Author Archives: Emily Taitz

Emily Taitz

About Emily Taitz

Emily Taitz has a PhD in medieval Jewish history from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She taught women's history at Adelphi University and is presently co-editor of The New Light, a literary magazine.

Beruriah of Palestine

Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide To Jewish Women, (Jewish Publication Society).

Beruriah’s name is mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud and in various ancient and medieval writings, and she has become legendary. Although possibly fictional, the following anecdotes convey a typical account of Beruriah’s life. Beruriah, a daughter of the great Palestinian sage R. Hananiah ben Teradion, was an accomplished scholar. Even as a young girl, her intelligence surpassed that of her brother. It was said she learned “three hundred laws from three hundred teachers in one day” (B. Pesahim 62b). She married R. Meir, the miracle worker and one of the great sages of the Mishnaic period.beruriah

Challenging the Status Quo

Tragedy stalked Beruriah and her family. Her father was martyred by the Romans, and her mother and brother also died violently. Her two sons died suddenly in a single day, and her sister was carried off into exile. Beruriah could be loving and gentle, as she was with her husband, Meir, and also arrogant and biting, even to great scholars. She ridiculed a sectarian (B. Berakhot l0a), derided an erring student (B. Eruvin 53b 54a), and made a fool of R. Jose the Galilean when he met her on the road (B. Eruvin 53b).

When she mocked the sages’ belief that women are weak and easily seduced, she challenged the prevailing wisdom of her time and came to a shameful end, proving the contention of the Rabbis that any woman who studies excessively, like Beruriah, is vulnerable to sexual sin.

Theories About Bruriah

These accounts concerning Beruriah are made up of different components, most written much later by many different men. In the Babylonian Talmud she is called the wife of R. Meir, pupil of R. Akiva. In the two passages about her in the Tosefta (an earlier, Palestinian compilation) she is referred to once by name with no association to any male relative (Tos. Kelim, Bava Metzia 1:6), and the second time as the unnamed daughter of R. Hananiah (Tos. Kelim, Bava Kamma 4:17). Because of these variations, it has been suggested that perhaps two or even three historical women became incorporated into a single persona. One is Beruriah the scholar, another is the wife of R. Meir, and a third is the daughter of R. Hananiah ben Teradion. In the stories from the Babylonian Talmud that portrayed Beruriah as a scholar, her name was mentioned alone, without reference to husband or father. In these reports she was quick, sarcastic, and knowledgeable in areas beyond domestic issues.

Rachel Luzzatto Morpurgo

Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide To Jewish Women (Jewish Publication Society).

Rachel Luzzatto was born on April 8, 1790, just five years after the gates of the old ghetto of Trieste were torn down. The Luzzattos came from along line of Italian-Jewish scholars, and her parents were prosperous and respected in the community. Rachel received the same excellent education as her brother and her male cousins, studying Hebrew and Aramaic and being introduced to the Talmud and other medieval texts at an early age. She also studied Italian literature, mathematics, Rashi’s commentaries, and the Zohar. Somewhat of a mystic, Rachel Luzzatto began writing poetry when she was eighteen and continued to do so until her death 63 years later.

In the Beginning

Despite a life steeped in tradition and Jewish scholarship, Rachel Luzzatto was not oblivious to the new ideas swirling outside-and sometimes even inside-the Jewish community. As a young woman, Rachel refused all the suitors approved by her family and insisted on a man of her own choosing. He was Jacob Morpurgo, an Austrian-Jewish merchant. Her parents at first refused to permit the match but finally consented when Rachel was 29 years old.

Accounts of their married life differ. One of Morpurgo’s biographers said that she and Jacob were blissfully happy. She reported that Morpurgo cared for her four children, attended to all her household duties, and still found time to write and publish her poetry, meet and correspond with Jewish scholars, and lecture to young men who sought her wisdom." Other researchers contended that she lived in near poverty and could find time for her writing only at night or on new moons, customarily celebrated as a half-holiday for women." According to information collected from her daughter Perla, Jacob Morpurgo took little interest in his wife’s writing and was surprised to find that people came to solicit her opinion.

Ahead of Her Time

Like that of the entire Luzzatto family, Rachel Morpurgo’s goal was to revive Hebrew poetry in Italy." While she followed the tradition of earlier Italian-Jewish poets, Morpurgo is considered the first woman to have written modern poetry in the Hebrew language, including poetry on secular subjects not meant to fit into synagogue liturgy.  Her poems were published in a Hebrew journal called Kokhavei Yitzhak (Stars of Isaac) and were signed with the initials of the three words, Rahel Morpurgo haketanah (the small one). In Hebrew these initials spell out Rimah (worm), a symbol of extreme modesty. As she grew older, Rachel Morpurgo began to believe that the soul could be united with God through contemplation and love. Her poems are filled with images of this conceptual union and with messianic hopes.

Sara Copio Sullam

Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide To Jewish Women, (Jewish Publication Society).

Sara Copio was born in Venice in 1592 into a prosperous merchant family. She was the oldest of two or three daughters and received an extensive humanistic education that included training in Hebrew, Spanish, Latin, and Greek as well as her native Italian. She was also taught philosophy, music, and rabbinic literature. At a very early age, Sara began to write verse and became known in Italy as a poet and singer who accompanied herself on the lyre. She continued writing poetry even after her marriage, in 1613 or 1614, and her home became a meeting place for Jewish and Christian poets, artists, and scholars. Her husband, Jacob Sullam, was himself a patron of the arts in addition to being a moneylender. In 1615 the couple had one daughter, Rebecca, who died at the age often months. There is no evidence of any other children.

A Famous Correspondent

Sara Copio Sullam’s writings displayed her knowledge of the Hebrew language as well as the texts of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. There were references to Josephus, Aristotle, and Dante. Over the years, she became known for her poetic improvisations, a sort of literary duelling match between participants that, unfortunately, was never written down. She also wrote sonnets and numerous letters.

jewish poetry

Sullam’s most famous correspondent was the aged Christian poet, Ansaldo Ceba. Thirty years older than she, Ceba was a retired diplomat who had an illustrious career as a writer and translator of the classics. Among his works was a play in verse entitled La Reina Ester (Queen Esther) that Sara read early in 1618 while recovering from a miscarriage. Moved to write to him to express her admiration, that first letter began a long distance relationship that lasted for four years.

Ceba and Sullam never met. She remained in the Venetian ghetto and he in Genoa where he had retired to a monastery, but their correspondence is full of intimate, sometimes even physical allusions and metaphors. Besides letters, they exchanged books, portraits, and gifts. Ceba’s avowed

Rivkah bat Meir Tiktiner

Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide To Jewish Women, (Jewish Publication Society).

Rivkah bat Meir Tiktiner, referred to most frequently as Rebecca Tiktiner, was first and foremost an educator of women. Her book of ethics, Meneket Rivkah (Rebecca’s nursemaid), was the first book written in Yiddish by a woman, and its main purpose was to teach ethical behavior.

Much of the book is taken up with advice concerning the care and education of children. She instructed mothers on how to encourage their sons to learn. Although the education of girls is not totally overlooked, daughters were placed firmly in the role of enablers. It is interesting to note that despite her own superior education, Rivkah does not advocate serious study for girls.

A Woman of Many Talents

Rivkah cautioned mothers not to expect too much from their children. She included a proverb, heard even today, advising the women: One mother can bring up ten children but ten children cannot feed one mother. In addition to being a writer and educator, Rivkah bat Meir was probably a preacher who may have traveled to other cities to lecture, teach, and preach. She may also have been a firzogerin, a leader of prayer for the women in the synagogue. It has been suggested that her book is made up of a collection of her lectures to women. Although Rivkahs work gives no personal information about husband or children, an item in the Sefer Hazkarot, a book of records from Prague, listed her husband as a donor to the synagogue. (Scholar Frauke von Rohden discovered this record in 2001 but could not decipher his name.)

Rivkah died in 1605 and is buried in Prague. Her book, Meneket Rivkah, survives in two copies, both published posthumously. A copy of the first edition, printed in Prague in 1609, is preserved in the library of the university at Erlangen, Cerrnany. A second edition, printed in Krakow in 1618, can be found in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Its title is a reference to the biblical story of Rebecca who brings her nurse (personal governess) with her when she leaves home to join Isaac, her new husband (Gen. 24:59, 35:8).

Doña Gracia Nasi

Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Women (Jewish Publication Society).

Gracia Nasi, known at first as Beatrice de Luna, was born in Portugal in 1510 into a family of New Christians or conversos, the result of the mass conversion of Portuguese Jews in 1497. However, as so many others had done, her family secretly retained their ties to Judaism and gave her the Hebrew name Hannah. Beatrice married another converso, Francisco Mendes, a wealthy trader in gems and spices.

The Formation of a Family

Beatrice/Hannah de Luna Mendes and her husband, Francisco, had one child, a daughter named Reyna. In 1536, when Reyna was five years old, Francisco died, and Beatrice, now a 26-year-old widow, was heir to one half of his enormous fortune. That same year, the Inquisition was re-established in Portugal and all conversos were threatened, but Beatrice de Luna, who up until that time had escaped suspicion, was allowed to leave Lisbon. Together with her daughter, Reyna, and her sister Brianda, she fled to Antwerp, the capital of Flanders. Two years later, Joao Migues, Beatrice’s nephew (later renowned as Joseph Nasi), joined them.

Diogo Mendes, Francisco’s brother and business partner, already lived in Antwerp, and after the arrival of the two women, he married Beatrice’s sister Brianda. Diogo had inherited the other half of Francisco’s fortune and had already extended the family business to include not only trading in spices and precious stones, but also banking. Banking as it was practiced in the 16th century involved the transmission of money from country to country and the arrangement of bills of exchange. Once Beatrice de Luna Mendes and her family were safely settled in Antwerp, they became skilled in these procedures and Beatrice created a secret network, enabling Jewish conversosto leave Portugal, transferring their money through bills of exchange so they could make new lives elsewhere.”

Tragedy Brings New Fortune

Prosperous and respected, the Mendes family established themselves in luxurious fashion, but as long as Flanders remained part of the Spanish Empire and the Inquisition remained active, they were still not able to live without fear of discovery. The decision was made to transfer the Mendes assets to a more tolerant country, where they could live openly and practice Judaism. But before these plans could be carried out, Diogo died. Now Beatrice not only retained her half of the capital in the Mendes business, but she was also appointed administrator for the other half, which she was to manage for his widow (her sister Brianda) and their infant daughter. This assignment caused a bitter fight between Beatrice and Brianda that had ramifications for many years afterward.

Salome Alexandra

Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide To Jewish Women, (Jewish Publication Society).

Salome Alexandra (139-67 B.C.E), whose Hebrew name was Shelamzion, was a descendant of the Hasmonean family. Some historians have claimed that she was the first wife of Alexander’s older brother Aristobulus and became Alexander’s wife through the laws of the levirate. Whatever her previous marital status, however, Salome Alexandra was most certainly the wife of Alexander Jannai, with whom she had two sons, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. Before her husband’s death he willed the secular government to her and the high priesthood to his oldest son, Hyrcanus.

salome alexandraIt was not the first time a Hasmonean ruler had designated his own wife as his successor. However, this time the succession was not contested, either by her sons or any other faction, and Salome Alexandra became the first Hasmonean woman to rule Judea as its queen.

Taking the Law into Her Own Hands

During her nine-year reign, Queen Salome Alexandra completely reversed her late husband’s hostile policy toward the Pharisees and brought them into her government. Even while Alexander Jannai was alive she had invited Shimon ben Shetah, leader of the Pharisees, to her palace. Now she appointed him joint head (with Yehudah ben Tabbai) of the Great Assembly (Sanhedrin). She also allowed the oral law, espoused by the Pharisees, to be incorporated once again as the law of the royal court. By these acts, Queen Salome Alexandra maintained the support of the people.

Although she is credited with establishing a period of comparative peace and restoring national unity in Judea, the Queen did not flinch from difficult and even brutal decisions. In spite of pharisaic policy opposing foreign conquests, she dispatched an army to Damascus, headed by her son Aristobulus. That military operation was a failure, but Salome Alexandra retained full power and lost no territory.

A Skillful Mediator & Politician

Her diplomatic skills proved more successful, and her timely gifts to the Armenian ruler, Tigranes, who was marching toward Judea, warded off an attack. Under Salome’s rule and probably with her tacit approval, Diogenes, a Sadducee who had been Alexander’s counselor and thus an opponent of the Pharisees, was executed. She did help to protect her son Aristobulus and other prominent Sadducees from the revenge of the Pharisees, but at the end of her life Salome was forced to stand against her younger son.