Sunday, May 4, 2008

Rashi's Daughters: Joheved - Myths and Facts, Part I

[Note: Haveil Havalim is out here!]

Prologue: A great Rashi joke I found here:
Rashi and his wife were getting ready to go out.
Rashi's wife comes into the room, and Rashi sees her and says, "I think you might want to try the blue dress -- it might look a bit nicer."
His wife answers, "Do you have to comment on everything!?"
(Did you know there were Rashi jokes? I know two of them now!)

And now to business:
I first learned of Ms. Maggie Anton in 2006, when a congregant showed me an article she had written, labelling the practice of lighting Shabbat candles/lamps a non-mitzvah until the time of Rashi’s grandchildren. She wrote that there had been great controversy until then. She even declared that it was only during those last generations that a blessing on Shabbat lights was instituted, copying the Talmudic blessing of the Chanukah lights.

I was surprised to hear this, knowing the serious view of the sages on the priority of candle lighting over the centuries. I did some research and found Gaonic responsa from centuries before Rashi (Rav Natronai Gaon), simply declaring that of course one should recite the blessing on Shabbat candles. There was discussion about the practice as חובה or מצוה, obligation vs commandment, but it was clear that this was important, and that it warranted a berachah. Further, Machzor Vitry, the premier record of Rashi’s practices and policies, quotes that responsum of Rav Natronai Gaon verbatim.

Rav Natronai Gaon’s responsum is #66, and it reads:
One who lights the lamp of Shabbat must recite a blessing. Why? For it is obligatory, as we say (Shabbat 25b), “Lighting lamps for Shabbat is obligatory, for Rav Yehudah said citing Shemuel, Lighting lamps etc.” And we have seen that where it is not possible, other mitzvot are overridden before it, as Rabbah said (Shabbat 23b), “It is obvious that in balancing the lamp of the home and the Chanukah lamp, the lamp of the home is greater.” One must bless, “To kindle the lamp of Shabbat.”
And if you will ask, “Where did He instruct us,” it is from Rav Avya and Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak (Shabbat 23a).

I exchanged some emails with Ms. Anton, and came away from the exchange respecting the seriousness of her efforts, even if I felt she had erred.

Fast-forward two years, and I was asked to teach a class about Ms. Anton’s Rashi’s Daughters series. I agreed to critique Book I: Joheved, and set about reading the book.

First, I found some good work here.
The historical notes about the brief positive era for French Jewry are both accurate and interesting; the French interlude in the Italy-Germany-France heyday of pre-Crusades Jewry certainly was fruitful.

Ms. Anton also brought up some interesting notes inter alia, such as about Rashi’s view of Song of Songs as a consolation for future exiled Jewry, and the lack of the 5-day, pre-7 day Niddah period in Rashi’s day. (The first appearance I have found of that 5-day period is the Or Zarua, who lived a century after Rashi. Vitry 499 discusses niddah practices and does not mention it.)

I enjoyed her Talmudic cites. Granted that the study sessions she portrayed were simplistic, I couldn’t really expect more in a work of fiction.

But I also ran into trouble with this book; I really found myself taking offense at the way Rashi and his family were treated. It seems to me that their lives were stretched this way and that in order to form a compelling story or promote a specific idea regarding women's lives.

Part of this is probably the fact that after studying Rashi's works at various levels for 30 years, I feel some connection. And part of it is probably a result of my own status as a public figure in my community; I would not want someone to do to me what appears to have been done to Rashi here.

And then there was another problem, maybe my biggest problem: Ms. Anton's presentation of Judaism's greatest teacher as a not-so-closeted liberal felt to me like a challenge: You think you know what Judaism is about? Nah; you're basing your Judaism on a misunderstanding, some ahistorical, overly pious idea of what Judaism is supposed to be. Here's the real thing; I read 250 books, and this is what happened in Rashi's day. Rashi wasn't as hung up on religion as you guys are.

This implicit charge is inherently offensive, moreso when it turns out to be based on errors and fiction, and so I took to the task of finding the book's errors and fiction.

I found four basic types of inaccuracies: Errors, Perception, Fictionalization and Misrepresentation. The last was the worst in terms of my own feeling, but here is the collection:

1. Straightforward Errors
There were many simple errors - in moving earlier practices into Rashi’s day, or moving latter-day practices back into Rashi’s day, or borrowing French cultural practices and putting them into Rashi’s family, or just inventing Jewish practices altogether. The list is very, very long, and I will reserve it for a second post, linked at the end of this piece.

2. A matter of perception
I have problems with the way Ms. Anton plays Rashi. Rashi is portrayed as an intellectual, a professor who could just as easily be obsessed with algebra as with Talmud, and with little religious depth or moral authority. He rarely, if ever, seems to reflect on Gd, other than regarding personal suffering or celebration.

In particular, Rashi is depicted as violating his own religious precepts on sexuality, grabbing hold of a woman’s arm, allowing his students to visit brothels, winking at his daughter’s trysts with her betrothed, violating many Talmudic passages (Ketuvot 8b, to start) as well as Rashi’s own lessons recorded in Vitry 528 and Likkutei haPardes meiRashi 3b.

To me, this is the equivalent of a National Enquirer writer penning a piece about some celebrity doing drugs, when in truth the celebrity is on an anti-drug crusade. Why do it? Where is the justification in doing this to a human being, dead 900 years or not?

3. Liberties of Fictionalization
And I had a third problem: The question of what, exactly, counts as legitimate Historical Fiction. I am confused by Maggie Anton’s own words from Rashi’s Daughters Book I: Joheved -

Rashi’s Daughters Book I: Joheved, Preface
At the beginning of most novels, you come across a statement that says smething like, “All characters in this book are fictional and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. In Rashi’s Daughters, however, most of the characters are actual persons, and I’ve made every effort to ensure that their fictional lives resemble reality as accurately as possible.


Rashi’s Daughters Book I: Joheved, Afterword
In any case, because I am writing fiction, I can draw whatever conclusion I like.

Which is it?

Certainly, many historians believe Rashi ran a vineyard - but after that the story is on ice thinner than a sheet of Catherina’s parchment. Rashi is portrayed as having a bad temper, as being unable to satisfy his wife, as teaching the Abbot of Montier-la-Celle, all of which has no basis in any historical source. (Yes, there is such an abbey near Troyes. But what of it? See Sanhedrin 59a on the prohibition against teaching him - and see Rashi’s own comments there!)

4. Misrepresentations
Of course, none of the above is criminal. People make mistakes, and if they are looser than I would prefer in labelling it “historical,” c’est la vie. But now I come to something that really troubles me, especially coming from a writer I respect: Misrepresentations of historical accounts, apparently to further an agenda.

I can only conclude that either I am entirely missing certain sources, or Ms. Anton was misled by her mentors.

Example 1: The candle-lighting controversy
Ms. Anton writes in her Afterword:
At this time there was a great controversy over whether a woman should say a blessing over the Sabbath lights, which was settled only after Rashi’s death when one of his granddaughters wrote responsa explaining how the ritual was performed in her mother’s home.

The Responsum in question was written by Rabbeinu Tam, Rashi’s grandson (Sefer haYashar Teshuvah 45), and it simply says to recite the blessing:
I have also heard that they have uprooted the blessing on the Shabbat lamp and desecrated the sacred and the love of the mitzvah. Many obligations require blessings. This is not like mayim acharonim…

There is no mention of any controversy, or even debate.

Example 2: Rashi and his wife
In her afterword Ms. Anton writes of Rashi:
He refers to his wife only twice, once in his kuntres, complaining how she threw the keys at him when she was niddah, and the other time in a responsum, when she interrupted him at afternoon services because a non-Jew was bringing them a gift of bread and cake before the end of Passover.

This is a big deal, to me. Rashi's wife throwing keys at him, Rashi whining about it in his commentary?

Turns out, the latter account is imprecise, but largely correct - see Rashi Responsum 114 for the whole story. But the former account is simply untrue. The “story of the keys” is actually one line in Tosafot, citing from Machzor Vitry 499:
In Machzor Vitry, Rav Shemaya explained that Rashi was careful not even to pass a key from his hand to hers.

That’s it. No complaint. No airborne keys. Only a sick feeling at seeing Rashi described this way.

Example 3: Rashi’s daughter writing a responsum on how candle-lighting was done in her home
The responsum is noted above in Example 1. It was written by Rabbeinu Tam rather than a granddaughter, and it included no reminiscences about how lighting was done at home.

Example 4: Rashi’s daughter writing a responsum for him
Ms. Anton writes in her Afterword:
Besides the Shabbat lights responsa, there is another one, written late in Rashi’s life, that begins by stating that the reader will not recognize his handwriting because, due to his incapacity, it is being written by his daughter. Thus at least one daughter was learned enough to compose legal responsa in erudite Hebrew, and probably the others were too.

Aside from the fact that taking dictation is not composing responsa, and that “probably the others were too” is less than scientific, let’s look at the text itself:

Ms. Anton is referring to Responsum 73 - but there is no daughter involved. Herewith the text:
My strength is weak and my mouth is mute, to tell the troubles which are passing over me, wave after wave. Therefore my hand is weak from being able to write a response to my relative R’ Azriel and to my beloved and my friend R’ Yosef for his words, in my own handwriting. I am dictating from my mouth to one of my brothers, and he is writing.

Example 5: Rabbeinu Tam saying that women wore tefillin and recited a berachah on them
Here are Ms. Anton’s words, from her Afterword:
In the Tosefot to Tractate Rosh haShanah 33a. Rabbeinu Tam mentions that Michal, King Saul’s daughter, wore tefillin. He then states that in his time, women not only performed these time-bound mitzvot, but when they did so, they said the blessing. But tefillin were not worn outside the home, so Jacob could know only that women said the blessing over them from watching his mother, Joheved, or perhaps his older sisters. In any case, because I am writing fiction, I can draw whatever conclusion I like.

Let us first note that in Rashi’s day tefillin generally were worn all day. Even 350 years later, in the days of the Shulchan Aruch, they were largely worn all day, although some people had already stopped doing so by then.

But aside from that, let’s read the actual words of Tosafot:
The law follows Rabbi Yosi, for his reason is with him, and the practical deed is also great [as testimony], for in Eruvin 96a we learn that Michal, daughter of Shaul, would put on tefillin, and Yonah’s wife went to the Beit haMikdash for the regel, and Chagigah 16b mentions a case in which they brought a korban to the women’s area and the women leaned on it, in order to satisfy them. And they may recite berachot on time-bound active mitzvot, even though they are exempt from the mitzvah itself and are simply engaging in it, like Michal daughter of the Cushite, who also recited blessings.

No mention of any women in his day wearing tefillin.

Example 6: Rashi’s daughter, Leah
Ms. Anton writes in her Afterword, regarding the third daughter, Leah, presented in the book:
Rashi’s students wrote of their surprise when he ignored tradition and mourned for a little girl during a festival, causing some historians to speculate that she was his daughter.

The problem is that this account is in writing in both Vitry 275-276 and Responsa of Rashi 189, and the text is clear that Rashi was not related to the girl:
And at the time of the burial some there protested that we should not recite Tzidduk haDin because of the festival, and not Kaddish, for Kaddish is only recited because of the passages of Tzidduk haDin. And our master rose and recited Tzidduk haDin and then kaddish, saying this is not eulogy and a desecration of the festival, but rather acknowledgement and acceptance of Divine judgment. And when he returned from there, he entered the house of the mourner to comfort him and to speak to his heart… (continues to describe what he said to the mourner)

If Rashi was the mourner, how did he go to comfort the mourner?

Example 7: Rashi's views on women's Torah education
At the end of this book Rashi is quoted as presenting a very liberal view on women's Torah education. I might read these passages and think Rashi was a forerunner of the Bais Yaakov movement.

The problem is that the words put in Rashi's mouth are direct quotes from later writers - one from Sefer Chasidim 313 (a century later, in Germany), and the other from Maayan Ganim (16th century Italy).

These last 7 cases are the ones that trouble me most, because there really is no way to get from the evidence to the conclusions drawn in Rashi’s Daughters. It just seems like Rashi and his family are being used to make a point.

Please note: I am emailing this post to Ms. Anton for her reply; I will print any and all explanations/rebuttals she wishes to send me.

In my next post, Gd-willing, I will provide a non-comprehensive list of errors in the book.


  1. My readers and I thank you for taking the time to post (and I'm sure your readers too) --I linked to you.

  2. what is the second rashi joke?

  3. Mom in Israel-
    You're welcome, and thanks for linking.

    Rafi G-
    I read it here.

  4. Interesting breakdown, Rabbi. Thanks for the review - I'd seen these books around and suspected they were probably as you describe here.

    It would be unfortunate if we had to resort to wishful thinking and misrepresentation to portray great Jewish forbears as holding values we can identify with.

  5. You have hit so many nails on their heads here. I'm no expert on Rashi, for sure, but I was so offended at this book on his behalf when I read this book a few years ago, that (unlike the non-existent key incident) I threw it across the room.

    Thank you the rigor and thoroughness of this post.

    I think the book angered me more than it would otherwise have done, because it was well-written. It could have been wonderful, if the author had recreated the time period, and used legitimate research without the bias and gratuitous, inappropriate, offensive and unbelievable sexualization of the characters. I was annoyed not just for what it was, but also for what it could have been.

  6. Juggling Frogs-
    Especially agreed on the "what it could have been" front.

  7. this book was stupid, it had really nothing to do with rashi at all, except for the name. it didn't give any historical understanding, and it reads like one of those paperback erotic western romances at shoprite, except that the hero is a wimp and the sex scenes less erotic

  8. Kisarita-
    Why not tell us what you really feel?

  9. If I may offer a counter argument in favor of the book. First, it must be considered that this series is not about's a series about his daughters.

    Some portions of the characterizations were far fetched, even indelicate and uneccessary (such as the part involving Rashi's sex if that were any of our business). That being put aside however, I found the novelized Rashi to be kind, enthusiastic and wise while not overpowering the story. Not much focus was placed on his intense scholastic accomplishments because that is not what the book is about. He is not the primary character, and therefore should not dominate the novel. If you are a true devotee of Rashi, this would be a hard book to read as it is not accurate or in depth, but please keep in mind, it was not meant to be.

    While the book is not a biography or a "must-read" for students of history, it is a nice jumping off point for those who may have not been introduced to Talmud previously, but found inspiration in the discussions and personas of the Rashi daughters. I personally was inspired to study both Rashi and Akiva more closely after reading these books due to the inspiration I drew from ladies themselves, who were essentially "chips off the old block".

  10. Hey Hey You,

    Thanks for your comments. I agree with your point that the book is not about Rashi, but the bulk of my criticisms are not specifcally Rashi-related. I am disappointed with the lack of proper research and proper application of that research, because the author makes the point that she has done so much research and remained true to history.

  11. Actually, there is a teshuva where he mentions his daughter, but it is disputable about whether the text is "Lachen biti" or "La'ben biti", "Therefore, my daughter", or "To the son of my daughter".

    You can check it out here:

  12. Joel-
    Thanks, but it's unreasonable to read the text as "v'lachen biti", for three reasons:
    1. The sentence would not translate properly if the word were "v'lachen";
    2. The word "hu" is used, rather then "he", to refer to the writer, and
    3. We have precedent for him having his grandson write for him, as noted in Example 1 in my post.