To listen to a full recording of the lecture click here.


Dr. Lisa Fredman


For those who were at the event and for those who work and engage with manuscripts, medieval or otherwise, on a regular basis I would love to hear your thoughts and impressions of Dr. Fredman’s talk! I’m especially curious about how you find the human element through the process of studying manuscripts?

These are my impressions from last night’s talk Rashi’s Biblical Commentaries: Can we Know What Rashi Actually Wrote?” Rashi was a human being and through the magic of history and textual criticism, we can talk to him.

Last night Dr. Lisa Fredman showed us how historians and laymen alike can, through careful and methodical reading of the some 250 manuscripts of Rashi’s commentary, scattered in libraries across the world–find traces of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, his associates and the generations of scribes who transmitted and influenced the body of the commentary we read today.

Scribes are at the center of this story. Often they would leave their own comments on the margins of their manuscript copies, which was not the “Rashi script” at the bottom of the printed Mikraot Gedolot anchored to specific Biblical verses we are familiar with today— a long continuous parchment scroll. Copying from that scribe’s manuscript, the next generation of scribes would include these comments into the body of Rashi’s commentary.

Through this transmission it came to be that approximately ten to thirty percent of Rashi’s commentary–depending on whether you consult Avraham Grossman or Eleazar Touito respectively–was written by someone other then Rashi himself–an astonishing statistic !

Occasionally, as Dr. Fredman noted, “You find a one million dollar notation: ”ת”, meaning תוספת. In the manuscripts where these notations are included, the scribe was cognizant of their explicit additions to the text. While not common the “ת” signals that scribes viewed Rashi’s commentary as a collaborative effort, one in which they could take on Rashi’s literary voice and with what I imagine was a conservative instinct, build upon Rashi’s body of exegesis.

What I found most exciting about Dr. Fredman’s presentation was what she described as “the fifty million dollar notation: תר”ש–תוספת רבינו שמעיה” an interpolation by Rashi’s student, scribe, and protege Rabbi Shemaya, found in a number of manuscripts including the oldest and most useful manuscript copy of Rashi’s commentary, MS Leipzig 1.


Even better we have some sense of Rabbi Shemaya as a person through letters written by Rashi to Rabbi Samuel of Auxerre:

עסקתי וששאל: למה כתבתי…מכל מקום אני טעיתי באותו פירוש…וסתרו דברי זה את זה”
“ ועתה עסקתי בה עם אחינו רבינו שמעיה והגהתיה

“At any rate, I erred in that interpretation…and my words contradicted one another but now I have dealt with it together with our brother Shemaya and have edited/corrected it.”

In this letter we are given access to to Rashi’s creative process. When questioned by a colleague he finds that he has made a mistake and honest and humble academic that he is, consults with his student Rabbi Shemaya. However at the time that he made these corrections, versions that did not contain these corrections continued to circulate. Thus variations of Rashi’s commentary from manuscript to manuscript can reflect different stages of Rashi’s life and work!

Dr. Lisa Fredman showed her audience(which was filled to bursting!) that the methods of textual criticism outlined in her presentation allow for us to, in some sense, participate in and imagine ourselves as part of the the community of scribes and scholars who together formed Rashi’s commentary into the form we know it today.

To read more about Dr. Fredman and how she came to be a renowned Rashi Scholar see the write-up from her lunch with our PhD students here

Review By Elisha Fine, current Revel student


Comments are closed.