Rashi of Troyes

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Rabbi Shelomoh ben Yishaq

This is the full name of Rashi, born in Troyes around A.D. 1040. Rashi can be considered one of the most important commentators of the Torah, famous is for example the Commentary to the Exodus that reports many important midrash often necessary to clarify some biblical passages, for which Rashi deepens concepts and linguistic roots. The term Midrash commonly refers to the Midrash 'aggadà, that is, the interpretation that expands and deepens the scriptural inspiration.

Thus comments Sergio J. Sierra, for the introduction of the Commentary on Exodus, translated into Italian. Rashì also reports information that analyzes in detail the literary and historical context, going to analyze the root of the terms used and providing specific information on places, characters and roles within the biblical context.

However Rashì did not have (I would say obviously) the archaeological information necessary to contextualize the biblical story, he does not mention specific names related to the Egyptian state context, but he provides some clarity on aspects that tradition generally leaves out, as it happens with Pua and Sifra, the "attendants" to childbirth that Pharaoh calls to assist Jewish women, going so almost to "unmask" the real name of the character behind them.

A life devoted to study

We can consider Rashi's life, a life entirely dedicated to study and to the Jewish community where he lived.

Rashi was an only child, born in Troyes, in the province of Champagne (northern France). His wife's brother was Simon the Greater, rabbi of Mainz. Simon was a disciple of Rabbeinu Gershom Meor HaGolah,who died that same year. On his father's side, Rashi is said to have been a 33rd generation descendant of Yochanan HaSandlar, who in turn was a 4th generation descendant of Gamaliel, who presumably descended from the House of David. In his substantial writings, Rashi himself never made any such genealogical claims. Even the primary rabbinic source on his descent, Solomon Luria's Responsum No. 29, makes no such atavistic claims.

His fame later made him the subject of numerous legends. One tradition claims that his parents were childless for many years. Rashi's father, Yitzhak, a modest winemaker, once found a precious jewel and was approached by some gentiles who wanted to buy it to adorn their idol. Yitzhak agreed to travel with them to their land, but en route he threw the gem into the sea. He was later visited by the Voice of God or the prophet Elijah, who told him that he would be rewarded with the birth of a noble son "who would enlighten the world with his knowledge of Torah."

Legend also states that the couple moved to Worms, Germany, while Rashi's mother was pregnant. Walking down one of the narrow streets of the Jewish quarter, she was endangered by two oncoming carriages. She turned and squeezed against a wall, which opened to receive her. This miraculous niche is still visible in the wall of the Worms Synagogue.

According to tradition, Rashi was initially brought by his father to learn Torah on Shavuot Day, at the age of five. His father was his main Torah teacher until his death, when Rashi was still a young boy. He married at the age of 17 and soon after went to study at the yeshivah of Rabbi Yaakov Ben Yakar in Worms, returning to his wife three times a year, for Yom Kippur, Pesach and Shavuot. When Rabbi Yaakov died in 1064, Rashi continued to study in Worms for another year, in the yeshivah of his relative, Rabbi Isaac ben Eliezer Halevi, who was also the Chief Rabbi of Worms. He then moved to Mainz, where he studied with another of his relatives, Rabbi Isaac ben Judah, the Chief Rabbinic of Mainz and one of the best known sages of the Duchy of Lorraine, which straddles France and Germany.

Rashi's teachers were students of Gershom ben Judah and Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol, prominent Talmudists of the previous generation. From his teachers, Rashi absorbed the relevant oral traditions of the Talmud as they had been passed down for centuries, as well as an understanding of the Talmud's unique logic and form of argumentation. Rashi took concise notes of what he learned in the yeshivah, incorporating that material into his commentaries.

He returned to Troyes at the age of 25, and after the death of his mother he was asked to join the Beth Din (rabbinical court) of the city. He also began to answer halakhic questions. Upon the death of the head of the Beth Din Rabbi Zerach ben Abraham, Rashi took over the leadership of the court and answered hundreds of halakhic questions. Around 1070 he founded a yeshivah that attracted many disciples. It is thought that Rashi made his living as a winemaker, as he demonstrates a deep knowledge of the relevant tools and processes, but there is no evidence of this.

However, most scholars and a Jewish oral tradition asserts that he was a viticulturist. The only reason that this centuries-old tradition that he was a vintner is not true is provided by the research of Rabbi Haym Solevetchik, who states that all the land of Troyes is not the best for growing vines. Some references to a certain seal of his vineyard are said not to prove that he sold wine, but only that he fermented grapes for his own use.

Although there are many legends about his travels, it seems that Rashi never went beyond the limits from the Seine to the Rhine. In 1096, the Crusade of the Poor marched through all of Lorraine, killing some 12,000 Jews and wiping out entire communities. Among those killed at Worms were the three sons of Rabbi Isaac ben Eliezer Halevi, Rashi's teacher. Rashi wrote true Selichot (penitential poems) mourning the massacre and destruction of the region's great yeshivahs. Seven of Rashi's Selichot still exist, including "Adonai Elohei Hatz'vaot," which is recited on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, and Az Terem Nimtehu, which is recited during the Fast of Gedalia.

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