Notes from New North London Learning Autumn 2005
Troyes: Rashi And His World
The city centre is a well-preserved mediaeval town. The old shul is called the Rashi shul, though it only dates from the fifteenth or sixteenth shul. Not only wasn't it his shul, but it's not even in the part of the town where he would have had his shul!
Opposite the road from it is the Rashi Institute—which is not Jewish at all. It was set up by the French government to examine his influence on French history—and his use of eleventh-century French words: When there's a concept he doesn't know the Hebrew for, he gives the word in French. This is an invaluable guide to the pronunciation of eleventh-century French.
Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzḥaki, wrote an enormous amount of commentary, on the whole of the Tenach and almost all of the Talmud. Almost, because in Tractate Bava Batra, in the middle of the comentary, one reads כאן מת רש״י "Here Rashi died", and the commentary is taken up by his son-in-law.
Troyes is a city in the Champagne region of France, some distance east of Paris. Wine has always been important for the area; this is illustrated by a responsum by Joseph Tov Elem, one of Rashi's teachers:
Leah has two vineyards, and she is assessed for her vineyards and the fruit and her other possessions as all other people*. They claim that that the vineyard is property in its own right, and the fruit is property†, for once it is harvested it can be sold, even though she derives no benefit from the fruit until it is actually sold, this is to be compared to capital and interest, which is taxed both on the capital and the interest.
And Leah claims that a vineyard cannot be compared to a gold coin, for a vineyard needs much toil until it bears fruit, and not only that, but each year the governors come and take a share, and in reality the owner puts in a great deal of labour and derives from it but a little... but capital that stands for loans, or other merchandise is much easier for trade, because the mortgage is in his hand, and his wealth goes and grows, and he eats without toil and labour and further investment.
* The Jewish community is autonomous; it has its own laws and so forth, and taxes; there were people who would assess each person for their valuation and tell them how much they have to pay for taxes.
† And is therefore to be taxed.
The chances are Rashi himself had a vineyard and produced wine, because in those days rabbis were not paid.
Rashi on Ezekiel 27 1-3
The word of the Lord came to me, saying: And you, son of man, raise a lamentation for Tyre. And say to Tyre, who dwells at the entrance to the sea, who is a merchant of the peoples for many islands: Thus says the Lord G-d: O Tyre, you have said, I am of perfect beauty.
This was her custom: the merchants come to her, some from the north and some from the south, and they were not permitted to trade with each other; rather the local people buy from this, and sell to this.
Rashi has no idea how a trade fair worked in Tyre in the fifth century 5 BCE, but, living in a market town, he knew how they worked in his own time.
Rashi on Exodus 28:40-41
Part of the work Rashi does in his commentary is to try and explain tools mentioned in the Tenach and the Talmud. There is a museum of old tools in Troyes, and many of the tools there will be the ones Rashi is using to describe the ones in the Torah and Talmud.
And for Aaron's sons you shall make coats, and thou shalt make for them girdles, and turbans shalt thou make for them, for glory and for beauty. And you shall put them upon Aaron your brother, and his sons with him; and shall anoint them, and consecrate them, and sanctify them, that they may minister unto me in the priest's office.And consecrate them (lit. "fill their hand"): Whenever the term "filling the hand" is used it denotes the installation ceremony when one enters for the first time into an office, as a sign that he is entitled to it from that day and henceforth. And in French, when a person is appointed to the charge of a matter, the Prince puts into his hand a leather glove which they call gant, and by that means he gives him a right to the matter, and they term that transmission of the glove and the office revestir, that is: filling the hand.
ולבני אהרן תעשה כתנת ועשית להם אבנטים, ומגבעות תעשה להם לכבוד ולתפארית׃ והלבשת אתם את־אהרן אחיך ואת בניו אתו ומשחת אתם ומלאת את־ידם וקדשת אתם וכהנו־לי׃
ומלאת את־ידם. כל מלוי ידים לשון חנוך, כשהוא נכנס לדבר להיות מוחזך בו מאותו יום והלאה, ובלשון לע״ז, כשממנין אדם על פקודת דבר, נותן השליט בידו בית יד של עור שקורין גוואנ״טו, (האנדשוה) ועל ידו הוא מחזיקו בדבר, וקורין לאותו מסירה וויר״סטיר, והוא מלוי ידים׃
Rashi's commentary on the Torah is very popular—the very first book printed in Hebrew was the Torah together with Rashi's commentary on it. It is unique; it is one of those things written in such a way that it is first to be taught to children, because it is accessible to children, yet there is also enough in it for doctoral theses to be drawn out of it even today.
It is brief and to the point. In Rashi's day, we are told, ink was more expensive than gold, so he always tried to save on it. Rashi's commentary is shorter than any other on the Torah.
Rashi on Genesis 3:8
Hearing the sound of the Lord G-d walking through the garden in the cool of the day, the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord G-d amongst the trees of the garden.
There are many Midrashic explanations and our Teachers have already collected them in their appropriate places in Genesis Rabbah and in other Midrashim. I, howecver, am only concerned with the plain meaning of Scripture, and with such Agadot that explain the words of Scripture in a manner that fits in with them.
ושמעו את־קול ה׳ אלהים מתהלך בגן לרוח היום ויתחבא האדם ואשתו מפני ה׳ אלהים בתוך עץ הגן׃
וישמעו. יש מדרשי אגדה רבים, וכבד סדרים רבותינו על מכונם בבראשית רבה ובשאר מדרשות, ואני לא באתי אלא לפשוטו של מקרא, ולאגדה המישבת דברי המקרא דבר דבור על עופניו׃
I.e. if you want to learn about this, go read Genesis Rabbah yourself! Midrash usually tries to read behind the lines of the text: not just the story but what is the point of the story. Rashi is the first of a long line of commentators who rejects Midrash as a way of explaining the Torah.
The unique thing about Rashi's commentary is that though he makes such a big deal about wanting to give the plain meaning of the text, roughly 80% of his explanations are midrashim! But whenever he does so, he thinks that that is the plain meaning of the text.
Rashi on Genesis 4:8
Cain talked with Abel his brother, and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.
Cain talked with Abel his brother. He began an argument, striving and contending with him, to seek a pretext to kill him. There are Midrashic explanations of these words, but this is the plain meaning of the text.
ויאמר קין אל־הבל אחיו ויהי בהיותם בשדה ויקם קין אל־הבל אחיו ויהרגהו׃
ויאמר קין. נכנס עמו בדברי ריב ומצה, להתעולל עליו להרגו׃ ויש בזה מדרשי אגדה, אך זה ישובו של מקרא׃
What's the problem with this verse? What's the difficulty that Rashi had with it necessitating him to explain it?
Because it starts with "Cain said to Abel his brother". In the Bible, we would expect that to be followed by what is being said, but this is missing. This is an example of לשון חסרה missing language.
The Midrash fills in the missing speek:
About what were they speaking?
One opinion said, Come, let us divide up the world. One takes the land and one take the things that may be carried, as it is said [4:2] Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the soil. Whereupon the one said, "The land you are standing on is mine." The other said, "The shirt on tour back is mine!" This one said, "Take off your clothes". The other said, "Take off into the air". In the midst of this, Cain rose up against his brother and slew him.
R. Yehoshua of Sikhnin in the name of R. Levi said: They both partook of the land and of the movable things. About what, then, did they aergue? The one said: The Temple will be built on my land! For it is written: When they were in the field—and "field" is none other than the Temple (for R. Yehoshua of Sikhnin had found a verse, Micah 3:12, which speaks of the Temple as a field), for it said, Therefore shall Zion for your sake be ploughed as a field. In the midst of this: Cain rose up against his brother and slew him.
Yehudah, the son of R. Ami, said: They argued about the first Eve. The one said: I shall take her, for I am the first born. The other said: I shall take her, for she was born with me. In the midst of this, Cain rose up against his brother and slew him.
It's an astute observation on the roots of the violence, but Rashi will not quote it, because it is not the plain meaning of the text.
If you go back to the verse, and read carefully, it is clear from the text that Cain is guilty as a murderer and Abel an innocent victim. The Midrashim do not agree with this.
Rashi in legend
Many legends rose up about Rashi,
Rashi once went to Toledo to visit Yehudah haLevi. At the tme of his visit, haLevi was not at home, so Rashi left, but on his departure the servants discovered a fine silk coat was missing. They caught up with Rashi, and despite his protests he was made to pay for the worth of the coat. He wrote the following on the doorpost and then left:
שלמה שלמה שלמה שלמה שלמה
When Judah haLevi came back, he had his servants search for Rashi. The now penniless Rashi was in the schoolhouse. They brought him back and returned to him his money, and treated him as an honoured guest. Judah haLevi asked what was meant by this mysterious inscription?
Rashi promptly added vowels and read it:
שֶׁלָמָה שֶׁלֹמֹה שֶׁלֵמָה שַׂלֶמָה שַׁלָמָה
Shelama Shelomo sheleima salmah shalama (I think)
Why did Solomon have to pay for a beautiful coat?
Commentary on Shabbat 21b about when is the correct time to light the Chanukah candles.
Rashi had no sons, but his sons in law and grandsons and great-grandsons were the beginning of the Tosafot, mediaeval commentators on the Talmud; this commentary is normally printed in the Talmud.
[Tosafot:] "If one has not yet lit, he must light." But from henceforth the time has passed. Rabbi Porath says: One must be careful to light (the candles) in the evening immediately, in order not to be too late.
1: Anytime within that period.
2: I.e. the lamp must contain sufficient oil to burn for that period. Nevertheless, if it
If he was late, he should light in any case because of doubt, for another explanation was put forth. Rabbi Isaac says: In our days it does not matter when one lights [the candles] for we have no [public] recognition, since we light inside.
"Its observance is from sunset until there is no wayfarer in the street."* Does that not mean that if it goes out [within that period] it must be relit? No: if one has not yet lit, he must light it1; or, in respect of the statutory period.2
"Until there is no wayfarer in the street." Until when [is that]? Rabbah bar Bar Hanah said in R. Johanan's name: Until the Palmyreans have departed.3
goes out sooner, it need not be rekindled.
3: Lit, "until the feet of the Tarmodians have ceased." Tarmod or Tadmor is Palmyra, an oasis of the Syrian desert. They sold lighting materials and went about in the steets later than the general populace as their wares might be needed.
* I.e. so passersby can see them. They should be lit visible from the window.
This tells you everything you need to know about Jewish life in Ramerupt, where R Isaac lived: He lived in the time of the First Crusade; it is not a good time to be lighting the Chanukah candles in the window visible from the street.
Wine in the commentaries: Tosafot, tractate Pesaḥim 101a
Over a change of wine one does not need to recite a blessing. However, one needs to recite the blessing הטוב והמטיב*, as has been explained in the chapter הרואה. Rashbam [Rashi's grandson] explained that this applies only where the new wine is better than the old he has been drinking. Thus in the book הלכות גדולות, and thus can also be inferred from the Palestinian Talmud...
However, the story that comes after this refutes this theory. It reads: "Over each and every barrel he would bless, and R. Isaac said in the name of the Rabbi Baruch that the blessing was הטוב והמטיב." From this we infer that in every case he would recite a blessing, even going from a good wine to a bad wine.
It could be argued that in this case he would recite the blessing because he didn't know [what the quality of the wine would be], but if he knew that the new wine was not good, he would not recite the blessing.
It appears [to me] that even if the second wine was not good, he should still recite a blessing, for he is saying the blessing over the plentifulness of the wines. This is the case if the wine isn't so bad that it is impossible to drink it except in an emergency.
* To be said as thanksgiving when something good has happened to you, or, according to the Talmud, on finishing a barrel of wine and opening a new one. The commentators are perplexed by this. How do you know that the new barrel is going to be good—or, for that matter, better than the last one?
Hameiri, tractate Pesaḥim 101b
In tractate ברכות it has been explained that when another person is with him, such as his sons and family, he should recite the blessing הטוב והמטיב. If there is no one else with him he should not recite the blessing.
Regarding the blessing he recites when others are with him, there are those who explained that this is where the second wine is better than the first... and therefore it appears that he should not say a blessing until he has given it to someone else to taste for him, or if he can recognise the quality of the wine from its smell.
However, most commentators agree that he should say a blessing in any case, because the blessing is for the abundance of good. This is according to that which has been stated in the Palestinian Talmud, that Rabbi would bless over each and every barrel that he opened, and said הטוב והמטיב, and it is impossible that in every case the new wine would always bee better than the old...
But it seems to me that the first interpretation is right [i.e. that the blessing is because of the quality of the wine]. And regarding that which was stated that he recited a blessing over each and every barrel, it seems to me that it is a well-known fact that when you come to the bottom of a barrel of wine that the wine goes bad, and in most cases the beginning wine of a new barrel will be better than the end wine of the old barrel, and this does not need any checking.