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The name "Rashi" is a Hebrew acronym for Rav Shlomo Yitchaki, Rabbi Solomon the son of Issac. The Yitchaki surname is atypical; the usual way to name someone's father in Hebrew is to call him X ben Y, where ben means "son of". But Rashi is called Yitzchaki to more closely relate his name to his father's, as the surname means something to the effect of "the Yitchak-ite". A popular legend relates that Rashi's wisdom was a specific providential reward given to his pious father. Yitzchak once possesed a precious gem, and was harassed by idolaters who wanted to buy it from him, in order to place it in the crown of an idol. When they threatened him physically, he threw the gem into the ocean in order that he not end up abetting idol worship.

And so, Yitchak got a wise son. Rashi's approach to Biblical exegesis was revolutionary, but it was a revolution in halves. Let me clarify: In the Middle Ages, Jewish scholarship used the Pardeis method of interpreting the Bible. Pardeis is another Hebrew acronym, literally meaning "orchard". In Hebrew, Pardeis is written with the four letters Pei Reish Daled Samech, which stand for the four methods with which the Bible can be read and understood:
  1. Pshat- Simple, plan, intended meaning. What the words say.
  2. Remez- Alluded meaning, or numerologically hinted meaning. What the words can be rearranged to say.
  3. Drash- Homiletical, interpretive meaning. What the words teach.
  4. Sode- Mystical, esoteric meaning. What the words are.
Sode was used since Roman times in works such as the Kaballah, ostensibly written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and not meant to be studied by anybody except scholars who had reached both the age of 40 and a thorough understanding of the Bible and the Law. Remez and Drash were prevalent within the Midrash, a work of codified oral tradition which had a near monopoly on Jewish learning within the intellectual scene that Rashi inherited. Rashi, who founded his own acadamy when he was 25, addressed the textual Pshat, focusing on each word in the Bible which needed explanation, and attempting to clarify its literal meaning. I cannot overemphasize the importance of the notion of Pshat, and how abandoned it had been by Ashkenazic Jewry prior to Rashi. There are even a number of comments in which Rashi resorts to translating a Hebrew word of ambigous meaning into Old French, the colloquial of his time and place, so that his previously clueless readers might understand it.

This effort, explaining the textual Pshat, is not as easy as it may sound. In fact it requires a large amount of interpretation. Biblical language can be redundant, poetic, metaphorical or even nonsensical, and often is self-contradictory when understood literally. Rashi's contemporary, the grammarian Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, would comment on phrases such as "Give ear and hear" merely that they were idiomatic expressions and could not be picked apart. In contrast, Rashi relied on the dictum that every word of the Bible is sacred and conveys meaning. This frequently left Rashi in scholarly quandries. On some occassions, such as Genesis 28:5, a verse that repeats the previously stated fact that Lavan was the son of Besuel the Aramean and the brother of Rebecca, Rashi admits defeat and states, "I do not know what this teaches us." On other occassions Rashi himself is forced to resort to Drash. In fact Rashi is reputed to have said, near the end of his life, that he wished that his Biblical commentary had included less Drash.

And so, the revolution in parts. Rashi's scholarship remained mired in the homiletical tradition which preceeded him. As a result a large number of his comments directly cite Midrashic interpretations of difficult texts. In an even larger number of comments, Rashi comprimises with a binary. First he announces that a word can be understood kimashma'o, "as it sounds", or kipshuto, "according to its Pshat". And then, prefaced with a phrase such as "And our Rabbis teach" or "And our sages of blessed memory teach", he cites a Midrash.

Rashi's written style is above all terse, and this brevity can lead to crypticness. Quite a number of supercommentaries are concerned with interpreting Rashi, and return constantly to the issue "What's bothering Rashi?". That is- what inconsistency or irregularity within the Biblical text causes Rashi to comment at all? Supercommentaries devoted exclusively to Rashi's Biblical commentary includeIn addition to his work on the Bible, Rashi also wrote an explanatory commentary on the Babylonian Talmud. I paid almost no attention in my few Talmud classes, so I can't comment on its content, though I can assume that stylistically it resembles Rashi's commentary on the Bible. I do know though that this commentary has been printed beside almost every Talmudic text since the Talmud first was printed. Rashi died before finishing this work, and as a result some of the commentary labled as "Rashi" was in fact written by Rashi's students- Rabbi Judah ben Natan completed tractate Makkot and Rabbi Samuel ben Meir completed tractate Bava Basra. Supercommentaries devoted to Rashi's Talmudic commentary- that'd be a commentary on a commentary on a commentary on a series of discussions- include Yosef Da'at, "Add Knowledge", by Rabbi Yosef ben Yissachar Baer.

All of Rashi's work was originally printed in Ktav Rashi, Rashi script. This alternate Hebrew alphabet was created in the 16th century by the printer Daniel Bomberg, who printed the Mikra'ot Gedolot, "Large Readings", an edition of the Bible with commentaries. Bomberg wanted to differentiate between the actual Bible text, which he left in block Assyrian letters, and the commentaries surrounding it on the page. Rashi script is still used in many editions. It's a bitch to learn, but that's mostly due to afew abberant letters that student never cease to read incorrectly. For instance the Rashi script letter Aleph looks nothing like the Assyrian block Aleph, but looks everything like the Assyrian block letter Chet.

Incidentally, Rashi earned his livelihood growing grapes and producing wine. There is currently a Rashi brand that markets kosher wine. The only Rashi brand wine I've ever tasted was sweet red, I drank it at a seder when I was about 10. It tasted like juice. Better than Manichevitz, which tastes like cough syrup, but that doesn't mean its good.

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