My Dear Daughter

My Dear Daughter: Rabbi Benjamin Slonik and the Education of Jewish Women in Sixteenth Century Poland

Edward Fram
Edward Fram
Agnes Romer Segal
Volume: 33
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: BLL - Bilingual edition
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    My Dear Daughter
    Book Description:

    How did Jewish women in sixteenth-century Poland learn all the rules, rituals, and customs pertaining to the sexual life of couples within the context of marriage? As in other areas of ritual life that concerned the household, it would seem that the primary source for the education of Jewish women was other women. But rabbinic law dictates that Jewish women who experience uterine bleeding are prohibited from having physical contact of any kind with their husbands, and the intricate laws of niddah (enforced separation) spell out exactly when and under what circumstances physical marital relations, even simple touching, can be resumed. Particularly difficult issues could be addressed only by rabbis or other learned men, since women rarely, if ever, attained the level of rabbinic scholarship necessary to pare the details of these complicated laws. To educate both men and women, but particularly women, in a more systematic and impersonal manner, the young rabbi Benjamin Slonik (ca. 1550-after 1620), who later became one of the leading rabbinic authorities in eastern Europe, harnessed the relatively new technology of printing and published a how-to book for women in the Yiddish vernacular. Seder mitzvot hanashim (The Order of Women’s Commandments) illuminates the history of Yiddish printing and public education. But it is also a rare remnant of a direct interface between a member of the rabbinic elite and the laity, especially women. Slonik’s text also sheds light on the history of Jewish law, particularly the reception of the Shulhan Arukh, an important legal code that had just been published. This volume makes available the 1585 edition of the Seder mitzvot hanashim in Yiddish and English. Fram sets Slonik’s work in its bibliographical and historical contexts, demonstrating its relationship with the Shulhan Arukh, exploring how rabbis opposed formal education for women, considering how upheavals accompanying geographic shifts in the Ashkenazic community help explain how the women’s commandments texts came to be used in Poland, and offering a treasure trove of information on the place and roles of women in Polish-Jewish society. Fram thus creates a composite picture of how Slonik, along with other men of his time, perceived the main audience for his work and sought to connect it to contemporary texts.

    eISBN: 978-0-87820-098-6
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations and Rules of Transliteration
    (pp. xi-xi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xii-xx)

    Jewish life in late sixteenth-century Poland was very much a continuation of medieval German (Ashkenazic) Jewish culture in that it was characterized by the observance of religious law, rituals, and customs. Celebrating the Sabbath and Jewish festivals, preparing and eating kosher food, circumcising male children, and a host of other practices were simply what Jews did—and Christians did not. Contemporary eastern European Jewry knew no other way of being Jewish. This is not to say that all Jews complied with each and every detail of the law. Rabbis might have been pleased if they did, but had this been...

  6. Part One: Context
    • 1 The Bibliographic Context
      (pp. 3-21)

      Legal handbooks, that is guidebooks or manuals that offer readers easily understandable, practical information, were not a development of the sixteenth century or unique to Jewish society.¹ Already in the geonic period, it would appear that handbooks in Judeo-Arabic (Arabic written in Hebrew characters with Hebrew and Aramaic loan words) were written by the likes of Rabbis Sa‘adyah Gaon (d. 942 and Samuel ben Ḥofni (d. 1084).² Handbooks of canon law. such as Burchard of Worms’sCollectarium canonum(first quarter eleventh century and later John Gratian’sDecretum(ca. 1140), were important in the training and daily lives of priests in...

    • 2 The Shifting Center of Ashkenazic Jewry
      (pp. 22-36)

      As we have seen, the Ashkenazic rabbinic leadership of the fifteenth century strongly objected to making the law accessible to women through vernacular translation. The availability of new technology, however, taught rabbis that the printed word could be an important tool in public education, a tool they soon learned to use. Yet new technology was not the only factor that contributed to a change in attitude toward teaching women the laws ofniddah. By the time the first “women’s commandments” book was published in 1535, the Jewish community in the German lands was largely scattered and depleted as Jews either...

    • 3 Glimpses into the Lives of the Main Audience (mainly through the eyes of men)
      (pp. 37-84)

      The separation of men and women that characterized most daily activities in late sixteenth-century Polish Jewish society was very much based on religious tradition. For centuries Jewish law had obligated men to observe almost every one of its religious precepts applicable in the post-Temple age and study all facets of the Torah. By contrast, Jewish women were prohibited from broad study, excluded from most positions of communal religious leadership, and excused from a relatively small number of very visible rituals such as communal prayer and wearingtefillinphylacteries; see Deut. 6.8).¹ The observance of these few rituals was so central...

  7. Part Two: Context
    • 4 Popularizing the Law
      (pp. 87-135)

      Yiddish legal texts such as Slonik’sSeder miẓvot ha-nashimwere a rarity, although not unknown, until well into the sixteenth century.¹ To be sure, manuscript versions of custumals were prepared in Yiddish in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, as were copies of the “women’s commandments” books.² But like all works in the period, as long as texts remained in manuscript, they reached an extremely limited audience. All this changed with the advent of printing, which made Yiddish texts available to more people than ever before. Nevertheless, authors still had to entice people to read these works, especially if...

    • Tables 1 and 2: Comparison of Passages from Seder miẓvot ha-nashim and Shulḥan ‘aruk
      (pp. 136-138)

      One may not place a vessel under the lamp on the Sabbath so that the oil should drip into it on the Sabbath. But on the eve of the Sabbath one may certainly place [a vessel] under it so that the oil should drip into it on the Sabbath and if oil has dripped into it then one may not touch it on the Sabbath.

      One may certainly place a vessel under the lamp on the Sabbath and on a festival so that the sparks should fall into it, however, one may not put any water into the vessel or...

    • Appendix: Textual Traditions of “Women’s Commandments” Books and Slonik’s Seder Miẓvot Ha-Nashim
      (pp. 139-150)
    • Introduction to the Yiddish Text and Translation of Seder Miẓvot Ha-Nashim
      (pp. 151-152)

      The text of theSeder miẓvot ha-nashimpresented here is based on the earliest extant complete version of Slonik’s work, the Cracow 1585 edition.¹ The only known copy of the first edition of Slonik’s book (Cracow, 1577) is incomplete, and there is nothing to suggest that subsequent editions of the text, even though published during Slonik’s lifetime, were ever presented to him for review or that he himself revised the text.

      This is not a scholarly edition with all the concomitant apparatus that is expected of such works. The emphasis has been on presenting a text that is faithful to...

    • The Order of Women’s Commandments
      (pp. 153-308)

      We shall praise God for He is worthy of praise. He rules above and below. He nourishes all creatures. It is for this reason that we wanted to write a lovely booklet for women, for the betterment of the body and the adornment of the soul unlike songs and tales. Rather, containing only God fearing things so that everyone should know what to observe and what to avoid; what she may do and what she must avoid. Also, one cannot publish enough didactic books since no one knows when his time is up. So this booklet will teach the proper...

  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 309-330)
  9. Index
    (pp. 331-340)