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"In the beginning, God created heaven and earth . . ." On this verse, with which the Torah opens, Rashi begins his celebrated Biblical commentary:
Rabbi Yitzhak says: "The Torah should have started from the verse in Exodus, 'This month shall be your first month' (xii:2), which is the first commandment given to the people of Israel. Why, then, does the Torah open with 'In the beginning, God created heaven and earth . . .'?" The reason is that "God revealed to His people His glorious creation so that they could receive their rightful inheritance from the nations of the earth." (Psalms cxi:6) In other words, should the nations of the world accuse the Jewish people of being robbers who have unlawfully taken the Land of Canaan from the seven nations (native to that land), the Jewish people can respond: 'The entire world belongs to God. He created it and He has distributed portions of it in accordance with His plan. Just as He exercised His authority in granting the Land of Canaan to the seven nations, He exercised that authority in granting the Holy Land to us.
Rashi's words have been the subject of many commentaries and speculations. His grandson, Rabbi Ya'akov or Rabbeinu Tam, who was the son of Rabbi Meir, was one of the first to recognize the unique character of Rashi's exegesis:
Although I am in complete agreement with what my grandfather, Rashi, the learned and respected Talmudic scholar, has said about this verse, I myself am unable to really understand what the Bible is telling us.
Its very nature is one of the factors behind the wide dissemination of Rashi's commentary, which has had a profound influence - profounder, in fact, than any other piece of Biblical exegesis - on generations of Jews.
Since its appearance, both early and late Talmudic scholars, both Hassidim and Mitnagdim, both rabbinical scholars and the masses, have pondered and studied this commentary, have entered into extensive debates and interpretations of it, have focused on its unique wording and language, and have discussed its literal or implied meanings. These various explorations have often considered as well the opening three words: "Rabbi Yitzhak says . . . .".
In his 17th century work on the Torah, Divrei David [=The Words of David], Rabbi David Halevi, who is also known as the "Turei Hazahav"
[="The Columns of Gold"], recounts how, as a young boy, he saw a very old manuscript and how the author of the manuscript claimed that Rashi's commentary was, in fact, derived from more than one source. The source of both the question, "Why does the Torah begin with the creation of the world?" and the answer to that question was the commentaries of the early Talmudic sages (specifically, Bereshit Rabba, Genesis, section 2). However, the opening of the question in the name of Rabbi Yitzhak was not derived from the exegetical works of the early Talmudic scholars, but was rather a reference to Rashi's own father.
According to the ancient manuscript, Rashi wanted to honor his father, Rabbi Yitzhak, who was neither a teacher nor a Talmudic scholar, by placing his name at the beginning of the exegetical piece in question. Rashi therefore made the following request: "My dear father, would you kindly ask a question about the first verse in the Torah, and then I will record that question in your name." The question posed by Rabbi Yitzhak was: "Why does the Torah not begin with the first commandment given to the Jewish people: 'This shall be your very own month . . . .'?"
Reacting to the ancient manuscript, the Turei Hazahav denies the validity of the explanation given there and argues that Rabbi Yitzhak was, in fact, a great teacher and Talmudic scholar. As proof, the Turei Zahav cites Rashi, who, in explaining "d'h vela pligai" (Avoda Zarah Tractate, p. 75a), refers to and adopts his father's interpretation.
The conclusion we can draw from the Turei Hazahav's words is that Rashi's father was a Talmudic scholar and that the opening question in Rashi's commentary to the first verse of the Bible was posed by a teacher and Talmudic scholar.
Divrei David was first published in Diherne-Port, in the Hebrew calendar year 5449 (1688-89). Some two decades later, in 5468 (1707-08), in Hamburg, one of the greatest of all Biblical orators (darshanim) , Rabbi Naftali Hertz Ginsburg, published his book, Naftali Seva Ratzon [=Naftali Is Satisfied]. In that work, he also counters the claim made in the above manuscript with the argument that the source of the opening question, "Rabbi Yitzhak says . . . ." can be found in early rabbinical literature. Yalkut Shimoni, at the very beginning of the commentary on the Torah portion, "Bo," (section 149), cites the explanation that is given in Midrash Tanhuma on the verse, "This shall be yourfirst month", and which opens with the question posed by Rabbi Yitzhak. Rabbi Ginsburg concludes:
Thus, in my opinion, the above commentator [in the ancient manuscript] should himself have begun from "This shall be your first month" instead of the first verse of Genesis. Had he done so, he would have realized that Rashi's words are in fact the commentary that is given by Midrash Tanhuma and which is ascribed to Rabbi Yitzhak. The author would then not have made that statement about Rashi.
Thus, Rabbi Ginsburg vigorously rejects the idea that the Rabbi Yitzhak of the opening question "Rabbi Yitzhak says . . . ." was Rashi's father. In Rabbi Ginsburg's opinion, the talmudic scholar cited by Rashi was the Amora, Rabbi Yitzhak.
According to Rabbi H.D. Chavel, however, the ancient manuscript referred to by the Turei Hazahav does have a kernel of truth, because, to a certain extent, there is some connection between the opening question and Rashi's father. As Rabbi Chavel points out, anyone who is familiar with Rashi's commentary on the Torah knows that Rashi rarely identifies the authors of the quotations he cites from early rabbinical sources. It is quite possible, Rabbi Chavel explains, that, in the case of the commentary on the first verse of Genesis, Rashi wanted to identify the individual he was quoting and decided to use the opening words, "Rabbi Yitzhak says": in this way, Rashi was honoring his father, because the name of the rabbinical scholar being cited was the same as that of Rashi's father - Rabbi Yitzhak.
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1. Hahida, Shem Hagedolim [=The Names of the Giants] (Vilna, 5613/1852-53), p. 83b [p. 166]. [Translator's Note: In this footnote and in the remaining ones throughout this article, all references are to works in Hebrew, unless otherwise indicated.]
2. On the nature of Rashi's commentaries on the Pentateuch, see Moshe Arend, "Rashi's Commentaries on the Pentateuch," Mahanayim 3 (Kislev 5753/1992-93); Avraham Grossman, Hahmei Tzarfat Harishonim [=Early Rabbinical Scholars in France] (Jerusalem, 5755/1994-95), pp. 182-215.
3. This is also the name of his commentary on the codex of Jewish law, Hashulhan Arukh, and there are those who applied this title to Halevi's work on the Torah. See the introduction to Divrei David: An Edition Compiled by Rabbi H.D. Chavel (Jerusalem, 5738/1977-78), p. 5.
4. Yalkut Shimoni was written in the thirteenth century by Rabbi Shimon the Biblical Orator (Rabbi Shimon Hadarshan) of Frankfurt. In this work, the author compiles commentaries appearing in all early rabbinical literature -- both Talmudic and Midrashic. It should be noted here that the edition of Midrash Tanhuma cited in Yalkut Shimoni is not the same edition we are familiar with, but rather the edition published in Vilna in 1885 by Shlomo Buber -- from the Oxford manuscript -- as "the early and ancient Midrash Tanhuma." In Buber's edition, the commentary on Genesis xii includes the exegetical piece with the opening question presented by Rabbi Yitzhak. Apparently, the author of the ancient manuscript referred to by Rabbi Halevi was not familiar with the above sources.
5. Whenever the Talmud mentions "Rabbi Yitzhak" without offering any further attributes, the reference is to Rabbi Yitzhak Nafha, who lived during the third century in the Holy Land and was a student of Rabbi Yohanan. This is the view of R.H. Albek; see his Mavo Latalmudim [=Introduction to the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds] (Tel Aviv, 5729/1968-69), pp. 252-253. See also R.A. Heiman, Toldot Tanayim Ve'amorayim [=History of the Period of Tanayim and Amorayim] (London, 5670/1909-10), Part II, pp. 782-783.
6. See the section on Genesis in Rabbi Chavel's edition of Divrei David.