Rabbi Shlomo bar Yitzchak, (“Solomon the son of Isaac”, also called Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki – hence the acronym “Rashi” by which he is almost universally described – was one of the most renowned of the Jewish scholars of medieval France. He is particularly remembered for his comprehensive commentaries on the Bible and the Talmud, and also for his rulings on questions of Jewish law, particularly relating to the rights of women.

Rashi was born in Troyes, then the capital of the Champagne region of France, into a family of scholars. As a young man he gained experience in trade and agriculture, and then he studied at the academies of Jewish learning at Mainz and Worms in the Rhineland. After returning to Troyes, he went into business as a wine merchant, and also set up his own rabbinical school, where he taught chosen students without a fee.

In the ninth century, Charlemagne, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 CE, ruled an empire comprising most of France and Germany. He invited Jews to come from Spain and settle in the market towns of the Rhineland in order to encourage international trade. The Jewish community flourished, and by the eleventh century it was distinguished by a high level of Biblical scholarship of which the work of Rashi was a typical example. However, the First Crusade began during his lifetime and in 1099 followers of the Crusaders attacked the Jews of the Rhineland in a wave of massacres, and Rashi lost many relatives and friends.

Rashi had three daughters, all learned in their own right, and it is said that they contributed to his work. There is also a tradition that they sought the spiritual satisfaction of observing some of the rituals usually performed by men, and that this was permitted by their father, as long as the relevant blessing was not recited. A blessing suitable for women was later composed by Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, one of a number of distinguished scholars descended from him.

Rashi’s Commentaries

A page of the Talmud, with Rashi’s commentary in one of the margins
Rashi is celebrated for his detailed word-for-word commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud, comprising an enormous volume of work which is still studied today as an essential text. Indeed the Rashi commentary on the Torah (the Five books of Moses which comprise the first five books of the Bible) remains very widely read, with most observant Jews having a “Torah with Rashi” in their basic library. It appears in hundreds of printed editions and in user-friendly indexed versions on the internet (e.g. http://www.rashiyomi.com/query1.htm ), and hundreds of super-commentaries have been written on the Rashi commentary.

Rashi’s commentaries on the Talmud appear in the margins of all the printed editions, with further commentaries in other margins. Among these is the ‘Tosefta’ (‘Supplement’) which includes comment by later medieval authorities including some of Rashi’s descendants, who sometimes differ from his conclusions.

Rashi’s commentaries are very concise, but wide-ranging in their references. They include Rashi’s selection from previous commentaries which are applicable to the particular sentence in the text, often from Midrash, collections of commentary and elaboration going back to the second century CE. There is also a linguistic analysis of the particular words in the text, sometimes with comparisons to the use of similar language elsewhere.

When reading Jewish biblical commentary it should be noted that the purpose of the interpreter may not always be to seek the true meaning of the original, but may often aim rather to elaborate on it in order to provide ethical teachings and insights.

Examples of Rashi’s commentaries

Genesis 11
5. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built…

“The Lord descended to see.”
He [actually] did not need to do this. This is intended to teach judges not to convict the accused before they have seen [the case] and understood [it]. [This is found] in Midrash R. Tanchuma.

Exodus 22
21. You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

“You shall not wrong” means ‘do not vex him with words’ (referring to the fact that he is a stranger); contrarier in Old French.

“Nor oppress him” – by robbing him of money.

“For you were strangers” – if you vex him he can also vex you by saying “You also descend from strangers”. Do not reproach your fellow man with a fault which is also yours. Wherever “stranger” occurs in scripture it signifies a person who was not born in that land (where he is living) but has come from another country to sojourn there.

Exodus 33:5
“If you see the ass of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall help him to lift it up.”

The word ki here has the meaning of ‘possibly’, ‘perhaps’, which is one of the four meanings of the word. The sense of the verse is therefore: Can you possibly see his ass crouching beneath his burden and forbear to help him?

The root ozev ‘helping’ has a similar meaning in Nehemiah 3:8 “and they supported Jerusalem up to the wall” i.e filling up with earth to help and support the strength of wall. [Note: This is a reference to the re-building of Jerusalem after the return from Babylon.]

“If you see etc” implies that there are occasions when you may forbear and occasions when you must help. How so? If it is an old man who sees the ass in this condition and it is not compatible with his dignity to intervene, then “you may forbear” holds good.

Legal Rulings

It is a Jewish custom that scholars such as Rashi who are widely recognized for their learning are consulted on difficult questions of Jewish law, and that they provide written ‘Teshuvot’, ‘Answers’, often described by the Latin term ‘Responsa’. Responsa are still written, and they are collected as important legal resources.

The period in which Rashi wrote was a time of great ferment in the development of Jewish matrimonial law. Rabbi Gershom of Mainz (960-1024) had made landmark rulings outlawing polygamy, and prohibiting divorce without the wife’s consent. Rashi was a student at Rabbi Gershom’s rabbinical academy, and he followed in his path of protecting women’s matrimonial rights.

One area which he considered was the third century rule that a wife who declares that “he is repulsive to me” is not obliged to have marital relations. Rashi interpreted that rule by stating that in such circumstances “she is not compelled to stay married, but he gives her a Bill of Divorcement.” This then had the result of freeing the wife to enable her to re-marry.

[Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), the respected philosopher who migrated from Spain to Egypt and became physician to Saladin, developed this aspect of the law further by providing procedures for compelling the husband to free the wife in such cases. As he put it, “A woman is not a slave, to be married to someone she hates.” Interestingly laws making divorce generally available in NSW were first introduced in 1873.]

Some rulings by Rashi in matrimonial cases

Example 1

“Herewith do I, the undersigned, answer him who has questioned me concerning the marriage of a certain girl who was married at a time when she and the groom, as well as the witnesses to the ceremony, had already been forced by Gentiles to disavow the Jewish religion.

I am of the opinion that this woman requires a bill of divorcement before she can marry another man. The marriage of a Jew who has even voluntarily become an apostate and then marries is legal [according to Jewish law]. For it is said [Joshua 7: 11] “Israel has sinned,” meaning [Sanhedrin 44a] that even though he has sinned he is still an Israelite. How much the more is this true in the case a£ all these forced converts who at heart are still loyal to God. Now in this particular case how their final conduct reflects their original attitude, for as soon as they were able to find some form of escape they returned to Judaism…

Solomon the son of Rabbi Isaac”

Example 2

Two people came to argue their case before Rabbi Solomon. The wife complained that her husband had divorced her but had not treated her in accordance with Jewish custom. He answered, “I have divorced you in accordance with the law. You have no claim, not even to the amount stipulated in the marriage contract, for I was deceived when I married you. It is evident that you are afflicted with skin trouble, and the signs of this disease appear on you, on your nose; and your face in general is breaking out with boils. Before your marriage you yourself suffered from this disease which you got from your family, some of whom are also afflicted with this sickness, and when I married you I was unaware of your hidden defects.”

“It’s not so,” she answered. “I was a hale and hearty woman when entering into marriage, and as for your saying that signs of a skin disease are visible on me, that is not so and never will be, for my whole body is in a healthy condition.” There were, however, two warts that had appeared on her face due to the suffering and vexation which she had experienced after her husband had driven her from his house, but concerning this a number of members of the community, who had known the husband for many years and had heard nothing of this trouble, testified: “She was a healthy woman when she entered into marriage, and we have never noticed at signs of skin trouble.”

The following decision was given by the rabbi in this dispute:

“First let me extend my greetings to those who have directed this question to me. Inasmuch as no physical defects were noticeable in this woman while she was in her father’s house, and they have developed only since her marriage, in her husband’s house, he has therefore no claim against her on the ground that she was physically unfit.

That man is conducting himself in a bad way and has shown that he is not acting like one of our father Abraham’s children whose nature it is to be kind to his fellowman, and particularly so to his own flesh with whom he has entered the covenant of marriage. If that husband had set his mind on keeping his wife as much as he had set his mind on getting rid of her, her charm would have grown on him. Behold our rabbis have said [Sotah 47a2] “Every spot has a charm for those who live in it,” even though it may be cursed with bad water and barren land. Similar is the charm exerted by a woman on her husband, and happy the man who has been fortunate enough to get such a wife and to acquire through her a share in life eternal.

Even among those who deny God we find many who do not reject their wives and whose wives in turn act in like manner toward them, for they believe that the good they do serves as an expiatory sacrifice for the sins they have committed. But this fellow, though a member of the household of our Father in heaven, has acted cruelly toward the wife of his youth.

According to the law it is incumbent upon him to treat her as custom prescribes for all Jewish women; and if he does not care to receive her back in kindness and in respect, then he must divorce her and pay her the entire amount stipulated in her marriage contract.”

SOURCE: Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook , (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1938), 301-303; 315-17.

Recommended: http://jewishdestiny.com/rashi/