Friday, July 18, 2008

Rashi on Prophecy - A pre- Maimonides Maimonidean!

Rashi is generally seen as not philosophical. I have seen some argue that he believed in a corporeal God. I am no great specialist in Rashi on Chumash but I have traced several of his seemingly innocuous comments and found in them incredible philosophical insights. What is even more amazing is that he shares these deep thoughts in a few words and unless we pay attention, we miss them. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz AH in one of his articles or books, noted Rashi's approach to prophecy which is definitely much more sophisticated than the one currently accepted in the general Yeshivish world.

In Shemot 33:9 we read

ט וְהָיָה, כְּבֹא מֹשֶׁה הָאֹהֱלָה, יֵרֵד עַמּוּד הֶעָנָן, וְעָמַד פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל; וְדִבֶּר, עִם-מֹשֶׁה.

9 And so, when Moshe would come into the Tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stand at the entrance of the Tent; and it was spoken[1] with Moshe.

רש"י שמות פרק לג

ט) וְדִבֶּר עם משה - כמו ומִדַּבֵּר עם משה. תרגומו ומתמלל עם משה שהוא כבוד שכינה, כמו (במדבר ז פט) וישמע את הקול מדבר אליו, ואינו קורא מדבר אליו. כשהוא קורא מִדַּבֵּר פתרונו הקול מדבר בינו לבין עצמו, וההדיוט שומע מאליו, וכשהוא קורא מדבר משמע שהמלך מדבר עם ההדיוט

אונקלוס שמות פרק לג

ט) והוי כד עליל משה למשכנא נחית עמודא דעננא וקאים בתרע משכנא ומתמלל עם משה

Rashi notes the curious Nikud וְדִבֶּר which connotes that something was spoken without being directed at anyone specifically. He confirms that interpretation with Onkelos who uses the Hitpael tense ומתמלל עם משה. Rashi also notes that the same curious Nikud is used in Parshat Naso. Rashi therefore concludes that the prophetic content is being broadcast so to say, and anyone that pays attention and is worthy hears it. In other words, unlike R. Yehuda Halevi and many other thinkers in his school who believed that, prophecy is a gift rather than something one has to earn; Rashi believed that the worthy gets the information rather than receiving it.

וְדִבֶּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, כַּאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר אִישׁ אֶל-רֵעֵהוּ

And God spoke unto Moses face to face, as a man speaks unto his friend (Shemot 33:11)

רש"י שמות פרק לג

ודבר ה' אל משה פנים אל פנים - ומתמלל עם משה


אונקלוס שמות פרק לג

ומליל יי עם משה ממלל עם ממלל כמא דימליל גוברא עם חבריה ותאיב למשריתא ומשומשניה יהושע בר נון עולימא לא עדי מגו משכנא:

In this verse, the Onkelos editions we have translate וְדִבֶּר in the regular Piel tense. Rashi apparently had a different text having Onkelos use the Hitpael tense. He prefers it as it is consistent with his earlier interpretation and notes it to bring it to our attention.

פט וּבְבֹא מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, לְדַבֵּר

אִתּוֹ, וַיִּשְׁמַע אֶת-הַקּוֹל מִדַּבֵּר אֵלָיו מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת

אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרֹן הָעֵדֻת, מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים; וַיְדַבֵּר,

אֵלָיו. {פ}

89 And when Moses went into the tent of meeting that He might speak with him, then he heard the Voice speaking unto him from above the ark-cover that was upon the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim; and He spoke unto him.

רש"י במדבר פרק ז

מדבר - כמו מתדבר, כבודו של מעלה לומר כן מדבר בינו לבין עצמו, ומשה שומע מאליו

Again, we have Rashi explaining that prophecy is out there and must be heard.

Sforno sees this Rashi as Maimonidean. He explains that to God there is no potential and in-actu (see MN 1:68). Therefore, the flow of goodness, the cause of existence, that emanates so to say from God, is constant. The potential recipient of this flow receives it automatically when ready and prepared. Prophecy is the ability to read and understand that flow and it requires perfection on the part of the prophet.

Rashi makes a similar comment in Yechezkel 2:2

רש"י יחזקאל פרק ב

(ב) את מדבר אלי - את המתדבר עמי וכבוד הוא לכתוב מדבר כלפי מעלה שהאומר מדבר בשו"א נשמע כאדם המדבר לחבירו פונה אליו פנים אל פנים והאומר מדבר (בחיר"ק) משמעו שהשכינה מדבר בפני עצמו בכבודו ושלוחיו ישמעו בורפאלי"ן בלע"ז:

Rashi would have to be quite inconsistent if he was literal about God’s corporeality and have this understanding of prophecy.

Shabbat Shalom.

[1] My tentative translation based on Rashi and Targum Onkelos.


  1. Interesting.

  2. I have seen all sorts of things like this (not philosophical, believe in corporeality) attributed to Rashi. I find them absurd.

    What Rashi writes is a product of his definition of peshat. It's not really a venue for philosophical discourse. It would be more sane to conclude that Rashi considered "Yad Hashem" to refer to His Might to be derashah, rather than peshat. Since it didn't pose a grammatical problem in a straight read of the text, Rashi wouldn't deal with them.

    Might as well read Franklin's work on electricity and conclude he wasn't a politician.


  3. Mind sharing some more examples of claimed corporeality in Rashi?

    Thank you.

  4. I do not share the opinion that Rashi sees corporeality but R. Micha mentioned one that is in shemot 14:31. There are others and all are not definitive.

  5. A counter-example is Rashi's explanation of Tzelem Elokim in Beresheet, which is clearly not corporeal.

  6. My argument is, though, that Rashi isn't being philosophical. Rather, in explaining a pasuq that uses corporeal idiom, Rashi may use corporeal idiom. It doesn't reflect anything but the wording of the pasuq.


  7. R. Micha,

    I understood your argument and it is not novel. many others feel the same way and if we assume that Rashi was not philosophically minded you may be right.

    To me that is unlikely as he picked Midrashim very carefully and as they are all philosophical he must have had a consistent hashkafa that he was following. I know I am not qualified to do that type of work and that is why I chose to focus on the one here where Sforno seems to see it my way.

    When i get home tonight BN I will refer to a Rashi on the subject which may be a strong proof to your argument).

  8. Have you got home yet?

  9. What is this Bli Neder business? In my English copy of Sefer Mitzvot the title for Negative commandment is, "Infringing any oral obligation, even if undertaken without an oath."

    The example of an oath given is, "if this or that happens," ... I will...

    From what I understand the words you used above is an oath. Or are if statements greater than when statements?