Sunday, July 31, 2011

#114 - Rashi: King of Commentators

Noting that today - 29 Tammuz - marks the 906th Yahrzeit of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (4800/1-4865 or 1040/1-1105), popularly known as Rashi, the title of this post is not my original thinking, but is in fact, from the site, where you can learn one Rashi a day with a clear explanation of it (Rashi Yomi means daily Rashi), or subscribe to it by E-mail.

Personally, the Yahrzeit of Rashi this year has an extra dimension to it. You see, the title of Rashi is the Gematria of 510, and the date of this Yahrzeit is the final day of my 510th month of life! Had I been born only two days earlier, it would not fall out on my 510th month. With this said, I feel that I have an obligation to write about this most unique Torah personality today.

There is hardly a post on in which I don't mention Rashi at least once; as in most posts, even if I'm not writing something as related to the weekly Parsha, I will have something to quote from the Chumash/Penteteuch, or some other part of the Tanach/Bible. In the Torah world, the Tanach and Gemara (or Babylonian Talmud) with Rashi are indispensable. A Talmud Torah, a place that is supposed to be teaching Torah, that doesn't include Rashi along with learning Chumash is probably an institution from the Conservative or Reform movements that deny the authenticity of the Oral Law which makes up a good part of Rashi's commentary.

No doubt that in some Chumashim, you will see many commentaries. But even a Chumash that features a particular commmentary will 99.99% of the time includes Rashi's commentary. In fact, there are over 100 (in one place, I saw it's written 300) commentaries on Rashi's commentary! And the question is - what did Rashi write that nobody else has in their commentary?

Today, it may be easy to take learning Chumash for granted when we hear the weekly sermon on the Parsha from the rabbi. Unless one only recently began learning about Judaism, just about any topic from the Chumash will sound at least a little familiar, especially since it was just read within the past hour from the Sefer Torah/Torah scroll, aside from whatever Jewish education that many synagogue attendees received when they were young. But 1,000 years ago, it wasn't quite that way. Sure, the big scholars of earlier times knew the entire Torah, so it may have not been so obvious to them that not everyone else really knew what even the Chumash is saying. In fact, it was only several hundred years earlier that the teachings of the Mishna were first written down for the public, as they were not permitted to be written down as part of the Oral Law, but only the Bible was permitted to be written down. Hence, aside from Rabbinic responsa since the days that the Talmud and Midrashim were written down, there was no such thing as a Chumash with commentaries, except maybe with the Targum/Aramaic translation from Onkelos that is still recited with the Chumash by many until this day. This is aside from the fact that the printing press was yet to be invented for another quite a few hundred years.

I am not here to give a detailed account of Rashi's life. However, to have a greater appreciation of Rashi, I will mention basic things about him that will drive the point home even to those who never learned even Chumash with Rashi.

But in case you get a little tired of reading this post as you scroll down, I do have a couple of important points to make about studying Rashi. Artscroll has by far the best English translation of Rashi to date, along with its own explanation on Rashi - There are other works in English on Rashi, including "What is bothering Rashi?", and quite recently, Feldheim has come out in Hebrew with a running explanation of each phrase of Rashi, called Rashi K'Peshuto, which I recently purchased, and G-d willing, will be starting to learn today.

As noted in Shulchan Aruch/Code of Jewish Law on the Laws of Shabbat of the first section Orach Chaim (285:2) pertaining to the weekly obligation of learning the Parsha with Targum - which is performed by reciting each verse twice followed by the Targum: "Learning the Parsha with the commentary of Rashi is considered like learning the Parsha with the Targum, and one who is G-d fearing should read the Targum and also Rashi's commentary". The Spinka Rebbe - Rabbi Nachman Kahana (whose Yahrzeit was yesterday - 28 Tammuz) quotes the first Belzer Rebbe - Rabbi Sholom Rokeach of saying that one who learns every week the Parsha with Rashi IS ASSURED THAT AT THE VERY LEAST, HE WILL MERIT TO LEARN IN RASHI'S STUDY HALL IN HEAVEN! In fact, there was a story in recent times when a young Yeshiva guy passed away and appeared to a colleague of his in a dream to whom he revealed that presently, he was learning in Rashi's study hall being that he always learned Chumash with Rashi.

Rashi was born in France to parents who were barren for many years, but in the merit of his father Yitzchak who threw away a precious gem into the sea in lieu of selling it to be used for idolatry, he was promised by Heaven that he would be granted a son who will light up the Torah for the Jewish nation. He was named Shlomo after none another than King Solomon, as the Haftara for Parshat Teruma on the Shabbat before Rashi had his Brit/circumcision, begins with the words "Hashem gave wisdom to Solomon..." (I Kings 5:26). Needless to say, this verse became fulfilled again through Rashi.

At an young age, Rashi was already well versed with the Tanach & Talmud. But unlike most other Torah prodigies who only started writing their holy books at an older age, Rashi wrote down all kinds of questions he came up with his learning on many parchments that he carried around with. His earlier Torah teachers in France themselves didn't have the answers to many of his questions; and so his parents, realizing their son's brilliance in Torah, sent him to Germany where the greatest Torah scholars of the time were residing, from whom Rashi learned much more. At one point, Rashi used to sit down at Torah lectures in different places, and gave his own explanation of what a Torah passage meant either at the lecture or writing it down secretly for the lecturer to read it afterwards, and then he was off to the next place, making everyone wonder at the place that he was earlier as to who he was.

Even after he married, he still was away in Yeshiva for most of the time, only coming home three times a year to celebrate the holidays. Eventually, everything paid off, and he became a member of the local Beit Din/Jewish court, deciding matters of Jewish law, and wrote his commentary on the Tanach & Talmud, but not before fasting 613 times corresponding to the 613 Commandments!

So in short, the following are Rashi's accomplishments:
1)Most popularly known for his commentary on the Tanach & Babylonian Talmud
2)Decided matters on Jewish Law.
3)Composed several Selichot prayers, witnessing the destruction that the Crusaders performed on Jewish communities which included murder on their way to the Holy Land, which includes one for Erev Rosh Hashana & one for the fast of Tzom Gedaliah.
4)The Tefillin/phylacteries with its particular details follows the view of Rashi, and although there are different views from other great rabbis, the Shulchan Aruch/Code of Jewish Law makes it clear that one can only fulfill the obligation of wearing Tefillin by following the view of Rashi.
5)Had three daughters, who were learned in their own right and married Torah scholars, from whom were descended the writers of the composition of Tosfos, another commentary on the Talmud which is on the opposite side of the page as Rashi.

A unique point that would be a sin not to mention is that Rashi's commentary became immediately accepted by both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, noting that Rashi was Ashkenazic. This is unlike the Rambam who live a little later on, and based on his works, was either loved or hated. However, Rashi made such an obvious significant contribution that could not be mistaken for heresy, that everyone unanimously accepted his Torah teachings. Perhaps this echoes the life of Aharon HaCohen/Aaron the High Priest, whom the Torah especially notes, was mourned for by the ENTIRE Jewish people, including the women, for his peace making efforts, whose Yahrzeit of
1 Av - the ONLY Yahrzeit mentioned in the ENTIRE Tanach - immediately follows the date of Rashi's Yahrzeit.

It was Rashi's commentary who opened up the understanding of the Torah. While in fact, two thirds or three quarters of his commentary is not of his own thinking, but culled from the various parts of the Talmud & Midrashim, while the rest was his own unique way of explaining what was difficult to understand for most until his days, which included much in the way of Dikduk/Hebrew grammar, it was precisely this style, gathering together the parts of the Torah that made the base explanation, called Pshat in Hebrew, of what the Torah passage is talking about. Sure, the great Torah scholars were able to take much for granted, for they were already versed in virtually all of the Talmudic & Midrashic literature up to that point in time, but for the rest who didn't have such knowledge, it would take a long time to learn the same things to understand what even the weekly Parsha has to say.

There are four levels of Torah learning: Pshat/Simple or basic explanation, Remez/Hints - which includes Gematriot by the way, Derush/expositions such as the Midrash which is based on this word, and Sod/Secret which refers to Kabbalah. The first letters of these four ways of Torah learning - Peshat, Remez, Derush, Sod - spell the word Pardes/garden - the spiritual garden of Torah learning.

It's interesting to note that the Hebrew name of Rashi, representing Pshat - his basic explanation that opened up the Torah to the world, is Shlomo Ben Yitzchak. And the Hebrew name of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), popularly known as the Arizal, whose explanation of the other end of Torah learning called Sod or Kabbalah, opened up the understanding of this part of the Torah, especially the Zohar, to the world, is Yitzchak Ben Shlomo, and whose Yarhzeit is only a few days later on 5 Av, some years in the same week as Rashi's as it is this year. It is basically this period in Jewish history ranging from around Rashi's time to the Arizal's time that is called the period of the Rishonim/Early Torah giants. Hence, we see that the names of these two great rabbis, with their own Hebrew names and that of their respective fathers, being the opposite of each other, is a reflection of the opposite ends of the spectrum of Torah learning. Both Rashi & the Arizal were the Rosh/Head of their respective areas of Torah learning that paved the way for everyone else to enter, this in a matter of no more than 500 years.

And speaking of years, when splitting the 6,000 years of the world's existance into five parts of 1,200 years each, we see that Rashi was born in the beginning of the fifth part of it. Amazingly, as we see in some years including this year, Rashi's Yahrzeit falls out on the FIRST day of the week of the beginning of the FIFTH book of the Torah - Sefer Devarim/Deutronomy!

In fact, Rashi passed away on the FIFTH day of the week of the Parshiyot of
Matot-Mas'ei. And noting the 4801st through the 4865th verses of the Torah corresponding to the Hebrew years of Rashi's life, they coincide in the midst of Parshat Masei; and it is the fifth Aliyah of the combined Parshiyot Matot-Mas'ei that correspond to the earlier part of his life from when he was a young boy who already was starting to become well versed in the Torah. Coincidence?

What is ironic here is that most of the verses in Parshat Mas'ei that correspond with Rashi's year is all about the Land of Israel - its particular boundaries and the list of the leaders of the tribes of Israel who would help the Jews inherit their part of the land based on what tribe they descended from; while Rashi, who gives a detailed explanation on the boundaries of Israel in this Parsha, himself never set foot in Israel! Of course in those days, traveling was far from the luxury of vacation traveling that we have today, if it wasn't dangerous enough between the long journey on sea and pirates or anti-Semites interfering. Rashi apparently had a unique mission in life serving the vast majority of Jews in his time who didn't live in Israel.

Yes, while we see that the Ramban/Nachmanides, who lived like a century after Rashi, holds that one of the 613 Commandments is living in Israel, learning it from the very above section in Parshat Mas'ei about Israel, and following what he preached moving to Israel in his old age, and also composed a commentary on the Chumash taking issue on Rashi through much of his commentary; yet, in his introduction to the Chumash, praises Rashi for his great genius in Torah learning. If only we would see this kind of unity in today's Torah world!

And one more unique thing about Rashi - unlike most other titles of major rabbis, THE Rambam, THE Ramban, THE Bach, THE Shach, THE Taz, THE Tur, etc., Rashi is known just as this - RASHI. It is true that when referring to a piece of his commentary, then we say "the Rashi on Parshat...", but on he himself...he needs no introduction; similarly to when the master of ceremonies wants to introduce someone to the audience who says of him "who needs no introduction", except that he mentions his name anyways for the formality of it, or more likely, he's flattering the person when he knows himself that in fact not everyone knows whom he is talking about or he wouldn't need to give a formal introduction. As a matter of fact, aside from the letters of the title Rashi that stand for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, it has been said that they are the first letters for two other phrases - Rabban Shel Yisrael "Head Rabbi of Israel" and Rabbeinu Sheyichye "Our Teacher should live". In fact, the first letter of Rashi's title - Reish, has the same letters as Rashi, which means HEAD in Aramaic! These are also the same letters as the word Shir/Song the first word of the Sefer in Tanach Shir HaShirim/Song of Songs, which was composed by King Solomon after whom Rashi was named!

And so, before I take off on today's post, I will leave you here with a few bits of Rashi's teachings, honoring this special day.

1)When I rectied today the Shir Shel Yom/Song of the Day that the Levites used to recite in the Temple (and I am a Levite) for Sunday - Psalm 24 in my Kavanat HaLev prayerbook, I decided to take a special look on the footnote on the bottom of the page of this prayer. The only one is an explanation on Verse 3 of this psalm - Who will ascend the mountain of Hashem and who will arise in the place of His holiness?", which is by the way, MY VERY VERSE that I recite corresponding to my second name Matisyahu that begins with a Mem & ends with a Vav, at the end of every Shemoneh Esrei. And this explanation coming from none other than...Rashi! Rashi notes that although as mentioned in the beginning of this Psalm, all people on this earth belong to Hashem, not everyone is worthy of coming close to Him, except for what is mentioned in the following Verse 4 - "Clean of hands...(from theft and other sins)." Mmmmmm...Seems like perhaps Hashem is telling me to put a little thought to this for myself.

2)And speaking of Song as per the above, let's see what Rashi has to say on the first verse of Shir HaShirim which is Shir HaShirim Asher L'Shlomo, which literally means "Song of Songs as composed by Solomon". In fact, this verse begins with a Shin and ends with a Hei, just as the name Shlomo! Anyways, commenting on his own name Shlomo, Rashi notes that the name in this verse, as taught by our Rabbis, is referring to the King to Whom peace belongs (the name Shlomo is related to the word Shalom/peace). Continuing along, Rashi quotes Rabbi Akiva of saying that the world was not worthy as the day that Shir HaShirim was given to the Jewish people, for while all of Scriptures is holy, Shir HaShirim is Holy of Holies, for all of it about fear of Heaven and accepting the yoke of His Kingdom.

And since this is Post 114, let's take a quick look at the beginning of Psalm 114 - "When Israel left Egypt, the House of Jacob from a foreign nation". On the final words of this verse Me'am Loez "from a foreign nation", Rashi notes "A nation of a different language which is not Lashon HaKodesh "The Holy Tongue" (referring to Hebrew)". (Interestingly, there is a Midrash on the Tanach that was composed a few hundred years ago called by this very name Meam Loez). On the beginning of the next verse "Judah (the tribe) became His holy one", Rashi notes that this tribe sanctified (made holy) His name by the leader of the tribe Nachshon Ben Aminadav, who was the first one to jump in the Reed Sea, in full faith in Hashem that following this, the sea would split.

Rashi was not just another great encyclopedic scholar. His whole life was infused with the holiness of the Torah, which guided his actions, and taking most seriously the role of writing THE commentary that would open up the Torah for the world, he prepared himself spiritually with his 613 fasts to be worthy of this most holy endeavor, to be the one to jump into the seas of the Tanach & Talmud, the plunge that would forever change the way that Torah would be learnt. He didn't need to show off.

In fact, he was humble just like Moshe Rabbeinu. Many times, when Rashi comes across a point that he feels that he is stuck with, says simply "I don't know what the Torah is saying." How many other commentators say the same thing as Rashi does? Also, just like the title of Moses - Moshe Rabbeinu - is the Gematria of 613, so too did Rashi fast 613 times to write his commentary on the Chumash - "The Five Books of Moses" that was first written by Moses upon Hashem's dictation. Additionally, just like we don't know where Moshe Rabbeinu's burial place is located, we also don't know where Rashi's burial place is located, despite the fact that he was already famous and popular during his lifetime. Finally, Rashi's name Shlomo include the letters of Moshe Rabbeinu's name.

He was Rashi. He is Rashi. He will always be Rashi. The KING of commentators, compared to the first one bearing his name - KING Solomon, the wisest of all people and was king of not only Israel but the entire world. Rashi's commentary is not just a scholarly work of brilliance, but full of lessons of how a Torah Jew should live not just as a scholar, but living in HOLINESS not being affected by the unholy non-Jewish world with the three Fs, - which unlike in the secular world that describes the ultimate failing student - are FREE of theft, FEAR of Heaven, and FULL FAITH in Hashem. Nothing else needs to be said to describe Rashi's commentary as great and holy.

29 Tammuz 5771, Yahrzeit of Rashi, the greatest Torah commentator who ever lived

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