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The Role of Women


Apart from their role as ritual mourners at funerals, Jewish women took no part in public life and were largely confined to the domestic scene. A woman was exempt from the commandments requiring attendance at public religious ceremonies, and duties such as studying the Law or Torah, making pilgrimage to Jerusalem and reading from the Law in the synagogue.

Schools were for boys only, and women sat apart from men in the synagogue. Men did not speak to women in the streets.

In the Temple, women had access only to the Courts of the Gentiles and of Women, and during periods of uncleanness (for example, the monthly purification and for 40 days after the birth of a boy and 80 days after the birth of a girl) they were not even allowed there.

Yet a woman had her own religious obligations. She was expected to keep kosher - indeed, as the one who presided over the kitchen, it would be her particular responsibility to see that the food laws were not infringed.

She was to observe the Sabbath, to keep herself ritually clean and to perform significant domestic rituals, for religion affected not only public life but that of the home as well.

Within the household, a woman had much honor and many duties. She was responsible for grinding corn, baking and cooking. She did the washing, the spinning and the weaving, and she cared for the children. She would wait upon her husband and his guests, and was expected to obey him. In rural communities, the women helped in the fields and, among poorer classes, the wife assisted her husband in his trade and often sold his goods.

Respect for father came before respect for mother, but both were required by the commandments.

A woman was usually under male protection. Until she married, she was subject to her father; she had no rights of possession and her father acquired the proceeds from anything she produced or found. A father could even cancel her vows and only he could accept or refuse an offer of marriage, which was a contract between male heads of families. If a woman reached maturity without marrying, however, she was free of her father, and even as a minor her consent to a marriage was legally required.

Betrothal signified the legal 'acquisition' of a woman by a man. The marriage contract gave her a certain legal protection from exploitation and it was her property. The marriage portion had to be given up to her in the event of divorce. In that case, the husband was also required to provide a sum agreed in the contract for her ‘maintenance.’ A woman could sue for divorce but only the husband could effect it. Marriage usually took place a year after betrothal. By today's standards the age of a girl at marriage was young, often about twelve. Her most important duty was to have sons for her husband.

In her own domain, a woman's religious and social status was high, but in the eyes of the Law she was inferior, being coupled with minors and slaves in the rabbinical writings of the Mishnah. Her ineligibility to perform in public religious life is reflected in the ancient synagogue prayer: 'Blessed art thou, O Lord God, king of the universe, who hast not made me a woman.'

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