The Babylonian Talmud

By Translated by Michael L. Rodkinson

Book 10 - Volume 19

Volume I: History of the Talmud

Chapter 11


At the time, when Talmudic study flourished in Spain, and made progress, and diffused itself in all corners of the earth, shone "the luminary of the exile" in Germany, who constructed a strong fortress around the Talmud, in his great wisdom--which was accepted in all places of the exiled as though canonical, and which not only contributed to strengthen the Talmud, but also to prevent all its adherents from perishing. Like Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai formerly, when he saw that the end of Jewish civic independence approached, founded by his wisdom a Jewish spiritual kingdom, which nothing could ruin, and by saving from the jaws of that lion, Vespasian, Yanmia and its sages, saved the existence of the Jewish people itself; so did Gershon b. Jehudah who came from Carraibe to Mayence, where his great teacher Jehudah b. Meir resided. This most important task he found to be his prohibition, which he made in the name of the Talmud, and at once all Israel (in Europe) hailed this luminary, and accepted without protests or hesitation, his prohibition, and made it a permanent law.

He saw and understood that the Jews scattered among Christian nations, among whom divorce is prohibited and polygamy regarded as a sin, will not exist long, if they persist to permit themselves these things, according to their laws, and, as he had not the power to forbid what was permitted in the Torah expressly, he strove to remove the causes leading to divorce; and thereby he made his co-religionists so far like the Christians that they should be able to live side by side.

He decreed, on pain of excommunication, and without revocation or qualification, that polygamy be prohibited to every Israelite (see App. No. 13), and only monogamy should be legal, and as long as the first wife lives, it is prohibited to add to her another, in the capacity of wife or concubine. Thereby, the main cause for divorce was also removed, but he did not content himself with this decree alone, but added thereto a decree opposed to the Pentateuch, that divorce cannot take place without the assent of the divorced wife, if the man and his wife should find it impossible to live together, then only if the woman is also willing, the husband can divorce her. Whereas, till then, the woman was dependent on the will of her husband, for good or for ill. It is superfluous for us to expatiate on the consequences of these two decrees, or rather reforms of how much utility they have been to social life and the feeble sex; as every thinking man can understand this.

Added to these prohibitions, he permitted Jewish apostates, who are penitent, to return to their faith, and also prohibited, on pain of excommunication, to open a strange man's letter and read it, without the assent of the person to whom it is addressed.

His energy, great wisdom, and deep observation of his nation's life, and strong wish to ensure its existence, we can see from these reforms, which we do not find made by any rabbis of his predecessors; and he was justly called, afterwards, "The Luminary of the Exile," as he illuminated in truth the eyes of all Israelites and gave to them a new life. He composed commentaries on several tracts of the Talmud, which became distinguished in his age, and the commentator on the Torah, Rashi (whom we are going to mention) borrowed from him much.

R. Machir, his brother (1030), was also a Talmudic scholar and the author of a Talmudic dictionary. Several ritual poets were also found in Germany and Northern France, as Meshulam bar Kleinmus, R. Simeon, b. Isaac, b. Abun of Mayence, who lamented the miseries of their paytonim in ritual poems and prayers for mercy (Sli'choth), but their work in the study of the Torah was small; and only in Metz and Mayence in Germany, and Rheims, Loiret, in Northern France and Narbonne, Montpellier and Beziers in Southern France were many scholars, whose active occupation was mental activity in the field of the Talmud. (The college of Talmud in Narbonne was erected by R. Machir, who had arrived from Babylonia to France; and in the second half of the eleventh century came from this college R. Moses Hadarshon, known as the commentator on some tracts in the Talmud, and some books of Scripture; and later generations drew much on his wisdom, and made many quotations from him. All or most of his writings are collected in one work entitled "Breshith Rabthi." R. Joseph Tob Alm (Baufils, of Lemans), who has edited and systematized many subjects and speculations of the Talmud, a list of the Tanaim and Amoraim, and the answers of the Gaonim, and R. Elijah the Elder, both men of that age, were esteemed as poets, but did not approach those of Spain.

What is worthy of notice, considering the various countries at that age, is that whereas the scholars of Spain (see App. No. 14) exerted their great powers and displayed their knowledge in collecting Halakhas of the Talmud, the scholars of Germany devoted themselves wholly to collecting Hagadas and Midrashim, so that various compilers rose. Of the distinguished compilers of Midrash are: R. Moses of Narbonne, R. Jehudah of Toulouse, R. Simeon, author of "Yalkut Simoni," where he compiled words of wisdom, morals and Hogada, from fifty various ancient works and arranged them according to the portions of the Pentateuch. This Yalkut is a comprehensive reference book for Agadic lore, and drove out of the field the Agadic compilation "Lekach Tob," or "Psigtha Zutrha" by R. Tobiah b. Eliezer, his contemporary, who lived in Greece (Byzantium) at that time.

We will skip over a number of lecturers and Pashtanim for want of space, and we will come to our great teacher, through whom only we are enabled to comprehend the Talmud, and to read it and study it, namely: R. Soloman b. Isaac of Trayes, called (by using the initials) "Rashi" (1040-1105). He was the first who gave a complete piece of work in his commentary on the Talmud. He is one of the most wonderful phenomena given by Nature, perhaps once in thousand years; his advantage over Maimonides, his peer, is in the fact that he met with general acceptation in the whole world, and no one presumes to study the Talmud without him. The influence he has on Jewish students has met with no opposition or discontent. The generations subsequent to Rashi, styled him "Parshandatha" (a proper name in Scripture), that is, "Explainer of the Law." Justly was he called thus; in truth no man arose after him with such ability to shed light on the intricacies of the law or on obscure passages in Scripture.

His comprehensive intellect embraced that mighty and eternal structure, the whole vast province of the theological literature of Israel. By his commentaries he has introduced common sense into the study of the vastest and profoundest subjects. The study of the tracts lacking his commentary, although many different other men have attempted to supply the deficiency, gives us many pains and much trouble, till we come to understand the real meaning. As what Rashi elucidates in a few words, or sometimes even by one word added to the text before us, has to be commented upon by others in many laborious lines to make the student understand the simple meaning of the Talmud.

The life of Rashi has been written by many scholars, who have discussed at length his commentaries, legal decisions, and ritual poetry. The latest, A. H. Weiss, in the periodical "Beth Talmud" and in separate pamphlets. We think it therefore superfluous to repeat them, as this is not our task here. We have to remark, however, on several points relating to the Talmud here, on which those scholars have left something for us to add: An examination of Rashi's commentaries on the Talmud, on the Bible, and legal decisions in his "Hapardes," and so also his ritual poems, will show that they differ in their nature totally. In his commentary on the Talmud, which general criticism places above his other writings, we see that he is very cautious to decide any Halakha, and to draw from the statements of the Talmud definite conclusions as to a law or custom. We do not remember in his whole commentary on the Talmud, any place where he should decide "that such a Halakha prevails," or even, "so was the custom in his days," as we find on many occasions in the commentaries of his disciples "Tosphath," and we have long ago shown in our work about Phylacteries (p. 24), that he has interpreted an obscure passage in the Talmud in contradiction to the custom and Halakha accepted among the Gaonim, because, according to his method, it is the plain meaning of the passage (see there, p. 30). Everywhere he bewares of dialectics, and of contradictions between some passages of the Talmud and others, but he explained the subject of the passage according to its simple meaning in its own place. In case of Agadoth he also was careful to give only an explanation of the words, literally without any remark or opinion of his own, even hinted. This is his custom in his whole commentary on the Talmud. Where he found the text corrupted, he corrected it according to his opinion, and in accordance to his profound knowledge of the Talmud, of its style and language; and, if necessary, removed the old version, not fearing additions or eliminations, provided the real meaning of the Talmud he comprehended, without resorting to forced and far-fetched reasoning.

His commentary on the Bible, however, is different, as mostly he construes according to the Halakha; i.e., as the sages had explained the biblical passages in the Talmud and Midrashim, without regard to the fact that the literal meaning of the biblical texts often does not bear out these constructions. Often he was not averse to interpret the text according to the Talmudic interpretation, even when its meaning is manifestly contrary thereto by all the rules of language. His object in this is unknown to us, and it can only be conjectured that he did not like that his commentary should be at variance with the Talmudic interpretations and conclusions, which correctness and justice he forces himself in his commentary on the Talmud to make manifest.

Not so in his decisions; he endeavors always to interpret the laws leniently (mildly), and is averse to rigor. There he also avoids dialectics, tries not to attain his object by strange and eccentric reasonings, but is only intent on finding the real deep meaning of the law, and to interpret it as mildly as it is in his power. It is true, that most of his decisions are written by his disciples, and we cannot find there that clearness of language and wonderful felicity of expression which he displays in his two above-mentioned commentaries. The Replies of the Gaonim and their works served to him also as a guide, but he did not tread in their footsteps blindfold, but he sifted their statements and construed them ingeniously into accordance with his own opinion; this we witness in his book Pardes, 1 which has been accepted as a great authority for all Poskim deciders of the law subsequent to him.

We do not possess his commentary on all the tracts of the Talmud, for of three tracts we know with certitude that the commentaries are not his; and in the case of other tracts, criticism is doubtful whether they are from his pen. And it may be that they got lost in the course of time, either because he did not compose his comments on the Talmud in the natural order, but in the order in which they were studied in the great college at the head of which he was, and whither pupils flocked from all places of the earth, after the decease of the celebrated scholars of Lorraine; or perhaps he left this world before he had completed his commentary on the whole Talmud, as he did not complete the commentary on the Bible, for those on the books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, and a part of the commentary on the books of Ezekiel and Job have not issued from his pen, though they bear no name, for they are easily distinguishable from his version in their style and by their nature.

What Rashi had done to the Talmud, his disciples have done to his commentary, which they have surrounded by comments and remarks on the margins, sometimes to make plainer his meaning, and sometimes they also made additions to amplify his statements by Agadas and Halakhas, and in the course of time they crept into his own commentary and were interpolated into the words of Rashi, but to separate them from his own words it is very difficult, even for the lancet of sharp criticism.

Modem criticism has rightly thought that Rashi (Isaacides) began his labor of the commentary on the Talmud, which was composed gradually, by the lectures which he delivered to the students. After this he turned to the Midrash, and from it passed to the books of Scripture. And as soon as his commentary was heard among the living, an echo sounded in the camp of Israel that if not Isaacides who laid his hand upon it to investigate and to commentate it, it would remain almost neglected as its brother, the Palestinian Talmud. No wonder, therefore, that after a short time, some fifty commentaries on the commentary of Rashi sprung up, which examine nicely every word and syllable that has proceeded from him; and the last, Kabbalist, R. Samson, of Astropol, was not incorrect when he said in his book, "Likute Shoshanim." ["Collections of Roses"], that every drop of ink that has come forth from Rashi's pen it is needful to sit seven days and to examine with one's whole attention.

Thus while Alphassi illuminated Spain by his elucidations of the Halakhas, another sun, Rashi, rose also in France to shed yet more light, to comment on the Talmud, its Halakhas and Agadas. And the latter had more success, in so far that his commentary was accepted in all the world (among Christian scholars also, as has avowed Nicholas de Lyra, some two hundred years after Rashi's decease, that to the right understanding of the words and simple meaning of the texts, Rashi's commentary has led him) by universal assent. And therein also is France superior to Spain, that though the latter has been studying diligently Torah, even from the ancient times, while the colleges at Sura and Pumbeditha existed yet, and after their fall, assumed pre-eminence in the usages and literature of Israel, their scholars could never agree, and were forever disputing. But in France, since Rashi's commentary began to shine, no voice dissented from the universal approval, and those who sometimes were at variance with him, did not withhold the great honors which were justly due to him, and endeavored to reconcile their own opinions with his. For two hundred years continuously, after Rashi's decease, his disciples were diligent at the holy work of spreading the study of the Talmud and a correct understanding of the great work of their master. They called their labors only "Additions" (Tosphoth), i.e., their thoughts which suggested themselves to them to add to his commentary, and to explain it.


55:1 It was also reprinted by us at Warsau, 1870, with our preface and a few notes.