Rashbam: An Introduction

Last year I decided my superficial relationship with the great medieval Torah commentators, the parshanim, needed deepening. Being an introvert, the Mikra’ot Gedolot, with its bustle of opinions from half a dozen thinkers, did not satisfy.

mikra'ot gedolot
Mikra’ot Gedolot, the “Commentators’ Bible”, has the Torah text set in large print, with various blocks of text from different rabbis over centuries of study.

I wanted to have one-on-one conversations, to get to know each player separately before mingling at the parashah party of the week. So I decided to adopt one commentator a year to be my mentor in Torah learning, to learn his quirks and questions, to peek at the world from his perspective, and to sharpen my awareness of the biblical text itself.

For 5778 (2017-18), I began to learn with Rashi (acronym for Rabbi Solomon, son of Isaac). Rashi lived from about 1040-1105 CE, studied in large yeshivot in Germany, and lived most of his life in northern France.

Rashi pouring over his manuscripts.

Rashi is the beginning of the tradition of Torah commentary as commentary. Prior to him, most interpretation of Torah fell within the realm of midrash. This complicated genre includes a wide range of approaches to biblical text, but often midrash focuses on individual verses or paragraphs without worrying about a systemic consistency. Midrash is a repository of perceptive and imaginative readings, collections both concerned with what the text means but never constrained by what seems obvious based on context. Any plain sense reading may also be accompanied by wild flights of theological fancy.

Before Rashi, we had collections of midrashim on almost every passage in the Torah, but not a single, unified commentary with the intention to clarify what the Torah means for the average reader.

Rashi serves as the bridge between the era of midrash and the era of commentary. About 70% of his comments are quotes both direct and reworked from the midrashic sources. He streamlined, picked and chose, added to and deleted from these sources, creating a beautifully concise yet evocative companion to the Torah, for those who sought the wisdom of the Jewish tradition on Judaism’s most sacred scripture.

Every commentator in the millennium since Rashi has in some way responded to this giant of the field. But perhaps none has had such an interesting relationship with him as his own grandson, the Rashbam (1085-1158). The Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel son of Meir) deeply respected the midrashic genre, yet understood Torah commentary as something that should be devoted simply and strictly to a plain-sense reading. He both shares his delight at studying with his grandfather and reacts intensely against Rashi’s tendency to include midrash in his commentary.

The Rashbam’s mother Yocheved was Rashi’s eldest daughter.

The Rashbam frequently mentions his grandfather, as in this comment on Genesis 37:2 (translation adapted from Ivan G. Marcus, “Rashi’s Pentateuch Commentary as Rewritten Midrash,” in Midrash Unbound (2013), 236).

And also Rabbeinu Shlomo, my mother’s father, enlightener of the eyes of the exile, who interpreted the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, applied himself to interpret the meaning of the text in Scripture (peshuto shel mikra). And, even I, Shmuel, son of Rabbi Meir, his son-in-law, may the memory of the righteous be blessed, argued with him, and he conceded to me that had he enough time he should produce other comments in accordance with the literal meanings that are being rediscovered every day (lefi hapeshatot hamitchadeshim bekhol yom).

Eran Viezel has an article that examines the Rashbam’s relationship with his grandfather in terms of literary critic Howard Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence. “A later writer…was recognized by his aggressive and competitive attitude toward an earlier writer…or literary work. The later writer is like a son who challenges his father (or fathers) yet at the same time, against his will, remains in the artistic domain of his father. In reaction to this unbearable state of affairs, the later writer is forced to ‘misread’ the works of the father. The ‘strong father,’ from the strength of his position and the fact that he exists earlier in time, restrains, paralyzes, and stifles new voices. The son tries to appropriate the work of the father and to rewrite it, and at the same time to pretend that he is not under his constant influence…The creation of the son, as it were, contains a process that revises the creation of the father, who had acted properly until a certain point, the point from which the son took over.”

In other words, Rashi’s pioneering efforts in Torah commentary for its own sake established him as the ultimate “strong father.” The Rashbam tries to complete the plain-sense approach with integrity, and occasionally attacks Rashi for having swerved from the plain-sense (peshat) into the more imaginative (derash).

In this coming year, I am continuing my study and teaching of midrash, and excited to begin learning with the Rashbam. How will these two very different ways of reading Torah balance within me? Sometimes I find it better to cultivate two extremes rather than seek a rare middle path. I hope you’ll join me in exploring the Rashbam’s unique and brilliant approach to studying the Torah on its own terms.