(the initials of Rabbi Shlomo ben-Isaac)
(? 1040–1105)
   Talmudic and biblical commentator. Rashi was born in Troyes, in the province of Champagne, northern France. Like those of other Franco-German towns, the Jewish community of Troyes was small - probably not more than fifty families - but relatively prosperous. The Jews seem to have been on good social terms with their Christian neighbours. French was the daily spoken language (Rashi speaks of French in his commentaries as ‘our language’), but most Jews were familiar with the Bible and the Talmud, though they did not yet study Hebrew grammar in their schools. The two annual trade fairs in Champagne brought together Jewish merchants and leaders from widely separated communities. As a young boy Rashi was educated by his father. He is believed to have then gone to the academy at Worms, where he studied under pupils of the celebrated GERSHOM BEN-JUDAH. About ten years later he moved to the academy at Mainz. Around the age of twenty-five he returned to Troyes where, like most of the people in the district, he was employed in the wine trade. In 1070 he founded an academy in Troyes, where he remained until his death. He had no sons, but each of his three daughters married scholars, and some of his grandsons became famous in their own right. Rashi had relatives and friends killed during the First Crusade (1095–6), which was a grim turning-point in the history of the Jews in northern Europe, and brought their peaceful relations with their neighbours to an end. Godfrey of Bouillon, one of the leaders of the Crusade, incited his followers by promising them atonement for their sins if they first slew the unbelievers in their midst, the Jews, before setting out to kill the Moslem enemy in the Holy Land. Another incentive to the unruly mass of Crusader troops gathering in the Rhineland was the fact that killing a Jew would cancel out their debts to him. Stopping short of advocating their murder, many clergymen declared at the outset of the Crusade that the Jews should be dragged to the font and baptized by force. Since it was widely held that the Crusade was to herald the second coming of Jesus, the preachers felt that their demand was justified. These forced converts were allowed to return to Judaism in 1103 by a decree of the emperor, Henry IV. Like Gershom before him, Rashi counselled his brethren to treat the reluctant apostates gently.
   According to legend, Godfrey was impressed by Rashi’s reputation for wisdom and consulted him on the prospects for the success of his expedition. The Jewish scholar then foretold his defeat by the Saracens. Rashi was the first of the Jewish scholars in the West to write a commentary on the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures. His intention was to interpret the Scriptures as far as possible in their plain literal sense, free of the over-fanciful allegorical or mystical meanings produced by Jewish or Christian scholars. His commentary is very different in spirit from the Spanish school deriving from Jewish scholarship in Arab lands. Rashi’s work circulated widely and became enormously influential. It even had considerable indirect impact on the Church, through his influence on the Franciscan scholar, Nicholas de Lyra (1279–1340), whose system of biblical interpretation was followed by Martin LUTHER two hundred years later.
   The greatest of Rashi’s works is his commentary on the Babylonian Talmud. Though preceded in this field by Franco-German scholars, including his teachers, his commentary was so clearly written that it superseded them all. Like the Mishneh Torah of MAIMONIDES, its influence extended far beyond the time and place of its authorship. From the beginning of the 13 century almost every talmudic scholar made use of Rashi’s commentary and its authority has continued to the present day. His corrections to the text of the Talmud were incorporated into standard editions and became the accepted text. Rashi’s rulings on Jewish law were assembled by his disciples in different collections. These decisions were given in answer to questions on problems addressed to him by farflung Jewish communities, struggling to adjust their daily lives to different environments according to Jewish law. In many cases his pupils added to his opinions, so that such collections should more properly be thought of as from ‘the school of Rashi’ rather than considered the work of Rashi himself.
   The influence of Rashi’s school was widespread, and it grew even stronger through the centuries. More than that of any other scholar, his work pointed the road that medieval Jewish scholarship was to take in northern Europe. After the persecution and the expulsion that scattered Spanish Jewry, the teaching deriving from his school dominated in the West as well.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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