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Rachel Morpurgo: Queen of the Hebrew Sonnet

Dr. Pearl Herzog

In an era when most women could not even read lashon hakodesh, and Turkish was the vernacular in Eretz Yisrael, Rachel Luzzatto-Morpurgo was a prolific poet in the Holy Tongue. Her sonnets, written in lashon hakodesh and spiced with references to psukim and Torah concepts, were published to wide acclaim and popularity. This remarkable woman was two centuries before her time; her poetry is as relevant today as it was then.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Rachel Morpugo
 
Rachel Luzzatto was born on April 8, 1790,
in Trieste (today in Italy, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Eight years earlier, Joseph II had
promulgated the famous Edict of Tolerance, affording religious freedom to the
Jews and enabling their exodus from the ghettos. The oasis of political peace
was mirrored in the privileged home in which Rachel was raised.

Rachel’s family was not only steeped in Torah; ink coursed through its
veins. Her parents were both Luzzattos, distant cousins of each other. Rachel’s
mother Brachah was a granddaughter of Baruch Luzzatto, a brother of the
Ramchal. Rachel’s paternal grandfather, Reb Yitzchak Luzzatto, was a medical
doctor and a poet. Her father, Baruch Luzzatto, together with his
brother-in-law Chizkiyah Luzzatto (Rachel’s mother was Chizkiyah’s sister)
owned a lithography business.

Lithography (a method of printing using stone that enabled mass
production of paintings and books) was developed in the early nineteenth
century, when Rachel was still a young girl. It was a revolution that Rachel’s
father and uncle capitalized on, building a thriving business producing
lithographs.

Raised in a comfortable home, Rachel had the luxury of spending time
growing intellectually. At age twelve, she was taught Tanach by her uncle, her
mother’s brother David, and was introduced to the commentaries of Metzudas
David
and Metzudas Tzion. He also taught her Chovos HaLevavos.

Rachel’s uncle David never married and upon his death, he bequeathed to
his nephew (Rachel’s brother, David) a huge library. Rachel would spend hours
studying these seforim. With private teachers she studied Rashi on Tanach, and Menoras
HaMaor
by Yitzchak Abuhav. She also studied the sefer Reishis Chochmah.
Her uncle, Chizkiyah Luzzatto, broadened her Judaic studies and taught her
math.

An intelligent girl was not excused from the family business, either, and
Rachel learned the art of lithography and the craft of turnery on a lathe.
Rachel was also a skilled seamstress, and would sew her own clothes as well as
those of her mother and, later on, of her only daughter, Perela.

 

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