Menachem Mendel

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Women Ritual Slaughterers

In the Gaster Anniversary Volume, C. Duschinsky published an article entitled “May a Woman act as a Shoheteth?”. Besides discussing sources from both the Talmudic period and the Middle Ages, Duschinsky discusses the permission granted to numerous Italian women to act as ritual slaughterers from the late Renaissance to the Modern period. On the basis of the discussion by Duschinsky and others, it is not open to discussion if women were granted permission to act as ritual slaughterers, but rather what one can extrapolate from these facts regarding the question of the social and religious status of these women. In his book The Jews in the Renaissance, Cecil Roth wrote that

The Renaissance period in Italy was from certain points of view an age of feminine emancipation in life if not in law. Indeed, Jacob Burckhardt, the great historian of the movement, emphasizes the fact that in order to understand the higher forms of social intercourse at this period, we must remember that women then stood on a footing of perfect social equality with men. The generalization, though perhaps too sweeping, is true with certain reservation: and it was inevitable that this structure of society should be reflected in Jewish life as well. The Renaissance may thus be said to have witnessed in some measure in the Jewish community, too, an anticipation of the movement for the emancipation of women, at least in the social sense, which is associated with the nineteenth century.
(Cecil Roth, The Jews in the Renaissance, p. 49, cited in Bonfil, p. 71)

One example of this “anticipated emancipation” cited by Roth is that women acted as ritual slaughterers (Roth, p. 52).

In a critique of Roth’s conception of the Renaissance and the influence upon him of the 19th century Renaissance scholar Jacob Burckhardt, Robert Bonfil has a very different understanding of the evidence that there were women who performed the act of ritual slaughter. Bonfil feels that this phenomenon was the result of the geographic dispersion of Italian Jewry. Many Italian Jews at the time were living in very dispersed communities, and it was usually impossible to employ the services of a ritual slaughterer so alternative solutions (e.g. women) were found.

In my view, we have here a striking example of how the peculiar circumstances conditioning Jewish life in Renaissance Italy produced an equally peculiar kind of wrestling with the way of maintaining Jewish uniqueness. Obviously this way is not, and in my view absolutely could not, be ooposed to current conceptions of the role and position of women within society. But we are not authorized to interpret the peculiar solutions adopted, even if according to our conceptual categories they may be called liberal, as manifestations of aspirations aiming to weaken traditional orthodox schemes by introducing novelty for the sake of modernity within an overall imitative mode. On the contrary, we have here a highly expressive and particular solution, arising from a particular contingency, denoting a striving to maintain traditional orthodoxy and Jewish uniqueness.
(Bonfil, pp. 74-75)

So on the basis of the same data, that women were performing ritual slaughter, two historians have come to different conclusions. Roth has seen this as evidence of a general tendency towards liberalizing the position of women within Jewish society, with them taking on more roles which in the past were not open to them, while Bonfil sees this as a unique result of specific historical and economic circumstances, without understanding it as necessarily reflecting a new attitutude towards the status of women.

-Shlomo Ashkenazi, “Ma’amada Shel haIsha beYimei haBeinayim”, Mahanayyim, 98.
-Robert Bonfil, “The Historian’s Perception of the Jews in the Italian Renaissance. Towards a Reappraisal”, Revue des Études juives, vol. 143, Jan.-June 1984, pp. 59-82.
-C. Duschinky, “May a Women act as Shoheteth?” in the Gaster Anniversary Volume, 1936, pp. 96-105.
-David Ruderman, “Cecil Roth, Historian of Italian Jewry: A Reassessment” in The Jewish Past Revisited: Reflections on Modern Jewish Historians, ed. David N. Myers and David B. Ruderman, Yale UP.
-Daniel Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael, vol. 4, pp. 9-12
idem, Minhage Yisrael, vol. 6, pp. 260-263.

One Response to “Women Ritual Slaughterers”

  1. 1
    Menachem Mendel:

    I knew of Bonfil’s position but did not realize that Cecil Roth had a different take on it. My feeling is that Bonfil is right as I don’t remeber seeing any discussion of giving bwomen more status in the halachik literature of the time.
    david g. | Homepage | 12.10.06 – 7:51 pm | #

    Howard Adelman has an article in Jewish History 5:1, “Rabbis and reality: Public activities of Jewish women in Italy during the renaissance and catholic restoration” which I have to look at again.
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 12.10.06 – 8:30 pm | #

    You have the “teshuvah” of R’ Samuel Archivolti permitting women to study Torah (on which see Dan R’s article in Tradition and Ms. Katz’s response. Dan, of course, is right.)
    andy | 12.10.06 – 8:42 pm | #

    “Bonfil feels that this phenomenon was the result of the geographic dispersion of Italian Jewry. Many Italian Jews at the time were living in very dispersed communities, and it was usually impossible to employ the services of a ritual slaughterer so alternative solutions (e.g. women) were found.”

    does bonfil offer any evidence for this assertion or is it purely conjectural?

    a) in many other itmes and places jews lived in dispersed communities, yet they never had to “fall back” on women for this task. colonial america and medieval ashkenaz, for example.

    b) this is not like wwii when all the men went to fight so rosy the riveter had to “man” the factories. there were still men in these communities. so if there were a lack of professional shohetim, i still don’t see why this task fell on the women.
    Ari Kinsberg | Homepage | 12.11.06 – 1:33 am | #

    Ari, If I recall correctly Bonfil argues that being small banks was their income, the Italian Jews set up shop in small towns where they were the only Jews. When the husband died the wife continued to maintain the business while living alone in a town or village with their children. Shechita was therefore part of the education curriculum for children both male and female. His proof I don’t recall.
    david g. | Homepage | 12.11.06 – 4:12 am | #

    Bonfil describes a reality where there were maybe only one or two Jewish families (extended) involved in money-lending and living in a town. He also discusses the question of those under 18 years old performing ritual slaughter and how that was opposed by R. Judah Mintz, possibly reflecting another outcome of Jewish families relying upon themselves for their ritual and religious needs. Why did the task fall to women? If the man was working all day, who would be free to slaughter meat if not women and possibly younger males? As to why we might not see similar phenomenon in other places: 1. How big were these communities?; 2. If they ate kosher meat, how did they get it?. Some good questions.
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 12.11.06 – 8:19 am | #




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