Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Rashi as a ba'al mesorah

Yesterday morning those of us who live in the 5T had the special opportunity to hear a shiur from R’ Ahron Kahn (Rosh Yeshiva at YU) given at Mesivta Rambam. I can't capture the whole shiur in a blog post, but there was one parenthetical comment that the Rosh Yeshiva made which stands as a fascinating point in its own right. R’ Kahn noted that while Rashi sometimes is verbose in his explanation of what seems to us a simple sugya, but Rashi is often silent and offers no comment on complex sugyos that other Rishonim struggle to interpret and which challenge our understanding. Similarly, even in his commentary on chumash we find Rashi often offers no comment on texts that seem to us to cry out for explanation. The key to understanding these lacunae is to appreciate that Rashi's role was not just that of a mefareish, a commentator guiding us through difficult passages of text, but that of a ba’al mesorah, one whose task was to accurately preserve the tradition of textual interpretation that he had been taught and which he viewed as authoritative. Where the mesorah offered a clear guide, Rashi presents a succinct encapsulation of that tradition. However, where the mesorah was unclear, where there existed multiple approaches within tradition to a text and there was not a single dominant approach Rashi felt was authoritative, Rashi is either silent, or rarely, Rashi will quote multiple explanations.
(Any mistakes is understanding this point or properly conveying it are mine alone.)


  1. This chimes in with the approach I was taught to use with Rashi: that he summarized the mesorah, and the quickest way to learn what the mesorah says about a particular point is usually to see what Rashi says.

    There is one point I noticed recently, when reading, in the course of one or two days, Rashi's commentary on Bereshit, and the glosses on those same passages contained in the Zohar: that they are almost identical in content, although not necessarily wording. Either one drew on the other, or both used the same midrashic sources (or more precisely, elected to use the same midrashic material even when other alternatives were available). [I haven't yet pursued this comparison to the end of Bereshit or into the rest of the Chumash, so the pattern may not hold for the entire Chumash.]

    But this approach to Rashi probably does him a disservice. Even if he was "just the mesorah", he had to decide how to present the mesorah, and to decide when alternatives were trivial and when they represented significant differences--and of course to discard possible alternatives that did not, in his view, represent the mesorah. And perhaps (this may be called wild speculation) his decision to be silent was a statement that there was no settled mesorah, and therefore we need to use our own sekhel to eludicate the point in question.

  2. >>>Even if he was "just the mesorah", he had to decide how to present the mesorah,

    I hope I did not convey that the task was anything less than the complex job you portray. Being a ba'al mesorah makes the task more difficult, not less, because it places constraints on the peirush.