An important new book on Rashi (Rabbi Solomon, the son of Isaac), the pre-eminent medieval Ashkenazic rabbi, is now available to English readers. The volume, titled Rashi, is Joel Linsider’s translation of a 2006 Hebrew book by Avraham Grossman, one of the world’s foremost scholars of medieval Judaica.
Translating a book like this is no mean feat, as it is filled with quotations from biblical, rabbinic and medieval Hebrew – some of them very difficult to understand – and the force of Grossman’s arguments is often dependent on a close reading of these texts. Linsider has done a very capable job; his recent passing is an occasion for sadness in the world of Judaica publishing.
Before I began reading Rashi, I wondered whether Grossman would have anything new of value to say about Rashi (1040-1105). More books and articles have been written about Rashi than about any other pre-modern Jew, with the possible exception of Moses Maimonides. Yet serious gaps exist in our knowledge of Rashi’s life. For example, it is reasonable to assume that his attitude to the Christians, among whom he lived in northern France, must have been strongly affected by the massacres during the First Crusade (1096) of the Jews of those German communities where he had studied in his youth. We know that Rashi remained active until close to his death in 1105. But we still don’t know which books of his were written under the shadow of the Crusades in those last nine years of his life.
No ancient archive of documents about Rashi is revealed in this book. Rather, Grossman returns to Rashi’s published writings, reading them very closely in an attempt to make Rashi come to life for 21st century readers.