Reconstructing the Lost Parts of
Rashbam's Torah Commentary1


Please note: The reconstructed interpretations of Rashbam presented on these pages are based on analysis conducted by Hillel Novetsky on materials from Rashbam which he discovered in various manuscripts. The text presented here is a preliminary edition of a doctoral dissertation he is writing under the guidance of Dr. Itamar Kislev at Haifa University. All comments, additions, and corrections would be greatly appreciated and can be sent to us here.

The Missing Chapters

Rashbam was one of the most innovative medieval Biblical commentators, and his Torah commentary packs more peshat per verse than perhaps any other. Despite this, or possibly as a consequence of this, Rashbam's Biblical commentaries did not achieve anywhere near the widespread popularity as those of his grandfather Rashi. In contrast to Rashi's Torah commentary which was one of the first Hebrew books to ever be printed (c.1470) and of which hundreds of manuscripts are extant today, Rashbam's commentary was first printed only in 17052 from a sole surviving manuscript (MS Breslau 103), whose fate has remained unknown since being plundered during the Shoah.

Even this single manuscript (before being lost) was missing almost twenty-four chapters. It was truncated on both ends and hence was missing Rashbam's commentary on both Bereshit 1-17 and from Devarim 33:4 until the end of the Torah, and it also was missing Rashbam's commentary on Parashat Pinechas (Bemidbar 25:10 – 30:2). Fortuitously, Rashbam's commentary on two of these chapters survived in two other manuscripts. His commentary on Bereshit 1 (until the middle of the last verse of the chapter) is appended to the end of MS Munich 5,3 and his commentary on Devarim 34 is inserted at the end of Rashi's Torah commentary in MS Oxford Opp. 34.4 However, each one of these contains only one folio, and the remaining missing sections still total about ten percent of the complete commentary.

Sources for Reconstruction

There are several sources which can be utilized in attempting to reconstruct the lost sections of Rashbam:

MSS Munich 252 and Oxford Marsh 225

The Munich 252 and Oxford Marsh 225 manuscripts constitute two textual witnesses of a Tosafist compilation which moves back and forth between peshat exegesis and Midrashic interpretations.9 This feature is characteristic of most later Tosafist collections. However, this particular compilation is unique in that its peshat portion incorporates massive amounts of Rashbam.

A statistical analysis of Bereshit 18-22 (Parashat Vayera, or the first full Parashah on which Rashbam's commentary is extant) reveals that a full 60% of the peshat interpretations in the Munich 252 – Oxford Marsh 225 compilation derive from Rashbam and that they generally preserve Rashbam's own language with only minimal modifications. The extent of Rashbam's impact on the content of this compilation can readily be seen from the Rashbam – Munich 252 Comparison Table which juxtaposes the relevant sections of these manuscripts with the printed edition of Rashbam. The linguistic similarity is also highlighted by a Three Way Comparison Table which compares its degree of fidelity to Rashbam's words with that of Chizkuni.10 The full text of MS Munich 252 on Parashat Vayera with the identified sources for each lemma is available here.11

In addition to the three-fifths of the peshat interpretations which are derived from Rashbam, approximately one-fifth is taken from R. Yosef Bekhor Shor.12 The extent of Rashbam's influence also does not end at Bereshit 22. A study of the rest of these manuscripts is currently underway, and preliminary analysis shows a similar pattern of heavy use of Rashbam through Shemot 24.13

These findings indicate that the texts of the Munich and Oxford manuscripts are of significant value for a number of different purposes:

Challenges and Methods

There are difficulties, however, which need to be surmounted before using Munich 252 – Oxford Marsh 225 or any of the above sources for reconstructing the missing sections of Rashbam.

To overcome these challenges, the reconstructed text of Rashbam on Bereshit 1-17 presented here employs a combination of methods whenever possible, and the critical apparatus under each individual interpretation details the various factors supporting its identification as from Rashbam. The following are some of the general principles utilized in distilling potential Rashbam material from MS Munich 252 and Chizkuni:

By its very nature, the labor of reconstruction is often limited to degrees of probability. Thus, we have divided the reconstructed interpretations of Rashbam into the categories of כמעט וודאי (almost definite) and סביר (probable).19 These two categories can be accessed by selecting either or both of the check boxes at the top of the Reconstructed Rashbam page. A third group of interpretations, which likely contains much additional material from Rashbam, but for which more evidence is necessary before making an identification, can be viewed on the separate Possible Candidates page.

It should be emphasized that, somewhat paradoxically, because the interpretations in the "almost definite" category are mostly limited to explicit citations of Rashbam, they may reflect Rashbam's original language less than the other categories. In other words, while the evidence for their content being from Rashbam may be stronger, they are more likely to be a paraphrase than a direct quote from his commentary.

The Shabbat Controversy and Censoring of Rashbam

Rashbam's interpretations of Bereshit 1:4-8 appear to say that, in the Days of Creation, the day preceded the night, and each new day began only at dawn. As a result, some have concluded from here that Rashbam maintained a similar position regarding the 6th and 7th days of Creation and that he thought that the Shabbat of Creation began only at dawn.20 Indeed, many scholars have assumed that Ibn Ezra's famous Iggeret HaShabbat was written to combat this position of Rashbam and to prevent anyone from entertaining the notion that the Shabbat of Creation began only at sunrise.21 Moreover, some publishing houses have even gone so far as to censor Rashbam's comments on these verses, contending that these "heretical" interpretations were interpolated by someone other than Rashbam.22 New evidence, though, from MS Munich 252 illuminates Rashbam's position and dispels these concerns.

The Munich 5 manuscript which is the source of Rashbam's commentary on Bereshit 1 breaks off after the first few words of his interpretation of 1:31, the very verse which apparently contained Rashbam's position on when Shabbat begins:

ויהי ערב ויהי בקר – אז נגמר יום הששי והתחילה...

As a result, Rashbam's stance on whether the Shabbat of Creation began at night or during the day has remained unknown until now.23 However, the Munich 252 manuscript provides us with the continuation of Rashbam's long lost interpretation and makes an invaluable contribution to understanding Rashbam's position. Fitting like a glove, it begins with the first few words ("אז נגמר יום הששי והתחילה") already known from MS Munich 5,24 and it then brings the missing portion of Rashbam's interpretation:25

ויהי ערב ויהי בקר יום הששי – אז נגמר יום הששי

והתחילה מנוחה בשבת בערב שפסקה המלאכה

, כדכתו' זכור את יום השבת לקדשו, כי ששת ימים עשה י"י וכו'. לכך נכתב בששי מה שלא כתוב בחמשה ימים.

This passage makes it abundantly clear that Rashbam himself did not believe that Shabbat of Creation began only on the morning of the seventh day. Rather, Rashbam explicitly states that it began already on the previous evening (at sunset of the sixth day), or as soon as Hashem ceased His creative activity ("בערב שפסקה המלאכה"). Thus, this passage alone suffices to remove any objections to Rashbam's interpretations, as even according to the prevalent assumption that Rashbam did maintain that the five earlier nights of creation belonged to the days which preceded them, this would have no bearing on the starting point of Shabbat, as the system changed upon the completion of the sixth day of Creation.

Moreover, it is possible that a closer reading and synthesis of all of Rashbam's relevant comments on this chapter can facilitate a more comprehensive and precise understanding of his position:

Historical Interest

Acknowledgments and Manuscript List

We express our appreciation to the following libraries for granting us permission to publish texts found in their manuscripts:

Finally, we express our appreciation to the staff of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts for all of their assistance.