Sunday 28 February 2021



b. Yevamot 63a.


Rashi’s commentaries on the Torah are well known. However, the commentaries on his commentaries - known as supercommentaries - are less known, even “wholly neglected”. These supercommentaries or Parshanei Rashi number in the dozens by conservative estimates and possibly even in the hundreds.[1]

In this article, based extensively in the research by Professor Eric Lawee[2] of Bar Illan University, we shall explore a sample of different supercommentaries on one single Rashi commentary on a verse in Genesis.

NOTE: The quotation from Rashi upon which this article is based may upset sensitive readers. The intention, however, is not to focus on the subject but rather on the patterns which emerge in the supercommentaries which deal with it.



Our point of departure is Rashi’s (slightly altered) quote of a strange Talmudic Midrash[3]:

א"ר אלעזר מאי דכתיב (בראשית ב, כג) זאת הפעם עצם מעצמי ובשר מבשרי מלמד שבא אדם על כל בהמה וחיה ולא נתקררה דעתו עד שבא על חוה

“R. Eleazar said…Adam mated with every [species of] domesticated animal and wild animal but his appetite was not assuaged until he discovered Eve.”

This Talmudic passage is slightly altered by Rashi to read:

זאת הפעם. מְלַמֵּד שֶׁבָּא אָדָם עַל כָּל בְּהֵמָה וְחַיָּה, וְלֹא נִתְקָרְרָה דַעְתּוֹ בָּהֶם (יבמות ס"ג):

“…Adam mated with every [species of] beast and animal but his appetite was not assuaged by them.” [4]

Although Adam may have been categorized as a universal man or Ben Noach (Noachide) and not subject to later Biblical law, this unusual and surprising interpretation particularly in a culture that despises bestiality under numerous Biblical prohibitions[5], was soon to attract the attention of the supercommentaries.



An interesting development occurred within the genre of supercommentaries and that was the way in which the different commentaries interpreted the foundational comment of Rashi. Fascinatingly, the interpretations are divided along the cultural lines of Ashkenazi[6] and Sefaradi Jews. Our aim is to determine just why this is the case.

Rashi (1040-1105) was writing in Northern France and his commentary migrated to Spain and then back to Northern France and Germany, and the supercommentaries which accumulated along the way reflected the varying cultural trends it passed through.

Soon a pattern emerged: Rashi’s immediate Ashkenazi interpreters understood his Midrashic gloss quite literally, while his Iberian or Sefaradi interpreters chose an allegorical exegesis and reading. This divide took place almost without exception. To put it more bluntly, the Ashkenazim understood that Adam literally mated with the animals and the Sefaradim adopted the approach that the relationship was, “cognitive, not carnal”.



Those in favour of the more literal interpretation found some scriptural support for their view: The second chapter of Genesis describes it as “not good” for man to be alone, and so the “wild beasts” and “birds of the sky” were formed for sake of Adam to “see what he would call them”. When it became apparent that “for Adam no fitting helper was found”, Eve was created. It was then that Adam declares “this time – bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”.[7]

The expression “this time” - as opposed to the implied “other times” - opens itself up for colourful interpretative speculation.



Lawee writes:

“As Rashi conveyed R. Eleazar’s exposition without qualm, so, too, did late medieval Ashkenazic scholars cite it in ways that indicated their acceptance of its literal sense, even as they were challenged by the midrash on other levels.”

The problem is that the profound moral implications of this Midrash, particularly when taken on the literal level, invite polemical ridicule. Those who were keen to discredit rabbinical Judaism were handed a golden opportunity on a platter.

Already during the twelfth century, Moshe Sefaradi, who became known as Petrus Alfonsi[8], the Spanish-Jewish physician who converted to Christianity in 1106 (a year after Rashi passed away), assumed the role of anti-rabbinic polemicist. He collected ideas such as these to build the case against his birth religion.

A century later, Lawee explains that:

“Christian polemic focused increasingly on classical Judaism’s midrashic inheritance.” 

During that time, Nicholas Donin, a disenfranchised Jew who had been excommunicated by his former teacher R. Yechiel of Paris chose baptism and joined the Franciscan Order. His polemics against Judaism resulted in twenty-four wagon loads of Talmudic manuscripts being burned on the streets of Paris. In 1236, Donin presented thirty-five “reprehensible rabbinic dicta” to Pope Gregory IX, and this Midrash was one such example used in the Disputation of Paris in 1240 [see Kotzk Blog: 130) THE DANGERS OF TRANSLATING HEBREW TEXTS:]. 

A Latin “confession” claimed that R. Yechiel of Paris conceded that Adam had relations with the animals while still in Paradise. The Hebrew account has R. Yechiel explain the Midrashic view that bestiality had not yet been outlawed to early mankind.[9]

Other Ashkenazi rabbis similarly argued that:

“One can say that they [the animals] were not prohibited to him until after Eve’s creation.”[10]

From these, and other Ashkenazi rabbis[11] it emerges that they all accepted the literal interpretation of the Midrashic account, and surprisingly:

“…the moral-religious implications of Adam’s multiple acts of bestiality perturbed them not at all” (Lawee 2006:397).

Lawee (2006:398) drives this point even further when he cites the one Ashkenazi exception to the rule. According to one (apparently anonymous) Ashkenazi rabbi:

“’Amazing (temah)!’ How, in the single hour that the midrashic tradition has Adam spending in the garden[12], could he ‘have had intercourse with myriad [of creatures]?’ This inquiry spurred an abandonment of the fullscale literalist reading of Rashi: ‘[O]ne might answer (yesh lomar) that [what Rashi means is that] he [Adam] saw each and every pair [of animals] mating and it did not seem to him as though he could be assuaged [sexually] through [any of] them.’”[13]

This Ashkenazi source is the only exception to the literalist approach we have seen so far. However, it is rooted in the argumentative style of Talmudic exegeses (using typically dialectical terms like “temah” and “yesh lomar”) and it expresses no moral abhorrence to the act of mating with animals! 

It simply:

“…objected to Adam’s multiple acts of bestiality on purely logistical rather than moral-religious grounds” (Lawee 2006:398).

As we have seen, the literalist view dominated medieval Ashkenazi (Tosafist) thought in the supercommentaries on Rashi.

This was not, however, the case with regard to Sefaradi literature on this matter:



According to Lawee (2006: 398):

“Building on precedents of the geonic east, Andalusi-Jewish scholars developed an approach to the interpretation of nonlegal midrash that eventually spread to Christian Spain, southern France, Italy, and beyond. According to this approach, nonliteral exegesis of rabbinic sayings was often valid and sometimes required. The cleavage between north and south emerged starkly during the controversies over rationalism of the 1230s.”

In other words, the Ashkenazi-Sefaradi divide over whether to take Midrashim like this literally or allegorically, is reflected in the Tosafist-Maimonidean Controversies around the thirteenth century, which pitted the mystical Tosafists (who were largely comprised of Rashi’s students) against the rationalists from the Maimonidean camp [see Kotzk Blog: 180) MYSTICAL FORAYS OF THE TOSAFISTS:].

Lawee continues:

“In often vituperative exchanges, northern European savants urged the necessity of literal reverence in interpreting rabbinic sayings.”

The rationalist Maimonidean school was open to figurative and allegorical interpretation of rabbinic texts. But some Tosafists demanded the ‘canonisation’ of Rashi as the only authentic form of Biblical interpretation [see Kotzk Blog: 212) HOW RASHI WAS USED AS ‘LEVERAGE’ DURING THE MAIMONIDEAN CONTROVERSIES:].

Thus, we see that the Spanish supercommentators on Rashi took pains to arrive at a non-literal interpretation of the Midrash concerning Adam mating with the animals.

An early Spanish supercommentator was the anonymous contemporary of the fifteenth century Yitzchak ben Moshe haLevi (Profet Duran) found in a manuscript from that period. According to the manuscript, Adam:

“…engaged in intense and ongoing investigation and careful study into each and every species and discerned its nature and temperament and the nature of all the [other] species but failed to find a nature fitting and disposed to his nature.”[14]

This anonymous text may have been based on the fourteenth century R. Shem Tov ben Shaprut who wrote in his Pardes Rimonim that Adam was not looking “for a biological partner but for a rational soul mate” (Lawee 2006: 399). Either way, a distinct not literalist approach is adopted.

R. Shmuel Almosnino wrote, during the fifteenth century, that Rashi’s reference was a “figurative expression” and did not signify any physical relationship at all.[15]

Moses ibn Gabbai, who hailed from Aragon but wrote his supercommentary on Rashi in North Africa around 1420, maintained that the event should not be understood “according to its prima facie meaning” (kifeshutah).[16] Moshe ibn Gabbai believed that Adam was bound by the proscription of bestiality before Eve’s creation. This opinion was rejected by the Ashkenazi rabbi, Yehiel of Paris and other Ashkenazic authorities.

Moshe ibn Gabbai’s non-literalist approach was similarly reflected in his son-in-law, R. Aharon Aboulrabi’s supercommentary that because Adam was the most “perfect” of humans, being created by G-d, there was no way he could have engaged in “intercourse with one not of his species.”[17]

Yitzchak Arama (1420-1494), author of Akedat Yitzchak[18] (a philosophical commentary on the Torah) emphasised the Midrashic reference to the word “da’ato” (mind, as in “his appetite - lit. mind – was not assuaged") as support for an intellectual encounter rather than a physical one, “discerning reflection on the animals  and their nature[19] (Lawee 2006:400).

Lisbon-born Don Yitzchak Abravanel (1437-1508) writing in Italian exile after the Spanish Expulsion of 1492, also emphasized the intellectual nature of Adam’s encounters with the animals. Both Abravanel and Arama were concerned with presenting difficult Midrashim in a “sophisticated” intellectual style so as to appeal to the more rational milieu of their Spanish readers.

Thus, the Sefaradi community adopted a more rationalist and non-literalist approach to the difficult Rashi text, while their Ashkenazi counterparts were not prepared to budge one iota from their literalist interpretation.



Lawee goes on to show how things began to change after the (openly practicing) Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497, and began to settle in Ashkenazi Europe. Their more rational style of Biblical interpretation began to influence the mystical and literalist Ashkenazim - and soon the Ashkenazi rabbis were also offering allegorical explanations of this difficult Rashi.

Spanish rabbis like Yitzchak Kara (1458-1535), author of the Toldot Yitzchak commentary on the Torah - after being expelled from both Spain and Portugal - brought their more rational reading of Rashi to Europe and, in Kara’s case, to Constantinople.  

Lawee (2006:403) writes:

“…segments of the Ashkenazi world were undergoing a cultural transformation that was shaped decisively by the advent of Sephardic intellectual sensibilities and exegetical trends in northern and eastern Europe. The spiritual upheaval left marks on theological trends, interpretive methodologies, homiletical styles, and other areas of intellectual endeavor and religious life.”   

Yitzchak Kara wrote:

“Heaven forefend that he [Adam] had intercourse [with beast and animals] in actuality.”[20]

This continued for some time until there was a backlash from the Ashkenazi establishment and more modern Ashkenazi rabbis reverted to their traditional literal interpretation that Adam indeed mated with the animals. These trends, to and fro, are all reflected in the general Aggadic (non-legal) commentaries and particularly in the supercommentaries on Rashi’s gloss about Adam and the animals.

Thus, through an analysis of the vast literature of the supercommentaries over the centuries, on this one difficult Rashi text, we are able to trace the vacillating trends of Hashkafic weltanschauung regarding rationalists and mystics, allegorists and literalists.



The work of the ever-expanding corpus of supercommentaries on Rashi continues unabated in the modern era and has moved into the domain of the English language.

In the 1930s, the Pentateuch with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth and Rashi’s Commentary was published for English readers. According to Lawee (2006:423):

“…it went out of its way to avoid familiarizing English readers of the precise meaning of Rashi’s gloss on ‘this time’…

Here is but one instance in which avoidance, not to say censorship, of some of Rashi’s more frankly sexual glosses manifested itself on the English side of the page."

Lawee (2006:423-4) goes on to describe the Artscroll[21] series, whose editors: confident in their continuity with the ‘Torah-true’ Judaism of the Ashkenazic past

In an early commentary on Genesis put out under the Mesorah Publications Artscroll label, Adam’s cry ‘this time’ was said to reflect his earlier unsuccessful attempt to find ‘a mate from among every creature,’ whereas a less than luminous note explained, ‘Rashi; as explained by Lekach Tov; Toledos Yitzchak and Vilna Gaon.’ Clearly, the editors of this volume felt compelled to cite Rashi (no other commentator was summoned) while also steering clear of the stark sexual content of his gloss.”

Thus, inadvertantly, the many supercommentaries on Rashi produced to this day continue the long line of tradition allowing discerning scholars to immediately pick up on the hidden (and not so hidden) agendas of their writers.




[1]Israel Shapira, “Parshanei Rashi Al haTorah,” Bitzִaron 2 (1940): 426–37; and Aron Freimann, “Manuscript Supercommentaries on Rashi’s Commentary on the Pentateuch,” in Rashi Anniversary Volume (New York: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1941), 73–114.

[2] Eric Lawee, “From Sepharad to Ashkenaz: A Case Study in the Rashi Spercommentary Tradition”, AJS Review 30:2 (2006) 393-425.

[3] b. Yevamot 63a.

[4] Rashi adds bahem, that Adam was not satisfied “by them”, and omits that he was satisfied by Eve (Sefaria). There are other versions of this Rashi (Ohalei Shem, Michael Peretz, Mexico 2012): 

[5] Exodus 22:19, Leviticus 18:23, Leviticus 20: 15-16, Deuteronomy 27:21.

[6] Lawee points out that the term Ashkenaz (referring to Northern France and Germany) was probably coined by Rashi in the first place.

[7] Genesis 2:15-23.

[8] Also known as Peter Afonso. See Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 210–17.

[9] R. Margoliyot, ed., Vikkuach Rabbenu Yehִiel miPariz (Lvov, n.d.), 26.

[10] Jacob Gellis, ed., Sefer Tosafot haShalem (Jerusalem: Ariel United Israel Institutes, 1982–), Bereshit-Noah 114 (no. 2).

[11] See Chizkiya ben Manoach and his commentary, known as Chizkuni which is based on Rashi and about twenty other commentaries. See also Lawee (2006: 397).

[12] According to Midrashic literature, Adam only experienced “twelve hours of the sixth day”, which included one hour in the Garden of Eden. See Anthony J. Saldarini, The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan (Abot de Rabbi Nathan) Version B: A Translation and Commentary (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1975), 37.

[13] Suleiman Sasson, ed., Sefer Moshav Zekenim Al haTorah, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem: Sifrei Rabanei Bavel, 1982), 2.

[14] New York, JTS MS Lutski 802 (film no. 24033, Institute for Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem), 4r.

[15] Moshe Philip, ed., Perush leFerush Rashi me-haRav haGadol Rabbi Shmuel Almosnino (Petah Tikvah, 1998), 23.

[16] Moses ibn Gabbai, Eved Shlomo, Oxford, Bodleian, MS Hunt. Don. 25 (film no. 16338, Institute for Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem, New York), 12v.

[17] Perushim leRashi (Constantinople, 1525?), 16v.

[18] Arama also authored Chazut Kasha (A Difficult Vision) which dealt with the interaction of philosophy and theology [see Kotzk Blog: Chazut Kasha]. Even though Arama also dealt with Kabbalah, (ascribing authorship of the Zohar to R. Shimon bar Yochai [see Kotzk Blog: 087) MYSTERIES BEHIND THE ORIGINS OF THE ZOHAR:] his primary concern was with its philosophy rather than its mysticism.

[19] H. J. Pollak, ed., Akedat Yitzִchִak, 6 vols. (1849; repr., Jerusalem: Books Export, 1960), 1:84r.

[20] Isaac Caro, Toldot Yitzchak (Jerusalem: H. Wagshal, 1994), 41.

[22] An early commentary on Genesis put out under the Mesorah Publications Artscroll label. Meir Zlotowitz, ed., Bereshis: Genesis/A New Translation with a Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic Sources, 2nd ed., 6 vols. (Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah, 1986), 1:109.

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