Friday, October 16, 2009

Was Rashi's father an Am HaAretz?

The very first Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yizchaki, on Chumash cites a Rabbi Yitzchak:

א בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ.1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

In the beginning: Said Rabbi Isaac: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Exod. 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded, (for the main purpose of the Torah is its commandments, and although several commandments are found in Genesis, e.g., circumcision and the prohibition of eating the thigh sinew, they could have been included together with the other commandments). Now for what reason did He commence with “In the beginning?” Because of [the verse] “The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Ps. 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they will reply, "The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.
בראשית: אמר רבי יצחק לא היה צריך להתחיל [את] התורה אלא (שמות יב ב) מהחודש הזה לכם, שהיא מצוה ראשונה שנצטוו [בה] ישראל, ומה טעם פתח בבראשית, משום (תהלים קיא ו) כח מעשיו הגיד לעמו לתת להם נחלת גוים, שאם יאמרו אומות העולם לישראל לסטים אתם, שכבשתם ארצות שבעה גוים, הם אומרים להם כל הארץ של הקב"ה היא, הוא בראה ונתנה לאשר ישר בעיניו, ברצונו נתנה להם וברצונו נטלה מהם ונתנה לנו:

The Taz, in Divrei David, his supercommentary on Rashi, writes that
"In my youth, I saw a rather old written supercommentary on Rashi in which was written that this statement in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak is not mentioned in any midrash or Talmud. Rather, that which he wrote, ומה טעם פתח בבראשית, etc., {in the aforementioned Rashi} is a midrash, but not the words of Rabbi Yitzchak. For this Rabbi Yitzchak was the father of Rashi, and he was no great lamdan. And Rashi wished to honor his father and to mention him in the beginning of his work. And so he said to him, "ask me any question and I will write it in your name." And so he asked him plainly, "why does the Torah begin with Berayshis, etc.?" And that is why it is not difficult why it asks it twice (lo haya tzarich and umah taam}, for the first question is only for the honor of his father. So I saw there.

But that which he {=that supercommentary} wrote that Rabbi Yitzchak, the father of Rashi, was not a great lamdan, this is not so. For in the last perek of Avodah Zarah (daf 75), Rashi brings down an explanation to the gemara, and these are his words: The language of my father, my teacher, menuchato kavod {like za"l}, and it appears correct in my eyes, etc."
See that Rashi here.

Rabbi Yitzchak is cited as saying this question (or perhaps statement) in Yalkut Shimoni on Bo. Of course, Yalkut Shimoni is after Rashi.

Berliner, in his Likutim at the end, does a bang-up job in demonstrating that this is indeed entirely a citation from midrash Tanchuma, from a Rabbi Yitzchak who can be counted among Chazal.

And so not only is there no evidence that Rashi's father was an am haaretz, and indeed, counter-evidence, it also seems fairly clear that this beginning question was not from Rashi's father.

What could motivate such a suggestion? I would suggest that one possible motivation (among many) was a feeling that this "question" was not really very good, or scholarly. Is it really that troublesome that the Torah begins with the creation of the world? What was bothering Rashi? And would Rashi really ask such a silly question at the beginning of his perush? Only an ignoramus would do this! The solution is that indeed an ignoramus asked the question, and Rashi was only bringing this silly question down in the beginning to honor his father. Thus, we should respect Rashi more, rather than less. He is a talmid chacham and a mensch!

So while the theory about Rashi's father has been debunked, and while the question why the Torah starts with Genesis has been answered, a much better question comes to the fore: Why did Rashi choose to start his commentary on Chumash with this midrash from Rabbi Yitzchak?

And I would answer that while many other medieval commentators have an introduction, Rashi does not. And so his first comment serves as a sort of introduction to the entire sefer. Rashi is not bothered by Rabbi Yitzchak's question. Rather, he has his own motivations in citing this particular midrash in this particular place. That purpose is to explain the structure and order of Chumash, and to lay out the purpose of telling us all these narratives.

I would put it as follows, though admittedly with my own spin: What is the purpose of starting with the Creation of the world? If the Torah is meant to be about the relationship of Hashem with His nation, then start with the beginning of Jewish history, when the Israelites came out of Egypt as a people, and received their first commandment. The answer is that Hashem is also creator and master of the entire world. The relationship with the nation Israel is a smaller, and special, part of it. And so we first establish Hashem as Creator, interacting with and directing the world, and only later show how he chose Israel from among all those nations. The land is part of that special relationship.


J. C. Salomon said...

One of my rebbei’im pointed out that the first tosafos in many masechtos also deal with non-“lomdish” issues.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

I think it's actually a very good question. It's called "Torah," most importantly it is *seen* as Torah, and it's called the Law by the other guys, etc. The point being that it really should properly bother someone why the book of hora'ah really wastes so much space before it gets around to the laws. Of course, one might answer that the characterization and assumption of "the Torah" as a book of laws is begging the question. But with the assumption that "the Torah" is "the Torah," it's a very, very good question.

I'm glad that you posted about this, because I was discussing the issue of Rashi's father with my better half last night. Although the Taz is of course correct in citing a proof text, I would argue that in all probability the more likely scenario is that Rashi's father was a talmid chochom. I would imagine that talmide chachomim who were the sons of amei ha'aretz were exceedingly rare in the extreme in those times and places.


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