Portraits of Rabbinic Women

Drawing entitled “Woman Praying 20th Century,” by Arno Nadel, 1878-1943. Nadel, a writer, composer and painter in Berlin, died in Auschwitz. Illustration courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute

Many rebbetzins of the past were dynamic, Jewishly knowledgeable women who were invaluable partners to their rabbinic husbands.

By Faigy Grunfeld

Rebbetzin. A relatively modern word but a fairly ancient role. Sometimes she earned an officious title, like fourteenth-century Ceti of Saragossa who is referred to as “Rabess of the female Jews” in Spanish documents; sometimes she had little recognition and no independent title, and was simply known as “the rabbi’s wife.” The term rebbetzin emerged in the Early Modern Period in Central and Eastern Europe,1 although rabbinic women assumed communal roles prior to this period. While her title and status have changed with the times, throughout the millennia, the “rebbetzin,” has always bridged the spiritual and physical needs of the community, nourishing body and soul with her vital touch.

The Firzoggens, Spiritual Leaders: 1200s-1800s Ashkenazic Europe
The precursor to the Eastern European rebbetzin was the firzoggen or the zugerke, the female prayer leader. This may come as a surprise for those who perceive the historical Jewish woman’s spiritual connection as very internal and individual, but for medieval and early modern society, Jewish women had a rich communal life. Comments made by various Rishonim, as well as references from documents and gravestones, indicate that by the sixteenth century, just about every shul had female participation, and not just on Shabbat. Thus the shul was the hub for many women, and the firzoggen its nucleus.

The rabbinic women in the community often assumed this position, for it required Hebrew literacy, which was rare among women over the centuries. The role included standing near the sanctuary so she could follow the men praying, and then repeating the tefillot aloud for the women to follow.

The Roke’ach describes how his wife, Dulce of Worms (thirteenth century, Germany), filled this position by singing in a beautiful tune so as to enhance the services, and how she made an effort to arrive at prayers early and leave late, demonstrating that prayer was not a burden, but a great joy.2

Another prayer leader from Worms, Urania bas Avraham, is described as follows on her tombstone (d. 1275):

This headstone commemorates the eminent and excellent Lady Urania . . . she too with sweet tunefulness officiated before the female worshippers before whom she sang the hymnal portions. In devout service, her memory shall be preserved.3

Richenza of Nuremberg (thirteenth century) was an active firzoggen in Germany, until her death at the hands of a Christian pogrom in 1298.4

The position of the firzoggen became institutionalized by the 1700s,5 and during this period, the prayer leader would often write her own prayers to recite with the women for specific holidays. The following piece was composed by Rivka bat Meir Tiktiner (sixteenth century, Prague) for the women to say while decorating the Sefer Torah in honor of Simchat Torah:

Our God is One—You are my God who created my soul and body—Hallelujah
You created Heaven and Earth, therefore is Your praise eternal—Hallelujah
You were, are, will be eternally, You created us all—Hallelujah
All things are in Your power, therefore we praise You day and night—Hallelujah!
True and pure is Your Command, therefore we thank You, O true God—Hallelujah
Living and Eternal, You are our consolation, as You did promise us—Hallelujah
You live eternally on Your Heavenly throne, for the prayers, You keep their reward—Hallelujah6

Some of the more noteworthy firzoggens would also offer Shabbat lectures. Rashi’s granddaughter Chana (twelfth century, France) was instrumental in familiarizing local women with the laws of family purity and kashrut. Dulce of Worms was an expert on dietary laws, and therefore gave weekly lectures, sharing her vast knowledge with the congregants. Rivka bat Meir Tiktiner also instructed women both at home and abroad, and her tombstone reads: “she preached day and night to women in every pious community.”7

The rav’s wife was often responsible for the shul’s maintenance. She would embroider curtains for the Torah ark, supply candles, and collect the funds for the upkeep of the shul. The rebbetzin and the shul . . . this relationship has a long and faithful history.

The Rebbetzin: A Selfless Role
The rabbinic wife held many communal roles. She was often responsible for producing the vast array of Judaica objects necessary for Jewish life. This included obtaining wool for tzitzit, preparing parchment for Torah scrolls and tefillin, producing Havdalah candles, repairing torn sefarim, selling yeast for challah and sewing shrouds for the dead. Many contracts between rabbis and communities stipulated that these crafts would be reserved for the rebbetzin, so she could help supplement her husband’s wages.8

Furthermore, she was often the mother figure for her husband’s students. Throughout the many centuries of exile, Jewish youth traveled to Torah centers to study. Children as young as eleven or twelve would often find themselves in new and strange surroundings. The rabbinic wife would feed the boys, fix their frayed clothes and tend to their basic needs.

Charity work was also synonymous with the rebbetzin. “Mitzvah societies” peppered medieval Jewish life, and the rabbi’s wife was often the primary force behind these endeavors.

Seventeenth-century gravestones tell us of the work of some of these pious women.

The estimable and generous Sarah Yocheved, daughter of Meir Eldad Levi, for she devoted herself to the living and the dead, went to the synagogue morning and night and prayed with devoutness. She spun tzitzit [for the poor] without payment and gave a gift of a hundred francs to the charity fund of the community of Metz. —16599

Another recounts the activities of “the just and pious Cherele, daughter of Meshullam.”
[She] lived in righteousness, helped everyone, especially women in childbirth. She went to the synagogue morning and evening one hour before the service, reading each day the entire Book of Psalms with the commentary. She sacrificed herself and fasted three days per week. —169810

Serrel Sofer, Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s daughter, devoted herself to her husband’s yeshivah and its success. She never wore jewelry, because she sold every piece she ever received so she could distribute its worth among the poor.11

Chava Leah Sofer, a daughter-in-law of the Chatam Sofer, would visit the poorhouse each evening to distribute food and provide comfort to the inhabitants. While there, she collected dirty and worn-out clothes, which she would then wash and mend at home. Her family objected to the offensive smell of these clothes, so she took them out to the porch, where she continued to repair, in this small but immeasurable way, the broken dignity of their owners.12

Another rebbetzin responsibility was taking an active role in enhancing the wedding celebrations. One text that recounts the minhagim of medieval German Jews describes the following:
Then the women come, led by the rabbanit, wife of the head rabbinic judge, to the home of the bride, and the bride sits there on a special chair and they dress her in festive clothes . . . and they sing songs and poems.13

In the shtetl, the rebbetzin was a mentor, healer, advisor and provider of assistance to those in need. She produced eingemachts, a raspberry syrup that was the marvel drug to cure all ills.14 She served borsht and matzot to the poor before Pesach.15

She would receive all manner of beggars, orphans, travelers or locals and regale them with tales, inspirational anecdotes and sympathy. She was a mediator between quarrelling neighbors, fighting spouses and bitter business partners.16

As for the shtetl adage, “even a non-Jewish maid in the rabbi’s house knows how to answer questions on kashrut,” this could be multiplied exponentially for the rebbetzin. She would receive halachic questions from the community for her husband, but often, instead of passing them on to him, she would simply answer them herself.17

The rebbetzin, the firzoggen, the rabbanit, the rabbi’s wife. Irrespective of her particular title, hometown or the century in which she lived, the rebbetzin has consistently been a pillar of support, providing physical and spiritual nourishment to those around her. Serving as a religious beacon and a material benefactor, the rebbetzin has been about selfless giving to her family, her shul and her community.

Notes
1. Encyclopaedia Judaica, ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, vol. 17, 2nd ed. (Detroit, 2007), 136.
2. Avraham Grossman, Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe (Waltham, 2004), 180.
3. Israel Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, ed. Cecil Roth (London, 2005), 40.
4. Emily Taitz, et al., The JPS Guide to Jewish Women (Philadelphia, 2003), 85.
5. Ibid., 159.
6. Israel Zinberg, A History of Jewish Literature, trans. Bernard Martin (Cincinnati, 1975), 51.
7. Frauke von Rohden, “Rivke Bas Me’ir Tiktiner,” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, 1 March 2009, Jewish Women’s Archive, jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/tiktinerrivke-bas-meir.
8. Shuly Rubin Schwartz, The Rabbi’s Wife: The Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life (New York, 2006), 9.
9. Taitz, et al., The JPS Guide to Jewish Women, 159.
10. Ibid.
11. S. Feldbrand, From Sarah to Sarah: And Other Fascinating Jewish Women Both Famous and Forgotten, 3rd ed. (Lakewood, 2013), 146.
12. Ibid., 147.
13. Avraham Grossman, Pious and Rebellious, 196.
14. Menachem Brayer, The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature, vol. 2 (Hoboken, 1986), 50.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid., 57.
17. David Assaf, Journey to a Nineteenth-Century Shtetl: the Memoirs of Yekhezkel Kotik (Detroit, 2002), 252.

Faigy Grunfeld teaches English and history. She lives in Detroit, Michigan with her family.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2017.