While Jewish education was mostly closed to Medieval girls, aside for those from rabbinic families, the Early Modern period ushered in a more “liberalized” view of the issue. Growing up during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment meant that, regardless of how insular a community was, modern ideas were “in the air.” This prompted a greater leniency in rabbinic thought in regards to the education of women. In general, the more that secular knowledge burrowed its way into the Jewish community, the greater the increase of religious instruction for women was provided as its foil, culminating in formal institutions during the 20th century. Of course, during this Early Modern period, the vast majority of girls were informally educated at home, but materials began to emerge to strengthen these lessons.
This era saw the emergence of a scattering of schools that accommodated girls. A 15th century document tells us of Henndlein of Regensburg, who is referred to as die meistrin, the teacher. Historians believe she ran a school for boys and girls. Documents from 15th century Rome tell us of a Talmud Torah for girls.
There is further evidence of such institutions in the writings of Gluckel of Hameln, a 17th century Jewess who grew up in Hamburg. Her memoirs offer an astonishing window into the nuances of Jewish society. With regards to education, she mentions that she went to cheder, although this was most likely not a widespread phenomenon. She also notes that her father ensured his children had a religious and worldly education. In fact, her writings are filled with Jewish philosophy as well as street smarts and business sense. Gluckel was literate in Yiddish, as her memoir indicates, but her knowledge of Hebrew was deficient, which seemed to be the norm for educated Jewish women in this period.
However, it is necessary to note that the majority of women were likely educated informally by their mothers. And again, as in the Medieval period, business acumen and knowledge of mathematics as well as the secular national language was almost a necessary attribute for young women, since many of them assisted or managed their husband’s business. When families would research a prospective shidduch, fluency in Polish or Russian was often a point in a young woman’s favor!
Because of the development of printing, female literacy gained some momentum, and a whole genre of women’s Yiddish books was created. Written mostly by men, these texts were of a moral rather than academic nature, offering uplifting messages to fortify female society.
Among these were the popular 16th century ethical work, Brantspiegel, as well as the famous Tzena Urena, a collection of homilies on the weekly parsha, and the Ma’aseh Buch, an anthology of inspirational stories. (Interestingly, these texts were also intended for unlearned men, many of whom could not read Hebrew. This is conveyed by the authors whose introductions stress that their book is intended for “women and amei ha’aretz.” Although this term has taken on a negative connotation today, in the past it just referred to unlearned men, of whom there were a sizeable number.)
This propagation of material suggests there was a greater female reading audience than ever before. However, the majority of women were still illiterate. Oftentimes, one or two literate women would read to their neighbors. The Tzena Urena was perhaps the most popular and widely read, and sources tell us women would study it together on Shabbos afternoons, weeping tears of longing and joy. Interestingly, a few rabbinic authorities were not pleased with these texts, as there were women who saw them as actual Torah rather than a collection of stories.
Various women took advantage of the printing press. Roizel Fishels of Krakow was a 16th century activist of sorts, intent on spreading reading material to women. She seemed to have attracted quite a slew of followers who thirsted for Torah knowledge, as evidenced in her description: “Where I did go, [I] taught to all who wanted to know, until they began to come, one and all, to me” (Taitz, Emily et al. The JPS Guide to Jewish Women, Philadelphia 2003 pg. 136). She printed a translation of Tehillim into Yiddish, with a poem of her own as a preface. The conclusion of this poem sums up her ambition:
Now songs from the book of Samuel could be sung
By all as well in our own mother tongue [Yiddish]
And reading them, easier and pleasant to do,
For men and women and young girls too.
Despite widespread female illiteracy, there was certainly a demand for female reading material. An 18th century woman, Ellus bas Mordechai of Slutsk, translated some kabbalistic texts from Hebrew to Yiddish for a female audience, and even succeeded in acquiring three rabbinic haskamos for this work.
Women were also instrumental in the production of sefarim for many centuries. Many medieval texts indicate that they were sponsored by women, and in the Early Modern period we find women running printing presses, producing countless sefarim to fortify Jewish learning. YU’s Rabbi Dr. Menachem Brayer notes that “many of our seforim today would not have been printed were it not for the diligent efforts of many dedicated and ambitious Jewish women.”
Roizel and Ellus characterize a host of women who became informal teachers to an eager fan base. Women like Rivka bas Meir Tiktiner of Prague, a noteworthy scholar and mentor, would travel to different communities and lecture to women on the ideal role of a Jewish woman within her domestic setting, using biblical and Talmudic sources to convey her message. These lessons would range from the practical, such as safety and nutrition for one’s children, as well as tips for interacting with mothers-in-law, to the spiritual, such as developing middos and establishing Torah in one’s home.
Another such figure was Chava Bacharach, granddaughter of the Maharal, who acted as an informal teacher. She is immortalized in her grandson’s writings, Chavos Yair, which was named in her honor. In it he describes: “she taught…through her comprehension and knowledge…and she explained in such a manner that all that heard her understood that she was correct. These things I wrote in my book in her name.”
This era birthed another interesting phenomenon: female writers. With the proliferation of reading materials, silent women seem to have found their voices, or at least their pens. As a reaction to the advent of male-written texts, which neglected various aspects of female life and spirituality, women began to spice up the mix. Rivka Tiktiner wrote her famous Meneket Rivka, which historians believe was a summary of her lectures. The result astonished her publisher, who wrote a forward, noting how unprecedented this was: a comprehensive work by a woman!
However, the dominant writing movement of this period involved the composition of techinos, informal prayers written in Yiddish on any and all topics relating to Jewish life, which could be recited at will. Some of them touched on the holiest moments of the yearly calendar, like this High Holidays techina, which reads in part, “I beg my own limbs: Don’t stand against me. I want to go into G-d’s house and pour out my heart and confess my sins with bitter tears.” Others dealt with the more common elements of daily activities, like this techina for challah baking, which reads in part: “I pray to You to bestow Your blessing on the baked goods. Send an angel to guard the baking, so that all will be well-baked, will rise nicely, and will not burn, to honor the holy Sabbath.” There were techinos for all circumstances and times, offering women a means to uplift each common and not-so-common experience.
While Western-European techinos were mostly written by men, Eastern-European techinos have a solid female authorship. Writers like Sara bas Tovim and Sara Rivka Rochel Leah Horowitz sought out greater realms of spirituality for women in their work. In her techina “Shelosha she’orim” which draws on various mystical texts like the Zohar, Tovim describes the female after-life as having six chambers, with different biblical women presiding over each one. The following excerpts offer a glimpse:
Basya the Queen, daughter of Pharaoh, is there. There is a place in Paradise where a curtain is prepared to be opened, which allows her to see the image of Moses our Teacher. Then she bows and says,: How worthy is my strength and how knowing is my power. I drew such a light out of the water…
In the next chamber…Serach, daughter of Asher, is a queen. Every day it is announced three times: Here comes the image of Yosef the Righteous! Then she bows to him and says: Praised is my strength and how worthy is my power that I was privileged to tell my lord Yakov that my uncle was alive…
And the chamber of the matriarchs cannot be described; no one can come into their chambers. Now, dear women, when the souls are together in paradise, how much joy there is. Therefore, I pray you to praise G-d with great devotion, and to say your prayers, that you may be worthy to be there with our Mothers…
And so, armed with her techinos, her Yiddish stories, her Shabbos shiurim and her verbally-transmitted Torah knowledge, the Jewish woman was a bastion of Torah, if not academically inclined. Perhaps the following excerpt from a 19th century Yiddish novel conveys it best:
Shloymele’s mother Sarah was frail and slight, with small, white hands crisscrossed with tiny purple veins, and the pale face and thin lips of a pious woman. She seemed to be pure spirit, to float rather than walk. She was a learned woman, who knew all kinds of tkhines, prayers of the Land of Israel and prayers of Sara Bas Tovim…she read such books as Tsena Urena, The Shining Candelabrum, and the like. It was she who showed the women how to pray… In the women’s gallery of the synagogue, she kept a lemon and other pungent remedies to revive herself or the other women whenever they felt faint. In fact it was hardly possible to keep from fainting when Sarah read. She would read with great emotion, her melody melting the soul and pulling at the heartstrings. When she wept, everyone wept with her.
* * * * *
Ella bat Moshe of Dessau (17th century)
Ella was the daughter of a convert, and, as the oldest in her family, helped her father in the family printing business. She was literate in both Hebrew and Yiddish. One of her projects included the following insertion:
These Yiddish letters I set with my own hand
Ella the daughter of Moshe of Holland
My years number no more than nine
The only girl among six children fine
So if you find a misprint wild
Remember, this was set by a mere child
* * * * *
Bayla Falk of Lemberg
Bayla was the only daughter of a wealthy philanthropist, Rabbi Yisrael Edels, head of the Lemberg Jewish community. Despite his wish to shower his daughter with gifts, Bayla rejected worldly pleasures and immersed herself in Torah study.
Her sons said of her: “She was the first to arrive at the synagogue every day . . . after the morning prayer she would not waste a moment . . . she would occupy herself with learning Torah, the weekly portion with the commentary of Rashi and other commentators.” Bayla married Rabbi Yehoshua Falk, author of Meiras Einayim and a member of the Council of the Four Lands.
Students of Rabbi Falk recount how Bayla would sit by her husband’s side, listening to pupils’ questions and occasionally offering her own answers. Her greatest halachic contribution concerns lighting candles, and her opinion was later debated by noteworthy rabbinic figures, with the Noda B’Yehuda ruling that the halacha is like Rabbi Falk’s wife, for “was she not a woman whose heart was uplifted by wisdom?”
Aside for her studies, Bayla visited the sick, comforted mourners, prepared tzitzis and readied parchment. A grandchild recalls that his grandmother was completely free from pride and was a devoted mother and grandmother. She would bathe the grandchildren for Shabbos. After her husband’s death, she settled in Yerushalayim.
Chava Weissler, Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women
Chava Weissler, Matriarchs
The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature vol. 2 (Hoboken 1986) pg. 121
Dan Rabinowitz, Rayna Batya and Other Learned Women, Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought
Vol. 35, No. 1 (Spring 2001) pg. 62
Mendele Mocher Sforim “Of Bygone Days” in A Shtetl and other Yiddish novellas (New York 1973) pg. 300-301
Chava Weissler “Prayers in Yiddish and the Religious World of Ashkenazic Women” Jewish Women in Historical Perspective (Detroit 1991) Pg. 175