Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Rashi's Midrashic Comments Are Supported by a Broad Range of Biblical Texts

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Rashi's Midrashic Comments Are Supported by a Broad Range of Biblical Texts

Article excerpt

There is a distinction in Rashi's Torah commentary between two categories: peshat--comments that reflect the plain meaning of the text, and derash comments that go beyond the plain meaning. The presence of these two categories is clear and accepted by Rashi himself, as well as by others who have commented on his work. Rashi, in his commentary to Genesis 3:8, states that he intends to explain "the simple meaning of Scripture and of that Aggadah which clarifies the words of the verses, each word in its proper way." Rashi was selective in the midrashic material that he quoted, choosing whatever he felt had a basis in the text, in the words used in the verse, or in the narrative context. (1)

This paper will attempt to show that some midrashic comments brought by Rashi that may appear not to adhere to this self-imposed rule do in fact have a textual basis. (2) To reveal the textual basis for these midrashic commentaries, I will introduce a factor that has not been given due attention in the interpretation of Rashi's commentary on the Torah. I will show that certain comments of his can find support in biblical texts, beyond the specific places where he makes them. Three instances will be discussed: Sarah's death and the Akedah (binding of Isaac), the comparison of the Promised Land with Egypt, and the obliteration of Amalek.


Rashi (on Gen. 23:2) comments that Sarah's death is reported following the story of the Akedah (Gen. 22:1-19), because her death was precipitated by the distress to which that event gave rise. The news that her only son had been taken to be sacrificed caused her to die prematurely. In the analysis that follows, I will highlight the broader textual basis of this interpretation.

Rashi's comment is based on Genesis Rabbah 58:5, which discusses the words and Abraham came to eulogize [mourn and bewail] Sarah (Gen. 23:2). Two opinions are brought to explain where Abraham came from: R. Levi states that Abraham came from burying his father, Terah, but R. Yose rejects this idea. Terah died years before Sarah, he explains, Abraham had just returned from the Akedah, and Sarah died from the pain of that episode. This aspect is fleshed out in Ecclesiastes Rabbah, chapter 9, where it is related that Sarah died upon hearing from Isaac that he was nearly slaughtered by Abraham.

Rashi chose to quote only the opinion of R. Yose, which is reasonable since the view of R. Levi is challenged without a rebuttal. In addition, R. Yose's view is supported by multiple textual clues. The most obvious one is that the Akedah narrative is set in close proximity to the announcement of Sarah's death, thus implying some connection. Furthermore, the text states that Abraham came to mourn her, indicating that he was not with her at the time of her death. Sarah died in Hebron and Abraham was then in Beer-sheba, where he went after the Akedah (Gen. 22:19). This is the most common textual clue cited as a basis for the Midrash. (3)

Apart from that, however, two other textual hints may be found. Personal mourning and weeping, which we associate with the death of a close family member, is not typically mentioned in regard to the death of other people in the Torah. Thus, for instance, with respect to Abraham, the text gives his age at death and indicates that his sons buried him (Gen. 25:8-9), with no report of mourning. While we can be certain that mourning took place, it is not explicitly mentioned. The fact that Abraham's mourning for Sarah was considered worthy of particular mention is exceptional. Note that the Midrash and (later) Rashi attach their comment linking Sarah's death with the Akedah to the statement about Abraham's mourning, which suggests that Abraham felt guilty of having caused her death by taking her son Isaac to be sacrificed.

The only other instance in Genesis of mourning for a departed relative is the description of Joseph falling on the face of his dead father, weeping and kissing him (Gen. …

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