Rarely do an author and a subject converge so invincibly to make a book such compulsory reading. Anyone who loves both Jewish history and the study of Torah should not pass through the days of this world without having stopped for a few hours to read Elie Wiesel’s concise summary of the life and thought of Rashi. If the chance to read Wiesel and read about Rashi are not enough in themselves to allure you to this book, the binding and book design, simple and very comfortable for reading, increase the inclination.
In case you do not know Elie Wiesel, he is such an important voice for freedom and retaining the memory of the past that a Holocaust denier, Eric Hunt, attacked him in a hotel on February 1, 2007, and bragged about the failed abduction attempt on his website. Hunt was arrested, in part because of his own statements on the internet, and convicted on July 21, 2008. Elie Wiesel is an iconic voice from the horrors of World War II, a survivor who told his tale in the much-read account Night. Born September 30, 1928, Wiesel is an author of books about literature and theology. Most of all he has been a spokesman against genocide, injustice, and the attempt by some governments to erase the memory of past atrocities (e.g., Turkey and the Armenian genocide).
If you are unfamiliar with Rashi, or if his name is obscure to you, he is the most beloved commentator on the Bible and Talmud in Jewish history. Born in 1040 in Troyes, France, Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak (Rashi, for short) was a poor man, writing once that he was unable to afford food and clothing for his family, who was nonetheless the prince of his generation. His grandson referred to him as “the Light of the Exile,” and subsequent generations have agreed.
If you wish to study Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, you want to get not just any edition of Rashi, but the Sapirstein edition with helps and commentaries to make it easier to read and understand him. You can find the whole set on amazon here.
Elie Wiesel’s Rashi is a slim, beautiful volume at 107 pages. It is part of a set being produced in collaboration by Nextbooks and Schocken. Schocken is a longstanding publisher of Jewish books (my favorite is Everyman’s Talmud, another must-have). Nextbooks is a non-profit endeavor to promote Jewish learning by the same people who bring us tabletmag.com.
Wiesel helps us understand the universal appeal of Rashi. Why, after centuries, is Rashi’s commentary the most beloved? Why not Nachmanides or Abrabanel? Wiesel describes his early life experience studying Torah and Talmud and finding in Rashi a brother, a friend alongside:
He [Rashi] said to me, as if confidentially: look, my child; fear nothing, everything must be grasped and conveyed with simplicity. Strange words stand in the way like obstacles? Start all over again with me. It happened to me too. I started all over again. You just have to break through the shell of a word, a sentence, an expression. Everything is inside them. Everything is waiting for you.
Wiesel gives the reader some information about the life of Rashi. The best theory is that he was a vineyard grower and winemaker. Scholars and leaders did not receive compensation for their work in those days (and for most of Judaism’s history). He had three daughters and no sons (there is a recent, celebrated book, which I have not read, about Rashi’s daughters). Two of Rashi’s son-in-laws became renowned scholars whose comments appear along with Rashi’s in printed volumes of the Talmud (known along with his grandson, Rashbam, as the tosafists). Says Wiesel, if we count the greatness of a person not only by their own achievement, but also in the way they pass on their leadership to others, Rashi is one of Jewish history’s greatest successes.
Wiesel’s account will increase you understanding of Rashi, if you already read him, and will inspire you to make a weekly habit of reading Rashi if you do not. He says of Rashi:
Throughout his works, usually what counts most for Rashi is his concern for truth. Revealing the deep, hidden meaning of a biblical verse or Talmudic statement, the very meaning that our ancestors had bequeathed to their descendants–that’s the ultimate objective of his approach.
More about the Nextbook Press series of Books
In the Nextbook series there are already many volumes which will make this set a sort of Jewish educational program greatly to be desired (I may have a campaign on Messianic Jewish Musings to raise money to buy the whole set). To date, Nextbooks has the following titles published:
The Life of David by Robert Pinsky
Maimonides by Sherwin B. Nuland
Jews and Power by Ruth R. Wisse
Resurrecting Hebrew by Ilan Stavans
The Jewish Body by Melvin Konner
Marc Chagall by Jonathan Wilson
Emma Lazarus by Esther Schor
Betraying Spinoza by Rebecca Goldstein
Benjamin Disraeli by Adam Kirsch
The Wicked Son by David Mamet
Barney Ross by Douglas Century
Future volumes will include the Cairo Geniza, Sholom Aleichem, Moses, Yehuda Ha’Levi, the Song of Songs, and more. You can see the whole line at nextbookpress.com.