Jewish Women Through the Ages
A Glimpse at women's lives through the ages- gathered from various sources
BABATHA OF KARMA. PROPERTY OWNER 2nd century c.e. Time of Bar Kochba
Babatha, a woman of property, is
known only through a cache of thirty-five papyrus documents found in 1961 in a
cave in the Judean desert
Probably an only child, Babatha inherited
lands and possessions after her mother's death. The properties had originally
been transferred from her father to her mother while both parents were still
Babatha was married twice. Her first husband was Joshua, son of Joseph.
After his death, Babatha was not named as one of her son's guardians. She later
brought a legal action against the two legal guardians in an effort to
increase the money used to provide
for the care of her son, "orphan Joshua, son of Joshua.'" Babatha's second husband was Judah ben
Eleazer Khtusion of Bin-Gedi. He died three years after the wedding,
bequeathing to Babatha considerable property. In 131 CE. members of Judah's
family, including a first wife, Miriam, contested
Mibtahiah Of ELEPHANTINE, PROPERTY
OWNER, (5th century Before zero)
Mibtahiah was a prosperous woman who lived on Elephantine, a small island in the Nile River
with a thriving Jewish community. Born in 476 B.C.E. to a well-to-do family that owned property and slaves. .
Mibtahiah had two brothers, Gemariah and Jedaniah. Probably in order to
bypass the biblical ruling that daughters cannot inherit if there are sons, her
father, Mahseiah, gifted property to her at the time of her marriages.
first husband was Jezaniah, the Jew who owned the plot of land next to her father's house. The marriage, which took place
in 460 or 459 ac.r. when she was approximately sixteen years old, was marked by two transfers of a deed for a
building plot: one by Mahseiah to his daughter, granting her title to the
property, and the second to Jezaniah giving him the income only. This was a typical dowry arrangement at that time.
Jezaniah died shortly after the marriage, and there was no record of any
Egyptian was Mibtahiah's second husband, whom she
married in 449 B.C.E. For this
marriage there is an existing contract called a "document of wifehood;
stipulating that either party could initiate divorce, a right that was not
common to Jewish women in later periods.Note: assumes monogamy.
MIBTAHIAH'S DOCUMENT OF WIFEHOOD
Mibtahiahl is my wife and I am her husband from this day and forever. I
gave you as mohar for your daughter Mibtahiah 5 shekels . . . Your
daughter Miptahiah brought in to me in her hand: silver money, 2 shekels; 1 new
garment of wool. striped with dye; another garment of wool, finely woven; 1
mirror of bronze; 1 bowl of bronze; 2 cups of bronze; 1 jug of
bronze. All the silver and the value of the goods: 6 karsh. 5 shekel, 20 hallurs(?) 1 bed of papyrus-reed ... 2 ladles; 1
new box of palm leaf; 5 handfuls of castor oil; 1 pair of sandals.
Tomorrow or the next day, should Eshor die
not having a child, male or female, from Miptahiah his wife, it is Mibtahiah
who has right to the house of Eshor and his goods and his property and all that
he has on the face of the earth, all of it. Tomorrow or the next day, should
Miptahiah die not having a child. male or female, from Eshor her husband, it is
Eshor who shall inherit from her her
goods and her property.
Tomorrow or the next day, should Miptahiah
stand up in an assembly and say: "I hated Eshor my husband", silver
of hatred is on her head. She shall place upon the balance-scale and weigh out
to Eshor silver ... and all that she brought in her hand she shall take out,
from straw lo string, and go away wherever she desires, without suit or without
Tomorrow or the next day, should Eshor stand
up in an assembly and say: "I hated my wife Miptahiah," her mohar
will be lost and all that she brought in in her hand she shall take out, from
strain, to string, on one day in one stroke, and go away wherever
she desires, without suit or without process ... And I shall not be able to
say: "I have another wife besides Miptahiah and other children besides the
children whom Miptahiah shall bear to me...."
Mibtahiah emerges as a woman who had
considerable control over her own life. She was guaranteed status as an only
wife, was free to divorce at will, and acted
independently in business.
OF SMYRNA, READ OF A SYNAGOGUE, (2nd century c.e.)
Rufina was an established and respected citizen of
Smyrna (Turkey) who owned property and slaves. She is known only by an
inscription on a tombstone that she had built for her freed slaves. This
inscription specifically identifies her as a Jew and head of a synagogue
(archisynagogissa). Hers is one of nineteen Greek and Latin inscriptions referring to Jewish women
in the Mediterranean area over several
centuries." Many of them were listed as "head of synagogue."There is no mention of a husband and no
evidence that her title was derived from a husband or other male
Retina, a Jewess, head of the synagogue, built
this tomb for her freed slaves raised in her house. No one else has the right
to bury anyone there]. If someone should dare to do so. he or she will pay
198 dinars to the sacred treasury
and 1000 dinars to the Jewish people. A copy of this inscription has been
placed in the [public) archives.'"
Women in the Cairo Genizah
A Look at
Women’s Lives in Cairo Geniza Society
Renée Levine Melammed
Women’s lives in medieval Mediterranean society as based on Cairo
documents were first deemed significant by S.D. Goitein. The insightful
which he entitled “The World of Women”, provided a first glimpse into
varied lives of these women.
It is surprising to discover how many letters were sent by and to
how many extant court documents actually involved them….the women’s world in Geniza society was not isolated one; women with professions or with economic standing were not sitting at home or hiding behind their veils…
Wuhsha al-Dallala, thesuccessful
agent in Fustat at the close of the eleventh century….
This maverick daughter of a banker from Alexandria was a woman who dealt in serious amounts
money, some of which were loans. She clearly had a steady income, which enabled her to contribute to charity, especially as manifested by the
figures listed in her will.
. She seems to chose to be a single mother, living
with the father of her son. . .. not interested in marrying him. . . the father of her child was not to receive a penny from her estate; she had already provided him with a
generous loan, which had never been repaid. . .. this woman was not going to allow her lover to inherit her fortune . Her will reflected the fact that she
intended to keep her finances under tight control both while alive and after her demise.
The president of the Iraqi synagogue . . .chose to humiliate her on the
holiest day of the year, on the Day of Atonement, and evicted her from the synagogue. However, this did not
result in a bona fide excommunication or a
shunning of any sort…
Commercial dealings with a number
also she friends with prominent synagogue positions including
A letter in which a mother writes to
her son(s) on behalf of her daughter-in-law. The
first three lines of this letter in Arabic. The script, presumably that of a scribe, switches from Arabic to
Judeo-Arabic, . . .not intended for public
consumption, for one could never be certain who
might read one’s mail. Since the mother was about to offer a
description of suffering on the part of the Jewish community that might well offend the authorities, it must have seemed
safer to record this in a language
legible only to Jewish eyes.
This woman contended that life in Fustat had become insecure and
dangerous; no Jews were entering or leaving
the city. According to her report, slave soldiers (mamluks) were the
instigators of this havoc; they were running amok throughout the city. The mamluks appear
to have entirely destroyed one of the
quarters, having attacked homes, mills and oil presses. The damage was
tremendous and the suffering great. The
devastation of a house overlooking the Nile that belonged to a family they knew is described.
3)This woman was anxious to be granted a divorce from her miserly and miserable husband.
This petition began with an appropriate blessing.
By the fourth line, the woman petitioner had already gotten down to business At this point, she informed the
Nagid ( Leader) Masliah that his “maidservant” has been with him (her husband) for fifteen years. In all this time, not once has she received anything from him.
In her opinion, the most extreme
example of his miserliness was the fact that he wouldn’t even give her the silver coin required for payment to enter
the bathhouse. This was unthinkable . . .. A husband was required to provide his wife with the entrance
fee, as the bathhouse was essential to her health, ritually, physically and psychologically.
Cairo was actually famous for its bathhouses. . . . The bathhouse was private, and once the women passed through
its portals, it might have been one of the only places
where they were not subject to male supervision, criticism or limitations. Essentially, preventing one’s wife from
premises verged on outright cruelty.
The husband under discussion was apparently extremely cruel to his
wife.her husband never provided her with a headpiece, part of the basics for a woman’s wardrobe. He not only abused her, but beat her; if
she complained about the fact that he
was harming her, his response was equally cruel and cavalier: she could simply extricate herself from the
marriage. All she had to do was to “ransom herself;”
his intention was that she should give up her rights to her marriage contract. He would not object to giving her a
divorce as long as it would not incur any
expenses for him. Her outcry is heard loud and
clear in her letter as she called out to God to punish this man for his
GLÜCKEL OF (Glückel von Hameln):
German diarist; born about 1646 in Hamburg;
died 1724 at Metz. . .Glückel frequented the "ḥeder" and was made
acquainted with the Holy Scriptures as well as with the German-Jewish
literature of the time. When barely fourteen she was married to Ḥayyim Hameln,
and settled in the small town of Hameln. After a year the young couple moved to
Glückel had six sons and as many daughters,
whom she brought up very carefully and married to members of the best Jewish
families in Germany.
In 1689 Ḥayyim Hameln died, and Glückel was
left with eight young children, the four others being already married. Besides
their education she had to direct the large business left by her husband, which
she managed with great success. at the age of fifty-four she married the
wealthy banker Cerf Levy of Metz (1700). Unfortunately, one year after the
marriage Levy lost both his own fortune and that of his wife, and Glückel,
hitherto accustomed to opulence, became dependent upon her husband's children.
After the death of Levy (1712) she settled in the home of her daughter Esther,
wife of Moses Krumbach-Schwab of Metz. Here she passed the last years of her
life, occupied with the writing of her memoirs.
Glückel left an autobiography consisting of
seven books written in Judæo-German .
She often adds homiletic and moral stories of some length, taken partly from
Midrash and Talmud, partly from Judæo-German books, which evidence wide
Excerpt from Diary:
IN MY great grief and for my heart's ease I begin this book the year of
Creation 5451 [1690-91] —God soon rejoice us and send us His redeemer!
I began writing it, dear
children, upon the death of your good father, in the hope of distracting my
soul from the burdens laid upon it, and the bitter thought that we have lost
our faithful shepherd.
...The kernel of
the Torah is, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.' But in our days we
seldom find it so, and few are they who love their fellow-men with all their heart—on the contrary,
if a man can contrive to ruin his neighbour, nothing pleases him more.
thing for you, my children, is to serve God from your heart, without falsehood
or sham, not giving out to people that you are one thing while, God forbid, in
your heart you are another. . .
Moreover, put aside a fixed time for the
study of the Torah, as best you know how .3 Then diligently go about
your business, for providing your wife and children a decent livelihood is
likewise a mitzvah—the command of God and the duty of man. We should, I say,
put ourselves to great pains for our children, for on this the world is built,
yet we must understand that if children did as much for their parents, the
children would quickly tire of it.
once set out to cross a windy sea with its three fledglings. The sea was so
wide and the wind so strong, the father bird was forced to carry his young, one
by one, in his strong claws. When he was half-way across with the first
fledgling the wind turned
to a gale, and he said, «My child, look how I am struggling and risking my life
in your behalf. When you are grown up, will you do as much for me and provide
for my old age?» The fledgling replied, «Only bring me to safety, and when you
are old I shall do everything you ask of me.» Whereat the father bird dropped
his child into the sea, and it drowned, and he said, «So shall it be done to
such a liar as you.>> Then the father bird returned to shore, set forth
with his second fledgling, asked the same question, and receiving the same
answer, drowned the second child with the cry, «You, too, are a liar!» Finally
he set out with the third fledgling, and when he asked the same question, the
third and last fledgling replied, «My dear father, it is true you are
struggling mightily and risking your life in my behalf, and I shall be wrong
not to repay you when you are old, but I cannot bind myself. This though I can
promise: when I am grown up and have children of my own, I shall do as much for
them as you have done for me.>> Whereupon the father bird said, «Well
spoken, my child, and wisely; your life I will spare and I will carry you to
shore in safety.>>
Above all, my
children, be honest in money matters, with both Jews and Gentiles, lest the
name of Heaven be profaned. If you have in hand money or goods belonging to
other people, give more care to them than if they were your own, so that,
please God, you do no one wrong.
The Maid of Ludomir
A semi-legendary figure, reputed to have been
one of the few women in Hasidism who functioned as a fully-fledged spiritual
master (Tzaddik or Rebbe).
Hannah Rachel, the Maid,
was the only daughter of Monesh Verbermacher, an educated and well-to-do Jew in
the Volhynian town of Ludomir (Vladimir-Volynskiy). From an early age she was
distinguished not only because of her beauty but also–unusually for a girl–by
dint of her ardor in prayer and remarkable aptitude for scholarship.
Her betrothal to a beloved childhood playmate,
which entailed the customary separation of bride and groom until the wedding,
distressed the Maid and led her to withdraw from society. Her distress was
exacerbated by the sudden death of her mother, following which she became a
recluse, never leaving her room except to visit her mother’s grave.
On one of her visits to the cemetery she fell
into unconsciousness, which was followed by a prolonged and mysterious illness.
When she recovered she claimed to have been given “a new and elevated soul.”
She broke off her engagement and declared that she would never marry, having
“transcended the world of the flesh.”
From then on she adopted the full rigor of
male ritual observance and absorbed herself, like a male pietist, in intense
study and prayer. She became known as the “holy Maid” or the “Virgin” of
Ludomir, and acquired a reputation for miracle working. Men and women,
including rabbis and scholars, flocked to the beit midrash in Ludomir
which functioned as her hasidic court. She would grant blessings on request and
deliver her weekly hasidic teaching at the third Sabbath meal, as was customary
among male Tzaddik im.
While her popular following grew, the male
leadership of the movement disapproved, viewing her activities as a
pathological manifestation of the powers of evil and impurity. Pressure was put
on the Maid to abandon the practice of Tzaddikism and to resume her rightful
female role in marriage. Following the personal intervention of Mordecai of
Chernobyl (1770-1837)–the most eminent tzaddik of the region–she reluctantly
agreed to marry, but the marriage was never consummated and soon ended in
divorce. She married again, but divorced once more, apparently remaining a
“maiden” to the end of her life.
However, her marriages did have the desired
effect of putting an abrupt end to her career as a Rebbe. She eventually
immigrated to the Holy Land, a remote corner of nineteenth-century Hasidism
Nehama Leibovitz- the Rashi of our times. I had thee honor to be in her classes as a student and to also arrange for her to lecture for one of my programs when I ran the Histadrut's Center for Jewish Studies in Israel.
was born in 1905 in Riga, Latvia, to Mordechai and Freyda Leibowitz. She grew
up in a home filled with Jewish and general culture, competing in her father’s
Bible quizzes against her brother, Yeshayahu, who later became a famous and
controversial Israeli philosopher.( Whom I also hosted as a guest lecturer). In 1919 the family moved to Berlin, where Leibowitz
taught, wrote articles and studied for her doctorate, , , she finished her doctorate they fulfilled
their dream and moved to Israel (c. 1930).
She traveled around the
country on buses, in taxis and on airplanes teaching Bible and commentaries to
teachers, new immigrants, soldiers, kibbutzniks and thousands of ordinary
people. She received a professorship at Tel-Aviv University in 1968 and was
awarded several prizes in the course of her life, including the prestigious
Israel Prize in the Field of Education (1956).
She was a deeply religious person, but of the sort that
emphasized halakhah and Torah study, moral responsibility, ethics and humanistic
focus, rather than ecstatic and mystical dimensions, which she feared might
prove shallow or transient. Thus she had little to do with Hasidism or Kabbalah.
Leibowitz also opposed the ideas of feminism and the feminist
movement. . . While she upheld equal pay and rights for women, Leibowitz did
not consciously desire to change the balance of designated gender roles within
traditional Jewish society. Leibowitz refused to
acknowledge that she was a revolutionary in any way; but ultimately her unique
achievements changed Orthodox society’s perception of a woman’s capabilities
and undoubtedly opened doors for the female Torah scholars who followed; this
itself is proof of the power of gradual, evolutionary change.