Rufina and Her Sisters

Jewish women in the Diaspora.

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From the 3rd century B.C.E on, the majority of Jews lived outside ancient Judea. Major cities such as Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, and Rome itself all had large thriving Jewish communities at one time or another, while inscriptional evidence for Jewish communities has been found throughout virtually the entire Roman Empire. The following article recounts the experiences of Jewish women living in the ancient Diaspora. Reprinted from Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, edited by Judith Baskin, 1991, with permission of the Wayne State University Press.

In the second century C.E., in the city of Smyrna on the western coast of Asia Minor, a Jewish woman named Rufina commissioned the following Greek inscription on a marble slab: "Rufina, a Jewess, head of the synagogue, built this tomb for her freed slaves and the slaves raised in her household. No one else has the right to bury anyone [here]. Anyone who dares to do [so] will pay 1500 denaria to the sacred treasury and 1000 denaria to the Jewish people. A copy of this inscription has been placed in the [public] archives." 

Rufina's inscription seems surprising for many reasons: Rufina, who has a Latin name, commissions an inscription in Greek, calls herself "head" or "president" of the synagogue, acts both autonomously and publicly without any reference to a father, husband, son, or male guardian; oversees her household of slaves and former slaves; and lives in sufficient social proximity to the non-Jewish community to prescribe a double penalty for anyone audacious enough to violate the tomb. By considering each of these aspects of Rufina's inscription in detail, we may address most of the issues central to the study of Judaism and Jewish women in late antiquity […]

medieval womanEconomic Activity

To have commissioned such an inscription, Rufina of Smyrna must have been of substantial economic means. Not only were such inscriptions costly in and of themselves, the very content of the inscription reveals that Rufina owned property (the burial site) and slaves and was the head of a household. Regrettably, we cannot tell from this inscription how Rufina acquired her wealth, whether though inheritance or business or some combination.

How unique Rufina was in her economic status can only be considered within the context of the varied economic conditions of Jews in different communities and in different times in the Greco-Roman world. A substantial proportion of Jews in Rome may have been slaves or freedpersons, although in the ancient world financial status and social status were not always closely correlated: slaves and freedpersons could and did control substantial resources. The cumulative evidence from pagan writers, Christian sources, and the Jewish catacombs themselves, with their inscriptions, suggests that while some Jews in Rome had substantial wealth and perhaps social position, the majority did not.

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Ross S. Kraemer

Ross Kraemer is a Professor of Religious and Judaic Studies at Brown University.