How Rashi decoded ancient Jewish texts

Trying to read the Torah or Talmud before the 11th century would be like trying to read a poem written in Old English. The characters were unfamiliar, the references obscure, and the story hard to make out. Amidst the violent First Crusade, a Jewish scholar known as Rashi illuminated a path for the Jews of Ashkenaz who, without him, might have been lost… to the Dark Ages. 

Engraving of Rashi. (Courtesy: National Library of Israel)

At the onset of the First Crusade in the 11th century, rulers such as Leo the III of Constantinople, had long been converting Jews. By the time Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, better known as Rashi, was born in 1040 in Troyes, conversions under the threat of death were a regular terror for non-Christians.

Rashi was determined, even at a young age, to be a guiding light for his people.  At 17, he went to a yeshiva in Worms, Germany, before relocating to Mainz, where he studied under the leading sages of the time. From his teachers, Rashi absorbed the oral traditions pertaining to the Bible and Talmud as they had been passed down – teacher to student – for generations.

Monument in memory of Rashi in Troyes, France. Sculptor: Raymond Moretti, 1992. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

At age 25, Rashi returned to his hometown of Troyes and became a professional vintner to support himself financially. Like harvesting wine from grapes, Rashi continued to harvest meaning from the Torah and Talmud and was eventually invited to join the rabbinical court, a prestigious entity responsible for handling legal queries. At age 30, he founded his own yeshiva where he wrote commentary on the Torah and Talmud that would become his life’s legacy.  

Rashi’s writing style was as singular, unique, and humble as he. Drawing on the breadth of Jewish law, literature, and Hebrew grammar, Rashi clarified the “simple” meaning of the text so that even a wise child could understand it. Simultaneously, his commentary formed the foundation of profound legal discourse and mystical dialogue that came after it. His commentary is also imbued with a profound humility: “I admit that I don’t know what this verse wants to tell us,” he comments more than once.  

Massacre of the Jews of Metz during the First Crusade, by Auguste Migette (1802-1884). (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

When the First Crusade, “the People’s Crusade,” swept through Europe in 1096, Rashi was 55 years old. Pope Urban II called on Christians to free Jerusalem from the infidels.  En route to battle for the control of Israel, a group of unofficial Christian Crusaders burned and pillaged their way through the Rhine and the Danube, threatening the thousands of Jews who  lived there.  “Accept baptism and you will live,” they promised to the Jews that were gathered like cattle into the town square.  “Burn and die if you do not.”

Fortunately, Rashi’s hometown of Troyes was untouched by the Crusades. But Mainz and Worms suffered devastating destruction and death.  You can feel Rashi’s anguish in his writing from this period. In his opening commentary on Genesis, he establishes the Jewish claim to the land of Israel.  This claim couldn’t have been more timely considering what the Christians were crusading for.  

Against this backdrop of destruction, Rashi’s creativity was boundless. 

In the last ten years of his life, Rashi produced more writings than in any other period, though his health rapidly declined in the final years. Before his commentary was completed, he passed away in 1105.

Rashi had no sons and his legacy was carried on by his daughters, via their husbands, who were rabbis that completed his work and spread his teachings. Interestingly, there is evidence that Rashi’s daughters taught Torah to local women and served as models for the proper performance of Jewish rituals. This was something Rashi would likely have supported given his stance as a protector and defender of the rights and privileges of women.

Nothing probably would’ve surprised the humble Rashi more than to know that his influence didn’t just survive but, in fact, prospered after his death. 

Today, any person who opens up a Talmud will find the main text in the center of the page, surrounded by two commentaries: one penned by Rashi on the inside margin, and one on the outside margin, written by Rashi’s very own grandchildren and disciples known as the Ba’alei Tosafot.

Talmud burning in Paris.

The years following Rashi’s death were marked by difficulty. In 1240, thousands of Talmuds were burned in Paris; in 1306, Jews were expelled from Northern France; and in 1348, the Black Plague ravaged Europe, leaving survivors to use Jews as scapegoats. In spite of this “Dark Age,” Jewish schools, scholars, and communities found a way forward, guided by the light and love of Rashi’s wisdom. 

The great hasidic 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 awe of God.”

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