On February 22, 1040, Shlomo Yitzhaki, known universally by the acronym “Rashi” (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), was born, in Troyes, in northern France.
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Rashi was the greatest medieval interpreter of both the Bible and the Talmud. His commentaries on both sources are standard for any student of the texts to this day.
So great and honored was Rashi, in his day as well as in succeeding generations, that many legends became associated with him. These include the belief that he was a descendant of King David, a claim that neither Rashi nor the earliest sources on his ancestry made.
What is known is that he was an only child, and that his father, Yitzhak (whom he mentions only once in his writings), was his first teacher. His mother’s brother was Shimon Hazaken, who was a student of the great teacher Rabbenu Gershom Meor Hagolah. Rashi studied at the yeshivot in Mainz and in Worms before returning to Troyes to become the head of the community there, and of his own yeshiva.
When the First Crusade passed through his region in 1096, the three sons of his teacher Isaac ben Eliezer Halevi, in Worms, were killed, but Rashi himself survived.
He wrote several selihot (penitential poems) mourning the destruction caused by the campaign.
It is also known that he owned a vineyard, though there is no historical support for the popular belief that he was a winemaker.
Rashi had three daughters – Miriam, Yocheved and Rachel -- each of whom married a Torah scholar. There is evidence that they were learned themselves, although it would have been very unusual for women of that era to have studied formally. There there is also a tradition that they wore tefillin, based on a statement by Rabbenu Tam, one of Yocheved’s four sons, discussing the need for a woman to say the appropriate blessing if she performs a mitzvah she is not obligated to, such as laying tefillin.
Rashi’s commentary on the Testament covers most every book in the Hebrew Bible, but writings on Chronicles I and II, and Ezra, Nehemiah and part of Job appear to have been written by disciples. His commentary on the Five Books of Moses was the first Hebrew book to be printed, in Italy, in 1475.
The greatness of his Bible commentary lies not only in its explanation in concise and simple language of every word or concept that required elaboration, but also in his use of midrash (rabbinical teachings) to understand the intentions of the text.
Rashi wrote in Hebrew, but often explained complicated terms in French, which gives his text an added value today as a guide to some aspects of Old French, as well as to many details of everyday life in his times, thanks to the many analogies he offers.
Although he offers readers assistance in understanding both the literal meaning of the text and what the earliest commentators said about it, he does not necessarily distinguish between the two.
Rashi’s commentary on the Babylonian Talmud was the first comprehensive guide to this work. Living in an important European trading town, he had access to many early versions of the basic rabbinic sources, and so could compare variants. As such, his commentary has been important in helping to establish an authoritative version of the text. Without his commentary, the Talmud, which was composed without punctuation and with minimal explanation, would likely remain, it is often said, a closed book to most readers.
Rabbi Shlomo died in Troyes on July 13, 1105, and was buried there. Although the precise location of his grave was lost, several monuments mark an open square in the city under which it is believed he lies.