Does Rashi's Torah Commentary Respond to Christianity?
Punishment of Israel in Deuteronomy
After a long historical prologue describing Israel’s journey through the wilderness, Moses reminds the Israelites of their covenant with God at Horeb. In chapter 4, Moses cautions them:
דברים ד:כה כִּי־תוֹלִיד בָּנִים וּבְנֵי בָנִים וְנוֹשַׁנְתֶּם בָּאָרֶץ וְהִשְׁחַתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם פֶּסֶל תְּמוּנַת כֹּל וַעֲשִׂיתֶם הָרַע בְּעֵינֵי־יְ-הוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְהַכְעִיסוֹ: ד:כו הַעִידֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ כִּי־אָבֹד תֹּאבֵדוּן מַהֵר מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ לֹא־תַאֲרִיכֻן יָמִים עָלֶיהָ כִּי הִשָּׁמֵד תִּשָּׁמֵדוּן:
Deut 4:25 When you have begotten children and children’s children and are long established in the land, should you act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness, causing YHWH your God displeasure and vexation, 4:26 I call heaven and earth this day to witness against you that you shall quickly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess; you shall not long endure in it, but shall be utterly wiped out. (NJPS with adjustments)
Although the passage sounds like a warning (if you do x, then God will do y), it can be understood as a prediction: once generations of Israelites are settled in the Promised Land, they will be led astray to worship forbidden images and thereby anger the Lord, bringing about their utter destruction. But this reading creates a new problem: Why hasn’t this prediction been fulfilled, namely, why haven’t the Jews (=Israel) been “utterly wiped out”?
Ulla’s Interpretation in the Talmud
The Babylonian Talmud discusses this problem in the context of its analysis of a different challenging verse. In Daniel 9, after reflecting on how the threats in the Torah have come true (v. 11), Daniel states:
דניאל ט:יד וַיִּשְׁקֹד יְ-הוָה עַל הָרָעָה וַיְבִיאֶהָ עָלֵינוּ כִּי צַדִּיק יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ עַל כָּל מַעֲשָׂיו אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְלֹא שָׁמַעְנוּ בְּקֹלוֹ.
Dan 9:14 Hence YHWH hastens the calamity and brought it upon us, for YHWH our God is righteous in all that He has done, but we have not obeyed Him.
On this verse, Mari bar Mar asks (b. Sanhedrin 38a):
משום דצדיק ה’ וישקד ה’ על הרעה ויביאה עלינו?
Because God is righteous, he hastens the calamity and brought it upon us?
Mari bar Mar’s point is clear: Since when is punishing someone before the punishment is due an act of righteousness? Later in the unit,
עולא אמר שהקדים שתי שנים לונושנתם.
Ulla says: “He acted two years earlier than [the time set by the term] ‘venoshantem’ (you are long established).”
Ulla offers an interpretation of Deut 4:25 based on gematria: The Hebrew word ו’נ’ו’ש’נ’ת’ם’ is interpreted as a mathematical equation: 6+50+6+300+50+400+40=852. And yet, according to rabbinic reckoning, Judah was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar and sent into exile only 850 years after settling in the land, a reckoning based on the following:
- According to 1 Kings 6:1, Solomon built the First Temple 480 years after the exodus from Egypt.
- According to the Rabbis, the First Temple stood for 410 years.
These total 890 years. If we then subtract the forty years of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, then the Israelites lived in the land for 850 years before the Babylonian exile. Thus, the meaning of the verse that God “hastens the calamity” is that he sent Judah into exile after 850 years, two years earlier than predicted in Deuteronomy.
Avoiding Israel’s Destruction
Why is this righteous? A Genizah Fragment T-S F 2(1).26, a text of this passage from Sanhedrin, contains a marginal note that says,
ס”א שאילמלא נתקיים ונושנתם נתקיים ואבדתם מהרה
Some manuscripts [have]: For if venoshantem came to pass, then so too would “And you will be lost [from the land] quickly” (Deut 11:17).
According to this expanded version of Ulla’s statement, the righteous act referred to in Daniel 9:14 was that God hastened the exile by two years, so he could avoid fulfilling the rest of the promise, to utterly destroy Israel.
Whether this fragment was once part of Ulla’s original statement and was lost in most versions, or whether it reflects an early gloss, this interpretation became standard. For example, in his gloss (ad loc.) Rashi (R. Solomon Yitzhaki, 1040-1105) wrote:
ואילמלי היה ממתין עד ונושנתם היה מתקיים בהם כי אבד תאבדון מהר והשמד תשמדון דכתיב בההיא פרשתא (דברים ד).
If he had waited until venoshantem (852 years), then the prophecy written in that same passage, “you shall quickly perish… and you shall be utterly destroyed” (v. 26) would have been fulfilled as well.
Rashi’s Historical Interpretation of Deuteronomy 4:25
In his Torah commentary on Deut 4:25, Rashi reworks Ulla’s comment:
ונושנתם – רמז להם שיגלו ממנה לסוף שמנה מאות וחמשים ושתים כמניין ו’נ’ו’ש’נ’ת’ם’, והוא הקדים והגלם לסוף שמנה מאות וחמשים, והקדים שתים שנה לונושנתם כדי שלא יתקיים בהם כי אבד תאבדון.
“And are long established” – He hinted to them that they would be exiled from the land at the end of 852 years,according to the numerical value of venoshantem, but He [God] acted earlier and exiled them at the end of [only] 850 years, two years earlier than “venoshantem” so that “For you shall surely be lost…” [v. 26] would not be fulfilled in them.
וזהו שנאמ’ וישקוד [וימהר] י”י על הרעה ויביאה עלינו כי צדיק י”י אלהינו (דניאל ט’:י”ד) צדקה עשה עמנו שמיהר להביאה שתי שנים לפני זמנה.
And this is what is written, “And He hastened the evil, and He brought it upon us for the Lord our God is righteous…” (Daniel 9:14) A merciful deed He did with us in hastening to bring it [the exile] two years before its time.
Rashi’s reworking of the Talmud here is noteworthy for two reasons:
- Ulla used Deut 4:25 to expound upon Daniel 9:14, which was his focus; Rashi uses Daniel 9:14 to expound upon Deut 4:25.
- Instead of just quoting or paraphrasing, Rashi expands on his Talmudic source here, making sure that the significance of Ulla’s opaque comment is understood exactly: “so that “For you shall surely be lost…” [verse 26] would not be fulfilled in them.”
I suggest that Rashi’s use of this midrash to explain Deut 4:25-26 demonstrates that he is getting something out of it beyond Ulla’s desire to simply explain a strange verse in Daniel.
Supersessionism: Replacement Theology and the Punishment of the Jews
This passage in Deuteronomy 4 is read as part of the morning service for Tisha be’Av (b. Megillah 31b), the day that commemorates the destruction of the Temple; it was chosen because it explains Israel’s exile and dispersion. It is thus consistent with the mussaf Amidahprayer recited during the festivals:
וּמִפְּנֵי חֲטָאֵינוּ גָּלִינוּ מֵאַרְצֵנוּ. וְנִתְרַחַקְנוּ מֵעַל אַדְמָתֵנוּ.
But because of our sins we were exiled from our land and driven far from our country.
According to classical Jewish theology, both Jewish exiles are a punishment from God, albeit for different reasons. After the first exile, God allowed Israel to return to the land and rebuild the Temple. The second exile is meant to last until the messianic age after which the people would return to the holy land as they did after the end of the first exile. But Christian theologians offered a different understanding of the exile.
In light of Deuteronomy’s theology of reward and punishment—and passages like the one above that threaten divine rejection—ancient and medieval Christians interpreted the writings of Paul the apostle and historical events to bolster their claim that they are God’s new covenantal people.
Paul and the Broken Olive Branches (Romans 11)
Consider Paul’s famous allegory of the olive tree from Romans 11:16–20 (NRSV):
…and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith.
While Paul intended this passage to be a warning to the “wild shoots”—i.e., the gentiles—as to the precarious nature of their grafting onto the root, the Jewish beneficiaries of Abraham’s covenant, subsequent interpreters rather emphasized the branches that “were broken off because of their unbelief” in Jesus.
Augustine’s Interpretation: The Nullified Covenant
For example, the church father Augustine of Hippo (345-430 C.E.), claimed in an interpretation of the above allegory that:
Assuredly, he [Paul] said this about the Jews, who as branches of that olive tree that was fruitful in its root of the holy patriarchs have been broken off on account of their unbelief, so that because of the faith of the Gentiles the wild olive was grafted on and shared in the richness of the true olive tree after natural branches had been cut off… By the just severity of God, therefore, the unbelieving pride of the native branches is broken away from the living patriarchal root, and by the grace of divine goodness the faithful humility of the wild olive is ingrafted.
Living centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and having converted to Christianity soon after it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Augustine’s ascription of religious significance to these events led him to conclude that God had indeed “broken off” the branches of the unfaithful and grafted on the gentile “wild olive” gentiles. According to Augustine, God nullified His covenant with Israel and exiled them permanently from his land.
Such a view is called supersessionism, i.e., the belief that Christians have superseded or replaced the Jews as God’s covenantal people, the new Israel. Such claims were standard in medieval Christian Europe and posed a challenge to contemporary rabbinic leadership, which in turn developed strategies to counter Christian truth claims.
In his comment on Deut 4:25, Rashi may have been responding to Christian interpreters who viewed the Hebrew Bible through supersessionist eyes. Reading the threats in Deuteronomy as referring to the permanent exile after the destruction of the Second Temple, Christian exegetes interpreted this exile as a punishment for the Jewish rejection of Jesus as messiah.
By highlighting that Moses’ prophecy in these verses was realized upon the Babylonian exile, Rashi subtly suggested that the prophecy cannot refer to the subsequent Roman destruction and exile, which according to Augustine was emblematic of God’s rejection of the Jews. Moreover, if God brought the Babylonian exile early in order to avoid having to fulfill the promise of destruction, then God never did and never will abandon Israel.
Historical Interpretation as Counter-Interpretation
Earlier scholars have observed Rashi’s use of historical interpretation in his other biblical commentaries as a means to implicitly counter Christian interpretations of the same text.
Song of Songs
The late Hebrew University parshanut scholar, Sarah Kamin (1938-1989), showed how, unlike the rabbis before him, Rashi interpreted Song of Songs as a continuous historical allegory. Drawing mainly on earlier midrash, Rashi interpreted the entire book as a dialogue between two lovers, Israel and God.
Israel is likened to a living widow—a married woman who waits hopefully for her absent husband’s return. In his commentary, Rashi interpreted the different poetic passages of the book as either referring to past episodes in the history of God and Israel’s relationship or as hopes for their future, reunited.
Kamin explained that in Rashi’s interpretation, Song of Songs is “a survey of Israel’s history from Egypt until the final exile” and that it reflects Rashi’s own historiosophy, while it subtly responds to Christian claims regarding the meaning of Israel’s current exile. For example, Rashi comments on Song of Songs 6:12:
לא ידעתי – כנסת ישראל מתאוננת לא ידעתי להזהר מן החטא שאעמוד בכבודי בגדולתי ונכשלתי בשנאת חנם ומחלוקת שגבר במלכי בית חשמונאי הורקנוס ואריסתובלוס עד שהיה מביא אחד מהם את מלכות רומי וקבל מידו המלוכה ונעשה לו עבד ומאז: נפשי שמתני – להיות מרכבות להרכיב עלי נדיבות שאר אומות.
“I did not know” – The congregation of Israel laments: I did not know to keep myself from sin, that I would stand in my honor and greatness. And I stumbled in [the sin] of baseless hatred and disagreement that grew during the reigns of the Hasmonean monarchy Hyracanus and Aristobulus until one of them brought in the Roman empire, received the crown from it, and was made [thereby] into a vassal. And since then “My soul has made me” to be as a “chariot” on which the nobility of the other nations ride.
Perhaps drawing on Sefer Yosipon, Rashi here offered an historical explanation as to the downfall of the Second Jewish commonwealth and ultimately to the Romans as the result of Jewish infighting. If this was the cause of the destruction, then it has nothing to do with Jewish rejection of Jesus as the messiah. The interpretation of particular passages in Song of Songs as referring to specific Jewish historical events precludes the interpretation of the Song as about Jesus and the Church.
To wit, the current exile is only a temporary separation between forever-committed Israel and God—not a permanent one, as claimed by Christian interpreters. Rashi explained Song of Songs 4:8:
אתי מלבנון כלה – כשתגלו מלבנון זה אתי תגלו כי אני אגלה עמכם.
“With me from Lebanon, O Bride” – When you are exiled from this Levanon [i.e., the Temple], you will be exiled with me. For I go into exile with you.
אתי מלבנון תבואי – וכשתשובו מן הגולה אני אשיב עמכם ואף כל ימי הגולה בצרתך לי צר ועל כן כתב אתי מלבנון תבואי, כשתגלו מלבנון זה אתי תבוא ולא כתב אתי ללבנון תבואי לומר משעת יציאתכם מכאן עד שעת ביאתכם כאן אני עמכם בכל אשר תצאו ותבואו.
“With me from Lebanon, you will come” – And when you return from the exile, I will return with you. Indeed all the days of the exile, your pain is my pain. For this reason, it is written “With me from Lebanon you will come”: when you are exiled from this Lebanon [the Temple], you will come with me. It is not written “with me to Lebanon you will come”, that is to say that in the moment you go out from here [exile] until you arrive here [back in the rebuilt Temple]. [Rather] I am here with you in all the places to which you go and come.
Rashi insisted that God has accompanied Israel into the current exile.
Similarly, in his comment on Isaiah 7:14 from which Christians derived the prophecy of the virgin birth, Rashi offered an historical (and contextual) interpretation designed to preclude the Christian reading. The verse reads:
ישעיה ז:יד לָכֵן יִתֵּן אֲדֹנָי הוּא לָכֶם אוֹת הִנֵּה הָעַלְמָה הָרָה וְיֹלֶדֶת בֵּן וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ עִמָּנוּ אֵל.
Isa 7:14 Assuredly, my Lord will give you a sign of His own accord! Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. Let her name him Immanuel.
In his effort to preclude reading this verse as a prophecy of the virgin birth, Rashi explained that the ‘almah was Isaiah’s own wife who would conceive that very year, the fourth year of the reign of King Ahaz. Here too—as in Rashi’s comment on Deut 4:25’s venoshantem—Rashi interpreted a prophecy as realized in a specific moment in the past in order to implicitly counter or preclude a Christian—in this case, messianic—reading of the passage.
In his Psalms commentary, Rashi stated explicitly that some of his observations could serve as responses to Christians. One of the ways he does this is through historical interpretation of the “messianic psalms,” i.e., psalms that both Christian and earlier rabbinic interpreters understood as referring to a future messiah.
In such cases, Rashi broke with the standard rabbinic interpretation and instead interpreted the psalm as referring to a specific historical episode in the life of David. In so doing, his interpretation precludes a Christian messianic interpretation of the psalm as about Jesus as the Lord’s anointed.
One well-known example appears in his preface to his comments on Psalm 2:
למה רגשו גוים: רבותינו דרשו את העניין על מלך המשיח. ולפי משמעו ולתשובת המינין נכון לפותרו על עצמו לענין שנאמר וישמעו פלשתים כי משחו ישראל את דוד עליהם למלך…
Why do nations assemble? Our rabbis interpreted the matter with reference to the King Messiah. However, according to its sense and as a refutation of the Christians [lit. “sectarians”] it is correct to explain it as [a reference to David] himself, to fit the context of [the following biblical verses], as it is said: When the Philistines heard that Israel had anointed David as king over them [II Sam. 5:17]…
Rashi’s Psalms commentary stands out in comparison with the other examples as the one work in which Rashi engaged in explicit polemic.
Polemic in Rashi’s Torah Commentary?
These examples show that Rashi employed an historical hermeneutic to offer Jewish readings that counter similarly powerful Christian interpretations. But whereas Rashi was explicit in his comment on Psalm 2 that his interpretation was a response to the minim, presumably Christians, in the Torah commentary Rashi was never so explicit. Instead, we find subtle counter-readings that are only identifiable as such to the reader who already knows the Christian interpretation.
But is this really a polemic? After all, as in many other cases, in his comment on Deut 4:25 Rashi paraphrases and reworks ancient midrash, even when they have no obvious connection to Christian claims. Do such subtle counter-readings as these qualify as “polemic”?
When Rashi reused earlier rabbinic sources that were not polemical, may we claim that Rashi himself was engaging in polemic? Elazar Touitou (1929-2010), the late scholar of parshanut from Bar-Ilan University, argued that Rashi’s Torah commentary does engage in anti-Christian polemic. More specifically, he demonstrates how a number of Rashi’s comments on Genesis 1-6 appear to respond to Christian claims that arise from the same biblical texts, even though the content of these comments is drawn from earlier rabbinic texts.
Not A Polemical Commentary: Rashi Versus Bekhor Shor
In contrast, Harvard University professor of Jewish Studies, Shaye Cohen, argues that one may not claim that Rashi was engaging in polemic in his Torah commentary in cases where he cited or reworked an earlier midrash. Cohen claims:
Rashi’s Torah commentary, however, contains not a single explicit and unambiguous attack on Christian truth claims and Christian exegesis. In the absence of explicit polemic there is no methodological basis for positing the existence of implicit polemic. Rashi’s Torah commentary is not a response to Christianity.
This strong point, which Cohen supports by contrasting Rashi’s Torah commentary with the explicitly polemical content found in the Torah commentaries of later exegetes from the northern French school, Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson, 1085-1158) and Bekhor Shor (12th century), throws into relief the absence of polemic from Rashi’s Torah commentary.
This difference in style may be explained based on the growing consensus among medieval Jewish historians that in the eleventh century, day-to-day Jewish-Christian relations had not yet deteriorated, and outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence were localized and of limited effect. The confluence of a number of factors contributed to the centuries-long decline of relations between Jews and Christians. Among them, “from about 1100 and on,” Christians began to forge their identities as increasingly distinct from the non-Christians.
An Apologetic Commentary
Before 1100, Rashi and his northern French Jewish contemporaries found themselves amidst a much more numerous and politically powerful Christian majority that was certainly interested in convincing Jews of the truth of Christianity. This may explain the fact that many of the midrashim Rashi chose for his Torah commentary—including Ulla’s midrash of Daniel 9:14 and Deut. 4:25 and others discussed by Touitou—seem to have been specially curated to subtly counter Christian claims.
We might allow then for a concern to apologetically respond to Christian majority culture and its religious claims to have been a motivating factor in Rashi’s selection and presentation of midrash in his Torah commentary. In this respect, perhaps Rashi’s biblical commentaries are better characterized as apologetic rather than polemical.
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Dr. Yedida Eisenstat is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion and the program in Jewish Studies at Colgate University. She holds an M.A. in Religion, Culture, & Values from York University and a Ph.D. from the Kekst Graduate School of the Jewish Theological Seminary where she studied Midrash & Scriptural Interpretation. Eisenstat is the author of “Taking Stock of the Text(s) of Rashi’s Torah Commentary: Some 21st Century Considerations,” and “Sanctification and Shame: Bialik’s in the City of Slaughter in Light of Leviticus and Ezekiel,” and her current book project explores Rashi’s use of midrash in his Torah commentary.
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