Coffee with Rashi
It's easy to forget that Rashi was a medieval person—one who had to trudge from France to Germany on foot to get an education. What he brought back with him changed the Jewish world, forever.
Hi! I'm relaunching Stories from Jewish History today. 🥳 Thank you for being a subscriber and bearing with me as I figure out what works, and what doesn't, for this newsletter. After lots of experimentation and deconstructing everything I don't love about email newsletters, I've come up with a format that I'm excited about. Instead of longform articles, think of this newsletter as "show notes" (like podcasts have) for my popular Sunday Twitter threads.
🙋♀️ By way of quick introduction, I'm Tamar Marvin, and some of my best friends are medieval rabbis. I have a tendency to think and talk about these extraordinary thinkers, from the towering giants to the lesser-known, as though I've sat with them over cups of anachronistic coffee. My threads on Twitter, and these notes here, are my attempt to bring great Jewish thinkers to life for you, as they are to me. My background is as an intellectual historian (my Ph.D. is in Medieval & Early Modern Jewish Studies) and I'm currently a third-year yeshiva student/professional halacha-nerd-in-training.
📚 Last year, I highlighted obscure figures deserving of a little more historical love. For 5783, I'm working through the great Rishonim, up to and including the Mechaber (Rav Yosef Karo). Each week we'll cover the basics about a famous Rishon, his life story, and his major contributions. Up first: Rashi.
📰 In addition to a weekly featured rabbi story, each newsletter, which goes out on Tuesdays, will include a recommended resource and notes on my current reading. (Inspired by @ShabbosReads!)
I hope you'll find this new format valuable and readable—please let me know what you think. You can reply below ⬇️ or respond to this email, which will go to my Gmail inbox. 📥
Meet the Rabbi ☕
Rashi. We all hang out with Rashi, right? He's there for us on the daf, hanging over our shoulder, filling in that obscure Aramaic word, explaining the background behind the sugya. He's there for us, too, on the parsha, whether we're six years old or sixty, bringing down the famous midrash, guiding us through the text from the lens of Chazal. But do you really know Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki?
The date of Rashi's birth, c. 1040, is symbolically significant: he is said to have entered the world just as the light of the exile (Maor ha-Golah), Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz, left it. The Rhineland Valley, the heart of medieval Ashkenaz, was dotted then with yeshivot and had its own distinctive culture of learning. But Rashi was not from the Rhineland; he was born in Troyes, a market town in Champagne, definitely "out of town." (It would take a couple more centuries for the French Crown to consolidate enough power to reign over what we now think of as France.)
Rashi might have stayed in Troyes his whole life, tending to business and hampered in his studies. (Rashi almost never mentions his father, who appears not to have been able to acquire an advanced education.) Instead, he did something extraordinary.
Around the age of 18, married and already with a young daughter, Rashi sought his fortune in the Rhineland. Northern France, known by medieval Jews as Tzarfat (from Ovadia 1:20), had no yeshivot; Rashi literally had to walk to Germany to get an education. We possess a rare mention of the hardships of his student days, the lean decade which he spent apart from his family in pursuit of Torah. He was often distracted, he wrote, by the need to make a living and the prolonged separation.
In Germany, among the students of Rabbenu Gershom, Rashi found a thriving intellectual culture. There remains much scholarly debate about the origins of the Ashkenazi community and its posited close relationship to the traditions of Eretz Yisrael (via Italy); R. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik has even suggested that the kernel of Ashkenaz descends from a "third yeshiva" in Bavel (in addition to the famed academies of Sura and Pumbedita). What is clear is that Rashi drank in nearly the sum total of Ashkenazi knowledge.
He carried back to France with him kuntresim (notebooks) enriched by the notes of several generations of students. These glosses and notes became the basis of Rashi's commentaries. Unfortunately, Rashi endured the anti-Jewish violence that followed the call for the First Crusade, perpetrated by unruly crowds upon the infidels in their midst, even before they reached the shores of the East. Rashi reports little about these events. However, their impact upon him is evident.
His Big Jewish Idea(s)
Rashi and his illustrious grandsons (Rashi's three, possibly four, daughters all married and raised scholars) stepped into the cultural vacuum sadly created in the Rhineland Valley communities as a result of crusade violence. They founded yeshivot, created a new school of peshat (contextual) interpretation of Tanach, and produced voluminous piyyut commentary. Building upon his methods, Rashi's grandsons and their students created the Tosafot, which extended the back-and-forth of the Talmud in dialectical fashion.
Rashi also created the resources that he himself had lacked as a young student. His line commentary on the Tamud, the first of its kind, glossed the text in such a way as to make it accessible. He "opened up" the Talmud in a way no one else ever had, enabling even those without a teacher to continue to learn. In writing his commentary on Tanach, Rashi collected an entire library of rabbinic knowledge and threaded it onto the pesukim of the Mikra.
On page 29a of the printed Vilna Shas, the following note is found in the Rashi: עד כאן פירוש רש״י זצ״ל מכאן ואילך פירוש רבינו שמואל ב״ר מאיר ("Up to here is the commentary of Rashi of blessed memory, from here on is the commentary of Rabbenu Shmuel ben Rabbi Meir," Rashbam). The year was 1105. Nearly a thousand years later, we are still reading, learning from, and continuing Rashi's work.
Rashi Reads (and a Listen)
Avraham Grossman is among the foremost scholars of medieval Ashkenaz in general and Rashi in particular. His Rashi, translated from the Hebrew, is an outstanding introduction, the kind that I enjoyed reading even though I know pretty much everything in it, and use often for reference. (It doesn't seem to be available on US Amazon right now but you can buy it directly from Oxford University Press at the link.)
There are many colorful legends and folktales about Rashi's life. This one is translated from Gedalya Ibn Yahya's Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah by Prof. Matt Goldish: “Rashi and the Crusader: A Legend,” Jewish Review of Books, February 27, 2013.
To get a sense of the precursors to Rashi's commentaries as well as the way they were used and transmitted in the Middle Ages, I highly recommend this lecture by Rashi scholar Dr. Lisa Fredman:
Stream Rashi's Biblical Commentary - Lisa Fredman 12/1/15 by Revel Graduate School | Listen online for free on SoundCloud — soundcloud.com Stream Rashi's Biblical Commentary - Lisa Fredman 12/1/15 by Revel Graduate School on desktop and mobile. Play over 265 million tracks for free on SoundCloud.
If you're doing Shnayim Mikra, or just want to review the parsha with Rashi, I can't recommend the OU AllParsha app enough. The feature I appreciate most is that it bolds the significant parts of the Targum so you can pay attention to what's going on with them. You can customize it so it's in Hebrew only or with English translation, and toggle Rashi on and off (among other settings). It'll send you a daily reminder if you want for one aliyah per day. There's also a podcast aspect to it that I haven't really explored.
I am always reading about twelve books simultaneously. One of the books on my overflowing nightstand is Prof. Yoel Elitzur's Places in the Parsha (Amazon link here). Designed to be read each week along with the parsha, it works well as a parsha companion, but less so as a comprehensive guide through Biblical places (despite being a substantial book). Nevertheless, the material covered is fascinating. Here's a review of it in Tradition by Rav Hayyim Angel.
The Rashi Threads
If you missed them, my two Rashi threads from Twitter are below (you don't have to have an account to read them, btw):
Get ready for Ibn Ezra, his very different take on Bible commentary from Rashi's, and plenty of medieval astrology.