Today is the Yahrtzeit (death anniversary) of Rashi, whose massive commentary on most of the Hebrew Bible and Talmud defines much of the meaning of those documents not only for Jews but for Christians too. I’ve been reading Elie Wiesel’s sweet new little biography of him for the Jewish Encounters series (published by Nextbook and Schocken). Rashi died in 1105, leaving incomplete several Talmudic tractates. Something I found oddly haunting was the way his disciples took over the work from him, with one writing, immediately following Rashi’s last comment in tractate Makot,
Our Teacher who lived and worked, pure in body and soul, ended his task here. From now on, it is Rabbi Yehuda bar Nathan who is speaking.
“Who is speaking.” It’s a little eerie to be reminded that when we read rabbinic works, the rabbis of old are themselves speaking to us. The significance of this is twofold. First, it recalls the fact — at least, the assumption made by Jewish tradition — that there is a lineage of ideas here, a chain of teachers, each speaking to his students, going all the way back to Moses.
Second, a sage’s work is really his voice. It crystallizes his “take” on Biblical tradition. Wiesel points out something you may forget in studying Rashi. In explaining the Torah in particular, the great sage was choosing from countless rabbinic traditions that form a river of explanation. The river stays within its banks — it is coherent — but it’s also diverse. The rabbis in the Talmud and Midrash said many different things, many of them contradictory of each other.
Rashi came along and selected those individual traditions, those inherited teachings, that he then enshrined in his commentary. His selection wasn’t random or arbitrary. It reflected a picture of the world that he wished to convey. As an example, Wiesel mentions Rashi’s treatment of Esau as the embodiment of Christianity. There are other valid “takes” on the subject matter, like that of Rav Hirsch.