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Parshandata

I have always loved Rashi. I started learning Rashi with Chumash in grade school and studied about Rashi in the context of medieval Europe and the Crusades in college.聽 I even wrote a paper on him for graduate school. Now that I am learning the daf, my appreciation for Rashi has grown even greater as he is the ultimate guide to the complexities of the Talmud. I seem to recall a saying that God gave you two hands so that one could hold the place in the text and the other could hold the place in Rashi, since you needed to be looking at them simultaneously. Simply put, Rashi is the king, or, as one of his nicknames puts it, “Parshandata,” THE parshan (commentator), a play on a name in the Megillah.

So I have been less than happy having only 鈥減seudo- Rashi鈥 for masekhtot Nedarim and Nazir. While the insights of this mysterious commentator are often helpful, they do not provide the level of explanation and hand-holding that Rashi does.

Notes in my son David’s Gemara

In honor of Rashi returning to us in Masekhet Sotah, here is a short post about Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, known to all as Rashi.

Rashi鈥檚 biography is well known. He was born in Troyes, France in the prosperous region of Champagne, in 1040. He left as a young man to study in the main Torah centers of the times, Mainz and Worms. In less than a generation, these academies of learning would be decimated by the vicious attacks of the First Crusade.

The Rashi Synagogue in Worms

HOWI – Horsch, Willy, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Rashi鈥檚 teachers were Jacob ben Yakar and Isaac ben Judah of Mainz and Isaac ben Elazar HaLevi of Worms. They in turn were students of the great Rabbenu Gershom, Light of the Exile, one of the most significant early leaders of Ashkenazi Jewry. Rashi brought their teachings back home to France and established his own school, where he passed the traditions and knowledge along to his students, children and notably his grandchildren. But Rashi did more than that – he took a step that his teachers did not and because of that he preserved these teachings through the very hard times that came next. Rashi took his student notes and used them to craft two of the most significant works in Jewish history: his commentary on the Bible and his commentary on the Talmud. It would not be a great stretch to say that without Rashi鈥檚 writings, a major element of the mesorah, traditional learning, would have been forgotten, certainly in Ashkenaz.

A standard printed Gemara with Rashi on the outside margin

Rashi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Rashi鈥檚 commentaries are notable for both their breadth and their brevity. He clearly was at home in the great sea of Jewish literature but he was also familiar with botany, zoology, grammar, business practices, language arts and a myriad of other disciplines. And yet, he was able to condense this vast knowledge into concise and clear explanations. Rashi never shows off how much he knows. When you reach sections of Torah that entire tractates of Gemara are based on (Nazir to take a recent example), Rashi could have been tempted to quote pages upon pages of Gemara in his Torah commentary. He doesn鈥檛, instead he chooses to bring only the relevant explanations to the verses he interprets. Rashi is also never afraid to say he doesn鈥檛 know something (see for example Shemot 22:28).As my friend and teacher Dr. Avigail Rock z鈥漧 pointed out in her beautiful chapter on Rashi in her book on Bible commentaries, Rashi does not always prefer the plainest meaning but he always choses a pedagogical approach, teaching us that bad neighbors will lead you down a bad path, that it is better to do much and say little, and many other examples.

Rashi had three daughters but no sons. As befit a learned man, he sought out scholars for sons-in-law. These new family members created a dynasty of their own that came to be known as the Baalei HaTosfot, the commentators that built a second story onto Rashi鈥檚 sturdy Talmudic edifice. The Baalei HaTosfot, most famous among them being Rabbenu Tam, looked not to explain the meaning of the text but to see where the Gemara contradicted itself and try to resolve those contradictions. But that brilliant mission could not have been possible without Rashi first interpreting the text.

Professor Avraham Grossman wrote that in his opinion, no scholar worried about women鈥檚 dignity like Rashi did. Here is a beautiful example: in one of his responsa, Rashi describes a situation where a husband wants to divorce his wife because she has developed a skin condition. He claims he does not have to pay her the amount of her ketubah since she knew she had this condition and hid it from him. After Rashi proves that this is not the case, he excoriates the man for not acting as a Jew should. 鈥淚f that husband had set his mind on keeping his wife as much as he had set his mind on getting rid of her, her charm would have grown on him.鈥 (quoted in The Jew in the Medieval World, edited by Jacob Marcus).

There is a widespread belief that Rashi鈥檚 daughters, Yocheved, Miriam and Rachel, wore tefillin and were scholars in their own right. We do not know if this is so, but we do know that they raised a generation of Torah giants. Were they themselves taught Torah, unlike most women in those days? Who knows? But it is hard to imagine a master teacher like Rashi, one who upheld the status of women, not sharing his Torah with the girls of his household. Would Rashi have approved of women learning daf yomi? I hope so.

Women’s daf yomi group in Alon Shvut

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at https://www.shuliemishkintours.com/virtual-tours
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