Jewish Women in Medieval Christendom

Marriage, money, and religious education.

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Big Dowries, High Standing

Daughters were given large portions of their parent’s property as dowries; and the size of the dowry could also enhance the social standing of the bride’s relations. Since the capital with which a young couple started life had its origin mainly in the bride’s portion, parents demanded strong guarantees in the marriage contract that the bride would be treated with respect, that her marriage would have some permanence, and that she would have financial security. Thus, the high level of dowries could assure a wife a prominent position in her household….

Monogamy and Stable Businesses

In recognition of this social reality, as well as under the influence of the prevailing mores of the Christian environment, Rabbi Gershom ben Judah (c.960-1028), the first great rabbinic authority of Ashkenazic Jewry, is credited with the ruling that polygamy (already rare in this Jewish community, although still legally permitted) was forbidden and more significantly, in opposition to rabbinic law and practice, that no woman could be divorced against her will.

Familiarity with money led many women to take the initiative in business matters, and often they supplied a part of or even the whole of the family income, sometimes allowing their husbands to devote themselves to study. During their husbands’ absences on business, women ran the families' affairs….Women engaged in all kinds of commercial operations and occupations, but moneylending was especially preferred.

Widows would frequently continue their financial activities, occasionally in partnership with another woman. Such undertakings, which could be extremely complex, undoubtedly required literacy and training in mathematics and bookkeeping skills. Some women were probably involved in craft activities as well, and there are also some references in Christian sources to independent Jewish women who practiced medicine.

The level of religious education among Western European Jewry certainly included literacy in Hebrew for all men, and for a small elite, considerably more. Occasionally, these higher standards also applied to women, particularly those from families distinguished for their learning. In the early twelfth century one of the daughters of Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac (Rashi), the preeminent biblical and Talmudic commentator of the Ashkenazic Middle Ages, is known to have recorded responsa (answers to legal questions) from her father’s dictation, an undertaking requiring knowledge of rabbinic Hebrew…

The intellectual roles of learned Jewish women, however, remained ancillary to mainstream “male” Judaism, consisting either of assisting the male members of their family or providing elementary instruction and synagogue leadership to young girls and other less privileged women. To call these women’s activities ancillary of course, is not to invalidate their spiritual depth and religious meaning for the participants…

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Judith Baskin

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.