Location – Rashbam lived in cities in Northern France including Troyes, Ramerupt,3 Caen,4 Paris and Loudun.5
Occupation – Rashbam had a flock of ewes, which provided milk and wool.6
Family – Rashbam was the grandson of Rashi7 and the son of R. Meir8 and Yocheved.9 His brothers were R. Yitzchak, R. Tam, and R. Shelomo.10 He had a daughter Marona and perhaps a son Yosef.11 It is possible that he married a daughter of R. Shemaya, Rashi's scribe and disciple.12
Education – Rashbam engaged in Mikra, Talmud, and grammar.
Teachers – R. Meir, his father, and Rashi his grandfather.
Students – Some have suggested that R"E of Beugency was a student of Rashbam,13 pointing, among other things, to his commentary to Yeshayahu 33:24, where he writes "מפי רבנו שמואל".
Time period – The First and Crusades took place in this period.
Biblical commentaries – Rashbam wrote a commentary on most or all of Tanakh. See below regarding his Torah commentary. Commentaries of Rashbam on Tehillim,14 Iyyov, Kohelet, and Shir HaShirim have recently been published, but his authorship of these works is disputed.15 [For discussion, see Rashbam's Commentaries on Nakh.] Citations from Rashbam's commentaries on Neviim and Ketuvim also survived in the Arugat HaBosem of R. Avraham b. Azriel and in various Northern French commentaries.
Grammar – Rashbam wrote a grammatical work, Sefer HaDayyakot.16 It contains two parts: 1) a grammatical treatise of eight chapters discussing various families of roots, the construct state (סמיכות), masculine and feminine forms and other issues 2) a grammatical commentary to Tanakh. In the heading to the second section, Rashbam expresses his intention to cover all 24 books of Tanakh but only his comments until Bereshit 7:5 have survived.17
Talmudic novellae – Rashbam wrote commentaries on the tenth chapter of Pesachim and on Bava Batra 29a18 through the end19 in order to complete missing sections of Rashi's commentary.20 Sections of his commentary to Avodah Zarah have also survived and have been published separately by R. Moshe Yehuda HaKohen Blau21 and by d R. Hillel Gershoni.22 In addition Rashbam wrote commentaries on Eiruvin,23 Gittin,24 Bava Kama,25 other sections of Bava Batra,26 Makkot,27 Chullin,28 and Niddah29 which are not extant, but are cited by other commentaries.
Halakhic codes –
Responses to the works of others – Rashbam wrote Tosafot to the Rif in which he brings traditions from France and Germany, sometimes arguing with R. Alfasi and sometimes addressing the Talmud itself.30
Jewish thought –
Manuscripts – Rashbam's commentary on Torah survived in only one manuscript, MS Breslau 103, and even this manuscript was lost during the Holocaust. This manuscript was missing the first three Parashot of Sefer Bereshit (chapter 1-17), Parashat Pinechas, and Devarim 33:4 through the end of Torah.31 Fortuitously, Rashbam's commentary on two of these chapters survived in two other manuscripts. The commentary on Bereshit 1 (until the middle of the last verse of the chapter) was discovered by A. Geiger as an appendix to MS Munich 5 and is now incorporated in most printed editions32 and the commentary to part of Devarim 34 was published by M. Sokolow from MS Oxford Opp. 34. Recently, the other missing portions of Rashbam's commentary to Bereshit have been reconstructed by R. Dr. Hillel Novetsky. For discussion of the reconstruction and for the reconstructed text itself, see Rashbam's Torah Commentary.
Printings – The commentary was printed for the first time in 1705 in Berlin.
Verse by verse / Topical – Rashbam, like his grandfather, Rashi, before him, wrote a verse by verse commentary. He focuses on textual and conceptual issues rather than philosophical ones. Hןis commentary, nonetheless, is not local in scope. He viewed the entire text as one integrated unit, searching for Biblical parallels and noting "ways of the text".33
Peshat vs. Derash – Rashbam repeatedly asserts34 that even though the Halakhic and Midrashic level of interpretation is the most essential one,35 his goal is to explain the simple sense of Scripture.36 In this he saw himself as a pioneer,37 often noting that his predecessors did not reach a full understanding of "פשוטו של מקרא",38 and that even those who attempted to do so, did not go far enough.39 Rashbam's "peshat" exegesis is exemplified on the one hand by his refusal to look outside the text to Midrashim to explain difficulties, fill in missing details, or to identify the unknown,40 and by his intrascriptural exegesis (use of context, Biblical parallels, and "דרכי המקראת") on the other.41
Peshat vs. Midreshei Aggadah – Though Rashbam will rarely incorporate such Midrashim into his commentary as being the primary meaning of a verse (as they are not anchored in the text),42 he did not view these as false, writing, "כל דברי רבותינו ודרשותיהם כנים ואמתים".43
Peshat vs. Midreshei Halakhah – At times, Rashbam will explain a verse according to its simple sense, even when this contradicts a Halakhah.44 One of the more well known instances is his explanation of Shemot 13:9. The verse is commonly understood to refer to the command to don phylacteries, yet Rashbam writes that it is simply a call to remember the Exodus, as if it were written on one's arm.45
Grammar and Linguistics –
Programmatic statements – Though Rashbam does not write an introduction to his commentary where he lays out his methodology, in several of his comments he hints to it,46 most notably in his conclusion to Devarim 34. There he writes, "ואני פירשתיו יפה לפי הפסוקים ולפי דרך ארץ", noting that his commentary is marked by intrascriptural exegesis and an eye to realia. Each of these will be elaborated on below:
I. Intrascriptural exegesis – Rather than looking outside of the text to explain its difficulties, Rashbam's lets the Biblical text explain itself. This is manifest in both his usage of Biblical parallels, proof texts,47 and context and in his recognition of "דרכי המקראות" (lit. the way of the text), the literary methods of Tanakh.
A. Biblical parallels, proof texts and context – Rashbam will often turn to other verses to explain a word or address a conceptual or textual difficulty:
Definitions – Rashbam generally explains difficult words by looking at their usage in other places in Tanakh rather than looking to cognate languages or Mishnaic Hebrew.48 Often his definitions will be followed by a list of proof texts that support his opinion.49 When a word is rare or a hapax legomenon, he will turn to the context, stating "פתרונו לפי עניינו",50 or draw off a parallel in the verse.51
Contextual explanations – Often, Rashbam will address a difficulty in a verse by looking to immediately surrounding ones. Thus, for example, he explains the content of the "חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט" given in Marah (Shemot 15:25), by pointing to the very next verse, "אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע לְקוֹל ה'... וְשָׁמַרְתָּ כׇּל חֻקָּיו".52
Clarifications and explanations – Similarly, Rashbam might clarify the intent of a verse by turning to another verse elsewhere in Tanakh,53 sometimes, even without any further explanation.54
Background – In places where the Torah refers back to an event that previously took place, Rashbam elucidates the reference by including the relevant verses in his comments.55
B. דרכי המקראות – Rashbam explains certain difficulties in the Biblical text by noting that these are not really anomalies, but common Biblical literary phenomena, "the way of the text."56 Several categories of examples follow:
Literary Anticipation (הקדמות) – This principle assumes that certain statements appear in the text not because they are needed at that point in the narrative, but rather to prepare the reader for what is to come. Rashbam introduces and explains the theory in his comments to Bereshit 1:1, where he brings the well known example of "חם הוא אבי כנען".57 Though Rashbam is not the first to apply the principle,58 he develops the idea, uses it more extensively,59 and takes it further than his predecessors. Perhaps his most radical application is the suggestion that the entire creation narrative serves merely to introduce the commandment to keep the Shabbat.60
Issues of Chronology:
אין מוקדם ומאוחר – Rashbam invokes the rule "אין מוקדם ומאוחר" only once in his commentary,61 generally preferring to posit that the Torah is written in chronological order.62
לא להפסיק הענין – In the few places where he does posit a lack of order, he provides a literary reason, noting that Tanakh might delay or prepone the recording of certain details63 so as not to interrupt a storyline (לא להפסיק הענין).64
כלל ופרט – Rashbam explains that it is confluent with the Torah’s style to first generalize and afterwards explain.65
Geographical markers (סימן בתוך סימן) – Rashbam notes that Tanakh often "gives signs upon signs" to mark the exact location of a place.66
Poetic Doubling (פסוקי דשמואל)67 – Rashbam explains many examples of doubled phrases (such as: "בן פורת יוסף בן פורת עלי עין") as being simply a common stylistic feature of poetic passages in Tanakh.68
Parallelism and doubling (כפל לשון) – Similarly, Rashbam notes that it is the way of Tanakh to repeat an idea in synonymous parallels.69 In such cases, one need not assume that each half of the verse is coming to teach something new.70
Names and references – Rashbam observes that it is common in Tanakh for a sister to be called after the name of her older brother71 or a messenger to be referred to by the name of the one who sent him.72 He further notes that when listing people, males will generally be named before females73 and those who are more important before those of lesser stature.74
Linguistic Phenomena – Rashbam notes that it is the way of the text to use the word "והנה" when expressing wonder (Bereshit 25:24, 29:25), the term "ten" to refer to many (Bereshit 31:7), or the specific terms "דגן ותירוש ויצהר" to refer to any agricultural produce (Shemot 23:11)
II. Way of the World (דרך ארץ) – A second major method employed by Rashbam is to explain verses in light of "דרך ארץ", the customs, social norms and manners of people or nature (either in the Biblical period or throughout history).
Language – Rashbam notes that the language of the text, at times, simply reflects human speech patterns. Thus, he explains that Esav repeats the word “red” in his request to his brother for “it is the way of a man in a hurry to double his words” (Bereshit 25:30).78
Customs in the time of Tanakh – See Bereshit 24:2 (regarding the custom for a servant to swear by grasping his master's legs), Bereshit 25:31 (regarding the custom of eating as a means to seal an agreement), Bereshit 41:10 (regarding kingly titles such as Paroh and Avimelekh),79Bereshit 41:45 (regarding the custom to grant a newly appointed servant a new name),80 or Bereshit 47:21 (regarding population displacement).81
General human behavior and realia – Other actions are explained by recognizing that these reflect general modes of behavior or realities of life (throughout history). Thus, Lot is warned not to look back since one who does so tends to tarry (Bereshit 19:17). The "running" of Rivka's unborn children is simply normal fetal movement (Bereshit 25:22).82 Moshe lifted his hands and staff when the people battled Amalek since banners boost a soldier's morale (Shemot 17:16). 83
Way of nature – See Bereshit 27:1 where Rashbam explains that Yitzchak's grew blind due to old age,84 and Shemot 14:21, regarding the affects of wind on drying water.85
Minimizing miracles – Rashbam will often avoid explanations which introduce the miraculous, preferring to show how something is simply "the way of the world" and not necessarily supernatural.86
Polemics – In a handful of places in His Torah commentary, Rashbam explicitly targets "המינים", noting that his explanation is a response to Christian claims.87 See, for instance his comments to Shemot 3:22,88 where he explains that the Israelites did not borrow vessels from the Egyptians but rather received them as presents. This might be a response to Christian claims of unethical behavior on the part of Israel.89 It is possible that other explanations, such as Rashbam's defense of the Avot, are similarly motivated.90
Defense of Avot – In several places in Torah Rashbam appears to defend the Avot, removing blame for potential misdeeds. See his defense of Avraham in sending away Hagar with little water (Bereshit 21:14), Yaakov in his interactions with Esav (Bereshit 25:31 and 27:13), or the brothers for their role in the sale of Yosef (Bereshit 37:28).91 It should be noted, however, that Rashbam does not always paint our ancestors as blameless,92 nor does he always paint their counterparts as evil.93
Authorship of Torah – In several places in Torah,94 Rashbam uses language such as "Moshe wrote" when discussing the composition of Torah. About half of these are examples of literary anticipation, where Rashbam states that Moshe wrote something so that a later portion of Torah (often, a legal portion) will be understood. This has led E. Touitou95 to claim that Rashbam assumed that Moshe composed the narrative sections of Torah and Sefer Devarim (with Divine inspiration), while only the legal core is direct from Hashem. The theory has been questioned on several grounds.96
Reasons for the commandments (טעמי המצוות) – Rashbam often offers explanations for the commandments or details thereof. At time his reasoning is rationalist,97 while at other times it is moral.98 Sometimes, too, details might be explained by employing knowledge of realia.99 [See the discussion above, that See the discussion above, that some of these explanations might be polemically motivated as well.]
Reasons for story details (טעמי הסיפורים) – Rashbam will often address why a seemingly trivial detail is included in a story and explain what it comes to teach. For example, he suggests that the text goes out of its way to state that Yaakov "gather his feet" onto his bed before death (49:33) to teach that in His love for Yaakov, Hashem had granted him strength until the very moment of death.100
Attitude towards the text – Rashbam sought accurate texts, as evidenced by his comments to Shemot 12:14, 23:24, Devarim 7:14 and Devarim 18:11.
Rashi – Probably the most major influence on Rashbam was Rashi. Rashbam's entire Torah commentary is set up as a foil and complement to that of his grandfather, with most of the lemma upon which he comments being the same as those in Rashi's commentary. At times, Rashbam explicitly directs his readers to Rashi's commentary,101 perhaps a sign that he viewed his own as only an addition to that of his illustrious relative.
More often than not, Rashbam will disagree with Rashi, often respectfully, but sometimes sharply. [See, for example, his comments to Devarim 34, where he is very strident in his criticism, calling Rashi's interpretation "הבל".]102
Despite the vast differences between the commentaries, there are multiple cases where the interpretations of the two overlap. At times Rashbam will elaborate upon Rashi (adding a proof text or explanation),103 at times he will restate Rashi's main point more succinctly,104 and elsewhere he might choose among two of Rashi's explanations.105
Earlier Sources – Rashbam mentions Menachem b. Saruk and Dunash b. Labbrat, R"Y Kara,
Rashbam's father, R. Meir – Rashbam cites his father twice in his commentary, in Bereshit 25:32 and Bemidbar 31:49.
Ibn Ezra – Rashbam and Ibn Ezra were contemporaries, both were pioneers of "peshat" analysis, and some of their interpretations resemble one another, yet neither ever cites the other by name, leading scholars to debate the degree of influence they had upon one another (and in which direction).
Was Ibn Ezra aware of Rashbam's commentary? Several scholars assume that Ibn Ezra did not have access to Rashbam's commentary when he wrote his First Commentary to Torah in Italy,106 but that by the time he wrote his Second Commentary in Rouen, he either had it in its entirety or was at least aware of individual comments.107 Similarly, it has been suggested that Ibn Ezra's Iggeret HaShabbat was written to combat Rashbam's explanation of Bereshit 1:4-8 where he implies that the day precedes the night.108 In addition, R. Merdler109 has demonstrated that Ibn Ezra in his Second Commentary on Bereshit is responding to Rashbam's Sefer HaDayyakot. See a comparison table here.
Was Rashbam aware of Ibn Ezra's commentary? Noting the similarity between many of the exegetes' interpretations, some have suggested that Rashbam might have had access to individual interpretations of Ibn Ezra, or even to the entire First Commentary while writing his own work.110 Alternatively, though, it is possible that some of the overlap might simply be due to the similar style of exegesis or to shared sources.
Tosafist works and collections – R"Y Bekhor Shor cites Rashbam by name five times in his commentary. 111 There are many other comments, though, which show a similarity in content (though not in language) to Rashbam's explanations. Sefer HaGan cites Rashbam 27 times.
R. Eliezer of Beaugency – See above that he might have been a student of Rashbam.