One of the greatest Jewish scholars and commentators of all times, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (1040-1105), more usually referred to by the acronym Rashi, was born in Troyes, France. He earned his living as a grape grower and his fame as a writer of commentaries on the Bible and Talmud. A gifted educator, with the ability to communicate complex ideas in a way understandable to all, he continues to exert a powerful influence on Jewish thinking and living. Tradition has given "Rashi" the interpretation of, Rabban shel Yisrael, teacher of Israel.

Rashi died in the year 1105. Within a century of his death, his Hebrew commentaries on the Bible and Talmud had spread from the communities of France and Germany to Spain and Africa, to Asia and Babylon. Considering the enormous expense and the mighty energies entailed in the production of handcopied books, the high cost of paper and parchment, and the great difficulties and obstacles encountered in their distribution in the eleventh and twelve centuries, the early popularity of Rashi, and the wide and unprecedented dissemination that his commentaries on the Bible achieved, are nothing short of remarkable.

Most traditions place the date of his birth at 1040. As one of the greatest Jewish luminaries of the Middle Ages, Rabbenu Gershom, had died only a few years earlier (in 1028), the following verse from Ecclesiastes 1: 5 was frequently quoted: "The sun rises and the sun sets," i.e., the sun of Rashi rises, as that of Rabbenu Gershom sets.

Rashi managed to produce commentaries to practically the entire Hebrew Bible as well as to the Babylonian Talmud, and this during odd hours stolen from those devoted to earning a living in wine production. Given the adverse conditions under which he worked lack of night-time lighting, indoor heating and any means for mechanical copying, as well as the absence of any governmental funding or institutional aid it is humbling to consider the magnitude and quality of Rashi's intellectual and literary achievements.

This scholar single-handedly, and without in anyway so intending, fashioned the classical Jewish educational curriculum that was to last nearly one thousand years. The study of his commentaries to the Torah introduced the masses at an early age to the characteristic phraseology, vocabulary, technical terminology, style and thought processes, themes and contents of rabbinic literature.

Through Rashi, the language, law, and lore of the rabbis inextricably entered into the warp and woof of the fabric of Jewish culture (fully three quarters of his comments on the Torah are drawn from rabbinic sources). Rashi transformed and immeasurably enriched the vocabulary of Jewish life.

Rashi was also one of the pioneers of the revival of literary Hebrew in the Middle Ages. At that time, Hebrew had been a nonspoken language for hundreds of years. The superb contributions to the revival of Hebrew on the part of the Spanish Hebraists have been generously and rightfully acknowledged. Those of Rashi have barely been recognized. No less a master of Hebrew style than the modern national Jewish poet laureate, Chaim Nachman Bialik, expressed his admiration for the marvelous elasticity and flexibility of Rashi's Hebrew. Bialik pronounced his unambiguous verdict that the commentator "produced a wonderful linguistic achievement."

footnotes From Nahum M. Sarna, Studies in Biblical Interpretation JPS, 2000 (pp. 127-137)





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