Author Archives: Judith Baskin

Judith Baskin

About Judith Baskin

Judith Baskin is the Director of the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies and a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon.

Women in Rabbinic Literature

Excerpted and reprinted with permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from The Encyclopedia of Judaism, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

Women as Other

Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 62a expresses the basic rabbinic conviction that “women are a separate people.”

Despite the egalitarian vision of human creation found in the first chapter of Genesis, in which both male and female appear to share equally in the divine image, Rabbinic tradition is far more comfortable with the view of Genesis 2:4ff., that women are a secondary conception, unalterably other from men and at a further remove from the divine.

women in rabbinic literatureThis certainty of woman’s ancillary place in the scheme of things permeates rabbinic thinking, and the male sages who produced rabbinic literature accordingly apportioned separate spheres and separate responsibilities to women and men, making every effort to confine women and their activities to the private realms of the family and its particular concerns.

Women in the Public Sphere

These obligations included economic activities that would benefit the household, so that undertaking business transactions with other private individuals was an expected part of a woman’s domestic role. Women also participated in the economic life of the marketplace, worked in a number of productive enterprises, trades, and crafts, brought claims to the courtroom, met in gatherings with other women, and attended social events.

But whatever women did in public, they did as private individuals. Not only by custom but as a result of detailed legislation, women were excluded from significant participation in most of rabbinic society’s communal and power‑conferring public activities. Since these endeavors had mostly to do with participation in religious service, communal study of religious texts, and the execution of judgments under Jewish law, women were simultaneously isolated from access to public authority and power and from the communal spiritual and intellectual sustenance available to men. […]

Women in the Bible

Reprinted with permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from  The Encyclopedia of Judaism, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

The Hebrew Bible is a composite document containing a variety of types of literature, reflecting the attitudes and concerns of numerous authors writing in very different times and places.

An Early Example of Divergent Viewsgender quiz

An example of such significant diversity as it applies to women is evident in the two creation stories placed at the beginning of Genesis. While the first account of the origin of human beings (Genesis 1:1‑2:3) recounts that both male and female were created simultaneously, in the divine image, and equally charged to multiply and to dominate the earth and their fellow creatures, the second narrative (Genesis 2:4ff.) preserves a tradition of male priority. Here, woman is a subsequent and secondary creation, formed from man’s body to fulfill male needs for companionship and progeny.

Such divergent understandings of female status and capacities, and the contradictions they engender, appear throughout the biblical literature.

Controlling Women’s Sexuality

Recent scholars have utilized a number of strategies to contextualize the diverse portrayals of women in biblical texts.

Studying women’s status in biblical law, Tikva Frymer‑Kensky writes that biblical legislation, like ancient Near Eastern social policy in general, assumes a woman’s subordination to the dominant male in her life, whether father or husband. This man controls her sexuality, including the right to challenge with impunity both her virginity and her marital faithfulness (Deuteronomy 11:28‑29; Numbers 5:11‑31).

Indeed, legislative concerns about women’s sexual activity primarily have to do with relations between men. A man is executed for having intercourse with another’s wife (Leviticus 20:10), because he has committed a crime of theft against a man; but a man who seduces or rapes a virgin pays a brideprice to her father and marries her (Deuteronomy 22:28). This is not a crime in the same sense at all, not because of a dissimilarity in what the man did but because of the difference in who “owned” the right to the women’s sexuality.

Jewish Women in Medieval Christendom

Reprinted from Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, edited by Judith Baskin, 1991, with permission of the Wayne State University Press.

Jew began settling in Western Europe in Roman time, primarily as merchants and traders. As Europe became Christian, Jews found themselves subject to increasing legal disabilities, a process that continued throughout the medieval period. Eventually, Jews were barred from virtually any source of livelihood but moneylending. They were often compelled to wear distinctive clothing and badges, and ultimately, toward the end of the Middle Ages, they were either expelled altogether from areas where they had long lived ,or were forced to live in crowded and unpleasant ghettos (beginning in Rome in 1555).

The number of Jews in Western Europe was far smaller than in the Moslem world; although Western European Jews were also urban, they lived in tiny communities in cities a great deal smaller than those of the East. Despite the legal disabilities they suffered and their ultimate insecurity as to property and life, these Jews tended to be quite prosperous and enjoyed a standard of living comparable to the Christian lower nobility and upper bourgeoisie.

Married as Girls, but Economically Active

Jewish women were active participants in the family economy; and their status was certainly higher than that enjoyed by their sisters in the Islamic milieu, indicated, in part, by the large dowries they brought into marriage. Girls in this society, despite Talmudic prohibitions to the contrary, were betrothed very young, often at the age of eight or nine. A young woman might be married at eleven or twelve, while her husband would be almost the same age.

One young woman, an orphan whose brothers had arranged her engagement, married and established her own household while she was still eleven-and one-half years old. A year later, “when she reached her majority [according to Jewish law, twelve-and-one-half] she sued her brothers for her proper share of her father’s estate.

Early Marriage: Sin and Economics

Why were children married so young? One commentary on the Talmud from the thirteenth century gives the following explanation: “The reason we nowadays are accustomed to betroth our daughters even while they are minors is that our life in the Diaspora is becoming harder; consequently if a person is now in a financial position give his daughter a proper dowry, he is apprehensive lest after the lapse of some years he will be in no position to do so and his daughter will remain unwed forever.”

But there were other, less negative motivations as well. One would be the religious desire to remove young people from the sexual tensions and temptations that might lead to sin. Economic factors were also operative. Favorable business conditions meant that a well-dowered young couple could support themselves immediately, learning the business at the same time. Moreover, marriage could form an enduring and profitable partnership between two wealthy families, contributing to the prosperity of all. Marriages might also have a social aspect, for settling a young daughter well proved her desirability and increased her family’s prestige.

Big Dowries, High Standing

Daughters were given large portions of their parent’s property as dowries; and the size of the dowry could also enhance the social standing of the bride’s relations. Since the capital with which a young couple started life had its origin mainly in the bride’s portion, parents demanded strong guarantees in the marriage contract that the bride would be treated with respect, that her marriage would have some permanence, and that she would have financial security. Thus, the high level of dowries could assure a wife a prominent position in her household….

Monogamy and Stable Businesses

In recognition of this social reality, as well as under the influence of the prevailing mores of the Christian environment, Rabbi Gershom ben Judah (c.960-1028), the first great rabbinic authority of Ashkenazic Jewry, is credited with the ruling that polygamy (already rare in this Jewish community, although still legally permitted) was forbidden and more significantly, in opposition to rabbinic law and practice, that no woman could be divorced against her will.

Familiarity with money led many women to take the initiative in business matters, and often they supplied a part of or even the whole of the family income, sometimes allowing their husbands to devote themselves to study. During their husbands’ absences on business, women ran the families’ affairs….Women engaged in all kinds of commercial operations and occupations, but moneylending was especially preferred.

Widows would frequently continue their financial activities, occasionally in partnership with another woman. Such undertakings, which could be extremely complex, undoubtedly required literacy and training in mathematics and bookkeeping skills. Some women were probably involved in craft activities as well, and there are also some references in Christian sources to independent Jewish women who practiced medicine.

The level of religious education among Western European Jewry certainly included literacy in Hebrew for all men, and for a small elite, considerably more. Occasionally, these higher standards also applied to women, particularly those from families distinguished for their learning. In the early twelfth century one of the daughters of Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac (Rashi), the preeminent biblical and Talmudic commentator of the Ashkenazic Middle Ages, is known to have recorded responsa (answers to legal questions) from her father’s dictation, an undertaking requiring knowledge of rabbinic Hebrew…

The intellectual roles of learned Jewish women, however, remained ancillary to mainstream “male” Judaism, consisting either of assisting the male members of their family or providing elementary instruction and synagogue leadership to young girls and other less privileged women. To call these women’s activities ancillary of course, is not to invalidate their spiritual depth and religious meaning for the participants…

Since most ordinary Jewish women were cut off from the knowledge of Hebrew that would enable them to read the traditional liturgy and holy books, during the Middle Ages, a separate women’s vernacular literature of tekhines (supplicatory prayers specially directed towards women’s needs and concerns) began to be produced—sometimes by women—and simplified “women’s Bibles” to fill women’s spiritual needs were written. These volumes had great appeal for less-educated male members of the Jewish community as well.


What Jewish Women’s Lives Were Like in the Muslim World

Reprinted from Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, edited by Judith Baskin, 1991, with permission of the Wayne State University Press.

Work and Money: Who Was in Charge?

Although the husband promised to support his wife, it was not unusual for her to earn money on her own, most often through needlepoint work, especially embroidery. Usually, a wife was permitted to keep her earning for her own private use, although clauses in some marriage agreements stipulate that she provide her own clothing out of her earnings. It seems clear, however that these earnings were often a source of marital friction. In a petition to a rabbinical court in the twelfth century, a wife of a miller—also described as the daughter of a cantor—requests that her husband not have the right to tell her to do embroidery in the houses of other people and bring him her earnings, and if she does chose to work, she requests that she be permitted to retain her wages.

While the poorest women might find it necessary to sell wares or produce in the marketplace, a wealthy wife’s economic worth would probably be based on her property, including gifts and inheritances she received during her married life. There are many records of quite substantial women of property who handled their own financial affairs and represented themselves in court.

Marriages were far from being purely financial arrangements. Although brides were typically considerably younger than the husbands, through the passage of years and the development of shared concerns a marriage could grow into a warm and meaningful bond

Divorce, When and Why

Still, divorce was by no means uncommon in this time and place of Jewish history. Not only did Islamic social custom accept divorce, but arranged marriages, geographic mobility, and the “greater attentiveness to a wife’s sufferings to be expected in a cosmopolitan bourgeois society” all contributed to marital strife. Some women emerged unscathed, particularly if they had favored the divorce and been supported by prosperous families, and remarriage was very common. Less fortunate divorcees were left in want and joined society’s other outcast females, the widowed and the deserted who were dependent on public charity.

Jewish Women’s Lives in the Muslim World

Reprinted from Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, edited by Judith Baskin, 1991, with permission of the Wayne State University Press.

Jewish Women in the Cairo Genizah

Study of the documents of the Cairo Genizah has provided modern scholars with an abundance of information on Jewish society and institutions under Islam. A genizah is a place where unusable sacred writings were stored in order to preserve them from desecration. The treasure trove of late antique and medieval documents which were deposited in the genizah (repository for old books and papers, which might contain shemot, divine names) of the synagogue of Rabbanite Jews on Forstat, a suburb of Cairo, has been known to scholars since early modern times. While much of the material has a religious or literary character, the Cairo Genizah also included a huge quantity of discarded secular writings such as official, business, learned, and private correspondence, court records, contracts, and other legal documents.

The letters that this genizah preserves come from almost every country of the Islamic Jewish world; most are written in Arabic, the language of Jewish everyday life in this milieu. Among the legal documents are marriage contracts, which often enumerate all of the dresses, ornaments, and furniture brought into the marriage by the bride, providing a material gauge of a given community’s standard of living.

Islamic Social Norms, Jewish Social Realities

The genizah documents are most relevant to Jewish life in the Islamic world from the ninth to twelfth centuries, a period when conditions tended to be peaceful and prosperous. Jews did not have the full rights of Moslems, but, like Christians, they were tolerated and protected from persecution so long as they paid a substantial tax. Many of these Mediterranean Jews were involved in trade, and their undertakings often involved overseas travel.…

Social life was strongly influenced by Islamic norms. Thus, polygamy was not uncommon, and while Jewish women of prosperous families were not literally isolated in women’s quarters (as were Moslem women of comparable social status), community norms dictated that women’s place was in the home. The twelfth century traveler Petachia of Ratisbon wrote of the Jewish community in Baghdad, “Nobody sees there any women, nor does anybody go into the house of his friend, lest he should see the wife of his neighbor. But he knocks with a tin knocker, and the other comes forth and speaks to him.”