The Lubavitcher Rebbe's commentary on Rashi: open and interactive

Sunday, 13 November, 2022 - 7:16 pm

An interesting style of the way the studies of Rashi were taught was that it was not just frontal teaching but interactive. While the Rebbe had other structured series of studies on different works, including Igeret ha-teshuvah (Epistle of Repentance) in the work of the Tanya by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi,[1] the work of his father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, on the Tanya and the Zohar, Ethics of the Fathers, and in the 1980s on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, the studying of Rashi was unique in that the Rebbe invested effort in making it interactive. This was done in various way and in stages. During 1964-5, it began as frontal teaching without interaction. The Rebbe would choose to focus on the first and last verse of the Torah portion and there is no indication there were questions or responses to questions asked in this first cycle. One the custom became re-established with less of a structure, not every week and a certain randomness regarding which comment of Rashi on which verse the Rebbe would focus on, the study also became more interactive, whereby questions would be posed on the subject studied on a given week, and the Rebbe would respond to the question in a following week, reopening the discussion from a previous week. This is found for example on Naso, 5726, when Numbers 9:10 was discussed, questions were posed and the subject was reopened the following week on Beha-alotecha.


A reason for the questions appears to be due to the limited time (kotzer ha-zman) at the farbrengen to thoroughly cover the topic discussed.[2] While the Rebbe encouraged questions, the Rebbe was critical, in 1966, that the questions raised were overly complex or convoluted (far-draite sha-alos), when Rashi’s commentary requires a training of thought that is focused toward a simpler and straight-forward approach (p’shat).[3] Reflecting the importance of the openness of the commentary the Rebbe was developing, encouraging people to ask questions and for these questions to be answered was a central part of the commentary. The Rebbe would therefore make the time at a public farbrengen to reopen the discussion of a previous week and respond to these questions, even if the questions were convoluted and in the Rebbe’s opinion misdirected for Rashi’s commentary on the Torah. On an occasion in 1966, the Rebbe reopened a study of the opening verse in the portion of Toldot due to a need, he felt, for further explanation from the previous study two years earlier, with the criticism that he waited two years for someone to pick up on it, before proceeding to reopen the comment with the issue and explanation.[4] 


On other occasions, the Rebbe acknowledged the validity of the questions, and the fact that in addition, other questions also needed to be dealt with. This was the case in 1967, on Shabbat Parshat Chukat, (1 Tammuz, 5767), when before studying the new comment of Rashi for that week, the study from the previous week was reopened and completed, since fourteen or fifteen questions was submitted, and the Rebbe commented that one can add other questions also.[5]


Also, in 1967, the Rebbe, for the first time, addressed an additional comment of Rashi to the one that was selected and studied at the farbrengen – in response to the questions raised on a particular verse. This related to Genesis 49:6: ‘for in their wrath they killed a man.’ In this case, the Rebbe said he would present the questions at the farbrengen and leave it for two weeks, so that perhaps people, on their own, will find the answers, and there will be no need to follow up the answers at the next farbrengen in two weeks.[6] The question raised appears to be why Rashi brings the Midrashic interpretation before the simple interpretation in the following comment. Rashi writes: ‘for in their wrath they killed a man: These are Hamor and the men of Shechem, and all of them are considered as no more than one man. And so [Scripture] says regarding Gideon, “And you shall smite Midian as one man” (Judge 6:16), and similarly regarding the Egyptians, “a horse and its rider He cast into the sea” (Exod. 15:1). This is its midrashic interpretation (Gen. Rabbah 99:6), but its simple meaning is that many men are called “a man,” each one individually. In their wrath they (Simeon and Levi) killed every man with whom they were angry. Similarly, “and he learned to attack prey; he devoured men (אָדָם)” (Ezek. 19:3).’


Answers were indeed submitted, linking the comment to two other places where the Rashi brings the Midrashic before the simple interpretation, as found in Genesis 12:1 and Exodus 8:2. The Rebbe then proceeded to in fact study the comment of Rashi for that week on Exodus 12:1: ‘and the frogs came up,’ where Rashi comments: It was one frog, and they [the Egyptians] hit it, and it split into many swarms of frogs. This is its midrashic interpretation (Tanchuma, Va’era 14); for its simple meaning, it can be said that the swarming of the frogs is referred to as singular, and likewise, “and the lice were” (verse 13), the swarming, pedoiliyere in Old French, swarming of lice, and also “and the frogs came up,” grenoylede in Old French, swarming of frogs.’[7]


In 1967, on Shabbat Parshat Vayishlach 5728, the Rebbe posed a question about the fact that Jacob married two sisters, although it is forbidden in Jewish law, and mentioned that he will answer this question the following week, and asked that meanwhile people could search for answers on the subject.[8] The following week, the Rebbe said that since I asked people should search for answer, numerous answers were sent but none of them approach the subject from the perspective of the simple understanding of the biblical text (p’shat).[9] In 1988


As part of the openness of the commentary was, as mentioned, the encouragement for answers to be presented and also, in 1984, for critical questions to be posed on explanations given at the farbrengen. This openness can be found in a responsum of Maimonides,[10] where he writes that one should not hold back from looking into what he says and ask questions on what may not be understood. One should critically analyse his statements and any error should be brought to his attention as a favour. Similarly, the Rebbe was saying that he invites critical questions on the explanations presented on Rashi.


On occasion, the Rebbe initiated and posed a question, leaving answered, found in other supercommentaries on Rashi, stating that this question is for all the participants to find an answer according to p’shat, as the answers given by other commentaries don’t follow p’shat. The question posed was: in one place, Rashi cites the Talmud that Dina, as a female, was born from the seed of Jacob – the father, based on the dictum: ‘If the woman gives seed first, she gives birth to a male; if the man gives seed first, she gives birth to a female.’[11] In contradiction, Rashi cites the midrashic teaching that Dina was in fact first to be a son to Leah, but was changed to a daughter, due to compassion on Rachel – to allow her to produce two tribes of Israel.


While permission was granted for questions to be posed, they had to be serious questions, not just for the sake of asking questions. One should not feel obligated to ask a question that has no basis and then a forced answer needs to be found. When there is a serious question, however, on a particular topic, and there is also a good answer to the question, there is no reason not to present it. On the contrary, if an explanation presented at a farbrengen on a comment of Rashi is not agreeable and one has a different, and better answer, one should raise it and ‘I would be happy to listen to what he says.’ Conversely, when a question is posed and the question is shown to be flawed, one should be dignified to accept, and not be upset, similar to Moses who accepted criticism from Aaron,[12] saying simply that he had not heard of the law.[13] On a further occasion, in 1984, criticism was conveyed, when questions posed had no basis, as they were too focused on the precise wording, while forgetting the broader explanation, by which the questions posed are in fact resolved.[14]


On some occasions, the questions submitted were referred to as ‘fardreite sha-alos’ (crazy questions) – questions that have nothing to do with p’shat. These questions were nevertheless responded to in private on the piece of paper the questions were submitted on.[15]


Informing the verse


A development in the openness of the commentary of Rashi took place after more than two years since it began, when a proposal was made for the Rebbe to inform before Shabbat the comment of Rashi that will be addressed during the farbrengen on Shabbat afternoon, so that people can analyse the comment before the farbrengen. This occurred ahead of the farbrengen on Shabbat, 18 February, 1967 (8 Adar I, 5727, Tetzaveh). The Rebbe however said that he was unable to inform this before Shabbat because he did not know yet himself which Rashi he would address. The procedure implemented was instead to inform early at the farbrengen which comment of Rashi will be addressed, allowing for a song to be sung in between, so that they can meanwhile look at the Rashi. This happened for the first time on Shabbat, 18 February, 1967, for the teaching of the verse in Exodus 28-1-3 (Tetzaveh).[16] The following week (Ki Tisa) also, the Rebbe said that ‘since they have requested to inform ahead which comment of Rashi will be addressed, even though there are a number of comments that require explanation, we will discuss, after a break, the verse in Exodus (32:4), and meanwhile can look into the comment of Rashi.’[17] This structure further developed two weeks later (Pikudei) when the informing of the comment to be studied was informed in the morning, as well as informing early on at the farbrengen. In addition, on that Shabbat considerably more time, including the reciting of a Chassidic discourse, was given between the informing of which comment of Rashi will be addressed (Exodus 40:27) and the study.[18] An additional component of this new openness, engagement and participation in the teaching of Rashi was that after having posed questions on the comment of Rashi, instead of going straight into the answer, there would be a pause, allowing a song to be sung, to give time for people to consider and think of their own answers to the questions posed, before the Rebbe proceeding with the explanation.[19] A slight adjustment to informing about which Rashi will be studied took place four weeks later (Tazria) when, instead of the Rebbe informing, he instructed for an announcement to be made that the explanation on a comment of Rashi will be related to Leviticus 12:4.[20] On one week in 1967, the comment of Rashi that should have been announced for Parshat Noach was meant to have been on Genesis 7:23, which is headed: ‘only Noah’ (ach Noach), but instead, the words notified was with the additional word: ‘only Noah survived’ (va-yisha-er ach Noach). The lack of attention implied by adding a single word to the comment of Rashi’s opening was criticised by the Rebbe in the introduction to his study on Rashi that week, as it went counter to one of the main principles of the Rebbe’s approach to understanding Rashi’s commentary that he had been developing for the past three years concerning the need to take into consideration the extreme accuracy of the text of Rashi.[21]


It is unclear whether the practise of informing the comment of Rashi that will be studied continued to take place on Shabbat morning or before Shabbat, as at the farbrengen on Korach, the study on Rashi would begin with: ‘one can assume that everyone already knows that the explanation in a comment of Rashi in the weekly Torah portion will be Numbers 18:8,’[22] and on Chukat, it began with: ‘one can assume it was notified that the comment of Rashi that will be discussed will be Numbers 20:1.’[23] On Pinchas, the discussion was opened with the introduction: ‘most probably they notified already before the prayers (in the morning) regarding the comment of Rashi that will be now explained.’[24]




[1] This series began on 6 Tishrei 5729 (28 Sep, 1968). This was similar to the Rashi series in that they both began, four years apart, on the yahrtzeit of Rabbetzin Channah, the Rebbe’s mother (6th Tishrei). It began in the context of the coinciding of 6th Tishrei, 1968 with the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, that is also called Shabbat Shuvah, and related to the subject of repentance (Teshuvah). There appears to have been some complaints when the studies on the subject of repentance continued also on Sukkot – the festival of rejoicing. The Rebbe justified the studies at the farbrengen on Simchat Torah, 5729 (15 Oct, 1968), pointing out that repentance is also a cause for joy when one meditates on G-d’s love for Israel expressed in the mitzvah and opportunity offered to repent (Torat Menachem 5729, vol. 54, p. 209-215). The series on Igeret ha-teshuva (12 chapters) was completed on 8 Aug, 1970 (Shabbat Parshat Devarim/Chazon, 8 Av, 5730). It however was continued in a different form, on 22 Aug, 1970 (Shabbat Parshat Ekev, 5730), that coincided with the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, the Rebbe’s father (20 Av, 5730). In 1970, around this time, the works of his on the Tanya and the Zohar had been brought out of Russia and published (Sichot Kodesh 5730, vol. 2. P. 453). In this context, the Rebbe launched a new series (without expressly stating so) of teachings and elucidating his father’s work, that would continue for many years at almost each farbrengen that took place on Shabbat, alongside the studies in Rashi. It began as a natural progression of the talks on Igeret ha-teshuvah that began in 1968, as the Rebbe’s father wrote a series of notes on Igeret ha-teshuvah. This series on the Rebbe’s father’s notes on Igeret ha-teshuvah appears to have concluded on 27 March, 1971 (Shabbat Parshat Vayikra, 1 Nissan, 5731), with the following week seeing a seamless transition into a continuation from the series on the Rebbe’s father’s notes on Igeret ha-teshuvah to his notes on the Zohar, on 3 April, 1971 (Shabbat Parshat Tzav, 8 Nissan, 5731), when the Rebbe explained a point in the final chapter (12) of Igeret ha-teshuvah with a note of his father on Zohar (Sichot Kodesh 5731, vol. 2, p. 36-7 & 43). A further study on the notes on the Zohar on 24 April, 1971 (Shabbat Parshat Shemini). The first reference to the establishment of the new series – studies on the Rebbe’s father’s notes on the Zohar – appears on 29 May, 1971 (Shabbat Parshat Bamidbar, 5 Sivan, 5731) with the statement: concerning the introduction of the custom (eingefirt) to learn the notes of my father on the Zohar (Sichot Kodesh 5731, vol. 2, p. 208). This lasted for the next eighteen years until 10 Dec, 1988 (Shabbat Parshat Miketz, 2 Tevet, 5749).

[2] Torat Menachem 5726, vol. 47, p. 99.

[3] Torat Menachem 5726, vol. 47, p. 99.

[4] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 48, p. 269, footnote 90.

[5] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 50, p. 133.

[6] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 48, p. 411.

[7] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 48, p. 425.

[8] Torat Menachem 5728, vol. 51, p. 300.

[9] Torat Menachem 5728, vol. 51, p. 431. The Rebbe proceeds to ask the same question pertaining to the punishment suggested for Tamar, but, acknowledging that people are tired of the study in Rashi, the subject will continue relevant to a verse the following week.

[10] Sha’a lot u’teshuvot Harambam siman 49.

[11] Talmud Niddah 31a.

[12] Talmud Zevachim, 101b.

[13] Torat Menachem 5744, vol. 3, p. 2078. See Sha’ar Limudei Hachasidus, R. Michoel Golomb, p. 73, f.9.

[14] Torat Menachem 5744, vol. 1, p. 517. See Sha’ar Limudei Hachasidus, R. Michoel Golomb, p. 73, f.9.

[15] Sichot Kodesh 5726 (Beha-alotcha), p. 474.

[16] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 49, p. 117.

[17] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 49, p. 132.

[18] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 49, p. 149 and 160, footnote 92.

[19] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 49, p. 160, f.92.

[20] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 49, p. 253.

[21] Torat Menachem 5728, vol. 51, p. 259-60.

[22] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 50, p. 118.

[23] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 50, p. 133.

[24] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 50, p. 243. See also: ibid. p. 272; p. 301, f.19; p. 331, f.61; p. 396.


Comments on: The Lubavitcher Rebbe's commentary on Rashi: open and interactive
There are no comments.