Born in Troyes, Rashi departed while in his teens to study at the Yeshivot of Mainz and Worms. He returned to Troyes and founded his own yeshiva in 1067. Scholars believe that Rashi's commentary on the Talmud grew out of the lectures he gave to his students in his yeshiva, and evolved with the questions and answers they raised. Rashi completed this commentary in the last years of his life. It was immediately accepted as authoritative by all Jewish communities, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike. His commentary, which covers nearly all of the Babylonian Talmud (a total of 30 tractates), has been included in every edition of the Talmud since its first printing in the 1520s.
Rashi's surname Yitzhaki derives from his father's name, Yitzhak. The acronym is sometimes also fancifully expanded as Rabban Shel Israel (רבן של ישראל), Teacher of Israel [i.e. the Jewish People]), or as Rabbenu SheYichyeh" (רבינו שיחיה), our Rabbi, may he live.
Rashi was the only child born to his parents, at Troyes, Champagne, northern France. On his father Yitzchak's side, he has been claimed by many to be a 33rd generation descendant of Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar, who was a fourth generation descendant of Rabban Gamaliel Hazaken (the Elder) who was reputedly descended from the royal house of King David. Rashi himself, in his voluminous writings made no such claim at all. The major early rabbinical source about his ancestry, Responsum No. 29 by Rabbi Solomon Luria, makes no such claim either. His mother's brother was Rabbi Simon the Elder, community leader of Mainz.
Rashi's parents were childless for many years. One day, his father, a poor vintner, found a valuable gem (some versions say a pearl). A bishop (or mighty lord) wished to acquire this jewel for decorating the church (or his vestments), however rather than have this jewel be used for such a purpose, Yitzchak threw it into the Seine. When he arrived home, a man was waiting for him. "You threw the gemstone into the water so it wouldn't be used for idolatry," the man told him. "Now your wife will have a son who will illuminate the world with his Torah." This harbinger was none other than the Prophet Elijah; the following year, Yitzchak and his wife were blessed with a son.
Another legend tells that Yitzchak decided to move temporarily to the city of Worms, Germany. He and his wife lived in the Jewish quarter and attended the small synagogue there, awaiting the birth of their child. One day, as Yitzchak's wife was walking down the narrow alley, two large carriages came charging through the alley. There was no room to escape; she turned to the wall and pressed herself against it. According to legend, the wall softened and accommodated her pregnant form. The carriages rushed by and she was unscathed. To this day, an indentation in the size, height and shape of a woman's pregnant belly in the wall of the Rashi Shul (1175) is shown to visitors to the city.
Rashi's teachers were students of Rabbeinu Gershom and Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol, leading Talmudists of the previous generation. From his teachers, Rashi imbibed all the oral traditions pertaining to the Talmud as they had been passed down for centuries, as well as an understanding of the Talmud's unique logic and form of argument. Rashi's fellow yeshiva students contributed to the learning with their knowledge of international business, commodities production, farming, craftsmanship, sailing and soldiering. Rashi took concise, copious notes of everything he learned in yeshiva, incorporating much of this material in his later commentaries.
About 1070, he founded a yeshiva which attracted many disciples. It is thought by some that Rashi earned his living as a vintner since Rashi shows an extensive knowledge of its utensils and process, but there is no evidence for this. Although there are many legends about his travels, Rashi likely never went further than from the Seine to the Rhine; the utmost limit of his travels were the yeshivot of Lorraine.
In 1096, the People's Crusade swept through the Lorraine, murdering 12,000 Jews and uprooting whole communities. Among those murdered in Worms were the three sons of Rabbi Isaac ben Eliezer Halevi, Rashi's teacher. Rashi wrote several Selichot (penitential poems) mourning the slaughter and the destruction of the region's great yeshivot. Seven of Rashi's Selichot still exist, including Adonai Elohei Hatz'vaot", which is recited on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, and Az Terem Nimtehu, which is recited on the Fast of Gedalia.
Rashi returned to help rebuild the destroyed Jewish Community of Worms, and rededicated the synagogue. He composed a liturgical poem, Titnem Leherpa, cursing those responsible for the destruction: "Make them a mockery, a curse, a disgrace; heap upon them a furious wrath and hateful vengeance; cast fear and panic upon them; send angels of destruction against them. and cut them down to the last man." Marching through Hungary, the Crusaders came into repeated conflict with the local population, and lost a quarter of their number.
As in his commentary on the Tanakh, Rashi frequently illustrates the meaning of the text using analogies to the professions, crafts, and sports of his day. He also translates difficult Hebrew or Aramaic words into the spoken French language of his day, giving latter-day scholars a window into the vocabulary and pronunciation of Old French.
Rashi also exerted a decisive influence on establishing the correct text of the Talmud. Up to and including his age, texts of each Talmudic tractate were copied by hand and circulated in yeshivas. Errors often crept in: sometimes a copyist would switch words around, and other times incorporate a student's marginal notes into the main text. Rashi compared different manuscripts and readings in Tosefta, Jerusalem Talmud, Midrash, Targum, and the writings of the Geonim, and determined which readings should be preferred. However, in his humility, he deferred to scholars who disagreed with him. For example, in Chulin 4a, he comments about a phrase, "We do not read this. But as for those who do, this is the explanation…"
Rashi's commentary, which covers nearly all of the Babylonian Talmud (a total of 30 tractates), has been included in every version of the Talmud since its first printing in the fifteenth century. It is always situated towards the middle of the opened book display; i.e., on the side of the page closest to the binding.
Some of the other printed commentaries which are attributed to Rashi were composed by others, primarily his students. In some commentaries, the text indicates that Rashi died before completing the tractate, and that it was completed by a student. This is true of the tractate Makkot, the concluding portions of which were composed by his son-in-law, Rabbi Judah ben Nathan, and of the tractate Bava Batra, finished (in a more detailed style) by his grandson, the Rashbam. There is a legend that the commentary on Nedarim, which is clearly not his, was actually composed by his daughters.
Rashi's commentary on the Talmud continues to be a key basis for contemporary rabbinic scholarship and interpretation.
Rashi's commentary on the Tanakh and especially the Chumash is the essential companion for any study at any level, beginning, intermediate and advanced. Drawing on the breadth of Midrashic, Talmudic and Aggadic literature (including literature that is no longer extant), as well as his knowledge of grammar, halakhah, and how things work, Rashi clarifies the "simple" meaning of the text so that a bright child of five could understand it. At the same time, his commentary forms the foundation for some of the most profound legal analysis and mystical discourses that came after it. Scholars debate why Rashi chose a particular Midrash to illustrate a point, or why he used certain words and phrases and not others. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi wrote that “Rashi’s commentary on Torah is the ‘wine of Torah’. It opens the heart and uncovers one’s essential love and fear of G-d.
Legend also surrounds the writing of this commentary, which is seen by many to have been written with Ruach Hakodesh - Divine inspiration - to explain its mass appeal. Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai wrote in his Shem HaGedolim: "Apparently, Rashi wrote his commentary by using a secret [technique to gain Godly inspration], and therefore he fasted 613 times [before undertaking this project]". According to others, Rashi wrote three versions of his commentary—one long, one short, and one mid-length; the latter version is the one we have today.
Scholars believe that Rashi's commentary on the Torah grew out of the lectures he gave to his students in his yeshiva, and evolved with the questions and answers they raised on it. Rashi only completed this commentary in the last years of his life. It was immediately accepted as authoritative by all Jewish communities, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike.
The first dated Hebrew printed book was Rashi's commentary on the Chumash, printed by Abraham ben Garton in Reggio di Calabria, Italy, 18 February 1475. (This version did not include the text of the Chumash itself.)
Rashi wrote commentaries on all the books of Tanakh except Chronicles (I & II). Scholars believe that the commentary which appears under Rashi's name in those books was compiled by the students of Rabbi Saadiah of the Rhine, who incorporated material from Rashi's yeshiva. Rashi's students, Rabbi Shemaya and Rabbi Yosef, edited the final commentary on the Torah; some of their own notes and additions also made their way into the version we have today.
Voluminous supercommentaries have been published on Rashi's work, including Gur Aryeh by Rabbi Judah Loew (the Maharal), Sefer ha-Mizrachi by Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi (the Re'em), and Yeri'ot Shlomo by Rabbi Solomon Luria (the Maharshal). Almost all rabbinic literature published since the Middle Ages discusses Rashi, either using his view as supporting evidence or debating against it.
Rashi's explanations of the Chumash were also cited extensively in Postillae Perpetuae by Nicholas de Lyra (1292-1340), a French Franciscan, earning that author the name Simius Solomonis ("the ape of Solomon (Shlomo)"). De Lyra's book was consulted in preparing the important early (1611) English translation of the Bible (the King James version).
Of note in recent times is Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson's "novel interpretation" of Rashi's commentary, which was delivered in a series of public talks that began in 1964 and continued for over 25 years (these talks are printed for the most part in Likkutei Sichos), and compiled in Hebrew in the 5 volume set of Biurim LePirush Rashi. Schneerson formulated many basic principles for use in interpretation of Rashi's commentary.
The Schottenstein Edition interlinear translation of the Talmud based its English-language commentary primarily on Rashi, and described his continuing importance as follows: .
Similarly, the Gutnick Edition of the Chumash includes Rashi’s commentary in parentheses. Without Rashi's commentary, the Talmud would have remained a closed book. With it, any student who has been introduced to its study by a teacher can continue learning on his own, deciphering its language and meaning with the aid of Rashi.
Today, tens of thousands of men, women and children study "Chumash with Rashi" as they review the Torah portion to be read in synagogue on the upcoming Shabbat. According to Halakha, a man may even study the Rashi on each Torah verse in fulfillment of the requirement to review the Parsha twice with Targum (which normally refers to Targum Onkelos). Since its publication, Rashi's commentary on the Torah is standard in almost all Chumashim produced within the Orthodox Jewish community.
The semi-cursive typeface in which Rashi's commentaries are printed both in the Talmud and Tanakh is often referred to as "Rashi script." This does not mean that Rashi himself used such a script: the typeface is based on a 15th century Sephardic semi-cursive hand. What would be called "Rashi script" was employed by early Hebrew typographers such as the Soncino family and Daniel Bomberg, a Christian printer in Venice, in their editions of commented texts (such as the Mikraot Gedolot and the Talmud, in which Rashi's commentaries prominently figure) to distinguish the rabbinic commentary from the primary text proper, for which a square typeface was used.
In the summer of 2005, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Gabbai, who renovates and repairs neglected gravesites of Jewish leaders around the world, erected an additional plaque at this site to alert visitors to the fact that the unmarked square was also a burial ground. The plaque reads, The place you are standing on is the cemetery of the town of Troyes. Many Rishonim are buried here, among them Rabbi Shlomo, known as Rashi the holy, may his merit protect us.
In 2006, the Jewish National and University Library at Hebrew University put on an exhibit commemorating the 900th anniversary of Rashi's death (2005), showcasing rare items from the library collection written by Rashi, as well as various works by others concerning Rashi.
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