Jewish Women Through The Ages

Fact Paper 36

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved

Dona Gracia Nasi, Patroness of Ottoman Jewry. Exiled from Spain and Portugal, La Signora, as she became affectionately known by the Judaic community, managed an international financial enterprise, influenced Venetian and Ottoman affairs, saved the Jews of Ancona from the Inquisition, restored a ruined Tiberius for Jewish settlement, and established Yeshivas in that city and in Safed. A medallion portrait by Pastorino de Pasterini, 1553.

The Proto-Jewess En Hedu'Anna, Priestess, Poet, Scientist

It is written that Abraham was born in Shinar in the city of Ur. The Biblical Shinar was ancient Akkadia. It later became Babylonia, and it is now Iraq.

Akkadia was founded by Sargon I when he conquered Sumeria. Sargon reigned from 2334 to 2279 BCE, and during those fifty-five years Akkadia became the world's first empire.. During his reign, the Akkadian language became the lingua franca of the region Along with the language came the Semitic culture it represented.

En Hadu'Anna

The Akkadian language derived from that spoken in Padan-Naharaim (Arameia or Aram), from which region the progenitors of Abraham arrived. In Genesis 11:2-4 we read that the sons of Shem (whose name is the eponym of "Semite"), "found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. And they said to one another 'Go to, let us make brick and burn them thoroughly,' and they had brick for stone, and slime they had for mortar. And they said, 'Go to, let us build a city and a tower, whose top may reach into heaven.'".

In Sumeria, and in the ensuing Akkadian regime, a king wielded military power, and exercised it often to expand and to sustain his reign. Secular power was relegated largely to the administration of the temple hierarchy, and the temples were often headed by a high priestess. Sargon reinforced his rule by appointing his daughter to be the en-priestess of the main temple of the moon-god Nanna in the city of Ur, where she assumed the name en Hedu'Anna ("Chief Priestess of the Ornament of Heaven"). It was a political position of consummate power and prestige. "Sargon set a precedent combining royal and priestly roles for royal princesses which was going to last for at least 500 years."1

Temples were then not merely places of worship, albeit rendering obeisance to the divinities was their main focus. The Babylonian priests and priestesses "directed every essential activity of life, including trade, farming and crafts." They also functioned as "a network of observatories to monitor the movement of the stars." The temples were learning centers where mathematical studies were pursued, and where historical, scientific, and literary works were recorded and stored. Sargon's daughter was not the first priestess to employ the temple observatories to record the movements of heavenly bodies. She is, however, the first whose signature has filtered down through four millennia "Enheduanna proved herself worthy of her father's trust." The body of literature she created is impressive. "Enheduanna's poems are a masterpiece of rhetorical structure, spirituality, political and philosophical statement, sacred testimony and metadiscourse about the author's creative process."2 Forty-two beautifully-rendered epic poems have survived, as well as other hymns and works. In one of her poems she unambiguously proclaimed:

"I am En Hedu'Anna, pure and shining high priestess of the moon God,"

In another of her poetic works she attested:

"The compiler of this tablet [is] en Hedu'Anna.

My lord, that which has been created [here] no one has created [before]"

Even en Hedu'Anna's portrait is extant on a disc that is now the proud possession of the University of Pennsylvania museum. The first explanatory column on the back of the disc identifies her as the "wife of Nanna [the moon god] and daughter of Sargon."

The sexagesimal system, developed during that seminal period of civilization, remains the way we still measure the heavens and the earth, and is still the way we register time. En Hedu'Anna waxed immodestly poetical over her scientific endeavors:

"The true woman who possesses exceeding wisdom,

She consults [employs] a tablet of lapis lazuli

She gives advice to all lands...

She measures off the heavens,

She places the measuring-cords on the earth."

In the course of her literary, astronomical and mathematical endeavors, En Hedu'Anna was instrumental in creating the lunar calendar in contemporary Judaic use.

En Hadu'Anna exemplifies the status of a class of women in proto-Judaic history that was inherent in the culture Abraham and his entourage brought to Canaan.

Literate Women of the Bible

Jezebel (I Kings 21:8) and Esther (Esther 9:29:-33) are notable among literate women who appear in the Bible. There are also oblique references to literate women such as "sons of the woman scribe." The extent of literacy of Israelite women is archaeologically demonstrated by the signatures of women on a considerable number of the extant seals of that ancient period. References in the various halakhot likewise attest to the extent to which the women of the period were able to read and write.

It is written that Huldah the prophetess, a seventh century BCE contemporary of Jeremiah, was consulted by King Josiah, the reformer. When an old scroll (thought to have been the original form of Deuteronomy) was found in the temple by Hilkiah the priest, the king ordered, "Go, consult the Lord for me, for the people, for all Judah, about the stipulations of this book that has been found...." The royal delegation took the scroll not to Jeremiah but to Huldah, who verified the authenticity of the scroll and, as a prophetess, spoke God's warnings to the king.

The most outstanding Israelite prophetess, of course, was Deborah, a respected Judge. Deborah was a poet as well, and has often been compared favorably with King David himself. Deborah gains further fame by organizing and leading a battle which ended twenty years of tyranny by the Canaanites. Deborah's song of victory in Judges 5:1-31 is considered to be one of the most ancient extant compositions of the Bible.

Matbahiah of Yeb

The Biblical island of Yeb, commonly known as Elephantine Island because of its shape like the head and trunk of an elephant, is located in the Nile near Aswan. It is close to Egypt's border with the Biblical land of Kush (then Nubia, now Sudan). It had a serviceable harbor, and was very active following the time of Joseph.

Semitic peoples, called the Aamu or "Asiatics" by the Egyptians, established a colony during the Second Intermediate Period on Yeb and on the Eastern Nile bank at Syene (now Aswan) to trade with the Nubians. Artifacts excavated on the island by members of the German and Swiss Archaeological Institutes include uniquely Canaanite earthenware, which, together with other characteristic materials, establish the ethnicity of the settlers.3

Many centuries later, a Judaic community was established on Yeb. Archaeologists retrieved hundreds of sixth century BCE Aramaic documents from the Judaic quarter of the island. One of the documents records that a temple built by the garrison had already been in existence when Cambyses invaded Egypt in 525 BCE16. The existence of a Judaic community for more than a century earlier is implied in Deuteronomy, 17:16: "Only he (i.e., the king) is not to multiply horses; nor shall he send the people back to Egypt in order to multiply horses." Donald Redford points out that "to send back to Egypt," means they had been there. "Since it is beyond doubt that the "Book of the Law" found in the Jerusalem Temple in Josiah's eighteenth year (c. 623 B.C.) was an early version of Deuteronomy, the dispatch of Judaeans to Egypt must have been royal policy at the time in question."4

Among the hundreds of Aramaic documents recovered at Yeb were commercial and real estate contracts, marriage agreements, and personal letters describing the daily secular and religious life of the community in considerable detail. One related group of these documents illustrate all these aspects of Judaic life on Yeb, and throw light on religious practices and the status of women in the community.

Among them are a number that concern the three marriages of the woman Matbahiah. It becomes apparent that a Yeb women's rights to property, inheritance, and divorce was in sharp contrast to those of women of other societies of the times. These documents provide the best secular reflection of the Judaic norms of the period regarding marriage, divorce, the position of women in the temple and other rights of women.

It appears from the records that Matbahiah's father was suspicious of promiscuous behavior on the part of his daughter (evidently with good reason). Concerned that she might divorce husbands too readily, he carefully drafted a marriage contract intended to deter her from lightly leaving the marital status, but protecting her interests and those of her children:

"On the 21st of Chisleu... Masheiah B. Yedoniah, a Jew of Yeb... said to Jezaniah B. Uriah... there is the site of one house belonging to me... Which I have given to your Matbahiah, my daughter, your wife... Now I say to you, build and equip that site and dwell on it with your wife. But you may not sell that house or give it as a present to others; only your children by my daughter Matbahiah shall have power over it after you. If... you build upon this land and then my daughter divorces you and leaves you, she shall have no power over it, in return for the work you have done..."

Ancient trade routes from Canaan into Egypt. Unlike Egypt, the Nubianshad rich resources and much to trade. Consequently Nubia was a principal destination of routes through Egypt. Yeb, at the juncture of Egypt and Nubia, was a vital trading post that hosted Semitic trading communities at several historical stages.

Matbahiah thereafter must have done very well in her investments, for other documents refer to a considerable fortune she lent to her father in the course of the next thirteen years. In partial payment of his debt to his daughter Masheiah deeded her a house he had acquired: "I give it to Matbahiah, my daughter, in return for the goods which she gave me while I was an inspector of the fortress." The social mores of ancient Judaic society are confirmed by subsequent documents concerning Matbahiah. She must have been some gal! Undeterred, she did divorce Jeremiah and married Pi', an Egyptian official in Aswan, and even temporarily adopted his religion. The Judaic community clearly disdained to recognize such a marriage, none of the witnesses to the marriage contract have Hebrew (or Aramaic) names. The marriage lasted for what must have been little more than a honeymoon, certainly less than a year, for her next marriage took place in the same year. Pi' paid quite a price for marrying a Jewish "princess." All of Pi's property was divided between them, but the property that was in Matbahiah's name remained with her!

Matbahiah thereupon reverted to her own people and
promptly went on to take a third husband. B Seho. Ashor, who, like her father, was a Jew of some note. They were both listed as "builders to King Artexerxes." Matbahiah's father, was not averse to cashing in on his daughter's market value, and made certain that her property would not revert to Ashor in the event of a divorce. Ashor's guarantee states: "... I have given you as the bride-price of your daughter Matbahiah five shekels, royal weight. It has been received by you and your heart is content. Should Ashor die... having no child, male or female, by his wife Matbahiah, Matbahiah shall be entitled to the house, chattels and all other worldly goods of Ashor... Should Matbahiah... stand up in a congregation and declare, I divorce my husband, the price of divorce shall be on her head; she shall... weigh out to Ashor 7 shekels, 2 R., but all she brought I with her she shall take out, shred and thread, and go wither she will without suit or process."

This time the marriage contract was signed by members of the Judaic community.5

Note that these documents attest that a woman could then readily divorce her husband, with or without his consent. A woman could take the initiative in and exercise her right to a recognized divorce simply by standing up in congregation and declaring "I divorce my husband." We also learn that women were not separated from the men in the sixth century BCE Yeb Judaic congregation, had unfettered property rights, and that literacy among the women of Yeb was not uncommon.

Women Convert to Judaism in the Roman Empire

The ability of Jewish women to ascend to high levels in crafts, commerce, and politics was due in large measure to the right of Jewish women to conduct business and to inherit and own property. In addition, a great percentage of Jewish women were literate. These attributes attracted women of other cultures to Judaism. It is remarkable that Judaic influence was conspicuously effective among women in the higher echelons of Roman Society.

Fulvia, the wife of Saturninus, a close friend of Emperor Tiberius, became a proselyte.6

Pominia Graecinus, wife of Aula Platis, conqueror of Britain under Claudius, was "judged by her husband," as being a proselyte.

Another upper-class woman of Roman society, Plautia, wife of Publius Petronius, proconsul of Asia and governor of Syria, was a proselyte.

Flavia Domitilia, and relative of the Roman Emperor and her consul husband Flavius Clemens were both charged with Atheism. They were so charged because they expressed their disbelief in the Roman pantheon of gods and professed a sympathy for "Jewish Ways."

"Dominitian slew... Flavius Clemens the Consul, although he was a cousin and had to wife Flavia Domitilla, who was a relative of the emperor. The charge against them was atheism, a charge which many others who had drifted into Jewish ways were condemned."7

The Roman biographer Suetonius concurred with the account of Dio Cassius, adding that it was common for persons who adhered to the Jewish faith to pretend to be Gentile without acknowledging their true beliefs. Concealing adherence to Jewish precepts was, according to Suetonius practiced widely in order to evade the special tax on Jews. The charge was serious, for the punishment for practicing such deception was execution!

Plan of the synagogue at Sardis, Turkey in the 4th c. before its destruction. It could accommodate 3000 worshippers. Women and men were not separated. Roman and Greek women and men enjoyed coming to services, attracted by the music and Judaic precepts. The increase of Judaic adherents to as much as 7,000,000 (census by Claudius in 42 CE), was of concern to the Roman hierarchy. After Christianity became state-sponsored, hundreds of synagogues were destroyed. Some were replaced by churches.

The Talmudic version of this episode underscores its drama. The "so-called "God-fearing" Senator Flavius Clemens (fearing the Judaic God, that is), thwarted the decree that called for the execution of such Jews, by first having himself circumcised and then committing suicide by taking poison. By killing himself, Flavius Clemens thus negated the effect of his conviction inasmuch as a decree of the Senate could not be executed between the passing of a decree and its administration.

This was not an exceptional charge. Other cases are recorded of both a wife and husband being accused of "hereticism" in Pagan Rome. In Roman Phrygia (a province of Anatolia), for example, a member of the aristocracy, Jula Severa, and her husband L. Servinius Capito were described as "Jewish sympathizers."

Other converts or secret Jews are recorded in Talmudic and Mishradic literature. Andrew Sharf, author of a scholarly work, Byzantine Jewry (p. 33), found that at Antioch, pagan interest in Judaism carried on well into the Christian Era. "In the fourth century, listening to Jewish preachers had become fashionable among the upper classes, particularly among the women."

The Christians, in their turn, perhaps seeking to preclude egalitarian concepts from infecting women, issued a new kind of decree in which Jews were prohibited to have sexual relationships with Christian women.

Jewish Women in Islamic Commerce

Jewish women entrepreneurs were a dynamic factor in the economic development of Islamic society, albeit they are given little recognition for their significant contribution. Jewish women had a unique advantage over men in doing business with the Islamic hierarchy - access to the harems.

Jewish women attained notable diplomatic and political power as a result of their activities in the courts of the Ottoman Sultans. The special relationship between the Turkomen and the Jews afforded Jewish women an opportunity to exercise considerable influence on the course of events.

A most intriguing figure in this history is that of Doña Gracia Mendes (1510-79). This remarkable woman played a significant role in international, Venetian, Turkish, Palestinian, and most importantly in Jewish affairs. The Mendes were marrano conversos from Portugal,where, (originally under the family name Benbanaste), they became prominent as bankers. Upon the death of her husband, Francisco Mendes in1537, Doña Gracia grasped the reins of the business and became a major banker on her own initiative. She negotiated loans to powerful monarchs. The Hapsburg Emperor Charles V, and the french King Francis I were among the recipients of her largesse.

Doña Gracia Mendes became widely renowned as La Senora, and then as Giverit (Hebrew for "woman"). She was suspected by the Inquisition for secretly maintaining their Jewish heritage (which, in fact, she was!). Due to her powerful connections Doña Gracia was able to consummate a special arrangement with the Spanish. She renounced her Christian conversion and name and proceeded to comport herself in the Jewish faith. She and her family were exiled from Portugal. She carried on her affairs in Belgium, and then in Italy.

By a series of intricate maneuvers, Doña Gracia succeeded in transferring much of her family's fortune to Venice, and from Venice to Istanbul, where she arrived in 1553. She launched into assembling a trading consortium of Jews and Muslims. It dealt mainly in wheat, pepper, and raw wool for the production of European textiles.

A wealthy Jewish treadewoman from the Anatolian town of Bohcaci, painted by Jean Baptiste in 1719. Jewish women could do business with the women of an Ottoman harem. They obtained furnishings for the palace and clothes and adornments for the women. Many Jewish women became wealthy entrepreneurs and could afford having their portraits painted by outstanding artists. Illustration courtesy of Stanford Jay Shaw

Doña Gracia soon attained powerful political and economic influence in the Ottoman court. This enabled her to get Sultan Süleyman to intervene with Pope Paul IV on behalf of her fellow Marranos in Ancona, Italy, where they had been arrested and imprisoned by the Inquisition. She convinced the Ottoman Sultan to intercede for the Jews by threatening a boycott of Ancona's Mediterranean trade. The Jews were freed; many made their way to Ottoman territory.

By 1556 Doña Gracia was joined by her nephew, Don Joseph Nasi (1524-79). Don Joseph was born in Lisbon, son of a Marrano professor of medicine at the university. His father had died when he was but a year old, and Doña Gracia became his foster parent. He left Portugal

with Doña Gracia in 1537 for Antwerp, where he married her daughter Reyna. After graduating from the University of Louvain, Don Joseph integrated into the family's banking affairs. He became friends with King Charles V, and with Emperor Maximilian of Holland. When the Inquisition's malevolent influence insinuated
itself into that region, he joined an exodus of fellow Marranos to Venice, and then, along with 800 other Marranos, arrived in Istanbul. There he and the others cast off their Catholic masks and openly resumed their Jewish heritage.

A vast network of international enterprises was constructed by her nephew under the tutelage of Doña Gracia. Their most noteworthy accomplishments were the assistance given to Marranos fleeing persecution. In addition to massive support of communities in Ottoman territory, they developed major new settlements and financed yeshivas (learning centers) in Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, in Tiberius and Safed.

In 1558 or 1559, Doña Gracia and her nephew obtained a lease on Tiberius from Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent for the sum of 1000 Cruzados per annum. The formerly Jewish town was in ruins. The walls were quickly rebuilt, a yeshiva was founded, and correspondence went out into the Diaspora for settlers and students. Norman Stillman, in The Jews of Arab Lands, (p. 90), states that "The plan to restore Tiberius as a Jewish center had Messianic overtones, as there was an ancient tradition that the Messiah would appear there."

The Mendes supplied funds to house and feed newly-arrived refugees, and they financed the establishment of Jewish silk culture, fishing, and agriculture. The Tiberius yeshiva accommodated students and scholars from all over the Diaspora.

The influence of the Jews at the Ottoman court was threatened by an attempt of a Greek political party to to eradicate Jewish influence at the court by replacing the Sultan with his half brother, Prince Beyizid. This attempt to usurp the throne was supported by the Grand Vizier Mehmed Sokolly.

To counter this threat, the Mendes' financed the rise to power of Sultan Selim II in1576. Their influence and prestige attained unprecedented heights.

Stanford J. Shaw, in his work The Jews of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic, outlines another plan of Don Joseph for the resettlement of persecuted Jews into a free Ottoman environment. "Don Joseph encouraged the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus, achieved in 1570, at least partly with the idea of making it into a place of refuge for Jews arriving from Europe."

"A few Jews took advantage of this opportunity, but most Jews preferred to settle in the Holy Land. Cyprus became a land of opportunity for Turks and Kurds from eastern Anatolia. Turkish hegemony became firmly established with their immigration."

The estimable services rendered to Ottoman interests by Don Joseph was recognized by Sultan Selim II. The Sultan demonstrated his appreciation by appointing him Duke of the island of Naxos and the Cycliad islands (Andros, Paris, Antiaros, Milo, Sira, and Santorin). Don Joseph was given control over taxes, a monopoly over trade in wine between Crete and Mondovia and Wallachia, and of trade in beeswax with Poland. In Poland and elsewhere, Ashkenazi Jews benefitted by becoming Don Joseph's agents.

After Doña Gracia died, Don Joseph became the virtual Foreign Minister of the Empire in negotiations with the major monarchs of Europe. In 1550, he instigated Ottoman attempts to rescue Marranos from persecution in Venice. In 1552 he was the principal negotiator between the Ottoman Empire and Poland. In 1569 he mediated an agreement between Selim II and Charles IX, King of France. In that same year he used Ottoman weight to help those revolting against the influence of the Spanish Habsburg King Phillip II in the Netherlands. Thus the power of the Inquisition in te Lowlands was broken, and the Jews were able to live and work there again from that time forward in relative freedom.8

Jewish Women and the Harem

A wealthy Jewish tradeswomen from Istanbul, painted by Jean Baptiste van Moor in 1719. Jewish women attained political power through their dealing with the harem women. The international contacts of these enterprising women afforded them access to the Sultan, and many became trusted advisors. Such was the influence of the Kiras, as these women became known, that in the late 16th century the age became known as "The Sultanate of the Women." Illustration by courtesy of Stanford Jay Shaw

Doña Gracia came to Anatolia as an established banker, but other Jewish women achieved commercial and political influence by access to an institution peculiar to the Islamic culture: the harem. Jewish trades-women became Kiras, or female agents of the harem women with the outside world. They obtained the silken garments, precious stones and other adornments, household goods, and personal materials or the palace harem and for other harems of the Ottoman hierarchy. Esther Kyra Handali was outstanding among the women who came to wield considerable influence at the Ottoman court in the late sixteenth century. During a period in which the quality of the Sultans declined, and in which various parties vied at the court for power, the women of the harem became particularly powerful. The age became known as the "Sultanate of the Women."

Stansford Shaw notes that: "[Esther Kyra] gained great influence over appointments and tax farm concessions during the time of the sultans Murad III (1574-95) and Mehmed III (1595-1603) due to her close connections with Murad's mother, Nur Bany Sultan, and with his favorite wife, Safiye Sultan."10

Safiye, a Venetian woman, became Queen Mother on Mehmid's succession to the throne. Both the Sultan and his mother relied on Esther, not merely for the furnishings of the palace, and the accouterments of its female inhabitants, but "for diplomatic advice and connections, using her to enter into the relations with the European embassies in Istanbul, to the great profit of all concerned."

Esther's influence and power at court provided her with the power to assign Ottoman fiefs to whomever she wished. "For the most part to those who promised the most to her rather than service or money to the treasury." Esther's son was put into control of Istanbul's customs, and, needless to say, became quite wealthy as a consequence of his exalted position, A group of Janissaries (soldiers of the Sultan's personal army), envious of the influential positions held by Jews at the court, plotted with some newly converted Christians to eradicate Jewish influence. They began by assassinating Esther Kyra.


  1. W. W. Hallo and J. J. A van Djik, The Exaltation of Inana Near Eastern Researches 1968, as excerpted in www.
  2. Hallo, Idem.

  3. A few of the major sources for translations of the writings of en Hadu'Anna are: James B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East, Vol. II, Princeton Un press, 1975, 126-132; Ake W. Sjoberg & E. Bergman, The Collection of Sumerian Temple Hymns; and Gene B. Gragg, The Kes Temple Hymn, Locust Valley, N. Y., 1969.
  4. Hebrew History Fact Paper 19-III, Jews in Africa; Elephantine Island.
  5. Donald B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times, Princeton 1992, 444.
  6. Samuel Kurinsky, The Eighth Day; The Hidden History of the Jewish Contribution to Civilization, Chs. 4, 5 and 6, Jason Aronson, New Jersey, 1994, 59-128; and Samuel Kurinsky The Glassmakers; an Odyssey of the Jews ch. 3, Hippocrene Books, 53-78.
  7. Josephus, Antiquities, Book 18, Ch. 3.
  8. Dio Cassius, 155-230.
  9. For those who would enjoy reading more about the fascinating life and accomplishments of this extraordinary woman and her nephew, the above books are recommended, and especially three works on the subject by Cecil Roth, (1) The House of Nasi, Doña Gracia. (2) The House of Nas; The Duke of Naxos (3) Doña Gracia of the House of Nasi. All are published by the Jewish Publication Society of America, 1948, 1949, and 1988 respectively.
  10. Pococke, ed. And trans. "Bar-Hebraeus" in Historia Compeniera Dynastiarum, 1985, 73.116.
  11. Stanford Jay Shaw, The Jews of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic, New York University Press, 1991, 90-1.