Voices of the Past: Early Orthodox Female Writers

by | in History
Cover of Gluckel of Hameln’s diary, published in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1896. Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute

Cover of Gluckel of Hameln’s diary, published in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1896. Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute

By Faigy Grunfeld

Orthodox female writers.

A rarity.

But over the centuries, the few religious women who dared to put their thoughts on paper and expose them to the public ended up bolstering women in a new way, creating a network of sisterly support that only one woman can give to another. What kinds of works did women produce for their fellow women, and how were these writings received?

RIVKAH BAT MEIR TIKTINER
(sixteenth century)
Authored: Meneket Rivkah
“I found a well . . . and drank from it, but was still thirsty. I said in my heart, then I will go there and bring to my neighbors, both men and women, enough to drink throughout their entire lives” (Rivkah bat Meir Tiktiner, Meneket Rivkah, introduction, pp. 80-81).

Rivkah bat Meir Tiktiner, the author of Meneket Rivkah, far exceeded her responsibility as a firzogerin, a prayer leader who would help the many illiterate shul-going women articulate and understand the tefillot. Learned and pious, she preached and spoke before female groups, and was the first woman to author a work of Yiddish for the female community, although it was printed posthumously. Little is known about her life, but it appears that she was married and did not seem to have children (a reality which propelled certain unique women to expand their accepted roles and become activists). She died and was buried in Prague in the year 1605.

Meneket Rivkah focuses on the ideal lifestyle for a pious woman. The book starts out with practical advice on health and nutrition, moves on to provide instructions about family purity, kashrut and modesty, and then focuses on a woman’s many relationships. Her advice on motherhood spans from the practical to the spiritual, such as, “Listen new mothers, children are as fragile as the shell of the egg and can be easily harmed” to “Give your child gifts to bring to his father, so he should learn to honor him.” She also provides tips on disciplining and empowering sons to devote themselves to study (Meneket Rivkah, introduction, pp. 150-170). She urges women to respect and aid their husbands, and to remember that “an upright woman crowns her husband with her good deeds” (ibid, p. 131). The book also includes tidbits on how to honor parents and in-laws, interact with a daughter-in-law and treat servants. With her broad knowledge of Tanach, Talmud, Midrash and works of various Rishonim, Rivkah produced a work of stunning proportions.

womenwrite5How was her work received? The words of her publisher say it all. “Who has ever heard or seen such a novelty? Has it ever happened in countless years, that a woman has written something of her own accord? . . . It shows that a woman can also write words of ethical instruction and good Biblical interpretation as well as many men” (Meneket Rivkah, publisher’s preface, p. 80). The publisher expounds on why he found this book worthy of publication. “Her intentions were focused exclusively on fear of God day and night, and her thoughts were by no means of grandeur . . . . She has read numerous verses and midrashim . . . She was brief and did not lengthen her words” (ibid, pp. 79-80).

Interestingly, her work seems to have been read in the Christian world as well, as a number of Christian authors reference Meneket Rivkah and write admiringly about the fact that a woman could produce such a work.

What makes Meneket Rivkah unique for its period? Its novel outlook on women as intuitive, industrious and innately capable of making the right choices for their families. Unlike its sixteenth-century equivalents, Brant Shpigl and Sefer Middot, which focus on female weaknesses and inadequacies, Meneket Rivkah inspires women to draw on their natural talents and abilities and actualize themselves in their roles as wives and mothers. 

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Bertha Pappenheim dressed as her ancestor Gluckel of Hameln for this portrait. Bertha translated Gluckel’s diaries from Old Yiddish into German. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

GLUCKEL OF HAMELN
(seventeenth century)
Authored: Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln
“I begin this book the year of Creation 5451 (1690) . . . I begin writing it, dear children, upon the death of your good father, in the hopes of distracting my soul from the burdens laid upon it, and the bitter thought that we have lost our faithful shepherd ” (Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, p. 1).

Gluckel was born in Hamburg to a wealthy merchant family. When she was twelve, her parents betrothed her to Chaim Hamel, and by the age of fourteen, the pair were married. Gluckel then went on to give birth to fourteen children, two of whom died in childhood, all the while acting as Chaim’s partner and consultant in business. Chaim bought and sold different precious jewels, and occasionally acted as a moneylender, while his wife managed much of the grunt work—interviewing clients, drawing up contracts, bookkeeping, and so on. All the while, she gave birth, raised and educated her children, sought out fitting matches for them and housed them for a period of time after their marriages. She was a Mother of all Super Moms.

Chaim’s death in 1689 was the most devastating event in Gluckel’s life, and also the catalyst that propelled her to pick up her pen and write her memoir. The couple’s marriage was characterized by solidity and comradery, attested to by Chaim’s last words when asked if he had any final wishes. “My wife, she knows everything. She shall do as she has always done” (ibid, p. 151). Despite the harsh reality of having to care for eight unmarried children and to deal with tremendous financial responsibilities, Gluckel did continue doing what she had always done, but this time, on her own. She searched for suitable shidduchim for her children, opened a sock factory, traveled to city fairs, and supported her children. She did remarry once all her children were settled, but this marriage was like the moon is to the sun, a shadow, a mere reflection, of the light of happiness she experienced with Chaim. In her words, “I truly believe I shall never cease mourning my dear friend” (ibid, p. 152).

Gluckel began writing her memoir two years after her husband’s death, for it “shortened the sleepless hours” (ibid, p. 1). In it, she explains her motives. “This, dear children, will be no book of morals. Such I could not write, and our sages have written many” (ibid, p. 1). Ironically, she then proceeds to moralize for a few pages, stressing the importance of belief in God, honesty in business and dedication to learning. However, her motivation was to pass the weary hours and relate the events of her life.

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The memoir is divided into various sections. The first book deals with her childhood and lineage. In it she describes how her father “gave his children, girls and boys, a secular as well as religious education” (ibid, p. 6), which must have made Gluckel unique amongst her contemporaries (although this education did not include literacy in Hebrew). The second book focuses on her life as a new wife and mother. In it she recounts many anecdotes, such as how she and her mother gave birth at the same time, and shared the same room while resting. At one point, they even mixed up their babies!

Books Three and Four focus on many details about the business. Book Five describes Chaim’s illness and death, while Books Six and Seven were written over a decade later, after the death of her second husband.

In an age before autobiographies, Gluckel assumed her work would serve as a link to the past for her children. She did not expect her writing to be published. However, little snippets from her memoir seem to suggest she was eyeing a larger readership. Perhaps she hoped, or imagined, that her autobiography could touch many rather than just a few. And so it did, but only 200 years later.

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Her son and grandson recopied her memoir, until a scholar, David Kaufmann, chose to publish it in 1896. Originally in Yiddish, it was translated into German, and eventually into English, acquiring a vast readership along the way.

Gluckel’s work is magnificent in its emotional depth, its spiritual richness and its human expression. Unlike most works from this era, which tend to have a strong academic or religious agenda, this memoir is simply a woman’s story. It offers insights and advice, snapshots of daily life, including heartrending moments of despair and pain as well as uplifting times of acceptance and fulfillment. And ultimately, it reflects real life, interwoven with humor and irony, with an underlying tone of sheer glee at the courageous and joyous act of writing.

THE WOMEN’S WORLD OF TECHINES
(seventeenth-nineteenth centuries)

Title page of a handwritten techine by Aharon Ber Segal in 1809. Under the title it reads, “Written for the modest, prominent woman Esterel, the wife of Yoel Segal.” Courtesy of Winner’s Auctions and Exhibitions, Jerusalem

Title page of a handwritten techine by Aharon Ber Segal in 1809. Under the title it reads, “Written for the modest, prominent woman Esterel, the wife of Yoel Segal.” Courtesy of Winner’s Auctions and Exhibitions, Jerusalem

We spread out our hands to our merciful Father in Heaven
Cause us to return as in days of yore,
For the endurance of the tender young kid is failing
As in the noon-day heat.1

With the rise of kabbalistic teachings in Tzefat (sixteenth century), a greater emphasis was placed on prayer and spirituality as the mediums to the messiah. Women were expected to participate in this messianic revolution through prayer and supplication to the Redeemer, hence the emergence of techines (a Yiddish word, derived from the Hebrew word techinot, “supplications”). These tefillot were written in Yiddish, and dealt with women’s issues, such as “A Techine for When One’s Husband Is Traveling” or “Techine for a Pregnant Woman.” However, these were originally written by male writers, and did not quite get to the essence of what a woman’s personal, heartfelt supplication would sound like. Furthermore, these techines focused primarily on the technical and practical aspects of a woman’s life, neglecting the spiritual realm. This void inspired a handful of learned women to compose their own techines, which touched on the esoteric spheres beyond childbirth and making challah, focusing on a woman’s inherent spirituality and ability to connect to her Maker in ways that had long been considered reserved for men.

The first female-written techine was published around 1600, and was called Eyn gor sheyne techine (A Very Beautiful Techine). This anonymous techine was published with the following disclaimer: “This was for a long time kept secret among a pious group of women. They let it remain among themselves, and let no one copy it. Now they have rethought the matter.”2 Perhaps the female need for spiritual connection inspired these writers to abandon their reservations and publish their work. This prayer focuses on many of the Jewish women of Tanach, and explains how they intercede with the Creator on their living daughters’ behalf.

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Sarah bat Tovim composed Techine Shloshe She’orim (Techine of the Three Gates), and Sarah Rivkah Rochel Leah Horowitz wrote Techine Imahot (Techine of the Matriarchs), both of which touch on the authoresses’ visions of a world where women pray and learn like their male counterparts. Leah Horowitz is an enigmatic figure from a scholarly rabbinic lineage. Sources document her sharp tongue and her ready retorts when men showed surprise at her tremendous scope of Talmudic knowledge (she is also recorded as having instructed her brother’s students while he was napping, clarifying any questions they had), yet at the same time, she seems ambivalent as to whether the majority of women should engage in such study. Of one thing she is certain: a woman has a significant role to play in religious life.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy about Techine Imahot is its magnificent, two-page introduction, written in Hebrew, which meant that women could not read it, and men most likely did not want to read it. In later editions of this techine, the publisher simply omitted the introduction. In it, Leah argues for a greater focus on female prayer and spirituality.

Title page of a handwritten techine from Trieste, Italy. Courtesy of The Israel Museum

Title page of a handwritten techine from Trieste, Italy. Courtesy of The Israel Museum

There are many beautiful female-written techines that were discovered and printed by others, because modesty and societal norms prevented women from taking the steps to publish their work themselves. Here are a few introductions from various techines that illustrate the point. “The righteous woman who thought this up, because of her natural piety, did not mention her name” and “this was found in the techine pouch left by the righteous rabbi’s wife, Mistress Rachel Hinde.”3

While female writers became increasingly prevalent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many chose to use pen names, leave their work unsigned or refrain from publishing their work altogether. However, perhaps the greatest barrier to female writing was the issue of literacy.

The question of educating women was a centuries-long contentious waltz, a dance between “teaching daughters Torah is like teaching them obscenity” and “how can Jewish daughters not be knowledgeable in Torah?” Ultimately, women from learned families were learned themselves, and invariably, learning will not stay quiet. Coupled with a driven soul, the learning will pour forth, dashing all those near it with its cooling powers. Women of strength, with a pen to write, a mind to inquire, and a soul to persevere, circumvented communal norms, reaching out to their silent sisters, singing a song in a feminine voice that had never before been heard.

Notes
1. Shirley Kaufman ed., Galit Hasan-Rokem ed., Tamar Hess ed., Hebrew Feminist Poems from Antiquity to the Present (New York, 1999), 71.
2. Quoted in Emily Taitz, Sondra Henry and Cheryl Tallan, JPS Guide to Jewish Women: 600 BCE-1900 CE (Philadelphia, 2003), 161.
3. Quoted in Chava Weissler, “Prayer in Yiddish and the Religious World of Ashkenazic Women,” in Judith R. Baskin, Jewish Women in Historical Perspective (Detroit, 1991), 169.

Faigy Grunfeld is a teacher of English and history. She lives in Detroit, Michigan.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2016.