By Rachel D. Levine

Judaism did not need a women's lib movement in the first century of the Common Era.  In fact, the Jewish women of that day had already achieved a status both religiously and within the community that their present-day sisters have yet to attain.  This probably comes as a surprise to those whose view of history is as a progression from inferior to superior and not the reverse.  At one time, this academic theory was prevalent, but the discoveries in recent years of massive archaeological evidence have led to the revision of many once-cherished beliefs.

So it is with the position of women within the Jewish faith in the years starting about 75 B.C.E. and ending just before the compilation of the Mishnah in 200 C.E.  The remainder of this article will deal with the Jewish woman and her position in the six main areas of her life: Home and Family, Education, Business, Community Life, Synagogue, and the Temple in Jerusalem.


Within her home and family, the Jewish woman enjoyed the highest possible status.  Her responsibilities were numerous, and she was accorded great honor by her husband and children.  Unlike the chattel wives in surrounding societies, she was considered an equal partner in the running of the household.  Her virtues were expounded in Proverbs 31:10-31; in fact, to this day, religious Jewish men recite these verses of praise to their wives every week at the start of the Sabbath.

Although polygamy was permitted by the Mosaic Law, in practice it was frowned upon, and rare was the man with more than one wife.  Concubines were not tolerated by the religion which put a premium on marital fidelity and sexual morality.  Jewish women prided themselves upon their modesty in dress and deportment; it was a code they willingly accepted; it was never imposed upon them.

In addition to the usual household and family tasks, the woman was responsible for maintaining the religious and ritual aspects of daily life.  She was the one who made sure the tithe, the priest's share as mandated in the Bible, was separated out and given as prescribed.  She saw to the adherence of the laws of kashrut in all the food eaten by the household and assured the ritual purity of the household utensils.

As a result, women were looked upon as the persons who sanctified the home, much as the priests were regarded as those who sanctified the Temple.

Within the family itself, both law and custom combined to assure the woman a central place.  If widowed, she had to be supported from her husband's estate; she could not be turned out of her home.  If divorced, her husband was obligated to provide a financial settlement as set forth in her marriage contract; she need have no fears of being cast out penniless.  She could not be divorced against her will and could, at that time, bring suit against her husband in the rabbinical courts.

In fact, the religious law provided that if a man died, leaving sons and daughters, with a small estate insufficient for all, the daughters were to be supported from the estate and the sons should go begging for their sustenance.  The wife could own property in her own right and dispose of it as she saw fit, whether it was inherited or otherwise acquired, without needing her husband's permission.

Although marriages were usually arranged by the parents, the woman had the right of refusal and could not be forced into a union against her will.


While most boys received their formal education in the local school, girls were usually taught at home.  This does not mean that their education was in any way inferior to their brothers'.  Both were taught reading and writing, since knowledge of the Torah was essential for all Jews.  In Deuteronomy we read of the "Law of Assembly" (31:10-13) wherein the entire nation of Israel, including women and children, are commanded to "assemble" on a regular basis in order to learn the word of G-d and the commandments of the Torah.

In addition to the basic "Three R's," girls were instructed in all the household arts as their brothers learned about business and agriculture.  Since women were responsible for maintaining the religious standards of the home, they had to be taught the applicable laws in order to assure that no transgression would occur.

During this time in Jewish history, the custom arose of giving public classes in the synagogues prior to each holiday to acquaint the people with the laws and proper modes of observance.  That women attended both these classes and the many rabbinic sermons which also were preached is evidenced by numerous references in the Mishnah and contemporaneous accounts of Jewish life.

In addition to her religious and domestic studies, many women also learned what could be called secular knowledge, such as Greek philosophy, foreign languages, history, and geography.  It was not unusual for girls in wealthier families whose parents employed private tutors for their sons to sit in on their brothers' lessons and thus broaden their education.

Although the mother took the main responsibility for her daughter's learning, she was the one who first taught her son, even before he started school.  It was expected that the boy would know some basic prayers and the rudiments of the alphabet even before his formal training began.

Fathers usually were very involved with their sons' education, but the rabbinic literature records many instances of learned fathers who also taught Torah to their daughters.

The importance of education was embedded within the culture, since the proper service of G-d was achieved through knowledge.  This emphasis on and attachment to learning remains an essential part of Judaism today.  The learned scholar, though penniless, is accorded greater honor than the ignorant multi-millionaire.  Throughout the centuries, scholarship has been the vehicle for upward mobility in Jewish society.

During the period under study, there were women who possessed great knowledge in the Torah and Jewish law and who were highly praised for their scholarship.  It was not uncommon to find them participating in traditional debates or in public discussions concerning legal, cultural, or behavioral issues.  Among the women so cited in rabbinic literature of the times are Ima Shalom, wife of Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkanos and sister of Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh; Martha, the daughter of Boethos; Beruriah, wife of Rabbi Meir and daughter of Rabbi Haninah ben Teradyon; and the mother of Rabbi Yehoshua, whose name has unfortunately been lost.


From the days of the Proverbial "woman of valor" who "considers a field and buys it," and "makes linen garments and sells them, and delivers girdles unto the merchant," the Jewish woman has been involved in business affairs.

Among recent archaeological finds are numerous papyri and other documents detailing women's active role in the commerce of that day.  Since she could own property in her own right, she was free to engage in commercial pursuits.  Many women attained great wealth in this manner.

It is unfortunate that throughout the centuries much of the non-Jewish world has misunderstood the purpose behind the Jews' business endeavors.  The acquisition of wealth was never an end in itself, it was a means to an end; that being to be better able to fulfill the commandments of G-d.

The wealthier the Jew was, the more he or she was expected to contribute to the well-being of the community.  Charity was incumbent upon all Jews; after providing for your family, you were obligated to aid your fellows.  Therefore, throughout the Jewish world at this time there are many inscriptions attesting to the donations made to synagogues and other communal organizations by wealthy and pious Jewish women.

That these were made from their own resources is evidenced by the following two examples:

In the year 76 B.C.E., Shlomis Alexandra, wife of the Hasmonean king Yanni, succeeded to the throne of Judea upon her husband's death.  She brought peace to a land torn by war, economic prosperity to a bankrupt nation, and religious revival to her people.  Her death ten years later was mourned as a national tragedy, the end of a "Golden Era" in Jewish life; it ushered in a century of almost unrelieved disaster which culminated in the end of Judea's independence and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

But most important was the fact that she was the Queen and as such the ruler of the country.  No one opposed her legal right to the throne and the power she exercised because she was a woman.

That women could attain positions of influence and leadership in the community was evidenced in the Bible, starting with Miriam, the sister of Moses, and continuing through to Deborah, the prophetess who judged Israel; Huldah, advisor to King Josiah; and Esther, who, as Queen of Persia, saved her people from destruction.

Since women were unrestricted in business, this enabled them to carry their influence over into the realm of communal affairs.  The synagogue in Jewish communal life at this time was much more than a house of worship.  The Hebrew for synagogue is Bet Knesset, meaning a House of Assembly.  In addition to religious services, the synagogue functioned as the town hall, charitable foundation, an inn for wayfarers with nowhere else to go, site of the local rabbinical court, and other functions for the community well-being.

To maintain all of these diverse activities and needs, numerous groups were organized, along patterns still in existence today.  Then, as now, women played major roles within these community structures.

It is, perhaps, this opportunity which Judaism and the Jewish community afforded women to exercise their talents which accounted for the large numbers of women who converted to the faith in this period.

One of the most prominent was Helena, Queen of Adiabene, who, along with all other members of the royal family and many prominent personages in the country, which was located west of Nineveh, embraced the Jewish faith.  Queen Helena is remembered in Jewish history for aiding the inhabitants of Judea during a period of famine, about the year 46 C.E., when she brought large quantities of grain and other foodstuffs while on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  A few years later, she settled in the city and built a burial chamber.  Known today as the "Tombs of the Kings," it is a popular attraction for tourists.

Surely the high positions of Jewish women within the community and the esteem in which they were held by their faith, in stark contrast to the women in neighboring cultures who had no rights at all, were major contributing factors in many women's decisions to embrace Judaism.


Recent archaeological discoveries in both Israel and surrounding countries have, in the past two decades, forced scholars to reevaluate their conclusions regarding the role of the Jewish woman in the synagogue during the period in question.

Perhaps the single most amazing discovery is the absence of any architectural features supporting the previously-held position that a women's balcony was a standard feature of all such structures.

Indeed, all archaeological evidence points to just the opposite--a common meeting room for both men and women.  It is true that the women's balcony was a standard feature in synagogue architecture as early as the year 1000 C.E., but the presupposition that such had always been the case is no longer valid.

Another cherished belief that can now be relegated to the realm of mythology is in the area of women's roles and functions within the synagogue precincts.  Prior scholarship, again postulating backward from a situation extant several hundreds of years in the future, maintained that women rarely attended the services and, if they did, were spectators and not leaders.  That frequent attendance was the norm in the era under study can be attested to by the numerous references within the Mishnah.  The common thread is that women's presence in the synagogue was presupposed, since she was obligated to pray and this was one way of fulfilling that obligation.

In terms of her function within the ritual, the Mishnah provided that a woman could be one of the seven called each Sabbath to publically read from the Torah scroll.  Unlike the Temple service, which only priests could officiate, the Jewish form of worship in the synagogue did not depend on an official functionary; any person learned in the order of prayers could lead the congregation.  In fact, to this day, Jewish prayer services are not dependent on the presence of a rabbi in order to be conducted.

The only aspect of the synagogue service reserved to a particular group was the Priestly Blessing, which at certain times of the liturgical year is bestowed on the congregants by members of the Tribe of Levi.  Women were members of the priestly families just like men, since this is based upon birth and no other criteria.  As such, they were entitled to eat the tithed produce and sacrificial animals.

While they did not serve in the Temple, it is very possible that they functioned in synagogues in outlying communities along with the male members of their families.  There is some inscriptional evidence to suggest this but it is too fragmentary to come to any conclusions at this time.

That women spoke and taught in the synagogues is attested to in Acts 18:26.  We have previously seen that women scholars were well known and it is safe to assume that many of them joined with their male colleagues in teaching the people.  These activities were also an important part of the synagogue's function.


Perhaps no other aspect of the Jewish woman's position in her society during this period has been as misunderstood as her role vis-a-vis the Temple.  The existence of the so-called Women's Court has been taken as a priori evidence of her second-class place within the sacrificial cult.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

To begin with, women were equally obligated to bring sacrifices to the Temple.  They also could bring voluntary offerings in fulfillment of vows or in thanksgiving.  While not obligated to attend the three annual pilgrimage festivals, they did not have to attend the Temple to fulfill the second tithe, as outlined in Deuteronomy 14:22-27.

Part of the sacrificial rite consisted of the person making the offering laying hands on the animal just prior to the priest bringing it to the slaughter.  Since the actual sacrifice took place within the Court of the Israelites, where the women did not enter, it was customary for the priest to bring the animal out to the woman so she could perform this ritual, attested to by the Mishnah.

The name, Court of the Women, was in actuality a misnomer, since men could also be in that space.  In order to understand the prohibitions against women entering further into the sanctuary, it is necessary to understand the roles played by ritual purity and feminine modesty in Judaism.  No one could enter the inner precincts of the Temple, including the priests themselves, who were not in a state of ritual purity.  That is the reason for the vast complex of ritual immersion baths which can be seen today at the Southern Wall excavations at the Temple site.  All Jews who would enter the inner court had to first immerse themselves to ensure their ritually pure status.  Non-Jews were not allowed to enter past the outer court under any circumstances.

Since the women only went as far as the outer court, and usually made up the majority of its inhabitants, that area became known as the Court of the Women.  As to why women did not avail themselves of the ritual bath complex in order to be able to further enter the Temple precincts, it is necessary to understand the position of feminine modesty within Judaism.

Unlike other religions of its day, Judaism enjoined sexual morality upon its adherents.  Jewish women did not serve as cult prostitutes nor did they engage in sexual orgies as a form of worship as many pagan sects decreed.  Hand in hand with sexual morality was an emphasis on feminine modesty.  The Jewish woman did not reveal her body to all and sundry but dressed in an appropriate fashion for a member of a "holy people."

The enjoyment of sex within marriage was enjoined upon Jewish men and women by the tenets of their faith, which also taught that the woman was forbidden to her husband at certain times of the month, when she was not in a state of ritual purity.  She had to immerse herself in order to become pure before resuming relations with her spouse.  This has always been, and still is, considered a very private matter between the woman and her husband.

Therefore, if a woman were to enter the inner court, she would be making a public statement regarding her status in relation to the purity laws, which would be considered brazen and immodest on her part.  To preserve her modesty, she remained outside.

However, it was customary for major celebrations held in connection with the festivals to take place in the outer court, thereby enabling the woman to participate along with men.

It was not until several centuries later, in response to external sociological pressures, that Judaism mandated the separation of the sexes during public worship.


Much more can be written on this subject and there is still an enormous amount of research waiting to be done.  New discoveries are daily being uncovered which add greatly to our understanding of this pivotal period in Jewish history.  With the rise of today's feminist movement, many women are ready to give up on religion since they feel it has been a vehicle of oppression for them throughout history.

I have tried in this brief article to show that women at this time within the Jewish framework were given full scope to develop both spiritually and within a secular context.  There is ample evidence to prove that they took full advantage of their opportunities.

That later generations, until the present day, were not equally blessed is due to factors not inherent in Judaism.  In fact, much scholarship in this field today has brought to light a continuity throughout the ages of Jewish women who were scholars, educators, community activists, and spiritual leaders.  By going backward in time, we can further our development into the future.

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Rachel D. Levine is a resident of Miami, Florida.  She is currently working on a Ph.D. in Judaic Studies from Union University, Cincinnati, while studying for the Rabbinate under the aegis of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalom, spiritual leader of the P'nai Or movement of Jewish renewal, Philadelphia.

She has a B.A. degree from the University of Miami and an M.Ed. from Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton.  Levine has an extensive background in religious and archaeological studies, having participated in excavations in Tel Aviv in 1973.  She has done additional studies with the Biblical Archaeology Society.

In addition to her academic pursuits, Levine has written extensively on little-known aspects of Jewish tradition and conducted workshops on the history and development of liturgy at national gatherings.  She conducts classes and gives lectures in the Miami area and serves as lay leader at Temple Beth Or.

Her major field of interest is in women's roles in Judaism during the early centuries of the Common Era, and she will be writing her doctoral thesis in that field.

Yavo Digest, Vol. 1, No. 4, 1987

Bible Scholars: Question the Answers

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