The medieval Jewish commentator known as Rashi is famous for saying much in few words. With a brief comment on one Hebrew term near the beginning of Deuteronomy, he makes the profound suggestion that the need to reinterpret the Torah for every generation began inside the Torah itself.
Deuteronomy 1:5 begins: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses began to elucidate this Torah.” Rashi zeroes in on the Hebrew term be’er, which I’ve translated as “elucidate.” His comment: “In 70 languages he explained it for them.”
Seventy languages? Where did that come from? The text doesn’t mention languages. A literal understanding of Rashi’s comment is so implausible that we can assume it’s not what he meant.
Rashi didn’t make up the idea that Moses was a polyglot but he always insisted that he interpreted the Torah according to the peshat — the unadorned contextual meaning. If he chose to highlight that particular tradition, he must have thought there was some question about the text that this commentary might answer.
One question that piques Rashi’s interest is be’er itself. Only twice in the Bible does Moses elucidate. Usually, it’s “Moses spoke” or “Moses said.” Therefore, Rashi figures, this unusual term must be asking us to tease out extra nuance.
Behind Rashi’s investigation of this single word is a larger question about Deuteronomy: It contains lists of laws that differ from lists found elsewhere in the Bible. Sometimes Deuteronomy has more details or alternate explanations; sometimes the laws are different in substance. Even the Ten Commandments don’t seem to be written in stone.
Scholars explain these differences historically, theorizing that the text was assembled from a variety of law codes developed and recorded by different communities in different eras. Rashi also recognized the differences, but his method was to explain them in the context of the narrative.
Deuteronomy opens in the 11th month of the 40th year after the Exodus from Egypt. Of the thousands of Israelites who escaped slavery and heard the voice of God at Mount Sinai, only three —Moses, Joshua and Caleb — remain; the others died in the wilderness.
Their offspring stand looking across the Jordan at the Promised Land. Joshua will lead them from here; God has told Moses that he must die without crossing over. As he sends the younger generation on its way, Moses retells their history, reviewing the laws around which they will build a new society.
In the biblical story, the Israelites are only one generation removed from their parents’ life in Egypt. Maybe they speak Egyptian; maybe Hebrew has been passed down to them. But they certainly don’t speak 70 languages.
Did Rashi mean that Moses translated the laws so they could be understood by neighboring nations? Or that he prepared a translation for later epochs, when new languages would emerge?
No: Rashi’s comment specifically says that Moses elucidated it in many languages for the very people whom he had led through the desert, whose parents encountered God at Sinai. Rashi seems to believe that their new context requires a new interpretation.
Living in France in the 11th century, Rashi was a rabbi to a community whose context was vastly different from the eras of the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic texts that were their birthright. He made it his life’s work to annotate the Bible and the Talmud to make them accessible to his generation.
Sometimes he literally translates. More often, he writes in Hebrew, bridging the meaning gap between the tradition and the world around him. With his comment on be’er, he claims Moses as his model: Both elucidate the text in a language suited to the context of their listeners.
A millennium after Rashi, it’s not surprising that the texts of the Jewish tradition sometimes seem foreign in our generation. If Moses needed to speak 70 languages to reach his audience, how much more does the Torah require interpretation today? Whatever our language, it is our challenge to find the 70 ways of reading that make the riches of our tradition accessible to us. pjc
Rabbi Helen Plotkin teaches biblical Hebrew and classical Hebrew texts at Swarthmore College and is founder/director of Mekom Torah, a Jewish community learning project. She is editor and annotator of In This Hour: Heschel’s Writings in Nazi Germany and London Exile.