The genesis of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's commentary on Rashi: Why Rashi?

Sunday, 13 November, 2022 - 7:06 pm

Some of the classic Biblical commentaries on the Torah and Rashi developed in one of two ways: either as a solitary written commentary or a series of Shabbat lectures that were later developed into a commentary. The former occurred with Levush Ha-orah commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe (1530-1612), who wrote his commentary on Rashi, beginning after he got married in 1553 and continued over a fifty year year period until its completion in Poznan in 1603.[1] He would dedicate time to study a section of the Torah portion each week in depth on Thursday or Friday and write down his commentary. The following year he would continue with the next section of the Torah portion and so on. A further commentary that was written in this way was the Siftei chachamim, published in Amsterdam in 1680, by R. Shabbethai Bass (1641-1718). The reason he gives for his commentary is that he would observe young people in the synagogue on Shabbat discussing the commentary of Rashi but raising their hands in despair trying to explain the commentary. For this reason, he wrote a commentary that would be incorporated in a new printed edition alongside the chumash. It would consist of an abridged version of fifteen supercommentaries on Rashi.[2] It is likely that the commentary of R. Elijah Mizrachi (1455-1525) and R. Judah Lowe were also written in this manner. R. Elijah Mizrachi never completed his commentary before he passed away, and thus also never write an introduction to his work. It was published by his son, Israel, in 1527.


Other commentaries were written as taught classes This is found with the commentary of Ohr ha-Chaim by Moroccan Kabbalist, Rabbi Chaim ben Attar (1696-1743), who had only daughters and taught them a class on the Chumash every Friday night. He then wrote down the commentary that he had taught them, from which he compiled the commentary Ohr ha-Chaim al ha-Torah.[3] The commentary of the Rebbe on Rashi began as part of a series in 1964, without an initial introduction as to why the custom was being implemented. Earlier reflections by the Rebbe, in the few years prior to 1964, on the importance of studying Rashi, appears however to reflect the heralding of this series. Four such references were made in the build-up to the launch of the commentary. In 1959, when discussing the rashi and midrashic teaching found in Rashi on Genesis[4] about the virtue that all the years of Sarah were equally good, the Rebbe mentioned that it is known that the leaders of Chabad spoke about the great importance and imperative attached to the study of the commentary of Rashi on the Torah.[5]


A further discussion about the precision of Rashi’s commentary was presented two years later in 1962, in the context of why Rashi comments on Exodus 6:3: ‘I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob’ with the unnecessary comment on the words: ‘I appeared’ - ‘to the fathers.’ Some supercommentaries explain that Rashi is merely bringing an abridged version of the biblical text: ‘to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob,’ before proceeding with his main comment on the later part of the same verse: ‘with [the name] Almighty G-d.’ This explanation is rejected for two reasons: firstly, Rashi could have brought in the first place only the second part of the verse: ‘with [the name] Almighty G-d,’ which he is addressing. Secondly, every word and letter in Rashi is precise.[6] The source for this is from Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, known as the Shelah (1555-1630) and further emphasised by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.[7] At the same time, the Rebbe acknowledged that not everyone agreed with the idea that every word in Rashi must be seen as concise.[8] A proof of the precision of Rashi, even pertaining to citation of the biblical verse in his commentary, may be seen from the fact that in Exodus 35:4, Rashi cites: ‘and its vessels’ and ‘and the oil also for its light,’ but in the same verse, it just states: ‘its lamps,’ even though in the verse, it also states: ‘and its lamps.’[9]


In Oct, 1962, on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (Shabbat Shuva), a further reference was made about the virtue of Rashi’s commentary in the context of why Rashi chose one out of a number of interpretations from the Midrash Sifri, concerning the verse in Deuteronomy (32:1): ‘Listen, O heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the words of my mouth!’ The Rebbe says: ‘it is well known how much the leaders of Chabad praised the commentary of Rashi on the Torah, since Rashi in his commentary reveals the esoteric teachings of the Torah.’ The source for this is a talk given by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson in 1937, quoting Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.[10]


This was further repeated exactly a year later, in Oct, 1963, also on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (Shabbat Shuva), with the same phrase: ‘As is known, the leaders of Chabad praised and cherished greatly the commentary of Rashi, since in his commentary, it is revealed the ‘wine of the Torah’ – the esoteric teachings of the Torah.’[11] Interestingly, the launch of the series began exactly a year later in 1964, also on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (Shabbat Shuva). This would perhaps indicate that the launch of the series was considered a few years earlier and the inspiration for the studies on Rashi was related to the connection of the commentary of Rashi with mysticism.


The idea that the Rebbe had launched a series, called the ‘Rashi Sicha,’ was formally acknowledged by the Rebbe eleven weeks after the series began in a talk on the portion of Shemot, when a student weekend was taking place and the students had joined the farbrengen. The Rebbe opened his talk saying that since there are new people present, he will give an introduction about the idea behind the recently established practise to study the commentary of Rashi on the Chumash.




The genesis of the commentary on Rashi must be seen in the light of a commentary on the Torah that existed already, prior to developing a commentary with an exclusive focus on Rashi. From 1951 until 1965, a vast amount of the Rebbe’s teaching was devoted to analytically studying the biblical text of the Torah portion of the week. The collection of these talks was edited and printed in the first four volumes of Likkutei Sichot. Later, they were worked on and many of them were incorporated in Torah Studies by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. The mention of an earlier connection, specifically with Rashi, giving insight into the origin of the fascination of the Rebbe with Rashi, may be found in the talk the Rebbe gave on Parshat Vayakhel - Pikudei, 1977, where he discusses his teacher in Cheder, who would teach him Rashi on Fridays before Shabbat. The teaching would take place in the home of the teacher, as oppose to a proper school, where a goat would many times be seen in the house, distracting the kids from studying. In this context, two details are mentioned about the study of Rashi at this time: firstly, due to the onset of Shabbat and the necessary preparations, the teacher would be rushed to finish what they were studying. Secondly, questions that seem glaring in the commentary of Rashi, like why certain comments were necessary and others left out, and not addressed.[12] The commentary on Rashi, then, in some way, seems to have filled a longstanding need the Rebbe felt was necessary in the study of Rashi from his childhood.




The underlying idea of the commentary of Rashi is that the commentary is written, as Rashi testifies in the opening of his commentary,[13] and as his grandson, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, knows by his acronym, Rashbam, writes:[14] on the simple level of biblical interpretation (p’shat), as opposed to the midrashic andallegorical (remez). The focus on p’shat is not of course limited to Rashi, as Ibn Ezra is also a commentary based on the p’shat. A difference in style between Rashi and Ibn Ezra, for example, in that Rashi does not mention a commentary more than once, while Ibn Ezra would repeat the same interpretation.[15] A difference between Rashbam and Rashi is that when Rashi brings a Midrash in his commentary it must be related to p’shat.[16]


Daily study of Rashi


The primary commentators on the Torah from the medieval period include: Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides. One can find two approaches in Chabad history regarding these commentaries: the commentaries combined, as the primary commentators on the Pentateuch, and the emergence of the uniqueness of Rashi’s commentary. The former is reflected in the story of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1740-1813), when, at the age of eight, he wrote a commentary that was an amalgamation of all three commentaries of Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides into a single commentary. When he was ten, he had an awesome dream, whereby he was sitting in the adjacent room of the synagogue in Liozna, studying, when Rabbi Reuven Ba’al Shem, also known as the Baal Shem of Liozna,[17] entered, saying that Shneur Zalman was being summoned to court and that he should enter the synagogue. When he entered, he saw three judges sitting at a table, with three elderly sages, standing at a distance. When he entered, the one seated in the middle indicated to Shneur Zalman that he should approach the table, and Rabbi Reuven Ba’al Shem escorted him. The judges were wrapped with a tallit and the elders were dressed in white. When Shneur Zalman approached, the judge seated in the middle turned to Shneur Zalman and said: the three elders, Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides, summon you to a court for your desire to negate their merit of offering people the ability of studying their commentaries, because of your commentary that includes all three of them together. Shneur Zalman had no words with which he was able to defend himself against this accusation, and with a complete heart and intense weeping, he said he would burn his commentary. The elders placed their hands on his head and blessed him that he should be successful in his studies and innovate new novellae in the Torah and pathways in serving G-d that would guide myriads of Jews for all generations until the arrival of the righteous redeemer. When Shneur Zalman awoke, he was distressed and worried and began fasting. After having this dream on two further occasions, he arose and burnt his commentary.[18] This interesting story reflects the great medieval biblical commentators as holding a combined position of importance in the development of biblical commentary in the medieval period.


The emergence of the unique position of Rashi’s commentary, however, as opposed to other medieval biblical commentaries, is reflected in the custom, instituted later by Rabbi Shneur Zalman, to study daily the commentary of Rashi according to the daily reading of the weekly Torah portion. As the weekly Torah reading is divided into seven sections, one should study a section each day of the week, together with the commentary of Rashi on the biblical text, where found.[19]


Substitute for Onkelos


A further argument that Rashi is a unique commentary over other biblical commentators is that based on the law that the commentary of Rashi may be used as an alternative to the reading of the Targum Onkelos when reading the Torah twice on Shabbat in the original, accompanied by translation. The Talmud states:[20] ‘A person should always complete his Torah portions with the congregation. The congregation reads a particular Torah portion every Shabbat, and during the week prior to each Shabbat, one is required to read the Bible text of the weekly portion twice and the translation (Targum) once.’ Jewish law stipulates, however, that: ‘if one reads the original twice and the third time reviews the entire Torah reading, studying it with Rashi’s commentary, which is constructed on the foundation of the Talmud, it is more effective than reading the Targum, for Rashi’s commentary explains the text in greater detail than the Targum.’[21] The fact that Rashi’s commentary is an acceptable substitute for the Aramaic translation of the Torah, implies the centrality of the commentary as the most explanatory way, according to the method of p’shat, to study the biblical text.[22]  In 1983, on Shabbat Parshat Naso, 5743, the Rebbe stated that this was the foundation and source for the custom to study on every Shabbat a verse of the weekly Torah portion with the commentary of Rashi.[23]


Wine of the Torah


A further importance of the commentary of Rashi and a reason to study it, as the primary biblical commentary, is that in addition to its focus on p’shat, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson quoted in 1937 the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi,[24] that the commentary also contains the Jewish mystical level of biblical interpretation (yey-nah shel Torah - wine of the Torah), though undetectable in the text itself. This is despite the question whether Rashi had a complete version of the Zohar that we have now today.[25] The origin of the idea that Rashi’s commentary contains also mysticism is from Rabbi Mordechai Yoffe (1530-1612) in his commentary on Genesis,[26] and Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1555-1530).[27] This is as opposed to a possible interpretation of a statement by Rabbi Abraham Gombiner (1603-1683),[28] that the Rashi commentary on the Torah is founded (me-yusad) on the Talmud, perhaps excluding a deeper aspect to the commentary.


Rabbi Dov Ber Schneerson (1773-1827) explains, though not in the context of Rashi’s commentary specifically, that the expression ‘wine of the Torah,’ as opposed to ‘bread of the Torah,’ refers to the reasons for the ideas and laws in the Torah, beyond the reasons offered in the Talmud.[29] The analogy of bread and wine is that while the making of bread requires a lot of work, including sowing, grinding, sifting and baking, wine making is readily available; it only requires the squeezing of the grapes for wine to be produced. This analogy, when applied to Rashi’s commentary, suggests that the understanding of the p’shat in Rashi requires hard work, while the mystical is more accessible.


While the idea of mysticism in Rashi is central to the Rebbe’s commentary on Rashi, the two levels of interpretation, the simple and the mystical, are not separate, but intertwined: within the simple interpretation, lies its mystical interpretation. In this context, the analogy of wine is somewhat different: as wine is only produced after squeezing the grapes, similarly, the more one works to understand the p’shat in the commentary of Rashi, the mystical dimension of the particular comment comes to light.[30] The aim of the Rebbe’s commentary was to uncover the mystical interpretation through an in-depth study of a comment of Rashi, explicating in a careful way the simple interpretation (p’shat).[31] In 1968, the Rebbe further clarified that when there is a difficulty in a comment of Rashi, it is not possible to explain it, in the first instance, through mysticism; it must be first understood on the level of p’shat.[32] The commentary of the Rebbe indeed does this judiciously.


The methodology for deciphering the mysticism within Rashi is not, however, deduced directly from the works of the Kabbalah but through the teachings of Chassidic philosophy.[33] At the same time, the mysticism is within the context of the plain reading of a comment of Rashi.[34] The rationale for mysticism in Rashi’s commentary is since mysticism is connected to the actual wording of the biblical text. As Rashi s focused on the p’shat – the simple understanding of the biblical text, mysticism must also by extension be also found in the commentary of Rashi.[35]


The idea that you have to toil hard to understand Rashi is reflected in the teaching that to understand Rashi to its ultimate (l-tach-lito), one needs to purify oneself for seven days. The Rebbe, on one occasion, told how he stayed up an entire night working on one of the Rashi’s comments.[36]


Focus on p’shat – practise of the mitzvot


A further justification for the focus on p’shat was articulated in August, 1965, when making a distinction between Rashi’s commentary on the Pentateuch and Rashi’s commentary on the Prophets and Scripture. Whereas the commentary on the Pentateuch is according to p’shat, Rashi’s commentary on the other biblical works is not limited to p’shat.[37] The reason for this is since the Pentateuch that contains all the commandments (mitzvot) are primary to be understood literally. If they may be understood following the other levels of interpretation, the practice of the commandments would be abandoned for the sake of a more meditative approach.[38]


Rashi and Ba’al Shem Tov


In 1966, the Rebbe further suggested that there is a commonality between Rashi and the founder of the Chassidic movement, the Ba-al Shem Tov. Rashi focuses on the p’shat, suitable for studying with a young child, who is beginning to study the written Torah, similarly, the Baal Shem Tov would engage with and teach in a language that a simple person can understand, as opposed to the scholar. In addition, as the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings that contained mysticism, Rashi also contains aspects of the mystical teachings that becomes apparent specifically through the study of the p’shat.[39]


Rashi – essence of the Oral Torah


A further argument for the study of Rashi on the Torah, appearing to further explain the reason for his focus on the study of Rashi during his talks, as opposed to other works of the Torah, was presented in 1970.[40] The study of the commentary of Rashi on the Torah is the most important rabbinic work of the Torah, eclipsing even other major works of the Oral Torah, including the Talmud. This is based on a passage in Maimonides that suggests the essence of the Oral Torah is the particular work of the Torah or institution of Jewish teaching at a particular time in history that serves as the main communication of the teachings of the Torah to the entire Jewish people. This is based on the statement in the Mishneh Torah regarding the status given to the Supreme Sanhedrin in Jerusalem:[41] ‘The Supreme Sanhedrin in Jerusalem are the essence of the Oral Law. They are the pillars of instruction from whom statutes and judgments issue forth for the entire Jewish people.’


Rashi’s commentary – every word in the Torah is significant


On 24 Dec, 1966 (11 Tevet, 5727), the Rebbe explained[42] that the importance of the study of Rashi on the Torah is the fact that it comments on the significance of even a single word of the Torah. This demonstrates the sanctity of the Torah in that there are no superfluous words that were added without a reason.[43] The unique aspect of this principle – the accuracy of the biblical text - in the commentary of Rashi is that this is the case not just on the exegetical, allegorical or mystical level but in the context of the simple and, thus, practical understanding of the text (p’shat). As the commentary is studied also by young children, as a first introduction to biblical commentary and the Oral Torah, the pedagogic implication of this principle also for older people,[44] is twofold: the importance of the deed (ma-aseh), following the Mishnaic dictum:[45] ‘it is the deed that is essential.’ An additional broader aspect of this principle is that weight should be attached to every word a person utters.


Straightforward commentary


Reflecting the unique approach of Rashi, that it focuses on a straight-forward approach to studying the biblical text, the Rebbe stated on 16 Sivan (Baha-alotecha), 5726, that the Hebrew letters of the name Rashi contains also the word yashar, which means ‘straight,’ or ‘upright,’ when read backwards.[46]


613 fasts


The importance of the study of Rashi was further presented in 1966 (20 Av, 5726, Parshat Ekev), based on a received tradition that Rashi fasted 613 fasts before beginning to write his commentary on the Torah, with the hope that his commentary will be accepted.[47]


Reason for Shabbat studies in Rashi – calling G-d


While the importance of studying Rashi was argued on a number of occasions, a reason explicitly explaining why the Rebbe began the custom of studying a comment of Rashi at every public gathering that took place on Shabbat - something that was not done previously – was expressed on 15 October, 1966 (Parshat Noach, 2 Cheshvan, 5727), exactly two years after the project began. The reason given was that the Torah (Pentateuch) is called: ‘mikra, as found in the statement in the Talmud:aperson should divide his day into three parts: A third for Mikra (Bible), a third for Mishna, and a third for Talmud.’ The meaning of Mikra is ‘reading’ of scripture and also convocation,[48] as in ‘holy convocation (mikra kodesh).’[49] In this sense, study of scripture, as opposed to Mishna and Talmud, is man calling to G-d and elicits a response, as when a person responds to their name being called.[50] In this context, the commentary of Rashi, recognised by Jewish law as the simplest explanation for scripture (p’shat),[51]is also ‘calling to G-d,’ more than other commentaries that are less consistent with the p’shat. This is also the rationale of the institution by Rabbi Joseph I. Schneerson for the daily study of theTorah with the commentary of Rashi, as well as the basis for the idea that the commentary of Rashi contains aspects of Jewish mysticism.[52]


On 13 Kislev, 1967,[53] a summary of the reason for the study of Rashi at the farbrengen was that it was similar to the institution by Rabbi Joseph I. Schneerson for the daily study of theTorah with the commentary of Rashi, as well as the law that the commentary of Rashi should be studied as the substitute for the Targum Onkelos when reading the Torah twice with an explanation.[54]


G-d fearing


In 1968, on Parshat Toldot, the Rebbe elaborated on the importance of studying Rashi properly, based on the teaching of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, that it inspires a fear of G-d.[55] He rejected the interpretation that it refers to the mysticism, as this would not be referring to the commentary itself, but rather the mysticism derived from the commentary. It refers to the ethical teachings that may be found in within the commentary of Rashi. In particular, the midrashic teachings that Rashi selects for his commentary regarding Isaac in Genesis 26:2 and 28:13 one would refrain from speaking with contempt about the life of the Patriarchs.[56]


Defending the need for a commentary


While there are ideas presented regarding the aim of Rashi’s commentary and a reason to study the commentary – as it demonstrates the importance of every word in the Torah and emphasises the simple and thereby validating the literal meaning of the Torah and its mitzvot no justification or argument is given to explain why it’s important to dedicate so much time and effort to analyse and offer additional insight into the commentary of Rashi. Essentially, why create a new super-commentary on Rashi in the form of an ongoing series of studies together with the community on the commentary of Rashi? The main challenge is that the study of Rashi is intended for the novice and too elementary to spend so much time on analysing in such great depth. Is there a need to study Rashi in such great depth, as is common with other rabbinic texts, like the work of the Tosafistst? The main counter argument made, indicating an overall approach and methodology of the Rebbe’s study of Rashi, is based on the fact that while Rashi appears to be a simple commentary, citing midrashic works in his explanation of the biblical text, in addition to many of his own original interpretations, it is blatantly clear that in reality Rashi is selecting[57] and reworking the midrashic works to suit his own commentary. Due to the scale of the commentary, commenting on so many of the biblical verses in the Torah, and that so many of them are citations from the midrash and Talmud, with variations, in almost every case, one can ask: what was the intention of Rashi when citing a particular midrashic or Talmudic text in the manner that he does?[58] With the approach that Rashi is citing midrash in an approximate manner and Rashi’s commitment to p’shat is limited, this may not be a problem. However, based on the notion that Rashi’s wording is very carefully considered and that Rashi’s commitment to p’shat is comprehensive, this provides fertile ground for the scholar of the Torah to analyse the commentary of Rashi to interrogate his motives and intentions when citing interpretations from the midrash, in the same manner and degree of intensity as one would analyse other rabbinic works.


Defending the study of exoteric Torah with Chassidim


What appears to be a defence of the relationship the Rebbe developed with the Chassidim through the extensive studies on Rashi at the public Farbrengens may be found in 1977, when the Rebbe argued that the primary relationship between the Moses and the Jewish people was through the study of Torah, and the same is the case with all the leaders of Chabad before him. The first published work of Rabbi Shneur Zalman was his code of Jewish law (Shulchan Aruch) on the laws of the study of Torah (Hilchot Talmud Torah) and then came his mystical work of the Tanya. Rabbi Dovber of Lubavitch invested much effort in studying and documenting the sources (mekorot and tziyunim) for the decisions found in the Shulchan Aruch, which was his own creative work for the sake of scholarship. The third Chabad Rebbe, Tzemach Tzedek, has quantitively more writing in Jewish law than his Chassidic works. The fourth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel, wrote numerous responsa in Jewish law, some of which has been published and many more that have not been published. Similarly, Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch wrote numerous responsa, especially related to the laws of Mikvah, which have been published. The same is the case regarding Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, who was tested for semicha (rabbinic ordination) by the time he was married at the age of seventeen.[59]


Studying exoteric part of the Torah in a Chassidic gathering


A further defence appears to be the case for studying a biblical commentary in isolation without an explicit Chassidic dimension. The Rebbe would argue that in fact all the Chabad leaders also focused on the revealed Torah in their relationship with the Chassidim, suggesting this may justify what the Rebbe had so broadly established.


Problems with the Rashi commentary


A reason for the fact there has been so many commentaries on Rashi is partially due to the importance of the commentary, as the first running commentary that elucidates the biblical text in a comprehensive way. Another reason is the fact that while it is meant to be following the p’shat,[60] implying a simple and easy to understand commentary, it is simultaneously abstruse and difficult, due to a number of reasons. The first problem that becomes apparent is there is rarely a question posed in the commentary, justifying or giving a context for the comment. This is very different to even the other later French sages, the Tosafists, many of whom were Rashi’s close family members, almost always opens their comments on the Talmud with a question and then proceeds with their answer.[61] This lets the student of the Talmud know what it is that the comment by the Tosafist is coming to address and answer.


To complicate this, Rashi indicates that his comments are only to address a question that arises in the plain reading of the biblical text. This principle is derived from Rashi’s statement that ‘he is only comes to explain the p’shat.’[62] This suggests that his comments are only necessary when the biblical text itself cannot be simply understood, thus requiring Rashi to comment and explain what the plain meaning of the text is. The implication of this statement, however, is a need to probe in every comment what the question is that Rashi’s commentary is coming to address. This leaves a student perplexed on many occasions when there does not seem to be any question, as all is understood from a plain-reading perspective.[63]


A further basic problem is the lack of sources offered in the commentary, aside from on a few occasions. This problem is shared with other medieval works, like Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, that is also a collection of citations from previous rabbinic works, but does not reference its sources, leaving the scholar to have to search and ascertain the source. This was one of the great criticisms of Maimonides. Indeed, Rabbi Joseph Karo rectified this with his commentary, Kesef Mishneh. Similarly, there have been commentaries dedicated to clarify this on Rashi. A more fundamental problem with the commentary is that while it is intended as a commentary following the p’shat,[64]it appears to stray from the p’shat on many occasions, by quoting works from the Midrash, when there are readily available interpretations offered by other commentators, as Radak, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra, that are more closely related to the p’shat. Some have thus argued that the desire to follow p’shat was limited to specific verse where that statement is found or a broad statement but not a strict rule.


A further difficulty is the fact that the Rashi commentary, while has original commentaries, the majority, is primarily a collection of interpretations from the Talmud and Midrash but when closely looking at the sources, they are either a selection of a number of alternative interpretations in the same source, forcing the reader to try to understand a reason why Rashi chose specifically the interpretation he selected in his commentary, or the interpretation has been reworked in the commentary of Rashi with distinct differences, which many raises a question, what the intent of Rashi was when reworking the midrashic or Talmudic text into his commentary.[65] Finally, for every comment, there is a quotation of a pertinent section of the biblical text that Rashi is relating to in his comment. However, on many occasions, the quotation is only partial or highly selective, raising questions to what exactly Rashi is concerned about regarding a given biblical text. For all these reasons, and others, there exists many supercommentaries, including the one being discussed here by the Rebbe.


A complexity with approaching Rashi’s commentary critically, to understand the above difficulties, is the style of the commentary itself. When one reads the commentary, it is written in such a straight forward, concise and easy-to-comprehend manner that it glosses over any need for a person to probe the actual text of the commentary. It is only when one probes below the surface that one becomes aware that the commentary in its entirety in fact is very difficult to understand.[66] An example of this is in Genesis 32:5, when Jacob let’s Esau know that he had been dwelling at the house of Laban until know. Rashi seems to comment unnecessarily two interpretations. [67]


An additional complication with the commentary of Rashi is that there exists around 200 manuscripts of Rashi in the world today with countless variants between one edition and another, with no possibility to reconstruct exactly what may have been the original Rashi text. This is further complicated by the fact that in addition to variants due to the copyists, either scholarly or error, Rashi’s disciples also added interpretations that were no in the original Rashi text, or additions to Rashi’s comments, that may have been originally noted as additions by the disciples, Shemaya or Joseph Kara, but had later been just added as part of the Rashi, without any way to distinguish between what was Rashi’s original text and additons to it.


P’shat – versus other supercommentaries - a synchronic approach


In the development of the Rebbe’s commentary of Rashi as a unique commentary, the Rebbe rarely addresses in his original oral commentary, as opposed to the footnotes in the published editions, that other supercommentaries may address a comment of Rashi on the same biblical verse and offer their own answers to the questions the Rebbe was posing. Occasionally, the Rebbe would simply say what other commentators propose, before questioning their explanation.[68] A reason for this is, as explained in 1972, that the major 15-16th century supercommentaries of Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi and Sifsei Chachamim by Rabbi Shabbtai Bass, are too complex and the answers to the questions posed must be more simplistic in nature. It must be consistent with Rashi’s intention that a young student of the Torah will be able to grasp his commentary. It’s inconceivable that between the time of Rashi and the 15-16th century, there was no simpler explanation to the questions had posed on Rashi’s commentary.[69] Similarly, the supercommentary of Rabbi Judah Loew (1520-1609), known as the Maharal of Prague, follows other methods of interpretation to explain Rashi’s commentary, including on occasion as far as the use of mysticism (sod), as opposed to p’shat.[70]


The argument that Rashi is a commentary based on p’shat, and does not require the level of knowledge suggested by Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi, is based on the halacha that the commentary of Rashi may be used as an alternative to the reading of the Targum Onkelos when reading the Torah twice on Shabbat in the original, accompanied by translation. This law is based on the teaching in the Talmud:[71] ‘A person should always complete his Torah portions with the congregation. The congregation reads a particular Torah portion every Shabbat, and prior to each Shabbat, one is required to read the Biblical text of the weekly portion twice and the Aramaic translation of Onkelos (Targum) once.’ Jewish law stipulates however that: ‘if one reads the original twice and the third time reviews the entire Torah reading, studying it with Rashi’s commentary, which is constructed on the foundation of the Talmud, it is more effective than reading the Targum, for Rashi’s commentary explains the text in greater detail than the Targum.’[72] The fact that Rashi’s commentary is an acceptable substitute for the Aramaic translation of the Torah, implies that the commentary must be able to be understood on the level of p’shat without having to rely on more extensive knowledge of the Torah.[73] This would also include knowledge of the Talmud. This excludes the commentary of Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi, that is based on a legal approach to understand Rashi’s commentary.[74]


This is reflected in a commentary on Genesis (1:29): ‘G-d said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.’ Rashi comments by quoting a text from the Talmud that man was originally forbidden from eating animals:[75] ‘Scripture places cattle and beasts on a level with them (human beings: that is, it places all alike in the same category) with regard to food, and did not permit Adam to kill any creature and eat its flesh, but all alike were to eat herbs. But when the era of the “Sons of Noah” began He permitted them to eat meat, for it is said,[76] “every moving thing that lives should be for food for yourselves … “even as the herb” that I permitted to the first man, so do “I give to you everything.”


Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi raises a question that Rashi contradicts himself with his earlier comment on Genesis (1:22), where he quotes from the Midrash that man was permitted to eat meat. The verse states: ‘G-d blessed them, saying, “Be fertile and increase, fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.”’ Rashi, there, comments by quoting the Midrash:[77] ‘Because people decreased their number, hunting them and eating them, they needed a blessing.’ To reconcile this, Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi explains in a lengthy Talmudic discussion in tractate Sanhedrin – the source for Rashi’s comment that man was forbidden to eat meat – that this prohibition is only regarding killing an animal as opposed to eating meat from an animal that had died on its own. While this point is valid, it indicates that Rashi is merely informing a detail in Jewish law that is referenced to and elaborated on in the Talmud. The Rebbe proposes there is a far simpler approach based on an underlying question in the text in Genesis that Rashi is addressing, namely, if G-d created animals and man, why would there be such disparity and subjugation of one over the other, as reflected in the earlier juxtaposed verse (28): ‘G-d blessed them and G-d said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”’ Rashi is, thus, proposing that verse 29 is indeed informing a parity between them, in that they both are sustained from herbage. In this context, Rashi informs that even when herbage is consumed by man through the eating of animals, that themselves are sustained by herbage, is only permitted when they are not killed directly by man, as this undermines their parity. This explanation demonstrates that the comment of Rashi may be understood, while consistent with the legal discussion found in the Talmud, in isolation of it.[78]




The idea that Rashi is offering a commentary based on p’shat includes the notion that Rashi’s commentary must be understood by a child of five years old, real or figurative,[79] studying the Torah. This is based on Ethics of the Fathers that states:[80] ‘At five years of age the study of Scripture.’ The implication of this is that any difficulty in a comment of Rashi cannot be explained through a mystical approach and must be explained in two possible approaches: the question is not a real difficulty or that it has already been explained by Rashi previously.[81]




A further unique component of this approach is that one needs to view the commentary of Rashi as not only being on the level of p’shat and therefore relatable to a five-year-old child, but also to a five-year-old child living in the age of Rashi and studying with him.[82]





[1] Mizrachi al ha-Torah, hakdamot.

[2] Mizrachi al ha-Torah, hakdamot. The commentaries include: Aaron ben Gershon Abu Al-Rabi of Catania (15th century), published in 1420 (MS in Oxford); Elijah Mizrachi (1455-1525); 15th century Jacob Canizal (published in Constantinople 1525); R. Meir Stern of Fulda (d. 1679); R. Moses Albelda; R. Hendel; R. Nathan; R. Samuel Almosnino; Yeri'ot Shlomo by R. Solomon Luria, known as Maharshal; Gur Aryeh by R. Judah Lowe; Devek Tov by R.Shimon Ausenburg Halevi, (Amsterdam 1714); Divrei David by R.David ha-Levi Segal (c. 1586 – 1667); Ho-il Moshe; Nachalat Ya-akov; Tzedah la-derech byR. Yissachar Ber Ailenberg (printed in Prague in 1623); Kitzur Mizrachi (shortened version of Mizrachi) by R. Jacob Marcaria (Trento, 1561); Isaac ha-Kohen of Ostroh, entitled Mattenat Ani (shortened version of Mizrachi) (Prague 1604-9);

[3] Torat Menachem 28:249. Ha-tomim vol. 2. P. 78.

[4] Genesis 24:67.

[5] Torat Menachem, 5720, vol. 27, p. 146. The implication of this observation is that since Rashi brings this midrashic interpretation to explain the biblical text about the life of Sarah indicates that this virtue must be also suitable to each individual.

[6] Torat Menachem, 5722, vol. 32, Va’era, p. 380-1. The answer the Rebbe gives is that Rashi is arguing that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not merely individuals with their own connection to G-d but ‘patriarchs’ (avot) of the Jewish people, similar to the verse in Genesis (18:19): ‘For I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice.’

[7] Shnei Luchot Habrit, vol. 3, tractate Shavuot, p. 8 (Oz Ve’hadar). The page number as footnoted in Torat Menachem is the Amsterdam edition (1696), p. 181a:  The rationale is that the commentaries of Rashi were taught with Divine spirit (ru-ach ha-kodesh), thus every word and letter must be accurate and not superfluous. A further source for this is in Shnei Luchot Habrit, Torah sh’ba’al peh, k’lal 24, p. 312, k’lal Rashi, where it brings this idea from 15th century Italian RabbiJoseph Colon Trabotto, also known as Maharik (c. 1420 -1480) that every word in Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud is precise. The rationale is that we find this concept in the commentary of Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi in his methodology in explaining Rashi’s commentary on the Torah. The same is true with Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud.

[8] Sichot Kodesh 5737, vol. 1, p. 559-60.

[9] Sichot Kodesh 5737, vol. 1, p. 559-60.

[10] Torat Menachem 5723, vol. 35, p. 30, Parshat Ha-azinu, Shabbat Shuva.

[11] Torat Menachem 5724, vol. 38, p. 29, Parshat Ha-azinu, Shabbat Shuva.

[12] Sichot Kodesh 5737, vol. 1, p. 559-60.

[13] Rashi on Genesis 3:8: ‘And they heard: There are many Aggadic midrashim, and our Sages already arranged them in their proper order in Genesis Rabbah and in other midrashim, but I have come only [to teach] the simple meaning of the Scripture and such Aggadah that clarifies the words of the verses, each word in its proper way.’

[14] Rashbam on the Torah, beginning of Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1).

[15] Torat Menachem 5725, vol. 47, p. 268. An example of this is in the word ‘ba-tehem’ (lit. their houses) in the verse (Deuteronomy 11:6): ‘and what He did to Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, the son of Reuben, that the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up and their households (ba-tehem) and their tents, and all the possessions at their feet, in the midst of all Israel.’ Ibn Ezra repeats that the meaning is ‘households,’ as opposed to literally their houses were swallowed in the ground. Rashi ignores this, as he has already explained this in Genesis 55:2: ‘And he wept out loud, so the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard.’ Rashi comments: ‘the house of Pharaoh, namely his servants and the members of his household. This does not literally mean a house, but it is like “the house of Israel” (Ps. 115:12), “the house of Judah” (I Kings 12:21), mesnede in Old French, household. [From Targum Onkelos].’

[16] Torat Menachem 5720, vol. 27, p. 146.

[17] See Sefer HaSichot 5696, p. 321.

[18] Otzar Sipurei Chabad, vol. 2, p. 247-8.

[19] Sefer Haminhagim, p. 19.

[20] Talmud Berachot 8b.

[21] Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim 285:2.

[22] Torat Menachem, vol. 42, p. 108-9. See also Torat Menachem 5742, vol. 1, p. 308.

[23] Torat Menachem 5743, vol. 3, p. 1603.

[24] Sefer Hasichot 5696, p. 137. Sefer Hasichot 5697, p. 197. Hayom Yom 29 Shevat: ‘Rashi's commentary on Chumash is the "wine of Torah." It opens the heart and uncovers one's essence-love1 and essence-fear (of G‑d). Rashi's commentary on Talmud opens the mind and uncovers the essence-intellect.’

[25] Torat Menachem 5725, vol. 44, p. 137, footnote 12.

[26] Likkutei Sichot vol. 5, p. 279.

[27] Shelah on tractate Shavuot 181a. Likkutei Sichot vol. 5, p. 1.

[28] Magen Abraham on Shlucham Aruch, Orach Chaim, 285.

[29] Imrei Binah, Sha-ar Kriat Shema, end of ch. 53:

[30] Torat Menachem 5726, vol. 46, p. 125.

[31] Sichot Kodeh, Shabbat Parshat Noach, 5765, p. 381. Likkutei Sichot vol. 5, p. 1, footnote 5.

[32] Torat Menachem 5728, vol. 52, p. 8, f. 38.

[33] Torat Menachem 5742, vol. 1, p. 307.

[34] Torat Menachem 5728, vol. 51, p. 270.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Torat Menachem vol. 42, p. 280, Tetzaveh.

[37] In Sefer Hasichot 5697, p. 197, it states that the commentary of Rashi on, both, the Torah and the Prophets and Scriptures (Nach) are ‘wine of the Torah.’ See also Hayom Yom Hame-vuar, 29 Shevat. Accordingly, if the commentary of Rashi on Nach is not p’shat, then the p’shat and the mystical are only intertwined in the commentary on the Torah but not Nach.

[38] Torat Menachem 5725, Shabbat Parshat Matot-Masei, vol. 44, p. 138. See also Likkutei Sichot 30:29, footnote.

[39] Torat Menachem 5726, Shabbat Parshat Mishpatim, vol. 46, p. 110.

[40] Torat Menachem 5730, vol. 58, p. 370-371.

[41] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mamrim 1:1.

[42] Torat Menachem 5727, Shabbat Parshat Vayechi, 11 Tevet, vol. 48, p. 406-7.

[43] See also Rashi, Abraham Grossman (Littman), p. 78-79: Rashi saw significance and purpose in every name, time, place, and event – indeed, in every detail – mentioned in the `Torah. This idea effectively serves as the basis of the entire commentary. Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, Lawee, Eric, p. 24.

[44] Torat Menachem 5727, Shabbat Parshat Vayechi, 11 Tevet, vol. 48, p. 407-8.

[45] Ethics of the Fathers 1:17.

[46] Torat Menachem 5726, Shabbat Bah-aalotcha, 16 Sivan, vol. 47, p. 103.

[47] Torat Menachem 5726 (Vayelech, 6 Tishrei), vol. 45, p. 30. Torat Menachem 5726 (Ekev, 20 Av), vol. 47, p. 265. Shem Hag’dolim, Rashi. Sha-a lot u-Teshuvot Eitan Ha-ezrachi, Kuntres Acharon, Vayeshev (printed in Ostrau, 1796) by Rabbi Abraham Rapoport (1584-1651):

[48] Likkutei Torah, Parshat Pinchus, p. 76b. See also Torah Ohr, p. 58a. In both these sources, it argues that in fact the Oral Torah is loftier that Mikra (written Torah). In Torah Ohr it makes a distinction that ‘calling’ reflects a distance from the one who is calling and the one who is called. The Oral Torah however reflects a greater unity with the Divine will, as one can only know the will of G-d through the oral Torah where the laws of the Torah are explained. In this context, describing the commentary of Rashi – p’shuto shel mikra – the Rebbe is placing the commentary in the framework of the written Torah – mikra. This presents a challenge to the view of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who writes (Torah Ohr, p. 58a) that the commentary of Rash is part of the Oral Torah, alongside the Tosafot and other codifiers (poskim), whereby the main emphasis is the words as vehicle for the knowledge they contain, as opposed to the wisdom indicated in the form and precise number of the letters and words themselves. For this reason, one is not meticulous in the precise letters and wording in the works of the Oral Torah, including the commentary of Rashi and Tosafot and the codifiers. One may argue however that this is only the case with the commentary of Rashi on the Talmud but Rashi on the Torah is a part of the written Torah, as its aim is to explain it according to the p’shat.

[49] Exodus 12:16.

[50] Torat Menachem 5762, vol. 33, p. 22.

[51] Shulchan Aruc Haravh, Orach Chaim, 285:2.

[52] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 48, p. 242, footnote 100.

[53] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 48, p. 242, footnote 288.

[54] Shulchan Aruc Harav, Orach Chaim, 285:2.

[55] Sefer Hasichos 5696, p. 137. Sefer Hasichos 5697, p. 197. Hayom Yom 29 Shevat: ‘Rashi's commentary on Chumash is the "wine of Torah." It opens the heart and uncovers one's essence-love and essence-fear (of G‑d). Rashi's commentary on Talmud opens the mind and uncovers the essence-intellect.’

[56] Torat Menachem 5728, vol. 51, p. 270-3.

[57] This is based on the principle that Rashi would not cite midrash at all unless it is closely related or may be reworked in a way that it is to be understood as closely related to the simple understanding of the biblical txt (p’shat). Torat Menachem 5726 (Ekev, 20 Av), vol. 47, p. 267.

[58] Torat Menachem 5726 (Ekev, 20 Av), vol. 47, p. 265-7.

[58] Torat Menachem 5726 (Ekev, 20 Av), vol. 47, p. 266.

[59] Sichot Kodesh 5737, vol. 1. P. 521.

[60] Rashi on Genesis 3:8.

[61] Torat Menachem 5728, vol. 51, p. 41-42.

[62] Rashi on Genesis 3:8.

[63] Torat Menachem 5728, vol. 51, p. 299.

[64] Rashi on Genesis 3:8.

[65] Torat Menachem 5726, vol. 47, p. 266.

[66] Sichot Kodesh, Beshalach, 5732, vol. 1, p. 406.

[67] Torat Menachem 5728, vol. 51, p. 299.

[68] Torat Menachem 5726, vol. 47, p. 269.

[69] Sichot Kodesh, Shabbat Parshat Vayeshev, 5732, p. 243.

[70] Sichot Kodesh, Shabbat Parshat Chayei Sarah, 5732, p. 139.

[71] Talmud Berachot 8b.

[72] Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim 285:2.

[73] Torat Menachem 5742, vol. 1, p. 308. Torat Menachem, 5768, vol. 52, p. 393. See also Torat Menachem, vol. 42, p. 108-9, where this halacha is brought in the context of explaining that Rashi must be viewed only in the context of p’shat, but the general importance of the commentary of Rashi.

[74] Torat Menachem 5742, vol. 1, p. 307. The view that Rashi is based only on p’shat is not necessarily in contradiction to the view of the Rabbi Abraham Gombiner, who states in his commentary to Shulchan Aruch, Magen Avraham, that the commentary of Rashi is founded on the Talmud. Basing his commentary on the Talmud but written in a way that reflects the p’shat, as he seems to be highlighting, is different to saying that the only way to understand the text of the commentary of Rashi on an elementary level is a deep knowledge of the Talmud.

[75] Talmud Sanhedrin 59b.

[76] Genesis 9:3.

[77] Genesis Rabbah 11:2.

[78] Torat Menachem 5742, vol. 1, p. 309-311.

[79] The Rebbe suggests that the concept of a five-year-old child may in fact refer to a seventy-year-old with a long beard but whose awareness in the context of Torah study is the perspective of a five-year-old. Torat Menachem 5728, vol. 52, p. 8-9, f. 38.

[80] Ethics of the father 5:21.

[81] Torat Menachem 5728, vol. 52, p. 8-9, f. 38.

[82] Torat Menachem 5728, vol. 52, p. 8-9, f. 38.


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