Rashi’s Daugh­ters: Book One: Joheved

By – October 17, 2011

Mag­gie Anton’s high­ly orig­i­nal and care­ful­ly researched book, Rashi’s Daugh­ters, is a com­pelling fic­tion­al account of the life of one of the great Tal­mu­dic schol­ars, Rab­bi Shlo­mo Yizha­ki, also known as Rashi. Born in France in 1040, C.E., Rashi, a wine­mak­er by trade, oper­at­ed a renowned school where stu­dents flocked from near and far to learn the Tal­mud from him. Rashi had no sons, but three daugh­ters, Joheved, Miri­am and Rachael, who dis­played a keen intel­lect, and a thirst for learn­ing the Tal­mud. In those times, it was unheard of for a teacher to instruct a woman in Tal­mu­dic law, whose study was lim­it­ed to male yeshi­va stu­dents. Rashi was a renowned schol­ar, his tal­ents going to waste when he found him­self with­out any stu­dents dur­ing a peri­od of his life. On the day his wife Rif­ka was giv­ing birth to her third child, Rashi’s daugh­ter Joheved came to him with a ques­tion about Rifka’s birth which was best answered with a sacred pas­sage from the Tal­mud. Although not tech­ni­cal­ly for­bid­den, women did not study in yeshiv­as, were often illit­er­ate and did not study the Tal­mud. Nev­er­the­less, after intro­spec­tion and study, Rashi found the Tal­mud itself men­tioned learned women, often the daugh­ters of schol­ars. From that day on, Rashi’s daugh­ters, par­tic­u­lar­ly Joheved, became some of his most adored stu­dents and their love affair with these sacred texts began to blossom.

Rashi’s Daugh­ters is beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, and often, with her detailed and pierc­ing use of lan­guage, the read­er feels as if he or she is learn­ing the words from these sacred texts, in the com­pa­ny of the mas­ter, Rashi him­self. Ms. Anton, who her­self stud­ied Tal­mud for ten years, took sev­en years to write Rashi’s Daugh­ters, a book in which fas­tid­i­ous research and well-craft­ed writ­ing are interwoven.

Bar­bara S. Cohen is a tri­al attor­ney in Los Ange­les who spe­cial­izes in child abuse cas­es. She is a mem­ber of NAMI and a sup­port­er of NARSAD, and is an advo­cate for those who suf­fer from men­tal illness.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Penguin

1. What tone does the open­ing scene set? What does it tell you about Joheved’s character?

2. Describe how the bond between Joheved and Salomon devel­ops and changes with time? Dis­cuss the pros and cons of Jew­ish child­hood in medieval France.

3. Rashi’s Daugh­ters is filled with care­ful­ly researched his­tor­i­cal anec­dotes that the author uses as inspi­ra­tion for her own imag­ined scenes. Dis­cuss this inter­play of fact and fiction.

4. Riv­ka is upset with her daugh­ters learn­ing Tal­mud. Are her objec­tions rea­son­able? Why would men not want women in a posi­tion of knowl­edge? What is threat­en­ing about edu­cat­ed women? Dis­cuss the role of women in medieval soci­ety ver­sus their role today.

5. Joheved and Meir have an arranged mar­riage, as do Salomon and Riv­ka. Com­pare Joheved and Meir’s rela­tion­ship to Salomon and Rivka’s? To Miri­am and Benjamin’s? Dis­cuss the pros and cons of arranged mar­riage ver­sus mar­ry­ing for love. Why would Sarah pre­fer wid­ow­hood to remarriage?

6. Salomon’s deci­sion to write down his kun­tres is a con­tro­ver­sial inno­va­tion. Dis­cuss how a soci­ety is changed in a shift from oral to writ­ten tradition.

7. Rela­tions between French Jews and Chris­tians were fair­ly tol­er­ant dur­ing this time. Was this lack of overt anti-Semi­tism sur­pris­ing? What oth­er myths about medieval times did Rashi’s Daugh­ters debunk?

8. Which char­ac­ters res­onat­ed the most pow­er­ful­ly for you? Were there oth­ers you would have liked to have known more about? Why?

9. What do you see in the future for Rachel? Are there any clues that indi­cate what might happen?

10. Reli­gion was a pow­er­ful force for both Jews and Chris­tians in medieval times. Is reli­gion as pow­er­ful now? How does your reli­gion, or lack of one, influ­ence your life?