Sunday 16 August 2020


Rashi's synagogue in Worms.reconstructed after Nazi desecration on Kristallnacht in 1938.


Rashi (1040-1105), the foremost Biblical and Talmudic commentator, is a fascinating if not an elusive personality. Much is known about him and much has been written about him, but the deeper one goes attempting to uncover the man behind the writings, the more he emerges as an enigma.

In this article, based extensively the research[1] of Rabbi Professor Ephraim Kanarfogel of Yeshiva University, we will explore whether or not Rashi would have been aware of early mystical literature and traditions.

A distinction must be made between early and late mystical traditions as the Zohar was first published around 1290 - almost two hundred years after Rashi’s passing - so the mystical literature in question could only have been the earlier Heichalot and Merkava literature.

Much of the Heichalot and Merkava literature is the collection of mystical texts from the late Talmudic (200-450) and early Gaonic (589-1038) periods. Rabbinic sages from the earlier Mishnaic period (0-200 CE) and Amoraic (Talmudic) period (200-450) are referenced in this mystical literature.

This early mysticism was anything but a mere theoretical form of KabbalahKanarfogel defines this early mystical literature as a practical and theurgic guide to the mystic who:

“...sought to enter into a sequence of Divine palaces (hekhalot) and realms by invoking specific (and often unusual) names, formulae and rituals.”

Before we delve into our question of Rashi’s involvement in early mysticism, there are two other general issues to take into consideration:


Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, there is the issue of the accuracy of some of the printed Rashi texts we use today. The first printing of Rashi’s commentaries took place more than 350 years after his death.

Rabbi Dr Shnayer Leiman illustrates just how diverse the early printed versions of Rashi were, by comparing nine editions of the first printings of Rashi. In many instances, even on the same verse, the differences are astounding with some editions printing nothing, some waxing literal, and others saying something else entirely.


Then there is the matter of whether Rashi was a corporealist who believed that G-d had some form of a body or physicality. It is generally accepted, as Rabbi Shmuel ben Mordechai of Marseilles wrote, that most of the rabbis of northern France believed G-d comprised some form of corporealityrov chachmei tzorfat magshimim”. The question remains open as to whether Rashi was a corporealist or not.

Our interest here is the question of whether or not Rashi was a mystic.

Rashi’s timeline placed him not only two centuries before the publication of the Zohar, but also thirty years before the birth of Maimonides, the great rationalist. Thus, from the outset, we need to remember that Rashi predated the paradigms of mysticism and rationalism that we are familiar with today.

But was Rashi aware of, and did he subscribe to, the early mysticism of Heichalot and Merkavah literature?

This question is addressed and answered very differently by two scholars, Professors Joseph Dan and Ephraim Kanarfogel. Dan claims that Rashi was not aware of Heichalot and Merkavah literature while Kanarfogel believes he was.



According to Joseph Dan, Rashi was not at all familiar with Heichalot and Merkava mysticism.[2] 

Although this literature would have been known in some circles within northern France and Germany – including the later Chassidei Ashkenaz and even Rashi’s descendants and students, the Tosafists – nevertheless, according to Dan,  Rashi was not aware of this literature.

Dan brings two supports for his view:

a)  In the book of Ezekiel, where the Merkavah or Divine Chariot is described, Rashi’s commentary refuses to engage in mystical speculation. He mentions twice that we may not deal with such matters:

“We do not have permission to contemplate on this verse.”[3]

“It is forbidden to contemplate on this verse.”[4]

From these comments, it seems that Rashi either did not know (or did not want to divulge) the esoteric meaning behind Ezekiel’s mystical language.

b) Dan’s second support is from Rashi’s Talmudic commentary on Chagiga 14b, where R. Akiva and three colleagues entered the mystical state of Pardes. The Talmud records that R. Akiva issued a stark warning not to confuse the polished marble floor of the heavenly realm for water:

“When (upon your arrival in the upper worlds) you reach pure marble stones, do not say: Water, water (although they appear to be water).”[5]

The Talmud does not elaborate further on the significance of seeing water during the mystical experience.

However, in the Heichalot literature[6], the appearance of water in a vision is a sign of spiritual failure to reach the intended lofty goal of entering the ‘sixth palace’. When one sees water, the mystic’s journey is over.

But Rashi does not seem to know (or agree with) this basic Heichalot principle. According to Rashi, when the mystic sees the illusion of shimmering water, he should not think that the journey is over. As long as he does not admit defeat, he may continue with the journey.

This seems to imply that Rashi was not aware of the apparent mystical prohibition against continuing the spiritual journey as per the Heichalot texts.

Kanarfogel writes:

“On the basis of this passage, Dan maintains that Rashi was clearly unfamiliar with an essential point of Hekhalot literature, that water is an absolute sign that a mystical journey has ended.”

Hense we have Dan's view that Rashi was not familiar with Heichalot mysticism.

Not everyone agrees with Joseph Dan’s interpretation and we will now look at an opposing view that reinforces the exact opposite notion – that Rashi was well aware of Heichalot literature and that he was a mystic:



Kanarfogel shows, however, that there exists a variant reading[7] of the previously referenced Heichalot text (prohibiting mystical travel after visualizing the appearance of water) which is strikingly similar to the way Rashi interprets the Talmudic text above: Yes, the appearance of water does generally represent the end of a spiritual quest – but, just like the Israelites were not deterred by the waters of the Red Sea and chose to push on regardless, so too the appearance of water in a vision is an obstacle that can and must be overcome with persistence.

On this variant reading, Rashi could have been well-versed in Heichalot literature and his above mentioned Talmudic comment - that the mystic traveller should continue the journey - would be in keeping with this version of the Heichalot text.

Kanarfogel brings other examples where Rashi is similarly able to produce commentary that is in accordance with Heichalot texts:


In another Talmudic commentary[8], Rashi makes mention of three other mystical books; Ma’aseh haMerkava, Sefer Yetzira, and Ma’aseh Bereishit:

Furthermore, in Rashi’s commentary on the book of Isaiah, he also mentions the mystical book of Midrash Agada Ma’aseh Merkava. According to Gershom Scholem, this was a version of Heihalot Rabbati.

Scholem further points out that Rashi was familiar with the mystical work known as Shiur Komah which describes G-d as having some form of body or corporeality.

These examples indicate that Rashi was aware of numerous forms of mystical literature.

We will now look at some mystical influences which may have shaped Rashi’s mystical worldview:



Some of Rashi’s predecessors from Mainz, where he studied, were known mystical practitioners. One of these was the Kabbalist R. Shimon ben Yitzchak Abun Kalonymous haGadol (c.970-1020). According to the Tosefta[9], he was Rashi’s teacher (although the dates do not support this view). According to Rashi himself, R. Shimon haGadol was his mother’s brother.[10] Either way, R. Shimon haGadol was likely to have had some influence on Rashi.

R. Shimon haGadol maintained, in a manuscript[11], how he ascended to heaven using certain mystical techniques, and that he found the name of G-d which was used in the creation of the world. 

In another of his mystical journeys, he claimed to have received the special liturgical tunes used by the angels. 

He also practised a mystical ritual of she’elat chalom, or dream requests.

In R. Shimon haGadol’s view, prayer was not so much addressed to G-d as it was to the angels in charge of prayers who transport them to the throne of glory. Like R. Shimon haGadol, Rashi supports the idea that prayers, in Kanarfogel’s words:

 “should be directed to the angelic beings or beings who oversee it.”[12]

Surprisingly, this approach to prayer was to become quite a common mystical perception with later mystics referring to prayer being directed to the entity known as Zeir Anpin or the Lesser Countenance.

The Machzor Vitry, written by a student[13] of Rashi, describes R. Shimon haGadol as “schooled in miracles” which leaves no doubt that we are dealing with an extremely mystical personality. He is also known for his practice of mystical rituals and reciting of adjurations which indicate that he was a practitioner of Heichalot literature. R. Shimon haGadol was also active in the mystical chain of tradition that was to become the Chassidei Ashkenaz[14].


R. Shimon haGadol’s student, R. Eliezer haGadol (d. 1060) followed in his teacher’s footsteps and was evidently an associate of Rashi. According to Kanarfogel, he too was involved in “a number of white magic techniques.”  

He instituted the custom of spilling sixteen drops of wine during the Pesach Seder. This was to represent the sixteen drops of blood from what is said to be the sixteen-sided sword of G-d. He claimed it would prevent pestilence from harming the practitioner as the word dever, or pestilence, is mentioned sixteen times in the book of Jeremiah. This notion has its roots in Sefer Heichalot. The sword is called yuhach which means sixteen strikes, and is also the name of the angel whose mission is said to be the exacting of vengeance.

Both R. Shimon and R. Eliezer spoke of the Kaddish, which, from around that time became an Ashkenazic esoteric tradition, allegedly completing the name of G-d which had been diminished by the forces of Amalek.


Rashi’s main teacher, R. Yaakov ben Yakar, authored an esoteric commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, again pointing to the strong possibility that Rashi was influenced by such mystical teachings.


According to Kanarfogel:

“Rashi was himself familiar with a number of esoteric traditions related to Divine Names, and with magical and theurgic techniques as well.”

In his Talmudic commentary[15], Rashi connects G-d’s name of seventy-two letters to scriptural verses. This same derivation is found in the mystical classic, the Bahir[16]. This technique was later expounded upon by the father of modern Jewish mysticism, Nachmanides (1194-1270)[17] to show the Kabbalistic doctrine of permutations of the Divine names within every verse and letter of the Torah.

Rashi also writes that the Amoraim[18] were able to create calves and other beings by combing and permuting  Hebrew letters and Divine names which they got from Hilchot Yetzirah (probably Sefer Yetzirah).[19]

Rashi mentions[20] that the four who entered the Pardes, did so utilizing permutations of the Divine names. He also writes[21] that R. Yishmael ascended to the heavens by means of similar permutation techniques. And that the kefitzat haderech or supernatural shortening of the way discussed by Rava, was undertaken by such uses of the Divine name[22].

A further attestation that Rashi was mystically inclined may be the fact that he is frequently quoted by subsequent mystical works such as Sefer haMaskil,  the Zohar, and Ma’arechet ha Elokut. And later Kabbalists such as the Chida (1724-1806) wrote that Rashi was conversant and inspired by mysticism even as he wrote his various commentaries.

There are at least two segulot or magical devices that are attributed to Rashi[23].

Kanarfogel concludes:

“Thus, Rashi’s commentaries on these matters do not simply reflect talmudic or rabbinic material that he had at his disposal. Rather they indicate that Rashi was aware of esoteric materials and teachings, and perhaps even developed or extended some of these on his own.”

If Kanarfogel is correct, this would make Rashi not only a consumer of esoteric material but also a contributor to the mystical corpus.


In the writings that emerged from Rashi’s school, known as Sifrut deVei Rashi, such as Machzor Vitry, the Shabbat is compared to the marriage of Knesset Yisrael to G-d - a well-known idea capitalized upon by the later Kabbalists

Furthermore, Shabbat is described as a power to combat negative spiritual forces, also something later seized upon by the Zohar

Sme writings form Rashi's school suggest that magical names be written on the parchment of Mezuzot to further aid with spiritual protection.

There are also magical adjurations to prevent forgetfulness which correspond to those found in the Heichalot writings.

All these mystical ideas were vehemently challenged by the father of Jewish rationalism, Maimonides, who suggested to his son that the commentary of Ibn Ezra rather be substituted for that of Rashi[24]. Ironically, Maimonides' son became the leader of generations of Judeao-Sufi mystics in Egypt.


By comparison to Joseph Dan’s argument that Rashi was not familiar with mystical teachings, Ephraim Kanarfogal’s argument is most convincing.

Overall it does seem that Rashi was indeed a mystic, well-versed in Heichalot and Merkava literature and probably an important link in the chain of mystical transition that was later to culminate in the publication of the Zohar.


[A Window into pre-Zoharic Mystical Literature.]

[How Rashi and Rambam  Part Ways on the Deepest of Issues.]

[Rambam's Only Son - Another Sufi Connection?]

[1] Ephraim Kanarfogel, Rashi’s Awareness of Jewish Mystical Literature and Traditions.
[2] Joseph Dan, Rashi and the Merkava.
[3] Ezekiel 1:27.
[4] Ezekiel 8:2.
[5] b. Chagiga 14b. Translation (Seraria): The Sages taught: Four entered the orchard [pardes], i.e., dealt with the loftiest secrets of Torah, and they are as follows: Ben Azzai; and ben Zoma; Aḥer, the other, a name for Elisha ben Avuya; and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva, the senior among them, said to them: When, upon your arrival in the upper worlds, you reach pure marble stones, do not say: Water, water, although they appear to be water, because it is stated: “He who speaks falsehood shall not be established before My eyes” (Psalms 101:7).
[6] In both Heichalot Rabbati and Heichalot Zutarti.
[7] See David Halperin, The Faces of the Chariot, Tubingen 1988, p. 210, 534.
[8] b. Chagiga 13a.
[9] Tosefta to Shabbat 54b.
[10] b. Shabbat 85b.
[11] Ms Bodl. 1960, fol. 102r.
[12] Sanhedrin 44b.
[13] R. Simcha ben Shmuel Vitry (d. 1105, the same year as Rashi’s passing).
[14] See Perush Siddur ha-Tefillah la- Roqeah, ed. Moshe Hershler, Jerusalem 1992, vol. 1, pp. 225-29.
[15] b. Sukkah 45a.
[16] Sefer ha-Bahir, ed. Daniel Abrams, Los Angeles 1994, secs, 76,79.
[17] See the Introduction to his Torah commentary.
[18] Sages from the Talmudic period, 200-450.
[19] Moshe Idel has shown, however, that these techniques do not match the extant version of Sefer Yetzirah. See Moshe Idel, Golem (Heb.), Tel Aviv 1996, pp. 66-67, 77-78.
[20] b. Chagiga 14b.
[21] b. Berachot 51a.
[22] b. Yevamot 116a.
[23] Avraham Grossman, Rashi u-Massoret Limmud ha-Torah she-Bikhtav bi-Sefarad, pp. 50-53.
[24] Isadore Twersky, "Ha-Hishpia' R. Avraham ben Ezra `al ha-Rambam?" Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra: Studies in the Writings of a Twelęh-Century Jewish Polymath, ed. Twersky.

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