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Overview: Women, Gender, and Learning

While Jewish learning was the domain of a few educated men, women too had their part, limited as it might have been. Most works for “women and unlearned men” were penned by men, and there are few early modern texts by women – among them memoirs, letters, and prayers, or tkhines.

Perhaps one of the most famous Jewish women in the early modern period was Glueckel of Hameln (1646-1724), an affluent seventeenth-century Jewish woman in German lands. Her memoirs, written in Yiddish, provide a window into family life and trials and tribulations of a wealthy Jewish family from a woman’s perspective. Her memoirs give us snapshots of business affairs of the time, Jewish responses to Sabbateanism (see below), the forging of family networks, and women’s roles. They also reflect an extensive if unsystematic knowledge of traditional Jewish lore.

The letters of Bella bat Jacob Perlhefter (born c. 1650), preserved by the Christian Hebraist Johann Wagenseil, provide insight into the life of another seventeenth-century Jewish woman. Bella Perlhefter came from a prominent Viennese Jewish family and appears to have received an excellent education, which included Hebrew instruction (indeed, some of her letters were written in Hebrew). After the expulsion of the Jews from Vienna in 1670, her family resettled in Prague. Bella’s husband, Ber Eibeschuetz, took her family name after their marriage and moved to the small community of Schnaittach near Altdort; there Bella occupied herself with music instruction and business. Bella Perlhefter’s letters are evidence of level of education some Jewish women received. They also provide insight into family connections in early modern Europe, and into the live of Jews in a rural area in the German lands.

In eastern Europe, although there were prominent Jewish women entrepreneurs, there is little evidence of women’s writing in the early modern period. The most prominent female authors was an eighteenth-century author of women’s prayers, or tkhines, Sarah bas Tovim. Little is known about her. Her tkhines suggest that she had a fairly good education, as they draw on a number of Hebrew sources. As the tkhine below suggests, Sarah’s prayers reflect both women’s spirituality and their acceptance of the gendered social values of the time, according to which it was the woman’s job to provide for the family and a man’s job to study the Torah-

O dear women and maids, if you read this tkhine, your heart will rejoice. They are taken out of holy books. By their merit, you will be worthy to enter the Land of Israel. Also I have put down a lovely new tkhine that should be said on Mondays and Thursdays and fast days and on the Days of Awe. Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain [Prov.30-31]. Beauty is nothing, only righteous deeds are good. The wisest of women builds her house [Prov. 14-1]. The important thing is that the woman should run the house so that one can study Torah therein, and that she should guide her children in the straight path to God’s service.

I, poor woman, have been scattered and dispersed, I have no rest. My heart has moaned within me. I recalled from whence I come and whither I shall go. And whether I shall be taken. A great fear came over me, and I begged the living God, blessed be He, with copious tears, that the tkhine might come out of me.

I, the renowned woman Sara bas Tovim, of distinguished ancestry…

In her other prayers she called on women to be charitable and admonished them (including herself) for such sins as talking during the Torah reading in synagogue, taking pride in being wealthy, and paying undue attention to clothing and jewelry.

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