Rashi

The Medieval scholar and commentator Rashi (1040-1105) wrote the greatest commentaries in Jewish exegeses on the Old Testament and the Talmud. His commentaries are still important in Jewish life.

Rashi was born Shelomoh Yitzhaki in Troyes, France. The name he is known by is an abbreviation of Rabbi Solomon bar Isaac. Rashi's father died when the boy was young, and his family's circumstances did not allow him to pursue his ambition of spending his life studying at Talmudic schools in Germany. After studies at Mainz and Worms, he returned to Troyes in 1065, when he was 25 years old. Forced by economic circumstances to manage his father's vineyards, Rashi limited his scholarly activities to reading and writing. In the next years he created his famous commentaries on the Old Testament (except for a few books) and on the Talmud. These exegeses were received and read with great attention, and Rashi's reputation was established by them.

After 1096 Rashi's commentaries became even more popular because during the zeal that surrounded the First Crusade rabbinic centers of learning in the Rhineland were destroyed, their teachers killed, and their students dispersed. Students gradually were attracted to Troyes, and Rashi then opened his own academy. It rapidly became one of the most important and celebrated rabbinic centers in Europe; simultaneously it became a rallying point for Ashkenazic Jewry and a center of Jewish scholarship.

Rashi then entered the high period of his achievement. He altered several rabbinic traditions of learning; he induced his students to commit many oral traditions to writing; he developed a personal style of exegesis; and he fostered many Jewish scholars who later spread across Europe. Rashi had no sons, but his three daughters married outstanding scholars. His students of special note included two sons-in-law, Rabbi Judah ben Nathan, commentator of the Talmud, and Rabbi Meir ben Semuel; his grandson Rabbi Semuel ben Meir, known as Rasbam, also a commentator; Rabbi Shemaiah, compiler of the Sefer ha-Pardes (The Book of Paradise); and Rabbi Simcha, compiler of the Mahzor Vitry.

Rashi's commentaries and tractates spread throughout Europe and the Near East after his death at Troyes on July 13, 1105. His commentary on the Talmud has been in universal use among Talmudic students and scholars since then. The text of the Talmud is usually printed side by side with Rashi's commentary and with the tosaphist additions dating from the two subsequent centuries. Rashi's commentary on the Pentateuch (printed 1475) has enjoyed a similar popularity. It has been the subject of numerous commentaries by both Jewish and Christian scholars. Nicholas of Lyra, whose work was one of Martin Luther's main sources in composing his Bible translation, used Rashi's commentary extensively. Rashi's school at Troyes produced custumals (collections and digests of customs and habits) and rabbinic tractates that maintained a wide influence among Jews of later generations.

Because of the wide range of Rashi's commentaries and the unique and personal character of his exegeses, he more than any other Jewish scholar has molded modern rabbinic commentary and interpretation of the Bible. He ranks as high as any ancient scholar as theologian, Bible commentator, and Talmudist.

Further Reading on Rashi

An older study of Rashi is Maurice Liber, Rashi (trans. 1906). More recent studies include Samuel M. Blumenfield, Master of Troyes: A Study of Rashi, the Educator (1946), and Herman Halperin, Rashi and the Christian Scholars (1963). Harold Louis Ginsberg, ed., Rashi Anniversary Volume (1941), contains biographical material and commentary on Rashi. See also Meyer Waxman, A History of Jewish Literature, vol. 1 (1930; rev. ed. 1943).

Additional Biography Sources

Pearl, Chaim, Rashi, New York: Grove Press, 1988.

Shereshevsky, Esra, Rashi, the man and his world, Northvale, N.J.: J. Aronson, 1996.

Shulman, Yaacov Dovid, Rashi: the story of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, New York: CIS Publishers, 1993.

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