Rashi’s Daughters, Book 1: Joheved, by Maggie Anton

Discussion Guide

About the Author 

Maggie Anton was born in Los Angeles and raised in a secular, Socialist household. She grew up with little knowledge of the Jewish religion and discovered Judaism only as an adult. In the early 1990s, Anton learned about a women’s Talmud class taught by Rachel Adler, now a professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. For five years, she and several other women studied Tractate B’rachot weekly with Adler. In 1997, Anton became intrigued with the idea that Rashi, one of the greatest Jewish scholars who ever lived, had no sons but only three daughters, and that their sons, Rashi’s grandsons, became the Tosafot, the great twelfth-century Talmud commentators. Much has been written about Rashi and the Tosafot, but almost nothing of the daughters except their names and the names of their husbands. Legend has it that Rashi’s daughters were taught Talmud in a time when women were traditionally forbidden to study the sacred texts. Thus was the idea for Rashi’s Daughtersborn.

About the Novel 

Rashi’s Daughters: Jocheved is a work of historical fiction that chronicles the lives and loves of Rashi’s family in eleventh-century France, focusing on his three daughters, Joheved, Miriam and Rachel. Joheved is the first volume of a projected trilogy, each based on a daughter of Rabbi Salomon ben Isaac, whose initials spell Rashi. In spite of the widespread fame that Rashi attained during his lifetime and the many studies of his works by generations who came after him, precious little is known about his personal or family life. Set in the town of Troyes, the capital of the French province of Champagne, the story explores what life might have been like more than 900 years ago.

Maggie Anton weaves her knowledge of history and Talmud with her rich imagination to create a captivating story of life, love and learning in a bygone Jewish world. In an era when educating women in Jewish scholarship was unheard of, Rashi secretly taught his daughters the intricacies of Mishnah and Gemara.

At the heart of this book is Joheved, the eldest of the three girls, whose mind and spirit are awakened by learning. She keeps her passion for learning and prayer hidden, even from her betrothed, Meir ben Samuel.

Questions to Discuss

  1. The opening chapter serves as an introduction to the main character, Jocheved, as well as her younger sister Miriam, her mother, Rivka and her father, Solomon ben Isaac. What do we learn about Jocheved’s character in this chapter?
  2. The bond between Jocheved and her father grows and changes over time. What factors contribute to their developing relationship?
  3. The book is filled with carefully researched historical anecdotes that inspire imaginary scenes taking place in Salomon Ben Isaac’s household. How does this interplay of fact and fiction contribute to the richness of the novel?
  4. Rivka is not pleased to learn that her daughters are studying Talmud. Do you think her objections are reasonable within the novel’s context of time and place? Compare the roles of women in medieval society to their roles today.
  5. Arranged marriages were an accepted custom in eleventh century France. Compare Jocheved and Meir’s relationship to Miriam and Benjamin’s. What were the pros and cons of an arranged marriage vs. marrying for love?
  6. According to Anton, until Rashi decided to write down his kuntres, his lecture notes and commentary explaining Talmudic texts, Talmud study had been restricted to oral discussion. No one person has made such a deep and lasting impact on Jewish learning in the past thousand years. How did Rashi’s decision affect future Jewish scholarship?
  7. Eleventh-century French Jews were heavily involved in commerce and enjoyed a relatively high social status. Relations between Jews and their Christian neighbors were cordial and there was relatively little overt anti-Semitism. Were you surprised to learn this? What else about this period surprised you?
  8. Which characters resonated most powerfully for you? Were there others you would have liked to have known better? Who? Why?
  9. Discuss the role of religion in daily life during the medieval period, as compared to the role of religion in our lives today.
  10. Rashi left a legacy of scholarship and piety that continues to influence Jewish thought throughout the generations. Do you think his daughters contributed to this legacy? How?

Resources 

Learn more about Maggie Anton and her book.

A biography of Rashi

A brief history and discussion of the impact of Rashi on Jewish life.

An example of Rashi’s commentary on Torah text

English Editions of Rashi's Commentaries 

M. Rosenbaum and A.M. Silberman, eds., Pentateuch with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth and Prayers for Sabbath and Rashi's Commentary, Translated into English and Annotated. 2 volumes (London: Shapiro, Vallentine and Co.,1946). Recently reprinted in one volume as Chumash with Rashi's Commentary (Philipp Feldheim,1985). This is a good interpretive translation that helps readers understand the commentary with a minimum of notes.

Abram Davis, ed., The Metsudah Chumash-Rashi. 5 volumes (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, 1983). Reprinted 1999. A literal "linear" translation with Hebrew and English side by side.

Israel Herczeg, ed., Sapirstein Edition Rashi: The Torah with Rashi's Commentary Translated, Annotated, and Elucidated. 5 volumes. (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1998). Gives a literal translation with generous annotations. See sample pages at the publisher's website.

Mayer I. Gruber, ed., Rashi's Commentary on Psalms. Brill Reference Library of Judaism, vol. 18. (Brill Academic Publishers, 2004).

Marlene Myerson, RJE, is the Union for Reform Judaism Regional Educator for the Canadian Council of Reform Judaism and former president of the National Association of Temple Educators.