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Israel Drazin

Who was Rashi?

All we know about Shlomo ben Yitzchak of Troyes, France, known as Rashi, are his writings. We know no facts about his life. Much has been written about him, but it is all legends. It is commonly thought, for example, that he was born in the year 1040, although this is uncertain, and his date of death is 1105, even though the first mention of this date is in a document written about two centuries after the scholar’s death. We are told that he made his money by growing vines and bottling wines when there is no evidence that this is true.

Eli Wiesel recognized this problem and wrote: “Yes, we need imagination in order to write about him.”[1] Wiesel tells some of the legends that fascinated Rashi’s readers. He informs his readers that they are legends. Instead of inventing facts about the man, Wiesel relates the history of the time that Rashi lived and reasonably assumes the impact that the persecutions suffered in France, where Rashi lived, must have had upon him.

Rashi’s commentaries are not original ideas. He drew fascinating stories from Midrashim and placed them into his commentary. Midrashim are books that collected fanciful engaging stories written as parables and teaching aids – enjoyable and sometimes even exciting accounts – that, for the most part, were not originally intended to be understood as true history or the true meaning of scriptural passages. However, Rashi and others, such as Nachmanides in the thirteenth century, took these tales as facts and used them to explain the Bible.

Thus, for example, Rashi introduced his readers to the delightful midrashic report, which is not even hinted in the Torah that God made Abraham’s son Isaac look precisely like him so that slanderers could not claim that Abraham was too old to have children and his wife Sarah must have had her son from the Philistine king Elimelekh who had abducted her (Genesis 25:19).

Or, another example, the patriarch Jacob was concerned that his soon-to-be scheming father-in-law Laban would substitute Leah in place of her sister, his beloved Rachel, on their wedding night. Hence, he and Rachel agreed on a code she would mention in the dark, and Jacob would know it was her. But Rachel feeling sorry for her sister, revealed the code to Leah, and Jacob was fooled (Genesis 29:25).

It is hard to forget stories like these, stories learned as children. And what is more, Rashi had a very pleasing writing style. He improved the narratives by rewriting the Midrashim to be more lucid, colorful, and understandable.

Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, who wrote a rational Bible commentary, rebuked his grandfather for inserting these midrashic explanations into his commentary. He chastised him for not sticking to the plain meaning of the biblical passages.

In Rashbam’s commentary on Genesis 37:1, he told his readers that he upbraided his grandfather for the way he explained the Torah and that Rashi assured him that he agreed with him. Rashi said that if he had years to write new explanations, he would write a book like Rashbam’s Commentary.

In Genesis 49:17, where Rashi states that the verse is referring to the judge Samson, who would not be born for another couple of centuries, Rashbam angrily writes that anyone who thinks that 49:17 is speaking about Samson doesn’t know how to understand the Torah.

In Deuteronomy 15:18, Scripture mandates that a slave owner give his Hebrew slave gifts when he sets the enslaved person free. The Torah continues: “It should not seem hard to you … because he gave you double the service of a hired man.” There are several different interpretations of the term “double.” Rashi (based on Midrash Sifrei) proposes that Scripture’s “double” means that Hebrew slaves work day and night while a hired employee works only during the day. The nighttime work is when the master gives the slave a Canaanite slave so that he can have children from the union that would belong to him as slaves. Rashbam unabashedly calls this interpretation “foolish” and “vapor.” The verse’s plain meaning is that the “master” should not feel bad for having paid for the slave twice, first when he purchased the slave and now when he must also give him gifts.

The eleventh-century rationalist Abraham ibn Ezra, who lived around the same time, wrote mockingly: Rashi states that he translates the Torah according to its plain meaning, and he is correct – one time out of a thousand.

What prompted Rashi to accept the imaginative tales as the true meaning of the Torah?

In the second century, two highly respected rabbinical figures argued how the Bible was written and how it should be understood. Rabbi Akiva, whose idea was accepted by most rabbis, including Rashi and many Midrashim, insisted that the Bible was a divine document in which every word, even every letter, was purposely composed by God to instruct humanity. Since God is all-knowing and infallible, the document He wrote, the Torah, must not have any superfluous words or letters. God said exactly what He meant to say, no more and no less. If a biblical verse seems to repeat itself, the seeming repetition must be saying something that is not in the first phrase.

Rabbi Ishmael had an opposite view. He argued that the Bible was composed for people and must have been written in ways people could understand. As people talk, the Torah contains metaphors and other figures of speech that should not be taken literally. It has hyperbole. It repeats itself for various reasons, including emphasis, as humans do.

While sages like Rashi followed Rabbi Akiva’s methodology, People like Saadia Gaon, Rashbam, ibn Ezra, and Maimonides accepted the second approach.

Once Rashi’s approach to Torah is understood, it becomes clear why Rashi wrote what he did. He saw words in the Torah that seemed to him to be superfluous, and he felt obliged to explain the verse using Rabbi Akiva’s methodology.

For example, in Deuteronomy 13:5, the Torah states that the Israelites should serve God and cleave to Him. Rabbi Ishmael would see these two statements expressing a single idea: worship God. However, following their methodology, Midrash Sifrei and Rashi saw the Bible speaking about two acts. The first means serving God in His Temple; the second is to behave appropriately outside the Temple in daily life.

Ibn Ezra, to cite another example, following the methodology of Rabbi Ishmael, notes that Deuteronomy 13:6 mentions that the Israelites were both “freed” and “redeemed” and states that the Torah is speaking of a single act. Still, the Torah uses the two verbs to strengthen its argument. Sifrei and Rashi, following the way of Rabbi Akiva, understand the verse to say that even if God only “freed” you, it would have been sufficient reason to obey Him; now that He also “redeemed” you, how much more are you obligated to obey Him.

Thus, while reading Rashi’s comments is interesting and entertaining, readers cannot understand why Rashi is saying what he says unless they know what prompted him to make the remark. Most scholars recognize that Scripture does not even hint at what Rashi felt he had to read into the verse and what he says about supposedly historical events that never occurred.

Basing his commentaries on imaginative tales is not the only thing we need to know about Rashi.

As virtually all of his contemporaries, Jews and non-Jews, Rashi was convinced that the world is filled with angels that people could turn to for assistance and demons who hovered around them to entice them.

His world was also ruled by astrological forces which threatened the ancient Israelites, such as in Exodus 10:10 when Pharaoh warns Moses that if he takes the Israelites from Egypt, he will face the consequences of Rashi states that ra is a destructive astral force.

Rashi was convinced that God rewards people for the good that they do. Suppose they have no immediate need for the reward. In that case, it can be stored, as if placed in a bank account and used by future generations, even if the future people do not deserve it themselves – a concept he and many other rabbis called zechut avot, ancestral merit.

These notions are not explicit in the Bible but are mentioned by some rabbis in the Talmuds and the Midrashim, and Rashi incorporates them into his Bible commentary. He introduces most of these notions into his elaborate interpretation of Genesis 22, where Abraham leads his son Isaac to be sacrificed.

The Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 105b, and Rashi’s commentary to the Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 28a, write that Jews blow the ram’s horn, the shofar, on the New Year holiday Rosh Hashanah to scare demons and upset their plans to harm Jews.

Rashi, like many Jews his age, was convinced that God is corporeal and has a body, including hands, feet, and head. Commenting upon Exodus 7:4, “I will lay My hand upon Egypt,” he emphasizes that “hand” is not a metaphor for “power,” as Maimonides would later say, but “an actual hand to smite them.” In Exodus 14:31, where “Israel saw the great hand, what God did to Egypt,” he tells the reader that when the Torah speaks of God’s “hand,” it is yad mamash, an “actual hand.” He expresses the same view in his commentary to the Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 21a and Yevamot 49b, where he refers to God’s arm and face. Similarly, in his comment upon Genesis 1:26, where the Bible states that man was created in God’s image, and where Maimonides is quick to note that this means that God gave humans intelligence, Rashi writes, “image means God’s form.” So, too, in 1:27, “And God created man in His image,” Rashi elaborates, “This means that the form that was established for him [man] is the form of the Creator.”

While Maimonides and many rationalists dismiss the idea that angels exist, believing that the word should be understood figuratively as the natural forces of nature or asserting that if they do live, they do so in an incorporeal form, Rashi insists that a pious person can summon a corporeal angel to serve his everyday needs, act as his courier, deliver a message and return with a report of what he sees. Thus, in Genesis 32:4, according to Rashi, Jacob sends malachim mamash, “actual angels,” as postmen to his brother Esau to appease him.

In Genesis 19:22, Rashi advances his belief in “fallen angels.” God punished these angels because, in a paroxysm of hauteur, they took personal credit for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:13. His interpretation of Genesis 19:22 is based on his notion that God, like an insecure human, can become angry and offended when someone seeks recognition and praise for what He did.

In Genesis 6:4, Rashi informs his readers that angels can have sexual intercourse with human females and did so.

Not only God, angels, and even demons, according to Rashi, exist and are corporeal. They can drown. Noah saved them from extinction in the flood in his commentary on Genesis 6:19, a flood that ironically was designed to eradicate evil. In the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 6a, Rashi describes the demon: “The feet of a demon are like a rooster’s.”

Rashi felt that animals could commit moral wrongs and inanimate objects could make decisions. Commenting on Genesis 6:20, Rashi states that Noah’s ark performed a miraculous ethical selection process: it did not allow animals that had corrupted themselves with sexual perversions to enter the ark.

The Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 112a, warns people from drinking “water from rivers during the night.” The Talmud explains that the danger is sabriri. Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, reasonably explains that sabriri means that polluted water can cause medical problems. However, his grandfather states that sabriri is the name of a demon that has the power to inflict blindness, who may lash out in revenge for being disturbed, and who blinds people drinking his water.

Eric Lawee is a modern scholar who, like Rashi’s grandson Rashbam derides Rashi. He described the views of scholars who “viewed Maimonides and Rashi as symbols of larger alternatives in Judaism and Jewish life. Maimonides was the emblem of rationality in biblical exegesis…. These scholars saw Rashi’s diet of derashot agreeable to women and children offered up by Rashi’s philosophically innocent commentaryevidence of Judaism’s abysmal state.”[2]

Lawee gives an example, one ancient who mocked Rashi’s commentary on the corruption of “all flesh” in Genesis 6:12 that prompted God to flood the earth and even kill animals because of their sexual immorality. The scholar thought this notion was ridiculous since animals never do anything unnatural in the animal world.

The same ancient sage wrote that “intelligent people will laugh at the one (Rashi) who says that he (Jacob) blessed him (Pharaoh, in Genesis 47:10) that the Nile should rise before him (since)…the interval when the Nile rises is known and not dependent upon Pharaoh nor any person.”

He also mocked Rashi for saying in his commentary on Genesis 47:19 that the famine ceased as soon as Jacob came to Egypt. If he had this power, Jacob should have fixed the famine in his home instead of sending his sons to Egypt to beg for food.

Lawee cites another ancient sage who showed his contempt for Rashi’s comment upon Exodus 7:15 that Pharaoh went down to the water, meaning the Nile, “to relieve himself.” The scholar writes that this is “derash of a dolt, for had he no way to relive himself in a concealed place such that he had to go down to the river?”

Lawee summarizes his essay by saying, “These writers ultimately fought a losing battle in trying to defeat the ascendancy of Rashi’s commentary.” Despite all the criticism, Rashi is many people’s most favored Bible commentator.

[1] Rashi, By Elie Wiesel, Schocken Books/Nextbook, 2009.

[2] In “Maimonides in the Eastern Mediterranean: The Case of Rashi’s Resisting Readers,” in Maimonides after 800 Years: Essays on Maimonides and his Influence, Harvard University Press, 2007, pages 183-206,

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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