Women in Early Judaism

During the Second Temple period in ancient Israel, women were able to actively participate within the larger society, both socially and religiously. Women served as leaders of synagogues, participated in ritual services, learned and taught Jewish law, were counted in a minyan, and from archaeological evidence, do not seem to have been physically separated from men during prayer. There was active participation of women in all facets of Jewish ritual life. According to Shmuel Safrai:

In the Second Temple period women were religiously the equals of men: ancient Jewish sources from the land of Israel and from the Diaspora show that women frequented the synagogue and studied in the beit midrash (study hall). Women could be members of the quorum of ten needed to say the “Eighteen Benedictions”…and like men, women were permitted to say “Amen” in response to the priestly blessing.[1]

Archaeological evidence supports that women were not necessarily separated from the men in the synagogue. This is the result of no apparent evidence from any of the numerous synagogues that have been excavated that would seem to indicate men and women were required to sit separately. Archaeologist Zeev Weiss, of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has noted:

By now it is widely accepted among scholars that synagogues from the early centuries of the Common Era did not have a separate women’s section. This might surprise people whose knowledge of Jewish synagogues derives from contemporary Orthodox or pre-Second World War European examples.[2]

This scholarly assumption is supported by Safrai, who comments, “Rabbinic sources mention various functions for synagogue balconies and upper rooms, but there is never a connection made between these structures and women.”[3] The first reference to a mechitza is connected to Abaye (4th Cent. CE) in the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 81a). In many opinions, it is unrelated to the synagogue.[4] As a result of recent scholarly insight into this arena, any kind of inference of women’s inferiority based on supposed separation during prayer is not supported by archaeological or textual evidence.

Inscriptions discovered in ancient synagogues from the early centuries also testify to women having served in various leadership capacities throughout the Jewish world. These inscriptions include heads of synagogues (αρχισυναγωγος), leaders (αρχηγισσα), and elders (πρεσβυτερα and other parallels).[5] These inscriptions (in feminine conjugations) bear witness to the very public roles of women. Thus further proving that women were indeed active members within their spiritual communities.

This positive outlook toward women is found both within the standard canonical scriptures, as well as extra-biblical writings. Although women’s roles later became more traditionally subservient to men, with very little ability to fully participate, this was not always the case. There was indeed a time when women actively participated in religious life.

[1] Shmuel Safrai, “Were Women Segregated in the Ancient Synagogue.” Jerusalem Perspective, July-Sept. 1997, 34.

[2] Zeev Weiss, “The Sepphoris Synagogue Mosaic.” Biblical Archaeological Review (Sept./Oct. 2000), 51.

[3] Ibid. Safrai, 32.

[4] Ibid. Safrai, 29.

[5] Kay Silberling, “Position Paper Regarding Leadership/Ordination of Women.” Presented to the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues, October 15, 1993., 69.

About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Simchat Yisrael Messianic Synagogue in West Haven, CT, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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7 Responses to Women in Early Judaism

  1. Gene Shlomovich says:

    "Women served as leaders of synagogues, participated in ritual services, learned and taught Jewish law, were counted in a minyan, and from archaeological evidence, do not seem to have been physically separated from men during prayer. There was active participation of women in all facets of Jewish ritual life."My, this sounds strange… and smells of revisionism. Jewish Encyclopedia says this of Women's Court in Herod's Temple:"The eastern part of this court was separated from the western, and formed the court of the women. Women might pass beyond the court of the Gentiles into this court alone. The Temple proper (The Court of the Israelites) might be entered by men only."

  2. Gene Shlomovich says:

    I would like to quote the daughter of Shmuel Safrai, an outspoken feminist Chana Safrai describing her father:"Behind every feminist of my generation is a feminist father."http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-34569822_ITMSure sounds like a person with an agenda, not a historian.

  3. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Gene-Thank you for your comments. In response, however:1) The quote by Safrai is specifically in reference to synagogues of the Second Temple period. Your quote from the Jewish Encyclopedia is in reference to the Temple. Two different scenerios. In the Temple women were not permitted past the Court of Women. However, Safrai (and many other scholars) note that this does not seem to be the case in synagogues. That at least textually and archaeologically, there seems to be no support for the separation of genders, or prohibitions on leadership within the synagogue. The Temple, of course, is entirely different.2) You can say what you like of Safrai being a feminist, etc. However, for many years he was a distinguished professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (and Israel in general has much more of a tendency toward conservativism in regard to religious roles of women). He would not be able to make his claims for womens' roles in Early Judaism if he could not back them up against much more knowledgable critics.

  4. Gene Shlomovich says:

    Joshua, on the second thought, I think it's unfair to completely rule out what you and Safrai advocate – there may very well have been Hellenized (the "Reform" or liberal streams of the day) synagogues during that period (especially considering that the inscriptions are in Greek) – especially outside Eretz Israel in the Greek Diaspora. Since history repeats itself, I suppose one should not be surprised.

  5. derek4messiah.wordpress.com says:

    Josh:Interesting stuff and new to me. Does Safrai have any academic counterpoints saying otherwise? What credible arguments have been raised against his position or are you saying the literature is unanimous on this point? I'd love to hear more, maybe a follow-up. Thanks for taking time to research something interesting and useful.Derek Leman

  6. Pingback: Women in First Century Synagogues

  7. Pingback: Women in First Century Judaism | Participatory Bible Study Blog

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