According to most accounts, medieval Jewish scholar Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, better known by the acronym Rashi, grew grapes for a living. Similar to the French vintner and rabbi finding time to write the pre-eminent commentary on the Torah, for the past 15 years a group of busy members of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase has gathered every Shabbat to study Rashi’s take on the ancient text.
This past Saturday, the group studied the last verse of Rashi’s commentary, marking the completion of the cycle of study. The siyum, or ritual for completion of study, included speeches and kiddush.
“Rashi’s the great foundation,” said David Gray, who has been involved in the group since it was founded by fellow Ohr Kodesh member Richard Friedman. “If you really want to study in depth and understand the deeper meaning, you’ve got to have Rashi. You don’t have a foundation if you don’t have Rashi.”
Added Friedman, “In some sense, you can’t be a literate, traditionally inclined Jew without having some familiarity with Rashi’s commentary.”
Around 10 people show up every week for study, according to Friedman. He said there are no commitments, that someone who didn’t attend one week won’t be lost the next, and that anyone can join the group at any time.
Cantor Hinda Labovitz said that she is impressed that synagogue members took charge with the study group.
“Everyone has a book open. Everyone looks engaged. It’s a testament to what the community stands for that we actually have this group that’s been working very hard and fully lay-led.”
Friedman agreed with Labovitz on the importance of a study group that does not rely on clergy.
“I think what we’ve been doing in this study group is saying that Jewish studying does not depend on rabbis and is not solely for rabbis. It is really for lay people and can be done and self-directed by lay people,” said Friedman.
While rabbis and Jewish academics have at times sat in on the discussion, the key to making the group work is that it is not focused on them but on the lay people who participate, he said.
Study group member Andy Shoyer said he is proud of what they have accomplished and that the siyum demonstrated the commitment the congregants have to one another.
“Our weekly Rashi study is an effort undertaken by and for congregants at Ohr Kodesh. We teach each other. We take responsibility,” said Shoyer.
Gray joked that the group’s unofficial title is Jews for Exegesis, a play on Jews for Jesus.
“Text study is something I like to do and is a more attractive alternative to standing around and hearing about somebody’s kids,” he said.
According to Friedman, the completion of the study of Rashi’s Torah commentary is not the end. The group has already started to study midrash.