Photo Credit: Prof. Livia Bitton-Jackson
Prof. Livia Bitton-Jackson

Can you fathom a young Kurdish Jewish woman in 17th century Iraq who for years served as rosh yeshivah in Mosul and as leader of the Jewish community?

Asenath Barzani was the daughter of Rabi Samuel ben Nethanel HaLevi Barzani, a rabbinic scholar in Kurdistan. He had founded several yeshivot and was head of the yeshivah in Mosul. As he had no sons, he concentrated his tutorial attentions on his daughter, teaching her Hebrew, Torah, Talmud, Midrash and the secrets of Kabbalah.

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Asenath Barzani adored her father, and in a letter she described her extraordinary upbringing:

“I never left the entrance to my house or went outside; I was like a princess of Israel … I grew up on the laps of scholars, anchored to my father of blessed memory. I was never taught any work but sacred study.”

Asenath married one of her father’s best students who also happened to be his nephew, Rabi Jacob Mizrahi. Her father made him promise that Asenath would do no domestic work and could spend her time as a Torah scholar!

After her father’s death, Asenath’s husband took over as rosh yeshiva. However, he spent so much time involved in his learning that Asenath essentially taught the yeshivah students and provided them with rabbinic training.

Following her husband’s death, the leadership of the yeshivah passed to Asenath, and, eventually, she became known as the chief teacher of Torah in Kurdistan. As neither her father nor her husband had been successful fundraisers, the yeshivah was always in financial trouble. She wrote a number of letters requesting funds in which she described her and her children’s difficult situation. Her home and belongings had been confiscated, including her books, but she felt that as a woman it was inappropriate for her to travel in search of financial support.

In spite of the financial problems, she successfully ran the yeshivah for many years and established a dynasty of rabbinic scholars, including her son, whom she sent to Baghdad. Her letters are not only erudite, but written in an amazing lyrical style, like piyutim.

There are many legends about miracles Asenath had performed. Many of the stories allude to her supernatural powers, including her ability to limit her childbearing to two children so that she could devote herself to her studies. Another relates to an occasion when she convinced her fellow Jews to celebrate Rosh Chodesh outdoors, and not in the synagogue. As they proceeded with the celebration, they saw flames shoot up into the sky. The synagogue had been set on fire, with all the sacred books and scrolls in it!

At this point Asenath whispered a secret name she had learned from her father, and the people saw a flock of angels descending to the roof of the synagogue. The angels beat the flames with their wings until every last spark had been put out. Then they rose up into the heavens like a flock of white doves and were gone.

When the smoke cleared, they realized that no one had been hurt because they had been outdoors. And, another miracle had taken place: none of the Torah scrolls had been touched by the flames.

Even the Gentiles were deeply moved by this miracle and they stopped harassing the Jews of Amêdî for a long time. As an expression of their gratitude, the Jews of Amêdî renamed the synagogue after her.

Asenath died in 1670 and was buried in Amadiyah in Northern Iraq near her father’s tomb. Before her death she was given the title Tanna’it, a rare honor for a Jewish woman. That title and her role as head of a yeshivah is regarded as a rare example of a female rabbinical teacher in pre-20th century traditional Judaism. Crowds of admirers have made pilgrimages to her grave.

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