Scope of the commentary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Rashi

Sunday, 13 November, 2022 - 7:01 pm

The biblical commentary of Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105) is the most published and studied commentary on the Torah since the 12th century. The most extensive supercommentary on Rashi in the 20th century is a commentary by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. The commentary developed over many years, beginning on the 10th October, 1964 (Shabbat, Parshat Noach / 4 Cheshvan 5765) and continued as a part of the series, almost every Shabbat when a farbrengen was held, usually introducing the commentary with the standard opening: ‘as is customary to study a comment of Rashi.’ A year after it had started, on Simchat Torah, 5766, before expounding on the beginning and end of the final Torah portion of V’zot Ha-bracha, the Rebbe refers to it: ‘as has become the custom over the past year, we will explain the first and last verse of the parsha.’[1]


In September, 1967 (Shabbat Parshat Ha-azinu, 5727), the Rebbe opened his commentary on a Rashi at a Shabbat farbrengen, emphasising the regularity of the study of a comment of Rashi, with the statement: ‘as is the custom at every farbrengen (on Shabbat) to study a verse of the Torah with the commentary of Rashi, certainly on the first Shabbat of the year, which is the beginning of the whole year.’[2] 


The commentary on Rashi, as part of this series, continued for twelve years until the Rebbe suffered a heart attack on 22 Oct, 1977, during the celebration of Shmini Atzeret. For the following seven months, the regular study in Rashi’s commentary was paused, until it resumed again at a Saturday night farbrengen, on 20 May, 1978 (Motzoei Shabbat, Parshat Emor). The study on Rashi began with the opening: ‘to renew the study of the commentary of Rashi on the Torah,’ before proceeding to discuss the comment of Rashi pertaining to the verse regarding the counting of the Omer, which was selected due to its relevance to that week’s Torah portion and the time of year - the counting of the seven week’s between Passover and Shavuot (Omer).[3] During this period, while the Rebbe recovered, the Shabbat gatherings were moved to Saturday night and broadcast over radio hook-up. This change from Shabbat afternoon to Saturday night and the study of a comment of Rashi taking place then, lasted until 19 January, 1980 (Parshat Vaera), when the farbrengens, including a study of a comment of Rashi, returned to Shabbat afternoon.[4]


During this period, the Rebbe would justify teaching a comment of Rashi on the Saturday night by saying: as is usual in a gathering that is connected with Shabbat that includes Motzoei Shabbat as well, we will study a comment of Rashi in the Parsha of the week.’[5] The connecting of Shabbat with Motzoei Shabbat, justifying the study of a Rashi on the Saturday night, was explained on 15 July, 1978 that it is possible to prolong the ‘delight’ (oneg) of the Shabbat into the Saturday night, based on the law regarding the Shabbat: ‘It is also customary to recite hymns and melodies after Havdalah; to escort the Shabbos after it departs, as one escorts a king after he departs a city.’[6] A further justification was the Talmudic teaching that says that Sunday, Monday and Tuesday are still connected to the previous Shabbat. The Talmud states: ‘With regard to the wording of bills of divorce, the first day of the week and the second and third days of the week are all called: After Shabbat’ (batar shabta).[7]


Following the resumption of the studies in Rashi, it continued for another ten years and six months, on almost every Shabbat when a farbrengen was held, until 31 Dec, 1989 (23 Tevet, 5749 - Parshat Shemot) with a talk on the verse in Exodus 1:7. The closing of this series appears to have coincided with the end of eleven months (finishing of reciting Kaddish) following the passing of the Rebbe’s wife for sixty years, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka (on 10 February, 1988 / 22 Shevat, 5748).


A further study on Rashi took place on Parshat Mishpatim (Erev Rosh Chodesh Adar I) on the opening verse, but without the introduction, a further talk on Rashi on Vayikra (11 Adar II) on the opening verse in Leviticus and further talk on Va-etchanan, Toldot and what seems to be a further discussion focused on a Rashi on the portion of Vayigash, 1990.


Structure of the commentary – 1st stage – beginning and ends


The structure of the Rebbe’s commentary was not to be a running commentary on every comment of Rashi or a systematic commentary to analyse all the Rashi comments that may be analysed throughout a particular Torah portion, as we find with other supercommentators, like Mizrachi, Maharal and others. The aim was rather to initially only offer an analysis on the beginning verse and final verse of each Torah portion, and to do this for every portion of the five books of Moses (Pentateuch). The theory behind this approach was that a commentary covering the first and last verse of a Torah portion in effect includes the whole portion.  By extension, this would constitute covering the whole of the Torah. This would be done even for portions that are combined in some years. In such cases, a commentary was given for the first and final verse in each of the portions (parshiyot).[8]


This structure lasted for a whole year, as a stand-alone series. As it began only on the second portion of the Torah - Noah, it did not finish at the end of Deuteronomy but rather completed on Shabbat when the first portion of the Torah, Bereishit, was read, that corresponds to 23 October, 1965. The intention of this structure of the study on Rashi – focusing on the first and last verse in each portion - being only a single cycle was due to the fact that the weekly farbrengen when this commentary was taught and developed was only due to it being the year after the passing of the Rebbe’s mother Rebbetzin Chana. This cycle consisted of a commentary covering a total of 110 studies in Rashi. Seventy-four of them were edited and published in various volumes of Likkutei Sichot. The commentary included almost all the beginnings and ends of the Torah portions, besides two weeks, Pikudei and Vayeshev, when there was only an analysis of the first verse of the portion, but not the last verse. In addition, for Noach and Toldot, the Rashi selected was not the very first and very last comment of Rashi but rather the second Rashi from the beginning and the penultimate comment. This seems to have been compensated in 1967, when the Rebbe studied the very first and very last comment of Rashi for the portion of Noach,[9] and Toldot.[10] On the other hand, on some occasions, there was a study offered on more than just the first and last verses.


In addition, the studies included a study on Esther, that took place on the Shabbat after Purim. At the end of the year of mourning, the Rebbe no longer held weekly gatherings on Shabbat, but only every second week or once a month. This, therefore in effect, completed the project of the study of Rashi in the manner that had been initiated and completed during that year cycle.


2nd stage – regular study of a Rashi on Shabbat


While the Rebbe gave an introduction and explained on a few occasions the rationale to the structure of the study of Rashi he was presenting – studying the beginning and end of each portion and the focus on p’shat, no indication was given that the project had been completed, nor any indication how this project may continue. After completion of the full cycle of the Torah, having covered almost the beginning and end of each Torah portion, the Rebbe paused in the teaching of Rashi for three weeks, beginning October, 1965, during when a farbrengen took place on Shabbat, but without any teaching of a Rashi,[11] until it resumed again on 15 January, 1966 (23 Tevet) on Shabbat Parshat Shemot, as well as Vaera. On 19th February 1966 - Shabbat Parshat Mishpatim/Shekalim and Erev Rosh Chodesh Adar, 5726 - the Rebbe says he misses the analysis of the commentary of Rashi and appears to have decided to resume the regular teaching of a Rashi on every Shabbat when a farbrengen would take place.[12]


Reflecting the re-establishment of the study of Rashi even after the completion of the first year, on Shabbat, 9 Sivan, 5726, the Rebbe opened the study of a comment of Rashi with the statement: ‘Regarding the custom in the recent period to study a comment of Rashi on the weekly Torah portion...’


In later years, reflecting perhaps the less frequency of the studies in Rashi, in 1972, the Rebbe would begin the study in Rashi, not with the opening that it is ‘customary’ (nahug) but ‘frequent’ (k’ragil) to do so. In 1977, on one occasion, reflecting a hesitancy in the continuity of the commentary, in the opening of a teaching of a comment of Rashi on Parshat Chaye Sarah, the Rebbe stated: ‘it is customary in recent years to study a concept in Rashi, but should not be considered a binding vow (b’li neder).’[13] This appears to have been to clarify that despite the fact the custom of teaching a study in Rashi is continuing, it does not reflect a binding commitment that the commentary will continue. The study of Rashi however continued until 1990. It continued in the same style and methodology, combining the emphasis on p’shat and the esoteric dimension in the commentary, but without insisting it had to focus on the first verse of a Torah portion, or the last verse. Nevertheless, there were some weeks when the Rebbe returned to this custom to address the first and last comment of Rashi or verse. This occurred in 1984, on Parshat Bereishit, when the Rebbe posed a question on the first verse: why Rashi opens his commentary with a broad question that is not related to p’shat. On the last verse: why does Rashi not explain the contradiction that the Torah says was corrupt and then Noah found favour before. G-d?[14] This however did not reflect the renewal of this pattern, as the following week this was not followed.  There was also no insistency that a study had to be included in every Shabbat when a farbrengen would take place.[15]


3rd stage – completion


The cycle of the regular study of a comment of Rashi each Shabbat afternoon when a farbrengen was held continued until 1990, following the passing of the Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka on 22 Shevat, 5748/10 Feb, 1988. At this time two other regular studies had been included at the Shabbat farbrengen: a study in the Rebbe’s father’s work on the Zohar and a halacha from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. The regular study in Rashi however came to a close, as mentioned, on 31 Dec, 1988 (23 Tevet, 5749), Parshat Shemot – coinciding with the end of the year after the passing. This took place with a study on the verse in Exodus 1:7. A further study on Rashi took place on Parshat Mishpatim (Erev Rosh Chodesh Adar I) on the opening verse, and a further talk on Rashi on Vayikra (11 Adar II) on the opening verse in Leviticus. A further study took place on Va-etchanan, and Toldot and then what seems to be a final discussion focused on a Rashi, on the portion of Vayigash, 1990.


As when this project was first established, in 1965, the closing of it was structured in the same manner: a series throughout the final year focused on studies on the opening verse in the Torah portions, thereby giving a symmetrical structure to the whole project that began 25 years earlier. The establishment of this closing series focused on the opening verse, began in response to a verse that was proposed to the Rebbe to comment on, in Parshat Vayeshev, 5789, when the Rebbe selected the opening verse to study at the farbrengen. This happened again in Parshat Vayikra, when the Rebbe was merely responding to a questioner who posed a question on the opening verse of the parsha. The following week, on Parshat Tzav, however, the Rebbe opened his study on Rashi, stating that there is special virtue (iluy me-yuchad) in the idea of studying the beginning and end of the Torah potion, based on the statement in Sefer Yetzirah,[16] in regard to the Torah: ‘The end is connected to the beginning and the beginning to the end (na’utz sofan betchilatan u’techilatan besofan).’[17] During the following two weeks, Parshat Shemini and Tazria-Metzora, the main study in Rashi was not on the first verse, but another verse that was proposed. Nevertheless, the Rebbe focused also on the Rashi on the first verse of the Torah portion to derive a concept in the spiritual service of G-d, in the honour of the passing of the Rebbetzin, inspired by the verse in Ecclesiastes (7:2): ‘It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for that is the end of every man, and the living shall lay it to his heart (ve-ha-chai yiten et libo).’ As the statement: ‘the living shall lay it to his heart’ was a reoccurring theme that inspired many of the subjects of the Rebbe’s farbrengens and talks (sichot) during that year, it seems to have also been also the inspiration for the manner by which the studies of Rashi were structured during this final year. The following week, Parshat Acharei mot – Kedoshim, the study posed questions on the first verse, but, following a questioning regarding the general phrase used in the comment of Rashi, proceeded to explain the concept in a spiritual context, based on the verse in Ecclesiastes.[18] This served as a transition for subsequent weeks, beginning Parshat Emor, when the focus of the studies on Rashi were on the opening verse of the Torah portion, providing first a study following p’shat, followed by extracting an idea relevant to spiritual service of G-d, in honour of the passing of the Rebbetzin, based on the verse in Ecclesiastes.


The study of the opening comment of Rashi was symbolic that it allowed for a full circle in the studies on Rashi, but also afforded the opportunity to complete specific details in the commentary of the Rebbe that may have not been addresses in the first cycle of the study on Rashi on the first verses of the Torah portions. This occurred on Parshat Noach, 5749,[19] when the Rebbe began by saying this subject has been discussed at great length previously, so there is no need to elaborate, but rather just focus on a single detail that was not previously discussed. The focus for the second time on the opening verses of the parsha served also an additional purpose: the shift of the commentary from a mainly p’shat commentary: explaining how the commentary of Rashi is consistent with p’shat, to a greater – and later, solely, on the spiritual and mystical dimension of the commentary of Rashi.


Spiritual commentary on Rashi – closing


Towards the end of the year after the passing, on Parshat Lech Lecha, the discussion on the Rashi was solely on the idea of what may derived from the Rashi in the context of one’s spiritual service of G-d. The question posed on ‘And G-d appeared to Abraham,’ where Rashi cites the Talmud that G-d came to visit the sick: what can be derived in a person’s spiritual service of G-d from the fact that G-d appeared to Abraham – something that happened distinctly to Abraham in the context of his circumcision? The Rebbe explains that the appearance of G-d to Abraham, expressed by the visiting of the sick, was as a result of Abraham sitting at the entrance to his tent waiting for guests. The concept is that through engaging in hospitality and acts of kindness in general, one merits to revelation of G-d.[20]


In Parshat Vayigash, the week before the yarhrtzeit, a study of Rashi focused on the precise text of Rashi’s citation of the biblical verse (Genesis 44:18): ‘Then Judah approached him (va-yigash) and said, "Please, my lord, let now your servant speak something into my lord's ears.’ Rashi writes: ‘Then…approached him… something into my lord’s ears: Let my words enter your ears.’ The question is: since Rashi is explaining the biblical text: ‘something into my lord’s ears,’ why does he cite: ‘Then…approached him,’ which is not relevant to the comment? The Rebbe explains that Rashi is aiming to explain that Judah approaching Joseph was not just in preparation to speak to him, but the entire purpose of the approach was to bring about the unity between them, achieved through his words entering Joseph’s ears and having its desired effect in practice, as it continues (45:1): ‘Now Joseph could not bear all those standing beside him.’ In turn, this effected Egypt, whereby the Jewish people came to live in Egypt, bringing with the unity and knowledge of G-d.[21] This text of Rashi, then, informs the idea that the unity of the Jewish people enables the unity of G-d in the world and redemption.[22] In Parshat Vayakhel-Pikudei, the idea cited in Rashi in the opening verse of Pikudei that the two temples that were destroyed are collateral (nitmash-ken) for the sins of the Jewish people, was expounded to derive the idea that the two destroyed temples will be included in the third.[23] In Parshat Vayikra, the idea cited in Rashi that the term: ‘And He called’ is an expression of affection by G-d to the Jewish people, provides for the idea that there is exists an essential bond between the Jewish people and G-d that is beyond revelation that is expressed by a particular name of G-d. For this reason, it states in the opening of the book of Leviticus: ‘And He called’ without the name of G-d, as the one who is calling.[24]


This third closing stage in the studies of Rashi represents on one hand a return to the manner the commentary opened with: the focus on the opening verse in the Torah portion, and on occasion connected with the final comment of Rashi or the ending of the Torah portion. On the other hand, it represents a complete transformation of the studies of Rashi from a detailed analysis of a text of Rashi with a great many of analytical questions in the text, a questioning of what the reason is for a comment of Rashi, how it is consistent with p’shat, or why a comment that appears necessary in p’shat is omitted, to a brief citation and the expounding of its spiritual dimension. In this stage itself, there appears two stages: initially, one can find a short question on the text, and its spiritual dimension, followed by just the spiritual dimension. This in fact brings the whole commentary a full circle, whereby it began by stating that the study of the p’shat is important as it serves as a basis to unlock the mystical. This is in fact what was achieved in the commentary: in a great number of the studies, the two components are demonstrated how they are consistent, whereby the study goes from the analysis and clarity of the p’shat to the mystical, while the commentary as a whole, over the twenty-five-year period, similarly reflects this in the broadest sense: the commentary transitioning from the detailed analysis of p’shat to its ending of the commentary with its focus solely on the mystical.






[1] Torat Menachem 5726 vol. 45, p. 87.

[2] Torat Menachem 5726 vol. 40..

[3] Sichat Kodesh, 5738, vol. 2, p. 252.

[4] Sichat Kodesh, 5740, vol. 1, p. 800. There were a few exceptions during this time, when a farbrengen took place on Shabbat afternoon, like Devarim and Nitzavim-Vayelech, 1979 (Sichot Kodesh, 5739, vol. 3).

[5] Sichat Kodesh, 5738, vol. 3, p. 446. See also p. 138.

[6] Sichat Kodesh, 5738, vol. 3, p. 138. Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim 300:2.

[7] Talmud Pesachim 106a. Sichat Kodesh, 5738, vol. 3, p. 52.

[8] Torat Menachem 5725, vol. 44, p. 136. After having offered an analysis of the beginning and final verse of each Torah portion from Noah, in Matot and Masei, the Rebbe refers to this as a minhag.

[9] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 48, p. 242 and 243.

[10] Torat Menachem 5727, vol. 48, p. 269.

[11] Vayetze, Vayeshev and Miketz, 5726.

[12] Torat Menachem 5726, Shabbat Parshat Mishpatim, vol. 46, p. 110, f.71.

[13] Sichot Kodesh 5737, vol. 1, p. 253.

[14] Torat Menachem 5744, vol. 1, p. 349.

[15] The one after Bereishit 5726 was Chaye Sarah (Genesis 23:2) and the one after that was Va-era (Exodus 7:14).

[16] Sefer Yetzirah 1:7.

[17] Torat Menachem 5748 2:520.

[18] Torat Menachem 5748 3:278.

[19] Torat Menachem, 5749, vol. 1, p. 307. See further in this study footnote 145, where this study is also discussed in the context of the comprehensive nature of the Rebbe’s commentary. .

[20] Torat Menachem 5749 1:331. See. f.21.

[21] This is not in contradiction with the final part of the Parsha, whereby the land of the priests of Egypt was not transferred to the possession of Joseph, since the unity achieved through Joseph was limited. In the time of redemption, when the spiritual concept of Judah will transcend, the knowledge of G-d will penetrate all of existence. Torat Menachem 5750 2:106-108.

[22] Torat Menachem 5750 2:104-108.

[23] Torat Menachem 5750 2:447.

[24] Torat Menachem 5750 2:485.


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