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A 14th c. Spanish Female Rabbi?

The other day a friend suggested to me that I read David Nirenberg’s Communities of Violence. I subsequently looked at some of Nirenberg’s other writings and saw an interesting title, “A Female Rabbi in Fourteenth Century Zaragoza?” (Sefarad, 51,1 [1991]). In this short article Nirenberg publishes a letter that he found in the Archive of the Crown of Aragon, dated October 11, 1325. This letter describes one “莈ti, Jewess, rabbess ['rabbisse' in the original Latin] of the female Jews of the major synagogue of Zaragoza.” She apparently occupied that position for twenty years and now a man wants to take over her position. On numerous grounds, Nirenberg rejects the possibility that she is the wife of the rabbi. In addition, he notes that the title “rabbi” then did not necessarily have the same meaning with which we are familiar.

The title “rabbi” in the fourteenth century Zaragoza meant many things, some bearing little relation to what the title means today. The butcher, scriber, cantor, and schoolteacher could all be addressed as “rabbi”.

Nirenberg’s conclusion is that this woman “served as a shammash, a kind of salaried beadle or sexton, charged with the custody of the women’s section of the major synagogue and perhaps the mikveh.” He admits that this theory is conjecture, and hopes that our knowledge about the daily lives of medieval Jewish woman will soon progress beyond the little that we now know.

One Response to “A 14th c. Spanish Female Rabbi?”

  1. 1
    Menachem Mendel:

    Sally Priesand can breathe a sigh of relief, since the term ‘rabbi’ used then was ‘lav dafka.’
    andy | 06.28.07 – 5:34 pm | #

    Did they have a particular title for “rabbis” in our sense of the title? Or did rabbis (in our sense) have the same title as this woman and the butcher etc.?
    Lia | 06.28.07 – 5:51 pm | #

    LOL Andy!

    -mivami
    Anonymous | 06.28.07 – 6:08 pm | #

    1. Sally Preisand was still not the first female rabbi (who was is a mater of some dispute. There are at least three good candidates, one as early as the 14th century in Kurdistan. That one, Osnat, ended up as Rosh Yeshiva and posek, but did not perform the modern liberal function of prayer leader).

    2.It seems unlikely that she was a shoammash of the women’s section, since a man would probably not be interested in taking that position over; moreover, it’s not a particularly unusual thing for a woman to do, in Eastern Europe, such women were extremely common (although often also coincidental with being the rebbitzin). It’s possible that she was a posek or rosh yeshiva, which would be most “rabbi” like of the options. But it’s certainly more likely that she was a scribe than a shamash, and seems very unlikely that she was a cantor or schoolteacher (For various halachic reasons).
    Kol Ra’ash Gadol | Homepage | 07.06.07 – 7:23 pm | #

    Um, yeah, there’s Chana Rochel Werbermacher, who functioned as a rabbi/rebbe (much as did, say, the Chofetz Chaim, who didn’t have official smicha until very late in life, long after his major halachic works had been published).

    Could this “rabbisse” have been a “firzogerin”, as they were called in Europe – a women’s prayer leader? In a women’s section that is very closed off from the men’s section, maybe a small hole in the wall or floor, little sound gets through, so there would sometimes be a woman who led the women’s prayers.
    thanbo | Homepage | 07.12.07 – 8:53 am | #

    COUld be, althugh it sounds to me like she might have been one of the (few, but not mythical) women who actually did serve as rabbanit – meaning a rosh yeshivah or poseket – usually in some sort of segregated way (i.e. from behind a wall, or heavily veiled, so as not to be sexually tempting)
    Kol Ra’ash Gadol | Homepage | 07.12.07 – 5:08 pm | #

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