In your talk last week in Teaneck, you said that Rashi sought to harmonize midrashim and you stated that Rashi cites Proverbs 25:11 in this connection. I know that Maimonides (Introduction to The Guide for the Perplexed) cites Proverbs 25:11, but I wonder where Rashi cites it in connection with his commentary. I am unfamiliar with such a statement by Rashi.

I am aware of Rashi on Genesis 3:8 where he writes, “I am only concerned with peshuto shel miqra and with such Aggadah that explains the words of the verse in a manner that fits into them. (a phrase from Proverbs 25:11). But this is hardly a statement of an alleged program by Rashi to harmonize conflicting midrashim.

Thanks for writing. I’m not sure I would agree with your translation of Rashi on Gen 3:8. In Hebrew he writes:

וישמעו – יש מדרשי אגדה רבים וכבר סדרום רבותינו על מכונם בבראשית רבה (יט ו) ובשאר מדרשות ואני לא באתי אלא לפשוטו של מקרא ולאגדה המישבת דברי המקרא דבר דבור על אופניו. ומשמעו, שמעו את קול הקדוש ברוך הוא שהיה מתהלך בגן:

Which I would translate:

There are many aggadic midrashim [note: he says this to distinguish these from halakhic midrashim, which determine halakhic practice even when they are at odds with the straightforward meaning of the words] which our Sages arranged in their proper place in Bereshit Rabba and other midrashic collections. But I wish to bring only the straightforward meaning of the verse as well as aggadah that explains the words of the verse in keeping with [the principle of Prov 25:11], “A word spoken in its proper setting.”

What Rashi means is that, while there all sorts of imaginative midrashim on this verse—and you can find them in Bereshit Rabba and other midrashic collections—I aim to present only two sorts of explanations: the straightforward meaning of the verse as it seems to me, as well as any aggadic explanation that fits both the words of the text and their overall surroundings.

This is indeed a programmatic statement by Rashi, but it hardly means that he intends, as you say, to “harmonize conflicting midrashim.” Rather, he wishes to include only those midrashic explanations that fit the words of the biblical verse in question and do not contradict the wider context. The latter was an important specification, because classical rabbinic midrash is overwhelmingly concerned with a single verse or phrase and so often disregards the wider context; this approach made for contradictions from one midrashic remark to the next. (I wrote about this a long time ago in an essay entitled “Two Introductions to Midrash.”)

What is interesting about this programmatic statement is that Rashi doesn’t rule out midrash aggadah in principle. He’s happy to incorporate its explanations so long as they don’t violate the principle of “A word spoken in its proper setting.” And anyone who cares to look into Rashi’s Torah commentary will see that it does indeed incorporate a vast amount of rabbinic midrash; he has just made a careful selection of the material so that it does not violate the aforementioned principle.

What’s more, Rashi doesn’t even seek to delegitimize those other midrashic explanations that he has excluded; you can find them, he says, in collections like Bereshit Rabba, Midrash Tanhuma, etc., and they are perfectly fine. But in this commentary, he says, I am out to present what seems to me the straightforward meaning of the verse (for which even Targum Onqelos cannot always be counted on) and any rabbinic midrash so long as it follows the principle of “A word spoken in its proper setting,” that is, it fits with the words of the text and does not contradict anything that appears earlier or later in the biblical text as explained in this commentary.

Rashi is often called the first pashtan, but I don’t feel that this is altogether accurate. That title more properly belongs to Abraham ibn Ezra or Rashbam. In fact, what is striking about this passage in Rashi is precisely the fact that he mentions peshuto shel miqra and the proper kind of aggadah in the same breath. (The former phrase does not mean the “literal sense” of the text, as is sometimes alleged, but something closer to the “straightforward” or “obvious” meaning, the sort of explanation that does not require any of the cleverness that characterizes midrash.) For him, the two share the crucial quality of fitting within their larger setting—that’s what he’s after, since rabbinic midrash so often violates this principle. Mordechai Cohen (Yeshiva University) has written enlighteningly about Rashi’s understanding of peshuto shel miqra.

As I mentioned in my talk, Prov 25:11, “Golden apples in a setting of silver—such is a word spoken in its proper setting,” is something of a motto in Rashi’s various commentaries. So it appears again and again:

)בראשית פרק כ יג) ויהי כאשר התעו אותי וגו’ – אונקלוס תרגם מה שתרגם. ויש לישבו עוד, דבר דבור על אופניו, כשהוציאני הקדוש ברוך הוא מבית אבי להיות משוטט ונד ממקום למקום, וידעתי שאעבור במקום רשעים ואומר לה זה חסדך אשר תעשי עמדי:

Onqelos translated it as he did [namely: “When the nations went astray after the work of their hands…”], but it can be explained otherwise, as “a word spoken in its proper setting,” namely: When the Holy One caused me to leave my father’s house and to go wandering from place to place, I knew that I might end up in a place of wicked men, so I said to her [Sarah], “Here is the kindness that you can do for me…”

Here Rashi rejects Onqelos. Why? Onqelos translates: “It happened that when the nations went astray after the works of their hands [by worshipping idols]—whereas the Lord had brought me to reverence Him—then it was that I said to her [Sarah], “Here is the kindness that you can do for me…”

What apparently troubled Onqelos in the Torah was its use of the plural verb hit’u. That couldn’t refer to our God, since He is singular being, and besides, this verb usually means to “cause to go astray,” which God certainly did not cause Abraham to do. So Onqelos takes that clause to refer to the pagan gods causing other peoples to go astray after idols, apparently at roughly the same time that our God had summoned Abraham in Gen 12:1.

But for Rashi, Onqelos’s explanation violates his basic principle of “a word spoken in its proper setting”—why bring the foreign nations into it, since the verse itself makes no mention of them (and in any case, such an explanation runs counter to the tradition that idol worship had started long before Abraham, in the days of Enosh)? So Rashi prefers to read the plural verb form as referring to our God (he goes on to offer examples of our Elokim being connected to other plural forms), and to suggest that hit’u can mean “cause to wander from place to place,” which would certainly fit the larger context.

Elsewhere in his commentary, Rashi tackles the problem of Gen 37: 2, “These are the generations of Jacob: Joseph…” and once again evokes the principle of “a word spoken in its proper setting.” Normally, one would expect a genealogical list following “these are the generation” and not just the name of one descendant of Jacob’s, Joseph. Here’s what Rashi says:

אלה תולדות יעקב – אלה של תולדות יעקב, אלה ישוביהם וגלגוליהם עד שבאו לכלל יישוב. סבה ראשונה יוסף בן שבע עשרה וגו’ על ידי זה נתגלגלו וירדו למצרים. זהו אחר פשוטו של מקרא להיות [דבר] דבור על אופניו. ומדרש אגדה דורש, תלה הכתוב תולדות יעקב ביוסף מפני כמה דברים, אחת שכל עצמו של יעקב לא עבד אצל לבן אלא ברחל, ושהיה זיו איקונין של יוסף דומה לו, וכל מה שאירע ליעקב אירע ליוסף, זה נשטם וזה נשטם, זה אחיו מבקש להרגו וזה אחיו מבקשים להרגו, וכן הרבה בבראשית רבה (פד ו). ועוד נדרש בו וישב ביקש יעקב לישב בשלוה, קפץ עליו רוגזו של יוסף. צדיקים מבקשים לישב בשלוה אומר הקדוש ברוך הוא לא דיין לצדיקים מה שמתוקן להם לעולם הבא, אלא שמבקשים לישב בשלוה בעולם הזה:

These are the generations of Jacob: these [following things] are of [i.e. concern] the generations of Jacob, these are where they settled and the things that happened to them until they [finally] settled down [in Canaan]. The first item was that Joseph was seventeen years old [etc.] since it was thanks to this whole episode that they [Jacob’s descendants] ended up going down to Egypt. This is what follows the straightforward meaning of the verse, to be spoken [explained] within its setting. But aggadic midrash expounds it as referring to [etc.; here Rashi cites three different midrashic explanations for the wording “These are the generations of Jacob: Joseph.”]

Those midrashic explanations are fine, he says, but they violate the principle of “a words spoken in its proper setting”—you don’t need them to account for the words of the text here. Nevertheless, Rashi does go on to allude to them, since they contain valuable insights; they are just not appropriate to the form of commentary he is writing.

There are further instances of Rashi’s evocation of “a word spoken in its proper setting,” but I hope that these will suffice to answer your question.