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The Southern Jewish weekly. [volume] (Jacksonville, Fla.) 1939-1992, June 14, 1940, Image 2

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Page Two
What Rashi Means Today
By PROF. ISMAR ELBOGEN ]
Editor’s Note: The following
Is the text of an address de
livered recently by Prof. El
bogen at a meeting of the
American Academy of Jew
ish Research, dedicated to
the 900th anniversary of Ra
shi, beloved interpreter of the
Bible and the Talmud.
In the midst of a gigantic world
revolution and the severest on
slaught on the very existence of
our Jewish people, we are com
memorating a man of letters who
was entirely a-political despite tl*e
legend that he predicted the early
collapse of the prospective Chris
tian Kingdom of Jerusalem. The
question is whether we are cele
brating Rashi’s anniversary out of
mere reverance to tradition or be
cause his work has a special ap
peal to us.
When I was young the repre
sentative of the Rashi Research
was Abraham Berliner who had
published a critical edition of Ra
shi’s commentary on the Penta
teuch and many a valuable con
tribution about Rashi’s life, his
work and school. When his 70th
birthday was celebrated David
Hoffman, the famous scholar and
critic, in a toast full of humor
raised the question w'hy the Yid
dish language applies to Rashi
the female article—we say: der
Rif, der Rambam, der Bet Josef,
etc., but we are used to saying ‘“die
Rashi,” and he gave the answer
that Rashi is like an attractive
woman, with whom one cannot
start a flirtation without falling
in love with her.
Indeed, the attitude of the Jew
ish people towards Rashi is that
of motherly love; in his spiritual
sorrows the Jew found in Rashi’s
works refuge and shelter just as
one finds open doors at his moth
er’s house. Rashi is not a hero who
fills with awe all who come near
to him, he is rather like the Bib
lical gentlewoman who “opens her
mouth in wisdom and has teaching
of love on her tongue.”
He is not a systematic thinker,
but he is systematic in his think
ing, a master of even and clear
reasoning, of seeing and present
ing things as they are. He got
these qualities as a gift from Hea
ven and is to be compared to the
manna, the bread from Heaven, of
which our sages say that every
body in Israel found in it the
flavor he liked best—children, that
of oil; adults, that of bread; old
aged, that of honey.
Such is the case with Rashi. Ev
ery generation and every age found
and is finding in his writings
what suits it—no difference be
tween countries and centuries, be
tween the old-fashioned Beth ha
Midrash and the modern critical
school, between young and old peo
ple.
Wherein lies Rashi’s greatness?
What are Rashi’s achievements?
He was an eminent master of Ha-
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lakha. He established an impor
tant school which lasted for two
centuries after his death and was
dispersed only because of the ex
pulsion of the Jews from Northern
France. But it was not his Halak- i
ha authority which preserved his
fame for the Jewish people. Os the
336 responsa (answers to legal and
religious questions) which have
come down to us in his name, only .
a small portion were written by ;
himself. Most of the responsa were
preserved in the collected writings
of his seliool, some of which were
not published until fifty years ago,
and then only through the iniative
of Abraham Berliner.
It was not on his original works,
therefore, that Rashi’s glory is
founded. His ambition was not to
be an author, but to be an inter
preter of the author, his faithful
servant to help the reader under
stand and love the author. He sub
limates his own personality. He
does not intrude his personal ideas,
but makes every effort to explain,
to make plain the meaning of the
author. If we do not grasp the ex
planation, it is our own failure,
originating in our lack of know
ledge of parallel pasages which
are cited.
Where Rashi found it necessary
to offer explanations in his com
mentaries on the Bible and the
Babylonian Talmud, and we do not
immediately understand his rea
soning, we must meditate and re
flect until we perceive it. Os his
commentaries, the old saying is
appropriate that “If one were to
detract or to add one single letter,
he would destroy the whole build
ing.”
In explaining details of the text,
Rashi does so in the simplest way,
sometimes by substituting a com
mon expression for a rare one, a
Hebrew word for an Aramaic. He
is not content with explanations
of single words. He strives to give
the meaning of the whole context.
If we gain a different impression
in studying our present editions,
especially of the commentary on
the Talmud, it is the guilt of the
copyists and printers who separat
ed by dots what they considered
quotations from the text or the
end of a passage. In reality, Rashi
wrote full continuous paragraphs,
illustrating the whole discussion.
That is the main reason why the
writings of his predecessors were
neglected and lost. They were of
little value after Rashi’s works
had shown such undreamt of per
fection.
The works upon which Rashi has
commented belong to very differ
ent ages and periods, extremely
distant from his own. Still, he
showed unusual ingenuity in iden
tifying himself with these epochs
and surroundings. He felt as much
at home in the tents of Abraham
as in the palace of King David or
the Beth ha Midrash of Rav Ashi.
He found his way through the
slave houses of Egypt as easily as
through the vineyards of Samaria
or the slums of Pumbedita. He was
a true and genuine Jew. Nothing
Jewish was alien to him—neither
the lawgiver, nor the prophet, nor
the psalmist, neither the Halahka
nor the Hagadan. He had to com
ment on many things of which he
did not himself approve, which
THE SOUTHERN JEWISH WEEKLY
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were out of harmony with his
own ideas, but it was not his own
views he was expounding. His pur
pose was to be the mouthpiece of
those who had gone before him,
and the history of interpretation
shows few 7 who were his equal in
objective reasoning.
One remarkable feature of his
method of interpretation was his
facile use of ilustration from real
life. The Bible and Talmud touch
constantly upon the details of ev
eryday life, many of which are
familiar to us now because of li
braries of books on ancient his
tory at our disposal, announce
ments of archaelogical discoveries,
and museums displaying excavated
materials. Rashi had none of these.
He had to devise his own meth
ods of exploration, and he had
furthermore to transfer his ideas
into a non-spoken language. In
this field we must bow before Ra- 1
shi’s genius. He did not give way
until he had a complete picture
of his goal. He was not satisfied
with mere words, which blind con
ceptions. He insisted on seeing
things concretely and on recon
structing as fully as possible the
picture of life in remote ages.
Though his task was hard to
realize in many cases, Rashi strug
gled to achieve it. By means of
research, he tried to become ac
quainted with all accessible rem
nants of Jewish tradition. It is
amazing hou r much of true tradi
tion was handed down in Israel
through the ages and how quickly
this lore spread in an ever-ex
panding diaspora. At a time when
scribes and writing materials were
extremely scarce, it was even dif
ficult to obtain full copies of the
Bible or of the Babylonian Tal
mud—not to speak of later inter
pretative material, oral as well as
written.
Rashi’s eagerness to enlarge his
horizon led him to the Rhenish
academies. He was already a
trained scholar when he went to
Mayence, but he knew that he
could find there advanced meth
ods and fuller traditions. Golden
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tals, were in continuous communi
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through the scholars of Rome trea
sures of comments an l responsa
from the ancient sources of Jew
ish learning in Babylonia and
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Rashi availed himself of all these
sources. He was not a bookworm,
confining himself to his library. He
travelled about with open eyes,
observing the everyday life of the
town, viewing the ways of the far
mer, the artisan and the merch
ant. In Rashi’s busy home town of
Troyes he saw well-attended fairs
and rich stores of merchandise.
He watched, he inquired, he at
tended what he saw and found
explanations for many secrets of
his texts.
(Continued on Page Seven)
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