Posing questions in the commentary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Rashi

Sunday, 13 November, 2022 - 7:18 pm

The methodology of the Rebbe’s commentary on Rashi appears conventional to other super-commentators whereby a question is asked on a text of Rashi and an answer is proposed in validation and explanation of the comment. A unique feature of the Rebbe’s commentary is, however, the style of the questioning. The Rebbe would not suffice in posing a central question but rather on occasion pose up to twenty questions on a particular, sometimes short text of Rashi,[1] before proposing a principle, upon which he would be build a new perspective, fundamentally, upon reflection, simple and obvious, that due to its simplicity was overlooked. The reason for having overlooked the answer proposed may have been due to the conventional approach of Talmudic commentators, including the influence of other supercommentators, like Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi, who would take a person through a deep analysis of a Talmudic text in order to decipher a text of Rashi’s commentary on the Torah.


The style of asking a great number of questions may be found as a distinct and identifiable feature in the commentary of the Rebbe on Rashi, on Shabbat Parshat Korach, 5727, when the Rebbe stated that the comment of Rashi at first glance contains a basis for ten questions and on further analysis a few others also.[2] On Shabbat Parshat Chukat, the Rebbe said he will discuss the comment of Rashi on Numbers 29:35, which is full of questions like (the seeds of) a pomegranate.[3] This phrase was used also in 1976, complaining that teachers overlook the questions and teach the comment of Rashi as if it’s smooth like water, when there are difficulties as many as seeds fill a pomegranate.[4] Similarly, this phrase was used in 1983 (5744), Parshat Noach, before presenting eight questions on Genesis 9:16.[5] On Shabbat Parshat Mas-ei, 5727, the Rebbe explained the purpose for the lengthy detailing of questions on a comment of Rashi before proceeding with the explanation: since when one asks questions and then offers an explanation, as opposed to proceeding straight with an explanation, the ideas presented are better received.[6]


The methodology of asking questions on Rashi’s commentary and problematizing the very need of a comment and every point within a comment, was a central aspect of the commentary of the Rebbe on Rashi. On one occasion, in 1969, the Rebbe asked Mr. Zalmon Jaffe in a private conversation: why, after 800 years, all this time, since Rashi’s commentary was written, no one has asked questions on Rashi (in this manner) until 1966-8? Jaffe responded that it needed a rabbinic leader like the Rebbe to be able to ask and answer such questions.[7]


In 1969, the Rebbe encouraged people to not only pose questions on what he had taught but would sometime ask an individual to submit a question in advance on a Rashi, promising to address the question at the farbrengen.[8] When Mr. Zalmon Jaffe visited from England, in June, 1969, for the holiday of Shavuot, the Rebbe asked him to submit a question on a comment of Rashi ahead of Shabbat Parshat Beha-alotecha. After submitting a question on the third verse in the opening of the Parsha (Numbers 8:3), the Rebbe responded that he had addressed this comment for around two hours during a previous year and that he should ask the yeshiva students for the answer. Instead, a question was submitted on Numbers 10:35: ‘So it was, whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, Arise, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee from You.’ On the subsequent Shabbat, this Rashi was indeed addressed for an hour and a half.[9] Similarly, the following year, for Shabbat Parshat Naso, the Rebbe asked him to submit a question, which he did on Numbers 6:23, related to the priestly blessing, where Rashi has two separate comments on a single statement, in the verse: ‘saying to them’ (amor la-hem), as well as one of the questions posed.[10]


In the 1980s, as mentioned, the study of Rashi was not only interactive after the study of the particular comment of Rashi, but the Rebbe would encourage students to write their own questions on a comment of Rashi, which the Rebbe would read in one of the Talmudic journals (kovtzim) and would proceed to use that Rashi as the basis for the selection of which Rashi to dwell on and address those questions in the talk on that Rashi. This represents a further development of the interactive style of the teaching of Rashi by the Rebbe.[11]


An interesting and unique feature of the openness of the commentary of Rashi was that, on occasion, the Rebbe would pose up to twenty questions on a comment of Rashi. In 1967, on Shabbat Parshat Bereishit, 5728, as part of an effort to engage the audience, the Rebbe paused during the study on Rashi and asked humorously in the middle of the extensive list of difficulties on the text, whether someone was keeping count of the number of questions being posed.[12] In 1970, on Shabbat Parshat Naso (9 Sivan), 5730, in the middle of the farbrengen, this role to keep count of the questions was indeed given to Zalmon Jaffe, during his annual visit for Shavuot. This occurred while posing many questions on Rashi’s comment on the verse (Numbers 6:23): ‘say to them,’ in the priestly blessing. After nineteen questions, the Rebbe said humorously that nineteen questions at one time is probably sufficient, before preceding to give the explanation but not before asking a further question, making twenty questions in total.[13] Zalmon Jaffe recalls: ‘Then the Rebbe started with the Rashi question which I had asked. I asked one question on the verse in Naso, chapter 6, verse 23. When he got to question number 8 on this Rashi, he asked me. “how many is that?” and I answered correctly. At 11, again “how many;” at 14 once more, I answered 14. Somebody shouted 15. The Rebbe said, “we’ll have an auction, anybody say 16?” (My answer was correct.) and so, the Rebbe kept on asking more questions on the same verse until he had asked 20 questions! Then he started on the 20 answers - brilliant.’[14] In 1975, for the study on Rashi in Parshat Naso, on Numbers (7:18-19), the Rebbe asked Zalmon Jaffe once again to count the questions, of which he counted fourteen.[15] In 1977, on Parshat Naso, the Rebbe asked for a volunteer to count the questions – ‘zol eimetzer tzeylen di kushyos’[16] - and Z. Jaffe once again filled this role, counting thirteen questions[17] on Rashi’s comments on the priestly blessings (Numbers 6:23-26).[18] In 1980, on Shabbat Parshat Naso, the Rebbe once again asked Z. Jaffe to count the questions on Rashi[19] on Numbers 5:28: ‘she shall be exempted.’[20]  In 1981, on Parshat Naso, before beginning the questions on the comment of Rashi on Numbers 6:24, the Rebbe also asked Z. Jaffe to count the questions.[21] Though alluded to in 1967, the practise of counting the number of questions posed on Rashi, however, only seemed to have occurred when Z. Jaffe was visiting.[22]


On Shabbat Bereishit in 1982, the Rebbe posed seventeen question on Rashi’s commentary on Genesis (1:29), concluding by saying that there are also additional questions, but as seventeen have already been asked and the symbol of the number of seventeen is that it has the numerical value of the Hebrew word ‘tov,’ which means good, that will suffice.[23] The role of counting these seventeen questions was also given to Z. Jaffe.[24]


Types of questions


The questions that would be asked in his studies of Rashi consisted of a number of types. The classic questions that would be asked included questions that other commentaries would ask in their commentaries but would offer a novel insight based on his view of Rashi’s commitment to p’shat. An example of this is: why Rashi adds the sign of white hair amongst the signs of impurity for baldness in the laws of Tzera’at (leprosy).[25]


A further type of question is described: ‘the most profound question (t’mihah hachi ge’dolah),’ consisting of a question that the Rebbe acknowledges the classic supercommentators on Rashi don’t address but is perplexed why they do not pose these questions. This may relate to the precise wording of Rashi. This includes cases that appears to follow blindly a midrashic text but particular words seem superfluous in the text of Rashi that is usually as concise as possible and must be subject to the method of p’shat, as per his declaration on Genesis 3:8: I have only come to explain the p’shat. An example of such a question is: why, when describing the descent of G-d on the top of the Mount Sinai in Exodus 19:20, in the context of the opposing verse that G-d spoke from the heavens in Exodus 20:19, Rashi writes: ‘He bent down the upper heavens and the lower heavens and spread them upon the mountain like a spread on a bed, and the Throne of Glory descended upon them [the upper heavens and the lower heavens].’ The question posed, amongst others is: why does Rashi elaborate with both: ‘upper heavens and lower heavens,’ when the verse in Exodus 20:19 only mentions: ‘heavens?’[26] Regarding this question, the Rebbe remarks that the greatest question (t’mihah hachi ge’dolah) is the fact that none of the supercommentaries on Rashi (m’farshim) address these points or even comments on the particular Rashi. This quandary seems to have been also the question that the Rebbe would raise in his conversations with various visitors while discussing his commentary on Rashi.[27]


A third category are questions that the Rebbe acknowledges are beyond the scope of the supercommentators to address and were unique to the style of learning that the Rebbe inherited from his father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson (1878-1944). An example of this is the question on the abovementioned verse in Exodus 19:20 about the descent of G-d to the top of Mount Sinai, in contrast to Exodus 20:19 that states that G-d spoke from the heavens. The Rebbe questions the significance of the precise numbering of the chapters and verses in relation to their apparent opposite statements. The descent of G-d is mentioned in chapter 19 verse 20, while the opposite statement that G-d spoke from the heavens is in chapter 20 verse 19.[28]


A fourth category of questions are what is termed kltoz kashya – stupid questions but raising them as questions that need addressing.


A fifth category questions that were not posed as part of the delivering of the study on the comment of Rashi itself, but referred to as questions coming from people asking on the Rashi that was taught the week earlier and they were responded to privately on the piece of paper the questions were submitted on. These questions were referred to as ‘fardreite sha-alos’ (crazy questions) – questions that have nothing to do with p’shat.[29]


A sixth question is a wild question that may sound cogent but is based on a mistaken premise.[30] An example of such a question is relating to the explanation for why the Jewish people did not take any booty from the possessions of their enemies in the story of Purim. The reason given by the Rebbe was a mystical reason that the Jewish people were so profoundly in a state of devotion and nullification before G-d at that time that all material possessions were of no value. The question submitted by someone on this explanation was: how is it consistent with the simple interpretation provided by Rashi on Esther 9:10: ‘but on the spoil they did not lay their hands: so that the king should not cast an envious eye on their money.’ This question is fundamentally flawed however since a mystical interpretation does not need to be consistent with an interpretation on a different level of biblical interpretation, like p’shat.


A seventh type of question is a mighty question (kushya atzumah).[31] This term is used among others places, regarding the question: why Rashi does not comment on the fact that G-d’s name is not mentioned in the Book of Esther and also the only name the Jewish people are called in Esther is Yehudi, which is unprecedented in all of Scripture.[32] A seventh description of a question is: a ‘sheturemdike kushye’ that may be translated as a question as powerful as a storm.[33]



[1] Torat Menachem 5730, vol. 60, p. 419, f.70.

[2] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 50, p. 118, footnote 60.

[3] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 50, p. 243.

[4] Sichot Kodesh 5736, vol. 1, p. 587.

[5] Torat Menachem 5744, vol. 1, p. 408.

[6] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 50, p. 272.

[7] Zalmon Jaffee Encounters 1, 5729:

[8] Zalmon Jaffe’s Encounters with the Rebbe, 5729: A perplexing aspect of this story is that the Rebbe opens his talk, connecting the selection of this verse with no allusion to the questioner but the fact that the verse is related to a similar verse found in Psalm 68:2 - the chapter of Psalms corresponding to the age the Rebbe had entered into (67 years old, i.e., 68th year): ‘May G-d rise; His enemies scatter, and those who hate Him flee from before Him.’

[9] Torat Menachem 5729, vol. 56, p. 335.

[10] Torat Menachem 5730, vol. 60, p. 419. See also Zalmon Jaffe’s Encounters with the Rebbe, 5730:


[12] Torat Menachem 5728, vol. 51, p. 183, f.51.

[13] Torat Menachem 5730, vol. 60, p. 419, f.70.

[14] Zalmon Jaffe’s Encounters 5730: According to Rabbi Avremi Keivman (Liverpool), he would give a bottle of vodka for every question posed. Unsure when exactly this took place. Correspondence with.

[15] ‘The Rebbe then discussed the rather long Rashi in Parshat Naso, 7:18,19. He had a number of questions to ask on this Rashi and, as on other occasions, it was my good fortune (or misfortune) to be asked by the Rebbe to keep count of the number of questions. I did my best. When the Rebbe had concluded, I was asked to state how many? I categorically and emphatically informed the Rebbe that I had counted fourteen.’ See Sichot Kodesh 5735, vol. 2, Naso, p. 187.

[16] Sichot Kodesh 5737, vol. 2, Naso, p. 109.

[17] Sichot Kodesh 5737, vol. 2, Naso, p. 112. In the initial part of the sicha, thirteen questions were posed, at the end of which the Rebbe said that further questions will be addressed later during the explanation.

[18] ‘The Rebbe asserted that there were a number of questions on this Rashi. He asked for a volunteer to count them. Once again it fell to my lot to check the questions.’

[19] Sichot Kodesh 5740, vol. 3, Naso, p. 288. This is not mentioned in the sicha.

[20] ‘The Rebbe gave over to us a Rashi sicho. Once again, the Rebbe announced that he had a good many questions to ask on this one Rashi verse, and would I be good enough to count the number of questions. After a little while the Rebbe enquired, “how many is that?" "Five", I replied. A little later I was asked “how many now?” “Eleven", I answered. "Good", says the Rebbe. The Rebbe then commenced to ask questions within questions, subsidiary ones. I persevered and counted every individual one. I had reached the figure Nineteen, when the Rebbe again enquired “how many?" I was a little uncertain whether I had missed any, replied "Twenty". There were sounds of protest and derision and muted jeers and guffaws. It seemed that, as I had suspected, the Rebbe had asked a series of questions under one heading, and the answer should have been nearer to fifteen.’

[21] Sichot Kodesh 5741, vol. 3, Naso, p. 574. See also: ‘As in the past, the Rebbe asked me to count the number.’

[22] ‘I am told that this procedure of counting innumerable questions on Rashi, only seems to occur when I am present at the Farbraingen.’

[23] Torat Menachem 5742, vol. 1, p. 308.


[25] Likkutei Sichot 27:94.

[26] Sichot Kodesh 5737, vol. 1, Yitro, p. 480.

[27] Zalmon Jaffee Encounters 1, 5729:

[28] Sichot Kodesh 5737, vol. 1, Yitro, p. 481. Likkutei Sichot 16:229. In Likkutei Sichot, it omits the reference to the Rebbe’s father in relation to this question. It only appears in the unedited edition in Sichot Kodesh (ibid).

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


[31] Sichot Kodesh 5726, Purim, Reshima.

[32] Sichot Kodesh 5739, vol. 2, p. 275 and 308.

[33] Sichot Kodesh 5739, vol. 2, p. 309.


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