Rashi – The Great Jewish Translator and Commentator
The year 1040 saw the birth of a man destined to become the greatest Jewish commentator and a major influence on translations. Born Solomon, son of Isaac, in Troyes, France, he is better known by the acronym his Hebrew name forms: Rashi.
Rashi’s travels and the timing of the Crusades catapulted him to the forefront of Jewish scholarship. Rashi left his birthplace of Troyes to study in Worms (now part of Germany), which was then a major center of Jewish scholarship. While there, he learned the accumulated wisdom of nearly 1,000 years of Jewish exile. Then he went back home to Troyes.
By the time of his death, Crusaders had ransacked Worms, killing Rashi’s teachers and destroying the schools of his youth. But Rashi remained safe in Troyes. He therefore became one of the sole repositories of nearly a millennium of collected Jewish scholarship.
So many people read Rashi alongside the Bible because in so doing they incorporate the first 1,000 years of post-exilic Bible scholarship.
Rashi’s most well-known work takes the form of running commentary to (parts of) the Bible. In general, he offers three kinds of commentary:
Consistency was important to Rashi. He had, apparently, memorized the entire Bible, and he wanted all of it to be consistent. When he found passages that seemed not to be, he offered commentary to explain why the passages were consistent after all.
Rashi also cared deeply about what he saw as Jewish values and beliefs, and he used the Bible homiletically to make various points.
Thirdly, Rashi tried to analyze the Hebrew language of the Bible.
(Though he didn’t know he was doing it, we can add a fourth accomplishment: he helped preserve middle French by using Hebrew transliterations of French to refer to words in his native language.)
Unfortunately, while Rashi proved extraordinary at the first two goals, he lived nearly 1,000 years before modern linguistics, and his linguistic analyses, therefore, are not usually on a par with his other work. To compound matters, Rashi didn’t distinguish among his various goals. So readers must figure out for themselves when Rashi is making a Jewish point that is only loosely based on the text and when he is explaining what the text originally meant.
This background can be helpful for understanding how Rashi’s work influenced Bible translation and scholarship.
I have an example next.