About five years ago while cooped up inside during a winter ice storm I spent the weekend reading Max Dimont’s 1962 classic Jews, God and History. It was in Dimont’s book that I first read of the great medieval Talmudist Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki, or more commonly known by his initials as Rashi. A towering intellectual figure, his commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud undoubtedly helped shape the evolution of Judaism. Unbeknown to most, Nicholas of Lyra’s Latin translation of Rashi’s biblical commentaries heavily influenced Martin Luther and by doing so also left huge impact on Protestant Christianity. Fluent in numerous languages such as Hebrew, Aramaic and ancient Greek, modern scholars still consider the writings of Rashi as priceless source material for studying Old French or as Rashi called it “Belaaz”. As of today, close to three thousand Old French words exist only in the surviving works of Rashi. Living in an era associated by many with darkness, ignorance and illiteracy, Rashi’s luminance shines forth into the present day.
That’s why when I spotted Elie Wiesel’s 2009 short biography Rashi sitting on the shelf at my public library I quickly grabbed it. Part of the “Jewish Encounters” series by Nextbook Press, Wiesel’s book, for lack of better words is a slim, almost meditative biography of the great rabbi. Probably since we know more about his teachings and writings as opposed to his actual life, Wiesel’s book is more of a collection of biographical snapshots and meditations than a chronologically themed conventional biography. In addition, while the book itself is short, it does contain a glossary and a historical timeline. I found both additions welcome and useful.
A quick survey of the book’s reviews on Amazon and Goodreads seem that most readers, while generally liking the book wanted a bit more. While I am tempted to agree with them, I still think Wiesel’s brief biography of Rashi serves as a nice introduction to the great medieval teacher.