Rashi on the Torah: What Kind of Commentary Is It?
The Canonization of Rashi
Rabbi Solomon b. Isaac (Rashi; 1040–1105) had an overwhelming influence on the history of Jewish Bible exegesis. Since Rashi’s time, traditional Jewish Bible commentators almost always refer to and react to his work.  They generally reprint his commentary beside their newer works, showing they have no intention of supplanting the work of the master.
Rashi’s commentary spread rapidly far beyond his home in Northern France. In his recent magisterial book, Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah, Eric Lawee, Professor of Bible at Bar Ilan University, demonstrates how the commentary stood at the center of Jewish attention throughout most of the Jewish world beginning almost immediately after its composition. It became “canonical,” in the sense that many Jews venerated it, even saying that Rashi wrote his commentary with divine inspiration(רוח הקודש). Those few Jews who did not like it could not simply ignore it, and it was soon subject to multiple, often vastly different, interpretations.
We almost take it for granted today that standard Torah commentaries go through the text verse by verse and then comment on a selection of phrases, by quoting a word or words from the verse (the “lemma”) and then writing a gloss in Hebrew. Yet I do not know of even one Bible commentary from before the days of Rashi that follows this pattern. In other words, Rashi had few if any models for the structure of his commentary. Yet for the last nine hundred years, his work has served as just such a model.
Is It Even All Rashi? Grossman and Touitou
Some might argue that we will never know what Rashi’s consistent exegetical position is on any issue, since we do not have and may never have a reliable text of his Torah commentary. Avraham Grossman, Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at Hebrew University, has shown that dozens of “additions” have been made to the text, and only some of them can be identified, since we do not have any manuscripts from the first hundred years or so after Rashi wrote his commentary.
A more radical possibility was raised by the scholar of parshanut (Bible commentaries), Elazar Touitou (1929–2010), that not only have various small accretions made their way into Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, but the text we have might contain only a relatively small kernel of comments that actually date back to Rashi. If that is the case, then “Rashi studies” take place only on shifting sands. Nevertheless, most scholars still think that the text we have is sufficiently similar to Rashi’s own work that we can ask questions like “What is Rashi’s exegetical method?” even if we might have concerns about individual comments found in Rashi’s commentary.
Rashi and Peshat
Rashi did not write an introduction to his Torah commentary, outlining its methods. His clearest statement of method introduces his gloss to Genesis 3:8, where he claims that his commentary is new, in the sense that it is committed to peshat, the plain or contextual interpretation of the text:
יש מדרשי אגדה רבים, וכבר סדרום רבותינו על מכונם בבראשית רבה ושאר מדרשים. ואני לא באתי אלא לפשוטו של מקרא, ולאגדה המיישבת דבר המקרא ושמועו דבור על אופניו.
There are many aggadic midrashim; our rabbis have already arranged them in their proper place in Genesis Rabbah and other collections of midrash. I, however, have come [to write] only peshuto shel miqra’ (the simple or contextual meaning of the text), and those ’aggadot which explain the words of Scripture, each word in its appropriate place.
Close to two hundred times in his Bible commentary, Rashi holds up a textual explanation to the standard of peshuto shel miqra’. Sometimes he says that a particular traditional text interpretation is not peshuto, and sometimes he says that his own interpretation is. But he never defines peshuto shel miqra’, and scholars have not arrived at a consensus on his understanding of this term.
Sarah Kamin (1938–1989), a scholar of medieval parshanut, who focused especially upon Rashi, offered the most useful analysis, arguing that Rashi saw context as the paramount factor (almost to the exclusion of all others) when deciding whether a particular interpretation was peshuto shel miqra’. But “context” still remains to be clearly defined.
Rashi’s Use of Midrash
A more vexing question is whether Rashi actually had any consistent approach to distinguishing between peshat (plain or contextual meaning) and midrash (homiletical interpretation). He fills his commentary with midrashim, many of which seem to us incompatible with any definition of peshat.
For example, in Gen 25:29, Esau comes home from the hunt עָיֵף (traditionally “tired”; NJPS translates “famished”), and Rashi (to Gen 25:29) comments that Esau was “tired” from having committed murder.
A few verses later, Esau says to his brother (v. 32), הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת וְלָמָּה זֶּה לִי בְּכֹרָה “I am going to die and what use is the birthright to me?” As Rashi understands that the birthright represents the right to perform the divine sacrificial service, Rashi explains Esau’s fear of dying as follows:
אמר עשו: מה טיבה של עבודה זו? אמר לו: כמה אזהרות ועונשין ומיתות תלוין בה… אמר: אני הולך למות על ידה, אם כן מה חפץ לי בה?
Esau said [to Jacob]: “What is the nature of this divine service?” Jacob answered: “It involves many restrictions, punishments and [even] capital punishment....” Esau said: “I am going to die because of this birthright. Why would I want it?”
Midrashim like this certainly offend our modern sense of the contextual meaning—what in the immediate story hints that Esau had been busy committing murder, or that the conversation between Jacob and Esau involved the divine sacrificial service that would be initiated centuries after Jacob and Esau’s deaths?
“Close to Peshat”—Mizrahi’s Approach
Some have argued that Rashi included comments of this nature only because they successfully passed the threshold of being “close” to peshat. For example, in his super-commentary to this passage, Elijah Mizrahi (1455-1525) points out that the classical rabbinic midrashim, which constitute the source of much of Rashi’s commentary, list a number of other crimes that Esau allegedly committed that day—intercourse with a betrothed woman and theft, to name but two. Mizrahi writes:
'והוא רעב' מיבעי ליה. . . . ומפני שהאגדה הזאת קרובה לפשוטו של מקרא הביאה בפירושו והניח האגדה שאמרו: "'מן השדה' - אין שדה אלא נערה מאורסה, . . . לפי שאין האגדה ההיא קרובה לפשוטו של מקרא,
[Rashi commented on the phrase והוא עיף and said that it alluded to murder(s) that Esau had committed], because the text should have read והוא רעב [the more standard word for hungry].... Since this midrash is close to the plain meaning of Scripture, Rashi incorporated it in his commentary. But he omitted the midrash that derived from the words “from the field” [that Esau sinned with] a betrothed maiden... because that midrash is not close to the plain meaning of Scripture.
Mizrahi argues that when Rashi considered the alleged textual anomalies noted in the midrash to “prove” various crimes of Esau unconvincing from the peshat perspective, he did not attribute those crimes to Esau in his Torah commentary. But, Mizrahi writes, Rashi saw the use of the word עיף in our verse as sufficiently anomalous to justify including this midrash—that Esau was guilty of murder—in his Torah commentary.
This is not a convincing approach, however. First, Mizrahi himself admits that the claim that עיף here is anomalous is not compelling. More significantly, no such pattern as Mizrahi suggests is used consistently throughout Rashi’s Torah commentary.
The Mini-Flood in Enosh’s Day
Consider Rashi’s comment on the line from the Song of Moses (Deut 32:7), זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דּוֹר וָדוֹר “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past.”
בינו שנות דור ודור: דור אנוש שהציף עליהם אוקיינוס דור המבול ששטפן
“Consider the years of ages past”: The generation of Enosh over whom He caused the waters of the ocean to flow, and the generations of the Flood [in the days of Noah] whom He drowned.
Rashi explains the parallelism here as referring to two floods: the flood that God brought during the days of Noah and the mini-flood that He brought during the days of Enosh.
The story of the mini-flood is never mentioned in the biblical text and is based on an obscure midrash. And yet, Rashi does not even feel the need to write “a mini-flood took place in the days of Enosh.” He assumes that his readers know this midrash, and he simply alludes to it—twice in his Torah commentary. (The other instance is his commentary to Gen 6:4).
Even zealous defenders of Rashi’s commitment to peshat would be hard-pressed to explain how an interpretation like this is in any sense “contextual.” Serious students of Rashi know that dozens, perhaps hundreds of examples of this nature—midrashim that do not fit the context—could be cited.
Criticism of Rashi
Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167), the Spanish-born Bible commentator, was a youngster when Rashi died. In one of his works, he condemns Rashi’s inconsistencies:
...כרב שלמה ז"ל שפירש התנ"ך ע"ד דרש והוא חושב שהוא על דרך פשט ואין בספריו פשט רק אחד מני אלף וחכמי דורנו יתהללו באלה הספרים
...like Rabbi Solomon, of blessed memory, who wrote a derash commentary on the Bible. He thought that it was a peshat commentary, but in his books only one of a thousand comments is peshat. The scholars of our generation love books like this.
Other rationalists concurred. Joseph ibn Kaspi (1280–1345) caustically recommended studying Rashi before studying his own commentary, since הדבר מתבאר היטב בידיעת הפכו “you can understand something best once you have been exposed to its precise opposite.” Similarly, Rashi’s own grandson, Rashbam (c. 1080 – c. 1160), used his Torah commentary to criticize Rashi’s conception of peshat, often in surprisingly strong language.
Eric Lawee has a detailed discussion of one hard-to-identify medieval Jewish writer, pseudo-Rabad, whose comments about Rashi were so angry that the copyist partially erased many lines of his text, but interested scholars can still reconstruct the insults. These criticisms, though, do not really explain Rashi’s enterprise. If his commentary is not about peshat, what is it about?
When Peshat is Not Enough
Some scholars suggest that Rashi never introduces a midrashic explanation into his commentary unless peshat explanations are insufficient. David Pardo (18th century) in his super-commentary on Rashi makes the claim: רבינו לא נחית לדרשה אלא מפני ההכרח “Our rabbi uses midrash reluctantly, only when compelled to do so.” According to this theory, peshat still stood at the center of Rashi’s enterprise; at the same time, many midrashic comments of Rashi attempt to resolve issues that peshat cannot solve.
Indeed, one can frequently sense some interest in peshat in the way that Rashi often takes midrashim and adapts them in order to connect them to the plain sense of Scripture. For instance, Rashi was acquainted with a series of midrashim that say that the Israelite women in Egypt had multiple births of six, twelve, sixty, or even six hundred thousand babies. Some of these midrashim point to the six words of “growth” in Exodus 1:7:
שמות א:ז וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל (1) פָּרוּ (2) וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ (3) וַיִּרְבּוּ (4) וַיַּעַצְמוּ (5) בִּמְאֹד (6) מְאֹד וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ אֹתָם.
Exod 1:7 The children of Israel were (1) fertile, and (2) prolific; they (3) multiplied and (4) increased (5) very (6) much, and the land was filled with them.
Rashi sanitizes this midrash. He mentions only the opinion that six babies were born from one pregnancy. And instead of connecting the interpretation to the word count, he cites it as a gloss on וישרצו, a word that generally applies only to animals, who often give birth to multiples. The word literally means that the Israelites “swarmed,” which Rashi takes as implying that multiple births were common.
Another place where Rashi may have “subdued” his midrashic sources is his comment on Exod 12:12:
שמות יב:יב וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה וְהִכֵּיתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מֵאָדָם וְעַד בְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים אֲנִי יְ־הוָה.
Exod 12:12 I will go through the land of Egypt that night, I will strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt, I am YHWH.
The midrash, familiar to us from the Passover Haggadah, reads into each verb the idea that God acted alone, without an agent:
ועברתי בארץ מצרים, אני ולא מלאך. והכיתי כל בכור, אני ולא שרף. ובכל אלוהי מצרים אעשה שפטים, אני ולא שליח. אני ה', אני ולא אחר
“I will go through the land of Egypt”—I, not an angel; “I will strike down every first-born”—I, not a seraph; “I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt”—I, not an agent; “I am the LORD”—I and no other.
Whereas the midrash applies this reading four times, Rashi uses it only once (the midrash’s last example):
אעשה שפטים אני ה' אני בעצמי ולא ע"י שליח
“I will mete out punishments, I am the LORD”: I [will do it] Myself, not through an agent.
Samuel Almosnino (d. 1551), the author of an early super-commentary on Rashi, writes that Rashi adopts only the part of the midrash that conforms to the peshat. The only words in this verse that are “difficult,” because they appear redundant, are “I am the LORD,” so Rashi comments only on them.
Occasionally Rashi explicitly describes his approach to midrash, explaining why a specific midrash merits, or does not merit, inclusion in his commentary. For example, on this verse,
שמות ב:ה וַתֵּרֶד בַּת פַּרְעֹה לִרְחֹץ עַל הַיְאֹר וְנַעֲרֹתֶיהָ הֹלְכֹת עַל יַד הַיְאֹר
Exod 2:5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile
ורבותינו דרשו הולכת לשון מיתה, כמו הנה אנכי הולך למות .הולכות למות, לפי שמיחו בה. והכתוב מסייען, כי למה לנו לכתוב ונערותיה הולכות?
Our rabbis said: “walking” (הולכות) denotes “death,” as in the phrase (Gen 25:32) “I am at the point of death (הולך למות).” They were going to die because they tried to prevent her [Pharaoh’s daughter, from saving Moses]. Scripture supports their explanation, for what [other] reason would there be for writing “her maidens were walking”?
Rashi explains that since the midrash addresses a problem that peshat exegetes might ask (why the seemingly unnecessary phrase “her maidens were walking” was included in the verse), it has a place in his commentary even though it provides a non-peshat answer.
What’s Bothering Rashi?
We see that, in some texts, we can deduce what textually-based consideration led Rashi to include a midrashic explanation, and in a few others, Rashi himself explains his own thought process. These factors have led to a commonly accepted position among contemporary traditional Jews: that it’s always appropriate to ask the question מה קשה לרש"י – “What’s bothering Rashi (about the way the biblical text was written)?”
The best-known recent proponent of this position was Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997), the scholar and masterful teacher, who laid out a careful case for it in an essay entitled “Rashi’s Method When Including Midrashim in his Torah Commentary.”
Tree or Wood
Leibowitz, the modern master of close reading of Rashi, showed her students in turn how Rashi read the Bible closely. For example, in Gen 18:4 when Abraham invites his guests to rest תחת העץ, Rashi comments:
תחת העץ – תחת האילן.
“Under the eitz”—under the tree.
The comment seems obscure and unnecessary. The word עץ, meaning tree, had already appeared in Genesis many times before chapter 18, and Rashi had not commented on it. Why is Rashi telling us at this point that an עץ is an אילן?
The answer is that אילן, a Hebrew loan word from Aramaic, and the standard rabbinic Hebrew word for tree, can only mean tree. However, עץ, the standard biblical Hebrew word for tree, can also mean “wood.” Rashi wanted his readers to understand that Abraham was inviting his guests to rest under a tree, not under some wooden structure such as a canopy.
Perhaps Nothing Is Bothering Rashi
Ultimately, though, many of Rashi’s careful readers over the ages agree that often Rashi is not reacting to any textual difficulty. Rabbi Isaac Horowitz (nineteenth century), author of the Be’er Yitzhak super-commentary, argues that Rashi cites a midrash not because of any difficulty in the text but because the midrash cited is true! As Leibowitz herself admits, R. Elijah Mizrahi, Rashi’s most famous super-commentator, took the same position—that not every comment of Rashi is a reaction to a textual difficulty.
This position is also forcefully argued by R. Abraham Bokrat (15th–16th centuries) in his important super-commentary, Sefer Zikkaron. Rashi, Bokrat says, often includes in his Torah commentary a midrash that opposes the peshat not because of a textual difficulty with the peshat, but because Rashi prefers the midrash and does not want to interpret the verse according to the peshat.
Bokrat even has religious qualms about the claim that Rashi cites a specific midrash because of a redundancy in the text. The words of the rabbinic tradition, says Bokrat, do not require any “help” from theories about alleged redundancies in the text. Professor Avraham Gross of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev astutely contrasts Bokrat’s approach with that of Rashi critics like ibn Ezra and ibn Kaspi: They disparage Rashi’s abandonment of peshat and reliance on midrash; Bokrat admires it.
This same distinction may be found among twentieth- and twenty-first-century Jews who believe that Rashi injects midrashim into his commentary even when there is no textual difficulty in the verse. Maurice Liber (1884–1956; a scholar and the chief rabbi of France) saw this as evidence of the fact that Rashi fell short of the mark and did not succeed in developing a truly scientific approach. The contemporary traditionalist, Moshe Filip, who is currently publishing new editions of many Rashi super-commentaries, sees this ambivalent attitude to peshat as a crucial part of Rashi’s genius.
I believe that Rashi does not limit his midrashic comments to verses where peshat-level explanations fall short. Rashi was primarily an educator. Interpreting the Bible was not his ultimate goal; his commentary was a vehicle for teaching the Jewish people, and he found many important Jewish messages in midrashim.
Rashi and Midrash: A Different Understanding
Rashi displays a commitment both to peshat and to midrash and liberally uses both in his commentary. This conclusion seems obvious, but it involves a serious difficulty—Rashi’s own insistence in a number of programmatic statements that his purpose is to provide a peshat commentary on the Torah.
A creative resolution to this difficulty was first offered by Bokrat (Sefer Zikkaron to Deut 13:9), who claimed that אני לא באתי אלא לפשוטו של מקרא does not mean “I have come [to write] only peshuto shel miqra’, throughout this Bible commentary,” but rather “I have come [to write] only peshuto shel miqra’ in my commentary on this particular verse.” This explanation might appear forced, but it cannot be ruled out. The construction אין... אלא (or לא... אלא) is not always used for sweeping generalizing statements.
Rashi’s blend of peshat and midrash may be a sign not of inconsistency, but of genius. Rashi understood what most Jews wanted in a Torah commentary: some careful readings of the biblical text, some grammatical explanations, and, mostly, a sampling of uplifting, edifying, or entertaining midrashim. Add to this his strong personal character—for example, his frequent willingness to humbly write “איני יודע (I don’t know),” something that later commentators rarely did—and we can begin to understand what made Rashi into the Jewish Torah commentator par excellence.
Rashi and Contemporaneous Events or Issues
Scholars disagree about whether Rashi sometimes alludes to events in his own lifetime. For example, Rashi comments on the first verse in Genesis that the purpose of the stories of Genesis was to establish the legitimacy of the Jewish claim on the land of Israel. Was he reacting to the events of the last nine years of his life, when Christian Crusaders were battling with Muslims for hegemony in the Holy Land? Alternatively, might it be more correct to say, as Avraham Grossman pointed out, that Rashi opened his commentary on each volume of the Torah by emphasizing the special nature of God’s relationship with the Jewish people?
A similar debate exists about whether Rashi tries to refute Christian claims in his Torah commentary. Certainly in some biblical books, especially Psalms, he demonstrates awareness of and opposition to Christians’ interpretations. For example, the uncensored text of Rashi’s commentary on Psalms 21:2 reads:
רבותינו פתרוהו על מלך המשיח; ונכון הדבר לפותרו עוד על דוד עצמו, לתשובת המינין שפקרו בו.
The rabbis interpreted this psalm as referring to the messianic king; [but] it is fitting to interpret it about King David himself, as an appropriate refutation of the minim (= Christians) who found support in it for their heretical beliefs.
But in his Torah commentary, we find no explicit references to Christian interpretation of the Torah or doctrine, and the arguments that attempt to find veiled polemics against Christianity or Christian exegesis are often weak. A generation or two after Rashi, anti-Christian arguments begin to appear explicitly in Ashkenazic Torah commentaries.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
November 26, 2019
October 1, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
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.
Essays on Related Topics: