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Thought for the Day: How Rashi Knows and Why I Believe Him

The gemara brachos 28a, between two set of (in)famous "two dots" quotes part of the mishna that say one has all day to say musaf.  The gemara uses this as a way of breaking up the discussion into segments, though the quote from the mishna may or may not have much to do with the ensuing discussion.  The discussion begins, "R' Yochanon says he is called a poshei'a (wanton sinner)".  That statement is followed by a tanaitic dispute about which comes first when faced with the need to daven both mincha and musaf; here R' Yochanan poskins to daven mincha then musaf.  The gemara then goes on to a new topic.  One could be left wondering what in the world just happened.  We don't wonder, though, because we have Rashi, who first tells us that that R' Yochanon's statement about a wanton sinner is referring back to the snippet of mishna.  Rashi then explains why R' Yochanon puts mincha first: the person in this predicament is already a wanton sinner regarding musaf, so better to daven mincha immediately rather than incurring yet another episode of wanton sinning.  That explanation fits, but maybe other explanations fit also.  After all, there are very few words in the actual gemara and Rashi puts a lot "into its mouth", so to speak.  So how does Rashi know and why do I believe him?

How did Rashi know what the gemara meant?  Well... as is clear from learning just a few Rashi's, he had to know kol haTorah kulo before writing his commentary.  All of scripture, shas, medrashim, posikim, etc.  And he had to know it, not just have read it.  Somehow Rashi learned kol haTorah kulo well enough to comment and explain kol haTorah kulo; and all that with no Art Scroll!  Actually, he didn't even have Rashi!

And then there is Rashi on chumash.  The greatest praise I ever heard of Rashi was from his grandson, Rabeinu Tam.  Rabeinu Tam said that what his zaidy did on shas was genius, but he felt that with time he would also have been able to produce a commentary of that caliber.  When it came to Rashi on Chumash, however, Rabeinu Tam said he wouldn't even be able to come close.  Rashi did all that while running a wine business.  Oh, and he also had a skin condition that required soothing baths on a daily basis, during which he couldn't learn.  He lived to the ripe age of 65.  He wrote with a quill.  That's a lot to accomplish and not much time.  That's scary smart.

The answer to the second question is easy: because everyone else does.  When I say everyone, I don't mean all my friends and colleagues.  I mean all the talmidei chachamim of our generation and back to Rashi's generation.  To every expert in the field, so to speak, Rashi is the starting place.  Even when another talmid chacham argues on Rashi, he first has to do a lot of explaining.  There are usually three to six tosofos on a page, 10 or 20 Rashi's and actually most tosefos don't argue with Rashi at all.  That means to take issue with Rashi you have to first take issue with 1000's of the best talmudic minds of the last millennium.  It might be a good idea to double check before concluding that Rashi didn't understand the gemara as well as you do.  Maybe triple check.


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