Rabbi Samuel Ben Meir (Rashbam): A Short Bio
We know very little about the life of one of the most interesting rabbis of the Middle Ages, Rabbi Samuel (Shmu’el) son of (ben) Meir (Rashbam) of Northern France. He probably lived from 1080 to 1160, but the dates are uncertain. We do know that he was the oldest son of Rabbi Meir of Ramerupt and his wife, Yokheved, the daughter of Rashi (1040-1105), the most famous medieval rabbi of Christian Europe.
Rashbam studied with his grandfather and reports in his writings on their conversations. Rashi took his young grandson seriously, quoting insights in his name. In Rashi’s last years, he depended for many things on young Rabbi Samuel, who also took over for a while as the head of Rashi’s yeshivah after Rashi died.
Both Rashi and Rashbam wrote Bible commentaries, but for both it was a secondary pursuit. Almost all of Rashi’s Bible commentaries survived; Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah, or around eighty percent of it, survived. We also have commentaries on Job, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes and Psalms attributed to Rashbam, but scholars debate these attributions. For both Rashi and Rashbam, the study of the Talmud and halakhah was their primary pursuit.
It would be hard to pinpoint a significant difference between their approaches to Talmudic studies, with the exception of the complaint made by Rashbam’s younger brother, Jacob (known as Rabbenu Tam), that Rashbam used to emend the text of the Talmud “twenty times as often” as their grandfather did and that he used to write his emendations in the text of the Talmud itself, not in the margins, as Rashi had.
Rashbam was a serious, devout Jew, who never proposed reforms in Jewish religious life. If anything, Rashbam might be called a strict constructionist in his approach to halakhic texts. Among the Tosafists, the school of Talmudic analysis that he helped found, Rashbam’s rulings stuck most closely to what was written in the Talmud.
But his Torah commentary was different. In fact, it was so different from what most pre-modern Jews were looking for that it was often ignored and over the centuries was almost lost. While hundreds of medieval manuscripts of Rashi’s Torah commentary have survived, only one almost complete manuscript of Rashbam’s commentary survived into the twentieth century, and it sadly was lost during the Shoah. Before the manuscript was lost, the German Jewish scholar David Rosin published (in 1880) the best known edition of the commentary.
Rashi is famous for his declaration that his commentary would be dedicated to peshat (or “peshuto shel miqra,” as Rashi called it), the plain or contextual meaning of the biblical text. This declaration has puzzled readers over the centuries, since the commentary is actually very dependent on midrash. But Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, who claimed to be continuing the work that Rashi began, wrote the medieval Jewish Bible commentary that comes closest to total dedication to peshat.
Rashbam was not a 21st century academic. But many aspects of his Torah commentary seem similar to what we find in works of modern biblical scholarship:
- sensitivity to literary patterns, such as chiasm (e.g. commentary to Exodus 2:6);
- sensitivity to the differences between biblical and rabbinic Hebrew (e.g. commentary to Exodus 12:7 or Genesis 45:24);
- searching for and identifying the most accurate texts of the Torah (e.g. commentary to Exodus 23:24 and Deut 18:11);
- having a historical consciousness that the Torah was better understood by the people who were alive when it was given than by us today, since the Torah assumes knowledge of various things that we no longer know (e.g. commentary to Genesis 36:24);
- understanding that the Torah has “reader awareness,” anticipating difficulties that a reader might have and trying to provide information to deal with those difficulties (e.g. commentary to Gen 1:1, discussing Gen 35:22);
- being willing to offer prosaic explanation of biblical texts even when more colorful or didactic ones are available and well-known (e.g. commentary to Exod 2:3); and
- being willing to entertain the possibility that some verses of the Torah were added after the death of Moses (e.g. accurate texts of Rashbam’s commentary to Num 22:1).
But perhaps the most striking innovation in Rashbam’s Torah commentary was that he frequently explained the text in a manner that differed from and even contradicted halakhah. For example, classical rabbinic literature says that the meaning of Lev 21:1-4 is that a kohen (priest) is permitted and even required to attend his wife’s funeral.
In his commentary there, Rashbam says that, on the peshat level of meaning, a kohen is forbidden to attend his attend his wife’s funeral. In another example from the priesthood, halakhah says that a high priest is allowed to marry any Jewish-born virgin. Rashbam points out that, according to the peshat (of Lev 21:14), the high priest can only marry the virgin daughter of another priest.
Perhaps the most famous of Rashbam’s unorthodox readings of Torah texts is his explanation of the verse, “there was evening, and there was morning, one day.” Halakhists both before and since Rashbam say (and surely Rashbam was taught as a child) that this verse teaches us that a Jewish day begins and ends in the evening. Rashbam writes, though, that the real peshat here is that a day of creation begins and ends in the morning. In other words, the opening verses of Genesis teach that God created light; subsequently evening fell and then dawn broke and then at that point (at dawn, not at sunset), the first day was finished. Rashbam surely believed that a Jewish day begins in the evening and he said so unequivocally at other places in his commentary. But he did not accept that the peshat of Gen 1:5 says that.
Rashbam’s important interpretive model for us is that it is permissible and worthwhile to seek out the peshat meaning of biblical texts even when those meanings contradict Jewish traditional teachings and halakhah. Rashbam felt that Jewish law and tradition were based on a free-standing level of interpretation, midrash, that can be and often is irreconcilable with what the peshat of the text says. He makes it very clear that the halakhic/midrashic way of understanding the Torah is the most important one.
Rashbam did not live a Judaism of peshat and would have roundly rejected the suggestion that peshat has significance for religious behavior. And yet Rashbam, the brilliant Talmudist, who dabbled in the Bible as a sideline, realized that the peshat level of meaning of the Torah has significance for us as religious Jews, even when it teaches something incompatible with halakhah, and he made peshat the theme of his Torah commentary.
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August 12, 2013
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Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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