Our Master, May He Live


by Avraham Grossman, translated by Joel Linsider

The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 344 pp., $64.50

I spent the summer after high school in the Poconos with a group of other recent graduates learning how to become a Camp Ramah counselor. One of our teachers was a remarkable young Israeli, a Jewish type none of us had yet encountered. He had a long, squared-off black beard, a high forehead crowned with a knitted kippa, khaki shorts, and army boots. He taught us “Chumash with Rashi,” effortlessly leafing through his well-thumbed Hebrew Pentateuch with the medieval commentators. Whether we understood it or not, he was making the case that Rashi was not just solving problems of biblical interpretation, he was also arguing that God’s love for the Jewish people was the main point of the Bible. For our teacher, Dov Rappel, who went on to a distinguished intellectual career in Israel, this was as true nowadays as when Rashi wrote it.

Rashi stamp from France

Postage stamp of Rashi issued by the French government, 2005. (Courtesy of The Leiman Library, New York.)

Jewish biographies are everywhere, but few if any subjects can lay claim to the importance of Rabbi Shlomo b. Isaac (1040–1105), commonly known by the acronym Rashi (on which, more later). Avraham Grossman, a distinguished medieval Jewish historian, professor emeritus at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and winner of the prestigious Israel Prize, is arguably the most learned scholar today writing about the life and works of Rashi. This biography originally appeared in Hebrew in a series produced by The Zalman Shazar Center, whose other subjects include classical figures such as 10th-century Baghdadi rabbinic master Saadia Gaon and Moses Maimonides, as well as iconic moderns like Theodor Herzl and the poet Leah Goldberg, all of them written by comparably distinguished experts for the general Israeli reader.

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About the Author

Ivan G. Marcus is the Frederick P. Rose Professor of Jewish History at Yale University. He is the author of several books including Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe (Yale University Press).


Shimon on June 17, 2014 at 11:49 pm
Thank you, Mr. Marcus. Rashi on the chumash has certainly had an immense influence. It encapsulates, edits, and serially presents Jewish tradition in such a way that one hardly knows that a grand process of invention is going on. For countless Jews of all ages, rabbinic thought was and still is filtered through Rashi. A friend of mine called him "the Jewish Leonardo," and he was certainly a great inventor; but his genius was more unobtrusive, patient, and practical. He carefully sewed together the oral and written tradition, verse by verse, until for most readers the seam disappears. Even when his words sit only a few millimeters from contradictory words by Ibn Ezra or Rashbam. His consistency and brevity make him tower over the others.

Rashi's more obviously creative counterpart, and the proper sharer of any prize for most influential Jewish writer since the Talmud, is Moshe ben Shem Tov de Leon, who claimed to have rediscovered the Zohar. Like Rashi, R. Moshe combined "traditional" content with the text in a way that has satisfied and spurred the imagination of thousands. He made his synthesis equally "real" for many (including many who know better). His creative and contrarian interpretations inhabit the text side-by-side with Rashi's midrashic ones; people base their daily lives on their patient creations. It is remarkable.

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