What’s Bothering Rashi?


Rashi’s commentary sparkles with brevity, clarity and fine tuned precision. Not only what he says, but how he says it, conveys a maximum of meaning in a minimum of words. I would point to the following three characteristics of Rashi's commentary style which we must constantly bear in mind if we are to attempt to understand what he says. His commentary is:

1. Based almost exclusively on the Torah-text. Although this is not always obvious, it is nearly always true. This requires the student to closely search the words of the Torah to uncover what Rashi is relating to. Rashi never "just" comments. Something about the words of the Torah impels him to comment.

2. A simple, straightforward approach without convoluted reasoning. The comment is rarely complex, though the student may have to engage in complex thinking in order to arrive at Rashi's straightforward meaning. It is profoundly simple and simply profound. We must divest our thinking of gratuitous complexity and train our minds to think simply and clearly in order to plumb his meaning. Once we do, seemingly mind-stumping questions evaporate effortlessly.

3. Brief and precise in its choice of words. The student's respect for Rashi begins only when he internalizes this point. We can only arrive at the full meaning of his comments if we take his every word and its particular grammatical construction with the utmost seriousness. Confusion and misunderstanding arise when we casually gloss over his choice of words and the particular way he puts them together.

While much can be said about how Rashi approaches the task of commentary, I will limit myself to one basic point here. (More can be found in “What’s Bothering Rashi?” Feldheim Pub.)

First and foremost, Rashi's commentary is built on a "question and answer" principle. His commentary is meant to answer questions that arise from the text. While this may be true for all commentary, Rashi‘s presents us with a particular problem. He never - or hardly ever - tells us what his question is! To paraphrase a literary critic from another context we would say: "Every Rashi comment is an answer to a question. What is his question? That is the question!"

Discovering the implicit question behind Rashi's comment is what the study of Rashi is all about. Finding out "What is bothering Rashi" is the stuff of Rashi-interpretation.

In the Rashi analyses that follow each week on this site, the student should first learn to question Rashi. By that I mean that, after you read the comment, ask yourself questions about it. Why does Rashi use drash when p’shat could explain matters simply enough? Why does he need to comment at all? Why does he offer two comments when one would do, etc? After you have questioned him, so to speak, you are to see if his comment deals with your question. A common question is: What’s Bothering Rashi? Then you should try to see how the Rashi comment deals with “What was bothering him.”

Occasionally we will add a Deeper Look to delve deeper into the meaning of this comment; occasionally we will add a Closer Look to look more closely at Rashi’s precise wording.

Good luck in the exciting and challenging study of Rashi on Chumash.

Dr. Bonchek can be contacted at msbonch@mscc.huji.ac.il.