Page 72 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 14

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In one of his Responsa, Rashi, taking a position patently con-
trary to the teachings of the Talmud, invokes his own rabbinic
authority in a pressing economic problem. Reference is made here
to his decision on the question of
Yain Nesekh
— wine that has
been handled by gentiles. I t is the established ruling in the Tal-
mud that a Jew is forbidden to use or to benefit from wine that
has been touched by non-Jews. This prohibition was enacted with
many other stern regulations, with a view to building as many
“ fences” as possible around the law against idol worship. Since
wine was frequently used among gentiles for idolatrous purposes,
the rabbis felt justified in keeping the Jew from any possible con-
tact with what might lead to a breach of the law against idol
worship. But what seemed necessary and urgent in the days of
the Talmud became utterly untenable in Northern France in
Rashi’s day. Many Jews, including Rashi himself, derived their
livelihood from the making of wine in a community predominantly
non-Jewish. In view of the many restrictions limiting the economic
pursuits of Jews in medieval Europe, they were confronted with
the choice either to withdraw from the wine industry and be
reduced to near starvation, or to disregard the law and break with
Jewish tradition. Rashi, like other courageous and creative rab-
binic personalities, shunned both of these alternatives. By facing
realistically these new circumstances, he sought and found a
formula which made it possible for the Jew to adhere to the
biblical tradition, “Ye shall live by them (the laws)” (Leviticus
18.5). He maintained that the prohibition against
Yain Nesekh
does not apply to Christians and that Jews should be permitted
to employ gentiles in the production and distribution of wine on
the principle that they are not idolators.
In venturing the opinion that Christians are not pagans, Rashi
sought to conform to Talmudic teaching. But this formal loyalty
to talmudic tradition did not preclude a radical change in the law
in order to meet a new and urgent need for survival in a Christian
community. Indeed, the whole
method of interpreting
talmudic teachings, with its ingenious casuistic dialectic perfected
by Rashi’s disciples, the Tosafists, was another device for squaring
innovations in beliefs and traditions with older views and practices.
Rashi’s responsum on the
Yain Nesekh
problem, and his deci-
sions on other problems, speak volumes for his courage and
ingenuity in meeting new realities while preserving the spirit of
old laws and traditions. His teachings and practices can still serve
as an example of wisdom and determination to religious leaders
in a generation that faces constantly new situations and develop-