Female education. There’s a knotty issue.
While we are quite used to contemporary elaborate networks of female educational institutions, ranging from pre-schools and grade schools to seminaries and colleges, suffice it to say, the education of women underwent a lengthy period of adolescence before reaching its current robust form.
As promulgators of Torah in their homes, women have always needed a Jewish education, and while the “why” relating to female education has remained constant, the when, where, what and how have changed beyond recognition. Join us as we take a look at what women learned, how they learned it, and the evolving relationship of the Jewish woman and knowledge.
Biblical and Talmudic References
Tanach references women’s connection to Jewish learning. With regards to the Torah reading on Sukkos, Sefer Devarim (31:12) instructs: “Assemble the people, the women and the children and the stranger within your gates, in order that they may hear and learn to fear the L-rd your G-d and be cautious to do all the words of his Torah.”
When Nechemia read aloud from the Torah, he did so, “In the presence of the men and the women and those who understood, and the ears of all the people were [attentive] to the Scroll of the Law” (Nechemia 8:3).
Rabbinic opinion encouraged women to learn the laws that were relevant to them; however, it was a point of contention as to whether women could study simply for the sake of study. We are all familiar with R’ Eliezer’s statement that whomever “teaches his daughter Torah is effectively teaching her tiflut” (Sotah 21b). Talmudic commentary on this subject needs significant elaboration and explanation; however, in this context it serves to illustrate that the subject of female education was a controversial one, and that, if undertaken, required restrictions.
While the Talmud is peppered with noteworthy women who were admired scholars, such as Ima Shalom and Beruriah, the ideal woman is more likely Rachel, wife of Rabi Akiva, who facilitated her husband’s Torah study, fulfilling the concept of “All women who encourage their husband and children to study Torah receive the same reward as if they had studied it themselves” (Berachos 17a).
Yet, here we are today with all manner of female academic learning, much of which is arguably not obviously utilitarian or relevant to daily life. How did we get here, and how has rabbinic opinion today changed so radically from what it was in the Talmudic era?
Medieval Ashkenaz (1000-1400)
Although there were no formal institutions of education for women in this era, rabbinic attitudes towards teaching women shifted towards greater leniency. Sefer Hassidim (1215), written by R’ Yehuda of Regensburg, explains the Talmudic prohibition against female scholarship to refer to “in-depth study of Oral Law.” He rules that women should be taught Jewish law, and notes that “during the time of Chizkiyahu, king of Yehuda, men and women, young and old, knew even the laws of purities and sacraments.” He brings another source in support of female education from Melachim II, where a husband asks his wife why she is traveling to see the prophet Elisha when it is neither Shabbos nor the New Moon. Apparently, she would go on those days to hear Elisha’s speeches.
Sefer Hassidim further instructs fathers to teach daughters how to pray in whichever language is familiar to them. It also implies that girls studied at home with tutors because the author discourages having them study with a tutor who is a “young man.”
There are other indications that this era witnessed greater tolerance of female education. R’ Eliezer ben Shmuel Halevi of Worms (d. 1357), in his ethical will (a document leaving moral direction for his family), states:
These are the things that my sons and daughters shall do: let them rise early and depart late from the synagogue, being very diligent in the reading the Shema and of the prayers. After the prayers, let them engage in the Torah or Psalms or in good works…. Even if compelled to solicit from others the money to pay a teacher, they must not let the young of both genders go without instruction in the Torah.
Apparently, Torah learning in medieval Ashkenaz was so significant that even Christians took note of it. One of Peter Abelard’s students wrote a chastising letter to Christendom, noting how the Jews, both rich and poor, educate their children for the sake of study, not for ulterior motives, and that “they even taught their daughters” (“Medieval Sourcebook: Jewish Ethical Wills, 12th & 14th Centuries”). However, this may have been an exaggeration in order to bring out his point.
Despite the scattered evidence of female education, the vast majority of women remained illiterate and informally educated. They had nearly no knowledge of Hebrew, and spoke in the vernacular. Those who learned to write did so for financial reasons, because many women were necessary to the household income.
Another work by R’ Yehuda of Regensburg, Sefer Hakavod, much of which has not survived history, justifies teaching women to write for business purposes, which would ultimately protect their modesty:
If they [the author’s daughters] do not know how to write, they will be forced to request men to write their receipts for pledges when they lend money. They will be alone with those men who write for them and they may sin, and this will be my fault, for whenever it is one’s ability to construct a fence for sin and one does not do it, it is as if one has caused it.
There is evidence of a school in Goerlitz, Germany, 1388, which taught both boys and girls, but this seems to have been an aberration. Most girls picked up halacha from their mothers, and early marriage ensured they were heavily preoccupied with their own homes from an early age, making education less tenable. Medieval sources suggest girls were betrothed at age 8 or 9, and married by age 11 or 12, which Rabbeinu Tam attributes to the difficulties of galus and its economic/political uncertainties. If a father was able to provide a dowry during pockets of peace in Christiandom, he hurried to marry off his girls.
Muslim Empire Jewry (700-1400)
During the Gaonic period, a passage in a poem by Rav Hai Gaon instructs parents to hire tutors and buy books for their sons and daughters during their formative years, suggesting there was some movement towards instructing girls in Torah studies.
Maimonides, one of the central authorities for Muslim Empire Jewry, expands upon the issue of female education.
A woman who studies Torah will receive reward. However, that reward will not be [as great] as a man’s since she was not commanded [to fulfill this mitzvah]… Even though she will receive a reward, the Sages commanded that a person not teach his daughter Torah, because most women cannot concentrate their attention on study and thus will transform the words of Torah into idle matters because of their lack of understanding.
[Thus,] our Sages declared: “Whoever teaches his daughter Torah is like one who teaches her tales and parables.” This applies to the Oral Law. [With regard to] the Written Law: at the outset, one should not teach one’s daughter. However, if one teaches her, it is not considered as if she were taught idle things (Talmud Torah 1:13).
R’ Petachiah of Ratisbon, a 12th century scholar and traveler, documented his visit to the Middle East in great detail. In it he describes the gender norms for Baghdad Jewry:
Nobody sees there any woman, nor does anybody go into the house of his friend, lest he should see the wife of his neighbor. He would immediately say unto him, ‘Insolent man, wherefore art thou come?’ But he knocks with a tin knocker when the other comes forth and speaks to him (Translated by Dr. A Benish The Travels of Rav Petachiyah of Ratisbon [London 1856]).
In this environment, it is very unlikely that women were afforded the luxury of education.
The Cairo Genizah, a storehouse in Egypt which contained hundreds of thousands of letters, rabbinic responsa, legal material and more, acts as puzzle of this era’s history, with each document providing one piece of the picture. With regards to our topic, Genizah material suggest that many women could not even read or write in the vernacular, for they were forced to hire scribes to write and read correspondence for them. Even Maimonides’ sister, Miriam, was illiterate.
However, documents also note that wealthy families hired tutors for their daughters. One fragment notes a young girl who studied with a blind tutor. Even the poor seemed to seek out education for their girls. The will of a dying woman reads as follows:
My most urgent request to you, if G-d the Exalted indeed decrees my death, is to take care of my little daughter and make efforts to give her an education, although I know well that I am asking you for something unreasonable, as there is not enough money for maintenance let alone for education.
Regardless of monetary constraints, communal efforts were undertaken to instruct orphan girls in prayers. There is also evidence of some female teachers, and of sisters joining their brothers in school, for certain basic lessons in bible and prayer. There is mention of “the synagogue of the women teachers,” as well.
Historians conclude that daughters received a rudimentary education, but rarely, if ever, a higher education, and were certainly illiterate.
Despite the dearth of female education, young women from rabbinic families were highly educated, often by osmosis, but occasionally by intention. Many Jewish medieval homes were bastions of study; growing up in this milieu ensured the acquisition of knowledge. Girls without brothers often acted as the receptacle for their father’s teachings, and became informal chavrusas.
Rav Eliezer of Worms (the Rokeach), in a eulogy for his family members killed in a crusade, notes about his elder daughter, “She learned all the prayers and psalms from her mother; she sat to hear Torah from my mouth.”
Another medieval source recounts some interesting incidents of female leadership. R’ Petachiah of Ratisbon, in his travel journals, describes a rabbinic leader from Baghdad:
He has no sons, but only one daughter. She is expert in the scripture of the Talmud. She gives instruction in Scripture to young men, through a window. She herself is within the building, whilst the disciples are below outside and do not see her.
A poem by the Babylonian poet, R’ Eleaser ben Yaakov, notes the unusual wisdom of his daughter.
There is evidence that learned women were educated by tutors as well, as long as standards of modesty were upheld. R’ Yisrael Isserlein, the 14th century author of Terumas HaDeshen, had a daughter-in-law who was quite scholarly. One medieval sage writes:
And I remember that his daughter-in-law, Reidel, studied before an elder man named R’ Yudel Sofer in the home of the Gaon, in the place where most of the members of household were present, and the elder in question was married.
Women who were not scholars supported and funded the propagation of scholasticism, the copying of books, and the hiring of teachers. Sefer Hasidim discusses an incident of a woman taking a valuable gift she received from her husband, selling it, and then using the profit to pay for the production of sefarim. (Medieval sefarim were painstakingly copied by hand.)
Although very rare, some women, particularly daughters of scribes, were copyists themselves. Miriam, daughter of Benaiah the scribe of Italy, concludes one of her manuscripts with the apology: “Do not hold me guilty if you find errors therein, for I am a nursing woman.”
Rishonim scatter their work with quotes from mothers, daughters and family members. Rabbeinu Tam writes in support of many customs practiced by women relating to the lighting of Shabbos candles with the assertion: “If they are not prophetesses, they are daughters of prophetesses and great scholars, and one may rely on their customs.”
The Or Zarua quotes his mother-in-law regarding Pesach rituals. Rashi’s daughters and granddaughters were instrumental in disseminating his work.
Although the Jewish Woman has always been an authoritative Torah voice in her home, “al tishkach toras imecha,” her knowledge was primarily oral, having been received from her own mother, and she was almost certainly illiterate. But as is so often the case with Jewish culture, changing times would cause the community to rethink previous models and bravely face up to the needs of a new world order.
A Woman’s Poem
This piece, written in 15th century Spain, shows a mastery of Hebrew and Biblical texts, uncommon for women of the period. Historians believe this poet, Merecina of Gerona, wrote this piece during the period of forced conversions preceding the Spanish expulsions. The final paragraph seems to suggest she will not lie about her faith, and that she should be protected from those who would betray her by revealing her Jewish identity. (Kaufman, et al. The Defiant Muse: Hebrew Feminist Poems (New York 1999) pg. 65)
Blessed, Majestic And Terrible
You established the Torah in Israel,
Happy are they who seek your shelter,
They do not forget the L-rd’s Will.
Salvation is far from the evil,
Though they’ve known of your Learning and Law,
The sowers in tears will soon exult
They trust in Him who enables…
He is seen, He strikes, and then heals,
Applies the balm before what comes,
Exhausts alike the weak and the strong
And restores well-being to Israel
I will say what I must,
And tell the truth to him who taunts me.
Keep slander far away from me,
Grant peace to the people of Israel.