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 8 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 8 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,… Read more »

Steve Brizel
3 years 8 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… Read more »

Lawrence Kaplan
3 years 8 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… Read more »

Gil Student
3 years 8 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.

3 years 8 months ago

R’ Gold, you say, “We need to teach our children reverence”. When I was in yeshiva, I learned exactly that from my parents and rebbeim. We cannot challenge Rashi. If we don’t understand him, there is something wrong with us. Now, I don’t know if these ideas are connected, but I gradually lost all interest in honest, serious thought about Rashi. I knew that taking any other position was assur and I had to swallow everything whole. As a result, I did “robotic repetition without critical thinking” as Dovid Landesman says so well. The ironic and sad result of all… Read more »

Daniel Weltman
3 years 8 months ago

After discussion with other commenters, I am amazed at the level of comment-blocking that has gone on on this thread. It is a new level of censor for cross currents, and this reader is appalled.

This is a מחלוקת לשם שמים, and the decision of the editors, or the author (whoever it is that is moderating comments) to exclude thoughtful comments that may disagree completely with the post or with Shaul Gold’s point of view is one that intentionally stifles honest Torah debate.

It really does call into question the purpose of posting this article, and Cross-Currents’ vision of itself: are… Read more »

Dovid Goldman
3 years 8 months ago

Rav Gold,
I would like to suggest a “middle ground” of sorts in this debate, primarily in response to your comment here rather than to your original post. You write of the need to teach that
“we are not the final arbiters of the truth, and that we need to submit our understanding to their (our predecessors’) superior ken and wisdom.”
Are they, then, speaking as the final arbiters of truth? If you asked Rashi or the Ramban, for example (or Rav Boruch Ber), if they meant to write in such capacity, would they not have said something like k’patish yfotzeitz – that… Read more »

dovid landesman
3 years 8 months ago

Although I did not hear shiurim from Reb Nachum zt”l, many of my friends were close to him and I was zocheh to hear his Torah eid m’pi eid. I studied under a number of his contemporaries, including Reb Dov Schwartzman zt”l and Reb Gedaliah Schorr zt”l. I do not think that either would be considered modern critics of the rishonim or achronim by anyone in the yeshiva world. Yet, they evidenced a very different style of shiur and while there was an obvious “b’dchilu verichimu” in their approaches, they were never hesitant to subject rishonim to scathing analysis or… Read more »

3 years 8 months ago

elsewhere online , the tack taken is that this attitude is reflective various schools of thought between eg rationalists and non-, and in many ways between haredi thought and other camps within Orthodoxy.
eg r slifkin’s body of work , though possibly 100% valid, cannot meet the current concepts of fealty within haredi thought.
let us hope these standards, which conceivably serve the haredi community well [ though can be used as a method to quiet dissent], will not be used as a weapon to smear other O jews whose communities see things… Read more »

Shaul Gold
3 years 8 months ago

I would like to thank the commenters for their kind words and thoughtful remarks. Your points are well taken; I will take this opportunity to elaborate slightly on my post.

Just as the Rishonim are many generations before us, so too, they are many levels above us. I would consider it is presumptuous to entertain arguing with, or classifying, any Rishonim in any manner whatsoever. When I learn the Rishonim on Chumash I never conclude that one Rishon or the other is correct, nor should it be my place to determine which Rishonim are correct and which not. I study their… Read more »

Younger Light
3 years 8 months ago

Rav Gold,

Thank you for the beautiful story. Although you discuss Rav Nachum and Rashi separately, Rav Nachum (as I’m sure you know) was also a big supporter of Rashi. He would always try to answer for Rashi against Tosfos’ questions and do so affectionately. I heard all of this from his son-in-law Rav Asher Arieli, who quoted his Shver many times, especially to explain Rashi. Rav Asher told me that one time they were learning together and it was Rosh Chodesh Tamuz or Av, and Rav Asher mentioned to his Shver that it was Rashi’s yahrtzeit. Rav Nachum began to… Read more »

David F.
3 years 8 months ago

R’ Shaul,

Thank you for sharing this beautiful story about one of the under-appreciated geonim of our generation. I never had the זכות to study under Rav Nochum ז”ל personally, but I did study for a time under one of his talmidim and have used his seforim extensively. His brilliance and clarity opened up the study of Gemara like none other.

I recently had occasion to speak to a contemporary giant in Torah as well as secular subjects about the trend toward rationalism in certain circles. Considering his impressive background in both Torah and Science and willingness to explore touchy subjects… Read more »

Charles Hall
3 years 8 months ago

The age of Rivkah is not a very good example, as Rashi was simply quoting his text of Seder Olam Rabbah. However, other texts of Seder Olam Rabbah have Rivkah married off at age 14 (and other rishonim support this). Furthermore, Chazal even uses the fact the Rivkah was a “naarah” which would mean a 12 year old to derive halachah (Yevamot 61b). In this case, the “deeper meaning” may just be a textual error.

Jewish Observer
3 years 8 months ago

As a Mir alumnus I very much appreciated and was moved by R Gold’s story in that it provides a first hand glimpse into a godol with whom I did not have the privilede to interact. That said, a disntinction needs to be made between disrepecting Rashi’s greatness and understanding his true intentions in offering a commen. There are numerous times when Rashi’s “pshat” is clearly not pshat. That is to say, it is homiletical, as opposed to e.g. Ibn Ezra’s rendering of the same verse. To blindly accept everything he says as “pshat” is to disrespect Rashi by not… Read more »

Bob Miller
3 years 8 months ago

Rabbi Gold,

How do you personally handle disagreements among Rishonim who are commentators on the Chumash, where they appear at first glance to contradict each other completely (such as on the age of Rivka when she married)? Do you rank these commentators themselves in a particular order to arrive at the resolution, or is it really their arguments that matter most? Are there some such disagreements you just put aside because you can’t see the resolution even after careful investigation and thought?

3 years 8 months ago

This is beautiful. As a Tanach teacher in a modern Orthodox day school I confront the disdainful attitude that Rabbi Gold describes on a daily basis, but his story really gives me chizuk.

3 years 8 months ago

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

Tremble and shudder all you will, but you pose no salve and no solution for the problem that many Jews cannot tremble before Rashi the way your rebbe trembled before R. Boruch Ber (he did say R. Boruch Ber was incorrect, mind you, even while trembling). What do you suggest we do for them when your preferred approach will not work?

What about the Ramban’s model of “open rebuke, hidden love” which he displayed toward Ibn Ezra, rather than trembling? Or… Read more »

Larry Lennhoff
3 years 8 months ago

For you the point is how R’ Nochum trembled. For me it is how he overcame the temptation to say “Who am I to disagree with ..” and insisted on telling the truth as he saw it.

joel rich
3 years 8 months ago

Interesting, but in the end your rebbi had to say that with all his respect for his rabbeim, in his humble opinion this was not pshat. I agree that disagreements based on our best efforts should be stated in terms of respect, I fear that they will be outlawed which imho is the greatest disrespect to our rabbeim.