From A Small Number
Among the many commentators of the Bible and the Talmud, Rashi has occupied a central position over the past millennium. While the main language of his work is Hebrew (and occasionally Aramaic), Rashi makes occasional use of words he denotes as coming from a “foreign language”, the idiom used in the eleventh century as a vernacular in the Champagne region where he lived, which eventually evolved into the French language we know today.
Rashi defined the approach he chose for his commentary as one adhering closely to the immediate meaning of the text. The “foreign” words he uses – the glosses he refers to as “le’azim” – were meant to contribute to his interpretative quest.
These mentions are relatively few, hence the title of this project: “From A Small Number” (Hebrew: במתי מעט), which is borrowed from the Bible’s characterization of the few members of Jacob’s family who went to Egypt, who formed the seed of what was to become a large nation, endowing it with a special significance.
Similarly, the collection of Rashi’s le’azim – however sparse it may be – can shed a bright light on some of the most iconic – and often, enigmatic – passages of the Bible and the Talmud, thus contributing solutions to age-old problems of interpretation, and yielding original perspectives on their meaning.
These le'azim were preserved, first in copies of manuscripts, then in printed publications of Rashi’s commentary. As the center of gravity of Jewish thought migrated to Spain, to Germany, to Central and Eastern Europe and eventually to the United States, Western Europe and Israel, the interest in (and understanding of) these words has been scant.
To date, the number of professional academics and scholars who can combine the philological background and the substantive knowledge required to place these words in their proper context is counted in single digits. Likewise, most Jewish centers of learning, including Yeshivot of all types and in all countries, have not been assigning much importance to these words over the past centuries.
Yet, recent advances combining derivational morphology and computational linguistics, associated with an interpretative interest in biblical and Talmudic studies, can be brought to bear to rejuvenate, specify and extend this area of research. We have applied these methods and techniques selectively, addressing the concerns of the following constituencies:
drawing on the study of le’azim as morphological markers of transformational trends in language;
Historians and sociologists,
learning from the portrayal of medieval lifestyles evoked by le’azim; and
Biblical and Talmudic scholars,
focused on themes underpinning Rashi’s selective use of le’azim, thereby contributing solutions to interpretative quandaries.
On this site, we provide in 100 minutes of video a few indications regarding two of the three perspectives mentioned above, inasmuch as they contribute to a better understanding of the linguistic and historical context of these words, and we dedicate a more sustained focus on the third: Our hope is that the thematic perspectives inferred by Rashi’s le’azim can stimulate a dialog with scholars and students of Biblical and Talmudic thought, aimed at elucidating and expanding the scope of their work.