Schocken Books/Nextbook  2009

“Ever since childhood,” writes Elie Wiesel, “[Rashi] has accompanied me.” In this loving memoir of the supreme medieval scholar Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi), Wiesel, Nobel laureate, novelist, and descendant of Rashi, searches for Rashi in the few facts—if facts they are—of his life. As a precocious young student, Rashi studied with his uncle and then at the great centers of 11th century European Jewry. He had three daughters, perhaps four, and was a vintner—maybe. He founded a yeshiva in Troyes—when?—thought to be his birthplace, and became its official rabbi.

So to know Rashi, we must know his work, for it is there that we truly meet him. In his commentaries on the Bible and the Talmud, the work for which he is universally revered and immortalized, we see his brilliance, the depth and breadth of his knowledge and curiosity, his rabbinic method and cast of mind, his understanding of the world and the human beings who live in it. In citing passages from Rashi’s commentary on the book of Genesis, Wiesel reveals Rashi’s creativity, his humanity, his likes and his dislikes. God put Adam to sleep when he created Eve from Adam’s rib because he did not want to disgust Adam. Ishmael, Lot, but especially Esau are singled out for scorn. Delving into the midrashic literature, Rashi ascribes horrible acts to Esau, his pawn for Christianity, which he did not attack directly although he lived during a time of great persecutions. 

Rashi’s commentaries and responses continually reveal his love for the Jewish people, personified in his unflagging admiration for the patriarchs; his love and compassion for individual people, whom he judges by human, not technical, standards; his modesty, which sometimes leads him to say, simply, he does not know something. His goal was to reveal God’s truth through endless, probing study.

 Discussion Questions

1. What sort of teacher was Rashi? How does Wiesel describe his commentaries? 

2. How does Wiesel integrate the historical perspective into his exploration? What was going on in the world during Rashi’s time, and how did it affect or not affect his teachings? 

3. Wiesel describes the legends that are attached to Rashi’s biography. Which stories had you heard about Rashi’s birth and death, about the details of his life? Do you think the specifics matter? What do the legends tell us about the way we understand his influence? 

4. Throughout the book, Wiesel comments on Rashi’s ability to admit ignorance on a topic. “No other Sage did this as frankly and as frequently.” Why do you think Wiesel makes a point of this characteristic, and what importance does it have for understanding Rashi’s teachings overall? 

5. “Sometimes students have the joyful feeling that they are learning not from Rashi but by his side.” What has your personal experience been of Rashi’s teachings? Do you feel this characteristic of closeness to Rashi that Wiesel describes? Wiesel begins his book by talking about how integral Rashi has been to his own studies. What teachers have that place in your life, and why? 

6. Discuss the Biblical commentaries that Wiesel uses to illuminate and explore Rashi’s work. What have other teachers said about these passages and stories? 

7. Turn to the third section in the book, and discuss what Wiesel offers as Rashi’s intepretation and belief about the following topics: peace, study, compassion, justice, leadership, responsa, liturgical poems. What portrait of Rashi’s teachings emerges from this section? How are these beliefs reflected in the Biblical commentaries that Wiesel has explored? 

8. To begin, Wiesel offers to us his reason for writing this book—his love and respect for Rashi. What was your relationship to Rashi before reading the book? Do you feel differently about Rashi now and, if so, in what ways? What will you take away from your reading?

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