Medieval Jewish Attitudes Toward Women

In the Middle Ages, a Jewish woman's social well-being was considered important, but her life was strictly guided by Jewish law.

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A discussion of Jewish attitudes toward women in the Middle Ages is limited by the sources about women's lives that survive. There are almost no extant books written by women or specifically for them. 

Instead, women's lives are reflected primarily in legal writings, including codes of Jewish law, responsa literature (rabbinic questions-and-answers), contracts related to betrothal, marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and business correspondences. The nature of these sources itself suggests that women were not viewed as participants in Jewish legal discourse, nor did the rabbis feel the need to provide women with literature that would allow them to make study a part of their religious life. At the same time, the rabbis felt that women were within the jurisdiction of Jewish law and felt themselves obligated to protect what they perceived as women's rights and interests.

The Right to a Restricted Social Life

These two impulses may be seen in the writings of the Maimonides (1135-1205), one of the greatest legal scholars and philosophers of the Middle Ages, who lived in Egypt. Chapter 13 of Hilkhot Ishut, Laws concerning Marriage, in his major legal code, the Mishneh Torah, deals with a woman's entitlements within a marriage. The 11th paragraph speaks about a woman's right to leave the house, a privilege that was restricted--at least by custom--in many Muslim lands.

According to Maimonides, a Jewish woman has the right to leave the home, and he lists the places he considers appropriate for her to go: to celebrations, houses of mourning, her parents' and relatives' houses, and to do charitable works. Maimonides emphasizes that every woman has the right to come and go freely, because a wife should not be treated like a prisoner.

At the same time, he feels that men should discourage their wives from leaving the house too frequently, because it is a disreputable practice for women to go out constantly, an attitude reflective of the practice in the larger, non-Jewish society in which Maimonides lived. This ruling suggests that Maimonides viewed women as persons in the eyes of the law, with certain inalienable rights, but also with a restricted role in society. Furthermore, women are to receive moral guidance about their behavior from their husbands, rather than through the study of the law.

A Woman's Happiness Was Valued

There is a great deal of information available about the Jewish community in Egypt from the 10th century on, which survived in the Cairo Geniza, a storeroom for papers that the members of the community used to dispose of religious texts and other documents written in Hebrew characters. There are many marriage and betrothal contracts, which show that families spent a great deal of money in outfitting their daughters for marriage.

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Alexandra Rothstein has an A.B. summa cum laude in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Jewish Studies. She is currently a PhD student in Rabbinic Literature and Islamic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.