Portraits of Rabbinic Women

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by Faigy Grunfeld

Many rebbetzins of the past were dynamic, Jewishly knowledgeable women who were invaluable partners to their rabbinic husbands.

Article in Jewish Action magazine:

Rebbetzin. A relatively modern word but a fairly ancient role. Sometimes she earned an officious title, like fourteenth-century Ceti of Saragossa who is referred to as “Rabess of the female Jews” in Spanish documents; sometimes she had little recognition and no independent title, and was simply known as “the rabbi’s wife.” The term rebbetzin emerged in the Early Modern Period in Central and Eastern Europe, [1]Encyclopaedia Judaica, ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, vol. 17, 2nd ed. (Detroit, 2007), 136. although rabbinic women assumed communal roles prior to this period. While her title and status have changed with the times, throughout the millennia, the “rebbetzin,” has always bridged the spiritual and physical needs of the community, nourishing body and soul with her vital touch.

The Firzoggens, Spiritual Leaders: 1200s-1800s Ashkenazic Europe
The precursor to the Eastern European rebbetzin was the firzoggen or the zugerke, the female prayer leader. This may come as a surprise for those who perceive the historical Jewish woman’s spiritual connection as very internal and individual, but for medieval and early modern society, Jewish women had a rich communal life. Comments made by various Rishonim, as well as references from documents and gravestones, indicate that by the sixteenth century, just about every shul had female participation, and not just on Shabbat. Thus the shul was the hub for many women, and the firzoggen its nucleus.

The rabbinic women in the community often assumed this position, for it required Hebrew literacy, which was rare among women over the centuries. The role included standing near the sanctuary so she could follow the men praying, and then repeating the tefillot aloud for the women to follow.

Continued in Jewish Action: link


1Encyclopaedia Judaica, ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, vol. 17, 2nd ed. (Detroit, 2007), 136.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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