'What's bothering Rashi?'

Review of a book that will enrich and change the way you study Chumash and Rashi.

Rochel Sylvetsky, | updated: 15:02

Judaism Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky
]Yonatan Zindel Flash 90

Rabbi Dr. Avigdor Bonchek's books on the medieval luminary Rashi open the door for English speakers to analyze the work of the greatest Torah commentator of all time in a new and intellect-sharpening way. The second edition, reviewed here, is on its way to becoming a best seller like the first. 

Who was Rashi?

For close to a thousand years, since Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), more commonly known by the acronym Rashi, wrote his incomparable classic commentary on the Bible and Talmud, his writings have accompanied the study of the Written and Oral Law almost as if they too were given at Mount Sinai. 

In fact, the first Jewish printed dated work is Rashi's commentary on the Pentateuch, published on February 5, 1475, in Reggio, Calabria, by a Sephardic Jew named Abraham Garton.

"Rashi", as the commentary is called, is traditionally printed in a unique cursive-type script – not known to Rashi himself, of course – and it was and still is a mark of a young Torah student's progress when he can proudly "read" as well as study the content of the commentary.

That all-embracing content, vast knowledge and command of the Torah that Rashi displays, his uncontested genius and measured words– all set in writing before the printing press, typewriter, Google and other writer aids were even dreamed of, are mind-bogglingly phenomenal. 

It is therefore easy to understand how most of the Torah observant world places Rashi, who made his living selling wine in Troyes, France, on a transcendent level, positing that the spirit of G-d (Ruach Hakodesh) guided his heart and mind to somewhere beyond ordinary human endeavor - even when differing with him.

Commentaries on Rashi's commentary

Over 120 books have been written through the centuries explaining, exploring and expanding Rashi's commentary on the Pentateuch – and that is without counting the great exegesists Ramban, Ibn Ezra and others whose works are printed on the pages of traditional editions of the Bible and who often discuss/disagree with the "Rashi" on a topic.  

Rav Yeshayahu Hadari zts"l, late Dean of Yeshivat Hakotel,  would express his awe of the medieval commentator by telling those attending his weekly shiur for women how the Maharal of Prague wrote his commentary on Rashi, the Gur Aryeh, only when he reached the age of 60, when he felt confident enough to do so.  

With all this wealth of works on Rashi, why another book

Why, then, with over 120 books to choose from, should one purchase Rabbi Dr. Victor Bonchek's new book, titled "What's Bothering Rashi? " (Feldheim Press, 2018)? (Note that in this book the author chooses several examples from each of the year's weekly portions, spanning the Five Books of the Chumash. He has previously published a five volume series, one for each volume of Chumash, on the subject).

The answer? Because it is not a commentary at all, but a systematic methodology that turns the study of Rashi into an ongoing mental challenge. 

Rashi's explanations, of course, can be read for their content alone, but the last half century radically changed the way we approach them. Today's way of studying Rashi was expounded methodically by Professor Nechama Leibowitz, internationally acclaimed master Bible teacher, who pioneered the teaching method in which the search for the problem in the text that triggered Rashi's choice of explanations from the Talmud and other sources is crucial for understanding his words.  

As her student in Jerusalem decades ago, I and my fellow students soon realized that Rashi's explanations should be read along with close reading of the text in order to find the key to the problem that caused them to be written at all, a kind of integral exegesis (akin to finding the integral of a function).

That fascinating process is what Rabbi Bonchek has brought to an English speaking audience in clear and lucid fashion.  Choosing  several topics that Rashi writes on in each Torah portion in the Five  Books of  Moses, he challenges the reader to discover the question Rashi asked himself when reading a specific phrase, verse or narrative – or, alternatively, what question Rashi answers in his incisive, sometimes one word analysis, comparison, explanation for a phrase, verse, or narrative. 

Rabbi Bonchek brings some of Nechama Leibowitz' elucidated Rashi rules of thumb, one of which is that if he writes two explanations for one problem, a literal interpretation as well as a Midrashic one, it means he is not completely satisfied with either.

Trying to discover the thought processes of Rashi greatly enriches the study of his commentary - and sharpens the intellect. Once you read Rashi that way, you won't be able to read him without asking yourself what problem led to the explanation at hand.

Rabbi Bonchek encourages the reader to suggest his own ideas for what is bothering Rashi before bringing his own opinion, often broadening the scope of the reader's knowledge with additional related material. Since Rashi did not leave us a comprehensive list of of what bothered him, sometimes several valid ideas can be suggested. On the other hand, in some instances there is only one that makes sense and the reader who comes up with it before reading Rabbi Bonchek's explanation will feel justifiably proud. 

This writer used the book at the Shabbat table to engender a lively discussion of the questions behind the Rashi commentaries chosen from that week's Torah reading.  Rabbi Bonchek, a long time resident of Jerusalem, probably does the same with his wife Shulamit and their family of six children and growing number of grandchildren.

A psychotherapist for most of his career as well as long time lecturer at Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem, Rabbi Bonchek, whose doctorate is from NYU and ordination from Ner Yisrael Yeshiva in Baltimore, taught Torah studies at the Ohr Somayach Center for Judaic Studies in Jerusalem for many years and continues to lecture intensively.  His books have been translated into Russian and Chinese and one, The Problem Student: A Cognitive/Behavioral Approach, was published in Hebrew. He is presently working on two books, one a behavioral psychology reader and the other an in depth study of Rashi, giving us hope that there will be more volumes of Rashi-sourced challenges in the future.