Understanding Rashi


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Reader: I am an Orthodox Jew and I have a problem: if you can believe it, I don’t like Rashi! At all! I regret to say this. It would be so much easier if I could be in awe of his knowledge. But he causes me to distrust the whole concept of the Mesora, the transmitted traditions of the Rabbis. I feel he asks us to believe fantastic things in order to accommodate Midrashic interpretations or his world-view (i.e., the Patriarchs were perfect). How is it to be believed that Jacob didn’t lie to Yitzchak when the holy words of Torah say that he did just that, albeit for a good reason? How is it fathomable that Eisav could halachically slaughter meat with a bow and arrow? Is it possible to study in a 100% Orthodox way and not accentuate Rashi?

Thank you.



Mesora: Acceptance ofg Rashi, or any other Torah commentator’s words on philosophy, is not obligatory. We must only follow the Rabbis in areas of halacha, Jewish Law. The Torah teaches, “Al pi haTorah asher yorucha”, “In accordance with the Torah (commands) that they teach you.” Outside of Torah law, God has given the Rabbis no jurisdiction. You need not agree with them. The Torah is replete with arguments between this Rabbi against that Rabbi. Ramban did not take Maimonides’ words as absolute “truths”. Ramban used his own mind to determine what makes sense. In philosophy, we have no obligation to follow any given author. There is no “psak” (ruling) in philosophy, “Hashkafa”. We must use our minds, as did the Rabbis. Use your mind as you see makes sense.


However, let us not be so fast to dismiss Rashi, a brilliant thinker, without due study of his words. Perhaps what Rashi is saying is something deeper than the surface meaning. I recently read an Ibn Ezra, who made a statement which astonished me. The Ibn Ezra says on the command to Abraham to “be perfect” the following commentary, “You should not ask why perform circumcision.” On the surface, Ibn Ezra defies all that he stands for, i.e. a life of understanding. How then can he verbalize such a statement? I don’t believe Ibn Ezra is saying we should not use our minds. Rather, he is teaching us that Abraham should not make his performance of divine decrees dependent on his own intelligence. Ibn Ezra teaches that man can fall prey to an erroneous notion that “only when I know the reasons will I perform, but not before”. To this, Ibn Ezra teaches, “do not inquire, ‘why do the circumcision’.”  Do not let your inquiry determine your acts. “Be perfect with God and don’t render your intelligence superior to His” - this is what Ibn Ezra is teaching.

We must respect the level of brilliance and ingenuity displayed by the Sages’ in their commentaries, and not dismiss their words so quickly as nonsensical. If we can notice the obvious questions on their writings, certainly they have noticed them too! And yet they committed their words to ink. Mustn’t we then give them the benefit and assume the obvious questions, which we lodge, were considered by them as well? Of course. Then let’s do so with your Rashi, and see if we can unravel some rational, albeit concealed, idea intended by him.

In Genesis, 27:18, Isaac asks, “Who are you?” Jacob replies, “I am Esav your firstborn.” The Torah clearly states that Jacob lied to his father Isaac in order to acquire the blessing justly sold to him by his twin Esav. But Rashi then interprets Jacob’s words, “I am Esav your firstborn” to mean, “I am, (and) Esav is your firstborn.” Meaning, Rashi seems to be twisting Jacob’s words from one flowing, false statement, into two separate truths, that is, “I am” and “Esav is your firstborn.” But the Torah clearly states that Jacob lied! How can Rashi contradict the plain meaning of the Torah’s words? Additional proof that Jacob knew he was lying was his response to his mother, “I might get caught.” He didn’t say, “it is wrong to lie.” Jacob clearly knew he was about to lie.

I would like to pose a possible answer: Perhaps Rashi was teaching that although Jacob lied, he still did not look at the situation of lying, as a free-for-all permission to lie brazenly, and without control. Perhaps Jacob, although lying, did so only with words that were necessary to fulfill his mother’s command. So Jacob chose words, which veered less from the truth. Jacob valued over all else, the search for truth, and living by truth. So even when it came to a necessary lie, he did so with the most minimalist expression of a lie. He did not allow his emotion’s any outlet, even in a situation where a lie was demanded.

Study of God’s universe requires a complete allegiance to truth. This being Jacob’s commitment, he wished to keep himself allegiant to truth at all costs, and was extremely careful not to allow a necessary lie to have any effect on his goal. Had Jacob not been careful while lying, he feared that the attraction to lying might remain, however little, and he would suffer by losing further knowledge, if this tendency to lie might reappear later in his life. Jacob wished to curb a lie to the point that it would be ruled by his intelligence, thereby preventing his act of lying from encouraging his emotions towards that direction in general.

Rashi teaches us through an apparent contradiction, and perhaps purposefully that startling, what high level of sensitivity to truth our Patriarch Jacob displayed in even permitted actions.

We learn that we must not react with knee-jerk rejections of our Rabbis’ statements. Certainly, those Rabbis who other greats took time to respond to, be it negative or positive responses. Ramban. Maimonides, Rashi and all the Sages did not take up every argument posed by simpletons, but only of those intellects deserving response. If those greater than us respected Rashi’s words, enough to comment, we most certainly regard him in at least an equal light.