Midrash in Rashi in the Commentary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Rashi

Sunday, 13 November, 2022 - 7:22 pm

The commentary of Rashi is based on the level of interpretation of p’shat, as Rashi states in his commentary on Genesis 3:8: ‘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 (p’shuto shel mikra) and such Aggadah that clarifies the words of the verses, each word in its proper way.’ In this statement Rashi acknowledges that he also brings midrashic teachings in his commentary. Complicating the intention of Rashi to follow only p’shat, is the fact that a vast amount of the commentary, estimated seventy five percent, are extracts from Midrashic interpretations, while only twenty five percent are his own comments, including linguistical and grammatical comments.[1] Despite the vast use of midrash, the premise of the Rebbe is that the aim of Rashi’s commentary is not to cite midrashic texts (ein inyano l’ha-atik midrash). The qualification that it’s not Rashi’s aim, as opposed Rashi does not cite midrash, indicates two premises relating to midrash in Rashi: firstly, Rashi may deviate from precise citation of midrash. Secondly, Rashi may in fact cite precisely a text from a midrash, but that is not his aim, and therefore the intention must be different than how it is found in its original format in the midrash.


 Spira (c. 1490-1577), [2] in his supercommentary on Rashi, Imrei Shefer (1597), ">argues, however that Rashi quoted midrashim freely and not only in the context of p’shat. This is also the view of Rabbi Reuven Margoliot, who argues that not only when Rashi cites a comment as midrash is it not p’shat, but even when not citing an interpretation as midrashic, but taken from the Talmud or midrash, it is midrashic and not p’shat. This view is based on the comment of Rashi on Exodus 1:8, found also in the Talmud in tractate Sotah:[4] Now there arose a new king: Rav and Samuel differed in their interpretation of these words. One said that he was really a new king; the other said that it was the same king but he made new edicts. In his work Shem Olam,Rabbi Reuven Margoliot argues that the difference of opinion between Rav and Shmuel is due to their respective approaches to understanding the biblical text: Rav follows p’shat, while Shmuel follows midrash. Since Rashi does not precede the view of Shmuel with the statement that it is midrashic, it implies that Rashi cites interpretations of midrash freely in his commentary, as the rule, as opposed to exception to the rule, when there is no other alternative interpretation following p’shat. It certainly negates the idea that even the midrashic commentary in Rashi is following p’shat, and likewise negates the notion that his principle in Genesis 3:8 that Rashi only comes to explain the p’shat is meant to be a general rule for his whole commentary.


Italian Rabbi David Pardo (1719-1792) argues that p’shat are the comments that are not cited as midrashic. He writes that the customary way of Rashi is to explain according to p‘shat. Even when he must resort to the midrashic, he would still insist on explaining the p’shat, as an additional interpretation, implying that the midrashic is in fact not p’shat.[6] Thus, there are three opinions about the citation of midrash in Rashi: 1. Rashi cites both freely and does not prefer p’shat over midrash. 2. Rashi cites p’shat, besides midrash, when he cites an interpretation as midrashic. 3. Even the midrashic in Rashi is following p’shat.


Case study


Numbers (32:42): ‘Nobah went and conquered Kenath and its surrounding villages, and called it (lah) Nobah, after his name.’ Rashi comments on the verse with a midrashic interpretation:


‘And called it (Hebrew: ‘lah’ - לָה) Nobah:’ The ‘hey’ in the Hebrew word ‘lah’ is not a ‘mappik’ - aspirate ‘hey’ (ה) - since there is no dot in the ‘hey,’ thus indicating that it is silent, contrary to the general rule. I saw in the commentary of R. Moshe Hadarshan as follows: Since this name did not remain permanently, it is a silent letter, so that it the word ‘lah’ can be expounded as ‘lo’ (לֹא) - ‘not.’


After bringing the midrashic commentary on why ‘lah’ is without a dot, Rashi writes:


But I wonder how he would expound two words similar to this, namely: “Boaz said to her (lah)” (Ruth 2:14); “to build her (lah) a house” (Zachariah 5:11).’


The midrashic interpretation that Rashi accepts is that the absence of a dot in the ‘hey’ suggests a different reading of the word – instead of ‘lah’ – ‘it,’ read ‘lo’ – ‘not.’ Thus, instead of the name being called Nobah, as stated in the verse, it in fact did not continue permanently to be called by this name. Rashi however questions how this principle can be applied in the two other instances in the Torah where the word ‘lah’ appears without the mappik ‘hey’ - in Ruth and Zachariah.


This question of Rashi is however astonishing and queried by the supercommentaries,[7] since in fact we find a midrashic interpretation to explain all of these peculiarities (‘hey’ without a dot), following the same principle that the lack of dot in the ‘lah’ (it or her) changes the word into the negative ‘lo’ (not). In Ruth Rabbah, it states:[8]


"And she said: 'Let me find favour in your sight, my lord; for that thou hast comforted me, and for that thou hast spoken to the heart of your handmaid, though I be not as one of your handmaidens' (Ruth 2:13)". He said to her "be silent" and "peace" you are not from the handmaidens (amahot) but rather from the mothers (imahot). And similarly: "And Nobah went and took Kenath, and the villages thereof, and called it Nobah, after his own name (Numbers 32:42) this teaches that her own name did not remain to her. And similarly: "And he said to me 'To build her a house in the land of Shinar; and when it is prepared, she shall be set there in her own place (Zechariah 5:11)": this teaches that there is not salvation for falsehood [since "to her" could also be read as "no": "to not build a house"].


Similarly, the Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin (24a)[9] presents an interpretation to the verse in Zachariah: ‘To build her a house in the land of Shinar,’ that the mappik ‘hey’ indicates that the intention to build her house (of arrogance) in Babylonia did not come to fruition.[10]


The fact that Rashi only brings the midrashic interpretation to explain the verse in Numbers but questions how the midrash would explain the verses in Ruth and Zachariah, indicates two possibilities: he was unaware of the midrashic interpretation, as found in Ruth Rabbah, or finds them unsatisfactory for his commentary. Rabbi Nathan Spira writes[11] that Rashi finds them unsatisfactory for his commentary as it would not follow p’shat. 17th century Rabbi Yissachar Ber Eilenberg (1550–1623) argues[12] that if that would have been the case, Rashi would have clarified as such. Rather, Rashi was unaware of the midrashic interpretations on the two other verses. Now, if Rashi is suggesting the unsuitability of these midrashic interpretations, as Rabbi Nathan Spira is claiming, we are offered a glimpse into what exactly Rashi finds as suitable midrash for his commentary and what is not suitable. If Rashi was merely unaware of the midrashic interpretations, as argued by Rabbi Eilenberg, this suggests, based on our knowledge of what these midrashic interpretations are, that Rashi is more flexible in his use of midrash.


The problem with the midrashic interpretations for the verses in Zachariah and Ruth, according to Rabbi Nathan Spira, is that they completely contradict the plain meaning of the verse. In the verse in Numbers, the place was in fact called Nebah but just that it was not permanent. In Zachariah and Ruth however it completely negates the plain reading of the verse: in Zachariah, a house (of arrogance) was not built in Babylonia and in Ruth, Boaz did not speak to Naomi; it was through an emissary.


In 1965, the Rebbe, in a study on the verse in Numbers (32:42), sided with the view of Rabbi Nathan Spira, arguing that the question Rashi had about what midrashic teaching may be given for the verse in Zachariah and Ruth is meant to be understood as a question not whether there is a midrashic interpretation but whether a suitable midrashic interpretation exists that is compatible with p’shat.[14] This follows the view of Rabbi Nathan Spira that midrashic teachings brought in the commentary of Rashi must be compatible with the study of the biblical text on the level of p’shat, thus omitting those that are not. This is also the view of Nehama Leibowitz,[15] who argues that midrashim in Rashi’s commentary are only for the purpose of ‘explaining repetitions, resolving difficulties, but not to decorate or beautify or add to Scripture.’ This would interpret the second half of Rashi’s principle in Genesis 3:8: ‘I have come only [to teach] the plain meaning of Scripture and such Aggadah that clarifies the words of the verses, each word in its proper way,’ as referring to all the midrashic commentary found in Rashi – that they are all in the realm of p’shat.


Two categories of midrash as p’shat – p’shat and close to p’shat


The Rebbe however goes further that there are in fact two categories of midrashic teachings found in Rashi: The first are comments that are sourced from the midrash (and Talmud) but without stating explicitly they are midrashic. Since Rashi does not say that the comment is sourced from the midrash, even though it is unquestionably so, Rashi considers the comment in all the details, as paraphrased in his comment, as being derived from an analysis of the biblical text that is based solely on the methodology of p’shat.[16]An example of this is the comment of Rashi on Genesis 2:2: ‘And G-d completed on the seventh day His work that He did,’ whereby Rashi comments: ‘What was the world lacking? Rest. The Sabbath came, and so came rest. The work was completed and finished.’ Although this is taken from Genesis Rabbah (10:9), its quotation without its source suggests it constitutes p’shat.[17] A further example of this the comment from the Mechilta that G-d did not descend on the mountain at Mount Sinai literally, as stated in Exodus (19:20), but rather came down above the heavens that descended on the mountains. The source for this qualification is sourced from p’shat, since the biblical text describes two verses earlier in Exodus (19:18) the smoking of the mountain, as opposed to its burning, which would have been the case had the blazing fire of G-d appeared on the top of the mountain itself. While the midrash derives this from the later text in Exodus (20:19), where it states that ‘G-d spoke from the heavens,’ in the context of Rashi, it constitutes p’shat and derived from the same biblical narrative itself.[18] Regarding this category, one must point out that this does not apply to later additions that add the sources of Rashi in the Midrash in brackets within the commentary. These are later additions that are not found in the early printed editions or the manuscripts.[19]


The second category are comments that expressly state they are midrashic. These comments are only brought when there is a difficult with the p’shat and must nevertheless be still close to[20] (karov) and have a connection (shay-chut) with p’shat.[21]


While the commentary of the Rebbe distinguishes between an anonymous midrash-sourced comment as p’shat and explicitly quoted midrash-sourced comment as having a weaker[22] connection to p’shat, the statement by Rashi about his methodology in relation to his approach to p’shat and midrash is interpreted in the Rebbe’s commentary in two ways. In a footnote in Likkutei Sichot, vol. 5[23] and 11,[24] Rashi’s statement on Genesis (3:8): ‘I have come only [to teach] the plain meaning of Scripture and such Aggadah that clarifies the words of the verses, each word in its proper way,’ is meant to serve as acknowledgement that Rashi’s commentary consists of non-midrashic-sourced comments and midrashic material, but without a distinction between explicit and non-explicit.


In a footnote in Likkutei Sichot 15,[25] it however delineates the two parts of the statement by Rashi differently - as referring to the two above categories of comments in Rashi: The first half: ‘I have come only [to teach] the plain meaning of Scripture,’ refers to Rashi’s own comments and also anonymously quoted midrash-sourced comments. The second half of the statement: ‘and such Aggadah that clarifies the words of the verses, each word in its proper way,’ refers only to midrashic teachings that are expressly presented as midrashic.[26]


All midrash in Rashi is in realm of p’shat


Rashi, however, clarifies, that whether the inclusion of Aggada is referring to the majority of the comments of Rashi that are from the midrash but not quoted as such or only the comments of Rashi that are explicitly quoted as midrashic, in both cases, Rashi would have only selected them if they were connected to p’shat. This is supported by the fact that Rashi repeats in numerous places – unrelated to midrashic sourced comments - that he comes only to explain the p’shat.[27] An example of this is Rashi’s comment on Genesis 3:24: ‘And He drove the man out, and He stationed from the east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim and the blade of the revolving sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life.’ Rashi comments on the meaning of the revolving sword at the entrance of the Garden of Eden: ‘There are Aggadic midrashim, but I have come only to interpret its simple meaning.’ This inclusive statement covers all the relevant and suitable comments of Rashi, whether from the midrash or his own – they all belong to his endeavour to explain the p’shat, albeit to different degrees, depending on the circumstances of the particular verse.[28]


Examples of Rashi anonymously citing a midrashic teaching in the realm of p’shat


In Exodus it states:[29] ‘Bezalel made the Ark. Rashi quotes the midrash that Bezalel did not in fact make the ark himself, but rather: ‘since he devoted himself to the work more than the other wise men, it was called by his name [i. e., the work is attributed to him alone].’ The reason for this midrashic commentary is since the Torah states earlier explicitly in the plural: shall make an ark of acacia wood.’[31]


Broadening the definition of p’shat


By arguing that all comments of Rashi, including those taken from midrashic and Talmudic sources are all p’shat, one must clarify what exactly then is the definition of p’shat we are articulating. In a study on a comment of Rashi, where Rashi cites a midrashic interpretation without identifying it as midrashic, one finds a definition of what is meant by p’shat. The idea of p’shat has two possibilities: the most plain and simple meaning of a biblical text or the meaning of the biblical text that can be derived from the context – both are equally regarded as p’shat. This means to say that even when we are forced to change the simple meaning of a biblical word, due to the context, this is also regarded as p’shat and not midrashic. This is implied in Rashi’s comment on Exodus 1:8: Now there arose a new king (who knew not Joseph): Rav and Samuel differed in their interpretation of these words. One said that he was really a new king; the other said that it was the same king but he made new edicts. The reason why Shmuel changes the simple meaning of the word ‘chadash’ (new) is because the context belies the notion that it was a new king, since even if it was a new king, it is inconceivable that he did not know of Joseph who saved Egypt from the famine. While Rabbi Reuven Margoliot argues that Shmuel is midrashic, the Rebbe argues that since Rashi does not cite it as a midrashic comment, it must be regarded as p’shat. This clarifies for us the definition of p’shat: simple meaning of the biblical text of an interpretation forced by its context.[32] This definition is the basis for the thesis of the Rebbe that the entirety of Rashi’s commentary is in the realm of p’shat, even when citing a midrash explicitly. This offers us also a definition of what constitutes midrash: when an interpretation of a word or text is not based its plain meaning and also not based on the meaning given. To it by its context, but rather an interpretation that is sourced from a place that is beyond its immediate context. This is consistent with the idea that the word midrash comes from the word ‘to seek,’ from the verse (Genesis 25:22): ‘And she went to (li’drosh) seek (or inquire of) the Lord.’[33]


Examples of Rashi explicitly citing a midrashic teaching in the realm of p’shat


The bringing of a midrash that clearly is not p’shat can be explained in two ways: it comes to explain a detail regarding p’shat, or it is indeed only in the realm of p’shat but not as close to p’shat as anonymous midrashic teachings in Rashi. An example of the bringing a midrashic teaching to explain p’shat is found regarding the thickness of the cover of the ark. The Torah does not give a measure of its thickness. Rashi, however,[34] quotes the Talmud:[35] ‘Although [Scripture] does not give a measure for its thickness, our Rabbis explained that it was a handbreadth thick.’ The reason for bringing this is because it explains why the Torah writes in the plural that ‘they’ made the ark.[36] The reason is because it had to be hammered from a thick cover of gold, which required collaboration, and thus when the Torah states:[37] Bezalel made the ark, it means not that he made it himself, but rather it was named after him, because he dedicated himself to the making of the ark more than the other skilled workers, because of its holiness.[38]


Midrash – resolves a question but non p’shat


A further category of midrashic interpretations alluded to in Rashi’s commentary are those that resolve a difficulty in the biblical text, but are not suited to be brought explicitly in Rashi’s commentary. This is referred to in the beginning of the above-mentioned comment of Rashi (Genesis 3:8), as well as on other occasions: ‘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.’[39] The mentioning by Rashi in his commentary that midrashic interpretations exist but does not proceed to bring them, suggests that these midrashim do in fact resolve difficulties in the biblical text that is being addressed but are not suitable in the context of p’shat – ‘each word in its proper way.’[40]


An alternative way for Rashi to express this same sentiment is, as he states on twenty-one occasions throughout his commentary, the simple statement: ‘I don’t know’ - when encountering a difficulty in the biblical text that can only be resolved by a midrashic interpretation that does not fit well with the biblical text.[41] A variation of this is Rashi stating: ‘I wonder how we would expound, etc.’[42] By implication, a further category of midrashic teachings are those teachings that are too far from the biblical text to be even considered relevant to explain a difficulty in the text being discussed in the particular comment of Rashi, but nevertheless connected to the subject of the verse.


Three levels of biblical interpretation


In the broader context of midrashic interpretation and exegesis, Midrash is based on three pillars: 1. Tradition - Halachic or narrative – not connected to scripture, 2. Midrashic exegetical techniques, derived from scripture, and 3. simple reading of the biblical text – how the Midrash reads the biblical text.[43] In the context of Rashi, one can delineate three categories in biblical interpretation, all of which may include midrashic teachings: 1. midrashic teachings that follow the simple reading of the text that in effect becomes, in the context of Rashi’s commentary, p’shat, 2. Midrashic interpretation that resolves a question in the biblical text, but may not be as close to the simple meaning of the biblical text - thus defined in Rashi as midrash, 3. Midrashic teaching that resolves a question in the text, but not consistent with p’shat – thus alluded to in Rashi but not explicitly included in the commentary. Professor Moshe Ahrend also argues there are three categories of Midrash in relation to p’shat: 1. ‘those that the verse ‘incorporates’ and requires; 2. those that the verse ‘tolerates,’ because they are consistent with it; and 3. those that are contrary to the verse’s plain meaning and cannot be tolerated by it at all.[44]


Defending the narrow criteria


As Eilenberg argues that Rashi is not limited only to p’shat in his commentary, Avraham Grossman also argues that while Rashi is on most occasions selective in his quoting of midrash, bringing midrashic teachings for the purpose of linguistic or substantive reasons, this cannot explain many of the comments of Rashi, sourced from the midrash, that ventures to midrashic teachings that do not at all appear connected to p’shat. Grossman argues that Rashi’s statement that he considers only p’shat should be taken as merely a declaration of intent. He has also other intentions in bringing midrash: due to pedagogic reasons or to fortify Jews for the difficult confrontation with Christian supersessionist propaganda.[45] To illustrate his point, he offers four examples. We will look at one of them and then demonstrate how it may in fact be justified from the perspective of p’shat. On Genesis 24:58, regarding the discussion for Rebbeca to follow Eliezer back to Canaan to marry Isaac, the Torah states: ‘And they summoned Rebecca, and they said to her, “Will you go with this man?” And she said, “I will go.”’ Rashi comments from Genesis Rabba (60:12): ‘and she said, “I will go.”: of my own accord, even if you do not desire it.’ Grossman claims that Rashi quotes the midrash only because he wants to portray Rebecca in a positive light, as one who rejected her father’s house, a place of idolatry and deceit.[46]


In the view of the Rebbe, the anonymous quotation of the midrash in Rashi’s commentary is not due to his affection for midrash or pedagogic reasons but because the plain understanding of Scripture requires it – regarding it as p’shat. The logic is since Rebbeca’s brother and father, Laban and Bethuel, had initially given permission for her to marry, why was it necessary to ask the girl. The reason is since the negotiation broke down over Eliezer demand for her to travel immediately, while the family wanted to delay her departure by twelve months, thinking that since is the normal way of girls – to allow for a year preparation – the fact that Eliezer was demanding her immediately, caused them to lose trust in Eliezer and withdrew their permission all-together. Thus, when Rebecca was asked, the question was two-fold: not only the time of when she will travel but also whether she would like to marry at all, after the family did not want her to go at all to marry. Therefore, when Rebbeca said: ‘I will go’ it indeed implied that she was saying that she was willing to go to marry Isaac even if it is against their will. According to this analysis, in the view of the broader narrative, the comment of Rashi is in fact following p’shat.[47]


A similar explanation can be given pertaining to another midrashic teaching regarding the location of the brothers of Joseph when he went to search for them on the instruction of Jacob. The verse states (Genesis 37:17): ‘And the man said, "They have travelled away from here, for I overheard them say, 'Let us go to Dothan.' " So Joseph went after his brothers, and he found them in Dothan.’ Rashi comments: ‘Let us go to Dothan: to seek regarding you legal pretexts, by which they could put you to death. According to its simple meaning, however, it is a place-name, and a Biblical verse never loses its simple sense.’ Since the name Dothan presents no difficulty, why does Rashi reference the midrashic teaching at all? The Rebbe explains however that this midrashic teaching is related to p’shat since it resolves a question in the biblical text: why does it state that ">Joseph came to Shechem, when in reality the brothers were in Dothan and Joseph passed through Shechem on his way to Dothan. To resolve this, Rashi comments that Shechem is pertinent as the place where the brothers sought the ‘legal pretexts (dothan), by which they could put you to death.’[48] The concluding statement in Rashi: ‘and a Biblical verse never loses its simple sense’ applies indeed also to the midrashic interpretation that does not negate the fact that the name of the place was indeed also called Dothan.


Genesis (38:27-30): ‘When the time came for her to give birth, there were twins in her womb! While she was in labor, one of them put out his hand, and the midwife tied a crimson thread on that hand, to signify: This one came out first. But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother; and she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” So he was named Perez. Afterward his brother came out, on whose hand was the crimson thread; he was named Zerah. Rashi cites a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 85:14): ‘That had the shining red thread upon his hand: The word ‘hand’ - ‘yad’ is written here four times corresponding to the four acts of sacrilege which Achan, who was a descendant of Perez, committed with his hand. Others say these correspond to the four things which he took with his hand of the spoil of Jericho: a Babylon garment, two hundred shekels, and a wedge of gold.’ In 1971, Shabbat parshat Vayeshev,[49] the Rebbe’s raises the question: why is Rashi citing a midrash about unnecessary repetition of words, which does not seem to be relevant to p’shat. The Rebbe answers that Rashi is not addressing repetition of words, but rather what is the import and meaning to the narrative about the stretching out of the hand of Zerah, before the birth of Perez, placing a crimson thread, before it being withdrawn, and then the birth of Perez followed by Zerach. In this context, Rashi cites the midrash, explaining that the reason why Zerach was not born first was due came his descendent, Achan, who stole from the battle with the Jericho. While the actual teaching is midrashic, its use to give meaning to a text that has no meaning, makes it within the realm of p’shat.[50]




The is however an exception to the rule that Rashi’s does not cite midrash for the sake of citing midrash. This pertains to parts of the Torah where the style of the text itself indicates that the interpretation is meant to midrashic and not understood literally. This is the case in at least four cases: the Song at the Sea, the prophecies of Balaam, and the song of Ha-azinu at the end of Moses’ life., the verse (Numbers 23:7) states explicitly: ‘He took up his parable (me-sha-lo) and said.’ An example for the employment of midrashic interpretation may be found on the verse in Numbers 23:24: ‘Lo, a people that rises like a lioness, leaps up like a lion, rests not till it has feasted on prey.’ Rashi cites two interpretations, both not literal: a. the Targum interprets the lion as a metaphor for the dwelling of the Israelites in safety ‘like a lion’ in the land of Israel. b. Rashi cites from Midrash Tanchuma (Balak 14): ‘When they rise from their sleep in the morning they show themselves strong as a lioness and as a lion to “snatch at” the Divine precepts (to perform them immediately) — to clothe themselves with the Tallith, to read the Shema and to lay Tephillin.’ Both these interpretations are midrashic. The reason that Rashi cites the midrashic, which appears to be further from the p’shat, before the Targum in this case is due to the fact that it is more suited with the theme of this particular, second, parable within the prophecies of Bal-am. While the first parable deals with the protection of the Jewish people by virtue of the patriarchs, who are dear to G-d, and can therefore not be cursed, the second parable discusses the virtues of the Jewish people themselves. Thus, the midrashic interpretation that reflects on the virtues of the Jewish – they “snatch at” the Divine precepts in the morning – proceeds the Targum that discusses the dwelling in the land in safety by Divine protection. This suggests that even when Rashi accepts the midrashic interpretations due to the distinct nature of the text, even within that context, Rashi is careful to prioritise the midrashic interpretation that is closer to the overall theme of the text.[52]


In conclusion: a principal aim of the commentary of the Rebbe is to argue that the midrashic interpretations brought in Rashi are all in the realm of p’shat, either the most basic level of p’shat - to explain a linguistic issue or a substantive issue that requires resolving in the biblical text. Alternatively, when required to explain a broader question – the meaningful or ethical lesson from a biblical text - this also falls within the definition of p’shat. An exception to the rule that Rashi is obligated to follow p’shat is when the style of the text of Torah itself is midrashic in nature, as in the case of the prophecy of Bal-am and the sons in Exodus and Deuteronomy.


What is p’shat and midrash?


While Rashi states on Genesis 3:8 that he only comes to explain the p’shat – plain meaning of Scripture, he does not define exactly what the idea of p’shat is, and thus also what constitutes midrash, beyond that the given explanation is taken from the works of the midrash and Agaddah. In the supercommentary of the Rebbe on Rashi, a definition is given to assist in our understanding the methodology of Rashi. This is indicated even before Rashi states his principle that he is only coming to explain p’shat, since earlier in Genesis in chapter 1:4, Rashi already comments on Genesis 1:4: ‘And G-d saw the light that it was good, and God separated between the light and between the darkness,’ and comments: ‘Here too, we need the words of the Aggadah: He saw it that it was not proper for the wicked to use it; so He separated it for the righteous in the future. According to its simple meaning (p’shat), explain it as follows: He saw it that it was good, and it was unseemly that it [light] and darkness should serve in confusion; so He established for this one its boundary by day, and for that one its boundary by night.’ Implicit in this comment is that one should first seek the p’shat and only afterwards seek the midrashic interpretation, but does not define what the concept of p’shat and midrash is.


In Likkutei Sichot 25:1, the following explanation is given: the meaning of the word midrash is similar to the way it is used in the verse in Genesis 25:22: ‘And she went to inquire (li’drosh) of the Lord.’ This suggests that p’shat is the plain meaning of the text, while the midrash is the searching for a meaning that is not open and obvious and requires searching beyond the simple meaning. In this context, one can explain p’shat from the biblical word ‘ufashat et be’gadav’ – he removed his clothing.[53]


Rewriting a midrashic text


In addition to selecting a midrashic text that is suitable for Rashi’s commentary, the actual citation from the midrash is many times altered to fit into Rashi’s commentary. A reason for this is, to adapt it to p’shat. Grossman argues that this is done in cases when Rashi might not find the logic given by the midrash for the particular interpretation as serious. An example for this is the comment about a new king having arisen over Egypt after Joseph had died. There are two opinions: one is that a new king arose. Another view is it was the same king but that the decrees were new. The Midrash explains that the reason for the second view is since the verse does not say that the previous Pharaoh died. Rashi omits this rationale and only brings the views themselves. The Rebbe argues that the reason for this omission is because a comment of the midrash cited without attributing it to the midrash is its adaptation to p’shat. It therefore becomes an interpretation that is required by the text of the Torah itself without resorting to any additional rationale. In this case, the proof would be from the phrase: ‘and he arose,’ as opposed to ‘and he ruled.’ Thus, it is derived from the wording as stated in the biblical text itself, as opposed to relying on a rationale based on what is omitted. Indeed, the Torah does not recount every aspect of succession of kings, that the previous one had died and a new one arose.[54] This demonstrates how a citation of the midrash is transformed into p’shat and thus becomes a stand-alone required interpretation based on the simple reading of the biblical text. A midrashic interpretation may require adapting to bring it into line with the aim of Rashi’s commentary – to fit it into the level of p’shat.


Changing a single word


The changing of the wording of a midrashic text in Rashi’s commentary may be adding or omitting a few words or even just a single word. An example of how an omission of a word reflects Rashi’s unique adaptation of a midrashic teaching for p’shat is reflected in the omission of the word ‘kohen’ when emphasising the pedigree of Pinchas to Aaron after the killing of the head of the tribe of Shimon, in Numbers 25:11. In the midrash and Talmud[55] it states: Since the tribes were disparaging him, saying, Have you seen the son of Puti, whose mother’s father [Jethro] fattened calves for idols and who killed a chieftain of an Israelite tribe? For this reason, Scripture traces his pedigree to Aaron, the priest.’ Rashi, in his commentary on Numbers 25:11, it omits the final word ‘kohen.’ With this omission, in the view of Rashi, the pedigree of Pinchas that the Torah is emphasising is connected to Aaron, the person, as pursuer of peace, who brings peace between husband and wife, as opposed to merely identifying loft pedigree, as the grandson of Aaron the High Priest. By doing this, it reflects the fact that claim of the tribes was that he was not a cruel person, opposite of Aaron, thereby attributing that to be his motive for the killing and also protecting the honour of Moses and the Jewish people who did not act. The reason that this is more in line with p’shat is because this explains firstly the repeating of the pedigree from a few verses earlier (25:7) and also why it adds Aaron at all, since the mention of the pedigree to Elazar would have been sufficient.[56]


A further example of a rewriting a midrashic text, was presented in 1973, on Deuteronomy 1:13: ‘May the Lord, the G-d of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold, and bless you as He promised you.’ In the complaint of the Jewish people to Moses for his blessing that seems to be less than the blessings already granted by G-d to Abraham, Rashi cites the midrash as follows: ‘They said to him, “Moses, you are setting a limit to our blessings (only a thousand times)! The Holy One, blessed be He, has already made a boundless promise to Abraham (Genesis 13:16) “… if one can count.’ In the Midrash, however, it also cites the beginning of the above verse: ‘I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth.’ The reason for the omission of this part of the verse is because Rashi, following p’shat, disagrees that the Jewish people would have made such a complaint, since the beginning of the verse also reflects a finite blessing, despite it being of a vastly greater number that the one Moses is blessing them. As Moses’ blessing would have also been a fantastic blessing – to multiply to a population of billions of people (one thousand times 600,000, plus men younger than and above 60, plus women and children), they would have hardly complained to G-d for such a blessing. Rather, in the view of Rashi the complaint of the people was based on the notion that G-d promised an infinite blessing that ‘if one can count’ – they cannot be counted – as opposed to Moses’ blessing that can be counted.[57] For this reason Rashi omits the beginning of the verse.


A further case is in Deuteronomy 6:7: ‘And teach them to your children.’ Sifre writes: and these are your disciples. While Rashi cites the midrashic teaching, its context is different. In the midrash, it serves as a legal teaching that a father need not be the one who teaches one’s son Torah; it can be a hired teacher. This is derived in the midrash from the single verse (II Kings 2:3): ‘And the sons of the prophets came.’ Rashi, however, requires no scriptural source that ‘sons’ refer to ‘disciples,’ as it is self-evident to a child studying in a cheder, taught not by his father, but a hired teacher. Furthermore, this model is suggested by the designation of the tribe of Shimon as elementary teachers in Genesis (49:7), and the studying of Torah by Jacob with his grandson Efraim (Genesis 48:1), and Joseph with his grandson from Machir (Genesis 50:23). In earlier manuscripts,[58] no scriptural verses are presented at all. The three verses that Rashi brings in some manuscripts and the printed version, from Deuteronomy (14:1), 2 Kings 2:3) and II Chronicles (29;11), is to demonstrate not the legal source for this principle, as in the case in the Midrash, where a source for the idea that sons refer to disciples is cited, but rather that the term ‘son’ and ‘disciples’ are used interchangeably and writing ‘sons’ when it could just have written ‘disciples’ does not represent a problem.[59]


A further case is in Deuteronomy 22:7 pertaining to the mitzvah: ‘Let the mother (bird) go, and take only (then) the young, in order that it shall be good for you and have a long life.’ The midrash states in Sifrei (Deuteronomy 228:6): "so that it shall be good for you and you prolong days": Now does this not follow a fortiori, viz.: If of a monetarily negligible mitzvah, (the expense involved in its performance) being no more than an issar, the Torah writes: "so that it shall be good for you and you shall prolong days," how much more so is this true of the "formidable" mitzvot of the Torah!’ This text can be found also in the Mishna in tractate Chullin.[60] However, when Rashi on Deuteronomy 22:7 cites this teaching, he changes the text slightly. Instead of the mitzvah involving negligible monetary loss – ‘an issar,’ he writes: ‘involves no monetary loss.’[61] In 1967, the question was posed: why the change in the text of Rashi from how it is found in its source in the Midrash? The reason for this re-writing of the midrashic text is due to the fact that according to the Talmud and midrash, following Jewish law, there is a scenario where there is a monitory loss, in a case where the mother bird is sent away but returns before the young are taken. In such a case, the young may not be taken unless the mother bird is sent away a second time. This - derived from the infinitive absolute ‘shale-ach te’shalach’ - may happen even a hundred times, according to the Talmud.[62] This may cause that the person will not be able to take the young, thus causing a financial loss, albeit negligible. Rashi maintain, however, following p’shat, there is in fact no monitory loss, since once the mother bird was sent away once, there is no need to send the mother bird away again, and the young may be taken. For this reason, Rashi re-writes the midrash to be consistent with the p’shat.


A further case of rewriting a midrash, with an omission, to fit in with the p’shat was taught in Parshat Vayechi, 1970, on the verse in Genesis (49:3-4): ‘Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and first fruit of my vigor, exceeding in rank, and exceeding in honour. Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer; for when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace—my couch he mounted!’ Tanchuma,[63] Genesis Rabba[64] and Onkelos all write on this verse that Reuben forfeited three things: the birthright, priesthood and kingship. Rashi on the above verse, however, only states that ‘excel no longer’ means that Reuben forfeited the priesthood and kingship, but omits the birthright. The reason for this is since the verse in Genesis 49:3 is only focusing on his behaviour that was a result of acting as ‘unstable as water.’ This resulted in forfeiting the priesthood and kingship, that requires sensitivity towards the other. The punishment for the act itself, however, that caused the forfeiture of the birthright, is addressed elsewhere, in I Chronicles,[65] and as Rashi cites on Genesis 35:23.[66] Thus, Rashi, while citing a midrash, is adapting it to fit the close reading of the verse at hand.[67]


Rashi adds to midrash


On some occasions, Rashi adds to the midrashic text, with additional explanation. As when Rashi changes the wording of the midrash to fit into p’shat, the same is the case when Rashi adds to the midrash – it is in order to bring the comment further consistent with p’shat. A case where this happens is the addition of a reason for why David took Jerusalem, violating the covenant made between Abraham and the chitites. The Midrash Sifre states on Deuteronomy 12:17:[68] "You shall not be able to eat in your gates": R. Yehoshua b. Karchah says (in respect to "able"): I am able, but not permitted. A cognate instance is (Joshua 15:63): "But the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, they could not drive out": They could but they were not permitted to do so.’


Rashi,[69] in his commentary, cites the midrash but adds significantly to the text. Rashi first cites the midrash: ‘You shall not be able - Rabbi Joshua the son of Korcha said: You can, but you are not allowed to. A similar case we have in Joshua 15:63: “As to the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the children of Judah could not drive them out” - they could have done so, but they were not allowed to.’ Rashi then, however, adds significantly to the text of the midrash with reference of additional sources, not found in the midrash. Rashi writes: ‘a reason for why because Abraham had made a covenant with them when he bought from them the cave of Machpelah that they would be spared at the conquest of the Land. — As a matter fact they were not Jebusites but Hittites (the people mentioned in Genesis 23 at the purchase of the cave), but they were called Jebusites after the city the name of which was Jebus. Thus, is it explained in the Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 36. And this is the meaning of what is stated, that when David was about to drive out the Jebusites, they said to him (II Samuel 5:6) “Except thou take away the blind and the lame [thou shalt not come in hither]” — by “the blind and the lame” they meant the idols (that stood at the gates) upon which they had written the oath which Abraham had taken.’


Re-reading Midrash without any changes


In addition to the changing of words from the midrash – adding or omitting words – in Rashi’s commentary to conform with p’shat, one can also find cases where Rashi does not change any of the wording of the midrash in his commentary. In such cases, just as when Rashi does makes changes, it is due to the fashioning of the midrash to confirm with p’shat, the same may be the case even when he does not change the wording. The adaptation of midrash to conform with p’shat even when no textual changes are not made, can be done in two ways: the source for the midrashic interpretation would be based on p’shat, as opposed to the midrash that need not rely on p’shat to be validated. A further manner in which adapts a midrash to conform with p’shat may be that Rashi reads the interpretation of a midrashic text differently than the way it would be understood in the context of the midrash itself.[70]  An example of this is in the case of the sixth day of creation. According to the Talmud,[71] Adam sinned on the sixth day of creation. However, in the biblical text, the verse:And G-d saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good,’ implies that the sin and the punishment that was given as a result, as well the exclusion from the Garden of Eden, did not happen on the 6th day when Adam was created. Since Rashi also does not mention this in his commentary, he maintains, contrary to the Talmud, that following p’shat, the sin did not in fact take place on day number six. This does not however prevent Rashi from utilising the text of the Talmud in his comment on the verse (Genesis 3:8): ‘And they heard the voice of the Lord G-d going in the garden to the direction of the sun, and the man and his wife hid from before the Lord G-d in the midst of the trees of the garden.’ Rashi comments on ‘the direction of the sun:’ ‘To that direction in which the sun sets, and this is the west, for toward evening, the sun is in the west, and they sinned in the tenth [hour].’ In this case, while Rashi cites the text of the Talmud, that ‘the direction of the sun’ refers to the ‘tenth hour,’ the day in which this occurred in the view of Rashi is different than the day it occurred in the view of the Talmud – the source for this very interpretation. This reflects a case whereby Rashi uses the precise text of the Talmud but contains a completely different meaning in the context of p’shat.[73]


A further case is the citation of the midrashic text in the beginning of the comment of Rashi on Deuteronomy 12:17: ‘You are not able to partake in your settlements of the tithes of your new grain or wine or oil, or of the firstlings of your herds and flocks.’ Rashi cites the midrashic interpretation:[74] ‘Rabbi Joshua the son of Korcha said: You can, but you are not allowed to.’ In the midrash, the change in meaning from ‘able’ to ‘allowed’ is applicable to all cases where the phrase: ‘You are not able’ (lo tuchal) is used in a prohibition. In the context of Rashi, following p’shat, however, this is problematic, as ‘not able’ means there is a reason why the person in fact is unable (lo tuchal) to perform a particular action, either because it is inherently not achievable, an external factor, or the Torah has already stated it should not be done. Only where none of the above conditions exist, as in the case of not to eat tithe outside Jerusalem, and in fact it is a positive mitzvah for the person to partake of the second tithe or for the priest to partake of the first born, is the change from ‘cannot’ to ‘not allowed’ necessary and applicable. The distinction between the midrash and Rashi in this case is how liberal one may be in changing the literal meaning of the biblical text: the midrash reads loosely ‘cannot’ as ‘not allowed,’ while Rashi only does so in a case when it is not possible to read it literally, since on the contrary not only is there no reason for why the person cannot perform the action but there is reason – related mitzvah - why the person should perform the action.[75]


Names of sages in Rashi


The idea that a midrashic text may be cited verbatim in Rashi’s commentary but with a different intention than how it is found in the original midrash, is reflected in the reference of the names of the sages brought in his commentary when citing a certain midrashic teaching. This is implied by the fact that Rashi does not always cite the author of particular midrashic teachings, but only in certain cases, suggesting there is an interpretative reason according to p’shat for including the name of the sage. We will present the following case where this is apparent. On Deuteronomy 12:17, Rashi cites the sage ‘Rabbi Joshua the son of Korcha said: You can, but you are not allowed to.’ While this is the sage cited in the Sifrei, the reason Rashi would cite the sage is because it highlights another teaching by this sage from the Mishnah in tractate Berachot (2:1): ‘Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korḥa said: Why, in the mitzva of the recitation of Shema, did the portion of Shema precede that of VeHaya im Shamoa? This is so that one will first accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven, the awareness of G-d and G-d’s unity, and only then accept upon himself the yoke of the mitzvot, which appears in the paragraph of VeHaya im Shamoa.’ This teaching by the same sage informs his view cited by Rashi that despite the mitzvah to partake tithe, one is not allowed to partake it outside Jerusalem.[76]


Conclusion – re-composing and re-reading a midrashic text


The principle that Rashi is a work based on p’shat is relevant not only to cases where he helps with explaining difficult words found in the biblical text, but also to obvious midrashic citations in the commentary, albeit without referencing it as midrashic. Furthermore, the principle applies also to cases where Rashi states explicitly that it is a midrashic interpretation. A midrashic text that is not in the realm of p’shat would not be cited in the commentary on the Torah. This applies also to the citation of midrash in the Rashi commentary on the prophets and scripture.


We argued, based on the above, that for the reason of consistency of p’shat, citation of midrash in Rashi’s commentary in many cases involves adaptation of a midrashic text with variations from the original midrash. Furthermore, even in cases where there is no variation of the original text, a re-reading of the same text with different interpretation is being adapted, to ensure it is consistent with p’shat. This is the case also with the citation of sages in the commentary of Rashi, whereby it is not merely to cite the author as found in the original text but is connected with the re-reading of the midrahsic text. This may be summed up in the underlying principle that the Rebbe states in his commentary: the aim of Rashi in is not to copy midrashic texts in his commentary (ein inyano l’ha-atik).[77]





[1] Grossman, A, Rashi (Littman), p. 82.

[2] A descendent of Rashi.

[3] Imrei Shefer, p. 220.

[4] Talmud Sotah 11a.

[5] Shem Olam, ch. 38. Likkutei Sichot 16:3, footnote 13.

[6] Maskil L’david 1:1.

[7] Siftei ChachamimImrei Shefer, Tzedah l’derechMizrachi is silent about this point.

[8] Ruth Rabbah 5:5.

[9] The Talmud interprets another verse in Zechariah: “Then I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold there came forth two women, and the wind was in their wings, for they had wings like the wings of a stork. And they lifted up the measure between the earth and the heaven. Then I said to the angel that spoke with me: To where do they take the measure? And he said to me: To build her a house in the land of Shinar” (Zechariah 5:9–11). Rabbi Yoḥanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai: This measure refers to flattery and arrogance that descended to Babylonia, i.e., Shinar. The Talmud asks: And did arrogance descend to Babylonia? But doesn’t the Master say: Ten kav of arrogance descended to the world; Eilam took nine and all the rest of the world in its entirety took one? The Talmud answers: Yes, it descended to Babylonia, and it made its way to Eilam. The language of the verse is also precise, as it is written: “To build her a house in the land of Shinar,” which indicates that the original intention was to build a house in Babylonia, but it was not built there. The Talmud comments: Conclude from it that arrogance did not remain in Babylonia.

[10] Tosafot on Talmud Kiddushin 49b.

[11] Imrei Shefer, p. 220.

[12] Tzeidah l’derech on Numbers 32:42: See Likkutei Sichot 18:373, f.19.

[13] Imrei Shefer on Numbers 32:42.

[14] In Likkutei Sichot 18:373, f.19, the Rebbe defends the view of Rabbi Nathan Spira, arguing that Rashi did not need to clarify this in his comment on Numbers 32:42, since he had already stated on Genesis 3:8 that: ‘I come only to explain the plain meaning of Scripture.’

[15] Leibowitz, ‘Rashi’s Use of Midrash’ (Heb), 503.

[16] Likkutei Sichot 15:164. Likkutei Sichot 5:26. Likkutei Sichot 16:224-5. K’lalei Rashi, p. 93, k’lal 2.

[17] Likkutei Sichot 5:26 f.10.

[18] Likkutei Sichot 16:223.

[19] Likkutei Sichot 16:225 f.12.

[20] Likkutei Sichot 15:164. Likkutei Sichot 18:372. Likkutei Sichot 5:1, f. 2: ‘That which it states: ‘and such Aggadah that clarifies the words of the verses, each word in its proper way’ and also the numerous statements in Rashi ‘And its midrashic interpretation is...’ – one must say that every comment that is brought in Rashi’s commentary on the Torah is according to p’shat. Nevertheless, on the level of p’shat itself, there are a number of levels.’  See Likkutei Sichot 10:92: These teachings, despite not first degree of p’shat, are for the purpose of resolving a difficulty in the biblical text, and its resolution must fit with the text. K’lalei Rashi, p. 93-4, k’lal 3.

[21] Likkutei Sichot 5:49 f.19.

[22] K’lalei Rashi, p. 94, k’lal 4.

[23] Likkutei Sichot 5:1 f.2.

[24] Likkutei Sichot 11:27 f.23.

[25] Likkutei Sichot 15:164 f.16.

[26] This also seems to be the way it is understood in Likkutei Sichot 25:2.

[27] Rashi on Genesis 3:22 and 24.

[28] Likkutei Sichot 5:1 f.2. See Likkutei Sichot 15:27 f2 for a full list of places where Rashi’s intention to explain according to p’shat is mentioned.

[29] Exodus 37:1.

[30] Exodus 25:10.

[31] Likkutei Sichot 11, Vayakhel.

[32] Likkutei Sichot 16:8, f.58.

[33] Likkutei Sichot 25:1.

[34] Rashi on Exodus 25:17.

[35] Talmud Sukkah 5a.

[36] Exodus 25:10.

[37] Exodus 37:1.

[38] Likkutei Sichot 11, Vayakhel.

[39] Likkutei Sichot 5:49 f.19. K’lalei Rashi, p. 95, k’lal 9.

[40] Proverbs 25:11: ‘Like golden apples on silverplated vessels, is a word spoken with proper basis (davar davur al of’nov).’ Rashi translates af’nav - on its basis, similar to Psalms 88:16 ‘afunah’ ">it is well - founded.’ ">a ‘word spoken with proper basis (davar davur al of’nov)’ means that the meaning of the word fits with the context of the passage. This may be derived from the comment of Rashi on Proverbs that translates ‘af-naf’ as ‘ka-no’ – basis. There are two aspects in interpreting scripture: the words themselves grammatically, and the basis of the words – how it fits with their broader context. Both of these aspects are within the purpose of p’shat. When there is difficulty with either of these aspects when considering the meaning of a word in the Torah, Rashi may venture into midrash, if the midrashic interpretation assists with this.

[41] Likkutei Sichot 5:1, f. 2: K’lalei Rashi, p. 93-7.

[42] Numbers 32:42.

[43] Lecture by Dr. Hallel Baitner delivered at the Oxford University Chabad Society - (accessed 2 March, 2021).

[44] Ahrend, ‘Clarifying the Concept of “Plain Meaning of the Text” (Heb.), 259. Grossman, ‘Rashi’ (Littman), 84.

[45] Grossman, Avraham, Rashi, p. 87-88.

[46] Grossman, Avraham, Rashi, p. 87.

[47] Likkutei Sichos 10:67.

[48] Likkutei Sichos 15:322.

[49] Sichot Kodesh 5731, vol. 1, p. 325-330, 336-337, 362-368.

[50] Likkutei Sichot 30:186 f.25.

[51] Likkutei Sichos 33:149.

[52] Likkutei Sichos 33:150-151

[53] Leviticus 16: 23.

[54] Likkutei Sichos 16:1-2.

[55] Sanhedrin 82b, Numbers Rabba 21:3.

[56] Likkutei Sichot 8:160-167. See p. 161, f.13 re the change of the wording of Talmud and midrash in the Rashi commentary.

[57] Likkutei Sichot 1915-21. The question that Rashi poses: why the repetition of a blessing that G-d had already given is also not mentioned in the Midrash.

[58] Bodleian Library MS. Oppenheim 34.

[59] Likkutei Sichot 9:33-47.

[60] Talmud Chullin 142a.

[61] Likkutei Sichot 9:133-140 (1967).

[62] Talmud Chullin 141a.

[63] Tanchuma, Vayechi, 9.

[64] Genesis Rabba 98:4.

[65] I Chronicles 5:1: The sons of Reuben the first-born of Israel. (He was the first-born; but when he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel, so he is not reckoned as first-born in the genealogy.

[66] Rashi on Genesis 35:23 writes: ‘Jacob’s firstborn: firstborn with regard to heritage, firstborn with regard to Divine Service, firstborn in any enumeration of the twelve tribes; for the right of a firstborn son was given to Joseph only in respect of the tribes - in that he founded two tribes (Genesis Rabbah 82:11).’

[67] Likkutei Sichot 15:439-446.

[68] Sifrei Deuteronomy 72:1.

[69] Rashi on Deuteronomy 12:17. Likkutei Sichot 29:80.

[70] Torat Menachem 5749 1:253, f. 35.

[71] Talmud Sanhedrin 38b.

[72] Genesis 1:31.

[73] Torat Menachem 5749 1:254-256.

[74] Sifre Deuteronomy 72:1.

[75] Likkutei Sichot 29:81.

[76] Likkutei Sichot 29:87.

[77] Likkutei Sichot 29:80. K’lalei Rashi chj. 8:2 (Blau).



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