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Rashi’s Glosses Belaaz: Navigating Hebrew Scripture under Feudal Lanterns

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image of Review of Rabbinic Judaism

Amid sporadic anti-Jewish violence whipped by a crusading frenzy, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (“Rashi”) composed a commentary on the Hebrew Bible that was destined to become a vast navigational aid for God’s scriptural plan. Many of Rashi’s glosses invited medieval Jews on a spiritual pilgrimage that would dispel their sense of subjugation to temporal Christian powers. From the advent of Christianity, Jewish communities increasingly steered a course between Jewish autonomy and welfare, on one hand, and accommodation of Christian and feudal strictures, on the other. Wondering whether the cataclysmic destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e. signaled God’s abandonment of his people, medieval Jews’ scriptural interpretations intensified the themes of survival and internal social cohesion. To guide medieval Jewry through a middle ground between a characteristically triumphant scriptural landscape and the dispiriting Christian counterpart, Rashi frequently incorporated into his glosses French terms he transliterated into Hebrew characters. This incorporation of French was both purposeful and well-informed. As a minority community in Rashi’s Troyes, Jews lived two distinct experiences: in one, they spoke vernacular French with Christian neighbors, while, in the other, they prayed and studied the Pentateuch and Prophets in Hebrew. In this setting, the laazim communicated to Jewish readers in a specialized language akin to a password or a special handshake. Yet the glosses, because they were enveloped in Hebrew commentaries and disguised in Hebrew letters, would have eluded French-speaking Christians who could not have identified fragments of their own language hiding in plain sight.

Affiliations: 1: Tulane UniversityNew Orleans (Emeritus)


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