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Woodcut of Rashi
The historical context of Rashi (1040-1105) is that of medieval Ashkenaz in France (born in Troyes, learned in Mayence and Worms) during the first Crusade (1096) and the capture in 1099 of Jerusalem. Echoing the verse "the sun rises and the sun sets (Koheleth 1:5" Rashi was born in 1040 the year of the passing of Rabbenu Gershom. Although Rashi represented Ashkanaz Jewry Rashi was contempories with 3 great Sephardic philosophers, Rabbi Solomon ibn Gabirol, Rav Yehudah HaLevy, and the polymath Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra. One of Rashi's daughters, married Rabbi Meir of Ramerupt and Rabbenu Tam was the youngest of their three sons; the other two were Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) and Rabbi Isaac ben Meir (Ribam). Rashi's grandson, Rabbenu Tam, one of the Tosofot, was in fact stabbed by a Crusader. Rabbenu Tam had close, often strained relations with the non-Jewish noblemen of his day. During the Second Crusade the mob invaded his home, stabbed him in the head, and would have killed him if not for the intervention of a Christian nobleman who promised the attackers that he would arrange for the Rabbi to be converted to Christianity, a promise he had, of course, no intention of keeping. Rabbenu Tam's experiences are reflected in his opinions, found in the Tosafot, on the correct attitude Jews ought to adopt with regard to Christianity and Christians. Rabbenu Tam tried to promote better relations with non-Jews, demonstrating, for instance, that some of the Talmudic regulations against social interaction with pagans in the Talmudic period did not apply to Christians in the present generations. In a later generation, the Tosofot Yom Tov (Rabbi Lipman Heller) also lost a son to murder by the Cossacks in the Tach Ve-Tat massacres along the Dineper River in 1648, about which he wrote a poetic lament.
Harvey Sicherman and Gilad J. Gevaryahu have authored an essay titled "Rashi and the First Crusade: Commentary, Liturgy, Legend" (see Judaism Spring 1999) and many historians have illuminated this historical background that surround Rashi. Nahum Sarna shows the many hats that Rashi wore for earning his living by producing and selling wine (see Sarna, Nahum M. Studies in Biblical Interpretation, "Rashi the Commentator [p.127-139], Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2000) as well as a host of other activities. Rashi's language as noted in Yitshak Avinery's Dictionary of Rashi's Commentaries to the Bible and Talmud (Tel Aviv, 1949; expanded in Hekhal Rashi (Jerusalem, 1985) addresses Rashi's employment of Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic and even incorporation of old French. For example Rashi notes the word cholent literally may derive from "hot" "slowly (lentement) [cooked stew]. Another old French word is illustrated in commenting upon the ephod, in Ex. 28:4 when Rashi notes, "it is like a kind of apron which is called poinceint. Rashi further gives the old French word for glove i.e. gant. David Blondheim of Columbia University analyzed further the old French lexicon of Rashi. Leopold Zunz compiled a register of items of every day life Rashi dealth with including methods of wine making, animal husbandry, agriculture, manufacture of cloth, treatment of leather, differing monetary currencies, banking practices, metal smoldering, engraving, procedures at fairs, shipbuilding, seafaring, and sundry know-how. It is not accidental that Rashi's commentary on the Babylonian talmud breaks off in Makkot 19b on the world tahor. His grandson added the note, "Our master, pure of body- his sould departed in purity" as Rashi had noted in his commentary on Tehillim 49:11 "that with respect to the wise, only their bodies expire in olam ha-zeh, but their spirit lives in cognition." With students of the Torah today still learning Rashi's commentaries we can say that Rashi's soul and spirit has not died but perpetuated in eternal memory.
For a millennium, every Cheder child was introduced to the humash and Talmud with the commentaries of Rashi so that no other commentary attained comparable recognition, acceptance, and sustained popularity shapig the education, character, and behavior of every generation of Jews since its first appearance. Rashi in Bereshit emphasizes over 40 times the importance of first understanding the peshat (sensus literalis; what Rashi calls peshuto shel miqra) of the text. Howeve Rashi also often gives derash. Rashi's authority often eclipsed that of many other mephorshim. This in part has something also to do with the fact that when Bomberg and Soncino presses printed the humash and the Talmud they did so with Rashi's commentary, so that the layout of the Talmud page post-Renaissance was destined by the choice to place Rashi's Talmud commentary on the inside of the margins and the Tosofists (the generation of Rashi's grandchildren) on the outside of the margin of the Shas. The first dated Hebrew book comes from Reggio di Calabria in Italy in 1475, and it is Rashi's commentary on the Torah. Many nice studies of Rashi's life exist, popular and scholarly from the diverse set of scholars including Elie Wiesel, Avraham Grossman, Yakov Even Chen, David Castle, Ezra Shereshevsky, Yakov Dovid Shulman, Eliezer Meir Lipschütz, Rabbi Shelomoh Zalman Zonenfeld, Yitshak Spivak, Ephraim Taubenhaus, Maurice Liber, and many other scholars. Herman Hailperin's book Rashi and the Chrisitan Scholars illuminates Rashi influence on Christian Hebraicists (dicit Rabbi Solomon).
Rashi lived to see troubled times. It was the time of the Crusaders, when thousands of Jews were massacred by wild and mad mobs that participated in the Crusades, and wiped out whole communities on their way. Rashi's heart was broken and full of sorrow about the plight of his unfortunate brethren, and he wrote Piyutim, some of which have become part of our prayers (especially in the 'Selichoth').
Introduction by David B Levy from long draft introduction to Rabbi Moshe Pinchas Weisblum's _The Hermeneutics of Medieval Jewish Thought: The Linguistic Codes of Rashi and Ramban