi naturally conformed to this system of
accentuation, and if he departed from it, it seems he frequently
did so inadvertently.

* * * * *

But the two great sources upon which Rashi drew for his exegesis
were the Talmudic and the Midrashic literature, with their two
methods of interpreting the Scriptures. As a knowledge of these
two methods is indispensable to an understanding of Rashi's
exegesis, I will give some pages from the work of a recent French
exegete, L. Wogue, who presents an excellent characterization of
them in his Histoire de la Bible et de l'exegese biblique:

Whatever diversities may exist in the point of view adopted by
the investigators of the Bible, in the aims they pursued, and
in the methods they employed, the methods are necessarily to
be summed up in the two terms, peshat and
derash. This is a fact which scarcely requires
demonstration. There are only two ways of understanding or
explaining any text whatsoever, either according to the
natural acceptation of its meaning, or contrary to this
acceptation. At first glance it seems as though the former
were the only reasonable and legitimate method, and as though
the second lacked either sincerity or common sense, and had no
right to the title of method. Yet we shall see how it came
about, and how it was bound to come about, that the Derash not
only arose in the Synagogue, but assumed preponderating
importance there.

From very ancient times the Pentateuch and certain chapters of
the Prophets were read or translated in the synagogue every
Saturday. Accordingly, the interpretation of the Law could not
be slavishly literal.

Destined for the edification of the ignorant masses inclined
to superstition, it perforce permitted itself some freedom in
order to avoid annoying misconceptions. Sometimes the literal
rendition might suggest gross errors concerning the Divine
Being, sometimes it might appear to be in conflict with
practices consecrated by the oral law or by an old tradition,
and sometimes, finally, it might in itself be grotesque and
unintelligible. Hence a double tendency in exegesis, each
tendency asserting itself in the synagogue at different epochs
and with varying force.... Two sorts of Midrash are to be
distinguished; if the question concerns jurisprudence or
religious practice, it is called Midrash Halakah, Halakic or
legal exegesis; if the subject bears upon dogmas, promises,
the consolations of religion, moral truths, or the acts of
daily life, the Midrash is called Midrash Haggadah, the
Haggadic or ethical exegesis. The first is intended to
regulate the form and the external exercise of religion; the
second, to sanctify and perfect man's inward being. Each
brings to the examination of the text a preconceived notion, as
it were; and it reconciles text and preconceived notion
sometimes by traditional, sometimes by arbitrary, methods,
often more ingenious than rational. The Peshat, on the
contrary, subordinates its own ideas to the text, wishes to
see in the text only what is actually there, and examines it
without bias....

The pious instructors of the people felt the need of utilizing
and applying to daily life as much as possible these Holy
Scriptures, the one treasure that had escaped so many
shipwrecks. That a word should have but one meaning, that a
phrase should have but one subject, this seemed mean, shabby,
inadequate, unworthy the Supreme Wisdom that inspired the
Bible. The word of God was perforce more prolific. Each new
interpretation of the Biblical text added richness and new
value to the precious heritage.... Another very important
circumstance, if it did not originate the Midrashic method, at
all events tended strongly to bring it into vogue. I speak of
the religious life, such as it was among the Israelites,
especially in the time of the second Temple. A number of
practices, more or less sacred and more or less obligatory,
were established in, or after this period, either by
rabbinical institution, or by virtue of the oral law or of
custom; and these practices, sanctioned by long usage or by
highly esteemed authorities, had no apparent basis in the
written law. To maintain them and give them solidity in the
regard of the people, it was natural to seek to prove by
exegesis ad hoc that the Holy Text had imposed or
recommended them in advance, if not expressly, at least by
hints and allusions.... The application of this method was
called forth not only by the religious practices, but also by
the ideas and opinions that had been formed or developed in
the same period. After the Babylonian Exile the successive
influence of the Chaldeans, the Persians, and the Greeks
produced among the Jews of Asia as well as among the Jews of
Egypt certain theories concerning cosmogony, angels, and the
government of the world, which rapidly gained credence, and
were generally held to be incontestable. These theories
provided a complete apparatus of doctrines so attractive and
so enthusiastically accepted even by our teachers, that the
people could not resign themselves to the belief that they
were not contained in the Bible, or, worse still, that they
were contradicted by this store-house of wisdom and truth. But
these doctrines - for the most part, at least - are not to be
found in the literal text of the Bible, and, as a consequence,
the scholars turned to the Midrashic method as the only one
calculated to read the desired meaning into the text.

Now the general character of Judaism had not changed perceptibly
during ten centuries. In the eleventh century the Jews had the
same needs as in the first, and the same method of satisfying
their needs. They found it quite natural to bring their ideas
into agreement with the Bible - or, rather, they did so
unconsciously - and to twist the text from its natural meaning,
so as to ascribe to the Biblical authors their own ideas and

Yet, however great the favor attaching to this method, the Peshat
was never entirely deprived of its rights. It was even destined
to soar high into prominence. The appearance of the Karaites
(eighth century), who rejected the Talmud and held exclusively to
the Scriptures, brought into existence, either directly or
indirectly, a rational, independent method of exegesis, though
the influence of this sect upon the development of Biblical
studies has been grossly magnified. It was the celebrated Saadia
(892-942) who by his translation of, and commentary upon, the
Bible opened up a new period in the history of exegesis, during
which the natural method was applied to the interpretation of
Biblical texts. The productions of this period deserve a
commanding position in Jewish literature, as much for their
intrinsic value as for their number.

While, however, in the countries of Arabic culture, natural
exegesis made its way triumphantly, in the countries of Christian
Europe, it freed itself from the traditional Midrash only with
difficulty. Moreover, Derash - to carry a Jewish term into an
alien field - was the method always employed by the Christian
theologians. Throughout the medieval ages they adhered chiefly to
a spiritual, allegoric, moral, and mystic interpretation. In the
employment of this method the literary, grammatical, philologic,
and historical aspect is perforce neglected. Nevertheless, even
among Christian scholars the rational method found some worthy
representatives, especially among the Belgian masters.[61]

The deplorable ease of the Midrashic method readily accounts for
its vogue. The Haggadist is not compelled to hold fast to his
text, his imagination has free play, and is untrammelled
[untrameled sic] by the leading-strings of grammar and good
sense. The task of the exegete properly so called is quite
different. He may not find in the text anything which is not
actually there. He must take heed of the context, of the
probable, and of the rules of the language. The exegete searches
for the idea in the text; the Haggadist introduces foreign ideas
into the text.

"At the same time, whatever the attraction of the Midrashic
method for the Jews of France and Germany, and however great
the wealth of their material, neither this attraction nor this
wealth could take the place of a pure, simple explanation of
the genuine meaning of Scriptures, a meaning which often
served as a basis for the Midrash, and in a vast number of
cases would have remained obscure and incomplete. Here there
was a yawning gap in an essential matter, and the man who had
the honor of filling up this gap - and with marvellous
[marvelous sic] success, considering the insufficiency of his
scientific resources - was one of the most eminent scholars of
the Synagogue, the leader of Jewish science, Rashi."[62]

It would be unjust to ignore the efforts of two of Rashi's
predecessors, Moses ha-Darshan (first half of the eleventh
century) and Menahem ben Helbo, who prepared the way and rendered
the task easier for him. The principal work of Moses ha-Darshan,
often cited by Rashi under the title of Yesod,
"Foundation," is a Haggadic and mystic commentary, giving,
however, some place to questions of grammar and of the natural
construction of the text. As to Menahem ben Helbo, a certain
number of his explanations and fragments of his commentaries have
been preserved; but Rashi probably knew him only through the
intermediation of his nephew Joseph Kara. Following the example
of Moses ha-Darshan and possibly, also, of Menahem ben Helbo,
Rashi used both the Peshat and the Derash in his Biblical
commentaries. "Rashi," says Berliner, "employed an in-between
method, in which the Peshat and the Derash were easily united,
owing to the care he exercised, to choose from the one or the
other only what most directly approximated the simple meaning of
the text. Rashi was free in his treatment of traditional legends,
now transforming, now lengthening, now abridging them or joining
several narratives in one, according to expediency."

This opinion is comprehensive; but it is necessary to emphasize
and differentiate.

As a rule, when the Midrash does no violence to the text, Rashi
adopts its interpretation; and when there are several Midrashic
interpretations, he chooses the one that accords best with the
simple sense; but he is especially apt to fall back upon the
Midrash when the passage does not offer any difficulties. On the
contrary, if the text cannot be brought into harmony with the
Midrash, Rashi frankly declares that the Midrashic interpretation
is irreconcilable with the natural meaning or with the laws of
grammar. He also rejects the Midrashic interpretation if it does
not conform to the context. "A passage," he said, "should be
explained, not detached from its setting, but according to the
context." In other cases he says, "The real meaning of the verse
is different," and again, "This verse admits of a Midrashic
interpretation, but I do not pretend to give any but the natural
meaning." Rashi was fond of repeating the following Talmudic
saying, which he elevated into a principle: "A verse cannot
escape its simple meaning, its natural acceptation." Rashi, then,
cherished a real predilection for rational and literal exegesis,
but when he could not find a satisfactory explanation according
to this method, or when tradition offered one, he resigned
himself to the Haggadic method, saying: "This verse requires an
explanation according to the Midrash, and it cannot be explained
in any other way."

A few quotations will facilitate the comprehension of this
characteristic method.

1. CREATION OF THE WORLD (Genesis 1.1)

In the beginning]. R. Isaac[63] says: The Law ought to
have begun with the rule enjoining the celebration of
Passover, which is the first of the Mosaic precepts. But God
"showed his people the power of His works, that He may give
them the heritage of the heathen."[64] If the heathen nations
say to Israel: You are robbers, for you have seized the land
of the seven nations (Canaanites), the Israelites can reply:
The entire earth belongs to God, who, having created it,
disposes of it in favor of whomsoever it pleases Him. It
pleased Him to give it to the seven nations, and it pleased
Him to take it away from them in order to give it to us.
In the beginning, etc. Bereshit bara]. This verse
should be interpreted according to the Midrash, and it is in
this way that our rabbis apply it to the Torah as having
existed "before His works of old,"[65] or to Israel, called
"the first-fruits of His increase."[66] But if one wishes to
explain these words in their natural meaning, it is necessary
to observe the following method. In the beginning of the
creation of the heaven and the earth, when the earth was
confusion and chaos, God said: "Let there be light." This
verse does not set forth the order of the creation. If it
did, the word barishona (Bet Resh Alef Shin Nun He)
would have been necessary, whereas the word reshit (Resh
Alef Shin Yod Tav)
is always in the construct, as
in Jer. xxvii. 1, Gen. x. 10, Deut. xviii. 4;[67] likewise
bara (Bet Resh Alef) must here be taken as an
infinitive (Bet Resh Alef with shin dot); the same
construction occurs in Hosea i. 2. Shall we assert that the
verse intends to convey that such a thing was created before
another, but that it is elliptical (just as ellipses occur in
Job iii. 10, Is. viii. 4, Amos vi. 12, Is. xlvi. 10)? But
this difficulty arises: that which existed first were the
waters, since the following verse says, that "the Spirit of
God moved upon the face of the waters," and since the text did
not previously speak of the creation of the waters, the waters

Rashi's exegesis is a bit complicated, because his beliefs
prevented him from realizing that the narrative of Genesis
presupposes a primordial chaos; but his explanations are
ingenious, and do away with other difficulties. They have been
propounded again as original explanations by modern commentators,
such as Ewald, Bunsen, Schrader, Geiger, etc. Botticher even
proposed the reading bara (Bet Resh Alef). I did not give
the preceding commentary in its entirety, because it is fairly
long and, in this respect, not typical. Consequently other
quotations will serve a purpose.

2. THE SACRIFICE OF ISAAC (Gen. xxii. 1)

1. After these words]. Some of our teachers explain
the expression: "after the words of Satan," who said to God Of
all his meals Abraham sacrifices nothing to Thee, neithe a
bull nor a ram. He would sacrifice his son, replied God if I
told him to do it. Others say: "after the words of Ishmael,"
who boasted of having undergone circumcision when he was
thirteen years old, and to whom Isaac answered: If God
demanded of me the sacrifice of my entire being, I would do
what he demanded. Abraham said: Behold, here I am].
Such is the humility of pious men; for this expression
indicates that one is humble, ready to obey.

2. God said: Take now]. This is a formula of prayer;
God seems to say to Abraham: I pray thee, submit thyself to
this test, so that thy faith shall not be doubted. Thy
]. I have two sons, replied Abraham. Thine only
]. But each is the only son of his mother. Whom
thou lovest
]. I love them both. Isaac]. Why did not
God name Isaac immediately? In order to trouble Abraham, and
also to reward him for each word, etc.

All these explanations are drawn from Talmudic (Sanhedrim
) and Midrashic (Bereshit Rabba and Tanhuma)
sources. The meaning of the passage being clear, Rashi has
recourse to Haggadic elaborations, which, it must be admitted,
are wholly charming. Rashi will be seen to be more original in
his commentary on the Song of the Red Sea, the text of which
offers more difficulties.

3. SONG OF THE RED SEA (Ex. xv. 1)

1. Then sang Moses]. "Then": when Moses saw the
miracle, he had the idea of singing a song; similar
construction in Josh. x. 12, I Kings vii. 8. Moses said to
himself that he would sing, and that is what he did. Moses
and the children of Israel "spake, saying, I will sing unto
the Lord." The future tense is to be explained in the same way
as in Josh. x. 12 (Joshua, seeing the miracle, conceived the
idea of singing a song, "and he said in the sight of Israel,"
etc.), in Num. xxi. 17 ("Then Israel sang this song, Spring
up, O well; sing ye unto it"), and in I Kings xi. 7 (thus
explained by the sages of Israel: "Solomon wished to build a
high place, but he did not build it"). The "yod" (of the
future) applies to the conception. Such is the natural
meaning of the verse. But, according to the Midrashic
interpretation, our rabbis see in it an allusion to the
resurrection, and they explain it in the same fashion as the
other passages, with the exception of the verse in Kings,
which they translate: "Solomon wished to build a high place,
but he did not build it." But our verse cannot be explained
like those in which the future is employed, although the
action takes place immediately, as in Job i. 5 ("Thus did
Job"); Num. ix. 23 ("The Israelites rested in their tents at
the commandment of the Lord") and 20 ("when the cloud was a
few days"), because here the action is continued and is
expressed as well by the future as by the past. But our song
having been sung only at a certain moment, the explanation
does not apply.

Ki gaoh gaah (Kaf Yod, Gimel Alef with holam He, Gimel with
qamats, Alef with qamats He)
]. As the Targum[68] translates.
Another explanation: "He is most exalted," above all
praise, and however numerous our eulogies, I could add to
them; such is not the human king whom one praises without
reason. The horse and his rider] - The one attached to
the other; the waters carried them off and they descended
together into the sea. Ramah (Resh Mem He) (hath He
thrown)] like hishlich (He Shin Lamed Yod Final_Kaf);
the same as in Dan. iii. 21. The Haggadic Midrash[69] gives
this explanation: one verse employs the verb (Yod Resh
the other the verb Ramah (Resh Mem He) which
teaches us that the Egyptians mounted into the air in order
then to descend into the ocean. The same as in Job xxxviii.
6, "who laid (yarah (Yod Resh He) ) the corner stone
thereof" from top to bottom?

2. Ozi vezimrat yah vayei li lishuah (Ayin Zayin Yod, Vav
Zayin Mem Resh Tav, Yod He, Vav Yod He Yod, Lamed Yod, Lamed
Yod Shin Vav Ayin He)
]. Onkelos translates: my strength
and my song of praise. He therefore explains ohzi
(Ayin with qamats Zayin with dagesh and hiriq Yod)
uzi (Ayin with qubuts, Zayin with dagesh and hiriq Yod)
and vezimrat (Vav Zayin Mem Resh Tav) as vezimrati
(Vav Zayin Mem Resh Tav Yod)
But I am astonished at the
vowelling of the first word, which is unique in Scriptures, if
an exception is made of the three passages in which the two
words are joined. In all other places it is provided with the
vowel "u", for example in Jer. xvi. 19 and Psalms lix. 10. In
general, when a word of two letters contains the vowel "o", if
it is lengthened by a third letter, and if the second letter
has no "sheva", the first takes an "u": oz (Ayin with holam
makes rok, uzi (Resh with sin dot Qof, Ayin with
qubuts Zayin with dagesh Yod
makes jok, ruki (Het Qof,
Resh with qubuts Qof with dagesh and hiriq Yod)
ol, juki (Ayin with holam Lamed, Het with qubuts Qof with
dagesh and hiriq Yod
makes kol ulo (Kaf with holam
Lamed, Ayin with qubuts Lamed with dagesh Vav)
[70] makes
kulo (Kaf with qubuts Lamed with dagesh Vav), as in
Exodus xiv. 7. On the contrary, the three other passages,
namely, our passage, the one in Is. (xii. 2), and that in
Psalms (cxviii. 14), have ozi (Ayin Zayin Yod) vowelled
with a short "o"; moreover, these verses do not have
vezimrati (Vav Zayin Mem Resh Tav Yod) but vezimrat
(Vav Zayin Mem Resh Tav)
, and all continue with vayei
li lishuah (Vav Yod He Yod, Lamed Yod, Lamed Yod Shin Vav Ayin
. And to give a full explanation of this verse, it is
in my opinion necessary to say that ohzi (Ayin with qamats
Zayin with dagesh Yod)
is not equivalent to uzi (Ayin
with qubuts Zayin with dagesh Yod
nor vezimrat (Vav
Zayin Mem Resh Tav)
to vezimrati (Vav Zayin Mem Resh
Tav Yod),
but that ohzi (Ayin with qamats Zayin with
dagesh Yod)
is a substantive (without a possessive suffix,
but provided with a paragogic "yod"), as in Psalm cxxiii. 1,
Obadiah 3, Deut. xxxiii. 16. The eulogy (of the Hebrews)
therefore signifies: it is the strength and the vengeance of
God that have been my salvation. vezimrat (Vav Zayin Mem
Resh Tav)
is thus in the construct with the word God,
exactly as in Judges v.23, Is. ix. 18, Eccl. iii. 18. As for
the word vezimrat (Vav Zayin Mem Resh Tav) it has the
meaning which the same root has in Lev. xxv. 4 ("thou shalt
not prune") and in Is. xxv. 5; that is to say, "to cut". The
meaning of our verse, then, is: "The strength and the
vengeance of our Lord have been our salvation." One must not
be astonished that the text uses vayehi (Vav Yod He
(imperfect changed to past) and not haiah (He Yod
(perfect): for the same construction occurs in other
verses; for example, I Kings vi. 5, II Chron. x. 17[71], Num.
xiv. 16 and 36, Ex. ix. 21.

He is my God]. He appeared to them in His majesty, and
they pointed Him out to one another with their finger.[72]
The last of the servants saw God, on this occasion, as the
Prophets themselves never saw Him. veanvehu (Vav Alef Nun
Vav He Vav)
]. The Targum sees in this word the meaning of
"habitation"[73] as in Is. xxxiii. 20, lxv. 10. According to
another explanation the word signifies "to adorn," and the
meaning would be: "I wish to celebrate the beauty and sing the
praise of God in all His creatures," as it is developed in the
Song of Songs; see v.9 et seq.[74] My father's
]. He is; and I will exalt Him. My father's
]. I am not the first who received this consecration;
but on the contrary His holiness and His divinity have
continued to rest upon me from the time of my ancestors.

In the above the text calls only for the embellishments of the
Haggadah. In the following passage from Rashi's commentaries the
place allotted to Derash is more limited.


2. Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring me an
]. To me; in my honor. An offering (terumah
(Tav Resh Vav Mem He)
), a levy; let them make a levy upon
their goods. Of every man that giveth it willingly with
his heart
(idbenu (Yod Dalet Bet Nun Vav)), same
meaning as nedava (Nun Dalet Bet He), that is to say, a
voluntary and spontaneous gift.[75] Ye shall take my
] Our sages say: Three offerings are prescribed by
this passage, one of a beka from each person, used for
a pedestal, as will be shown in detail in Eleh
[76]; the second, the contribution of the altar,
consisting of a beka from each person, thrown into the
coffers for the purchase of congre gational sacrifices; and,
third, the contribution for the Tabernacle, a free-will
offering. The thirteen kinds of material to be mentioned were
all necessary for the construction of the Tabernacle and for
the making of priestly vestments, as will be evident from a
close examination.

3. Gold, and silver, and brass]. All these were offered
voluntarily, each man giving what he wished, except silver, of
which each brought the same quantity, a half-shekel a person.
In the entire passage relating to the construction of the
Tabernacle, we do not see that more silver was needed; this is
shown by Ex. xxxviii. 27. The rest of the silver,
voluntarily offered, was used for making the sacred vessels.

4. Tejelet (Tav Kaf Lamed Tav)]. Wool dyed in the
blood of the halazon[77] and of a greenish color.
viargaman (Vav Alef Resh Gimel Mem Final_Nun)]. Wool
dyed with a sort of coloring matter bearing this name.
Vasmesh (Vav Shin Shin)]. Linen. izim (Ayin Zayin
Yod Final_Mem)
]. Goats' hair; this is why Onkelos
translates it by mazi (Mem Ayin Zayin Yod), but not
"goats," which he would have rendered by azia (Ayin Zayin
Yod Alef).

5. And rams' skins dyed red]. Dyed red after having
been dressed. techashim (Tav Het Shin Yod Final_Mem].
A sort of animal created for the purpose and having various
colors; that is why the Targum translates the word by
isasgona (Yod Samekh Samekh Gimel Vav Nun Alef), "he
rejoices in his colors and boasts of them."[78] And
shittim wood
] - But whence did the Israelites in the
desert obtain it? R. Tanhuma explains: The patriarch Jacob,
thanks to a Divine revelation, had foreseen that one day his
descendants would construct a Tabernacle in the desert. He,
therefore, carried shittim trees into Egypt, and planted them
there, advising his sons to take them along with them when
they left the country.

6. Oil for the light]. "Pure oil olive beaten
for the light, to cause the lamp to burn always."[79]
Spices for anointing oil]. Prepared for the purpose of
anointing both the vessels of the Tabernacle and the
Tabernacle itself. Spices entered into the composition of this
oil, as is said in KKi-Tissa.[80] And for sweet
] which was burned night and morning, as is
described in detail in Tezaweh.[81] As to the word
ketoret (Qof Mem Resh Tav), it comes from the rising of
the smoke (Kitor (Qof Mem Vav Resh)).

7. Onyx stones]. Two were needed for the ephod,
described in Tezaweh.[82] And stones to be set]
for an ouch of gold was made in which the stones were set,
entirely filling it. These stones are called "stones to be
set." As to the bezel it is called mishbetzet (Mem Shin
Bet Tsadi Tav.
In the ephod, and in the
]. Onyx stones for the ephod and "stones to be
set" for the breastplate. The breastplate as well as the
ephod are described in Tezaweh[83]; they are two sorts
of ornaments.

If these citations did not suffice, his anti-Christian polemics
would furnish ample evidence of the wise use Rashi made of the
Peshat. The word polemics, perhaps, is not exact. Rashi does
not make assaults upon Christianity; he contents himself with
showing that a verse which the Church has adopted for its own
ends, when rationally interpreted, has an entirely different
meaning and application. Only to this extent can Rashi be said
to have written polemics against the Christians. However that
may be, no other course is possible; for the history of Adam and
Eve or the blessing of Jacob cannot be explained, unless one
takes a stand for or against Christianity. It was not difficult
to refute Christian doctrines; Rashi could easily dispose of the
stupid or extravagant inventions of Christian exegesis.
Sometimes he does not name the adversaries against whom he aimed;
sometimes he openly says he has in view the Minim or
"Sectaries," that is, the Christians. The Church, it is well
known, transformed chiefly the Psalms into predictions of
Christianity. In order to ward off such an interpretation and
not to expose themselves to criticism, many Jewish exegetes gave
up that explanation of the Psalms by which they are held to be
proclamations of the Messianic era, and would see in them
allusions only to historic facts. Rashi followed this tendency;
and for this reason, perhaps, his commentary on the Psalms is one
of the most satisfying from a scientific point of view. For
instance, he formally states: "Our masters apply this passage to
the Messiah; but in order to refute the Minim, it is better to
apply it to David."

One would wish that Rashi had on all occasions sought the simple
and natural meaning of the Biblical text. That he clothed the
Song of Songs, in part at least, in a mantle of allegory, is
excusable, since he was authorized, nay, obliged, to do so by
tradition. In the Proverbs this manner is less tolerable. The
book is essentially secular in character; but Rashi could not
take it in this way. To him it was an allegory; and he
transformed this manual of practical wisdom into a prolonged
conversation between the Torah and Israel. Again, though Rashi
discriminated among the Midrashim, and adopted only those that
seemed reconcilable with the natural meaning, his commentaries
none the less resemble Haggadic compilations. This is true,
above all, of the Pentateuch. And if the Haggadah "so far as
religion is concerned was based upon the oral law, and from an
esthetic point of view upon the apparent improprieties of the
Divine word," it nevertheless "serves as a pretext rather than a
text for the flights, sometimes the caprice or digressions, of
religious thought."[84] Now, Rashi was so faithful to the spirit
of the Midrash that he accepted without wincing the most curious
and shocking explanations, or, if he rejected them, it was not
because he found fault with the explanations themselves.
Sometimes, when we see him balance the simple construction
against the Midrashic interpretation of the text, we are annoyed
to feel how he is drawn in opposite directions by two tendencies.
We realize that in consequence his works suffer from a certain
incoherence, or lack of equilibrium, that they are uneven and
mixed in character. To recognize that he paid tribute to the
taste of the age, or yielded to the attraction the Midrash
exercised upon a soul of naive faith, is not sufficient, for in
point of fact he pursued the two methods at the same time, the
method of literal and the method of free interpretation, seeming
to have considered them equally legitimate and fruitful of
results. Often, it is true, he shakes off the authority of
tradition, and we naturally query why his good sense did not
always assert itself, and free him from the tentacles of the
Talmud and the Midrash.

Now that we have formulated our grievance against Rashi, it is
fair that we try to justify him by recalling the ideas prevailing
at the time, and the needs he wished to satisfy.

The Midrashim, as I have said, have a double object, on the one
hand, the exposition of legal and religious practices, on the
other hand, the exposition of the beliefs and hopes of religion.
So far as the Halakic Midrash is concerned, it was marvellously
[marvelously sic] well adapted to the French-Jewish intellect,
penetrated as it was by Talmudism. The study of the Talmud so
completely filled the lives of the Jews that it was difficult to
break away from the rabbinical method. Rashi did not see in the
Bible a literary or philosophic masterpiece. Nor did he study it
with the unprejudiced eyes of the scholar. He devoted himself to
this study-especially of the Pentateuch-with only the one aim in
view, that of finding the origin or the explanation of civil and
ritual laws, the basis or the indication of Talmudic precepts.
Sometimes he kicked against the pricks. When convinced that the
rabbinical explanation did not agree with a sane exegesis, he
would place himself at variance with the Talmud for the sake of a
rational interpretation. What more than this can be expected?
Nor need we think of him as the unwilling prisoner of rules and a
victim of their tyranny. On the contrary, he adapted himself to
them perfectly, and believed that the Midrash could be made to
conform to its meaning without violence to the text. That he
always had reason to believe so was denied by so early a
successor as his grandson Samuel ben Meir. Samuel insisted that
one stand face to face with the Scriptures and interpret them
without paying heed and having recourse to any other work. This
effort at intellectual independence in which the grandson nearly
always succeeded, the grandfather was often incapable of making.
In commenting upon the Talmud Rashi preserved his entire liberty,
unrestrained by the weight of any absolute authority; but in
commenting on the Bible he felt himself bound by the Talmud and
the Midrash. Especially in regard to the Pentateuch, the
Talmudic interpretation was unavoidable, because the Pentateuch
either explicitly or implicitly contains all legal prescriptions.
In point of fact, in leaving the Pentateuch and proceeding to
other parts of the Bible, he gains in force because he gains in
independence. He no longer fears to confront "our sages" with
the true explanation. For example, there is little Derash in the
following commentary on Psalm xxiii:

A Psalm of David]. Our rabbis say: The formula "Psalm
of David" indicates that David at first played the instrument,
then was favored by Divine inspiration. It, therefore,
signifies, Psalm to give inspiration to David. On the other
hand, when it is said "To David, a Psalm,"[85] the formula
indicates that David, having received Divine inspiration, sang
a song in consequence of the revelation.

1. The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want]. In this
desert in which I wander I am full of trust, sure that I shall
lack nothing.

2. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures]. In a
place to dwell where grass grows. The poet, having begun by
comparing his sustenance to the pasturing of animals, in the
words, "The Lord Is my Shepherd," continues the image. This
Psalm was recited by David in the forest of Hereth, which was
so called because it was arid as clay (heres), but it
was watered by God with all the delights of the next world
(Midrash on the Psalms).

3. He will restore my soul]. My soul, benumbed by
misfortunes and by my flight, He will restore to its former
estate. He will lead me in the paths of righteousness]
along the straight highway so that I may not fall into the
hands of my enemies.

4. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of
death, I will fear no evil
]. In the country of shadows
this applies to the wilderness of Ziph.[86] The word
tzalmavet (Tsadi Lamed Mem Vov Tav) here employed
always signifies "utter darkness"[87]; this is the way in
which it is explained by Dunash ben Labrat[88]. Thy rod
and thy staff they comfort me
]. The sufferings I have
undergone and my reliance, my trust, in Thy goodness are my
two consolations, for they bring me pardon for my faults, and
I am sure that

5. Thou wilt prepare a table before me], that is,
royalty. Thou hast anointed my head with oil]. I have
already been consecrated king at Thy command. My cup
runneth over
]. An expression signifying abundance.

From this commentary one realizes, I do not say the perfection,
but the simplicity, Rashi could attain when he was not obliged to
discover in Scriptures allusions to laws or to beliefs foreign to
the text. As Mendelssohn said of him, "No one is comparable with
him when he writes Peshat." Even though Rashi gave too much space
to the legal exegesis of the Talmud, Mendelssohn's example will
make us more tolerant toward him - Mendelssohn who himself could
not always steer clear of this method.

Moreover, the commentary on the Bible is not exactly a scholarly
work; it is above all a devotional work, written, as the Germans
say, fur Schule und Haus, for the school and the family.
The masses, to whom Rashi addressed himself, were not so
cultivated that he could confine himself to a purely grammatical
exposition or to bare exegesis. He had to introduce fascinating
legends, subtle deductions, ingenious comparisons. The Bible was
studied, not so much for its own sake, as for the fact that it
was the text-book of morality, the foundation of belief, the
source of all hopes. Every thought, every feeling bore an
intimate relation to Scriptures. The Midrash exercised an
irresistible attraction upon simple, deeply devout souls. It
appealed to the heart as well as to the intelligence, and in
vivid, attractive form set forth religious and moral truths.
Granted that success justifies everything, then the very method
with which we reproach Rashi explains the fact that he has had,
and continues to have, thousands of readers. The progress of
scientific exegesis has made us aware of what we would now
consider a serious mistake in method. We readily understand why
Derash plays so important a role in Rashi's commentaries, and to
what requirements he responded; but that does not make us any
more content with his method. To turn from Rashi to a more
general consideration of the Midrashic exegesis, we also
understand its long continuance, though we do not deprecate it
less, because it is unscientific and irrational.

In spite of all, however, the use of the Derash must be
considered a virtue in Rashi. Writing before the author of the
Yalkut Shimeoni,[89] he revealed to his contemporaries,
among whom not only the masses are to be included, but, owing to
the rarity of books, scholars as well, a vast number of legends
and traditions, which have entered into the very being of the
people, and have been adopted as their own. Rashi not only
popularized numerous Midrashim, but he also preserved a number
the sources of which are no longer extant, and which without him
would be unknown. This Biblical commentary is thus the store-
house of Midrashic literature, the aftermath of that luxuriant
growth whose latest products ripened in the eighth, ninth, and
even tenth centuries.

It is hardly proper, then, to be unduly severe in our judgment of
Rashi's work. In fact, why insist on his faults, since he
himself recognized the imperfections of his work, and would have
bettered them if he had had the time? The testimony of his
grandson upon this point is explicit:

"The friends of reason," said Samuel ben Meir, "should steep
themselves in this principle of our sages, that natural
exegesis can never be superseded. It is true that the chief
aim of the Torah was to outline for us rules of religious
conduct, which we discover behind the literal meaning through
Haggadic and Halakic interpretation. And the ancients, moved
by their piety, occupied themselves only with Midrashic
exegesis as being the most important, and they failed to dwell
at great length upon the literal meaning. Add to this the
fact that the scholars advise us not to philosophize too much
upon the Scriptures. And R. Solomon, my maternal
grandfather, the Torch of the Captivity, who commented on the
Law, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa, devoted himself to the
development of the natural meaning of the text; and I, Samuel
son of Meir, discussed his explanations with him and before
him, and he confessed to me that if he had had the leisure, he
would have deemed it necessary to do his work all over again
by availing himself of the explanations that suggest
themselves day after day."[90]

It seems, therefore, that Rashi only gradually, as the result of
experience and discussion, attained to a full consciousness of
the requirements of a sound exegesis and the duties of a Biblical
commentator. What the grandfather had not been able to do was
accomplished by the grandson. The commentary of Samuel ben Meir
realized Rashi's resolutions. Though Rashi may not have been
irreproachable as a commentator, he at least pointed out the way,
and his successors, enlightened by his example, could elaborate
his method and surpass it, but only with the means with which he
provided them. We must take into account that he was almost an
originator, and we readily overlook many faults and flaws in
remembering that he was the first to prepare the material.

* * * * *

Grammar and lexicography are the two bases of exegesis. Rashi
was as clever a grammarian as was possible in his time and in his
country. At all events he was not of the same opinion as the
Pope, who rebuked the Archbishop of Vienna for having taught
grammar in his schools, because, he said, it seemed to him rules
of grammar were not worthy the Sacred Text, and it was unfitting
to subject the language of Holy Scriptures to these rules. Rashi
in his explanations pays regard to the laws of language, and in
both his Talmudic and Biblical commentaries, he frequently
formulates scientific laws, or, it might be said, empiric rules,
regarding, for instance, distinctions in the usage of words
indicated by the position of the accent, different meanings of
the same particle, certain vowel changes, and so on. Thus, we
have been able to construct a grammar of Rashi, somewhat
rudimentary, but very advanced for the time.

Nevertheless, in this regard, a wide gap separates the
commentaries of Rashi and the works of the Spanish school of
exegetes, which shone with such lustre [luster sic] in that
epoch. Under the influence and stimulus of the Arabs, scientific
studies took an upward flight among the Jews of Moslem Spain.
The Midrash was abandoned to the preachers, while the scholars
cultivated the Hebrew language and literature with fruitful
results. In France, on the contrary, though rabbinical studies
were already flourishing, the same is not true of philological
studies, which were introduced into France only through the
influence of the Spaniards. French scholars soon came to know
the works, written in Hebrew, of Menahem ben Saruk and Dunash ben
Labrat,[91] and Rashi availed himself of them frequently, and not
always uncritically. Thus, like them, he distinguishes
triliteral, biliteral, and even uniliteral roots; but contrary to
them, he maintains that contracted and quiescent verbs are
triliteral and not biliteral. Unfortunately, he could have no
knowledge of the more important works of Hayyoudj, "father of
grammarians," and of Ibn Djanah, who carried the study of Hebrew
to a perfection surpassed only by the moderns;[92] for these
works were written in Arabic, and the translations into Hebrew,
made by the scholars of Southern France, did not appear until the
twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Though the Spanish Jews did
not yet cultivate the allegoric and mystic exegesis, their
philosophic sense was rather refined and they did not always
approach the study of the Bible without seeking something not
clearly expressed in the text, without arriere-pensee so
to speak. Rashi's exegesis was more ingenuous and, therefore,
more objective.

Moreover, even if Rashi was not in complete possession of
grammatical rules, he had perfectly mastered the spirit of the
Hebrew language. Like the Spaniards, he had that very fine
understanding for the genius of the language which arises from
persevering study, from constant occupation with its literature.
We have cited the sources upon which he drew; it would be unjust
not to remark that he made original investigations. For example
(and the examples might be multiplied) apropos of a difficult
passage in Ezekiel, he asserted that he had drawn the explanation
from inner stores, and had been guided only by Divine inspiration
- a formula borrowed from the Geonim. He was frequently
consulted in regard to the meaning of Biblical passages, and one
response has been preserved, that given to the scholars of
Auxerre when they asked for an explanation of several chapters of
the Prophets. This fact shows that the Jews gave themselves up
with ardor to the study of the Bible, men of education making it
their duty to copy the Bible with the most scrupulous care and
according to the best models, to the number of which they thus
made additions. Among these copies are the ones made by Gershom,
by Joseph Tob Elem, and by Menahem of Joigny. The Jews were
almost the only persons versed in the Bible. I have mentioned
how much the Church feared the sight of the Bible in the hands of
the common people, and in clerical circles an absolutely
antiscientific spirit reigned in regard to these matters. It was
the triumph of symbolism, allegory, and docetism. All the less
likely, then, were they to know Hebrew. An exception was the
monk Sigebert de Gemblours, a teacher at Metz in the last quarter
of the eleventh century, who maintained relations with Jewish
scholars. He is said to have known Hebrew.

Rashi's thorough knowledge of Hebrew enabled him to depend upon
his memory for quoting the appropriate verses, and in all his
citations there is scarcely a mistake, natural though an error
would have been in quoting from memory. Distinguishing between
the Hebrew of the Bible and that of the Talmud, he sees in the
Hebrew of the Mishnah a transition between the two. Often, for
the purpose of explaining a word in the Bible, he has recourse to
Talmudic Hebrew or to the Aramaic. He pays careful attention to
the precise meaning of words and to distinctions among synonyms,
and he had perception for delicate shading in syntax and
vocabulary. Owing to this thorough knowledge of Hebrew he
readily obtained insight into the true sense of the text. By
subjecting the thought of the Holy Scriptures to a simple and
entirely rational examination, he not seldom succeeds in
determining it. Thus, as it were by divination, he lighted upon
the meaning of numerous Biblical passages. A long list might be
made of explanations misunderstood by his successors, and
revived, consciously or unconsciously, by modern exegetes. An
illustration in point is his explanation of the first verse of
Genesis, quoted above. Long before such Biblical criticism had
become current it was he who said that the "servant of God"
mentioned in certain chapters of the second part of Isaiah
represents the people of Israel.

Needless to say Rashi never tampers with the text. At most, as
is the case with Ibn Djanah, he says that a letter is missing or
is superfluous. Sometimes, too, he changes the order of the
words. Neither copyists' mistakes nor grammatical anomalies
existed for him. Yet he believed in all sincerity that the
ancient sages could have corrected certain Biblical texts to
remove from them a meaning startling or derogatory when applied
to the Divinity.

Rashi wholly ignored what modern criticism calls the Introduction
to the Scriptures, that is to say, the study of the Bible and the
books of which it is composed from the point of view of their
origin, their value, and the changes they have undergone. But
rarely, here and there in his commentaries, does one find any
references to the formation of the canon. To give an example
showing how he justified a classification of the Hagiographa
given by a Talmudic text and disagreeing with the present
classification: Ruth comes first, because it belongs to the
period of the Judges; Job follows, because he lived at the time
of the Queen of Sheba; then come the three books of Solomon,
Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, both gnomic works, and the Song of Songs,
written in Solomon's old age; Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra
(comprising the present Nehemiah), and Chronicles are likewise
placed in chronological order. In the same passage of the Talmud
the question is put as to why the redaction of the prophecies of
Isaiah is attributed to King Hezekiah and his academy. Rashi
explained that the prophets collected their speeches only a short
time before their death, and Isaiah having died a violent death,
his works could not enjoy the benefit of his own redaction.

Still less need one expect to find in Rashi modern exegesis, that
criticism which applies to Scriptures an investigation entirely
independent of extraneous considerations, such as is brought to
bear upon purely human works. Rashi's candid soul was never
grazed by the slightest doubt of the authenticity of a Biblical
passage. We can admire the genial divinations of an Abraham Ibn
Ezra, but we also owe respect to that sincere faith of Rashi
which was incapable of suspecting the testimony of tradition and
the axioms of religion.

Ibn Ezra[93] and Rashi present the most vivid contrast. Though
Ibn Ezra was open-minded and clear-sighted, he was restless and
troubled. He led an adventurous existence, because his character
was adventurous. Rashi's spirit was calm, without morbid
curiosity, leaning easily upon the support of traditional
religion, frank, throughout his life as free from the shadows of
doubt as the soul of a child. Ibn Ezra had run the scientific
gamut of his time, but he also dipped into mysticism, astrology,
arithmolatry, even magic. Rashi, on the contrary, was not
acquainted with the profane sciences, and so was kept from their
oddities. With his clear, sure intelligence he penetrated to the
bottom of the text without bringing it into agreement with views
foreign to it. But the characteristic which distinguishes him
above all others from Ibn Ezra is the frankness of his nature.
He never seemed desirous of knowing 'what he did not know, nor of
believing what he did not believe. Finally, and in the regard
that specially interests us, Ibn Ezra, who belonged to the school
of Arabic philosophers and scholars, who knew the Spanish
grammarians, and was their inheritor, always employed the Peshat
- that is, when he was not biassed by his philosophic ideas. In
this case he saw the true meaning of the text, perhaps more
clearly than any other Jewish commentator. Rashi did not possess
the same scientific resources. He knew only the Talmud and the
Midrash, and believed that all science was included in them.
Moreover, though he stated in so many words his preference for a
literal and natural interpretation of the text, he fell short of
always obeying his own principle.

* * * * *

There is one characteristic of Rashi's Bible commentaries which I
have already touched upon, but to which it is well to revert by
way of conclusion, since it makes the final impression upon a
student of the commentaries. I refer to a certain intimacy or
informality of the work, a certain easy way of taking things.
The author used no method. Now he explains the text simply and
naturally; now he enjoys adorning it with fanciful
embellishments. One would say of him, as of many an author of
the Talmud, that in writing his work he rested from his Talmudic
studies; and one seems to hear in these unceremonious
conversations, these unpretentious homilies, the same note that
even in the present day is sometimes struck in synagogues on
Saturday afternoons. What clearly shows that Rashi unbent a
little in composing his Biblical commentaries are the flashes of
wit and humor lighting them, the display of his native grace of
character, his smiling geniality. If he yielded some credence to
the most naive inventions, this does not mean that he was always
and entirely their dupe. They simply gave him the utmost
delight. He did not refrain from piquant allusions; and the
commentary on the Pentateuch presents a number of pleasantries,
some of which are a bit highly-spiced for modern taste.
Fundamentally, they are a heritage of the old Midrashic spirit
grafted upon the gaiety of "mischievous and fine Champagne," as
Michelet said. Assuredly, there were hours in which good humor
reigned over master and pupils, and we seem to see the smile that
accompanied the witty sallies, and the radiance of that kindly

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