He was born in the vicinity of Troyes, in around 1085 in France to his father Meir ben Shmuel and mother Yocheved, daughter of Rashi. He was the older brother of Solomon the grammarian as well as of the Tosafists Isaac ben Meir (the "Rivam") and Jacob ben Meir ("Rabbeinu Tam"), and a colleague of Rabbi Joseph Kara.
Like his maternal grandfather, the Rashbam was a biblical commentator and Talmudist. He learned from Rashi and from Isaac ben Asher ha-Levi ("Riva"). He was the teacher of his brother, Rabbeinu Tam, and his method of interpretation differed from that of his grandfather.
Rashbam earned a living by tending livestock and growing grapes, following in his family tradition. Known for his piety, he defended Jewish beliefs in public disputes that had been arranged by church leaders to demonstrate the inferiority of Judaism.
Few details of Rashbam's life are known. He is said to have been so modest that he always walked with downcast eyes. Mordecai ben Hillel says that he was so absent-minded that once, while traveling, he climbed into a wagon loaded with cattle.
His commentary on the Torah is renowned for its stress on the plain meaning (peshat) of the text. He sometimes disputes his grandfather's interpretation and indicates that his grandfather concurred with his approach. He adopted a natural (as distinct from a homiletical and traditional) method. This approach often led him to state views that were somewhat controversial. Thus Rashbam (on Genesis 1:5) maintained that the creation of day began with light (the morning). This does not contradict halacha (Jewish law) as Rashbam's comments refer to the creation timing and not to the halacha, as Rashbam was a strict observer of halacha. Another famous interpretation was Rashbam's view that the much disputed phrase in Genesis 49:10 must be rendered “Until he cometh to Shiloh,” and refers to the division of the kingdom of Judah after Solomon's death.
Rashbam explains his aim in Biblical exegesis thus: "Those who love pure reason should always remember that the sages have said a Biblical passage must not be deprived of its original meaning [on Genesis 37:1]. Yet as a consequence of the opinion expressed by them, that the constant study of the Talmud is one of the most laudable pursuits, commentators have been unable, by reason of such study, to expound individual verses according to their obvious meaning. Even my grandfather Solomon was an adherent of this school; and I had an argument with him on that account, in which he admitted that he would revise his commentaries if he had time to do so."
One of the only two versions of the known manuscripts of Rashbam on the Chumash had missing parts of the commentary. Thus, many published versions of Rashbam's commentary on the Chumash don't include his commentary on the beginning of the book of Genesis. Portions of his commentary on the Talmud have been preserved, such as on the tractate Bava Batra (on large portions of the tractate where no commentary by Rashi is available), as well as the last chapter of tractate Pesachim. Rashbam's notes on the Bible are remarkable for brevity. He wrote two versions of his commentary on parts of the Bavli (Babylonian) Talmud, a long version and a short version. Generally, only his long version has been published, although the shorter version has sometimes been published in part. It is unfortunate that most of the shorter version has either never been completely published or has not been published since the 19th century.
Rashbam's Talmudical works include the following commentaries:
- On the treatise Baba Batra (iii. 29a to the end).
- On Pesaḥim (x. 99b to the end).
- On Avodah Zarah, of which only a few passages are quoted in "Temim De'im," ed. Venice, iii. 19b, 20b, 28c.
- On Niddah, as appears from the "Or Zarua'" (Berliner's "Magazin," i. 100a).
- Additions to Alfasi (Ahaba, ed. Amsterdam, i. 136b).
- Additions to Rashi's commentary
- "Teshuvot," in R. Eliezer b. Nathan's "Eben ha-'Ezer," ed. Prague, 143b-146c, and in the "Pardes," ed. Constantinople, fol. 4a (Berliner's "Magazin," 1876, p. 60; "Or Zarua'," i. 79b; "Mordekai" on Ket. viii. 300, fol. 108b, in "Haggahot Maimuniyyot," "Ishot," iii.).
- On Pirkei Avot Additions of his to Pirkei Avot are found also in Migdal Oz by Shem Tov ben Abraham ibn Gaon.
- The conclusions of the commentaries on the Talmud left incomplete by Rashi.
As a tosafist, Rashbam is quoted in Bava Kamma 6b, 10a, and in Bava Metzia 96b.
- The Commentary of R. Samuel Ben Meir (Rashbam) on Qoheleth, by Sara Japhet and Robert B. Salters, The Hebrew University Magnes Press 1985
- Rabbi Samuel Ben Meir's Commentary on Genesis: An Annotated Translation by Martin I. Lockshin, Edwin Mellen Press, 1989.
- Rashbam's Commentary on Exodus: An Annotated Translation by Martin I. Lockshin, illustrations by Channa Lockshin, Brown Judaic Studies 310, 1997.
- The commentary of R. Samuel ben Meir, Rashbam, on Qoheleth ed. Sara Japhet, Robert B. Salters - 1985 "This book, designed for students of the Hebrew Bible and medieval exegesis, presents a small part of the work of R. Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam), the grandson of Rashi and one of the leading figures in Rashi's school of exegesis in northern ..."
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. .
- Mordechai, Eruvin, end
- See commentary to Genesis 37:2.
- Zunz, "Z. G." p. 32
- Zunz, "Z. G." pp. 124 et seq.