Rashi: Annotated, Translated (and sometimes tangled)

The Torah:  With Rashi’s Commentary Translated, Annotated and Elucidated

Edited by Y. I. Z. Herczeg

ArtScroll Series

Mesorah Publications, Inc., 1995

Volumes Bereishis, Shemos and Vayikra

The Metsudah Chumash/Rashi: A New Linear Translation

Edited by Avrohom Davis

Ktav Publishing House, 1994-1996

Five Volumes

The Rashi Chumash

Translated by Shraga Silverstein

Targum/Feldheim Publishers/Distributors, 1997

Five Volumes

Reviews by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek

Rashi’s commentary on the Torah is the Mona Lisa of Torah exegesis.  Is that an irreverent comparison?  I don’t think so.  In both, there’s the classic beauty, the artistic genius and, like the lady’s enigmatic smile, Rashi’s enigmatic commentary has mystified and mesmerized generations of Torah scholars.  “Mah kasheh l’Rashi?” (what is the difficulty that troubles Rashi?) has been the clarion call for generations of serious students.  It alerts them to minutely examine Rashi’s comments for their every nuance in order to grasp their profound message.  Deciphering Rashi’s exquisitely succinct message is a special intellectual and spiritual challenge.

An immediate success when written some 900 years ago in France, the popularity of Rashi’s commentary has never waned.  Spanning nearly a millennium, his commentary has given rise to nearly 200 super-commentaries, all geared to gaining a fuller understanding of his deceptively simple explanations.  Giants of Torah scholarship have devoted no small effort to understanding Rashi’s Torah commentary.  Although Rashi is known as an expositor of p’shat, his commentary is actually a creative and inspiring blend of p’shat, grammatical lessons, halachic teachings and uplifting midrashim.  The breadth of his commentary is equaled by its depth.  Even advanced Torah students who learn Rashi regularly rarely achieve the level of sophistication necessary to fully appreciate his pervasive subtlety and exquisite sensitivity to the Torah’s nuances.  His simplicity is misleading.  His commentary is profoundly simple and simply profound.

The English-reading audience has recently been the fortunate beneficiary of several new English translations of Rashi on Chumash (published by ArtScroll, Ktav and Targum/Feldheim) with a fourth (Ariel) on the way.  This abundance of Rashi material reflects the overall explosion  in Torah publishing for the English reader in recent years and the increased interest in Rashi in particular.

Actually, English translations of Rashi are not new.  About 50 years ago The Pentateuch and Rashi’s Commentary: A Linear Translation into English was produced by Ben Isaiah, Sharfman, Orlinsky and Charner.  And over 60 years ago, Rosenbaum and (mainly) Silbermann gave us their classic Pentateuch and Rashi Commentary.  That work, in addition to the English translation of Rashi, offered an extensive appendix of scholarly notes.  These notes reveal a superior display of critical scholarship, the operative word being “critical.”  Silbermann delved into difficult Rashi comments with a serious attempt to make them understandable.  Only rarely did he quote earlier commentaries on Rashi.  He seemed less interested in showering the reader with quotes from such famous Rashi interpreters as the Mizrachi or Gur Aryeh, and much more concerned that the Rashi-comment become comprehensible to the student.  Characteristic of his  honest search for understanding was Silbermann’s ability to admit that a particular comment was difficult to understand.  As Rashi himself would say       hebrew 1       (“I do not know what this teaches us.)  But his translation was more for scholarly study than for teaching Rashi.  The layout of the Hebrew and English pages are not parallel and this makes it difficult for a student to see how Rashi’s words were exactly translated.  Both the ArtScroll and the Metsudah Rashis rectify this weakness.

In light of these earlier works, what is new here is not Rashi in English, but renewed attempts to tap a growing market, thirsty for new, and perhaps, more reader-friendly study aides.  The Rashi translations under review here can be said to target different sectors within the burgeoning English-speaking Torah world, each making its own unique contribution.

Translations of Rashi present a special problem because of his unique style.  To fully understand Rashi, one must appreciate both his style of expression (precise and succinct) as well as his style of thinking (clear and unencumbered).  Much ink has been spilled and many quills broken trying to comprehend the intent behind his judiciously chosen words.  It is for this reason that any faithful rendition of his work requires much more than the ability to translate verbatim from one language to another.

The ArtScroll Rashi is a monumental work.  Rabbi Yisrael Isser Zvi Herczeg and his staff provide a phrase-by-phrase translation of Rashi.  But their big contribution is the addition of extensive notes and sources on nearly every Rashi-comment.  These notes draw on an wide array of Rashi super-commentaries.  They help the student understand difficult passages, sometimes with the help of illustrations.  At times, it appears that what we have here is an anthology of interpretations of Rashi, a selection of quotes from various commentaries.  There doesn’t seem to be an attempt to evaluate them and chose the most reasonable, as I think Silbermann did.  This may be a sign of the times. It is not fashionable today to be critical of printed commentaries.  Ironically, Torah commentary throughout the generations has thrived precisely on such critical analysis of previous commentaries.  I find this critical element sorely missing from each of the books under review.  But it must be said most emphatically that relative beginners will find this an approachable work on Rashi.  And its level of scholarship makes it very helpful even for advanced students.

The Metsudah Rashi (Ktav) is edited by Rabbi Avrohom Davis with translations by A. Kleinkaufman, Y. Rabinowitz and Y. Elman.  It is a linear translation of Chumash and Rashi similar to the older Linear Translation by Ben Isaiah and Sharfman.  However, Davis’ linear translation has the advantage of accompanying edifying annotations to identify Rashi’s source material and present a “conceptual background to his comments.”  These serve the purpose of showing the student what difficulty in the text Rashi’s comment was meant to address and what his comment teaches us.  The notations, while not as thoroughgoing as those of the ArtScroll Rashi, nevertheless provide scholarly information for the beginner and the more advanced student.  The commentary is also provided with illustrations.  The linear layout of the page makes it highly readable and, in my opinion, the best of the three as a learning aid for beginners.  It is clear that extensive work went into the preparation of this useful Chumash.

The Rashi Chumash (Targum/Feldheim), a creation of Rabbi Shraga Silverstein, is intended to be a translation of Chumash, according to Rashi.  This is quite different from a translation of Rashi.  Silverstein has set for himself the daunting task of translating the Chumash text itself according to Rashi’s commentary.  This is truly a formidable challenge, perhaps an impossible one.  One difficulty, for example, would be how to handle a verse for which Rashi has two different interpretations.  Another, more basic, problem is how meaningfully and aesthetically Rashi’s comment can be integrated into the text without jarring the reader and confusing the basic meaning of the verse.  A third question is:  Would Rashi have agreed to such a project, which fixes the translation of a verse once and for all?  He himself said to his grandson, the Rashbam, that new interpretations arise daily.  [See Rashbam on Genesis 37:1]

Silverstein, a renowned translator of Torah classics, tells us in his introduction that all previous translations of the Chumash “are not just badly translated or unfelicitously translated — but not translated at all.”  Considering all the translations on the market, among them those of ArtScroll, the Jewish Publication Society, Aryeh Kaplan’s The Living Torah, Hertz, S.R. Hirsch and others, this is quite a charge!  To this surprising statement he adds, not too modestly, that his Rashi Chumash is “the first English translation of the Chumash.”(!)

The reader can judge the felicitousness of Silverstein’s Rashi Chumash from any one of numerous examples.  The first verse of Yayikra looks like this in the Silverstein Chumash:

Hebrew 2

And He called (vayikra) [“kriya” is an expression of endearment] to Moses [God’s voice reached Moses’ ears only], and the Lord spoke (vayedaber) [There is “calling” only for (initial) “speaking” (dibbur), and not for pauses (subsections within the sections)] to him [and not to Aaron] from the tent of meeting [the voice “cutting off” and not traveling beyond the tent of meeting], “saying” [i.e., Speak to them (Israel) with “suasion”].

This montage of interpretation does not make for easy reading.  In addition to this difficulty is the serious and pervasive fault of Silverstein’s overly literal translation.  The Rambam, in a letter to Ibn Tibbon, his translator, had warned that if one “translates word by word…he will end up with a translation which is highly questionable and confusing.”  Silverstein has not followed this wise advice.  His over-literalness leads to many problems and errors:  poor translation, mistranslation and, at times, misunderstanding of Rashi.  Some examples:

Hebrew 3 (Leviticus 20:13) becomes “their blood is in them,” instead of the usual on them; Hebrew 4 as “And if a man gives his lying to a beast…” (ibid. 20:15); Hebrew 5 (Exodus 1:10) is rendered “Ready yourselves to plot against it,” instead of the usual “Come, let us deal wisely with him.”

This literalness is taken over into the gratuitous insertion of Rashi into the text. For example, Hebrew 6 (Genesis 48:16) is translated: “The angel who is wont to redeem me from all evil, let him bless the youths [Menasheh and Ephraim].”  Now why add the words in the brackets?  Certainly we know that the youths here are Menasheh and Ephraim; why insert their names?  Because, Silverstein must have reasoned, that’s what Rashi comments on this verse:  “Menasheh and Ephraim.”  But Rashi here is problematic.  Any explanation of his comment will not justify the unnecessary insertion of his comment into the translation.  Silverstein does not seem to be aware of this.  This obsession with literalness carries over to his interpretation of Rashi.  In Exodus 22:20 we have Hebrew 7 which Silverstein translates as “And a stranger [from another land] you shall not taunt etc.”  The bracketed words are Silverstein’s addition, from Rashi.  But in actuality, the stranger here is a convert, not a stranger from another land, even though Rashi defines the word Hebrew 8 as one from another land.  But Silverstein has mistaken Rashi’s meaning, as can be seen by Rashi’s comment in Baba Metzia 59a.  The mistake is the result of taking Rashi’s words and inserting them into the translation without reflection as to their intent.

A comparative analysis of these three works will give the reader a better idea of how each approaches the task and how tricky an ordinary looking Rashi-comment can be.  Let us take the Rashi on Genesis 26:18 in Parshat Toldot.  I like this Rashi-comment because it shows how a comment which doesn’t seem to tell us much can, after close analysis, reveal a true “chiddush” (new insight).


Here is the Rashi on this verse:


Here is how the three new Rashi books deal with this:


And [Isaac] returned and he dug. Rashi:  the wells which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father and the Philistines had stopped them up.  Before Isaac had traveled away from Gerar he redug them. [The note here faithfully records the differing opinions of the Mizrachi and the Gur Aryeh; also showing how punctuating the Rashi comment  renders different interpretations.  There is no suggestion as to which might be the best interpretation.]

Metsudah Rashi:

Returned, excavated. Rashi:  [Meaning] those wells that they had dug in the days of his father Avraham and which the Philistines had stopped up, before Yitzchok departed from Gerar he again dug them. [Footnote: “And this time they were not stopped up anymore.” This note, which comes from a super-commentary, seems self-evident.]

Rashi Chumash (Silverstein):

And Isaac returned [( before he left Gerar)] and dug the wells of water which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father and which the Philistines had stopped up after the death of Abraham.

Each of these translations have missed Rashi’s point, to one degree or another.  See how impossibly this is translated in the Rashi Chumash:

“And Isaac returned [( before he left Gerar)] and dug the wells” etc.

How could Isaac return to a place before he left it!

Here, too, is an example of transferring Rashi’s words into the text, without reflecting on their meaning.

Both Artscroll and Metsudah realize that Rashi is telling us that Isaac “redug” the wells.  Nevertheless, both incorrectly translate the “lead words” (dibbur hamatchil) as “Returned and dug.”

Their mistake is apparent when we look at the Rosenbaum and Silbermann Rashi.  They translate the “lead words” as “And Isaac digged again.”  The newer translations mistakenly render the Hebrew        hebrew 11            to mean “And he returned.”  Rashi’s whole point (his chiddush) is that this word does not mean “he returned,” even though we might have thought so since the previous sentence tells us that Isaac “left Gerar.”  Rashi tells us that the word       hebrew 12      does not mean “return,” as it usually does; rather, it means here “he redid,” in this case “he redug.”  This is but one example of how necessary it is to fully understand Rashi and his style before one can faithfully translate him.*

In spite of the occasional errors, these new translations will be a big help to the English-reading student.  Their layouts make them excellent learning tools.  Yet I feel something crucial is missing.  By offering all this scholarship on a silver platter, the student is deprived of a most important element of learning Torah — the need to think on one’s own.  The student has to think, so that the commentary’s words make sense to him and are not absorbed in rote fashion.  By offering the student ready-made answers to Rashi’s implicit questions, as the ArtScroll and Metsudah Rashis do, he is deprived of the ecstasy of discovery which is the true reward of Torah study.  One’s appreciation for Rashi’s genius develops exponentially when one personally struggles to understand the meaning and purpose of each precious word and letter in his commentary.  These newer annotated translations should be the student’s first step in that direction.

* Anyone interested in a fuller analysis of this Rashi-comment can contact the reviewer through Jewish Action, 333 7th Avenue, New York, NY, 10001.

Dr. Avigdor Bonchek is a musmach of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, Maryland.  He is a practicing clinical psychologist in Jerusalem and a lecturer at Hebrew University.  He is the author of Studying the Torah: An In-Depth Guide to Interpretation (Jason Aronson).  His newest book What’s Bothering Rashi?  A Guide to In-depth Analysis of Rashi’s Torah commentary will be published this fall.

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This article was featured in the Fall 1997 issue of Jewish Action.
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