Impressions - Rashi - Elie Wiesel

Rashi - Elie Wiesel (2009)

Chapter 1. Impressions

Istroll around the new and old streets of the city of Troyes, in Champagne. It still vibrates with medieval history. I am shown the Hôtel-Dieu at the corner of the rue de la Cité and the quai des Comptes: this is where the Porte de la Juiverie, the old gateway to the Jewish neighborhood, was located. And what about the fairs where the Jews from the nearby cities met to discuss business and the rules of ritual? As always, these are to be found in books.

Cited by Irving Agus and again by Gérard Nahon, the Hebraic name of Troyes (or Troyias) first appears in a document written by Yosef bar Shmuel Tov-elem of Limoges in the eleventh century: “Concerning our brothers in Rheims who used to go to the fair in Troyes and whom an enemy lord captured (or persecuted).”

Who were these Jews? What enemy is he referring to? We know there used to be a synagogue here (there is even a street named after it), and there used to be a street of the Jews, a rue des Juifs (now gone as well). There were rabbis, hence students. There were leaders, Jewish families loyal to the Law of Moses, who fought against the outside enemy and the poverty in their midst, helped the poor, and did everything they could to pay the ransom and free their co religionists when they were taken as hostages. In spite of distances, there were deep contacts between the communities: their right to intervene in one another’s affairs was recognized by the competent rabbinical authorities. After all, didn’t they share a common destiny?

As for me, today, I am looking for the traces of a man whose learning still influences my life, as it does the lives of all those who have a thirst for study.

Houses, large and small, stores, gardens. The man I am looking for must have walked here, dreamed here, shed tears here over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, comforted broken hearts, counseled those who had gone astray, taught them to overcome fear and hope for the arrival of the Messiah.

I remember: as a child, his cursive script frightened me; more than that of the Bible, it suggested a world that was doubtless complex and probably mysterious, where only adults had the right and competence to enter.

Later, with the years, in the heder or yeshiva, before the candles on the table, every time someone asked, “What does Rashi say?” I rushed to look at his countless commentaries. Whenever I couldn’t grasp the meaning of a word, it was he, the Teacher of my Teachers, who rescued me. An intimate relationship, from child to elderly man, person to person. He said to me, as if confidentially: look, my child; fear nothing, everything must be grasped and conveyed with simplicity. Strange words stand in the way like obstacles? Start all over again with me. It happened to me too. I started all over again. You just have to break through the shell of a word, a sentence, an expression. Everything is inside them. Everything is waiting for you.

Thanks to his life, his erudition, his work, his generosity, he remains the spring from which we all drink. Without him, my thirst would never have been quenched. Without him, I would have gone astray more than once in the gigantic labyrinth that is the Babylonian Talmud.

Yet he doesn’t try to impress us with his learning, his vast religious and secular culture, his originality, or even his inventive mind. He confines himself to quoting the ancients or his precursors, sometimes his peers, and even his own disciples.

Rashi or the celebration of commentary? Better yet: Rashi or the celebration of memory, and of fraternity too. The danger lies in oblivion. Were I to forget where I come from, my life would become barren and sterile. Were I to forget whom I am the descendant of, I would be doomed to despair.

I loved him. I couldn’t make headway without him. Of course, I explored other approaches, other commentaries: those of Abrabanel, Sforno, Radak, Or ha-Hayim, Ibn Ezra, but Rashi’s are unique, different, indispensable. He radiates warmth and friendship. And simplicity. He is great because he remains faithful to the text, and to its literal meaning. He never uses his learning to make things complicated but to simplify. He never flaunts his erudition to impress students with the originality of his reasoning. Reconciling two words, two sentences, two verses is enough for him. To those who are timid he seems to be saying, Don’t be afraid, I am here by your side.

Sometimes, in my small town, it seemed to me that Rashi had been sent to earth primarily to help Jewish children overcome loneliness.

And fear.

Under a cloudless blue sky, alone with my thoughts, and my nostalgia, I wander through the back streets of Troyes.

Where was his house? No one can tell me. His vineyard? Again, no one knows. His grave in the Jewish cemetery? His parents’ graves or his wife’s? The graves of his three daughters? Are there any remains of his house or his school?

I find none.

I try to use my imagination.

The father and his three daughters during the grape harvest. Their Sabbath dinners. The discussions with his students. His solitude as he bent over his worktable, consulting books and ancient documents, and writing his oeuvre whose immensity never ceases to surprise us—his commentary on the Bible and the Talmud, and his vast body of responsa, the answers he furnished to questions posed from faraway rabbis.

Yes, we need imagination in order to write about him.

In those days, the Jewish communities in the provinces along the Rhine lived between fear and hope. At times the former dominated as though attracted by unfathomable gloom, at times the latter, making the dawning sun shine bright.

Often bound to one another through religious study and commerce, they flourished at the whim or self-interest of the church authorities and political sovereigns.

At the center of the Talmudic schools, the last in the Gaonic period, was Rabbenu, our Teacher, Gershom, Meor ha-Golah, the Light of the Exile, the uncontested leader of Jewish life. In dealing with complicated questions concerning the interpretation of the Law and doubts about matters of faith, it was to him that they flocked from all over the Diaspora.

We think he died in 1040, but we’re not absolutely positive. We like to think this because that was the year of Rabbi Shlomo’s birth—Rabbi Shlomo, son of Yitzhak, known by his initials, Rashi. According to Rabbi Shlomo Luria, this coincidence proves the validity of the verse in Ecclesiastes, “The sun also arises, and the sun goeth down”: in the world of men, as soon as a spiritual sun sets, another rises. It is simple: humanity could not survive, not even temporarily, in darkness.

Actually, other more reliable sources refer to 1028 as the date of the Gaon’s death. Let us leave it up to medieval historians to decide. On the other hand, most agree on the date of Rashi’s birth, 1040, and all on the date of his death, 1105.

At the time, the Jews in France lived more or less normal lives, depending on the disposition of the Church, and the mood and interest of the Capetian kings Hugh, Henry I, Philip I, Louis VI, and Louis VII. When the Jews were needed, they were left in peace. Afterward, they were disposed of.

In France, the Jewish communities considered themselves well established because they dated from ancient times. They were already there in Roman times, at first in certain specific areas, particularly near the Mediterranean coast. A rue des juifs could be found everywhere and, in some cities, can still be found today: the stones are a testament to history.

Did the first Jews arrive as war prisoners with the victorious Roman legions? So it is believed. They wound up in ancient settlements like Marseilles and Narbonne. They were found scattered in other places—in Paris, Avignon, Orléans, Metz. Protected by Roman law, they survived thanks to trade in wines and spices, travel, and what was called usury.

With the accession of the kings of Gaul, things changed. The Jews were no longer “citizens.” During the sinister apocalyptic mood that prevailed around the year 1000—further inflamed by the appearance of a fiery comet in 1014 and the solar eclipse in 1033—they were unprotected. They were not even tolerated. They were singled out, here and there, and accused of causing the scourges that befell superstitious inhabitants. Forced conversions, arbitrary arrests, threats of expulsion; it seemed these invariably followed the same logic of a cruel implacable destiny. Occasionally, with a bit of luck and a lot of money, the ruler or bishop deigned to change his mind and a reprieve was granted.

The year 1017: King Robert the Pious orders the Jews to convert; when they refuse, he sets fire to synagogues and Jewish homes. In the same period, in Limoges, the Jews, loyal to their ancestral faith, are expelled. A contemporary chronicler, Adhémar de Chabanne, writes: “There were some among them who slit their own throats with their swords rather than accept baptism.” In November 1012, the Jews were expelled from Mainz; in January 1013, they were back. Sometimes the Vatican itself was persuaded to intervene. Then, in 1095, in Clermont, the bloody, deadly explosion took place: Pope Urban II preached in favor of the Crusade. Destination: Palestine. The goal: to save Christianity’s holy sites. Along the road, says one witness, in Rouen, the Crusaders locked the Jews in a church and ordered them to convert, then massacred them with two-edged swords, men, women, and children. Moreover, Godfrey of Bouillon declared publicly that he “wouldn’t set off except if he had avenged the blood of the crucified in the blood of Israel and not let a single person with a Jewish name survive.”

These atrocities, and others, were committed wherever the Crusaders of Christendom made their appearance, including in the province of Champagne, not far from Troyes.

Here and there, living in fear of the next day, the Jewish communities that were directly concerned sent messengers to their neighboring communities warning them of the imminent danger.

In most cases, they did so in vain.

However, in the area of education and culture, the situation of the Jews seems rather enviable. There was a Jewish religious culture in France well before Rashi. Several centers were well known for the distinction of their teachers. Indeed this was the period in the history of European cultural and religious thought that saw the birth of Jewish learning in France. So that as a youth Rashi knew where to go to complete his biblical and Talmudic studies. Many scholars came from Italy and settled in the Rhineland and France. Mainz, Speyer, Vitry Worms, and Limoges attracted the best students. Among them, Shlomo, son of Yitzhak.

Who was this father? We know very little about him. Some believe he was a very erudite man. It is thought that Rashi himself asserts it. He does so by paying him a great compliment, which is this:

His impressive commentary of the Bible starts with a question asked by a Rabbi Yitzhak: why does the Bible begin with the description of the genesis of the world rather than with the first law, which concerns the calendar? We will return to this question. For the time being, let us just recall that for some exegetes, this Rabbi Yitzhak is none other than the author’s father.

If this assumption is correct, it would mean that we know at least one thing about Rashi’s father: he was himself a rabbi who posed questions worthy of contemplation. But beyond the fact that he was the father of one the greatest scholars of the biblical and Talmudic literature, we know very little.

Nothing more? No, not much more. We’re not even sure of the basic facts of his biography. Did he have other children, a brother perhaps (just one?), who was also a talmid hakham, a Talmudic scholar? How old was he when he died? Was he a martyr? One source intimates as much by calling him kadosh, or holy, but can’t this term also describe a moral life devoted to the Lord? How old was Rashi when he became an orphan? In one place, Rashi quotes him and calls his father “Avi mori,” my father and my teacher. Does this mean he studied the Torah with him and maybe also the Babylonian Talmud? Rabbi Haim David Azulai writes that he was a true Talmudist.

Strange: we know so many things about so many individuals thanks to Rashi, and so little about the man who gave him life. And even less about his mother.

Why Rashi? The intials of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, Shlomo son of Itzhak, or, just as simply, Rabbi Shlomo sheyihyheh (may he have a long life)? The illustrious Rabbi Hayim ben Attar has his own interpretation: the name comes from the initial letters in Rabban Shel Israel, Teacher of all Israel. Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav calls him “the brother of the Torah.” The Torah and his commentary are inseparable. But the title that suits him best is simply “ha-Moreh ha-Gadol,” the Great Teacher.

We don’t know the precise date of his birth in 1040—or perhaps 1041. On the other hand, his date of death in 1105 is well established: the twenty-ninth day of the month of Tammuz, hence a Thursday in the middle of the summer. This date can be seen on the Parma de Rossi parchment written by one of his disciples and transcribed in 1305: “the holy ark, the holiest of holiest, the great Teacher Rabbenu Shlomo blessed in memory as righteous, son of the martyr Rabbi Yitzhak the Frenchman, was taken from us on Thursday, the twenty-ninth day of the month of Tammuz in the year 4865, aged sixty-five, and called back to the yeshiva above.”

That’s very scanty biographical information, is it not? In Rashi’s day, about a hundred Jewish families lived in the beautiful city of Troyes. They lived modestly and experienced no great upheavals. These occurred only in the thirteenth century. In 1288, to be exact.

It was the old story of ritual murder—stupid, ridiculous, but oh so deadly. It is mentioned in The Lamentation of Troyes by Yaakov ben Yehuda of Lorraine. Hate-filled fanatics put the corpse of a Christian child in the house of a Jewish notable, Isaac Chatelain. Arrested along with his whole family, interrogated, they all suffered the abuse and torture that was usual at the time. They all chose Kiddush ha-Shem, a martyr’s death, the supreme sacrifice in the sanctification of God’s name.

Dark times spawn legends of hope, dreams of a hero, which for Jews in those times meant not a soldier but a scholar, an interpreter of God’s word. Several legends surround Rashi’s birth. They say his parents owned a precious gem that was so luminous and sparkled so brilliantly that the Church dearly wished to acquire it for ritual use. They were offered astronomical sums and substantial benefits. Fearing both the possible temptation and the probable intimidation, they took the gem and threw it into the sea. Heaven rewarded them by giving them a son whose beneficial light was more exceptional and dazzling than that of the precious gem.

Another legend: one day Rashi’s mother, in the late stage of pregnancy, was walking down a narrow, dark alley when an elegant coach coming in the opposite direction almost ran her over. A miracle occurred: she pressed her belly against the wall and the wall curved inward. They say the trace of this mysterious occurrence can still be seen today: a rounded niche in the stones.

And still another legend: fearing that he would be unable to assemble a minyan, a quorum of ten men, for his son’s circumcision, Rabbi Yitzhak, the father of the future Rashi, had the surprise and joy of welcoming as his last visitor, a latecomer, the first circumcised Jew in history, the patriarch Abraham, or, according to another source, the prophet Elijah.

According to other legends, invented by hagiographers, he spoke every existing language, mastered all the sciences, religious and secular, and had journeyed to faraway lands. He was said to have visited the great poet and thinker Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi in Spain and the Duke of Prague in his castle. He is purported to have hosted Godfrey of Bouillon, who came to consult him before leaving on the Crusade to liberate Jerusalem’s holy places.

In the Hasidic literature, he is called “the holy Rashi” for his immense oeuvre was said to be inspired from the Holy Spirit, the Shekhinah: otherwise, as a mere human, he would never have been able to accomplish so many things in so many areas.

One Hasidic text goes so far as to imagine that Rashi did not die a natural death: that he actually never died at all but went up to heaven alive, immortal like the prophet Elijah. Which would explain why no one knows where his grave is located.

Rabbi Yitzhak Eizik of Ziditchov’s commentary: When God, blessed be His Name, decided to put an end to Abraham’s trials on Mount Moriah and to spare the life of his son Isaac, Abraham initially refused to hear the angel who handed down the celestial command. He gave in only when God promised him that one of Isaac’s descendants would be Shlomo, son of Isaac of Troyes.

At that point Abraham had no choice.

Rashi was a precocious student, that is a fact.

We know Rashi studied—for how many years?—with his maternal uncle, Rabbi Shimon bar Yitzhak the Ancient, Rabbenu Gershom’s disciple. At eighteen or twenty, he went to Mainz in Germany to study at the yeshiva founded by the aforementioned Rabbenu Gershom, where under the latter’s authority, several great Sages assisted the students. In this way, the young Rashi had access to Talmudic manuscripts written by the ancients and by Rabbenu Gershom himself, a rare privilege. According to one legend, Rashi had the good fortune and pleasure of holding in his hands the Sefer Torah, the holy scrolls, that his Teacher used during the service.

A number of legal decisions are attributed, rightly or wrongly, to Rabbenu Gershom. Two are famous: on bigamy and on the repudiation of a wife against her will. A third forbids opening another person’s mail.

When Rashi arrived in his yeshiva, Rabbenu Gershom was no longer alive. Rashi studied with his successors Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar, whom he admired and loved more than anyone in the world, David ha-Levi, and Yitzhak ben Yehuda. He was closest to the first, whom he loved for his great modesty and who first made him aware of some rare manuscripts of the Talmud and their Midrashic and other commentators without which it is impossible to study the Talmud in depth. “I owe him everything I know,” he wrote, “my understanding, my comprehension, and my heart.” Occasionally he accompanied him on his trips to nearby communities and beyond.

After Mainz he went to Worms where there was a large, thriving yeshiva supervised by Rabbi Yitzhak ha-Levi. He stayed there for several years. The reason is clear: at the time, the most renowned centers of higher Jewish learning were in the German Rhineland, though there were also a few in Italy. France became a center only after Rashi’s return. By then he was not even thirty years old. He married—but whom? We don’t know. We don’t even know his wife’s name. The couple had three daughters: Miriam, Yokheved, and Rachel. We’re equally unsure as to whether they had a fourth daughter; several sources hint that they did, adding that she may have died in infancy.

Did his wife and daughters help Rashi in his vineyards? No doubt they did … if he was a wine grower, which has never been fully confirmed. Did he have other sources of income? Nothing is less certain. One legend claims he lived from trade with the Gentiles. There is a letter of Rashi’s revealing that he didn’t have the means to support his family: he couldn’t afford to buy bread and clothes.

As for the daughters, they are believed to have been erudite. It seems that, sometimes, they were consulted regarding customs and practices in matters of food and family life.

Miriam’s husband, Rabbi Yehuda ben Nathan, was a great scholar. And so was Yokheved’s husband, Rabbi Meir ben Shmuel. Rachel must have been known for her beauty, for she was nicknamed “Belle-assez,” “rather beautiful.” Her husband, a certain Eliezer, divorced her. Why? We don’t know. If she remarried, we don’t know whom she married.

On the other hand, we know that Rashi, though married and perhaps already a father, returned to Worms and stayed there several years. Was it because he wasn’t ready to found his own yeshiva? As soon as he returned to Troyes, he did found one. His contemporaries are known for their learning: Rabbi Eliyahu ben Menahem the Elder of Mans and Rabbi Yosef bar Shmuel Tov-elem of Limoges.

Why does he hardly mention his wife and daughters? Who ran the household? Who kept house for him? Who accompanied him on trips? Could it be that, like other Talmud Sages, his disciples meant more to him than his close family members?

Rashi’s influence can be explained by his knowledge of a range of disciplines—the Bible and the Talmud, mathematics and wine growing, astronomy and zoology.

How did he earn his living? Solely from the produce of his vineyard—there again, if he had one? He did write a lot about wines. He had no salary (in those days, rabbis were not paid), and his students received free instruction. In addition, some of his students, who were more or less destitute, requested financial assistance from him for their everyday needs. His foreign students lived in his house. And ate at his table. When one of them married, Rashi organized the wedding in his house.

Here again, we have no idea how he managed to feed so many people, but apparently he did. More precisely: there is no evidence in any source of anyone complaining.

His students, all of them thirsting for knowledge, flocked to him from everywhere, from the provinces and beyond. There were some students who came from Germany and Eastern Europe.

Among his disciples, we find some of the greatest scholars, including his two sons-in-law who became illustrious French Tosafists, as the commentators of the generations after Rashi were known, from the word for “additional.” Indeed, he brought them in as collaborators in his work, as consultants, copyists, or proofreaders of manuscripts. Rabbi Yehuda excelled in his way of commenting on the Talmud following Rashi’s original approach. After his father-in-law’s death, it is he who completed Rashi’s commentary of Tractate Makkot (punishments) of the Talmud. Yehuda’s son, Rabbi Shmuel (the Rashbam), became a Sage in turn. But the most famous and admired of Rashi’s grandsons was Rabbi Meir’s son, Yaakov (Jacob), better known as Rabbenu Tam. The same adjective is attributed to the patriarch Jacob in the Scriptures. Tam means “complete piety.” When he was born, Rashi was nearly sixty.

Rabbenu Tam had a dramatic and even tragic life, enduring periods of danger and suffering. At forty-seven, he was assaulted by hate-filled Crusaders and sustained five head wounds. “You are Israel’s greatest,” the aggressors yelled. “So we will take revenge on you for our crucified Lord. We will wound you the way you wounded our Lord!” He was already old when the Jewish community in Blois was accused of ritual murder; the rabbi ordered all the Jews of France to observe a day of fasting in solidarity for their endangered brothers and sisters; thirty-one of them lost their lives.

In general, Rashi’s disciples, and they were numerous and prolific, identified themselves by the teaching “received from his mouth.” If, with time, a true Teacher is defined by the quality of his disciples, Rashi is among the greatest.

Let us recall some of them: Rabbi Shmaya worked at putting his Teacher’s notes in order. From him we know that a Christian owed Rashi money and maintained that he had already reimbursed him. Rashi demanded that he make this statement under oath in church. Rabbi Yosef Kara, the author of important books on the Prophets. Rabbi Simhah ben Shmuel of Vitry, who was especially interested in the litanies and prayers written by Rashi. It is thought, without being confirmed, that several of these reflect Rashi’s grief and pain at the atrocities committed by the Crusaders. As for his two sons-in-law, cited above, they always refer to his interpretations.

How old was he when he took up his duties as Troyes’ official rabbi? By then he was already a respected member of the rabbinical court. No precise date was found in the historical records. The only thing we are certain of is that he was already well known and that his reputation had extended beyond this little city. Before his arrival, the notables went to see outside authorities to settle their differences. Once he became their rabbi, this custom ended. All the problems were brought to him. Questions were sent to him from faraway countries. And his decisions, made with humility but firmly, were never disputed. At the end of his life, often sick and bedridden, he dictated his answers to his correspondents. And he explained the reasons for his decisions.

In his superb book on Rashi, Avraham Grossman, one of his best biographers and a fine essayist, puts forward a captivating idea: Rashi’s success and popularity, in all the strata of the Jewish population for a thousand years, cannot be explained by his commentaries alone but are due to his personality as well.

He lists five character traits that have to be taken into account if we are to grasp the reason why his immense work had so much impact: humility and simplicity, the pursuit of the truth, respect for his fellow man, confidence in his own creative inspiration, and the feeling of accomplishing the mission of a community leader.

Was his humility unconscious? Opinion is divided. On the one hand, can authentic modesty not be authentic? On the other, if exaggerated, wouldn’t modesty get in the way of courageous research, deny the mind the right to take on an adventure whose goal is to break through the wall and create an opening to renewal?

In studying him tirelessly, we find no trace of arrogance or conceit in Rashi. Exaggerated susceptibility of any kind seems alien to him. Self-confidence, yes, so long as it is not boundless. He sometimes admits to making a mistake on a specific issue. Sometimes—and we’ll return to this below—he simply confesses to ignorance. No other Sage did this as frankly and as frequently. The expression is “eini yoden.”

Hence his courteous and respectful attitude in his relationships with others. With his enemies and opponents—for he did have some—he betrays no impatience, no irritation. He also becomes a kind of ideal address for his peers and disciples: their queries and problems come to him by the hundreds, from Italy, Germany, and France; they concern trade, marriage and the ritual. His answers form part of his work. Why does he forbid the sick from reciting daily prayers? Is it because, being ill, they are unable to concentrate on the very soul of prayer? Or is it so the sick won’t feel guilty that they aren’t well enough to recite the required prayer? He showed such an affectionate understanding for others that all assumptions are permitted.

But what about the Christians? What was Rashi’s attitude toward them? We will come to that later. For the moment, let us just mention that he viewed their business relationships with the Jews in a favorable light. Did he consider them inevitable? He also made a point of saying that, after all, they were not pagans.

One day he noticed that a Christian with whom he had business dealings didn’t really care about his own Christian faith; he was too casual about it. Rashi refused to see him again.

Having said this, it is surprising to note that Rashi didn’t take part in the virulent polemics with the Christians on what separates our religious traditions. He could not have been unaware of them. Word of these polemics reached the most remote corners of his region and far beyond. And Rashi, for one, surely understood their possible effects on the community: they often ended badly. Hence his hostility toward Christendom. For him, it symbolized Esau. What he thought of the Christians is what he says about Esau. He shows some understanding, though not completely wholehearted, for Isaac’s brother Ishmael, but none for Jacob’s brother. He goes very far in his choice of words in describing the latter’s secret thoughts and evil intentions. But of the two brothers, wasn’t Jacob the one who, with the help of his mother, Rebecca, deceived his blind father in order to receive the blessings intended for the eldest? No, says Rashi. The lies came from Esau who, being a hypocrite, did everything to please his father so he could be the first blessed.

Another example: the biblical text tells us that on that day Esau returned from the fields tired and famished. Why tired? We could suppose that he had just done some strenuous work. For Rashi the reason is completely different: he was tired of killing. Worse still: Rashi is convinced that Esau was guilty of the three worst transgressions: idolatry, adultery, and murder. In general, he uses Esau—or Edom—as a symbol of everything evil and wicked surrounding Israel.

Often, indeed very often, this animosity is not in the text itself, but in many Midrashic commentaries Rashi cites. But Rashi sets about making a personal choice to support his hypothesis. Since Israel has and will have an enemy, this enemy must be named; it is Christianity, which, in Esau, existed well before the common era.

Grossman stresses this point. According to him, Esau is not the only person Rashi presents in a negative light. He sees other protagonists as having negative traits as well: for him, Lot, Abraham’s nephew, did nothing commendable. If he lived in the sinful city of Sodom, it was because he felt comfortable among the impious.

Ishmael? Not attractive either. He kept company with brigands and imitated their habits. Idolatrous and violent, he was not really loved by his father.

How are we to explain these seemingly unjust allegories if not by the more or less hostile political, social, and religious environment of the period? Weren’t the people of Israel assailed, threatened, attacked, and tormented by both Christians and Muslims?

A general rule: whenever he can, Rashi chooses passages in the Midrash that can be interpreted as arguments against “the other nations.” Why? There again, let us draw on Grossman who attributes Rashi’s animosity to theological pressures to which were added the horrendous persecutions Christendom inflicted on the Jews in that part of Europe.

The forced “disputations” in the royal courts and cathedrals, the violent anti-Semitic propaganda that resulted from these, the preparations for the first Crusade whose victims included Rashi’s disciples and friends, surely influenced his conception of the world. Was it his reaction to those events that were to leave traces of fire and blood in the Jewish memory forever after?

Did he ever forgive Esau whose descendents—in Rome, according to him—bore down on the Jews whose tragic destiny was supposed to be proof that God had changed his chosen people?

One should read Rashi’s commentary on the Song of Songs, a cry of distress and a song of love. It reflects the suffering of the Jews in exile. And so do some of the Psalms. For Rashi, King David predicts the martyrdom of the Righteous who sacrificed themselves in order to sanctify the Name of God.

But let us return to the Scriptures:

Rashi, as opposed to other great interpreters and sages, seems to favor the patriarchs exclusively: although the Talmud never hesitates to describe them as deeply human and mentions their failings and errors, Rashi depicts them as Righteous Men if not absolute saints. No misdemeanor, no blunder, never an ethical shortcoming when it comes to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God is proud of them for all eternity and so is he.

And yet.

Throughout his work, usually what counts most for Rashi is the concern for truth. Revealing the deep, hidden meaning of a biblical verse or a Talmudic statement, the very meaning that our distant precursors had bequeathed to their descendants—that’s the ultimate objective of his approach.

An approach that calls for a great deal of daring. Breaking down closed doors, disputing standard interpretations, going beyond the superficial, beyond what meets the eye, reaching higher and higher and delving deep down: courage is needed to aspire to this and consent to it. Rashi has courage, and he shares it with his pupils. In some instances he almost goes too far. Concerning the person of Flavius Josephus, for example.

Flavius Josephus is too demanding of the Jews besieged in Jerusalem. He asks them to resign themselves and accept defeat. He finishes his life as a patrician, near Rome. It is hardly surprising that the Jewish tradition kept its distance from the work of Flavius Josephus, Jewish historian. For centuries, the writer was treated as a marginal figure in the religious literature of the Jewish people. Too moderate, too conciliatory, too weak with regard to the besieging Romans: he was regarded with genuine antipathy. But apparently not by Rashi, who admires his work The War of the Jews for having served as the basis for the history book Yosiphon by Yosef ben Gurion ha-Cohen.

Rashi’s commentaries on the ancient texts are numerous, varied, infinitely original, and sometimes personal; they are found in various contemporaneous and later manuscripts; they include the Torah, the Prophets, the Writings (Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, book of Job—except for the very last chapters, which he did not finish), and, naturally, almost all of the Talmud. One of the most ancient manuscripts, if not the most ancient, is of the Pentateuch, the first of its kind, written by Makir, a renowned thirteenthcentury scribe who scrupulously copied the texts written by Rashi himself and corrected by Rabbi Shmaya. Rashi often relies on his precursors; for the Torah, the Aramaic translation by the convert Onkelos, for the Prophets, that of Yonatan ben Uziel; but above all he relies on the Midrash texts, not in order to contradict them, but in order to deepen them by adding his own knowledge. Nevertheless, in some rare instances he makes a point of disagreeing with his own Teachers. But even then he does so with a student’s respect for those whose teaching is a legacy. Just to illustrate Rashi’s fondness for simplicity, remember the tragedy that befell Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu who lost their lives because they introduced “an alien fire,” says Rashi. “They were drunk.”

Let us note that Rashi’s commentary on the Bible was the first Hebrew book to be printed: around 1470. It is hardly surprising that it rapidly crossed frontiers and the seas and made its way to the furthermost reaches of Jewish community life in the Diaspora. No other work was so widely circulated. The same is true of his writings on the Babylonian Talmud. Maimonides’ commentaries on the Talmud were criticized, often unjustly and sometimes too harshly, but Rashi’s were not. His acceptance by nearly all the Jewish thinkers and their disciples remains just about unique. Christian scholars benefited from his commentaries each in his own way—among them the illustrious Nicholas of Lyra, in the thirteenth century, who translated his work into Latin. He cited Rashi so frequently that a certain Jean Mercier, at the Collège Royal of Paris, nicknamed him Simius Solomnis, Solomon’s (Shlomo’s) ape.

Through Nicholas of Lyra, Rashi had a powerful influence on Martin Luther, whose German translation of the Bible owes much to him.

In subsequent pages, we will speak about his inexhaustible curiosity, his inventive genius, his touching humility in the presence of texts and their interpreters: he, the most illustrious of scholars, who mastered both sacred texts and secular ones (he had a knowledge of the sciences, and of French, Greek, and Arabic), was never embarrassed to admit that he couldn’t grasp the true meaning of a text, that a literal or hermeneutic translation escaped him or just seemed obscure. And in that case, it had to be elucidated at all costs. What is unclear initially will become clear the second time around. What is hidden will be revealed. For him, everything must remain open, comprehensible. A decision maker, he adapts the Law to present needs.

According to some, he was also a mystic (a staunch believer in miracles—and not just the biblical ones of the past—he believed that at the advent of the Messianic era, the Third Temple would descend from heaven). But he was in many ways a scientific rationalist, making accessible and familiar things that are not. Nothing is meant to remain complicated forever. The Torah is not up in the heavens, unchanging, among the angels and seraphs, but here down below. It is up to men to interpret it and reinterpret it anew each day.

A linguist and grammarian, if he finds the Aramaic or Hebrew insufficient, Rashi resorts to German and particularly to French or “Belaaz” in gloss, or the tongue of the Gentiles; and Rashi uses the latter abundantly: we find more than a thousand French words in his works. Scholars still study him today for the light he sheds on the French language in the early Middle Ages: some terms aren’t found anywhere else.

In general, intent on finding the right word and the suitable literary style to explain a biblical or Talmudic expression or law, when he is free to choose among different approaches, he opts for the simplest, most reasonable, most accessible one.

In delving into Rashi’s commentaries on the Babylonian Talmud one sometimes comes across contradictions. Tosafists and researchers have stated it unambiguously: there is no doubt that Rashi changed his mind on some particular points. For what reason? Was this due to the erroneous judgments of copyists, or Rashi’s own intellectual honesty? After all, over the years, going from one discovery to next, one can admit to having made a mistake. Ultimately, as in all real spiritual and scholarly quests, all assumptions of sudden reversals are permissible.

Let us listen to his grandson, the Rashbam:

“Rabbi Shlomo, my grandfather, the Light of the Exile, who interpreted the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, made every effort to elucidate the natural meaning of the text, and I, Shmuel ben Meir, often discussed his commentaries with him or in his presence. And he admitted to me that, if he had the time, he would revise his work taking into account explanations that are revealed day after day.”

Let us repeat it:

In his writings, he never hesitates to admit that he doesn’t know the answer to a question, or the solution to a difficulty. For example: in the book of Genesis (28:5), the text says Isaac sent Jacob “to Padan-aram unto Laban, son of Bethuel the Syrian, the brother of Rebecca, Jacob’s and Esau’s mother.” The sentence is long and unwieldy, and full of superfluous details: at this point in the narrative is there anyone who doesn’t know who Rebecca is? Rashi’s commentary: “I admit that I don’t know what this verse wants to tell us.” The author of Sifrei Hakhamim responded with blunt words: “There are some among us who are surprised that Rashi feels compelled to tell us he doesn’t know; if he doesn’t know, let him be silent.” But Rashi believes in being frank and truthful. If he doesn’t know, he feels he should tell us.

Is it due to the breadth of his knowledge? To the luminous quality of his style, clear and captivating, always tight, precise, sober, attracting the reader’s allegiance? His desire to have a dialogue with students? Sometimes students have the joyful feeling that they are learning not from Rashi but by his side.

Except for a few tractates (On Fasting, Vows, Asceticism), his commentary covers the entire Talmudic world. Admittedly, certain questions continue to preoccupy the experts: who authored the commentary on those passages he himself did not complete? Did he himself, orally, and then they were transcribed by his heirs and disciples? That seems a fair presumption.

On page 29 of the Venice edition of Tractate Baba Batra (literally, “the Third Gate,” it covers property laws) we read: “Here Rashi died blessed in memory…. From now on it is the commentary of (his grandson) Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir.”

But on page 19 of Tractate Makkot, on criminal punishments (also printed in Venice), we find this note: “The purified soul of our Teacher left his pure body here. And he stopped commenting. From this point on, it is the language of his disciple Rabbi Yehuda ben Nathan.”

A contradiction? Was Rashi writing and working on two tractates at the same time?

Opinions differ. But all are unanimous about one thing: pamphlets circulated before, in the Orient and in Europe, and were passed on by known and anonymous travelers, but Rashi’s greatness remains unique; the companion of aging teachers and the friend of young beginners, his authority has remained indisputable and his help indispensable throughout an entire millennium.