rashi, women and wine

parshat nasa

Daf Yomi, the custom of reading a page of Talmud every day until completion in a seven and a half year cycle is covered in the national press. Lesser known is the custom of studying the portion of the week with Rashi’s commentary every week.  I was pleased to find that Chabad honors this custom with a web site that breaks the week’s portion into daily sections to study every day (Chumash with Rashi).

As a yeshiva student I followed this custom, religiously. Rashi’s comments, but mostly his choice of midrashic quotes serve me till today as buoys to navigate the Five Books of Moses. I don’t always agree with this 12th Century Rabbi (see Judaism as an Adventure) but every week, it is his comment that triggers ideas, thoughts and impressions that I have lived and struggled with my whole life as a student of the Torah.

Rashi undoubtedly served as the model for IB Singer’s Yentl the Yeshiva Boy …. in spades.  Rashi had three daughters who allegedly put on tefillin* but most certainly studied Torah with their father.  All of the daughters married prominent scholars and gave birth to scholars, many of who were known as the Tosephots, who in typical Jewish fashion wrote comments in columns facing Rashi’s with strident questions and alternative opinions.

Of note, Rashi’s youngest  daughter, Rachel (also known as Belle Assez lit. “rather beautiful.”) and her husband Eliezer were the parents of Shemiah, a prominent French Tosephot, but their marriage ended in divorce. Rachel is credited with having written a responsa on a question of Talmudic Law for her father when he was sick. (see: RASHI AND HIS DAUGHTERS: ENLIGHTENMENT IN THE DARK AGES, by Maggie Anton and check out her three volume set: Rashi’s Daughters by Maggie Anton.)

By my read, Rashi never misses an opportunity to shed light on gender issues (see: Immaculate Conception), sexual preference and women.

Parshat Naso is a splendid example.  See Numbers 5:18 where the Torah describes what happens to a woman suspected by her husband of infidelity.  The woman, known as a Sotah is forced to submit to a trial by ordeal, which started with a public dressing down of the suspect.

Then the cohen shall stand the woman up before the Lord and expose the [hair on the] head of the woman; he shall place into her hands the remembrance meal offering, which is a meal offering of jealousies, while the bitter curse bearing waters are in the cohen’s hand.

וְהֶעֱמִיד הַכֹּהֵן אֶת-הָאִשָּׁה, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, וּפָרַע אֶת-רֹאשׁ הָאִשָּׁה, וְנָתַן עַל-כַּפֶּיהָ אֵת מִנְחַת הַזִּכָּרוֹן מִנְחַת קְנָאֹת הִוא; וּבְיַד הַכֹּהֵן יִהְיוּ, מֵי הַמָּרִים הַמְאָרְרִים

Rashi: and expose He unravels the plaits of her hair to humiliate her. From here [we derive] that a bared head is considered a disgrace for the daughters of Israel. — [Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot. 72a]

ופרע:  סותר את קליעת שערה כדי לבזותה, מכאן לבנות ישראל שגלוי הראש גנאי להן

It is not often that Rashi points out the source of a custom or law so I have always wondered why he chose to do so here.  The Talmudic source that he quotes is in the context of a discussion of acts done by a women which are grounds for divorce.  The Talmud actually suggests that from the verse under discussion, a married woman need not cover her hair in a semi private courtyard (or according to another opinion, when she is carrying a basket on her head).  But the Rabbis required that even in these cases she does have to wear a head covering. **  In any case, whether it be by biblical injunction or Rabbinic embellishment, a woman being seen in public with uncovered hair is grounds for divorce.

Since covering one’s hair and modest dress in general figures so prominently in the daily life of an observant woman, it always seemed to me that the Bible should have been more direct in the teaching of it.  To learn it tangentially from what the cohen does to a woman suspected of infidelity, is neither compelling nor convincing.

Looking at Rashi again, I wondered whether Rashi was providing the source of something that was grounds for divorce, or was he simply reporting how this verse was used (or misused) to justify divorce?

The Hebrew word used by the verse, and translated as “uncovering” is פָּרַע para. As anyone who knows the Israeli children’s book; Yehoshua Peruah, (a translation of the German Der Struwwelpeter), “peruah” means unkempt… not uncovered.

YehosuaPeruah

Certainly, the term used for uncovered is suspect.  It is used in three other places in the Torah to mean unkempt or un-cut (see Leviticus 10:6 [Let not the hair of your heads go loose] , 13:45, [the hair of his head shall go loose], and Numbers 6:5 in the next chapter [let the locks of the hair of his head grow long]))

If, as I believe, peruah means unkempt or un-cut, then we might actually have a biblical source for a fashion crime rather than one of immodesty!

It actually makes sense… a woman is suspected or gallivanting around town and carrying on an extramarital affair, the first thing the cohen does is muss up her hair.  And the traditional misreading of the text makes no sense… a woman is accused of infidelity and immodesty so the Cohen removes her kerchief or sheitel?

Knowing that Rashi’s third daughter was a first rate Torah Scholar and posek (legal decider) who was not shy about displaying her scholarship in public, combined with the fact that she divorced her husband (and not because of being barren)… one wonders (at least I do) whether she (like Bruriah before her) questioned and rebelled against those customs which kept Jewish women in the courtyard and it cost her, her marriage.

Is Rashi paying tribute to his daughter and other liberated Jewish women here when he writes: מכאן לבנות ישראל שגלוי הראש גנאי להן “from here (this verse) to Jewish daughters  uncovering the head became degrading to them.”

Moving on…. to my second Rashi commentary in this weekly portion….

All great Jewish Scholars did not earn a living from their Torah learning.  Maimonides was a doctor, Yehuda HaLevi was a poet etc. Rashi lived in France, and while we have no documented proof, the contention is that he had a vineyard and made a living from his winery.  Writes Elie Wiesel:

How did he earn his living? Solely from the produce of his vineyard—there again, if he had one? He did write a lot about wines. He had no salary (in those days, rabbis were not paid), and his students received free instruction.

Wiesel, Elie (2009-08-06). Rashi (Jewish Encounters) (p. 18). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

With that in mind, it is easy to appreciate the next Rashi which explains why a Nazirite who has taken a vow not to imbibe wine brings a sin offering: Numbers 6: 11

The cohen shall prepare one for a sin offering and one for a burnt offering and atone on his behalf for sinning by coming into contact with the dead, and he shall sanctify his head on that day.

וְעָשָׂה הַכֹּהֵן, אֶחָד לְחַטָּאת וְאֶחָד לְעֹלָה, וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו, מֵאֲשֶׁר חָטָא עַל-הַנָּפֶשׁ; וְקִדַּשׁ אֶת-רֹאשׁוֹ, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא

Rashi: for sinning by coming into contact with the dead: Heb. מֵאֲשֶׁר חָטָא עַל הַנֶּפֶשׁ, lit., for sinning concerning the body… Rabbi Eleazar Hakappar says: He afflicted himself [by abstaining] from wine, [thus, he sinned against his own body]. — [Nazir 19a, B.K. 91b, Ta’anith 11a, Sifrei Naso 1:18, and other places]

מאשר חטא על הנפש: שלא נזהר מטומאת המת, רבי אלעזר הקפר אומר שציער עצמו מן היין

Here is the source that Rashi cites: Babylonian Talmud Nazir 19a

For it has been taught: R. Eleazar ha-Kappar, Berabbi, said: Why does the Scripture say, And make atonement for him, for that he sinned by reason of the soul. Against what ‘soul’ did he then sin? It can only be because he denied himself wine. If then this man who denied himself wine only is termed a sinner, how much more so is this true of one who is ascetic in all things!

L’Chaim!

—————–

* There is actually a very heated debate going on in the Orthodox community right now over women wearing tefillin (also referred to as partnership minyanim).  See WOMEN IN TEFILLIN: Rav Hershel Shachter Slams Rabbis Permitting Women To Wear  and see: Rav Ysoscher Katz: Translation of a Letter to Rav H. Schachter shlita

** AND WHAT [IS DEEMED TO BE A WIFE’S TRANSGRESSION AGAINST] JEWISH PRACTICE? GOING OUT WITH UNCOVERED HEAD. [Is not the prohibition against going out with] an uncovered head Pentateuchal [Why then is it here described as one of mere Jewish practice?]; for it is written, And he shall uncover the woman’s head, and this, it was taught at the school of R. Ishmael, was a warning to the daughters of Israel that they should not go out with uncovered head [Why then was this described as traditional Jewish practice]? Pentateuchally it is quite satisfactory [if her head is covered by] her work-basket; according to traditional Jewish practice, however, she is forbidden [to go out uncovered] even with her basket [on her head].  R. Assi stated in the name of R. Johanan: With a basket [on her head a woman] is not guilty of  [going about with] an uncovered head. In considering this statement, R. Zera pointed out this difficulty: Where [is the woman assumed to be]?  If it be suggested, ‘In the street’, [it may be objected that this is already forbidden by] Jewish practice;  but [if she is] in a court-yard  [the objection may be made that] if that were so  you will not leave our father Abraham a [single] daughter who could remain with her husband!  — Abaye, or it might be said, R. Kahana, replied: [The statement refers to one who walks] from one courtyard into another by way of an alley. (Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 72a)

***  It is not beyond Rashi to reference family members.  The choice of midrashic source for the first Rashi on the Chumash which is in the name of Rabbi Yitzhack has been seen as a tribute to Rashi’s father, as in Rav Shlomo ben Yitzchaki (see Eli Weisel Rashi)

His impressive commentary of the Bible starts with a question asked by a Rabbi Yitzhak: why does the Bible begin with the description of the genesis of the world rather than with the first law, which concerns the calendar? We will return to this question. For the time being, let us just recall that for some exegetes, this Rabbi Yitzhak is none other than the author’s father.

Wiesel, Elie (2009-08-06). Rashi (Jewish Encounters) (p. 11). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

2 Comments

Filed under Bible, Hebrew, Judaism, Religion, social commentary, Torah, women's rights

2 responses to “rashi, women and wine

  1. The whole thing definitely has the feel of “we know that all respectable women do this but we’re not sure why, so here’s one possible source.” I think the question for women today, with this and anything else, is “can this be redeemed or is it hopeless?” When you look at men’s practices, the sources are rarely insulting. They never say “men grow their beards long because they lack compassion” – instead, they say “men are the epitome of compassion and the beard enhances this”. They never say “Men brought evil into this world through rape and war and mistreating their wives and therefore, they must study Torah and put on tefillin”. For men, it’s all positive, positive, positive. For women — negative, negative, negative, recent apologetics about how women are on a higher spiritual plane notwithstanding. There is not a single female Jewish practice (even shabbat candles!) that has not been given a negative spin related to the evil that women do. This is our tradition. So I see three options. We can drop Judaism altogether since it’s patriarchal and become Unitarians. We can drop everything associated with women’s practices since they are all contaminated. We can redeem women’s practices. While I see nothing inherently wrong with option 2, I lean towards option 3. Headcovering is meaningful to some Jewish women as a spiritual discipline and a burden to others. While I support women who wish to throw off the burden, I also support women for whom headcovering is meaningful and positive.

    • madlik

      Thanks for a very thoughtful comment. It relates to more than just women’s issues in our tradition. I like your 3rd approach too. We can re-invent and redeem anachronistic and insulting practices, and in retaining artifacts of the past, give tribute to those who fought and suffered to bring us forward…

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