Sunday, June 07, 2009

A Rationalist Moment For Rashi

The Gemara (Sukkah 28a) offers effusive praise for Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai, saying that he know all areas of knowledge, including the "discussions of angels, the discussions of demons, the discussions of palm trees, the parables of launderers and the parables of foxes."

What are these mysterious and mystical areas of knowledge? Could he actually talk to plants, animals and celestial beings?

To explain "discussions of angels, the discussions of demons, the discussions of palm trees", Rashi writes, "I don't know what this is." This is highly significant because of what Rashi could have said.

Click here to read moreIn a parallel passage (Bava Basra 134a), Rabbenu Gershom explains "the discussions of demons" as "He knew how to recite incantations and to force them to swear with God's name." He says the same about the "discussions of angels." In other words, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai could force demons and angels to perform his bidding. Rashbam, Rashi's grandson, explains in a similar vein in his commentary to Bava Basra.

Assuming that these commentaries are correctly attributed, we have Rashi deviating from an explanation that preceded him and was evidently sufficiently current to be repeated by his grandson. Perhaps Rashi had a rationalist streak that emerges here.

Of note is Rashi's commentary to 1 Kings 5:13, regarding Shlomo's wisdom:

וידבר על העצים מן הארז אשר בלבנון ועד האזוב אשר יצא בקיר וידבר על הבהמה ועל העוף ועל הרמש ועל הדגים.
And he spoke of trees, from the cedar tree that (is) in Lebanon and to the hyssop that springs out of the wall, and he spoke of the beasts, and of the fowl, and of the creeping things, and of the fishes.
Rashi (link) explains that this does not mean that Shlomo spoke to trees and animals but that he understood their natures: "Which cure is derived from each tree, and that particular wood would be best for that type of building and to plant [a certain tree] in that type of earth. And also of the beasts, what is its cure and the vital elements [necessary] for its upbringing and development and its food."

See also this post: link

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