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 ). 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.