Interview with Prof Eric Lawee about his new book on Rashi’s Commentary 

The Bible and the Talmud are certainly the two classic texts of Judaism. But what would be the third classic text? Prof Moshe Idel, says the obvious choice is the Zohar as the third classic text. This would certainly be true for the world of 21st century academic study of Judaism. However, there is another obvious choice: Rashi’s commentaries, [the acronym of the name of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040 – 1105)] who wrote a comprehensive commentary on the Bible and the Talmud, which has shaped Jewish thinking for a millennium. Yet, unlike the dozen books on the Zohar, which appeared last year, Rashi as a figure of Jewish intellectual history has not been given his due in historical scholarship. To remedy this lack, Eric Lawee has produced a wonderful new book Rashi’s ‘Commentary on the Torah’: Canonization and Resistance in the Reception of a Jewish Classic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) 

rashi book

Eric Lawee is Professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University where he specializes in Jewish biblical interpretation in medieval and modern times. He holds the Weiser Chair for Research into Medieval Jewish Biblical Interpretation and directs Bar-Ilan’s Institute for Jewish Bible Interpretation. His doctorate was from Prof Isadore Twersky at Harvard University. His first book, Isaac Abarbanel’s Stance Toward Tradition: Defense, Dissent, and Dialogue (2001), won a Canadian Jewish Book Award and was a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award.

This new book Rashi’s ‘Commentary on the Torah’:  (tablet of contents here)  treats Rashi as figure in Jewish intellectual history, fielding major questions such as the nature of the Rashi text, its reception, and his critics. Lawee summaries much of the Rashi scholarship of Avraham Grossman, Yisrael Ta-Shma, and Elazar Touitou who contextualize Rashi as a text without a critical edition, as open in scribal editions, and as having 10% or more as comments by other’s hands than Rashi’s.

Unlike the widely known literary method on Nechama Leibowitz, who credited every comment as having an antecedent question based on textual irregularities, a historical perspective yields a text with a clear medieval European context and that many of the comments were to give a midrashic worldview that fit Rashi’s medieval theology. In other words, Rashi is not a neutral baseline of the meaning of the text, rather a painter of an 11th century theological world, as fabulous and as supernatural as other texts of its time.

One of Rashi’s key themes was the defense of Judaism against the idolatrous Christian worldview. In addition, to give a theology of the special chosenness of the Jewish people and the miracles done for them.  Philosophically and scientifically informed commentaries written in other geocultural centers found Rashi lacking. They saw magic, supernaturalism, and lack of rationality. Lawee does not detail the theology of Rashi in a topical manner, rather as an unfolding of history showing how Rashi became accepted despite detractors. Hence, there is no direct discussion on topics such as Rashi’s belief in Divine corporeality. No longer are the rationalists the innovators; rather both the scientifically educated and those without such education are both contextualized.  Lawee made creative use of his Maimonidean training under Prof Twersky to produce this dialectic reading of the medieval tradition.

The biggest novelty of the book is Lawee’s presentation of the rational critics of Rashi: Eleazar Ashkenazi, a 14th-century Maimonidean; Pseudo-Rabad, who also probably wrote in the 14th century. (his attack on Rashi was so harsh that a later reader mutilated the sole surviving manuscript of his work, crossing out Pseudo-Rabad’s harshest expressions); and  Aaron Aboulrabi, a 15th-century offshoot of the Sefardic exegetical tradition. The Mediterranean Levantine readers saw Rashi as an exegete who lacked basic skills and who propounded a version of Judaism they deemed distorted, or even dangerous. One is not expecting there to be Biblical commentaries who found Rashi “ridiculous” or exemplifying a “girl’s fantasies,” or giving the “drash of a dolt”.

Eventually, Rashi was not only accepted but became a staple of Jewish education with claims that nearly 300 commentaries were  written on his commentary. The book also deals with how Rashi’s readers soften Rashi’s views by harmonizing them with the more rational scientific view. They would remove the radical difference of Rashi’s view from their own. A method still done today when 21st century Jews read medieval texts. People do not want Rashi to sound too close to Sefer Hasidim. 

After finishing this book, one feels that one has just put down a great piece of scholarship. A book that is deserving of its forthcoming awards. One that will now be on the reading list of every Jewish educator who teaches Rashi and on the reading list of every graduate student. The years put into this project show in the wonderful final product. The book is almost 500 pages, almost 270 pages of texts and 200 pages of footnotes. In some ways, that is the one drawback to the book. Those who have already read some of the antecedent literature will best understand much of this massive summary of earlier scholarship, especially on the text and early reception. The chapter on the early reception moved at a breakneck speed, a tad too fast to absorb even though I have read the prior literature. This book is groundbreaking for opening up new avenues of research on Rashi’s thought, on medieval intellectual trends, and on the exegetic imagination.

Interview with Prof Eric Lawee about his new book on Rashi

1)      Who is Rashi & what is his Commentary on the Torah

Solomon ben Isaac (1040–1105)—also known as Shlomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi—is one of post-talmudic Judaism’s towering figures. His stature owes to the fact that, astonishingly, he managed to write the classic commentaries on the two classic books of Judaism: the Bible, especially the Torah; and the Babylonian Talmud. His Commentary on the Torah stands out as the most widely studied and influential Hebrew Bible commentary ever composed. It has decisively shaped Jews’ perceptions of their faith’s foundational documents. Its readers have included all strata of Jewish society: young and old, scholars and lay persons, men and women. Contemporary biblical commentator Avivah Zornberg offers a vivid metaphor to help give a sense of the Commentary’s fate: it was “absorbed into the bloodstream of Jewish culture.”

2) Is there a critical edition of Rashi? Is there a unified text?

There is no critical edition of the Commentary. Indeed, no medieval Jewish work experienced as many textual fluctuations as the Commentary. This has led scholars to grapple with the difficulty of establishing any final version of the Commentary in light of numerous variant witnesses and the lack of an autograph manuscript.

The reasons for the variations are many, some common to medieval texts and some more uniquely applicable to Rashi’s work in particular. There were, of course, scribal errors and conjectural emendations of the work. In the period of the work’s transmission in manuscript, there were also elisions of Rashi’s text with jottings placed in the margins of various copies that were incorporated, as if Rashi wrote them, into later versions. Rashi is also remarkable for his effort to refine and revise his interpretations over time, sometimes due to new discoveries but on occasion simply as part of an effort to make his work more “user-friendly” (by, say, relocating a comment to a new location). The Commentary proves to be an extreme case of what Israel Ta-Shma calls “the open book.” By this he means a tendency of medieval authors to circulate different versions of a work in unfinished form. Ta-Shma compares this to computerized databases which are refreshed to give the user a summary of data known at the time of the latest updating.

An example of an addition, this one amazingly late, is a famous expression Rashi puts in the mouth of Jacob at the time of a fraught encounter that he has with his older brother Esau. Rashi has the patriarch say: “I dwelled with the wicked Laban [my uncle], yet I observed the 613 commandments and did not learn from his evil ways.” The comment begins to appear in the Commentary only a half-millennium after Rashi ceased putting pen to paper, in printed versions of his work.

3) What percentage of the text is probably Rashi?

Scholars can’t agree and the issue enters us into a thicket of methodological dispute.

A common idea, espoused for example by Abraham Grossman, is that about 90 percent of the version in use today actually left Rashi’s pen but some scholars would say this estimate is too high. Among them is Elazar Touitou, who argues that one can only be certain that a comment is original if it appears in all good manuscripts, requiring a painstaking comparison of many manuscripts to allow one to spot the “non-Rashi” comments embedded in the text.

Grossman promotes the virtues of a particular manuscript now found in Leipzig. It is increasingly seen by many scholars as the best if not uniquely definitive witness of the Commentary due to its association with Rashi’s close pupil, Shemaiah. For me, the textual issue was not central since my book focuses on the Commentary’s reception. What counts in such a study, or so I suggest, is that a comment was received as a genuine part of Rashi’s interpretation of the Torah by a later reader or migrated as such to a particular locale, circulating as what “Rashi said.”

4)      What is the role of midrash in his commentary? Why is it not closure?

The most striking feature of Rashi’s reading of the Bible is its mixture of what Rashi calls peshuto shel miqra and the classical midrashic expositions.

Peshuto shel miqra is an elusive term often rendered as “biblical plain sense” or the “contextual” interpretation. Classical midrashic expositions that Rashi routinely drew often have an exegetically fanciful character that put them at a far remove from the plain sense.

As for the exact role played by midrash in Rashi’s work, it is complex and, to this day, hotly debated. On one level, Rashi uses midrashim to address countless ever-so-slight “surface irregularities” (a usage of James Kugel) in scripture such as apparent redundancies.

On another level, midrash infuses his Commentary with a profusion of theological ideas and elements of pastoral reassurance. For example, despite a medieval world divided between the “cross” and the “crescent” in which Jews lived under either Christians or Muslims as a tiny minority, and at times a persecuted one (Rashi’s lifetime coincides with the violent assaults on German Jewish communities during the First Crusade of 1096), Rashi frequently reassures his reader via his midrashic teachings that God’s love for Israel is eternal and that the Jews remain, despite the evidence, the “chosen people.”

In terms of closure (or, really, lack thereof), here are two points to consider. First, Rashi does not explain the meaning of the midrashim that he adduces, leaving readers to ponder their purport. Second, these midrashim comprise an elusive and allusive way to teach one’s message whose constituents remained pliably open to interpretation, and sometimes begged for it. This being so, the Commentary has a capacity to generate a successive unfolding of meaning as the divine word is refracted through Rashi’s commentary and, in turn, the varied lenses worn by his diverse readers.

5) What was the role of science and external wisdom (or the lack thereof) in the debates concerning Rashi?

Throughout the Middle Ages, as today, Jewish scholars (and of course many others) debated the relationship between religion and reason, or faith and science. Some saw science, what was sometimes called “external wisdom,” as incompatible with Judaism—or worse, highly subversive of it. Others, most famously Moses Maimonides, insisted that human perfection consisted primarily of the perfection of the intellect and that mastery of sciences was the royal road to spiritual achievement.

Rashi, living in an Ashkenazic cultural setting, was oblivious to such sciences, and his rationalist critics could lament or even excoriate his scientific ignorance. Yet Rashi could also be heralded by those suspicious of intellectualist ideas and aspirations. To give an example, we hear from followers of Maimonides that in a major intercommunal controversy over rationalism in the 1230s traditionalists opposed to rationalism issued a remarkable fiat. It proclaimed that acceptance of Rashi’s interpretations of classical (biblical and talmudic) texts was a binding precept of Judaism! One such follower responds: if some wish to declare Rashi their sole “beloved,” so be it, just as long as these self-appointed “princes and judges” do not foist this choice on others “without our consent.”

To speak in these terms is to emphasize a side of the Commentary that has received short shrift: its role as a source of ideas in Jewish intellectual history. Rashi’s careful selection and at times decisive reformulation of midrash shaped perceptions of the Torah’s teachings.

I think one reason Rashi’s enormous impact on this score has been obscured is his use of the commentary genre. People tend to assume a work that looks back to an earlier text is a “mere” commentary, with no ideas of its own. The Commentary was, of course, a commentary meant to expound the Torah, but it can also be seen as an important work of Jewish thought that is true to the texture of classical Jewish thinking which, as Michael Fishbane puts it, takes the form of an ongoing exegetical process in which ideas “arise hermeneutically.”

6)      Can you briefly summarize his reception in the various medieval Jewish communities?

Over the course of the Middle Ages the Commentary attained its status as the closest thing Judaism has to a canonical commentary on scripture. In the end, the Commentary endured: in Jewish education, in the synagogue, in sermons, and in the public square. Along the way to acceptance, the commentary saw a wide range of responses by individual writers and communities that I trace in several chapters of my book.

In Rashi’s native Franco-German (Ashkenazic) realm, there was initial criticism, most notably by his own grandson Samuel ben Meir, also known as Rashbam, of Rashi’s overly midrashic interpretive approach. This dissipated somewhat in following generations and over time it was replaced by evermore intense study of Rashi and increasingly submissive reverence for him.

In Spain, the Commentary became a classic, but not without reservations. The most important and complex figure is Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides), an astonishingly multifaceted communal leader and sage who also wrote a commentary on the Torah. In that work, Rashi’s place was central, with Nahmanides citing the Commentary in an estimated 40 percent of his own comments.

One scholar writes that Nahmanides is for the most part favorably disposed to Rashi’s commentary but this judgment is more than a little facile. His generally respectful tone notwithstanding, Nahmanides often criticizes Rashi, especially for his frequent failure to uncover the true biblical “plain sense.” Later writers were quite attuned to Nahmanides’ trenchant criticisms of Rashi and sought to rebut them.

7) How did Spanish commentaries bring Rashi in step with Sefardic teachings?

Spain sees another significant trend that enabled the Commentary to be “naturalized” there. Problematic elements in the work were read by Spanish scholars in ways that put them in step with Sefardic teachings and sensibilities. This development is writ large in many Spanish commentaries on the Commentary (such works are often called “supercommentaries”) written by a large number of now largely forgotten scholars whose voices I recover in the book (e.g., Samuel Almosnino, Moses ibn Gabbai).

To give an example, Rashi cites a strange midrash to explain Adam’s cry of “This one at last is bone of my bones” (Gen 2:23). The midrash ascribes serial acts of bestiality to Adam. In the case of many Spanish supercommentators on Rashi as well as several more famous Sefardic Torah commentators, like Isaac Arama and Isaac Abarbanel, the notion of actual sexual congress between the first model of humanity and animals was impossible to accept. But rather than reject the midrash that Rashi made famous, their refusal to take the midrash literally paves the way for a new interpretation that takes Adam’s mating with beasts as a metaphor for an act of cognitive discernment as he probed each animal’s nature in his quest to find a fitting soulmate. In this way a strange midrash that Rashi cites without compunction, one that Sefardic readers found implausible or repellent in its literal sense, is made to conjure a noetic act that imbues the midrash, and thence the Commentary, with deep meaning.

8) Was there dissent or resistance to Rashi?

Not everywhere did the Commentary attain primacy in the Middle Ages. In many cases there was indifference but my book also focusses a lot on centers of Jewish learning, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, where Abraham ibn Ezra is the exegetical hero, not Rashi. One startling finding, treated in the three chapters that comprise part 2 of the book, is the phenomenon of hitherto unknown harsh resistance to the Commentary by those whom I call “Rashi’s resisting readers.” Three main figures are discussed from this veritable Babel of conflicting Jewish intellectual and literary expressions.

One is Eleazar Ashkenazi ben Natan Ha-Bavli, a 14th-century Maimonidean whose work, copied in Crete in the early fifteenth century, was plundered by the Nazis and has only recently been recovered.

The second is an anonymous writer whom I call Pseudo-Rabad, who also probably wrote in the 14th century. His attack on Rashi was so harsh that a later reader mutilated the sole surviving manuscript of his work, crossing out Pseudo-Rabad’s harshest expressions. (The cover image of my book depicts the results of this literary violence.)

A third critic was Aaron Aboulrabi, a 15th-century offshoot of the Sefardic exegetical tradition who wandered the Mediterranean and claims to have engaged in a discussion in Rome about the tabernacle cherubs with a pope and his cardinals.

So the critics are a colorful bunch but they are also serious scholars whose engagement with the Commentary brings to the fore competing Jewish visions regarding interpretive method, the status of midrash, scripture as a repository of scientific teaching, and more.

9)      Why did scholars situated in the Eastern Mediterranean show resistance to Rashi?

Why this region provided such salubrious soil for Rashi criticism is not entirely clear but in the book I posit a number of factors. One is the region’s status as a Jewish multicultural mecca where wildly divergent ideas arrived from abroad and generated intrareligious conflict. Rashi became a target, especially for rationalists who saw in him an exegete who lacked basic skills and who propounded a version of Judaism they deemed distorted, or even dangerous. Another, though this one remains to be investigated, is the apparent lack of outstanding rabbinic authorities in the East who could suppress dissident expressions such as those found in the writings of the resisting readers. Another possible contextual element is the high degree of Jewish mobility in the East, which may have created a space for more unfettered expression. Not rooted in any place, certain scholars may have felt free to speak their minds about Rashi and even write without fear of reprisal—or in the knowledge that a safe haven on another Aegean island was not far away.

10) What was the critique of Eliezer Ashkenazi? Why was Rashi considered “ridiculous and risible” in his eyes?

Ashkenazi criticizes Rashi from the perspective of an uncompromising rationalism that frequently views midrashic interpretations in the Commentary as misguided and that finds Rashi propounding a scandalously unscientific understanding of the Torah.

An example is a midrash cited by Rashi to explain the assertion that “all flesh (kol basar) had corrupted its ways on earth” (Gen 6:12). According to Rashi, the corruption involved “all flesh” just as the Torah says, including the subhuman creatures. Specifically, Rashi asserts that “even domestic animals, beasts, and birds cohabited with those not of their own kind.” By implication, then, the fauna shared responsibility with humankind for the depravity that had evoked the divinely wrought flood.

Eleazar objects to the midrash on the fauna’s sins for multiple reasons. First, inter-special breeding is an act no more unnatural for animals than the more frequently attested behavior of conspecific mating or promiscuity. Second, it is untenable that the destruction of the fauna reflected a sin since animals lack a capacity for “choice,” hence are devoid of a capacity for moral (or immoral) action. To these scientific claims Eleazar adds that individual animals are not subject to individual divine providence and thence reward and punishment. Rashi’s exposition, opposed as it is to demonstrated scientific truth and what Eleazar takes to be “Judaism 101,” has to be rejected.

But there is rejection and then there is rejection. Here is where  “ridiculousness and risibility,” a phrase that appears in the title of my chapter on Eleazar, comes in. About Rashi’s idea of the “sins of the fauna” Eleazar says: one can only “laugh at the derash that every species paired with a species not of its kind.” He also calls the idea “ridiculousness and risibility.” In so doing, he hearkens to the manner in which he refers to Rashi, which is by way of his patronymic “Isaac / Yiṣḥaq”— a name that summons the laughter associated with the biblical Isaac (Gen 17:17, 18:12, 21:6). In short, Eleazar deploys ridicule as a weapon in order to undermine the one whom he calls “Ha-Yitzhaqi.”

In so doing, I suggest that Eleazar anticipates advocates of modern Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries who criticized orthodoxy. Leo Strauss casts the latter as figures who “had to laugh orthodoxy out of the position from which it could not be driven by any other means.” Eleazar cultivates this sort of subversive laughter to delegitimize the Commentary.

11)      What does the critique or comments of Abraham Kirimi show?

Kirimi is a 14th-century Crimean Torah commentator who displays plain sense sensibilities and a rationalist outlook. His approach to Rashi shows that criticism of the Commentary did not have to be an all-or-nothing affair. Kirimi can praise midrashim of Rashi in one line and tell his reader in the next one to “pay no heed to Rashi’s words” since they lack grounding in the method of plain sense interpretation.

An example that shows his critical side concerns Lamech’s polygamy (Gen 4:19–24). Rashi cites a midrash that had Lamech opt for an exploitative division of labor, with one wife for breeding and the other for nonprocreative sexual gratification. Rashi takes the name of the second wife, Zillah, to allude to her role as an object of Lamech’s self-indulgence: “she would always sit in his shadow (ṣilo).” But Kirimi rejects such wobbly midrashic readings that derive meaning from names in this way, asking: “[W]ho can fathom the meaning of every name?”

Kirimi also points to another trend mentioned above: valorization of Abraham ibn Ezra, and Maimonides, at Rashi’s expense. In this way, he is one of many who figures in an overarching theme of the book; namely, Ibn Ezra and Maimonides as Rashi’s opposite numbers in a competition for canonical supremacy in a late medieval struggle for Judaism’s soul. This phenomenon is attested in many Mediterranean seats of Jewish learning. In the end, the Commentary’s Judaism emerged triumphant.

12) What was the critique of Rashi by the author whom you call Pseudo Rabad? How was it part of a broader critique of Rabbinic Midrash?

The figure whom I call Pseudo-Rabad authored the most concentrated assault on Rashi’s biblical scholarship in the annals of Jewish literature. It comes down under the title Book of Strictures in which Rabbi Abraham ben David Censured Our Rabbi Solomon the Frenchman. Pseudo-Rabad’s varied formulae of condemnation stand in a class all their own, forming a steady a drumbeat of disparagement in which Rashi is repeatedly said to have “erred,” “blundered,” or worse.

Pseudo-Rabad criticizes the Commentary by contrasting it with an understanding of scripture grounded in canons of plain sense interpretation and steeped in rational criteria of credibility. For example, showing his strong anti-magical spirit, Pseudo-Rabad negates a midrash adduced by Rashi that has Moses killing the Egyptian who struck a Hebrew slave by pronouncing the Tetragrammaton. Implied by the midrash was divine authorization for the slaying in a manner that subdued all moral qualms. Though presumably based in theological opposition, the point of attack is, in the first instance, exegetical.

Pseudo-Rabad denies any prompt for this reading, although midrashists find such a hint in a strange response to Moses by the Hebrew maltreating his brother: “Do you say to kill me?” (Exod 2:14). The implication is that the Hebrew anticipated an end similar to that experienced by the taskmaster, not through physical force but through deployment of the divine name. To bolster his view that the Egyptian’s demise was effected naturally, Pseudo-Rabad notes Moses’ effort to hide the crime by burying the victim. Such an expedient born of fear would, he implies, have been unnecessary if the killing was achieved through supernatural means.

13)      What should we make of the fact Aaron Aboulrabi of Sicily speaks of midrashim of Rashi as “girl’s fantasies” but also as “sweet midrash”?

Aboulrabi can express wildly divergent views of Rashi’s midrashim. On one hand, he does not scruple to hurl invective at “the Straight One,” as he calls Rashi, and at Rashi’s rabbinic forerunners. Yet if he shares the incapacity for prevarication characteristic of Eleazar Ashkenazi and Pseudo-Rabad, Aboulrabi is also open to appreciation of Rashi’s interpretive successes and can, in rare instances, go so far as to speak of “sweet” fruits of the midrashic hermeneutic.

Aaron Aboulrabi evaluates the Commentary on the basis of its consonance with the scriptural plain sense and frequently finds it wanting. He also promotes an approach nourished by considerations of plausibility. Take God’s command to Moses to write “all the words of this Torah” on stones to be erected after the Israelites cross the Jordan (Deut 27:8). Rashi, on the authority of the Mishnah, contended that the Torah was engraved on the stones in “seventy languages.” Sensing, like others before him, a major logistical challenge, Aboulrabi assesses that only “fundamentals of the Torah,” the commandments in a bare litany, appeared, since “not even a thousand stones could encompass” the Torah in its entirety (let alone in seventy languages).

14)   What were Aboulrabi’s criticisms of “drash of a barbarian” and “drash of a dolt”? Why, in his opinion, did the Commentary not always cast biblical figures accurately?

Aboulrabi mocks a midrash that purports to explain the report that the Egyptian Pharaoh went down to the Nile in the morning (Exod 7:15). Rashi says it was because he claimed divinity and tried to hide his need to relieve himself. Aboulrabi calls this “the derash of a dolt,” asking: had Pharaoh no way to relieve himself in a concealed place such that he had to go down to the river? Here is a straightforward rejection of a midrash of Rashi on the grounds that it lacks logic.

Aboulrabi’s disdain for midrashim reaches a crescendo in his handling of the sensitive issue of sins or moral failings of biblical heroes. Rashi tends to justify seemingly problematic words or deeds of such heroes. Aboulrabi is willing to see them more at “eye level” (as modern Hebrew usage has it).

In dealing with conduct apparently unbecoming of biblical greats, medieval exegetes juggle various factors including the plain meaning of the text, the educational value of defending the Jewish people’s ancestors, and findings in the rabbinic record. As the Middle Ages wore on, new factors arose, including a surprising tendency of some Christian polemicists to paint unflattering images of Israel’s ancestors in order to excoriate their Jewish posterity.

Aboulrabi can finds the black-and-white evaluations of biblical figures that often appear in the Commentary severely lacking. Among instances where Aboulrabi impugns such an evaluation, Jacob’s conduct in procuring his father’s blessing stands out. Where Jacob told Isaac “I am Esau, your firstborn” (Gen 27:19), Rashi configures his meaning by dividing this utterance into two and having Jacob add mental reservations as needed: “I am the one who brings [food] to you and Esau he is your first-born.”

To Aboulrabi, it is clear that Jacob’s reply “was a lie” and Rashi’s midrashic artifice of twisting words to preserve their technical veracity “full of wind.” It violates the main principle of human communication—that the aim of speech is to convey truth to another. It is the auditor’s understanding that is determinative in assessing truthful speech in such cases, not some sly equivocation or mental reservation on the part of the speaker. Needless to say, this is not exactly traditionalist Jewish fare, not least because, as always, it is Rashi’s interpretation that has become known among Jewish readers over the ages.

15)   What was the critique of Allilot devarim? What was the book?

Sefer ‘Alilot devarim (Book of Accusations) is a peculiar specimen of late medieval Jewish rationalism. The earliest manuscript dates from 1468 but it may have been written as much as a century or so earlier. Like Pseudo-Rabad, it is written under a penname: “Rabbi Palmon ben Pelet,” described as “a son of ‘Anonymous,’ who married a daughter of ‘So-and-So.’” Its author puts satirical genius in the service of exposure of the obscurantism that, in his view, had come to degrade Jewish life in post-talmudic times. As part of his critique, the author claims that Rashi’s biblical commentaries in general, and Commentary in particular, distance Jews from rationality. Indeed, he insists that the Commentary effects confusion “with respect to the perfection of souls.” In writing those words, he must have had in mind the intellectualist vision of human perfection promoted by his hero, Maimonides.

16)   What role did the commentators such as Elijah Mizrahi play in Rashi’s triumph?

Many factors commended the Commentary, even leaving aside its author’s status as a towering scholar and singular reputation as the foremost commentator on the Talmud. The Commentary explained the Torah in concise and digestible glosses. It provided a more or less continuous running account of the Torah’s narratives and laws where many later commentators glossed the Torah only intermittently. It offered an exposition of the Torah basically in harmony with the authoritative rabbinic corpora, and more. No other commentator could compete on these scores.

One mechanism for the Commentary’s triumph was the extraordinary number of commentaries that it attracted, with the most famous that of the sixteenth-century Ottoman rabbi Elijah Mizrahi, who passed away in 1526. How the phenomenon of commentary promotes a work is a large question but the most basic way is in selecting a text as an object of exposition, thereby potentially initiating or confirming a process of canonization. More important than the number of commentaries is what the enduring succession of glosses—which continues down to the present—betokens; namely, the Commentary’s capacity for sustaining ongoing reading in a way that is of the essence in mechanics of canonization in rabbinic Judaism.

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