On July 27, the 29th of Tammuz, I will observe the 909th yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shlomo Yizhaki, better known as Rashi. Normally, an author has no deadline to finish her first novel, but I was determined to get Volume One of Rashi’s Daughters out in July 2005, to take advantage of all the hoopla I expected would commemorate Rashi’s 900th yahrtzeit. As it turned out, I was the only hoopla, but who knows if my historical trilogy about Rashi’s daughters would ever have been published without that impetus?
While Rashi is justifiably celebrated for his Bible and Talmud commentaries, few Jews know that it was under his authority and that of his Ashkenazi colleagues that Jewish women in medieval France enjoyed power over their own lives that their Sephardic sisters in the so-called “golden age” of Spain could only imagine. These were the days when Jews enjoyed a monopoly on long-distance trade, many traveling as far as the Levant. Jewish merchants became welcome visitors to French estates, buying the estates’ surfeit produce and selling them imported goods. By necessity, Jewish wives assumed the responsibilities of running the home and managing the family business while their husbands were away.
Even before Rashi was born, Jewish women were already the beneficiaries of edicts by Rabbeinu Gershom, which gave them previously unheard-of power in marriage. These prohibited a man from both taking a second wife and divorcing his wife without her consent. In addition, a woman was allowed to initiate divorce and receive a get, even against her husband’s will, and Jewish merchants were expected to give their wives a conditional get when they left on a journey in order to protect them from becoming agunot (chained wife).
Marriage was not the only arena in which the Ashkenaz Jewish woman asserted herself. Many sought to increase their ritual participation by fulfilling those ritual obligations which, according to the Mishnah, women were not obligated to perform—mitzvot aseh she-hazeman grama, the “time-bound positive commandments.” Obvious examples include blowing and hearing the shofar (at Rosh Hashanah), and taking the lulav and dwelling in the sukkah (at Sukkot). Others, perhaps less obvious, are reciting the Shema (said in the morning and at night) and wearing tefillin or tzitzit (worn in the daytime).
In Sephardic lands, these ritual exemptions became outright prohibitions, but the women in Rashi’s community not only insisted on performing these mitzvot from which they were exempt, they wanted to say the blessings for them as well. Rashi’s teacher, Rabbi Isaac haLevi, taught that “We do not stop women from saying the blessing over lulav and sukkah … since she performs the mitzvah, she cannot do so without the blessing.” It is interesting that they use the phrase “we do not stop women” rather than “women are permitted.” This suggests that the women took these mitzvot upon themselves and insisted on reciting the blessing as well.
There was yet another area affecting women in which Rashi argued against society’s restrictions. When it came to limitations on a woman while she was niddah (menstruating), Rashi made it clear these proscriptions applied only between husband and wife. In a time when superstitions about menstruation abounded (a scholar was forbidden to greet a niddah because the utterances of her mouth were unclean; a man shouldn’t walk behind a niddah since even the dust beneath her feet caused impurity; an untimely death resulted from walking between two menstruating women), a responsum of Rashi declared that, “Dishes which the niddah touches are clean, even for her husband. For people today are already impure from graves, houses of dead people, and corpses, and we will not be purified until the days of the Messiah. Therefore it is permitted to touch and use whatever the niddah touches.” He continues, “Niddah prohibitions are only to prevent sin between her and her husband; impurity does not pertain here.” Thus, while many of his Sephardic contemporaries were forbidding a niddah to even enter the synagogue, in Troyes, France the niddah “attends services as usual, prays as usual, and if she is accustomed to study words of Torah, she studies as usual.”
Finally—women studying Torah. Rashi, whose own daughters learned Talmud and Torah, was among many rabbis who obligated a man to teach his daughter those texts concerning the mitzvot, for “otherwise how can she observe them properly.” Sadly this golden age for medieval Ashkenaz women was short-lived. When the Black Death swept Europe, people held witches responsible, which tainted all learned and presumptuous women. It would take five hundred years before Jewish women would again reach the heights they attained in Rashi’s time, and in the case of initiating divorce, we are still waiting.
For those who want to learn more, I recommend these recent books:
Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe by Avraham Grossman
Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe by Elisheva Baumgarten
It is the day before Passover and everyone has a yahrtzeit but me.
My mother’s mother collapsed on seder night, ten days before her young grandson succumbed to cancer. “I don’t want to see my grandson die,” she told a relative. The shivas of grandmother and grandson tumbled one into the other. My brother’s wife died the first day of Passover, her son’s 13th birthday. The bar mitzvah was held in the shiva house on the Shabbat after Passover. My father’s mother lived almost a hundred years, surviving every Jewish calamity of the twentieth century. The night she died, my father was with us in America. Although he usually sat with her day and night, he did not perform the final duty as son; missing the funeral and sitting shiva alone, ten thousand miles away.
Where am I in this house of mourners the day of the seder? I am locked in a room next to the kitchen attending to the tax law. A tax regulation project is barreling through the Treasury Department, and I am the only one who can advise on the financial provisions. And woe is me if I do not help draft it, because then I’m going to have to interpret what they produce left to their own devices.
Fortunately, I do not have to come to the office. They have arranged a conference call so I can hear the discussions and make suggestions from afar. And when they break, I can skip into the kitchen and issue instructions there.
This is not the way I like it. Erev Passover, the day before the seder, is the liminal moment between the weeks of scrubbing and worrying, and the redemption of seder night. It is the fleeting transition when I survey the perfectly antiseptic aluminum foil spaceship I have built, and then sully it with preparations for the evening.
I prefer not to work on Erev Passover, but this time I don’t have a choice. I know the family will take care of everything, leaving only the romaine lettuce for me to check: I earned my insect-checking PhD in a religious kibbutz kitchen and delegate it to no one.
I call in to the tax drafting. As we argue and haggle, a Jewishly observant colleague chimes in. He does not have to cook or clean I muse; when he arrives home like a monarch at the appointed time, the table will be set and meal cooked. Yet I do not envy him: the preparation makes the holiday.
My daughter bangs at the door. I mute the phone. “You need to change the gasket in the oven,” she whispers. I roll my eyes. We self-clean our oven but I have a theory the gasket never gets hot enough for Passover cleanliness. Having conjured the problem, it’s my job to solve it. Hooking the phone to my shirt and adjusting the ear-phones, I remove the shelves from the oven and insert half my body. The gasket is attached with screws and requires some dexterity to remove.
While I’m deep in the cavity with the screws in my mouth, someone on the phone calls out, “Viva, what do you think about the language I’m suggesting?”
The phone is still on mute. I lean forward to unmute it and the oven tips onto me. “Viva! Are you there?” I gasp, “Yes, I’m here.”
“It’s hard to hear you. Are you in an echo chamber?” I push the oven off me and slide onto the floor.
“Can you repeat the language?” I ask, panting.
From the floor, I watch the family’s shoes scuttling; peels and food parts land on my lap. The children are twittering and making provocative faces at me.
On the phone, they repeat the regulatory language, and I suggest a modification. We debate the merits of the variant forms. I am pontificating on the floor, waving my hands. The drafter comes up with a third mutation, and we all agree.
I mute the phone again and climb back into the oven.
When it’s done, I clamber out, rising slowly to the upright position. My father is peeling potatoes. “Let me do that,” I edge him away. “No, no,” he says. “This is my job. You go back to yours. My mother would have been so proud of you.”
And so would my mother’s mother, who never went to university but was always urging my mother to finish her degree. As for my sister-in-law, the breadwinner, may she rest in peace, she was scrubbing her house for Passover the week before she died. What secrets would she share now?