selection from Rashi (author).
CHAPTER FIVE: YESHIVA STUDENT
Rabbi Shlomo--or, as he came to be known, Rashi--snapped his head up at the merchant's exclamation. He saw nothing unusual before him: in the distance, a collection of houses--a town. Sooty clouds hung low over slate, red roofs. Farmers were also using the rutted road, and the merchant pulled his carriage to the side to make way for a wagon filled with sweet-smelling hay.
Rashi's heart pounded. He was coming at last to the center of the Torah tradition, in the great communities of Lorraine. These communities had directly inherited the teachings of Rabeinu Gershom and his contemporaries. Now he would learn under talmidei chachamim who had sat before Rabeinu Gershom.
The merchant continued to talk, but Rashi barely heard him. They entered the town and the blond horse, its head bowed low, plodded down a narrow street between two-story buildings.
Rashi leaped off the carriage, his bag in his hand. "Which way is the yeshiva?"
"But--we'll go to the inn first, you'll get something to eat"--the merchant protested.
"I can do that later," Rashi replied.
The merchant grinned. "Now I know that you're a real student!" He pointed out the directions to the yeshiva. The wagon slowly rolled on and left Rashi alone.
Rashi walked down a narrow road in the direction that the merchant had pointed out. Soon, soon, he would be coming to the yeshiva that--together with the yeshiva in Mainz--comprised the most important Torah center in all of Germany and France.
Geese squawked about his feet. A farmer wearing the yellow Jewish cap was walking in Rashi's direction.
"Excuse me, is this the way to the yeshiva?"
The farmer turned and pointed behind him. "Straight ahead. New student?"
"Best of luck, young man!"
The man waved his stick, and the fat geese beat their wings and ran ahead on their little legs.
Rashi walked ahead. Outside a beis medrash, two students were standing, discussing a passage in the Talmud.
"Excuse me, is this the yeshiva...?"
The students glanced at him, at his dusty clothing and the package he was carrying.
"A new student?"
"Yes. My name is Shlomo...."
"Welcome! My name is Eliyahu."
"And Yosef," the other student said. They seemed older than him, but not by many years.
They shook hands with Rashi.
"Go inside," Shlomo said. "We'll be davenning minchah in a few minutes."
The two students returned to their discussion.
Rashi took a deep breath and stepped into the yeshiva.
It was exactly what he had dreamed of! Tens of students were engaged in spirited discussions. The sweet words of Torah coursed through Rashi's veins, reviving him after his bone-rattling journey. The yeshiva was a handsome, spare building, with large, airy windows. Chandeliers hung down on long cables from the high ceiling, blackened from the usage of years of candle-burning.
At the front of the beis medrash, a man with white hair was slowly and carefully sweeping the floor in front of the aron kodesh. Rashi caught a glimpse of the man's face. It was serene, holy.
Rashi touched the sleeve of a student who stood at his side. "Who is that?" he asked.
The student followed Rashi's gaze to the front of the beis medrash.
"That's the rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar!"
"'Blessed be He Who has given His wisdom to those who fear Him.'" So this was the great talmid chacham who had learned directly from Rabeinu Gershom! "But why is he sweeping...?"
"He does that every week," the student replied. "Did you come to learn here?"
"Welcome. You will quickly find out that our rosh yeshiva does everything not for his own honor, but for the sake of heaven."
Rashi quickly became a dedicated student of Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar.
Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar had committed to memory all the traditions of the oral Torah as they had been passed down over many hundreds of years, and in particular in the schools of Italy and Germany. In the company of Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol, he had learned and taught in Mainz. But several years after the death of Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol, he had moved to Worms and opened a yeshiva.
Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar not only knew by heart great amounts of oral material pertaining to each tractate of the Gemara, he was also a master of the methods of the Gemara's logic and argument.
This was not the only reason that Rashi sat at his feet. Rabbi Yakar was also "the most modest of all men." In later years, Rashi wrote of the teacher of his youth, "I know that he possessed the finest qualities. Yet he acted like a doorstep that is trodden upon. He made himself an absolute nothing, and refused to take the crown, which would have been fit for him, of propounding new things to his generation" (Machzor Vitry).
Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar said that he did not consider himself a talmid chacham. He was merely, he said, a teacher of Tanach and Gemara, and he refused to deliver halachic decisions.
One day, the Jewish community was summoned to meet the governor of Worms.
One of the community leaders came to Rabbi Yaakov to ask him to lead the delegation. "Please, Rabbi. This is a very important meeting, for we have issues to discuss that will affect how the governor treats our community."
"This is not for me."
"Why not, Rabbi? You are our leader."
Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar shrugged. "I am simply a poor man. You community leaders and merchants who have wealth and know about politics and connections--you use the resources that you have. As for me, all I have is prayer to G-d that He have compassion on His people. You do what you are able to do; and I will do what I am able to do."
There was another story that Rashi had heard about Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar.
It had taken place before he had come here to Worms, when Rabbi Yitzchak had still been teaching in Mainz.
Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar had gone together to the shochet, a tall man with thick upper arms so muscled that they bent away from his chest. His face was covered by a thick, scrubby beard and his features were coarse. But his eyes shone softly.
In the slaughterhouse, he took down his gleaming knife from a hook and handed it to the two rabbis. Each one inspected it, running his thumbnail along the edge.
The slaughterer led out a cow. Tying a rope to its neck, he led the end of the rope through a ring hammered into the ground. He pulled at the rope until he forced the cow down to its knees and its head lay against the ground, and then he quickly tied the rope to an iron pin on the wall.
Taking the cleaver-like knife in his hand, he knelt down and slaughtered the animal with a swift back and forth motion. Instantaneously, the cow died, its legs kicking.
The slaughterer picked up a bucket filled with dirt and poured it over the blood that had gushed onto the ground, reciting the blessing, "Who has commanded us regarding covering the blood with dust."
Now he cut open the animal, and the two rabbis inspected its organs.
Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol pointed at something on the cow's lung. "The animal is treif."
Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar leaned over. "It isn't perfect. But according to what my teachers taught, this flaw is of no importance."
The two rabbis left the slaughterhouse. An hour later, a cart came to their houses and left for each of them half of the slaughtered beast.
Rabbi Eliezer commanded a servant, "Take the carcass and throw it out. I cannot eat an animal with such a flaw." Two servants dragged the ponderous carcass out to the back of the house.
When Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar heard that Rabbi Eliezer had thrown away his half of the beast, he said, "If such a talmid chacham has thrown away his half of this animal, how can I eat of it?"
In his humility, Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar commanded that his half of the animal also be cast away.
Rashi and the other students recognized Rabbi Yaakov's humility and his aversion to making halachic decisions. Yet he was their master and sometimes they felt that they had to press him to make such a decision!
One day, a Jew came to ask Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar a question in halachah. He was not a talmid chacham and not a great businessman. He was a wine merchant who made a decent living.
Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar turned his attention to the wine merchant. Two of his students, Rashi and another young man, were sitting nearby.
"As you know, Rabbi," the man said, "I buy wine from different dealers, many of them gentile. I always make sure that the halachah is strictly kept: the wine is never alone with the gentile, he never moves a barrel unless it is double-sealed, and so on. But this time...." The merchant told how something had gone wrong, not that the barrels of wine were definitely unkosher, but perhaps one should be strict. "I myself would prefer to be strict," the man said, "but frankly, Rabbi, six barrels of wine! I can't afford a loss like that. My daughter is getting married...." The merchant looked at Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar.
Rabbi Yaakov kept his head averted. The merchant turned to Rashi and the other student, but they too said nothing.
Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar shook his head. "A complex issue!"
He stood up. The merchant too stood and looked at him hopefully.
"Wait here." Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar walked out of the beis medrash.
A minute passed, and then another. Rashi and his fellow-student looked at each other in puzzlement. What was going on?
"Wait here!" they told the merchant. They hurried out of the beis medrash. The street was empty. They hurried down the street and turned a corner. There was their rosh yeshiva, slowly walking back and forth.
"Rebbe!" The two students caught up with Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar. "The wine merchant is waiting for your reply!"
Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar gave a sigh. "It is a responsibility." He turned about and walked slowly back to the beis medrash.
The merchant was waiting anxiously in the beis medrash.
Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar came over to him. "Your wine is kosher. Go home in peace, and may you have much joy from your daughter's marriage."
Rashi's fellow students came from the best families of Germany and France. Their fathers and relatives were often international businessmen, travelling all over the world: to Italy, Byzantium, Spain, Persia, Syria and north Africa.
One such colleague was Rabbi Sasson, who later became a well-known talmid chacham in Worms.
In their discussions of the Chumash and Gemara, these students were able to bring to bear what they had heard and seen from their surroundings. They had heard of the unusual customs of exotic peoples all over the globe. They knew about ships and oceans; about the production of coins and iron, wood, leather and cloth. They knew about the preparation of foods, such as oil and wine. They knew about farmers, businessmen, artisans, craftsmen, soldiers and sailors. They were familiar with caravans and border crossings. This information informed and enriched their understanding of their studies, and Rashi paid heed to what they had to say.
In later years, when writing his commentaries, Rashi often made use of this material.
One morning, Rashi sat in the beis medrash, his pen scratching across a square of parchment, writing the comments that Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar had made during the morning shiur.
The other students had also written notes, but mere scrawled comments to which they could later refer.
Rashi dipped his quill into the ink and swiftly wrote his notes, compressed and lucid. From outside the open shutters, small leaves flickered, and a ray of sunlight shone on the page like a benediction. He turned over the parchment and began a new sheet.
Rashi didn't have well-off parents and parents-in-law who would support him while he learned at leisure, acquiring knowledge slowly. He felt driven to amass and record as much Torah knowledge as he could in the years that he had free to spend in yeshiva.
As a student, Rashi suffered constant poverty. In later years, he wrote, "I lacked bread and clothing, and I carried about my neck the millstone--the responsibility--of a family. But I continued learning under my teachers."
For the rest of his life, Rashi felt that the pressure of his poverty had prevented him from learning as deeply as he could have done. In later years, he wrote, about a particular question, "I never had the opportunity to discuss with my rabbis the exact and intricate points of this problem. Because of my poor circumstances, I was in a great hurry. I had to rely on studying only the broad outlines and basic principles of most subjects" (Chofesh Matmonim).
Line after line, Rashi wrote the comments that he had heard in the shiur, comments that went back from his teacher to Rabeinu Gershom and from him back to the Geonim, an oral tradition that stemmed from the Sages of the Talmud.
The stiff parchment was expensive. Even the ink was dear. Rashi had to take clear, concise notes, saying as much as possible in a few short words.
He came to a point in the Gemara where Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar had given a brilliant exposition of a complex disagreement over the text. Rashi paused only briefly, then wrote a short note on the text. In a few short words, he referred to this complex discussion, boiling it down to its essence. Someone familiar with the discussion would appreciate the brilliance in Rashi's short comment. Someone who was not, however, would see only what appeared to be a simple explanation of the text.
A few lines later on, Rashi had to describe a farming implement. He paused a moment, and jotted down the word in his native French.
Rashi turned the parchment over and pulled a new sheet to him. He dipped the quill in the violet ink. It was pasty, and he poured water into the inkwell and mixed it.
Rashi would return to Troyes intermittently, and his family began to grow. First his wife bore him a little girl named Yocheved. Two other daughters followed: Miriam and Rochel.
Years passed, and Rashi's notes on the various mesechtos and Tanach piled up, until he had a stack of parchments.
Rashi's commitment to making extensive notes entailed great sacrifice. Parchment was very expensive, so much so that people could not afford the most basic seforim. In Troyes, for example, certain "verses were left out of Musaf services, because people didn't know them by heart" (Machzor Vitry). Only the cantor had a copy of the machzor.
Even talmidei chachamim could not find everything they needed. Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol, for instance, was not able to learn Avodah Zarah, because no copy was available to him (Teshuvos Chachmei Tzarfas 84).
A number of years later, when Rashi's grandson, Rabeinu Tam, received a question from Rabbi Ephraim bar Yitzchak, he replied, "If you send parchment, I shall reply."
Rashi learned under Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar for six years.
Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar's influence on Rashi was profound. In his commentaries, Rashi referred to his teacher as "my wise old teacher." In later years, Rashi's grandson reported that Rashi spoke of him as "my teacher of Gemara and Tanach."
Rashi also referred to Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar simply as "my teacher." Perhaps this was the highest encomium from one man of simplicity to another.
Rashi absorbed so deeply the style, thought and personality of his great teacher that he intuitively embodied his teacher's point of view. In later years, he wrote, regarding a halachic decision of his, "My decision is based on the thought of the great giant in Gemara, Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar. It is true that I didn't hear this particular law directly from him. But my heart, my reasoning and my understanding come from his mouth."
Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar was Rashi's most important teacher, who in turn transmitted Torah to all the people of Israel for all generations. But Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar left behind him no works, and even his name is barely known.
Rashi inherited this quality of humility. His writings show a man suffused with the spirit of Torah, a calm, broad, peaceable spirit concerned only with presenting the words of the Torah. Rashi learned from his teacher how to be a clear glass through which the student can learn the Torah directly.
Rashi was twenty-four years old when Rabbi Yaakov died.
Almost nine hundred years later, in 1922, an ancient wall was uncovered in Mainz. One of the stones was a tombstone, on which was engraved "The tombstone of Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar, who passed into the Garden of Eden in the year 4824 ."
How had the tombstone been transported from Worms to Mainz and become part of a wall? It is not many years since Jordanian soldiers tore up gravestones from Har Hazeisim and used them as the floors and walls of lavatories. One can similarly imagine peasants of the Middle Ages uprooting gravestones and transporting them to cement them into a wall.
Rashi remained in Worms for a while longer. He became the student of a relative of his, Rabbi Yitzchak ben Eliezer Halevi, who also had a yeshiva. Like Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar, he had been a student of Rabeinu Gershom, as well as of Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol, and he was now chief rabbi of Worms.
Unlike Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar, Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi was actively involved in communal affairs and management.
Although Rashi remained with Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi for a relatively small amount of time--a year or so--he became a devoted student and remained grateful to him for the rest of his life. In his later writings, Rashi referred to him by such terms as "the great tree," "prince of the pillar," "right-hand colonnade and light of Israel." In turn, Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi wrote back, "The generation in which you are is not orphaned; may those like you increase among the Jews."
Soon, though, Rashi moved to Mainz, only twenty-five miles north of Worms, to learn from another relative of his, Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yehudah. Originally from France, Rabbi Yitzchak had been a student of Rabeinu Gershom and Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol, as well as a companion of Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar. Now he was the rabbinic head of Mainz, and one of the leading sages of Lorraine. Students came to learn with him from all parts of Germany and France, and questions were sent to him from distant communities.
The synagogue of Worms was Romanesque, a style that gained the effect of majesty through simplicity. How apropos this was to the character of those who taught and learned there.
When Rashi came into the beis medrash for the first time, he was an accomplished talmid chacham and the close student of two of the greatest teachers of the generation. But he was filled with a spirit of awe and sanctity. This was where Rabeinu Gershom himself had lived.
Rashi came to have great affection for his learning here. In later years he described it, "The yeshiva of Mainz, the yeshiva of Rabeinu Gershom, who enlightened the eyes of the exile, whose students all the Jews of the region are."
Rashi grew close to Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yehudah, whom in later years he described as "my teacher in righteousness." In turn, Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yehudah referred to Rashi as "my very gifted colleague...my friend and companion."
Like Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar, Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yehudah had attained the quality of unfeigned modesty. He welcomed discussion, for his purpose was to teach others an authentic sense of Torah, not to force upon them subservience born of fear.
One time, Rashi had the challenge of correcting one of his teachers without shaming him. (When Rashi later wrote about this incident, he did not reveal which teacher this episode involved.)
It was the wedding day of the rabbi's daughter. In the kitchen, frantic preparations were taking place. Servants and maid-servants rushed about, sweaty, sooty, heating ovens, carrying trays of food.
The rabbi himself was busy with a dozen matters: where the chuppah would be; a question on a phrase in the kesubah; last-minute discussions about the dowry. He stepped into the kitchen, Rashi following him, and glanced into the pots and nodded his approval.
In the yard behind the kitchen, a slaughtered deer, whose venison would be served as the main course, had been cut into quarters and deveined. The rabbi glanced at the deer, his mind taken up with other things. "Good, good."
Rashi, looking over his teacher's shoulder, gave a start. Something wasn't right. How had his teacher missed it? The deer's thighs had only had the fat removed--not, as halachah requires, the muscle itself.
Rashi later wrote of the dilemma that he faced at that moment. "My teacher was busy with other matters, and so he didn't notice the omission. And I didn't know what to do. Were I to correct the matter, I would be assuming authority in the presence of my teacher. But if I did not correct it, a transgression would be committed."
Rashi turned to his teacher and asked him, "I have a question in halachah."
The teacher turned back to him.
"It is forbidden to eat the thigh muscle of a domesticated animal. But does the same halachah apply to a non-domesticated animal, such as a deer?"
"Of course it does." Why was Rashi asking such an obvious question? He looked back down at the deer, and looked again. How could he have not have noticed the deer's hindquarters? The entire banquet could have been treif! He immediately gave orders to rectify the matter.
There was something else compelling about the yeshiva of Mainz. Here Rashi was able to study the manuscripts of Rabeinu Gershom himself as well as of the school of rabbis to which he belonged: the "commentaries of Mainz."
Rashi studied the texts of the Gemara that Rabeinu Gershom himself had compiled. Every mesechte had to be copied by hand, and over the centuries, errors had crept in. Sometimes a copyist didn't pay attention to what he was copying. These could be the easiest types of errors to correct, because they were the most obvious. Sometimes a copyist put into the text a comment that a student had written in the margin. And sometimes a copyist, imagining that he saw an error in the text, changed words around.
At times, this went so far that there were two versions of one work: for instance, there was an Avos d'Rabbi Nosson of France, and an Avos d'Rabbi Nosson of Eretz Israel.
Rabeinu Gershom had declared a cherem against anyone guilty of making arbitrary emendations in the text of the Gemara. He then had worked to produce an error-free manuscript. Now Rashi was able to study entire masechtos written in Rabeinu Gershom's own hand.
Rashi's studies of different copies of the Gemara eventually made their mark in his commentaries. For instance, in Sukkah 40a, he noted about a certain passage, "Thus is it written in all the manuscripts. I worked hard in my youth to reconcile it with what I had learned from my rabbis, but without any success. However, I then found this reading in a manuscript written by Rabeinu Gershom ben Yehudah."
Sometimes Rashi was able to understand a Gemara by receiving the correct tradition from his rabbi. In Zevachim 56a, he noted, "I have emended the text in this way, based on the manuscript of my teacher."
Rashi also studied manuscripts of other writings of Chazal. In Shavuos 34b, for example, he noted, "This is the way of the Tanaim, of the Sifri and the Sifra." And in Shavuos 35a, he noted, "So is it written and punctuated in a corrected, accurate copy of the Mishnah."
Rashi became an expert in detecting mistakes in the text. Once, while studying Arachin (12b), he realized that the word "three" in the sentence, "These three years of their expulsion by Senchariv," was an error. But he only kept it in mind, because he had no tradition on the matter. One day, he found a manuscript that in fact left out the word "three." Rashi wrote in his commentary, "Thus did I understand in my heart, and it seemed correct to me, although I had not heard it. Afterwards, I found an ancient, corrected manuscript that had the same thing. I told my rabbis, and they were pleased."
This, though, is small praise of Rashi. He was able to absorb the enormous mass of information that constituted the entire transmitted Torah--Tanach, Talmud, Midrash, and so on--and the Geonic tradition and the teachings of his own rabbis. But that was only the beginning. In his mind, he was able to balance and compare all this material whenever he studied a passage in the Talmud or Torah (or, afterwards, when he was asked to deliver halachic decisions). In the great merit of his purity and piety, Rashi was aided from heaven to always correctly interpret our Sages' intent.
In addition to this, Rashi was given the gift of being able to express himself in an unusually lucid and concise fashion. In a few short words, he could untangle a knot of imprecisions and conflicting opinions.
Now, as a student, he was occupied with gathering the vast material of the Talmud and the comments upon it.
Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yehudah shared with his advanced students the notes he had taken of Rabeinu Gershom and Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol's teachings.
The study of such private notes had become an important part of the process of learning Talmud.
As the Jews had spread into exile, the study of the Talmud had come to Italy and France.
Students copied notes for themselves in booklets, known as kuntresim.
Soon, other students began to learn from these kuntresim and to add comments.
Each yeshiva had its own style of learning. The kuntresim from one yeshiva were studied eagerly by students in other yeshivas, in an intellectual ferment of learning.
For a few generations, these kuntresim were copied and expanded, with corrections and comments added.
By the time Rabeinu Gershom was the rosh yeshiva of Mainz, kuntresim existed in his yeshiva on perhaps all of the Talmud.
Although the collection of these kuntresim was later published under the name of Peirush Rabeinu Gershom, they were not really authored by him. The Sefer Haaruch attributes its authorship to "students." (It was in Italy that this kuntres was attributed the Rabeinu Gershom. In France, it was attributed to Rabbi Elyakum, student of Rashi's teachers, and rosh yeshiva in Aspira [Lipschitz].)
Another name given to this work was the Kuntres Mainz.
After Rabeinu Gershom passed away, the Kuntres Mainz continued to evolve under the yeshiva's leadership by Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol and, following him, Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yehudah.
Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yehudah composed his own comments on several mesechtos. This eventually were incorporated into the Kuntres Mainz. (For hundreds of years, the Mainz Kuntres could not be found. Then part of it, covering nine masechtos, was discovered.)
Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar had also written kuntresim based on the teachings of Rabeinu Gershom, which Rashi had studied. (These kuntresim were eventually lost.)
Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yehudah's students copied into their notebooks the comments of previous kuntresim, adding to them the comments that they heard from Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yehudah. These students, Rashi's colleagues, later returned to their communities and used these notes as the basis of their own teaching.
These yeshiva kuntresim were unfinished, rough products. There did not exist a complete, edited set of commentaries on the Gemara. There still remained unwritten a commentary that would function not only as notes for the talmid chacham, but that would guide an intermediate or even new student through the complexities of Gemara.
This would be the great work that Rashi would undertake.
One of Rashi's fellow-students in the Mainz yeshiva was Rabbi Elyakum ben Meshullam. After leaving the yeshiva, Rabbi Elyakum returned to his native Aspires, in France, where he headed a yeshiva. He brought with him a copy of the Mainz Kuntres. This version of Peirush Rabeinu Gershom was attributed to him.
Another student was a young teen-ager with a brilliant mind named Meir ben Shmuel, with whom Rashi forged a warm friendship.
Here, too, Rabbi Sasson, who had learned with Rashi in Worms, had come to learn.
The yeshiva winter zman was coming to an end. Rashi looked forward to seeing his family again. His children were growing under the guidance of his beloved wife. And he would be able to visit his aging mother and serve her.
Outside the beis medrash, a gray bird alighted on a branch bursting with green sprays of leaves and chirped robustly.
In Troyes, Rashi's mother stood at the window, gazing to the east, where her son was learning. Her pale, wrinkled fingers grasped the window sill. Soon she wouldn't have the strength to manage the workers in the vineyards. Her lips moved and she prayed into the gusting wind. "Let me see my son again...."