900th Anniversary of Bible Commentator Rashi´s Death

Friday marks the 900th anniversary of the death of one of the Jewish people's greatest Bible and Talmud commentators, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi.

Nissan Ratzlav-Katz, | updated: 14:30

Rashi was born in Troyes, France and died in the same town on July 13, 1105, at the age of 65. The date of his passing on the Jewish calendar, the 29th of Tammuz, falls on Friday, August 5, this year.

The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, a leading intellectual center in Israel for the study and discussion of issues related to philosophy, society, culture and education, held an international conference last week in honor of the medieval scholar. Similar memorial gatherings are taking place in various places around the United States, as well as planned events for later this year in Germany. Throughout the year, the town of Troyes and the Champagne area in France have hosted a series of events in honor of Rashi, including a state ceremony in his memory three weeks ago. Walking tours in Troyes feature an exhibition on the Torah scholar, as well as on the town's Jewish history, at the Rashi Institute on Rue Brunnevel. The exhibition is on display until early September.

Rashi studied at the great Torah academies of Mayence (Mainz) and Worms, in Germany, before his family's economic situation forced him to return to Troyes in 1065. It was during this period, while helping his widowed mother to manage the family vineyards, that Rashi produced his famous commentaries on the Bible and the Talmud. While he considered his Torah commentary to be appropriate for small children, Rashi's illuminating and succinct explanations and collations of rabbinical exegesis quickly became powerful study tools for scholars of all ages.

The fact that Rashi was forced to return to Troyes may well have saved his life and his life's work, as the First Crusade of 1095 decimated the flowering scholarly communities of Worms and Mainz. Rashi's commentaries contain some of the only records of the work of Talmudic and Biblical scholars from the German centers of Jewish learning of the time.

Within a century of his death, Rashi's commentaries on the Bible and Talmud had spread from Western Europe to North Africa, Asia and throughout the Middle East. Rashi's commentaries on the Torah and the Talmud became such an inextricable part of the study of Jewish sources that printers were forced to adapt a distinctive Hebrew font to differentiate Rashi's words from those of the Torah; it became known, as it is today, as "Rashi script".

In addition to the content of Rashi's works, he revitalized the Hebrew language in a way that had not been done prior to his time. Chaim Nachman Bialik, one of modern Israel's most respected poets, said that Rashi "produced a wonderful linguistic achievement." Also thanks to Rashi's commentaries, 3,000 ancient French words have been preserved until today, as Rashi sometimes included translations of Hebrew concepts into the local vernacular while explaining Biblical passages.

Typical of Rashi's work, and relevant for the Jewish predicament today in Israel, is his first comment on the Torah. In it, Rashi quotes Rabbi Yitzchak as asking why the Torah begins with the story of creation, when, as an instructional-spiritual text for the Jews, it would have been logical to begin with the first communal commandment, the Sanctification of the New Moon at the beginning of each month, which appears in Exodus. Rabbi Yitzchak, as quoted by Rashi, answers, "It was to teach the world the principle stated by King David, in Psalms 111:6; namely, 'He has declared to His people the power of His works.' So that if the nations of the world say to Israel, 'You are thieves, for you took possession of the land of seven nations by force,' they will be able to answer, 'All the world belongs to G-d. He created it, and gave it to whomever He wished. It was His will that it first be allocated to those nations, and it was by His will that it be taken from them and given to us.'"