Sunday 12 May 2024

471) Tzafnat Paneach – a ‘counter Rashi’ commentary

Extract from a 1364 manuscript of Tzafnat Paneach by R. Eleazar Ashkenazi


This article based extensively on the research by Professor Eric Lawee[1] − is divided into three parts:

Part 1 is a brief presentation of how the early Rashi texts were surprisingly diverse, and only emerged in the ‘standard’ form as we know them today at around the sixteenth century.

Part 2 looks at the early rabbinic reception of the Rashi texts.

Part 3 discusses and examines extracts from a little-known fourteenth-century ‘counter commentary’ to Rashi’s commentary. This ‘counter commentary’ was authored by R. Eleazar Ashkenazi, a Maimonidean rationalist, and entitled Tzafnat Paneach (Revealer of Secrets). 

Part 1

Rashi’s ‘original’ text

Today, students of Rashi’s famous Commentary on the Torah might be surprised to discover that there was not always a single text of Rashi’s commentary. The ‘standard’ Rashi text that we use today is the product of the sixteenth century. Considering that Rashi lived during the eleventh century (1040-1105), this ‘standard’ text only emerged more than four centuries after his passing. Before the sixteenth century, there were many variations of Rashi’s commentary: 

“[I]t is nearly certain that no medieval Jewish work experienced as many textual fluctuations as Rashi’s… [and ironically t]he Commentary studied by Rashi’s most influential Sefardic reader, Nahmanides, was not, in all particulars, the one that became standard” (Lawee 2019).[2] 

There were even different versions of Rashi’s texts during his lifetime. After his passing, however, the numerous scribes who copied his texts were responsible for the huge textual discrepancies that were to become apparent. These were the result of: 

“interventions, conscious or otherwise, of those charged with transmitting the work” (Lawee: 2019). 

Ashkenazic and Sefaradic versions

There are Ashkenazic versions of Rashi’s commentary that differ from their Sefardic counterparts, with the Sefaradic versions omitting the many Midrashim. About 80 per cent of Rashi’s commentary comprises quotations from the Midrash. The Sefaradim took particular umbrage to Rashi’s emphasis on Midrash because: 

“[m]any comments in the Commentary, often of a midrashic nature, ran afoul of the longstanding Sefardic yen for biblical exegesis grounded in philology, grammar, and syntax” (Lawee 2019). 

The early Sefaradim were more concerned with the ‘academic’ and dialectic study of the Torah text than with a didactic or ‘preachy’ approach. 

The Ashkenazim exhibited a move away from Torah (as in Bible) study and an emphasis on Talmudic study. Thus, the study of Torah – i.e., the Pentateuch or Chumash − as an end in itself, began to pale in relation to Talmud study which assumed a more central role due to a: 

“generally increasing Ashkenazic ambivalence toward Bible study” (Lawee 2019). 

Part 2 

The Rabbinic Reception of Rashi’s Commentary

Added to these observations that are often overlooked by teachers and students of Rashi today, is the fact that when eventually the Rashi texts began to be presented more uniformly, there was not always a unanimous rabbinic reception of these Rashi texts. Sometimes there was disregard or ignorance of these texts and other times, there was outright opposition. 

R. Avraham Ibn Daud (c. 1110-1180)

R. Avraham Ibn Daud was regarded by Chasdai Crescas as a pre-Maimonidean rationalist philosopher.[3] He was also an early rabbinic historian. Living in Toledo, Spain, Ibn Daud wrote his Sefer haKabbalah (Book of Chronicles) in 1160 and it seems that he had never heard of Rashi because he makes no mention of him at all. He does, however, make mention of Rashi’s grandson, Rabbenun Tam. 

Maimonides (1135-1204)

In a similar vein to Ibn Daud, 

“Maimonides evinces no hard evidence of having heard of Rashi…” (Lawee 2019).  

Meir Halevi Abulafia (c.1165–1244)

Meir Halevi Abulafia was aware of Rashi’s commentaries but: 

“[n]ot always did Abulafia find them satisfying—or even intelligible… Abulafia found Rashi’s midrashic literalism impossible to ignore—nay, in the words of Septimus, ‘nothing short of scandalous’” (Lawee 2019). 

R. Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167)

Considering Rashi’s overt and ubiquitous references to Midrashim, R. Avraham Ibn Ezra very tellingly writes that: 

[a] biblical verse is never divested of its peshat [plain, non-Midrashic meaning].”  

He laments the fact that in “later generations” scholars had made Midrashic interpretation such an “essential and fundamental” element of Torah study.  In a direct reference to Rashi, Ibn Ezra notes that Rashi thought his commentary was indeed the peshat (the literal or plain meaning of the Torah text) while in reality, the number of peshat interpretations was: 

“less than one in a thousand, [yet] the sages of our generation celebrate these books” (Ibn Ezra, Safah Berura, ed Wilensky, 288). 

Although this number seems to be a bit of poetic exaggeration, Ibn Ezra could not understand how so many rabbis supported a work that digressed from the literal and actual meaning of the Torah verses and focussed so much on Midrashic exegeses. 

Nachmanides (Ramban) (1194-1270)

Nachmanides had a general criticism of Rashi in that he focussed on Midrash to the extent that he ignored the final Halachic conclusions. He points out that in one case (regarding the post-Noachide period, regarding consuming the limbs and blood of a living animal) Rashi was wrong Halachically and even Midrashically! Yet, ironically, Lawee explains that: 

“even such refutations enhanced Rashi’s status as the basic point of reference…[and] after him the work’s place in Sefardic awareness was assured” (Lawee 2019). 

This way, indirectly through a somewhat critical Nachmanides, Rashi’s commentaries were able to eventually pierce through the initial Sefaradic ambivalence toward Rashi. 

Rationalists and some mystics opposed the use Midrashim

All rationalists and even some mystics opposed the use Midrashim. It is easy to understand how rationalists like Maimonides opposed taking Midrashim literally. Mystics, on the other hand, usually did take Midrashim literally. But some mystics, like R. Shlomo ben Aderet (Rashba) excommunicated southern French biblical allegorists: 

“He deemed philosophical allegorical interpretations of classical texts a betrayal of their true meaning, [and] suggested they were more destructive to Judaism than Christian exegesis” (Lawee 2019). 

Part 3 

R. Eleazar Ashkenazi’s Tzafnat Paneach 

The ‘Dark Ages’

Reflecting a growing and systematic criticism of Rashi’s commentary around the mid-fourteenth century in the Eastern Mediterranean is the outspoken Maimonidean, R. Eleazar Ashkenazi ben Natan haBavli. His Torah commentary, Tzafnat Paneach (Revealer of Secrets) includes a scathing attack on Rashi and his methodology. Eleazar Ashkenazi praises the rationalist non-mystical Spanish scholars whose writings he hoped: 

“heralded the advent of Judaism rightly understood in a region that, as he describes it, otherwise would have remained mired in the Dark Ages” (Lawee 2019). 

Censorship by the scribe

Eleazar Ashkenazi wrote so powerfully that the scribe Efraim ben Shabbatai who copied the text of Tzafnat Paneach had to omit sections that he was “unable to abide.” One section, concerning the splitting of the Red Sea, was so rational that he expunged the author’s commentary, “so as not to be among those drowning in it.” 

Midrashic delusions’ of the ‘ignorant masses’

In a typical elitist Maimonidean style, Eleazar Ashkenazi expresses disdain for the ignorant masses who, he claims enjoy the “delusions that they harbor on midrash” (Lawee 2019). He knew he was going to upset many people with his rationalist commentaries but he did not care because, based on a teaching of Maimonides, it was better to appeal to one wise person than to please “ten thousand ignoramuses” (Ashkenazi, Tzafnat Paneach, Gen. 18:9). By “wise” he meant the: 

“inestimable primacy of those who are wise in the manner that philosophical rationalists understood this term” (Lawee 2019). 

Tensions between the text and reality

Eleazar Ashkenazi applied the simple and consistent principle that: 

“when literal interpretation contradicted a demonstrated truth, the latter must prevail” (Lawee 2019). 

This was to be the case even with regard to the Torah. Eleazar Ashkenazi adopted the Maimonidean methodology because of his unabashed commitment to what he considered the overriding principles of logic, reality and the truth. Thus: 

“[when literal readings contravene demonstrated truth] we take them out of their plain sense so as to make them comply with the truth, for our Torah is truth and does not contradict the truth” (Ashkenazi, Tzafnat Paneach, 18v). 

This, again, is something he had learned from Maimonides who wrote that: 

“multitude of Rabbanites [were] devoid of knowledge of the nature of being [and accepted the] impossibilities [that a literal understanding of rabbinic dicta often entailed]” (Maimonides, Guide I, Introduction). 

‘It is enough that we have to believe in the Torah’

A stark example of Eleazar Ashkenazi’s opposition to the common Midrashic and miraculous approach is the following: 

“Do not let your brain be stuffed with midrashim positing impossibilities (ha-derashot ha-nimna‘ot)…It is enough that we must believe what is stated explicitly in [the Torah of] the master of the prophets regarding the rod turning into a serpent and the serpent [back into] a rod….” (Ashkenazi, Tzafnat Paneach, Gen 14:1, 37r). 

Pragmatism vs romanticism

An example of the pragmatism of Eleazar Ashkenazi’s commentary around Gen. 12:1 − Lech lecha where G-d tells Avraham to leave his home and travel to the Holy Land. Rashi comments that the expression Lech lecha (lit. go for you), means for Avraham’s benefit because a great nation is about to descend from him.  Eleazar Ashkenazi insists that the reason was far more practical and much less lofty. Avraham had to flee “so [he] will not be killed” by the intolerant polytheists of his native land (Ashkenazi, Tzafnat Paneach, Gen 12:1, 35v). Lech Lecha was not a romantic ‘running to’ but a desperate ‘running from.’ 

Providence vs self-providence

The abovementioned non-romantic interpretation by Eleazar Ashkenazi would have also been Maimonidean-based, as “individual divine providence” would have been understood as a form of “self-providence:” 

“as God providing human beings with the powers to preserve themselves through prudent action” (Lawee 2019). 


The ‘Satan’ or the ‘tree’

Another example of Eleazar Ashkenazi’s pragmatism and the need to divest the Torah text of Midrashic interpretations can be found in his commentary on the Akeida (the sacrifice of Isaac). The Akeida text (Gen. 22:1) begins with the introductory phrase “Behold, after these things. Rashi is quick to bring in a Talmudic (San.89b) reference to a conversation between the Satan and G-d. Eleazar Ashkenazi sees the references to the Satan as being an unnecessary interpolation appealing to the mystically minded. Instead, he simply suggests that “after these things” referred to Avraham’s planting of a tamarisk tree, as narrated two verses earlier. 

Longevity in Genesis

Mitchell First also discusses Eleazar Ashkenazi and he writes (based on Tzafnat Paneach, 29-30) regarding the extraordinary longevity recorded in Genesis: 

“First R. Eleazar refers to the view that perhaps the individual numbers were not to be taken literally, and points to other statements in the Torah that were not meant to be taken literally, e.g., 1) the Land of Israel was ‘flowing with milk and honey,’ and 2) the cities in Canaan were ‘fortified up to the Heaven.’ 

But then R. Eleazar suggests the following creative approach. In listing these individual numbers, the Torah was merely recording the legends[4] about these figures, even though they were not accurate. The important thing was to provide data from which the total years from Creation to Matan Torah could be derived, so that the people would be able to know the length of time between these two periods. Even though the numbers for the individual lifespans were not accurate, the Torah made sure that the total that would be arrived at would be accurate. (In contrast, when it came to events from Avraham and forward, the Torah was careful to preserve a more accurate accounting.) 

The ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ animals of Noah’s Ark

Eleazar Ashkenazi introduces a fascinating non-Midrashic interpretation of the ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ animals that Noah was to take into the Ark (Gen. 7:2-3). Noah was told to take seven pairs of ‘pure animals’ and only two pairs of ‘impure animals.’ Rashi finds nothing unusual about this and immediately and anachronistically follows the Midrash and equates them with later ‘kosher’ and ‘non-kosher’ animals mentioned in Leviticus. This ‘proves’ that Noah studied Torah before it was given at Sinai. And the reason why there were to be more ‘kosher animals’ in the Ark was to allow for sacrifices to be brought after the flood (Gen 8:20–21).  

“Almost defiantly flaunting his departure from midrash, Eleazar claims that at this stage of history animals designated as ‘pure’ were those that provided ‘good nutriment’; that is, they rendered the blood of those who consumed them ‘healthy and pure'" (Lawee 2019). 

Continuing along such lines, Eleazar Ashkenazi suggests that pigs, camels, hares and other animals that were later to be declared as non-kosher, were the ‘pure’ animals that were rescued in seven pairs! This was to ensure a sufficient supply of life-giving food to sustain the crew on their voyage. The ‘impure animals’ were those like horses, dogs and wolves that, when eaten, were harmful to one’s health, and therefore less in number. Just a pair of these were required to maintain the endurance of the species. 

“Eleazar finds confirmation for this reading in the description of the latter as ‘not pure’ (lo ṭehorah; Gen 7:2) rather than ‘impure’ (ṭeme’ah). If the Torah had meant to refer to the ritual status of these animals, it would have called them ‘impure’…

In his exegesis, time is linear, and in his legal theory, promulgation matters—in contrast to the midrashic anachronisms peddled by Rashi that could only swell his readers’ credulity (Lawee 2019). 

Midrashim ‘cause the concealment of the Torah’s ‘true meaning 

Eleazar Ashkenazi summarised his rational Maimonidean and his anti-Rashi and anti-Midrashic views as follows: 

“What should I say? These derashot [Midrashim] are potent causes of the concealment of the Torah’s true meaning from our people. Even as they were said in a distinct manner, the multitude understand them in this [straightforward] manner; nay, they believe in them and find them congenial more than the Torah’s plain sense. Any discerning person ought to bewail the fact that they have drowned in a sea of derashot. Bottom line: I am that sort of person who refuses to pervert the meaning of our God’s Torah, nor will I shrink before the multitude’s revilement by withholding my opinion or kowtowing to another’s opinions” (Ashkenazi, Tzafnat Paneach, 67r).[5]


Further Reading


Kotzk Blog: 290) WAS RASHI A MYSTIC?


[1] Lawee, E, 2019, Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah: Canonization and Resistance in the Reception of a Jewish Classic, Oxford University Press.

[2] Square brackets are mine.

[3] Crescas, Or Hashem, ch. 1.

[4] Emphasis mine.

[5] Translations by Lawee.

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