Rabbi Shlomo bar Yitzchak, (“Solomon the son of Isaac”, also called Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki – hence the acronym “Rashi” by which he is almost universally described – was one of the most renowned of the Jewish scholars of medieval France. He is particularly remembered for his comprehensive commentaries on the Bible and the Talmud, and also for his rulings on questions of Jewish law, particularly relating to the rights of women.
Rashi was born in Troyes, then the capital of the Champagne region of France, into a family of scholars. As a young man he gained experience in trade and agriculture, and then he studied at the academies of Jewish learning at Mainz and Worms in the Rhineland. After returning to Troyes, he went into business as a wine merchant, and also set up his own rabbinical school, where he taught chosen students without a fee.
In the ninth century, Charlemagne, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 CE, ruled an empire comprising most of France and Germany. He invited Jews to come from Spain and settle in the market towns of the Rhineland in order to encourage international trade. The Jewish community flourished, and by the eleventh century it was distinguished by a high level of Biblical scholarship of which the work of Rashi was a typical example. However, the First Crusade began during his lifetime and in 1099 followers of the Crusaders attacked the Jews of the Rhineland in a wave of massacres, and Rashi lost many relatives and friends.
Rashi had three daughters, all learned in their own right, and it is said that they contributed to his work. There is also a tradition that they sought the spiritual satisfaction of observing some of the rituals usually performed by men, and that this was permitted by their father, as long as the relevant blessing was not recited. A blessing suitable for women was later composed by Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, one of a number of distinguished scholars descended from him.