in Jewish women in europe in the middle ages


The Jewish society that lived amongst the Christian population in medieval Europe presents a puzzle and a challenge to any historian. How did this group of people survive the various crises of the Middle Ages? How did it relate to and cope with the majority population that held opposing beliefs and was generally hostile to it? How did it forge its own internal social character?

The historian studying the social characteristics of this society and the internal relationships and forces working within it immediately notices that matters relating to women constitute a central and critical component in the written sources of this community. Matters such as the place of women in the family, their economic status, their religious status and, of course, the tension between the theoretical religious framework and social realities are dominant themes in these sources. I had been exposed for the first time to the complexities of researching Jewish society in the course of working on my own master’s thesis under the tutelage of Maurice Kriegel, in which I gained a deep familiarity with the work of Jacob Katz and in particular with the chapters dealing with the family and family ties in his book Tradition and Crisis. For the first time I saw a comprehensive system of research integrating the sources into a clear and coherent methodological entity. This study had its beginnings there, from a desire to throw light on this subject by an inclusive examination of the Jewish community with all its various components.1

The subject of this study is the relationship between men and women within the Jewish society that lived among the Christian population for a period of some 350 years. The study concentrates on Germany, northern France and England from the middle of the tenth century – from the time when we have enough Hebrew sources to enable us to undertake a social analysis of the Jewish communities – until the middle of the second half of the fourteenth century – by which time the Christian population has had enough of the Jewish communities living among them and expels them from almost all the places they were living in.

The innovators of research in Judaic studies in the middle of the nineteenth century had delved a great deal already, then, into the subject of the Jewish family, and the development of Jewish law that relates to the family from different aspects. They discovered manuscripts, set up research methods and even drew up, in general terms, the limits of the research, but it was only towards the end of the twentieth century that the essential step was taken to give this research the central place that is its due.2 From 1999 to 2003 I organized three conferences at Tel Aviv University that discussed the question of women and society in the Middle Ages and which examined from an interdisciplinary viewpoint the complex, multifaceted aspects of the subject. Those who participated in these conferences came from the fields of Jewish history and general history, art and literature. At that time I met Dr Patricia Skinner at the International Medieval Conference in Leeds and the idea of writing a book on the status of the Jewish woman in the Middle Ages came into being. In 2001 Avraham Grossman’s monumental book was published in Hebrew and did much to advance the state of research in these areas.3 A year later Bitkha Har-Shefi’s doctoral thesis was published and proved to be a pioneering research work on questions related to the status of the woman within the world of the mitzvot (commandments).4 In 2004 Elisheva Baumgarten’s book was published. This ground-breaking work concentrated on the functioning of Jewish women as mothers and their relationship with their children. Baumgarten extensively and innovatively used Jewish sources in her research of these subjects.5

This study, which is based on the earlier works, seeks to concentrate the discussion specifically on the social field in an attempt to understand the internal developments of the Jewish community itself. The subject of attitudes towards women and the changes in their social status constitutes an excellent case for study, since it includes the majority of factors that are examinable in the functioning of the group. Within these factors can be found the views of the leadership, economic influences, fundamental philosophies, stereotyped viewpoints, group inclinations and tendencies, internal power politics and gender struggles.

Note. The book contains a great many complex technical terms in Jewish law and culture which often defy translation. I have left them, transliterated and italicised in the body of the text, occasionally with an explanatory footnote. They are all listed, with explanations, in the Glossary of Hebrew Terms.


1 Jacob Katz, Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages, New York 1961, especially chapters 14, ‘The family’ (pp. 135–148), and 15, ‘Kinship’ (pp. 149–156).
2 See the extremely comprehensive bibliography in E. Baumgarten, Mothers and Children: Jewish Family in Medieval Europe, Princeton, NJ 2004, pp. 244–268.
3 Grossman’s book was published in two editions: the Hebrew version and the greatly abridged English version. (It is difficult to understand the decision to reduce significantly the content of the book in its English version, thereby reducing, in my opinion, the immense scholarship Grossman displays in the Hebrew version.) My references are primarily to the Hebrew version of the book, but I also refer to the English version where indicated. Avraham Grossman, ‘Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe’, the Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, Jerusalem 2001 [Hebrew], and Avraham Grossman, Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe, Brandeis University Press, Waltham, MA 2004 [English].
4 Bitkha Har-Shefi, Women and Halakha in the years 1050–1350 ce; ‘Between Law and Custom’, Ph.D thesis to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Jerusalem 2002; See also H. Sondra and E. Taitz, Written out of History: Our Jewish Foremothers, New York 1990.
5 Elisheva Baumgarten, Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe,

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