An Invisible Rabbi Who Couldn’t Read

13 09 2010

Continuing on from an earlier post, in which I spoke about the introduction to Tobiah ben Eliezer’s 11th/12th century midrashic compilation, Leqach Tov, I’d like to make note of an observation that he makes shortly thereafter. In his consideration of the opening words of Genesis, he quotes Rav Yitzhak as declaring that the Torah should have more properly begun with Exodus 12:2, “This month shall be the first of the months for you”, as this was the first commandment given to the nation of Israel. This statement, which if taken literally shows a profound lack of concern for any material that is neither legalistic nor prescriptive, appears most famously in the beginning of Rashi’s 11th century commentary on the Torah. That Rashi (Rabbi Solomon Yitzhaki) and Tobiah ben Eliezer were contemporaries is interesting, as we know nothing of Rav Yitzhak save this statement of his, and it is a statement that cannot be found in any material prior to this date.

For later attributions of this sentiment, alongside those who appear to be quoting Rashi (such as Nachmanides), there is the Yalkut Shim’oni, which is most probably a 13th century compilation made from over fifty different other compilations, many of which are no longer extant. There, the compiler makes reference to Midrash Tanchuma, but Yerucham Perla notes that all copies of the Tanchuma, save a single manuscript that is housed in the Vatican, lack this particular attribution. In both places, however, Rav Yitzhak is credited with suggesting that the only reason that the Torah begins with creation is to demonstrate God’s power to his people, which is an idea that is found (originally?) in Leqach Tov, but which Rashi takes further in his suggestion that it was also designed to demonstrate his power to the nations of the world, and to serve his people as a divine mandate for their “theft” of the land of the seven nations.

Who was this Rav Yitzhak? Why was the Torah, to him, nothing but a collection of laws and mandates for laws? Did he not care for literature, or did he simply not care for literature in the Torah? How did he understand the entire stretch of material that bridges Genesis 1:2 with Exodus 12:1? And why did both Rashi and Tobiah ben Eliezer see fit to include his opinion?

Shabbetai Bass, the compiler of Siftei Chachamim (a super-commentary on Rashi’s commentary to the Torah), suggests that Rav Yitzhak was none other than Rashi’s father. We might discount this possibility, even if on no other basis than the fact that Rashi does not refer to him in a manner commensurate with that identification, but it is an observation that reflects deeply on the problem. After all, it not only accounts for Rashi’s inclusion of his opinion, but it draws on the fact that, prior to Rashi, the opinion is untraceable.



4 responses

15 10 2010

IIRC Bass was far from the first to posit that Rabbi Yitzchak was the very Yitzchak in Yizchaki. There was a legend, which definitely preceded Bass, that Rashi’s father was an am ha’aretz, but showed great kavod for Torah. Rashi desired to honor his father by quoting Torah from him, but not being learned there was nothing. So he asked his father to ask him a question, and the result was “Why doesn’t the Torah beging with mitzvos…” and the rest is history, or not history as the case may be.

This legend was already refuted in the commentary of the Taz (1586-1667):


He writes that in his younger years he read an old manuscript supercommentary which claimed that his father was not a lamdan, etc. and this explains why the question is restated (“lo haya tzarich” and “u-mah ta’am”).

However, writes the Taz, in Avoda Zara 75 Rashi cites an explanation of the Talmud in the name of his father. Of course this doesn’t speak to the identity of Rabbi Yitzchak one way or the other, but it does show that the explanation is earlier than Bass.

15 10 2010
Simon Holloway

Brilliant, thank you! I was about to tell you that I don’t own a Shulchan Arukh and so shall have to check this in a library, when I followed your link. I wasn’t aware that the Taz had composed a super-commentary on Rashi! I must confess, I found it very difficult to understand, and so I appreciate you having taken the time to summarise it as well. He doesn’t mention where he read this legend, and I was wondering if you knew?

16 10 2010

Unfortunately I don’t know the identity of the manuscript, if anyone else knew of it, or if it still exists, although I doubt it. The reason I doubt it is because although this piece is well known and cited by others subsequently, such as Hida, Seder Hadoros, the manuscript itself is not as far as I know. It also seems to be the Taz’s own paraphrase.

However, I did learn that there exists a Yemenite Aggadah manuscript written in Judeo-Arabic which contains the following Hebrew sentence about Rashi’s father:

שלא היה בעל תורה כל כך אלא איש תם ירא אלהים וסר מרע

I don’t know the age of this manuscript, since I only saw the phrase cited in a secondary source, but not the source which discusses this manuscript. It’s possible that it’s late and was itself influenced by the Taz or a later source. You know, Yemeni Jews were never as isolated as people think it was.

21 10 2010

All I had access too was the ikkar siftei hakhamim; now the original is on, so I could see the entire piece

so I see that Bass cites Divrei David!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: