What is Midrash Part 2 – Rashi’s View[1]


In a previous article[2] I discussed the different levels of interpretation used by the Rabbis, and how the true meaning of the text is the pshat, the simple meaning. There have been some people who objected to what I had written and contended that I am not reflecting what the true Jewish view is. In this article I would like to show, from a simple example from Rashi[3], that what I have said is the true Torah perspective. It is the way that the great Rabbis, like Rashi, have always looked at Midrashic teachings. I show this by looking at the commentary of Rashi on a passage in the Talmud dealing with Psalm 72:17 and also at his own commentary on the book of Psalms on that same verse.


Many people do not understand the theoretical basis for the Rabbis Midrashic exegesis. Before examining Rashi, I want to explain the theory behind the non-Pshat types of commentaries of the Rabbis.[4] We need to know why, if there is this distinction, they use it at all. If what they are saying is not what God intended, and it does not reflect what the verse actually says, what is the value of what they say?


The distinction between pshat and non-pshat is simple to explain. When anyone reads a sentence in any kind of book, how do they know what it means? Obviously there are the words. But let us say the sentence is ‘He returned to the store’. How do we know what that means? Who is ‘he’? What ‘store’ does it mean? There could be multiple stores and multiple male characters in the book. The words alone are not enough. The answer is that one looks at the context; either from the chapter itself or from the book as a whole from the beginning until this point. In this way we can tell what is meant. But in all cases the context tells us what the meaning is. This contextual meaning is called the pshat. It is what the sentence/verse ‘really’ means. It is what commentators like Rashi and those who followed in his footsteps have tried to do with Biblical verses.


But this again causes us to consider, how do the Rabbis get to their non-pshat meanings? Why do they have them at all? It is an axiom of Judaism that each and every word that is in the Tenach is there because God wanted it. There is a purpose even to the choice of words used in a verse. Hebrew, like many other languages, will in many cases have more than one word that could be used for the same idea. Hebrew is based on roots, but sometimes different words have similar roots. An extra word or one word as opposed to another was there because God wanted it to be so. Because it was God’s will that the verse have these anomalies, the Rabbis believed it is also God’s will that these anomalies should be used to bring out meanings other then the pshat. These ‘difficulties’ were placed there in order that the verse can be used to bring out a meaning, that does not always conform to the pshat.


One way of looking at the distinction is as follows. We refer to an ‘ends’ and a ‘means’ to that ‘end’. They are not the same thing. The ‘ends’ refers to the purpose, while the ‘means’ is the way one gets to the ‘ends’. When it comes to looking at a verse, if we look at it to understand the simple intention of the author then that is looking at the verse as an ‘end’. As such it fits into a whole context. But in the Midrashic approach we look at the verse as a ‘means’ to an ‘end’. The ‘end’ is the lesson that the person wants to relate, while the verse itself is the ‘means’ to bring out that ‘end’. Therefore the Midrashic teaching does not fit the context, and is not the simple meaning of the verse so it should not be confused with the original intent of the verse.


This will all become clearer with our example of Psalm 72:17 and what Rashi has to say about it. Let me first bring the verse in question[5]:


May his name be forever; before the sun, his name will be magnified, and [people] will bless themselves with him; all nations will praise him.


This verse is the basis for a Midrashic teaching in the Talmud tractate Sanhedrin 98b:

‘What is the name of the Messiah? …The school of Rebbe Yanai said, ‘Yanin’ is his name as it says, “May his name be forever, before the sun, Yanin is his name.”’


Rashi goes on to explain what this passage in the Talmud says, and gives an explanation of the source of this drash:

“’Yanin is his name: Like Yannai. Each one (of these schools) has a drash after his name. (i.e. the name of their Rabbi).


Before the sun’: Before he (the sun) was created his name was Yanin. This means to say, it was one of the seven things[6] that arose in His mind to create.


What is Rashi trying to say? He was NOT commenting on the meaning of the verse. He was simply trying to help us understand what each of these teachings mean. In the first comment he points out that we have a series of teachings by different schools using a verse to point out that their Rabbi has the name the Messiah is to have. (i.e. that they believe him to be the one who is most worthy of fulfilling that function in their time.) The second Rashi explains how they understood the verse for this drash. They took the word ‘yanin’ as a noun instead of a verb, and so referred it to their Rabbi. Part of the basis for this is a teaching from Pesachim with regards to the name of the Messiah being one of seven things that are pre-existent.


According to what I have written in my other article, it would appear that all Rashi is doing here is trying to make it easier for those learning the talmud to understand what the point of the Midrash is. But some have made the claim that Rashi is actually claiming that the underlying verse (72:17) and by extension the whole chapter of Psalms is actually about the Messiah; hence the chapter 72 of Psalm is a Messianic Psalm. If I was wrong, Rashi in his commentary on Psalms 72 should refer to this passage in the Talmud, but if I am right, then he will ignore it and explain it based on the context of the Psalm.


Let’s see what Rashi says on this verse in his commentary on Psalms:


May his name: [May] Solomon’s name be remembered forever for his riches and his wisdom.




before the sun, his name will be magnified: All the days of the sun, his name will be magnified.




will be magnified: Heb. ינון, an expression of kingdom and dominion, as (Prov. 29:21): “he will ultimately be a ruler (מנון) ; (Gen. 21:23),” and to my son (ולניני) , “ who rules over my property after me; (below 74:8),” They said in their heart, their rulers (נינם) together" ; their kings together.




will bless themselves with him: A person will say to his son, “May you be wise and rich like Solomon.”



Here we see Rashi explains the verse as being about Solomon. His reason is obvious as the context demands this. If we look at the first verse of the Psalm we see why:

Concerning Solomon. O God, give Your judgments to a king and Your righteousness to a king's son.


The verse says explicitly that it is about Solomon. Therefore Rashi, looking at the context and seeing an explicit verse saying who it is about, explains it as referring to Solomon. He DOES NOT mention the Messiah or Rebbe Yannai at all, since that is only a Midrash. It is not what the verse means, nor is it an alternative understanding.


One can say the same about all the other names that appear there in the Talmud, and also the verses used to support them. In each case, the Midrash distorts a word to make it fit what it wants, regardless of what the actual context is. Let’s look at the other examples with Rashi’s commentary if it exists and how Rashi sees the verse in his commentary on the Tenach.


#1: The school of Rebbe Shilo says ‘Shilo’ is his name as it says “Until Shilo Comes.” (Genesis 49:10)


Rashi has no comment here, but we see that the Midrash sees ‘Shilo’ as the name of a person. Here is the full verse:


The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the student of the law from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him will be a gathering of peoples.


On the words used in the Talmud Rashi says the following:

until Shiloh comes: [This refers to] the King Messiah, to whom the kingdom belongs (שֶׁלוֹ) , and so did Onkelos render it: [until the Messiah comes, to whom the kingdom belongs]. According to the Midrash Aggadah, [“Shiloh” is a combination of] שַׁי לוֹ, a gift to him, as it is said:“they will bring a gift to him who is to be feared” (Ps. 76:12). - [From Gen. Rabbah ed. Theodore-Albeck p. 1210 ]


Notice that the passage in the Talmud is not the source for saying it refers to the Messiah. His primary source is Onkelos, whose translations/comments are always trying to reflect the pshat. Onkelos reaches this conclusion because if we look at the whole passage in its context, i.e. the blessings Yakov gives to his children, we see that they are referring to end-times/Messianic events, as it states explicitly in verse 1 of the chapter:

Jacob called for his sons and said, "Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days.


#3[7]: The school of Rebbe Chaninah said, ‘Chaninah’ is his name as it says: “for I will not show you Chaninah. (Jeremiah 16:13)


In the Talmud Rashi says:

for I will not show you Chaninah: Messiah has not yet come.


Rashi has no comment on the verse in the Tenach but here is what it says:

And I will cast you off this land to a land that you and your fathers did not know, and you shall serve there other gods day and night, for I will show you no favor.


The verse (and the verses around it) deals with how the Jewish people will be exiled and forsaken, and God will turn from them. It has no mention of the Messiah’s name being Chaninah not anything specifically Messianic, although Jeremiah in other places is quite explicit about the Messiah.


#4: And some say ‘Menachem ben Chezkiya’ is his name as it says “Menachem is far from us to restore my soul.” (Lamentations 1:16)


Rashi comments on the verse usage saying:

Menachem: ben Chezkiya


This is on the second occurrence of Menachem, which is the quote from the verse.


There is no Rashi on the verse in the Tenach but here is what it says:

For these things I weep; my eye, yea my eye, sheds tears, for the comforter to restore my soul is removed from me; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed


Here Jeremiah is lamenting the loss of the Temple and that he has no one to comfort him in his loss. Nothing indicating that a name or person is meant; nothing about the Messiah appears in this lament.


The last one is one misused by missionaries quite often. They use it to claim that the Rabbis interpreted the whole of Isaiah 53 as referring to the Messiah:


#5: The Rabbis say the Leper at Rebbe’s house as it says: “Indeed, he bore our illnesses, and our pains-he carried them, yet we accounted him a leper, smitten by God and oppressed.” (Isasiah 53:4)


Rashi says on this:

‘Leper’ at Rebbes house: The leper at the house of Rebbe. (He translates from the Aramaic to Hebrew)


Here Rashi just clarifies who is meant, by his translation of the Aramaic. It is interesting to note that in the commentary on tractate Sanhedrin, Margulious HaYom[8] refers to a passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi[9] that this leper was a well known scholar who because he taught without permission from Rebbe, he was cursed to become leper. This identification would seem to indicate that this teaching is not to be taken seriously.


Here is the verse as it appears:

Indeed, he bore our illnesses, and our pains-he carried them, yet we accounted him as plagued, smitten by God and oppressed.


And here is what Rashi says on it:

Indeed, he bore our illnesses: Heb. אָכֵן, an expression of ‘but’ in all places. But now we see that this came to him not because of his low state, but that he was chastised with pains so that all the nations be atoned for with Israel’s suffering. The illness that should rightfully have come upon us, he bore.                    


yet we accounted him: We thought that he was hated by the Omnipresent, but he was not so, but he was pained because of our transgressions and crushed because of our iniquities.                   


We see here no mention of a ‘leper’, and it is well known that Rashi interprets Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel.


To summarize, in each of these cases we see that the Midrash imposes a proper name, in place of some other grammatical form, like a common noun, or verb, ignoring the context or even the grammatical structure of the verse. Where we see a Rashi on the verse in Tenach, we see that except for Genesis 49, we see no Messianic interpretation. Rashi interprets Genesis 49 as Messianic based on an explicit verse (49:1) and the translation of Onkelos, and not on the Midrashic teaching in the Talmud we looked at. In no other cases do we see the context of the verse as Messianic. In none of the cases is the word used to indicate a proper name, a name in the original context.


What we see from this is simple: The great Rabbis distinguish between a Midrashic comment of the Talmud (or in the Midrash itself) and what the simple meaning of a text is[10]. They have no problem with rejecting or ignoring it when trying to explain what the true meaning of a text is. We see that Rashi when commenting on the verses will ignore those Midrashim that are not pshat. This was exactly what I pointed out in my other article.


© Moshe Shulman 2014 http://www.judaismsanswer.com

For more information, questions answered, or help with missionaries you can reach Moshe Shulman at outreach@judaismsanswer.com.


[1]  I would like to thank my friend Stan Levy who sent me a question about Rashi and Psalms 72:17 which led me to write this addition to my previous article.

[2]  http://judaismsanswer.com/midrash.htm

[3]  Rashi is important for two reasons. First, he is considered first of all the commentators and it is the nature of his commentaries to explain what the literal meaning is. Second, Ashkenazim, much more the Sefardim accepted more literally the Midrashim. Sefardim would more commonly allegorize the Midrashim, or even reject them totally.

[4]  This applies to all of them whether Drash, Remez or Sod.

[5]  The translation of the verses from Tenach and the Rashi on the verse comes from: http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16293#showrashi=true . The translation of the Talmud and the Rashi on the talmud is mine.

[6]  A reference to the teaching in Pesachim 54a on the seven things that are from before the world was created.

[7]  #2 was Yanin.

[8]  Paragraph 16 page 81.

[9]  Chagigah Chapter 2 Halacha 1.

[10]  I should point out that this does not mean we reject the teachings as false. R. Yannai, R. Shiloh and R. Chaninah could have been the Messiah had their generation been worthy. Menachem ben Chizkiya is a name that is associated with the Messiah.