Did Rashi Experience Divine Inspiration?
According to a well-known legend, Rashi had enjoyed divine inspiration. The notion is more than mere folk wisdom (although it is certainly part of a substantial folklore on Rashi), since it was also promoted by highly sophisticated readers of his work.
Comments to that effect on his Talmud commentary date to R. Menahem ben Aharon Zerah (ca. 1270-1349), and a similar idea, which also mentions Rashi’s Bible commentary, is found in Sefer Ha-Meshiv, the work of an anonymous 15th century Spanish mystic. More significant for our purposes are the remarks on the Torah commentary by R. Isaiah Halevi Horowitz (known after the initials of his magnum opus as “Shelah”, ca. 1558–1630):
בכל דיבור ודיבור של רש"י יש בו נסתרים, עניינים מופלאים, כי חיבר החיבור שלו ברוח הקודש. צאו וראו ברש"י על התורה, שהקורא סובר שהוא קל, ראו במזרחי ובכל מפרשי דבריו ותמצאו נפלאות.
In every single statement of Rashi’s there are hidden things, amazing things, for he composed his oeuvre under the inspiration of the holy spirit (beruach hakodesh). Have a look at Rashi on the Torah, which the reader imagines to be simple, look at Mizrahi, and at all who explain his words, and you will find wonders.
Here Shelah is referring to the Romaniote Rabbi Elijah Mizrahi (ca. 1455-1525), whose super-commentary on Rashi’s Torah commentary was widely considered to be the greatest of all such works. It deals extensively with the talmudic and midrashic background to Rashi’s comments, and Shelah’s assertion leads us to believe that he was awed by the complex way in which Rashi’s commentary processes older, rabbinic material.
Rashi and His Classical Sources
It is universally acknowledged that a large part of Rashi’s Torah commentary is adapted from classical rabbinic sources; according to the eminent Rashi scholar Avraham Grossman, only about one quarter of the commentary is original. Rashi adapted these sources in a variety of ways, and here I will focus on Rashi’s departures from midrashim that he seems to be merely appropriating, even if not word for word.
My intention is to highlight creative misappropriation which Rashi frequently exhibits in the process of adapting his sources, even midrash halakhah (legal midrash), which Rashi is generally presumed (following the view of Ezra Tzion Melamed) to have cited faithfully.
I will provide two quite different examples of a swerve on Rashi’s part away from his source, which in both cases is the Mekhilta De-Rabbi Ishmael (3rd century CE), a work of midrash relating to the book of Exodus.
Example 1 Mekhilta De-Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus 21:1
Four derashot (derivations from Scripture, singular derashah) are used by the Mekhilta to teach the nature of Moses’ obligation to transmit the laws of the Torah, ending with a derashah from Exodus 21:1. 
רבי עקיבא אומר: ואלה המשפטים [אשר תשים לפניהם] – למה נאמר?
R. Akiba says: “And these are the ordinances [which you shall set before them]” (Exodus 21:1). Why is this said?
לפי שהוא אומר: דבר אל בני ישראל ואמרת אליהם (ויקרא א:ב). אין לי אלא פעם אחת,
Since it says: “Speak unto the children of Israel and say unto them” (Leviticus 1.2). I know only that he was to tell them once.
מנין שנה ושלש ורבע עד שילמדו? תלמוד לומר: ולמדה את בני ישראל (דברים לא:יט).
How do we know that he was to repeat it to them a second, a third and a fourth time until they learned it? Scripture says: “And teach it to the children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19).
יכול למדין ולא שונין? תלמוד לומר: שימה בפיהם (דברים לא:יט).
This might mean that they need only learn it but not repeat it, but Scripture says: “Put it in their mouths” (continuation of Deuteronomy 31:19).
יכול שונין ולא יודעין?
Still, this might mean that they need only repeat it but need not fully understand it.
תלמוד לומר: ואלה המשפטים וגו' – ערכם לפניהם כשלחן ערוך
Therefore Scripture says: “And these are the ordinances which you shall set before them” (Exodus 21:1). Arrange them in proper order before them like a set table.
According to this midrash, the verses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy demonstrate that Moses was enjoined to teach the laws multiple times, until the children of Israel had learned to repeat them, with the verse in Exodus spelling out his additional obligation to lay out the material, so that they fully understood it.
Rashi on Exodus 21:1
In his gloss on this same verse, Rashi makes use of this midrash, but condenses it, and presents it in his own language:
אשר תשים לפניהם – אמר לו הקדוש למשה לא תעלה על דעתך לומר אשנה להם הפרק שנים שלשה פעמים עד שתהא סדורה בפיהם כמשנתה ואיני מטריח עצמי להבינם טעמי הדבר ופירושו, לכך נאמר אשר תשים לפניהם, כשולחן הערוך ומוכן לאכול לפני האדם.
“Which you shall set before them” – The Holy One said to Moses: do not even think of saying I will repeat the chapter or halakhah two or three times to them, until they can recite it verbatim, but I will not bother myself with getting them to understand the reasons for the thing, and its explanation, and that is why “Which you shall set before them” was said; like a table, set in front of people and ready for a meal.
We can see that Rashi is clearly basing himself on the earlier work, but has transformed midrash halakhah (legal midrash) into a midrash aggadah (narrative midrash). Moreover, Rashi has collapsed four derashot into one by creating a mini-drama.
In Rashi’s retelling, God presumes that Moses might imagine that he could get away with repeating the teachings a few times until they were repeated by his students, without bothering to make sure that they understood them. God is then able to set Moses straight with the final derashah taken from the Mekhilta.
According to Rashi, the words “Which you shall set before them” served to enlighten not only us but Moses himself – ״לכך נאמר״ [that is why it was said], as opposed to the derivations provided in the Mekhilta, which seem merely designed to enlighten subsequent readers of the Torah, as suggested by the repeated use of תלמוד לומר. It strikes me that intuiting God’s admonishment to Moses is a particularly bold move on Rashi’s part – after all, how does Rashi have knowledge of a conversation between God and Moses that is otherwise unrecorded in the Torah or rabbinic literature?
What has Rashi accomplished by swerving away from the Mekhilta as he does, given that the essential outcome is the same for both of them? In the first place, in transforming midrash halakhah, by writing his own midrash aggadah in its place, Rashi has managed to cut down any reference to verses other than the one under discussion, whereas the Mekhilta had to resort to three other citations to arrive at a similar outcome for the referent verse.
Secondly, whereas the Mekhilta had the children of Israel as Moses’ students, Rashi is most simply understood, in line with his adjacent comments, as having Moses teach his court of law, the Sanhedrin. This is because his prior comment, based on Mekhilta Yitro, is about the Sanhedrin being next to the altar, and his subsequent comment, based on the Bavli and the Tanhuma, is also about courts of law. It seems that Rashi saw the above moves as an improvement on the Mekhilta for his readership, even while he stayed faithful to much of its message.
Example 2 Mekhilta De-Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus 21:2
The first law in Exodus 21 describes the rules for a Hebrew slave, who serves for six years and is freed in the seventh. The Mekhilta asserts that the slave mentioned in Exodus 21:2 refers to a thief, sold into slavery by the court owing to his inability to provide restitution otherwise. It then goes on to state that the thief must continue to serve the buyer’s son, in the event that the latter dies before the six years of service are completed, and continues by questioning its initial assertion and then defending it:
כי תקנה עבד עברי –
If you buy a Hebrew slave (Exodus 21:2) –
בנמכר בבית דין על גניבתו הכתוב מדבר,
Scripture here deals with one sold into servitude by the court for stealing.
שיהא עובדו ועובד את הבן.
Such a one must serve not only the one who bought him, but also the latter’s son after him.
או אינו מדבר אלא במוכר עצמו? כשהוא אומר: וכי ימוך אחיך עמך ונמכר לך (ויקרא כה:לט), הרי מוכר עצמו אמור.
Perhaps however it deals only with one who sells himself (voluntarily)? When it says: “And if your brother has grown poor with you and sells himself to you” (Leviticus 25:39), behold the one selling himself is spoken of there.
הא מה תלמוד לומר כי תקנה עבד עברי? בנמכר בבית דין על גניבתו הכתוב מדבר,
Why then should Scripture say here: “If you buy a Hebrew slave”? It must therefore be dealing with one sold into slavery by the court for stealing,
שיהא עובדו ועובד את הבן.
teaching that such a one must serve not only the one who bought him but also the latter’s son after him.
The Mekhilta justifies each of its initial premises:
- The slave must be a thief sold by the court since the case of voluntary sale is separately covered in Leviticus.
- The opening words “if you buy” imply that the obligation of service for a full six years can be bequeathed to the buyer’s son.
Rashi on Exodus 21:2
Again Rashi makes use of the Mekhilta in his own paraphrase, but this time he shaves off one of the two main points of the midrash:
כי תקנה – מיד בית דין שמכרוהו בגניבתו, כמה שנאמר: ואם אין לו ונמכר בגניבתו (שמות כ"ב:ב). או אינו אלא במוכר עצמו מפני דוחקו, אבל מכרוהו בית דין לא יצא בשש? כשהוא אומר: וכי ימוך אחיך עמך ונמכר לך (ויקרא כ"ה:ל"ט) – הרי מוכר עצמו מפני דוחקו אמור. ומה אני מקיים כי תקנה – בנמכר בבית דין.
“If you buy” – From the court, who sold him for his theft, as is said, “but if he has not, then he is sold for his theft” (Exodus 22:2). Or might it (i.e. Exodus 21:2) rather be dealing with one who sells himself because of hardship, but were the court to sell him he would not leave slavery after six years? When it says: “And if your brother has grown poor with you and sells himself to you” (Leviticus 25:39), the one selling himself because of hardship is spoken of there. So how am I to implement “If you buy” (in Exodus 21:2)? When sold by the court.
Here Rashi has rewritten the Mekhilta’s midrash halakhah to arrive at a different outcome. While using the same structure and much of the same language as the Mekhilta, and adducing the Leviticus verse in identical fashion to demonstrate that someone selling himself because of hardship is covered elsewhere, he prefers to avoid deriving the Mekhilta’s law that obligates serving the son of a deceased master.
Rashi accomplishes this by changing the Mekhilta’s “Why then should Scripture say” to “So how am I to implement.” He does not assert that part of Exodus 21:2 is otherwise redundant, and thus teaches a novel law that is merely implicit in the verse. Rather, in the absence of the Leviticus verse, one might have imagined that a slave sold by the court does not leave slavery after six years.
Disagreeing with the Mekhilta in this way is an astonishing move on Rashi’s part, when viewed against the backdrop of the conventions of rabbinic literature. Super-commentaries discuss the issue at length, in efforts to get Rashi off the hook. The fore-mentioned R. Elijah Mizrahi is so bothered by Rashi’s position that he takes the extraordinary step of claiming that the text has been corrupted, and does not truly reflect Rashi’s commentary:
לכן נראה לי דהאי לישנא באבל מכרוהו בית דין לא יצא בשש שאינו כתוב במכילתא וכתוב בספרי רש"י ולישנא ... לא גרסינן להו.
Therefore it seems to me that these words “but were the court to sell him he would not leave slavery after six years” which do not appear in the Mekhilta but do appear in Rashi’s work … should be discounted [as inauthentic accretions to the text].
There is, however, no textual basis for doubting that these are Rashi’s words. Rather, this is another example of Rashi setting out to improve his precursor text, both appropriating and then swerving away from it. In this case he seems to have done so in order to avoid going any further than the plain meaning of the Torah.
It would seem that Rashi is much more original than is usually allowed for when discussing his relationship to midrash, but where did he find the assurance to invent a conversation between God and Moses (example 1), or to disagree with the Mekhilta, which he clearly venerated, about the law itself (example 2)? Perhaps Shelah, for one, was only able to explain such audacious deviations by resorting to the notion that Rashi must have experienced divine inspiration. Critical readers, however, have looked for less metaphysical explanations for Rashi’s swerves.
In other contexts, it has been asserted that Rashi had midrashim at his disposal that have since been lost, and that he was following these as opposed to swerving from his sources. This speculation lacks corroborating evidence, and I would appeal to Occam’s razor and propose something simpler instead of positing lost sources or resorting to a forced resolution of the differences.
In his book The Anxiety of Influence the literary critic Harold Bloom introduced the idea of creative misreading, and describes a swerve by writers away from the work of their precursors as “a corrective movement … which implies that the precursor … went accurately up to a certain point, but then should have swerved, precisely in the direction that the new poem moves.” According to this conception a successful misreading of great predecessors allows the voice of the later writer to be heard, and to surpass what came before.
Bloom’s is a powerful lens through which to understand Rashi’s commentary on the Torah. To quote him again “Great writing is always rewriting or revisionism and is founded upon a reading that clears space for the self,” and Rashi was undoubtedly a great writer.
Nevertheless, Bloom’s ideas, while useful in categorizing Rashi’s moves and illustrating his unconscious motivation, seem to fall short in explaining their audacity, of which Rashi himself was surely aware. In this context, it is important to note that Rashi may well have believed himself to have been divinely inspired. As Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972) noted, Rashi actually hinted to his experience of supernal enlightenment, in writing about his explanation of Ezekiel’s prophecy on the construction of the temple:
ואני לא היה לי לא רב ולא עוזר בכל הבנין הזה אלא כמו שהראוני מן השמים
And as for me, I had neither teacher nor helper in (explaining) this entire structure; but so it has been shown me from heaven.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
February 10, 2021
May 23, 2022
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Yehudah Cohn is a research associate at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. He holds a D. Phil. in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford and an M. A. from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Cohn is the author of Tangled Up in Text: Tefillin and the Ancient World and co-author (with Fergus Millar and Eyal Ben-Eliyahu) of a Handbook of Jewish Literature from Late Antiquity (135-700 CE).
Essays on Related Topics: