From the Academy: Judith Hauptman

In this week’s installment of “From the Academy,â€? Dr. Judith Hauptman, E. Billi Ivry Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture at The Jewish Theological Seminary, tells us about her current research and a book that’s influenced her recent academic work.

I am working right now on a book (tentatively) entitled “Women in the Rabbinic Kitchen.” Why this somewhat oxymoronic title? Because of the mistaken conclusion many people draw.

Hauptman1.jpg Since the talmudic rabbis assigned men just about all public ritual roles — like leading synagogue prayer services, conducting the Passover seder, and blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah — many people think that women were not assigned a significant ritual role in Judaism. This is not so.

Careful analysis of rabbinic texts shows that just as men were expected to perform a series of rituals for the community, women were expected to perform a series of rituals for the family.

Men performed their rituals in public. Women performed theirs at home, which was not private but semi-public space. What does semi-public mean? That the home was open to many, that it often had a shop in the front, opening onto the street, and living quarters behind. That a stream of people passed through the home on a regular basis, not just clients of the head of household, but tailors, barbers, launderers, and the like.

So what rituals did the rabbis expect a woman to perform?

The well-known ones are separating a portion of the dough for the kohen when baking bread or matzah, preparing food in ritual purity, and lighting Shabbat lamps. But there are many more.

Some less well-known ones are: setting the eruv hazerot so that people, women in particular, could carry food and other items back and forth across a courtyard on the Sabbath; setting the eruv tavshilin so that people, again mainly women, could cook on a Friday Festival for the Sabbath; covering hot cooked food with insulating materials to keep it warm for the Sabbath.

Men could rely on women to perform these domestic rituals consistently and meticulously so that men, without ever stepping foot into the kitchen, could live their lives according to rabbinic law. The clincher is that to perform these kitchen-based rituals properly, a woman needed to know vast amounts of rabbinic law, including many paragraphs of mishnah and gemara.

Abundant anecdotes in the Talmud make it clear that men taught women what they needed to know, not in the study house, but at home, whenever a new law about kitchen ritual was passed.

What excites me about this project is that I am looking at lives and not just law. Until now I was interested in how the law treated women. But now I am trying to figure out how Jewish women actually lived their lives 1,800 years ago. Not that the texts will yield definitive answers to my many questions. But discovering that women baked matzah on their own, without male supervision, fascinates me.

As does the one text I have come across so far in which a daughter of a prominent rabbi is taught a new law by her father, presumably because she asked him a question and he answered her. She then tells it to her brother and he brings it to the bet midrash. The report in the Talmud credits her with transmitting the new rule from father to brother to rabbis. I love finding out that women back then had a life of the mind. (Talmud Yerushalmi, Besah 5:1, 62d)

A book that influenced my work is Celia E. Schultz’s volume, Women’s Religious Activity in the Roman Republic (Chapel Hill, 2006). She convincingly demonstrates that Roman women were more religiously active in the home than would appear to be the case from a standard reading of the literature. Her conclusions give me reason to think that mine are real, not exaggerated.

Previous installment of “From the Academy”: Dr. Howard WettsteinDr. David Shneer

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