(Part of the Jewish Encounters Series)
By Elie Wiesel
Schocken Books/Nextbook, 2009, 110 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - September 3, 2009
Elie Wiesel faced at least four formidable problems in writing this biography of the most popular and pleasing Jewish Bible and Talmud commentator. First, how can a writer, even one as expert as Elie Wiesel, write about someone when virtually no facts are known about his life, only legends? Second, since all that is really known about Rashi is his commentaries on the Bible and Talmud, how should these commentaries be presented to a popular audience? Third, scholars know that Rashi wrote his commentary based on certain suppositions - many of which would not interest the general reader and many would be rejected by the general population - should these suppositions be discussed? Isn't it necessary to point them out since a person cannot understand Rashi's Bible comments without knowing these suppositions? Fourth, Rashi believed in supernatural beings, including demons, should a biographer mention these disquieting matters or hide them?
This volume is part of a series of books published in a collaboration between Schocken and Nextbook on Jewish personalities and subjects. The publishers decided not to have scholars write these books, but to use people who write well. As a result, virtually all the books fail to delve into their subjects in any great depth, certainly not scholarly depth, and they generally present some facts that scholars would dispute. Yet, despite this, the books in the series are very readable and they offer information that the general public does not know and should know. By picking the Noble Prize winner Elie Wiesel to write this volume, the publishers chose a man who, although not a scholar on the subject of Rashi, knows Judaism and Rashi very well and knows how to present his story in an exemplary fashion.
The first problem is dramatized by a rabbi who delivered a rather long lecture in which he introduced his congregants to this French Bible and Talmud commentator Rashi. He mentioned Rashi's date of birth as 1040 although this is uncertain and his date of death as 1105, even though the first mention of this date is in a document written about two centuries after the scholar's death. Unable to relate any facts, the rabbi told legends that he obviously found in some book written for children. He awed his audience with a narration of miraculous events associated with Rashi's birth. He described how Rashi made his money by growing vines and bottling wines, when there is no evidence that this is true. Wiesel recognized this problem and wrote: "Yes, we need imagination in order to write about him." Wiesel tells some of the legends that fascinated the rabbi and his audience, but unlike the rabbi, he informs his readers that they are legends. Instead of inventing facts about the man, Wiesel relates the history of the time that Rashi lived and reasonably assumes the impact that the persecutions must have had upon him.
Wiesel resolves the second problem by devoting the bulk of his book to the commentaries that Rashi wrote on the Bible. By taking this approach, Wiesel shows why Rashi's readers loved him. Rashi drew fascinating stories from Midrashim and placed them into his commentary. Reading these midrashic tales as children was quite exciting. Midrashim are books that collected fanciful engaging stories that were written as parables and teaching aids – enjoyable and sometimes even exiting accounts - that for the most part were never intended to be understood as true history or the true meaning of scriptural passages. However, Rashi and others, such as Nachmanides in the thirteenth century, took these tales as true facts and use them to explain the Bible.
Thus, for example, Rashi introduced his readers to the delightful midrashic report that God made Abraham's son Isaac look exactly like him so that people could not say that Abraham was too old to have children and his wife Sarah must have had her son from the Philistine king Elimelekh who had abducted her.
Or, another example, the patriarch Jacob was concerned that his soon to be father in law Laban would substitute Leah in place of her sister, his beloved Rachel, on their wedding night; so he and Rachel agreed on a code that she would mention in the dark, and Jacob would know that it was her. But Rachel gave the code to Leah and Jacob was fooled after all. It is hard to forget stories like these, stories learnt as children. And what is more, Rashi had a very pleasing writing style, and he improved the narratives by rewriting the Midrashim in a more lucid, colorful and understandable manner.
Rashi's grandson, Rashbam, who wrote a generally rational Bible commentary, criticized his grandfather rather harshly for inserting these midrashic explanations into his commentary. He chastised him for not sticking to the plain meaning of the biblical passages. In Rashbam's commentary on Genesis 37:1, he told his readers that he upbraided his grandfather for the way he explained the Torah, and that Rashi assured him that he agreed with him. Rashi told him that if he had years to write a new commentary, he would write it like Rashbam wrote his commentary.
In Genesis 49:17, where Rashi states that the verse is referring to the judge Samson, who would not be born for another couple of centuries, Rashbam angrily writes that anyone who thinks that 49:17 is speaking about Samson doesn't know how to understand the Torah.
The great eleventh century rationalist Abraham ibn Ezra, who lived around the same time, wrote mockingly: Rashi states that he translates the Torah according to its plain meaning and he is correct – one time out of a thousand.
Wiesel chose not to reveal that hardly any of Rashi's comments on the Bible are original. Virtually all of his comments are based on these Midrashim and the Targums. Rashi used Targum Onkelos, the late fourth century Aramaic translation of the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch, for the plain meaning of the Pentateuch. He averages several usages of the Targum on every page, sometimes naming the Targum, but more frequently not. He uses his rewrites of the Midrashim for most of his other comments.
Wiesel also does not reveal Rashi's style. This is the third problem that Wiesel faced. The tales that Rashi tells are engaging, but why did he write them? Yes, he thought they were facts, but he tells his readers repeatedly that he intended to offer Scripture's plain meaning. Why then did he feel obliged to include Midrashim?
In the second century, there were two outstanding figures that argued how the Bible was written and how it should be understood. Rabbi Akiva, whose idea were generally accepted by many rabbis, including Rashi and most Midrashim, insisted that the Bible was a document in which every word, even every letter, was composed by God. Now God is all-knowing and infallible; thus the document He composed, the Torah, must not have any superfluous words or letters; God said exactly what he meant to say, no more and no less. If a biblical verse seems to repeat itself, the seeming repetition must be saying something that is not in the first phrase.
Rabbi Ishmael had an opposite view. He argued that the Bible was composed for people and must have been written in ways that people could understand. Like people talk, the Torah contains metaphors and other figures of speech that should not be taken literally; it has hyperbole; it repeats ideas for various reasons, including emphasis, just as humans do. While great sages like Rashi follow Rabbi Akiva's methodology, People like Saadiah Gaon, Rashbam, ibn Ezra and Maimonides accepted the second approach.
Once Rashi's approach to Torah is known, it becomes understandable why Rashi wrote what he did. He saw words in the Torah that seemed to him to be superfluous or seemed like an exaggeration, and he felt obliged to explain the verse according to its plain meaning as he understood it using Rabbi Akiva methodology.
For example, In Deuteronomy 13:5, the Torah states that the Israelites should serve God and cleave to Him. Rabbi Ishmael would see these apparently two statements as expressing a single idea, to worship God. However, Sifrei and Rashi, following their methodology, saw the Bible speaking about two acts. The first means serve God in His sanctuary or Holy Temple, and the second the obligation to behave properly in daily life.
Ibn Ezra, to cite another example, following the methodology of Rabbi Ishmael, notes that Deuteronomy 13:6 mentions that the Israelites were both "freed" and redeemed," and states that the Torah is speaking of a single act, but the Torah uses the two verbs to strengthen its argument. Sifrei and Rashi, following the way of Rabbi Akiva, understand the verse to say, even if God only "freed" you, it would have been sufficient reason to obey Him; now that He also "redeemed" you, how much more are you obligated to obey Him.
Thus, while it is interesting and entertaining to read Rashi's comments, readers cannot really understand why Rashi is saying what he says unless they understand what prompted him to make the interesting remark. Also, most scholars would insist that Scripture itself does not even hint what Rashi felt he had to read into the verse, and what he is saying about supposedly historical events never occurred.
The fourth problem is whether one should reveal Rashi's worldview, an understanding of life that is far different than that of the twenty first century.
As virtually all of his contemporaries, Jew and non-Jew, Rashi saw a world filled with angels that people could turn to for assistance and demons who hovered around them to entice them.
His world was ruled by astrological forces which threatened the ancient Israelites, such as in Exodus 10:10, when Pharaoh warns Moses that if he takes the Israelites from Egypt, he will face the consequences of ra, which simply means evil consequences, but which Rashi states means the adverse impact of a particular astrological formation.
Rashi was convinced that God rewards people for the good that they do; and if they have no immediate need for the reward, it can be stored, as if placed in a bank account, and used by future generations, even if the future people do not deserve it themselves – a concept he and many other rabbis called zechut avot, ancestral merit. These notions are not explicit in the Bible but are mentioned by some rabbis in the Talmuds and the Midrashim, and Rashi incorporates them into his Bible commentary. He introduces most of these notions into his elaboration of Genesis 22 where Abraham leads his son Isaac to be sacrificed.
The Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 105b, and Rashi's commentary to the Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 28a, write that Jews blow the ram's horn, the shofar, on the New Year Holiday of Rosh Hashanah to scare demons and upset their plans.
Rashi, like many Jews of his age, was convinced that God is corporeal, that He has a body, including hands, feet and head. Commenting upon Exodus 7:4, "I will lay My hand upon Egypt," he emphasizes that "hand" is not a metaphor for "power," as Maimonides (1138-1204) would later say, but "an actual hand to smite them." In Exodus 14:31, "Israel saw the great hand, what God did to Egypt," he tells the reader that when the Torah speaks of God's "hand," it is yad mamash, an "actual hand." He expresses the same view in his commentary to the Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 21a and Yevamot 49b, where he refers to God's arm and face. Similarly, in his comment upon Genesis 1:26, where the Bible states that man was created in God's image, and where Maimonides is quick to note that this means that God gave humans intelligence, Rashi writes, "image means God's form." So, too, in 1:27, "And God created man in His own image," Rashi elaborates, "This means that the form that was established for him [man] is the form of the Creator."
While Maimonides and many rationalists dismiss the idea that angels exist, believing that the word should be understood figuratively as the natural forces of nature, or asserting that if they do exist they do so in an incorporeal form, Rashi insists that a pious person can summon a corporeal angel to serve his mundane needs, act as his messenger, deliver a message and return with a report of what he sees. Thus in Genesis 32:4, Jacob, according to Rashi, sends malachim mamash, "actual angels," as messengers to his brother Esau in an attempt to appease him.
In Genesis 19:22, Rashi advances his belief in "fallen angels." God punished these angels because, in a paroxysm of hauteur, they took personal credit for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:13.
Rashi's interpretation of Genesis 19:22 is based on the view that God, like an insecure human, can become angry and offended when someone seeks recognition and praise for what He did.
In Genesis 6:4, Rashi informs his readers that angels are able to have sexual intercourse with human females, and did so.
Not only God and angels, but also even demons, according to Rashi, exist and are corporeal. They can, drown. Noah saved them from extinction in the flood in his commentary on Genesis 6:19, which was designed to eradicate evil. In the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 6a, Rashi describes the demon: "the feet of a demon are like a rooster's."
Rashi felt that animals can commit moral wrongs. Commenting on Genesis 6:20, Rashi states that Noah's ark performed a miraculous moral selection process: it did not allow animals that had corrupted themselves with sexual perversions to enter the ark.
The Babylonian Talmud, Pessachim 112a, warns people from drinking "water from rivers during the night." The Talmud explains that the danger is sabriri. Rashbam, Rashi's grandson, reasonably explains that sabriri means that polluted water can cause medical problems. However, his grandfather states that sabriri is the name of a demon that has the power to inflict blindness, who may lash out in revenge for being disturbed and blind people drinking his water.
Yet, although Rashi follows the methodology of Rabbi Akiva and has a different worldview that he occasionally expresses, does not detract from the greatness of the man or the beauty of his commentary. Also, this information is probably of little interest to the general population of people and may even confuse them, and Eli Wiesel was wise to exclude them.
There are some errors in Wiesel's volume: Rashbam and Rabbeinu Tom were not cousins but brothers and Saadiah Gaon of the ninth and tenth century was not "the creator of rabbinic literature"; as Elie Wiesel certainly knows, rabbinic literature began to be written a half a millennium earlier. Despite these items, the book is well written and readers will learn much from it. It is not a volume for scholars and never was intended to be. It accomplishes what it intended in an excellent fashion.