One of the
greatest Jewish scholars and commentators of all times,
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki
(1040-1105), more usually referred to by the acronym Rashi, was born in Troyes,
France. He earned his living as a grape grower and his fame as a writer of commentaries
on the Bible and Talmud. A gifted educator, with the ability to communicate
complex ideas in a way understandable to all, he continues to exert a powerful
influence on Jewish thinking and living. Tradition has given "Rashi"
the interpretation of, Rabban shel Yisrael, teacher of Israel.
in the year 1105. Within a century of his death, his Hebrew commentaries on
the Bible and Talmud had spread from the communities of France and Germany to
Spain and Africa, to Asia and Babylon. Considering the enormous expense and
the mighty energies entailed in the production of handcopied books, the high
cost of paper and parchment, and the great difficulties and obstacles encountered
in their distribution in the eleventh and twelve centuries, the early popularity
of Rashi, and the wide and unprecedented dissemination that his commentaries
on the Bible achieved, are nothing short of remarkable.
traditions place the date of his birth at 1040. As one of the greatest
Jewish luminaries of the Middle Ages, Rabbenu Gershom, had died only
a few years earlier (in 1028), the following verse from Ecclesiastes
1: 5 was frequently quoted: "The sun rises and the sun sets,"
i.e., the sun of Rashi rises, as that of Rabbenu Gershom sets.
Rashi managed to produce commentaries to practically the entire
Hebrew Bible as well as to the Babylonian Talmud, and this during odd hours
stolen from those devoted to earning a living in wine production. Given the
adverse conditions under which he worked lack of
night-time lighting, indoor heating and any means for mechanical copying, as
well as the absence of any governmental funding or institutional aid
it is humbling to consider the magnitude and quality of Rashi's intellectual
and literary achievements.
This scholar single-handedly, and without in anyway so intending, fashioned
the classical Jewish educational curriculum that was to last nearly one thousand
years. The study of his commentaries to the Torah introduced the masses at an
early age to the characteristic phraseology, vocabulary, technical terminology,
style and thought processes, themes and contents of rabbinic literature.
Through Rashi, the language, law, and lore of the rabbis inextricably entered
into the warp and woof of the fabric of Jewish culture (fully three quarters
of his comments on the Torah are drawn from rabbinic sources). Rashi transformed
and immeasurably enriched the vocabulary of Jewish life.
Rashi was also one of the pioneers of the revival of literary Hebrew in the
Middle Ages. At that time, Hebrew had been a nonspoken language for hundreds
of years. The superb contributions to the revival of Hebrew on the part of the
Spanish Hebraists have been generously and rightfully acknowledged. Those of
Rashi have barely been recognized. No less a master of Hebrew style than the
modern national Jewish poet laureate, Chaim Nachman Bialik, expressed his admiration
for the marvelous elasticity and flexibility of Rashi's Hebrew. Bialik pronounced
his unambiguous verdict that the commentator "produced a wonderful linguistic
||From Nahum M. Sarna, Studies
in Biblical Interpretation JPS, 2000 (pp. 127-137)