Town marks Rashi’s anniversary

An early medieval Rashi manuscript printed in Italy. ()

An early medieval Rashi manuscript printed in Italy. ()

TROYES, France, July 27 (JTA) — The project is still in the initial planning stages, but the birthplace of the medieval biblical commentator Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac is determined not to miss out this time. In 2005, Troyes, the ancient capital of the Counts of Champagne in northern France, will celebrate the 900th anniversary of the death of its most famous son, known to the Jewish world by his acronym of Rashi. The author of the monumental commentary on the Talmud and the Torah, Rashi was born in Troyes in 1040, and although his grave has never been found, scholars believe he died there in about 1105. For obvious reasons, the town missed out on the anniversary of Rashi’s birth in 1940. The Champagne region around Troyes had as its prefect Rene Bousquet, who later headed the Vichy police and was responsible for numerous roundups of Jews during the Nazi occupation of France. Today, a well-kept, small, medieval city about 100 miles east of Paris, Troyes was once at the center of European trade routes located on the ancient Roman road connecting Milan in northern Italy with Boulogne-sur-mer on the English Channel. Coupled with its proximity to Flanders and the cities of the Rhineland, this made the town one of the major trading hubs in Europe, an advantage seized upon by the Counts of Champagne, who instituted the twice-yearly Champagne fairs, where traders from across the continent would ply their wares. With these traders came Jews, welcomed by the Counts of Champagne and protected in the Jewish quarter close to the city’s cathedral. Rashi’s family probably came to Troyes from across the Rhine in Germany, and he himself spent some 10 years studying in the Rhineland at Worms in the famous Yeshiva of Mainz, founded by Rabbeinu Gershom, the “Light of the Diaspora.” 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. Nevertheless, the 16th-century wooden building that houses the synagogue in the heart of the old section of Troyes is still there and now serves as the Jewish community center. It holds regular Shabbat and holiday services. Across the narrow street from the synagogue is the Rashi Institute, which provides courses in Jewish studies and regularly stages conferences. In close cooperation with the Troyes municipality, the institute has already began work on preparing for the 900th anniversary of Rashi’s death, and intends to bring together the world’s 20 leading experts on Rashi’s works for a conference in the city. It has also set as one of its primary goals to make the local population in Troyes and the Champagne region more aware of the contribution of Rashi and other talmudic masters from the area. Although there are a number of sites associated with Rashi in Troyes, including a statue of the him unveiled by Elie Wiesel to mark the 850th anniversary of Rashi’s birth in 1990, the local population has shown little interest. “Unfortunately, Rashi is really only associated with Troyes for the Jewish community,” said the city’s deputy director for tourism, Laurence Hugin-Pujol. Indeed, unlike many other centers of medieval Jewry in Europe, there is no museum other than the synagogue itself, while festivals have yet to be organized, she said. “I’ve been working here for 25 years and in that time, we’ve never really exploited Rashi to the full. Sometimes, we get groups from England and Israel who ask us about Rashi and we direct them to the synagogue. But the synagogue is usually closed and you can only go there by prior invitation.” Recognizing the need, the city recently inaugurated a “themed walk” titled “In the Footsteps of Rashi.” But Troyes doesn’t neglect Israel or its Jewish past. According to the town’s rabbi, Abba Samoun, Troyes is the only city in Europe with a Ben-Gurion Square accompanied by a statue of Israel’s first prime minister. In addition, Troyes’ City Hall is located on a public thoroughfare named after a former Jewish mayor and senator in the national legislature, Alexandre Israel. There is also a memorial to Rashi in the town as well as one to the region’s Jews who were deported to Nazi concentration camps. For Samoun, the placement of the Holocaust memorial was particularly significant since it sits next to the memorial for the wartime French Resistance, while the memorial’s light is pointed toward Jerusalem. Naturally, there is a Rashi Street, and Samoun succeeded in persuading the City Council to take down the sign which described the street as a dead end. Some of the contemporary problems facing French Jews are absent from Troyes, Suzanna Gutmacher, former president of the city’s B’nai Brith Rashi Lodge, told JTA. “There are no problems with anti-Semitism here, and we have excellent relations with the Muslim community,” she said. Despite Rashi’s reputation as being the greatest and most widely studied Torah commentator, his heritage factors minimally in the life of the Troyes’ Jewish community. “We get groups from Jewish schools and sometimes from Israel. They ask whether the rabbi can give them a talk and he usually suggests the theme of Rashi. They like that,” Gutmacher said. Rashi Institute administrator Florence Saherer said she had been born and raised in Troyes, “but we never learned about Rashi in school.” Saherer recalled that she had received puzzled looks from fellow Troyens when she told them she was working at the Rashi Institute. “They all knew the synagogue, but most people didn’t know who Rashi was,” she said. Like most of the Troyes community in his area, Rashi managed to escape the ravages of the First Crusade — and he soon became well-known even outside his native Champagne region. By the 13th century, his commentaries on the Bible were being quoted by Christian theologians in Paris. Because Rashi wanted his work to be understandable for the Jews he knew and lived with in Troyes, the style and language of his writings earned him the sobriquet “Hatzarfati,” or “the Frenchman.” As a result, wherever there is a need to explain a difficult word in the text of the Hebrew or Aramaic in his Torah or Talmud commentaries, Rashi does not hesitate to use his own language. There are therefore almost 3,000 words of 11th-century Champenois French inserted into Rashi’s writing, a valuable source for researchers of the development of the French language. Despite the fact that Rashi both taught and wrote in Troyes, Samoun said he was almost certainly not the city’s rabbi. Rather, Rashi, like other medieval scholars, was strict in upholding the talmudic injunction against earning one’s living from teaching the Torah. In fact, he owned vineyards and was a winemaker — very much in keeping with the Champagne region in which he lived.

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