Was Rashi a Winemaker? | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

Was Rashi a Winemaker?

Grande Place in Troyes, France, today/ Wikimedia Commons

L’Chaim explores the history of the esteemed commentator’s connection with wine

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Ever wonder what kind of wine Rashi actually made?

Rashi is the Hebrew acronym by which Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki is known throughout the Jewish world. Besides being a prodigious and prolific eleventh century French Jewish biblical and Talmudic commentator, Rashi is popularly thought to have earned his living as a vintner.

Today, under the Rashi brand, one can find a variety of sweet and kiddush-style wines from Italy, New York, and California. These don’t seem to have much of anything to do with Rashi as an historical figure. It is an incredibly safe bet, for example, that Rashi never produced wines in California, New York, or Italy.

A great deal about Rashi’s life remains firmly unknown, although popular legends abound. Rashi lived in Troyes, the heart of what is now Champagne, in northern France (about 100 miles east of Paris). He was born there in 1040 and is believed to have died there in about 1105. Today, virtually nothing remains of the city’s history from the time of Rashi, since a large part of the city was destroyed by fire in 1524. Even before then, the medieval Jewish community of Troyes was abruptly dissolved in September 1394 when Charles VI suddenly issued his decree expelling the Jews from France. Tracing anything Jewish in Troyes back farther than the second half of the nineteenth century in strong detail is a tall order.

The name Rashi was chosen for a wine company more for the familiarity of the name to a Jewish audience, than for any specific associations between the historic figure and the particular wines bottled under the eponymous label.

The one association of the name Rashi that matters in this context, is that Rashi earned his living in the wine trade. Though even this is speculative.

Dr. Haym Soloveitchik, the only son of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik—aka The Rav of Yeshiva University and the Modern Orthodox movement—and a contemporary dominating figure in the incredibly niche field of the history of Jewish law, argues strongly against this biographical legend.

In his essay “Can Halakhic Texts Talk History?,” written in 1978 and slightly revised in 2013, Dr. Soloveitchik argues that: “Jewish communities were generally tiny, averaging from a handful to a score of families and tended (in the Champagne region) to make their own wine…[which] was usually produced anew every fall…It is difficult to see how this could have been accomplished without the concerted effort of the entire community.” Thus, he argues in a footnote, Rashi’s clear familiarity with wine production, as evidenced by his Jewish legal writings and Talmudic commentary, owes more to his having been a posek (a halachic devisor) for his small community, than to the prospect that he actually earned his living through wine.

As he put it, “the presumption is against anyone being a winegrower in Troyes” because the “deeply fissured soil to this day is inhospitable to viticulture.” He allows that Rashi’s wording at times implies that there were some privately held vineyards, but almost certainly nothing productive enough for a family to earn a living off its wine. “Despite all this,” Dr. Soloveitchik concludes his note, “Rashi may have been a vintner; but by the same token he may have been an egg salesman.”

As I ponder the mysteries of Rashi’s possible career in wine in one of the Champagne region’s least hospitable communes for viticulture, I do so over a few glasses of:

Champagne Laurent-Perrier, Brut, non-vintage, Kosher Edition ($80): This first-rate, light-to-medium-bodied bubbly is refined and balanced, yet fun and easy, with fine, concentrated, endless bubbles and notes of citrus peel, minerals, and nuts, all with a lovely dollop of fresh berries in the lengthy finish. This is superb champagne. No further commentary is required.

L’Chaim!

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