Rashi, or Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, has been revered since his own 11th century as a prodigious and prolific commentator of the Bible and Talmud. He is also popularly thought to have earned his living as a vintner in his native France.
What kind of wine did he make?
Today, under the Rashi label, 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 a historical figure.
A great deal about Rashi’s life remains unknown, although popular legends abound. Rashi lived in Troyes, the heart of what is now Champagne, in northern France. 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 it 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.
The name Rashi was chosen as a wine label 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.
But as seductive as the legend of Rashi the vintner is, Haym Soloveitchik, a professor at Yeshiva University and the leading contemporary historian of Halachah, or Jewish law, argues against it.
In his 1978 essay “Can Halakhic Texts Talk History?” 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 decisor) for his small community, than to the prospect that he actually earned his living through wine.
As Soloveitchik 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,” Soloveitchik concludes, “Rashi may have been a vintner; but by the same token he may have been an egg salesman.”
Here is an offering from Rashi’s Champagne region:
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!
Send your wine and spirits questions to Joshua E. London at [email protected].