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Women’s compositions in Jewish liturgy

Author: Rav Duvdevani of Bet Shemesh, Kislev 5765/Nov 2004

In this talk, Rav Duvdevani introduced a number of prayers, mainly hymns and lamentations, written by women over the centuries. The prayers come from and were recited in religious services of different national traditions.

It is accepted that the three forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob instituted the three daily services. Did women have a role? It is thought that women were responsible for the additional service on Rosh Chodesh (New Month). An indication of this is in the text of the Rosh Chodesh Amida prayer: Roshei Chodashim le amecha natati, ‘the beginning of months I assigned to your people’, where the initial letters of the first three words spell RaCheL, one of the four ‘mothers’ of the people. Rosh Chodesh is a special liturgical entity and has traditionally been associated with women.

Women’s prayers figure prominently in the Bible and in apocryphal texts: We know of the prayers of Hannah, Deborah, Judith, Esther and one attributed to the wife of Job. We now have manuscripts and texts from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century of prayers and prayer services and these include compositions by women. Many are lamentations on the destruction of the Temple, the kinot of the fast of the 9th of Av. Mourning was seen as a women’s role.

One such Lamentation, kina, was part of a prayer service of the Rome tradition, possibly composed by the daughter of the well known twelfth century writer, Rabbi Yehuda haLevi. It is written in rhyming quatrains and, as was usual, her name is written as an acrostic (Bat LeVI); in the last quatrain, where the acrostic CHaZaK (be strong) is usually found, we have CHaZeKI, the female form. Her Lamentation was recited in the community; so was another prayer, composed before the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain at the end of the fifteenth Century, by the wife of the Rabbi of Gerona, - again, her name, MaRZeNa, figures as an acrostic.

Scholars have found Manuscript texts of such compositions from a number of countries: from the Kurdish community in Mosul comes a composition by a highly learned woman who also wrote a commentary on the Book of Proverbs and who was able to take over a Yeshiva when its principal, her husband, died. Another comes from a fifteenth century Yemenite community, a prayer recited before the morning service. Yet another, a prayer for mercy, comes from a seventeenth century Moroccan community; it was probably recited on Rosh HaShana or Yom Kippur

An example of a cheerful composition is also extant. This was the ‘Simchas Torah Lied’ written by a Polish woman in the eighteenth century, in Yiddish. In this connection, we learn that that song may have been sung as part of a special traditional women’s activity that was kept until the first World War: The women of the Chevra Kadisha, the Burial Society, would be called to the Synagogue on the eve of Simchat Torah; they would take out the Torah Scrolls of the Synagogue and dress them with all the Torah ornaments in readiness for the festivities (Alfred Furst, Minhagei Kehilat Eisenstadt).

The picture that emerges confirms that religious services included contributions by women. Opinions differ as to the women’s knowledge. Some saw the women as ignorant. Clearly, some were learned. We know of one eighteenth century woman whose occupation was to copy Jewish texts (letter in the Cairo Geniza). In some places, the Jewish life of the community relied on its women. Rav Duvdevani pointed out that, in many places, the men were away for much of the year; indeed some would come home only three times a year. These prayers by women, dating from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries, give us a glimpse of the inspiration and role of women in Jewish liturgy.