Life, Love and Talmud in Medieval France

Maggie Anton discusses why Rashi's daughters are significant

Q. Who was Rashi?

A.  Born in 1040 in northern France, Rabbi Shlomo Yizhaki (better known by his Hebrew initials, Rashi) was a great Talmudic scholar who studied in Worms and Mayence before starting his own school in his native city of Troyes. Because of his unique take on Talmudic study, students flocked to receive the benefits of his vast erudition and distinctive method of interpretation.

Q. Why is Rashi's influence relevant today?

A. Rashi wanted to make being Jewish as easy as possible. His belief in finding the most lenient legal opinion without building "fences around the Torah,"and in permitting rather than forbidding, makes him a model rabbi for our times. 

Q. How did you get interested in Rashi's daughters? 

A. I began studying Talmud with a group of women after my children grew up and left the house. The more I studied Talmud from a feminist perspective, the more curious I become about Rashi’s learned daughters and how they managed to study Talmud in the Middle Ages when such study was supposedly forbidden.   

Q. Why was Talmud study forbidden for women?

A.  This question deserves more than the brief answer I'll give here.  In Deuteronomy, Jews are commanded to teach Torah to "bnaichem,"a word that even the Orthodox translate as "your children."  But the early rabbis used its literal meaning, "your sons,"and decided that only men were obligated to study Torah.  The Talmudic sage Rav Eliezer took this exemption of women one step further, and declared that "he who teaches his daughter Torah, teaches her lechery." 

Q.  So what were the consequences for women who studied Talmud?

A.  All societies, Jews included, disapprove of those who don’t follow their norms.  Women who wanted to study Talmud were seen as lacking in proper feminine attributes, and because women were thought to be light-headed, incapable of serious study, those who tried to study Talmud would only learn to be crafty and devious.  Then, as now, since a man typically preferred to believe that he was more intelligent than his wife, the learned woman was left with a limited choice of potential husbands.

Q. What were the most interesting things you learned from your research?

A. The Shabbat lights blessing was based on the Chanukah lights blessing, not vice versa -  and that in Rashi's time, this blessing was the basis of a great controversy that wasn't settled until years after his death. Also, Jewish women in Rashi's time were able to demand a divorce from their husbands, while a man couldn't divorce his wife without her consent. 

Q. Were there any surprises?

A. I was quite surprised to learn that there was little anti-Semitism in Rashi’s time - the Church was more interested in converting pagans and going after its own heretic sects than in persecuting the Jews.  Ghettos and blood-libels came centuries later.  Also, Jews lived prosperous lives (even the poorest Jews had servants) and engaged in many occupations (Rashi was a vintner for example).  Some Jews were feudal lords with small fiefs and very few Jews supported themselves by money-lending.

Q.  What do you see as the legacy Rashi's daughters leave for modern Jewish women?

A.   Rashi's daughters recognized the value of Torah study in the Jewish world, and they wanted an education for themselves as well as for their husbands and sons.  Like women today, they attended synagogue regularly and performed those rituals usually reserved for men.  When modern Jewish women create new rituals and new blessings, we are following in the footsteps of Rashi’s daughters and doing what our female ancestors were already doing 900 years ago.

Q.  How can I find out when the next book in the series is coming out?

A.   Book II: MIRIAM is will be published in August 2007 and Book III: RACHEL is expected in 2009. For more information, keep an eye on this website or join the Rashi's Daughters newsgroup.

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