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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Northern France (11th–12th Centuries)

During the heyday of the Spanish school (the second half of the 11th century), there developed in northern France another school of peshat exegesis, with similar goals and slightly different results. Anonymous glossators called poterim, who taught the Bible through the vernacular and are the school's precursors, were active during the early part of the century. In the middle of the century Menaḥem ben Ḥelbo (1015–1085) was writing complete commentaries on the Prophets and Writings, characterized by, among other things, a concern for the plain meaning, the interpolation of foreign words (le'azim), and an attempt to show connections between various passages. Unfortunately very little of his work has survived. The true inspiration forthis efflorescence in biblical scholarship was the 11th century scholar, R. Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi [an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo son of Isaac], 1040–1105). Rashi wrote commentaries on almost the entire biblical corpus as well as on the Talmud. They draw heavily on the rabbinic tradition and also display a newly discovered sensitivity to context, which influences his choice of midrashic material. The genius of Rashi's commentaries lies in their clarity, concision, felicity of expression, and skillful selection and editing of sources. On numerous occasions, Rashi modifies midrashic sources to accommodate his exegetical goals. In one of his few methodological statements (at Gen. 3.8 ), he states, “there are many aggadic interpretations, and our Sages have already arranged them in their proper place in Genesis Rabbah and other midrashic collections. I, however, am only concerned with the contextual meaning of Scripture (peshuto shel miqra', from the same root as peshat) and with such 'aggadot that properly explain the word and meaning of Scripture.” Rashi is thus saying that he will be very selective in his choice of rabbinic material and will not include rabbinic comments which read the text out of context. One puzzling aspect of Rashi's commentaries is the double comment, in which he explains a verse according to context and then follows this with a citation from a midrashic source. It has been the generally accepted opinion that Rashi adds these rabbinic comments only if he is not completely satisfied with his peshat explanation. Thus, a weak midrash is used to strengthen a weak peshat. Recently, however, it has been suggested that each part of these double interpretations is actually complementary, representing a dualistic approach to the biblical text. The two interpretations when combined, produce a fuller, more satisfying picture, enabling the reader more fully to grasp the meaning of Scripture in all its complexity. Rashi was very sensitive to the nuances of biblical language, and though he lacked the training of his Spanish colleagues who read and wrote in Arabic, he knew the work of Menaḥem ben Saruq and Dunash ben Labrat, whom he quotes in his commentaries. In addition his commentaries are replete with hundreds of le'azim, or word definitions in Old French. Although he does not reveal a great deal about himself in his commentaries, he does refer occasionally to realia or to social conditions in his own time. Rashi was a brilliant Hebrew stylist; this feature, as well as his ability to create a commentary with a didactic and moral thrust that had popular appeal, have helped assign his commentary pride of place in the Ashkenazi canon of classic Jewish texts which are still studied widely today. His commentary on the Torah became immensely popular, achieving near‐canonical status, as an acceptable substitute for the required weekly reading of the Targum in preparation for the Torah reading on Sabbath mornings. Rashi's commentary also spawned an impressive number of super‐commentaries, beginning with the commentary of Ramban (see below). Among the most famous are those of Judah Khalatz (Spain‐Morocco, 15th century), Abraham Bukarat (late 15th–early 16th century, Spain, Tunis), Elijah Mizraḥi (Constantinople, ca. 1450– 1526), Judah Loew ben Bezalel (Maharal) of Prague (ca. 1525–1609), and Shabbetai Bass (Prague, 1641–1718). Indeed the production of translations and super‐commentaries continues to this very day. Rashi's blend of contextual exegesis and ethical homiletics was a winning combination. His reputation as a talmudist further strengthened his authority and assured that his Bible commentary would never be neglected.

Rashi's sense of peshuto shel miqra', the plain or contextual sense of scripture, developed over the course of his lifetime. He reworked some of his commentaries and was constantly looking for new insights into the text. His grandson, Samuel ben Meir, relates that he admitted to him that if he had more time he would write new commentaries “based on the insights into the contextual meanings of Scripture which are being thought up every day” (commentary to Gen. 37.2 ). This indicates that there was a great deal of activity inbiblical study at the time in the school of Rashi and the trend was away from the exclusive use of rabbinic material. For Rashi, peshat and derash coexisted in a state of tension and derashot that did not violate the integrity of the text and taught an important lesson were still favored.

With Rashi's students and younger contemporaries in the peshat school, the balance shifted away from the rabbinic in favor of the biblical. This can be seen already in the work of Joseph Kara (1050–1125), who applied the principles of contextual exegesis to the biblical text with greater rigor and consistency. The name Kara indicates that he dealt with the Bible (miqra') in his professional life, either as a teacher or an exegete, or both. Kara produced commentaries for most of the books of the Bible, of which the commentaries on the Former and Latter Prophets, Psalms, Job, and the Five Scrolls have survived. Recently significant portions of his Commentary on the Torah have been discovered. Kara was also an important exegete of religious poetry (piyyut), his commentaries attaining great renown. In Kara, we find considerable progress away from the reliance on midrashic sources for exegesis, a fact which sets him apart from Rashi. In a lengthy programmatic statement in his commentary on 1 Sam. 1.17 , Kara makes a strong case for the independent integrity of the text and its ability to stand alone without midrashic embellishment: “One should know that when the prophecies were written they were written complete, with nothing missing and with adequate interpretation, so that subsequent generations would not be led astray by them. It is not necessary to bring a proof from anywhere else, including the midrash, because the Torah was given and recorded in perfect form, lacking nothing. The purpose of the midrash of our Sages is to exalt and glorify the Torah.” He compares someone who inclines towards the midrash to a drowning person desperately grabbing for something to hold on to. Had he heeded God's word and made the effort to grasp the contextual meaning, he would have been rewarded by deeper insight. For Kara, then, the contextual meaning of the text has religious significance, in that it brings one closer to the true word of God. Kara was an independent thinker, not afraid to criticize his predecessors or to find fault with the interpretations of the Rabbis. He was concerned with methodology and his commentaries abound with statements proposing various hermeneutical rules. He was particularly sensitive to literary issues and pointed out instances of parallelism, metaphor and other aspects of biblical style. Kara was also noted for his rationalism, which manifests itself in his quest for reasons for the commandments, and rational explanations for characters’ actions and for seemingly miraculous events.

The school of peshat exegesis reached the zenith of its achievements with the commentaries of Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) (ca. 1080–ca. 1160), the grandson of Rashi. His greatest achievement was his Torah commentary, in which he diligently persevered in elucidating the contextual meaning of Scripture (peshat) without regard for the interpretations of the Sages. He took his grandfather Rashi to task for his deviations from the peshat; indeed, his commentary may be seen as a reaction and critical response to that of Rashi. In most cases, he provides a peshat explanation only if he feels that Rashi's comment does not do the job. In an interesting methodological statement, Rashbam makes it clear that his goal in his commentary is only to understand the text as it was written. This includes texts of a legal nature which supposedly govern Jewish practice.

Rashbam sees the halakhot (legal pronouncements) as primary, but recognizes that their connection with the text is often not that easy to justify. Nevertheless this does not detract from their primary importance: “All those with wisdom should know and understand that I have not come to explain halakhot, even though they are primary…Since from the superfluity of Scripture one derives halakhot and aggadot; some of these are found in the comments of R. Solomon, mymother's father. But I have come to explain Scripture contextually” (Exod. 21.1 ). In other words, Rashbam recognizes two legitimate modes of exegesis. The rabbinic mode is legitimate in its own right and does not need justification; in this context, it is noteworthy that Rashbam (in contrast, e.g., to Abraham Ibn Ezra) was an important halakhic scholar. But the peshat mode is also valid in and of itself and operates within its own methodological confines. The two are complementary. Rashbam was the most consistent exegete in insisting on a strict separation between the two. In some cases, he even interpreted the text in opposition to the halakhah. E.g., at Exod. 21.6 he explains that after having his ear pierced, the servant is bound to his master for life, even though the halakhah determines that he goes free in the jubilee year, following Lev. 25.40 . At Exod. 21.34 , in the case of an animal that falls into an open pit, Rashbam's interpretation is that the carcass should go, according to peshat, to the owner of the pit, while pointing out that the halakhah determines that it goes to the owner of the animal. Regarding the famous prohibition against seething a kid in its mother's milk (Exod. 23.19 and elsewhere), Rashbam offers a historical, cultural explanation: “Goats generally give birth to two kids at the same time. It was customary to slaughter one of them. Since goats produce much milk…it was the custom to boil the kid in its mother's milk. The text deals with the most likely case [which can be applied to other animals]. It is disgraceful, voracious and gluttonous to consume a mother's milk together with her offspring.…The intention of the text is to teach civilized behavior.” At the end of his lengthy comment, he adds, however, that “this is the case for all meat and milk, as our Sages have explained in the Talmud Tractate Ḥullin.

Rashbam showed interest in linguistic and literary matters and had the most sophisticated approach to grammar of all the members of his school. He even wrote a book, called Sefer Dayekut (Book of Precision), which deals with grammatical questions in the Bible. But like other members of his school, his efforts were hampered by a lack of familiarity with the major Arabic works of grammar produced by the Spanish school. Only the works of Menaḥem and Dunash were available to him. Rashbam was the first medieval exegete to point out the literary technique of foreshadowing, providing information in anticipation of the later need for it. For example, Gen. 9.18 , “Ham was the father of Canaan,” is seemingly out of place in its context. However, it prepares the reader for the cursing of Canaan later on. Similarly, Num. 13.20 “Now it happened to be the season of the first ripe grapes,” prepares the reader for the return of the spies with a cluster of grapes (Num. 13.23, 27 ). Rashbam points out many other instances of this feature of biblical stylistics.

The last major representative of the peshat school is Eliezer of Beaugency (mid‐12th century), who may have been a student of Rashbam. He wrote commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, but only a few, on the Latter Prophets, have survived; therefore our knowledge of his methodology is scant. Eliezer is extreme in his avoidance of midrash; one finds few references to it in his writings. His style is paraphrastic, creating a seamless weave of text with his own words intermingled with the text of Scripture. He stressed the importance of context for explaining difficult words and passages (davar lamed me'inyano, [the meaning of] a word is learned from its context). Like Joseph Kara, he proposed many rules for understanding the biblical text, and many of his comments deal with literary issues. He shows a sensitivity to nuance and devotes much more attention than his colleagues to matters of redaction and the ordering of the biblical books.

Joseph Bekhor Shor (1130–1200) was the last member of this school and his work already shows signs of a decline. He can be seen as a transitional figure situated between the most important members of the peshat school (Kara, Rashbam, Eliezer) and the tosafists (see below). His Torah commentary has characteristics of both schools. Although mainly devotedto peshat exegesis, his commentary includes more midrashic material than those of his predecessors. He also makes use of gematria (the numerical value of letters), which was in vogue among the Pietists in Germany. Among his most significant contributions was his psychological insights into the motivations of the characters in the Bible. He is also concerned with literary structure and connections between passages. His interpretations are often innovative, and even fanciful.

By the turn of the 13th century, just as the mini‐renaissance of the 12th century died out and rationalism lost its luster, so too did the peshat school fade away. It may very well have been that the radical nature of the enterprise contributed to its lack of appeal to future generations of scholars and laity. The study of Scripture, as opposed to Talmud, was never primary in the curriculum in Ashkenaz, and an exegetical enterprise which could be seen as undermining the authority of rabbinic interpretation and halakhic rulings based on Scripture was simply not sustainable. The influence of this school, with the exception of Rashi, whose commentary managed to strike the right balance between peshat and derash, was minimal. The small number of surviving manuscripts of the commentaries of Rashbam and Eliezer bears this out. Joseph Kara fared slightly better, although much of his oeuvre was also lost. It seems that these types of commentaries had little appeal to the masses, and even among the intellectuals, changing currents in thinking and an anti‐rationalist movement contributed to the neglect of the works of this school for the rest of the Middle Ages.

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