By Harvey Sicherman and Gilad J. Gevaryahu
Judaism, Vol.38 No.190 (1999)
Introduction: The tenth and eleventh centuries marked the birth of Franco-German Jewry, the Ashkenazim. These Jews, invited to a rapidly developing part of Europe by Christian civil and religious leaders, soon distinguished themselves in commerce and scholarship. In the galaxy of their rabbinical luminaries, the figure of Rabbi Solomon son of Isaac (1040–1105) shone the brightest for subsequent generations. Rashi, his acronym, unites both his name and a supreme compliment: Rabban Shel Yisrael, Teacher of Israel. To this day, his commentaries illuminate Torah and Talmud so that no Jew can be considered literate in Judaism without knowing them.
The details of Rashi’s life are sketchy. We know that he endured a time of great poverty during his studies. He engaged in business with Gentiles and seems to have been a wine merchant. He and his wife had at least two daughters, both of whom married scholars. Three of Rashi’s grandchildren–Samuel (Rashbam), Isaac (Ribam), and Jacob Tam (Rabbeinu Tam)–were famous in their own right and began the Tosafot commentary on the Talmud. Samuel, the eldest, left several reminiscences of his grandfather, for whom he occasionally acted as a secretary. From this we know that even in his old age, Rashi wished to make revisions of his commentary.