Sunday 20 March 2016



Not too much is known about Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir or Rashbam, brother of Rabbenu Tam. He lived in northern France, but the dates of his birth and passing are not clear, although they are believed to be from around 1080 to 1160.


During this time there was great trend amongst the commentators to expound the pshat, or simple, literal and contextual meaning of the Torah text. In a strange irony, his grandfather Rashi claimed to have only commented according to the pshat[1] or simple meaning of the Torah, yet most of his commentary is taken from midrashim (earlier texts which go far beyond the literal interpretation, often offering detailed explanations for gaps in the Torah narrative).
It was his grandson, Rashbam, however who really did stick faithfully to the simple literal text (to his own detriment, as we shall see), and Rashi is said to have acknowledged the fact that Rashbam was the pure pshatist.


It’s also interesting to note that Rashi’s commentaries were always popular and abundant, with literally hundreds of his early manuscripts surviving to this day. This was not the case with Rashbam, as only one manuscript of his Torah commentaries survived until it disappeared during the Holocaust. And even that manuscript had sections missing. Fortunately, in 1705 the manuscript was published in print form[2]. This means that there could not have been much serious study of Rasbam’s Torah commentaries before the 1700’s.


Another irony is that Rashbam (besides his interest in pshat), was also a founder of the analytical school of Talmudic study known as Ba’alei Tasafot[3]. In his Talmudic commentary he is known to have adhered exactingly to Talmudic thought[4] and conventional halachic practices - which was not always the case when he commented on the pshat of Torah.

It’s almost as if he meant his Torah commentary to be taken academically while his Talmudic commentaries were to be taken halachically and pragmatically. In his Torah commentary he was prepared to explain, theoretically and academically, some things that were at variance to accepted halachik practices (although he never ever advocated any practical departure from standard halacha).[5]
It is with regard to some of his Torah commentary, that much controversy abounds, and it is there that he is considered by some to be a radical commentator.[6]


One of the key points of contention between the members of the Pshat movement themselves,was how to interpret a verse of the Torah if the contextual meaning differed from accepted halachic practice.

Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) believed that halacha always trumped pshat, so that in cases where the contextual meaning contradicts the accepted halachic practice, one would always choose the halachic interpretation over the contextual meaning.[7]

Rashbam, on the other hand, being a purist, believed that under the same circumstances, when studying pshat, one would always adhere to the contextual meaning instead of ignoring it for the halachic interpretation.[8]  Rashbam explained this clearly when he said; ‘I have not come to expound the halachot, even though they are vital. The halachot can be learned from my grandfather’s (i.e. Rashi’s) commentaries, but I have come only to explain the literal and contextual meaning of the verses.’
Then, in the same paragraph, he again emphasizes that on a practical level halacha is never to be dismissed. It’s just that he makes the stark distinction between the theoretical study of pshat and the practical religious requirement of halachic observance.[9]


We don’t have to wait long for one of the greatest controversies to play out.  Commenting on verse 5 of Genesis, Rashbam drops a halachik bombshell. Everyone knows that the Jewish day begins in the evening and ends the following evening. But Rashbam points out that while that may be the case, we need to understand that the accepted convention is not in accordance with the pshat of the Torah.

He explains: “And it was evening and it was morning” – it’s not written ‘night and morning’, but ‘evening and morning’, implying that as the first day unfolded, the ‘light’ set and then turned into evening which then transitioned into morning. It was only after morning arrived that the Torah declared ‘one day’. Thus a biblical day was morning to morning.[10]

Rashbam’s definition of a biblical day, according to his understanding of the contextual pshat, is morning to morning, as opposed to the halachic definition of evening to evening!


When Ibn Ezra got wind of this interpretation, we witness one of the most aggressive reactions ever to take place within the world of Torah commentary.
It appears as though one particular Friday, a manuscript of Rashbam’s Torah commentary innocently arrived in England, where Ibn Ezra was living at that time.[11]

Ibn Ezra tells the rest of the story himself (paraphrase):

“One Shabbat[12], I, Avraham the Sephardi, also known as Ibn Ezra, was on the island known as the Edge of the World. In the middle of the night, I had a dream in which a man handed me a letter from Shabbat herself. Initially I was so excited and honoured that Shabbat had sent me a letter until I got to the end, when my heart dropped. I couldn’t understand why Shabbat was so upset with me as I had always cherished her with all my soul.

The letter read:

‘I am Shabbat. The forth of the Ten Commandments, the day on which the manna did not fall, the day which brings joy and calmness to all, the day when mourners do not mourn  and the dead are not eulogized, when even animals rest, and when wisdom is to be found a hundredfold compared to weekdays. I have always protected you and you have guarded me.
But now a mistake has been made. And you have a book in your house which will cause people to desecrate the seventh day. How can you remain silent and not protest?’

In the dream, the messenger told me that my students had brought me a book the previous day in which it is written to desecrate Shabbat. He told me to fight at all costs against the enemies of Shabbat.

I awoke trembling and angry. I washed my hands and found the (Rashbam’s) book and took it to the moonlight, where I read that the definition of a day was morning to morning! I wanted to tear my clothes as well as the page out of the book, but I did not want to desecrate Shabbat. I made a vow that I would not sleep the next night until I had written a letter explaining the true interpretation that ‘day’ is measured evening to evening.

This (Rashbam’s) interpretation is causing all Israel to go astray. Anyone who reads it out loud or believes it - may their tongue stick to their palate. Any scribe who writes it - may their hand dry up and be blinded – while all the rest of Israel will have light!” [13]


Although Rashbam made it quite clear, as we mentioned above, that he always upheld practical halacha - he nevertheless believed there was a place for theoretical and contextual interpretation of Torah verses even when they were in opposition to halacha (as long as inferences were not made that laws could be changed). This ‘disclaimer’ was not enough for Ibn Ezra, hence his violent attack against Rashbam.

One wonders if Rashbam’s duel ‘academic\halachik approach’ was not one of the reasons why his Torah commentaries were so rare in the centuries which followed, and why only one partial manuscript survived till 1945.

This may also be the reason why some modern editions of Mikraot Gedolot, a compendium of various Torah commentators, chose to either leave out Rashbam entirely, or censor out some of his controversial sections such as the example we cited.[14]


The interesting fact, though, is that one can make a very strong argument is support of Rashbam’s position.  No less an authority than Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishna, a thousand years before Rashbam, held a similar view that according to the contextual pshat of the verses, a biblical day may indeed have been morning to morning.[15]

Also Rashi comments that; ‘the sun rules for half a day followed by the moon for the other half, making one complete day’.[16]

It seems as if Rav Saadiah, according to pshat, held this view as well.[17] So did Rabbi Reuven Margaliot.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yoseph cites many sources explaining that the day was measured from morning to morning until the Torah was given at Sinai, when it was changed by convention to evening to evening.

None of these views suggest any practical deviation whatsoever from the parameters of the halachik day, and no one seems to have been upset with them for their theoretical reading of pshat.
Yet Ibn Ezra, as we pointed out, believed that pshat must never be allowed to contradict halacha, hence his strenuous opposition to Rashbam.

Furthermore, historically, there were sectarian Jews who did depart from traditional convention and did indeed begin observing Shabbat from Saturday morning to Sunday morning.[18] This too must also have sparked his opposition and may have been the cause for his ‘targeted attack’ against Rashbam.


I have another theory as to why there may have been such remarkable antagonism towards Rashbam in particular. In the same section of commentary that we have been dealing with, there is yet another theological bombshell that may have been overlooked by many.

Rashbam comments; “In the beginning G-d created – this means that at the beginning of creating heaven and earth, at the time that the supernal heaven and earth were already created – whether that lasted a long time or a short time, the earth was void and without form.”

Never mind the controversy over the pshat as to when the day begins, but there may additionally be the other thorny issue of some aspect of creation lasting ‘a long time or a short time’...



I am so happy to be able to offer additional insight by my dear friend and respected Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Chaim Finkelstein:

The time period of the Rishonim can really be called the best of times and the worst of times. The best of times in the proliferation of creative thinking and writing, both in halacha and theology and yet the worst of times in that the self same creativity came under great scrutiny and criticism from the major Rishonim, who berated those views deemed questionable and did so in the most vitriolic way. The question begs, why is it that sages of great mental ability, minds immeasurably superior to ours, could not cope with the novel approaches and could not see the rationale in the same way we can analyse these opinions today and find favour with them?

The answer perhaps presents itself when we appreciate the full import of what the Rishonim were doing in those days. At that point in time the Talmud was basically a closed book, the language, the style of dialectic, the simple meaning, was all impossible to understand without user friendly aids. The Rishonim were deciphering and creating a standard interpretation of the Talmud for posterity and setting down the principles upon which the halacha would rest. In other words the Rishonim were the keepers and the preservers of the oral Torah, a Torah which was not accessible in its current state.

Understanding the need for exactness in such a critical project, and that creativity could cost the integrity of the transmission of the oral Torah, it stands to reason why purists had to defend the Torah with severe outcries against any perceived distortion, because one wrong thought would translate into generations of wrong lore and practice. An extreme example was cited in Rabbi Michal's blogabout the community of Crete who observed Shabbos from Saturday morning to Sunday morning, an error of epic proportions which could have started with a creative twist of an interpretation.

In our times when the guidelines are set and the Shulchan Aruch forms the basis of expository halacha, we can consider novel ideas with more open mindedness, and even try to resolve them, as these ideas don't threaten the basis of our Mitzva performance, like in the times of the Rishonim, only our paradigms and comfort zones.


The Gemara in Hullin 83a and 83b discusses the prohibition of slaughtering the mother and calf on the same day. Rabbi Shimon held that the day means first night then day and derived it from "yom echad" to follow creation. Rebbi derived something else from "yom echad", not that day follows night. Interesting that Rebbi is Rabbi Yehudah who could hold that "yom echad" in Breishis does not mean that after night and day "yom echad", but that after erev and bokker the day finishes and "yom echad" means something else... 

[1] Or, as Rashi called it; ‘peshuto shel mikrah’. This trend towards the pshat (the plain meaning of the Torah text) became so widespread, that a movement was started that become known as the Pshat movement. See Masters of the Word, by Rabbi Yonatan Koltach, p. 91.
[2] Interestingly, other parts of the missing manuscript were discovered in 1853 by a German Reform rabbi, Abraham Geiger, who published it and made it available to the Jewish world. Then in 1881, David Rosin reconstructed other missing sections and published an almost complete edition (with only parshat Pinchas missing). This edition then became the basis for its inclusion in the well known Mikraot Gedolot series (such as the Shulsinger edition of 1950, and HaMaor of 1986).
[3] Rashbam and the Baalei Tosafot generally did not quote mystical sources. (But see Masters of the Word, ibid. where a different view is cited, p.94 note 5.)
[4] He wrote commentaries to two Talmudic tractates (which were actually a completion of Rashi’s commentaries to those same tractates), namely Bava Batra and Pesachim.
[5] See Rashbam – A Short Bio, by Rabbi Martin Lockshin, Ph.D.
[6] Although he generally stayed on the straight and narrow in his Talmudic commentaries, there is an instance where he denounced a ‘problematic section of the Talmud as “a later insertion of a long commentary by fools” (Bava Batra 137b). Rabbenu Tam criticized his brother for this unorthodox approach.’ (Masters of the Word ibid. P. 92.)
It should also be added that the other time his brother (Rabbenu Tam) complained about him was when he emended ‘the text of the Talmud “twenty times as often” as their grandfather did and that he used to write his emendations in the text of the Talmud itself, not in the margins, as Rashi did.’ (See Rabhbam – A Short Bio ibid.)
[7] See Ibn Ezra’s introduction to his Torah Commentary.
[8] See Rashbam’s introduction to Parshat Mishpatim.
[9] Another irony is that Ibn Ezra, although championing the halachic component over pshat, was never regarded as a great halachist by his contemporaries, nor is he generally quoted in reference to any authoritative halachic ruling. Some even spoke disparagingly about his halachic acumen. Rashbam, however, was often quoted as an authoritative halachik opinion.
[10] See Rashbam commentary to Genesis 1:5 ‘she’alah amud hashachar – harei hushlam yom echad.’
[11] According to many, Ibn Ezra passed away in England as well.
[12] 14 Tevet 4919. (1158)
[13] See Introduction to Ibn Ezra’s Igeret HaShabbat.
[14] Rabbi Professor Marc Shapiro in his Seforim Blog has famously brought to our attention how ArtScroll censored out these sections of Rashbam in their edition of Mikraot Gedolot, without any indication or notification that sections had been removed. The most complete version of Rashbam’s commentary can be found, however, in the Torat Chaim edition.
[15] See Emor VeAmarta, by Rabbi Eliyahu Katz, as cited by Marc Shapiro.
[16] Rashi on Bereishit 1:14
[17] See Perushei Rabbenu Saadia Gaon al HaTorah, p. 71, as cited by Marc Shapiro.
[18] According to Marc Shapiro who cites Binyamin of Tudela, these may have been the Mishawites of Cyprus.

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