Trembling Before Rashi


By Shaul Gold

One of the defining moments in the development of my hashkafas hachaim (outlook on life) occurred during a Shiur Klali (weekly lecture) I attended as a talmid in Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim.

The Rosh Yeshiva, R’ Nochum Partzovitz, ZT”L, was a son-in-law of Rav Chaim Schmuelevitz, ZT”L, and one of the preeminent Maggidei Shiur that emerged after the War. He was one of the famed Mirrer talmidim from Shanghai and a talmid of R’ Boruch Ber Levovitz (Rosh Yeshivah in Kamenitz and a Talmid Muvhak of R’ Chaim Soloveitchik). R’ Nochum’s awe and reverence of R’ Boruch Ber and R’ Chaim Brisker was well known.

R’ Nochum suffered from arterial sclerosis and, when I arrived at the Yeshivah, was already confined to a wheelchair. He gave a daily shiur, a chaburah on Thursday nights, and a preview of the Shiur Klali on Motza’i Shabbos. The preview shiur was unique in that, while it was ostensibly a small gathering in his apartment, it was, in fact, attended by hundreds of talmidim from other Yeshivos that gathered in the hallway and stairway to hear the shiur. The shiur was a great strain for R’ Nochum physically, but was an exciting analysis of the sugya and a great preparation for the Sunday Shiur Klali.

The first few Shiurei Klali I heard from R’ Nochum were difficult for me. I hadn’t sufficiently prepared for the shiur, and, without adequate preparation, it was difficult to appreciate the full depth of the shiur. I had to learn a different level of preparation than I was accustomed to previously in order to enjoy and get the most out of the shiur.

Now to the defining moment: One Shiur Klali was based on a tosfos in Kesubos. Tosfos responded to a question with an answer that both R’ Chaim and R’ Boruch Ber found problematic. Both endeavored to clarify Tosfos’ response, each in his own way. R’ Nochum reviewed both pshatim and argued that, while both pshatim were brilliant, and both answered Tosfos’ question, neither explained Tosfos’ response, which is what they purported to accomplish. He then proceeded to explain Tosfos’ response with a different approach.

All of this is pretty standard in a Shiur Klali. What was out of the ordinary, what was a life-changing moment to me, was ‘how’ R’ Nochum argued on R’ Chaim and R’ Boruch Ber. An English rendition cannot possibly do this justice but I will try.

R’ Nochum began to stutter. He began to shake visibly. He repeated over and over how great R’ Chaim was and how his rebbe, R’ Boruch Ber towered over anyone he knew intellectually. He praised the explanations and commented on the power and depth of their reasoning. He must have uttered “the Rebbe”, about R’ Boruch Ber, a dozen or more times in a halting and trembling voice before finally in a spurt of shame and with eyes averted he said; “ubber, ubber, ebber, … dos iz nit pshat in Tosfos’ teretz”, “but, but, but, … that is not pshat in Tosfos’ response.”

I was glued to R’ Nochum at that time and a shiver ran down my spine. When R’ Nochum learned a pshat of R’ Boruch Ber’s he saw d’mus deyukno (his appearance) before him. His reverence for R’ Boruch Ber and for R’ Chaim was an essential part of his being, and for him to argue on them, for him to point out a perceived flaw in their Torah, he had to so with utter hachno’oh (subservience) and humility.

It was a life changing moment for me. I began to understand R’ Nochum and many of the other great Chachomim that I had encountered in a new light and I had to change the way I was a mekabel (recipient).

I was recently privy to a conversation regarding the efficacy of teaching “fantastical” Rashis and midrashot to young students. An example given referred to the age of Rivka when she met and married Yitzchok and the discussion included whether such material can or should be taken literally and/or whether other commentaries that gave more “rational” explanations, should supplant those Rashis and Midrashim.

My thoughts went back to R’ Nochum and to the many other great sages that stood in awe and reverence of their predecessors – to those who viewed the early Achronim and the Rishonim as towering giants that far surpassed them quantitatively, qualitatively and spirtitually. I thought about Rashi and how carefully each of his words was weighed, about the amount of times each comment was reviewed and rewritten before it was presented to the public, and about Rashi’s acclaim as the father of pshat. And then I thought about the cavalier manner that this holy genius’s work was being reviewed and how much more “savvy” our contemporaries are.

I thought about R’ Nochum and how he stuttered and I thought about Rashi. I thought about how our teachers and sages trembled when discussing a difficult Rashi and the joy they had when they reached an understanding of the deeper meaning behind Rashi’s words. And then I thought of those that know better than Rashi.

Like my Rabbeim, I tremble before Rashi. But I shudder at the thought of those that wish to deconstruct him.

Rabbi Shaul Gold serves as a Rabbinic Coordinator for the Orthodox Union. He was previously the mara d’asra of the Young Israel of Ave. U, has been an educator for many years.

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Shades of Gray
3 years 6 months ago

“Here, hashkafa matters a good deal, even in areas very far removed from kefirah”

I enjoy asking stiros mineh u’beih in Cross Current essays(perhaps I should stick to Rashi :) ):

Rabbi Adlerstein wrote the following on a 3/18/07 comment, implying that hashkafos are less important(“Gentler, Kinder, Meaner, Leaner Cross-Currents”, response to comment):

“The last time I looked, the Rambam counted 13 essential prinicples…your comment was acceptable. CC will resist all pressure to shrink the list…”

I suppose time has become a factor and its reasonable not to publish if no one is available to adequately rebut a hashkaficaly problematic/contraversal comment.

Steve Brizel
3 years 6 months ago

S wrote in part:

“Or Rashbam’s testimony that he challenged his grandfather over not achieving the goal of a pshat commentary, and that Rashi told him that if he had the time he would write such a commentary

If one reads the entirety of Rashbam’s comment on that section of Parshas Vayeshev, one will also see that Rashbam had a strong sense of appreciation for the Parshanut of Rashi, which he described as the primary focus of Rashi’s commentary and other classical Mfarshim. In fact, if one looks at Rashbam at the end of Sefer Shemos and in the begining of Vayikra, Rashbam comments that he refers all who are interested to the commentary of Rashi thereat.

Steve Brizel
3 years 6 months ago

The story of R Nachum ZL is IMO illustrative of how all of us should think before we even think that we can disagree with a Rishon. I would add that especially in the realm of Chumash that one should at least have an excellent command of the classical Mfarshim, such as Rashi, Ramban, Seforno, Ibn Ezra, and Rashbam, Netziv,and Meshech Chachmah, before one concludes, often mistakenly, that no prior commentary was correct , or assuming in a far more seriously mistaken manner, that Mfarshim on Chumash do not disagree on major issues in Chumash. IMO, it is very important that students of Chumash realize that, as opposed to Talmud and Halacha, where there is a vertical approach that governs what makes or breaks a Chiddush, kulah or chumra, in Parshanut, there are many equally valid approaches to understaning Chumash within the Mesorah that may very well contradict each other for many valid reasons.

Lawrence Kaplan
3 years 6 months ago

Rabbi Gold writes that Rashi comes to offer the peshat, unless he says otherwise. This not exact. In in famous comment on Gen.3:8 Rashi states that his goals are to explain 1) peshuto shel mikra; and 2) aggadah ha-meyashevet divrei ha-mikra davar davur al ofanav.” Whatever Rashi means by the second type of explanation (and there is a whole literature on this), it is not the same as the first.

Re Rivka: The issue that needs to be understood is the assumption that leads Rashi to arrive at the age of three for Rivka. The assumption is that the akedah, the birth of Rivkah, and the death of Sarah happened one right after the other. Indeed, they are related one after another in the Torah. I explain to my students that 1) this leads to Isaac being 37 at the time of the Akedah, in which case he was an adult, and was, alongside Abraham, also tested; 2) it further means that Rivkah was born at the moment that Isaac was spared, thus assuring the continuity of the generations; and 3) that this ties in with the midrashic understanding that Sarah died as a result of being told about the Akedah, thereby introducing a deeply tragic and ironic element into the narrative. My students appreciate and relate to all of this. I then show how 4) this assumption of simultaneity leads to to Rivkah being three in the story at the well and when married to Isaac. Here my students balk.

Gil Student
3 years 6 months ago

The story of Reb Nochum is meaningful. You can disagree with a Rishon but must do so with great respect and only with the hesitation demanded by recognition of their genius and piety. Disagreeing with a Rishon flippantly is a symptom of misundertanding — who you are, who the Rishon was and probably the subject itself.