Sunday 20 November 2022

406) Rashbam as Rashi’s exegetical ‘enfant terrible’?[1]



This article, based extensively on the research by Professors Jason Kalman,[2] and Hanna Liss, deals with the commentaries of R. Shmuel ben Meir known as Rashbam (1085-1158),  Rashi’s grandson. Some of Rashbam’s commentaries on the Torah were, and to this day are still considered contentious. In a recent paper, for example, Professor Hershey Friedman writes:

“Regrettably, publishers today want to censor opinions that do not fit the mainstream way of thinking. [Ben Zion] Katz (2020, para. 1) asserts: 'Orthodox theology today is much narrower than what was acceptable in the Middle Ages.' He mentions that ArtScroll Publishing is editing and removing comments made by Rashbam that the editors believe are too radical from the new  Mikraot Gedolot.”[3]

The Iyov (Job) commentary

In 2000, Sara Japhet published a commentary on the Book of Job which she believed was composed by Rashbam. The publication was based on just one extant manuscript. Rashbam is known to have been the master of pshat, or interpretations based on the simple meaning of the verses of the Torah. His grandfather, Rashi, however, claimed to be the master of pshat although probably two-thirds of his commentary is not pshat but Midrash. Rashbam is known to have crossed swords with his grandfather on several matters and perhaps for that reason many of his commentaries have vanished:

“Although he likely composed commentaries on most biblical books, it seems, as noted by Yaakov Thompson, ‘that very early after their composition they began to disappear’ (Thompson 1989:7). As a result, Rashbam’s works of biblical exegesis have survived in very few medieval copies” (Kalman 2008:1).

Some scholars have challenged Japhet’s attribution of this commentary on Job to Rashbam and Kalman points out that at the time of his writing, the attribution to Rashbam remains “inconclusive.” 

The Kohellet (Ecclesiastes) commentary

Another commentary attributed to Rashbam is the Ecclesiastes commentary first published in  1855 by Jellinek. This attribution to Rashbam was also challenged. 

The Bereishit (Genesis) commentary and the focus on pshat

In an 1881 edition of Rashbam’s Pentateuch commentaries, produced by David Rosin based on incomplete extant manuscripts, there is a fascinating passage where Rashbam refers to his grandfather, Rabbi Solomon (Rashi) as follows:

וגם רבינו שלמה אבי אמי מאיר עיני גולה שפירש תורה נביאים וכתובים, נתן לב לפרש פשוטו של מקרא. ואף אני שמואל ב"ר מאיר חתנו זצ"ל נתווכחתי עמו ולפניו והודה לי שאילו היה לו פנאי, היה צריך לעשות פירושים אחרים לפי הפשטות המתחדשים בכל יום. ועתה יראו המשכילים מה שפירשו הראשונים.

“Also Rabbi Shlomoh, my mother’s father of blessed memory (Rashi) the brilliant exegete, who wrote commentaries on the entire Bible, was careful not to ignore the plain meaning of the text. I, Shmuel, son of Rabbi Meir, Rashi’s son-in-law, have argued with him, and he admitted to me that if he had the opportunity, he would compose an additional commentary in which he would concentrate on the plain meaning as it became clearer to him with each passing day.”[4] 

Here, in Rashbam’s own words, we have some indication of the friction between grandfather and grandson and the issue seems to encompass the matter of pshat.

I did notice the editor's comment in the Eliyahu Munk English translation, who added his explanation of this awkward passage:

"[I believe that the wording here means that Rashi meant that just as his published commentaries consisted mostly of anthologies, i.e. his quoting existing interpretations, so he would search out more commentaries based on the plain meaning to present to the reader when publishing another commentary. Ed.]"

Quite enlightening, though, is Rashbam's reference to the Talmud  where :

"This principle has been illustrated in Shabbat 63; we read there in the name of Rav Kahane 'I was already eighteen years old and had studied the entire Talmud, but had not ever been taught of the principle that אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו, that the text in the written Torah must not be interpreted in a manner which completely nullifies its plain meaning.'”

Nevertheless, it is from texts like this that we know were written by Rashbam that we can ascertain his style and then compare that to the other commentaries over which there is some contention as to the authorship. What emerges, ironically, is that possibly an indication of Rashbam’s authorship are the very sections that disagree with Rashi. Kalman cites Martin Lockshin (1989:18-19):

“It is my contention that opposing Rashi’s commentary is Rashbam’s primary goal in his own commentary. Notwithstanding Rashbam’s occasional positive comment about Rashi . . . , the evidence will show that the vast preponderance of Rashbam’s interpretations are directed against Rashi.”

Attribution of Rashi texts

The attribution of these Rashbam texts is very complicated and there remains much divided opinion. But, by extension, so is there much debate over the authorship of other texts we often take for granted, including Rashi texts. It becomes very significant to ascertain when the text in question was written, in relation to the date of the passing of the author. If the text is an ‘autograph’, which means it was written by the author himself, there is no issue. The problem arises when the only extant manuscript was not written by the author but was a later copy.

With the ‘Rashbam’ text containing the commentary on Job, Japhet turned to Malachi Beit Arie who identified the manuscript as dating from twelfth-century France (Japhet 1997:166).  Rashbam passed away in 1158/60 which means that this manuscript was produced around his time.

Kalman (2008:8) points out that:

“This stands in stark contrast to most of the commentaries preserved from that period…In the case of Rashi, who died in 1105, the oldest manuscript dates from 1232, more than a hundred years after his death…Touitou (1987) has argued that, because of scribal error and additions to the manuscripts of Rashi’s Torah commentary, it is difficult to speak of it as Rashi’s. Identifying reliably which comments actually go back to Rashi is particularly difficult.”

And Kalman explains that notwithstanding the debate over the authorship of the Rashbam texts, the issues which plague the Rashi texts are not as acute with the writings of his grandson. Still, there is divided opinion over whether the Job commentary is by Rashbam or perhaps more accurately, whether the Job text is entirely by Rashbam. This is because there does appear to be some consensus that at least parts of the text are by Rashbam and that the work may be a compilation of more than one author.

Kalman draws attention to the important fact that authorship of medieval texts in general, should not be taken for granted. His conclusion is rather poignant:

“Until there are reliable editions of texts all conclusions are tentative. In the case of Rashbam, rarely is more than one known manuscript of each of his works preserved, and many questions about his style and preferences will remain open to interpretation. For now, the greatest difficulty for scholars of parshanut may be the fact that when they open the title page of commentary, what they see may not be what they get” (Kalman 2008:15).

Rashbam writing for Maskilim

Hanna Liss points to an interesting notion of Rashbam focusing on a specific audience:

“Rashbam’s…commentaries seem to withdraw the text from any rabbinic context and argument. Without any further clarification, Rashbam refers to his audience as ‘the maskilim,’ a group of people hard to envision. The term maskilim is commonly translated as ‘(enlightened) rationalists,’ but this does not help clarify their sociological or ideological makeup” (Liss 2011:20).

There are references to maskilim scattered throughout the commentary. If we go back to the Genesis (37:21) texts, we read:

ועתה יראו המשכילים מה שפירשו הראשונים

"And now let the maskilim see what the earlier rabbis commented..."

Again, the editor of the English translation renders this as:

"I am now presenting to the reader what earlier exegetes had to say on our verse."

There is no reference to the word maskilim, only to the more benign "readers."

The term maskil would be difficult to define in the context of Rashbam but it does seem that he was alluding to some dissatisfaction with the approach of the mainstream of his day. Could this be connected to his opposition to the adoption of Midrash as a primary means of Torah interpretation? Liss cites Sarah Kamin that:

“Nowhere in his writings does he refer to or even hint at his having been motivated by anything other than the difficulties inherent in the texts themselves.”[5]

An example of this can be seen in Rashbam’s commentary on Exod. 4:10, which speaks of Moshe being “slow of speech, and slow of tongue.” A Midrashic account has it that Moshe placed burning coals in his mouth as a child and, as a result, was plagued by a stutter for the rest of his life. Rashbam takes a different approach: 

וכי איפשר נביא אשר ידעו השם פנים אל פנים וקיבל תורה מידו לידו היה מגמגם בלשונו, ואין דבר זה בדברי התנאים והאמוראים. ואין לחוש לספרים החיצונים 

“Is it possible that a prophet who knew G-d face to face and received the Torah from His hand to his hand would have stuttered? This solution was not offered by any of the Mishnaic or Amoraic [Gemara] sources. We do not have to listen to these foreign [Midrashic] books.”

Instead, Rashbam offers a simple suggestion without having to resort to Midrash. It was long since Moshe had left Egypt and he was no longer adept in the Egyptian language and for that reason alone he was reluctant to speak to Pharoah.

Also Rashbam, unlike other exegetes, was less concerned with teaching and extracting lessons from the Torah and more concerned with an intellectual understanding of the text itself:

"The essential meaning according to the peshat, follows from the depiction of the literary features that do not submit to any theological or midrashic preconception: 'Rashbam ... does not attempt to ‘teach’ Judaism” (Liss 2011:185).

However, in Rashbam’s closing section of Exodus (40:35), he makes an unusual comment, almost an apology, no longer in keeping with the tenor of many of his previous statements:

“Whoever wants to heed the word of our creator, should not move from the comments of my grandfather, R. Solomon, and should not deviate from them, for most of the halakhic and midrashic interpretations in them are close to the plain meaning of Scripture, and all can be derived from [the superfluities in language or from changes] in its wording. It is best that you grasp the one – i.e., [the things in the way that] I have explained – without letting go of the other.”

And is a similar statement (Leviticus 1:1) he writes:

“There are many laws in it [i.e., in this book]. Wise men [chachamim] should examine the explanations of my grandfather [Rashi], since I [myself] will elaborate only on [those] sections, where [it is necessary] to explain the peshat’ot [‘plain meaning’] of the verses.”

Is Rashbam distinguishing between two different Torah audiences the ‘maskilim’ (intellectuals) that he referred to earlier, and now to the ‘chachamin’ (wise men)? Who are these audiences?

If Rashbam is suggesting a two-pronged approach, what does one do with this comment on Deuteronomy (20:19) which tells about besieging a city and “you shall not destroy the trees … Is the tree in the fields human, that you should besiege it, too?”:

הלא תראה מה פירש זקיני זצ"ל כי האדם עץ השדה לבא מפניך במצור שמא תאמר עץ השדה אדם הוא לבא מפניך במצור לעמוד כנגדך הלא זה הדבר הבל וכי מי הוא הדיוט וכסיל שסבור שהעץ יש בו כח כאדם ולמה הוצרך משה רבינו לומ' דבר שאינו ראוי להשמע ואני פירשתיו יפה לפי הפסוקים ולפי דרך ארץ

“Look at what my grandfather – ‘May the memory of the righteous be a blessing!’ – explained concerning the verse ‘Is the tree in the fields human, that you should besiege it, too?’: ‘You might perhaps say that the tree of the field is a human being who should withdraw before you to go unto the siege and to stand up against you.’ This is foolishness. For who would [ever] be such a simpleton and a fool to think that a tree has the same strength as a human being? Why would it have been necessary for our teacher Moses to tell us such a [stupid] thing that is not worthy of being heard at all? I, however, explained that verse well in line with the [logic of] the verses [i.e., according to its literary context] and consistent with the way of the world” (MS Bodleiana Opp. 34, fol. 116).

If Rashbam is being respectful to his grandfather in the earlier commentary, then what is happening here? If Rashbam is suggesting a two-pronged approach to Judaism, a choice of being a chacham or a maskil, this last commentary shows where his biases lie. Could Rashbam perhaps be referring in broad terms to the differences between a mystical and rationalist approach to Judaism?


Further reading



[1] This expression is borrowed from Hanna Liss (2011:2) who describes Rashbam as one “who repeatedly conducted himself disrespectfully in particular towards his grandfather Rashi.” [An "enfant terrible" is defined as a young and successful person who is sometimes shocking and does things in a way that is very different from normal.] Liss, H., 2011, Creating Fictional Worlds: Peshat Exegesis and Narrativity in Rashbam’s Commentary on the Torah (Studies in Jewish History and Culture 25), Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2011.

[2] Kalman, J., 2008, ‘When What You See Is Not What You Get: Rashbam's Commentary on Job and the Methodological Challenges of Studying Northern French Jewish Biblical Exegesis’, Religion Compass, Wiley Online Library.

[3] Friedman. H., ‘Provocative and Sometimes Unexpected Views in Jewish Biblical Commentary’, uploaded to

[4] Genesis 37:2 

[5] Sarah Kamin, S., 1986, ‘Rashbam’s Conception of the Creation in Light of the Intellectual Currents of His Time’, in Studies in Bible (in Hebrew), ed. Sara Japhet, Scripta Hierolymitana, vol. 31, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 91-132, 119.

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