Rufina and Her Sisters

Jewish women in the Diaspora.

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Similarly, the relative poverty of the Jewish community at Leontopolis in Egypt may be inferred from the physical nature of the burial inscriptions found there, most of which are brief and stereotypical. Tax registers, commercial documents, and other papyri suggest that Jews who lived in rural Egyptian villages were also of modest means: the amount of the dowry in a Greek divorce decree reflects the low economic status of the wife's family.

But the literary evidence and some of the epigraphical and papyrological evidence supports the view that many Jews living in Alexandria were financially comfortable. Like Rufina, Jews in the cities and towns of Asia Minor seem frequently to have been as well off as their neighbors and well integrated into the social and economic life of their communities.

Rufina's inscription is typical in containing no information about her occupation, if any. The occupations of Jewish women are rarely mentioned in burial and donative inscriptions. However, the papyri transactions from Egypt make it clear that Jewish women engaged in commercial transactions of various sorts. In a document from the Fayun dated to 172/171 B.C.E., a woman named Sara guarantees a loan contracted by an unknown party.

A fragment from the same region dated to the middle of the second century B.C.E. lists the cattle, sheep, and goats ­owned by four Jewish women, while a tax register from Arsinoe in the same period lists six Jewish landowners, four of them women (Corpus papyrorum judaicarum [hereafter CPJ], nos. 28, 47). Jewish wet nurses are known from at least two papyri: in one the man engaging the woman's services is clearly not Jewish, although the identity of the foundling baby she is to nurse is less certain.

Inscriptions from Asia Minor suggest that, like Rufina, Jewish women there had considerable financial independence and were publicly active. The individual names of women are routinely given in burial and other inscriptions, rather than identifying them only as the wife or daughter of some man.


Regrettably, Rufina's inscription sheds no direct light on the question of her formal education, although her role as archisynagogos, head of the synagogue, may well be indirect attestation of her ability to read ­and write. In general, the limited discussions of the education of Jewish women in late antiquity have, as usual, relied heavily on rabbinic sources for evidence.

[Scholar] Leonard Swidler, for example, assumes that Jewish education in this period is more or less identical with Torah and cites the standard rabbinic references against teaching women Torah. It is worth remembering that on this subject, as many others regarding women, different rabbis had different opinions; and, as I [have] noted earlier, many if not most Jews in this period did not, in any case, abide by rabbinic interpretations.

In reality, educated Jews in the Greco-Roman period, especially those in the Diaspora, undoubtedly studied far more than Jewish Scripture and its interpretation […] While it is highly unlikely that many Jews (men or women) were well educated in this period, some women clearly were, and that education consisted not only of the study of Jewish scriptures but of pagan literature as well.

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Ross S. Kraemer

Ross Kraemer is a Professor of Religious and Judaic Studies at Brown University.