A Random Walk With Rashi: What is a Rashi?

This is a guest post by Phil Goldman, a former stand-up, current attorney, and closet Torah scholar. Stay tuned for a new post in the A Random Walk with Rashi series every Thursday morning.* Miss last week’s piece? Read it here.

Welcome back.

Last week our study group finished the second of a two-part refresher on just what this Rashi fellow is all about. What is his methodology, and what is it about him that has attracted those studying Torah to this very day?

As we learned in last week’s summary, Rashi’s prominence can be attributed to a unique alignment of several stars – in terms of the era in which he lived (world upheaval around the turn of the first millennium), the shifting map of Jewish thought (from Bagdad to Germany/France), and the codification of the Talmud, all combined with the brilliance of the man – to say nothing of the fact that his became the first commentary on Torah ever published in Hebrew. Even back then, it seems, the benefits of being first to market cannot be understated.

Eli Wiesel has captured these and other aspects far more eloquently in his book “Rashi,” in which he tells us how he studied Rashi beginning as a child, and says about him “…. it is the Jewish child in me who thanks him. But Rashi’s appeal is addressed to everyone. What I mean is this: his passion for delving into a text in order to find a hidden meaning passed on by generations can move, interest, and enrich all those whose life is governed by study”.

So we begin to take a deeper dive into Rashi’s methodology, through the collective words and efforts of our own Rabbi, and his teacher (Rabbi Ben Hollender), and his teacher’s teacher (Avivah Zornberg).

From them, we learn to ask ourselves three questions with regard to each Rashi commentary:

  • First, what is bothering Rashi about the verse we just read?
  • Second, how does Rashi resolve his concern or difficulty with the verse?
  • And finally, what is the message or lesson that Rashi learns, and tries to teach us as a result?

The reason we need to ask the first question, is because Rashi never tells us what’s bothering him. Instead, he dives right into his answer and analysis, leaving us to ponder what he is responding to. Not unlike trying to read the punch line of a ‘knock knock’ joke every week, and having to then surmise what the answer might have been to “who’s there?”

In large part, this is because Rashi wrote for his students and peers – the educated audience of his day. In that world, and that setting, his readers would have immediately shared the same concern, without needing to be told. By analogy to today, a headline that reads “Bachman Takes Iowa” would have immediate meaning to most readers – to the point where were they to groan, most everyone would understand why. Twenty years from now, or 1000 years from now, that context will have been lost (we can only hope) and one would need to work backward, through study, in order to understand why that headline (our verse) would have led to that response (Rashi’s commentary). As a result, Rashi could hit the proverbial ground running, while we today need to pause, and scratch our collective heads.

In turn, Rashi’s goal in all this was to elucidate, rather than opine. He wanted to find the deeper meaning that he knew lay behind every grammatical or other clue that Torah had to offer. In so doing, he typically strives for the “peshat”, or straightforward meaning of the text, rather than to provide us with “drash” or commentary. When both seem to have something to teach, he will occasionally provide one explanation, coupled with a ‘dvar echar’, or an ‘on the other hand’, an alternative perspective.

So, how do we determine what might be bothering Rashi? There is generally little rhyme or reason, which is part of the fun, and challenge.

At times he will have no comments at all about a verse that, to us, seems ripe for picking apart – a veritable Torah version of low hanging nikkudot (vowels). At other times he will tell us bluntly that there is clearly something to learn from a verse, but what that is, is beyond even him.

Very rarely, does Rashi speak about himself, or his methodology in this regard. See, for instance, Genesis 3:8 when he steps out of character to tell us – with regard to a pretty profound verse in its own right – that “I have come for nothing but the simple meaning of Scripture and for aggadah [exegetical interpretation of a non-halachic nature – that’s OK, I don’t get it either] – which resolves the word of Scripture with each word stated in its proper framework and with its correct meaning [i.e., peshat]”.

Fortunately, though, Rashi is a bit predictable. There are particular themes that tend to repeat, and help guide us as we attempt to read his mind.

One such theme, is that of unusual grammar – words that are themselves different, or perhaps just punctuated or spelled differently than we might otherwise expect. Various other themes include such things a verse that provides information that seems superfluous, or unnecessary to the text (e.g., Genesis 32:8), words that tell us something that we already know (e.g., Genesis 13:5), words or phrases that seem illogical (e.g., Genesis 1:27), or unclear (Genesis 22:2), or that lack symmetry (Genesis 1:31). Time and space will permit us to explore only one of these categories at present, by way of an example. When you feel ready though, you are encouraged to study the others listed above – and talk amongst yourselves.

Let’s try one.

Go ahead and read Genesis 4:1 below, and if you have a Torah text, read the broader Torah portion in order to see where this verse comes from (G-d having just banished Adam and Eve), and where it will lead (to the births of Cain and Abel). The general format of these summaries will include the verse itself, coupled with the Rashi commentary, beginning with the word or phrase that’s bothering Rashi (in capital letters), followed by Rashi’s commentary, as often supplemented to read more smoothly by the editors of our textbook (Artscroll, Saperstein edition, Rashi Genesis).

Genesis 4:1
Now the man had known his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying “I have a acquired a man with HASHEM”.

NOW THE MAN HAD KNOWN – Already prior to the above topic, before he sinned and was driven out of the Garden of Eden. And so, too, the pregnancy and the birth of Cain and Abel took place before the sin. For it had written “Now Abraham knew”, i.e., a future with a [Hebrew letter] vov conversive, instead of “had known”, we would hear, i.e., understand that after he had been driven out he had children.

OK. What might be bothering Rashi about the phrase repeated in caps? No clue? Join the club. Smart as Rashi may be, he can take some getting used to.

Often, his words need to be read and re-read in order to just sink in and make any sense, let alone provide a message. In essence, though, it seems that here Rashi is telling us that the presence of one letter, a vov, in this context is a ‘conversive’ vov, that changes the verb tense from ‘knew’ to ‘had known’.

In other words, the birth of both sons occurred before Adam and Eve committed their sin, thereby (Jewish thought would go) keeping both sons free of such sin. By contrast, when read and interpreted differently, this verse sets the stage for Christian interpretations that would have them all part of this, the original sin.

For centuries since, Rashi would be studied by, and influence both Jewish and Christian thought. And as many or most Jewish scholars to follow, Rashi himself wrote much of what he did as a reaction to Christian thought and scholarship.

So there you have it. Welcome to our world of Rashi. (Actually, hope you’re still reading).

One small verse, that when read in English, and in the course of reading the entire parashah , rates but passing mention. But when focused upon through the eyes of Rashi, in its original Hebrew, uncovers a conversive vov that can lead the world down a path that separates Judaism from Christianity. OK, I might be overstating it a bit, but you have to admit – as Eli Wiesel found – there can be a bit of a childlike thrill when we (yes, even we) can get to a point where words that were written over 900 years ago, about a text even older than that, to say nothing of divinely inspired, can come alive again to teach us something new about the words we might read every week, and about ourselves.

At such times it can feel a bit like “Look ma, no hands! I’m studying Torah! Wheee!” Lets hope we’re both ready, because the training wheels are off.

We hope you can join us again next week, when we really do dive back into the text, beginning where we last left off at Genesis 20:14. A sneak peek at our discussion ahead:

Knock, knock
Who’s there?
[figure it out]
Wheee !

*On occasion, our group will take a break from our weekly meeting whether for Jewish holidays or those pesky life cycle events.  On those in-between weeks we may improvise a bit for this column.  Stay tuned.

(Photo: tjstaab)