Rufina and Her Sisters

Jewish women in the Diaspora.

Print this page Print this page

The papyri, however, are replete with instances of women, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who could not write and therefore needed literate persons to sign documents on their behalf. This function was frequently met by a male relative acting as guardian, or kyrios. The phrase, "so-and-so wrote for her, because she is illiterate" is found on many papyri; it is also found often for men, most of whom were similarly illiterate.

Religious Lives

One of the most compelling and significant features of Rufina's inscription is her designation as an archisynagogos, the head or president of a synagogue. Rufina is not unique in this regard. At least two other women heads of synagogue are known from inscriptions: Sophia of Gortyn, who was head of a synagogue at Kissamos on Crete, probably in the fourth or fifth century C.E., and Theopempte of Myndos in Caria, Asia Minor in the same period. Women are also attested as members of the councils of elders in Crete, in Thrace, on the island of Malta, in North Africa, and in Venosa, Italy and as "mothers of the synagogue" in Rome, Venetia, and Venosa, all in Italy.

Epitaphs and inscriptions commemorating financial contributions to synagogues confirm that women played a significant role not only in the governance of synagogue throughout the ancient Diaspora but also in maintaining the financial health of their communities.

Literary sources ranging from rabbinic texts to the New Testament and other early Christian writings make it clear that Jewish women routinely attended synagogue services. This evidence received vivid confirmation from an inscription found at Kymne in Western Asia Minor: "Taiton, daughter of Straton, son of Empedon, having erected the assembly hall and the enclosure of the open courtyard with her own funds, gave them as a gift to the Jews. The synagogue honored Tation, daughter of Straton, son o Empedon, with a golden crown and the privilege of sitting in the seat of honor."

That Tation sits in the seat of honor may surprise those who assume, as have many scholars in the past, that men and women were separated in the synagogue, as is the case in contemporary orthodox Jewish practice. However [scholar] Bernadette Brooten's exhaustive survey of archeological, literary, and epigraphical evidence reveals that there is currently no evidence from antiquity that women were routinely separated from men in synagogue worship nor that women sat in upstairs galleries or adjacent rooms.

Ross Kraemer is a Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University. Judith Baskin is the Director of the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies and a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon.  Reprinted from Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, edited by Judith Baskin, 1991, with permission of the Wayne State University Press. c. 1991 by Wayne State University Press.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Ross S. Kraemer

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