“In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.”
– Pirkei Avoth 2:6
Rashi’s Daughters: Book 1: Jocheved is a beacon of light in a time of darkness. The story unfurls the magical beauty of marriage as it’s preserved through Judaic law and extols the value of appreciation between the sexes. Unlike others of the era who demand the subordination of women, Rashi (Rabbi Salomon ben Isaac) is surrounded by skilled women and highly esteems the fairer sex. Unsurprisingly he, too, is exemplary- a man versed in the ways of the physical world and in the spiritual words of the holy tractates. As a vintner and respected scholar, he straddles the line between progress and tradition.
Rather than condescend, he encourages. A remarkable teacher, Rashi determines to include his daughters in all his pursuits. Jocheved, his eldest is first to benefit from his beneficence as he shares a talmudic lesson with her on the night of her youngest sister’s birth. “Salomon [knows] he ha[s] made the right decision,” and continues to teach Jocheved and her second sister Miriam nightly lessons (16). The trio’s clandestine meetings are interrupted one night by Rivka, Rashi’s wife, the girls’ mother. While holding her third daughter, infant Rachel, Rivka challenges, “Don’t you realize that no man will want to marry a girl more learned than he is? We’ll never find them husbands…I won’t tolerate it; I tell you, I won’t” (40). Rashi, refusing to acquiesce explains to his wife, “Even while jailed by the Romans for teaching Torah, Rabbi Akiva [a great scholar] continued to instruct his students. When asked why he taught despite the danger, ‘Rabbi Akiva said to his pupil: More than a calf wishes to suck does the cow desire to suckle'” (42). In this sense, Rashi does the right thing, teaching ardent pupils regardless of their sex – and despite the prevalent sentiment of the time, that teaching Talmud to a girl was the equivalent of teaching lechery.
This lesson of enabling self determination is furthered through Rashi’s mother. Leah is the matriarch and, although deteriorating from dementia, her knowledge of the vineyards and wine making remains intact. All defer to her wisdom and endeavor to absorb as much as possible before her imminent passing. Because his father dies while Salomon is still a child, he especially reveres his mother, the woman responsible for ensuring his success in studies, in business, and in family. Thus, he encourages Jocheved in the fields and with the books. She becomes a skilled hand and an adroit negotiator, meticulously tending to the pruning of grape vines and entering accounts in the ledger.
Fostering her sense of competence, Rashi offers Jocheved a choice. After presenting a suitable match, a talented young scholar from a reputable family who appreciates Jocheved for her clever mind and discreet beauty, Rashi defers to her judgement stating pointedly, “I will not betroth you without your consent; you must see your bridegroom and accept him…So here he is, standing in front of you. Do you want Meir ben Samuel for your husband?” (87). Again, the sage reinforces that women could be self actualizing agents and gives his daughter the freedom to blossom in love as she agrees to marry Meir.
Perhaps the most moving aspect of Rashi’s love for his daughter, his insight that she deserves true happiness, comes from coaxing the young husband with sentiments echoed by the youth’s own father Samuel. The men educate Meir through additional material from the Talmud, Tractate Kallah which instructs, “He should give her pleasure and embrace her and kiss her. He…should not see in her anything contemptible, but rather arouse her with caresses and with all manner of embracing in order to fulfill his desire and hers” (215). Indeed, Meir does everything to satisfy Jocheved, the woman he treasures.
During a time in which women were considered extensions of their husbands, Rashi is a renegade. He recognizes the virtues of women, and is loathe to use their sex as an excuse to restrain them. He desires only to shower his beloveds with passion and care, subsequently helping his eldest daughter grow into accomplishment. Jocheved earns a sense of pride which extends to her family, all due to the merit of her father Rashi, Rabbi Salomon ben Isaac.
Rashi’s Daughters: Book I – Jocheved
by Maggie Anton
Penguin Books, Copyright 2005