Rashi was the outstanding Biblical commentator of the Middle Ages. He was born in Troyes, France, and lived from 1040 to 1105, surviving the massacres of the First Crusade through Europe. His father Yitzchak was a great scholar, but very poor, making his living from the sale of wine.
At twenty-five, he founded his own academy in Troyes and was later elected Rabbi of the town. Rashi decided to write a commentary in simple language, using the fewest words possible, to make it easy to understand the Torah.
Initially, Rashi was unknown. According to Nissan Mindel:
Later, most of his explanations were not written by him. Students would ask him questions about the text, or he would rhetorically ask questions about specific words, and a student would write his answers in the margin of the parchment text. When Rashi was too old to write answers to the questions he received, his daughter wrote them down. These answers comprise Rashi’s commentary. We now have the answers, but the trick to studying Rashi is to figure out what the problem was with the text or the grammar of a given word.
Besides explaining individual words, Rashi also made use of the great oceans of midrash. However, instead of just quoting the early rabbis, Rashi applied the stories specifically to the Bible text; often abridging them. He assumed that his students knew the midrash; he just emphasized its immediate relevance to the Tanakh.
Rashi wrote commentaries on all the books of Tanakh except Chronicles I & II. Scholars believe that the commentary which appears under Rashi’s name in those books was compiled by the students of Rabbi Saadiah of the Rhine, who incorporated material from Rashi’s yeshiva. Rashi’s students, Rabbi Shemaya and Rabbi Yosef, edited the final commentary on the Torah; some of their own notes and additions also made their way into the version we have today.
Rashi exerted a decisive influence on establishing the correct text of the Talmud. Up to and including his age, texts of each Talmudic tractate were copied by hand and circulated in yeshivas. Errors often crept in if a copyist switched words around or incorporated a student’s marginal notes into the main text. Because of the large number of merchant-scholars who came from throughout the Jewish world to attend the great fairs in Troyes, Rashi was able to compare different manuscripts and readings in Tosefta, Jerusalem Talmud, Midrash, Targum, and the writings of the Geonim, and determine which readings should be preferred. However, in his humility, he deferred to scholars who disagreed with him.
About 300 of Rashi’s responsa and halakhic decisions are extant. These responsa were copied, preserved, and published by his students, grandchildren, and other future scholars. Siddur Rashi, compiled by an unknown student, also contains Rashi’s responsa on prayer. Many other rulings and responsa are recorded in Mahzor Vitry. Other compilations include Sefer Hapardes, edited by Rabbi Shemayah, Rashi’s student, and Sefer Haorah, prepared by Rabbi Nathan Hamachiri.
Rashi’s responsa can be broken down into three genres: questions by contemporary sages and students regarding the Torah, the law, and other compilations. Rashi’s responsa not only addressed some of the different cases and questions regarding Jewish life and law, but it shed light into the historical and social conditions which the Jews were under during the First Crusade. He covered the following topics and themes in his responsa: linguistic focus on texts, law related to prayer, food, and the Sabbath, wine produced by non-Jews, oaths and excommunications, sales, partnerships, loans and interest, bails, communal affairs, and civil law.
A main characteristic of Rashi’s writing was his focus on grammar and syntax. His primary focus was on word choice, and “essentially [he acts] as a dictionary where he defines unusual Hebrew words.” He searches for things that may not be clear to the reader and offers clarification on the inconsistency that may be present. Rashi does so by “filling in missing information that [helps] lead to a more complete understanding” of the Torah. Rashi focused the majority of his responsa, if not all, on a “meticulous analysis of the language of the text.” A portion of his writing is dedicated to making distinctions between the peshat, or plain and literal meaning of the text, and the Aggadah or rabbinic interpretation. One of Rashi’s grandchildren, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir or Rashbam, heavily critiqued his response on his “commentary on the Torah [being] based primarily on the classic midrashim (rabbinic homilies).”
His commentary forms the foundation for some of the most profound legal analysis and mystical discourses that came after it. Scholars debate why Rashi chose a particular Midrash to illustrate a point, or why he used certain words and phrases and not others. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi wrote that “Rashi’s commentary on Torah is the ‘wine of Torah.’ It opens the heart and uncovers one’s essential love and fear of G-d.”
Rashi is also important for students of French. Many words in the Bible were unknown to Rashi’s students, and obviously there would ask what a particular word meant and Rashi would give the answer in Old French using Hebrew transliteration. These transliterations provide important insights into the development of French and its pronunciation.
The original printed Bible text by Daniel Bomberg in 1517 included Rashi’s commentary. That commentary became so popular that there are now more than 200 commentaries on his commentary. It is assumed in traditional circles that when you read the Tanakh, you also read Rashi.
Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud was even more important than his Tanakh commentary. The Talmud was written in legalese: terse, unexplained language with no punctuation. Rashi provided a simple explanation of all Gemara discussions. He explained all the terse phrases; he explained the principles and concepts assumed by the sages who put together the Gemara.
His simple, brief explanations for practically every phrase of the Gemara made the Talmud understandable to the non-scholar. It became an instant best seller, and, to this day, it is unthinkable to study Talmud without studying Rashi’s commentary at the same time.
Rashi’s explanations and commentaries on the Talmud were so important that for almost a hundred years after his death, Talmud students in France and Germany concentrated their brilliant minds on discussing and elaborating on Rashi’s commentary. Just as the monks were concentrating on deep philosophical discussions of Christian theology, France’s Jewish scholars were focusing on the Talmud and its text. Their complicated (and sometimes convoluted) commentaries were called Tosafot (Additions). The scholars who created these additions were called the Tosafists (Those Who Added). The most famous of these Tosafists was Rashi’s grandson, Rabbenu Tam, who frequently disagreed with his grandfather.
Today, on every page of the Talmud you can find Rashi’s commentary surrounding the text on the inside of the page, and the Tosafot surrounding the text on the outside of the page.
Rashi had no sons, but his three daughters, Yocheved, Miriam and Rachel, all married Talmudic scholars. He died on July 13, 1105 (Tammuz 29, 4865) at the age of 65. He was buried in Troyes. The approximate location of the cemetery in which he was buried was recorded in Seder Hadoros, but over time the location of the cemetery was forgotten. A Sorbonne professor discovered an ancient map depicting the site of the cemetery, which now lay under an open square in the city of Troyes. After this discovery, French Jews erected a large monument in the center of the square—a large, black and white globe featuring the three Hebrew letters of רשי artfully arranged counterclockwise in negative space, evoking the style of Hebrew microcalligraphy. The granite base of the monument is engraved: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki — Commentator and Guide.
In 2005, Yisroel Meir Gabbai erected an additional plaque at this site marking the square as a burial ground. The plaque reads: “The place you are standing on is the cemetery of the town of Troyes. Many Rishonim are buried here, among them Rabbi Shlomo, known as Rashi the holy, may his merit protect us.”