Abstract: Some Jewish Women in Antiquity

Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press (Brown Judaic Studies 317), 1998  Meir Bar-Ilan


This book presents a topology of women in ancient times that derives from a large corpus, stretching from the Bible, through the Apocrypha and up to and including talmudic literature. In each chapter, the discussion of these female characters, who are mostly, but not exclusively, of Jewish origin, focuses on a specific feature as presented in the sources (mainly, the literary ones). Following the textual and historical discussion, an attempt is made to analyze the given historical phenomena in social terms.

Chapter 1: Heroic Women

The Bible portrays a number of brave women who risked their lives to save others from death. Among them are Jochebed and the midwives in Egypt, Zipporah, and Jehosheba. An attempt is made to clarify the difference between these courageous women and Esther, Jael, and Deborah.

The apocryphal literature offers the character of Judith as well as that of Shoshanah, the woman circumciser, and of other women.

Talmudic literature glorifies women who demonstrate moral courage rather than mere physical strength. In order to preserve the purity of their souls, and in anticipation of the spiritual joys awaiting them in the world to come, these women were willing to take the ultimate step that would free them from a humiliating life in this contemptible and degrading world.

The discussion in this chapter sheds light on the differences between these women in terms of values and social class.

Chapter 2: Literate Women

The extent of literacy in any given society obviously has far-reaching consequences. This chapter attempts to examine the data on the literacy of women in ancient times, as educed from texts and archaeological finds.

The chapter opens with a general discussion of the phenomenon of literate woman in the ancient world i. e.: in the Fertile Crescent and in Egypt. It then considers biblical sources about women who made use of writing (Jezebel, Esther, and "sons of the woman scribe). Another source of information are seals. A portion of the 650 extant seals were signed by women. The chapter discusses the significance of these seals and their implications about the spread of literacy among women.

Information from Greece and the Roman Empire on the literacy of women in those countries is compared to the data found in talmudic literature. For instance, various halakhot suggest the extent to which women were able to read and write.

The entire historical material presented in this chapter is considered in the light of its social significance.

Chapter 3: Women Who Recite Laments

This chapter clarifies the role played by women in the ritual of laments. The Bible provides ample pertinent material on this ritual. The biblical citations lead to the conclusion that the first two chapters of the Book of Lamentations were composed by women who chanted laments.

The Apocrypha offers abundant comparative material on women who chant laments or on laments performed by women. So far, this material has not been subject to scholarly investigation.

Talmudic literature makes references to women lamenters and the contents of their laments. The chapter investigates the special status of women in burial services.

Chapter 4: Women Who Utter Prayers

This chapter cites dozens of women's prayers, as elicited from the Bible, the Apocrypha, and talmudic literature, in an attempt to determine to what extent these prayers reflect feminine concerns. The feminist aspect can be detected only in a small portion of the prayers, and these prayers may have been composed by women (though there is no evidence for this). It must be borne in mind that traditional prayers are not necessarily masculine in character, so that it is difficult to identify the extent of "femininity" in any given prayer.

A table that sums up all the women's prayers, presented in conjunction with a discussion on the social status of women in ancient prayer, illustrates the individual character of the feminine prayer, which was not part of the liturgy.

Chapter 5: Witches

This chapter examines the feminist aspect of Jewish preoccupation with magic in ancient times. Underlying the collecting of data was a twofold purpose: on the one hand, to consider the historical aspect of the practice of magic among the Jewish people in ancient times; on the other hand, to examine the social and feminist aspects of this practice.

The chapter first discusses the prohibitions against consulting sorceresses, such as the story of the medium at En Dor. It then mentions apocryphal texts that accuse women of witchcraft. Talmudic sources accuse all women of witchcraft though apparently this accusation was insubstantiated.

Sociological discussion of the historical phenomena - in the Land of Israel at one period of time and in Europe at another - suggests that accusing women of witchcraft was an indicator of male prejudice against women, provoked by a deep-rooted fear of the female sex. For women, in turn, the practice of magic meant access to power otherwise unattainable to them in traditional society. However, in most cases, accusations of witchcraft were groundless, far removed from historical reality. In Europe, sentencing women to death on these grounds was not only a matter of church politics but also an effective means to hold the population growth in check.

It thus becomes clear that the history of magic and witchcraft, the so- called history of human 'nonsense', is actually inseparable from the question of the status of women and men's attitude to, and treatment of, women in ancient times.

Chapter 6: Prostitutes

The Bible does not explicitly prohibit sexual intercourse with a prostitute and even contains several stories about prostitutes (Rahab, Samson's mistress, etc.). Talmudic literature, too, contains several stories about Jews who went to prostitutes, but these stories were told to teach a specific moral lesson: to show the later repentance of those who went to prostitutes. The social discussion in this chapter explains, however incompletely, the various causes of this state of affairs, some of which are still relevant even today.