Separation: The Origin of the Women’s Section in the Synagogue

Some of us find it hard to believe that in Talmudic times women and men prayed together in the synagogue. When did a separate gallery for women become mandatory in Orthodox synagogues, and how did the separation of men and women in the prayer service come about?

Women praying at the Western Wall, 1914, the Yad Ben Zvi Archive

The Jewish sages founded the institution of the synagogue in the days before the Second Temple’s destruction. From the moment of its establishment, it faced a pressing issue: Could women pray there together with the men? And if so, how? Throughout Jewish history, from the destruction of the Temple to the present day a variety of approaches have been used to address this issue in various communities with diverse institutions and houses of prayer built accordingly.

The sages interpreted the biblical commandment “You shall teach them to your children, talking of them, when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 11:19),  to mean: “Your sons and not your daughters,” thereby exempting women from learning Torah. But others challenged this statement and objected to women being denied the ability to study Torah.

Synagogue des Tournelle, Paris. The photo is part of a photography project of women’s galleries in synagogues by photographer Aviv Yitzhak


Unlike the issue of whether women should or should not study the Torah, there was never any question that it was the right and even the duty of every Jew—man or woman—to listen and take part in the prayer. It was generally accepted that the men lead the prayer and read from the Torah, while women are permitted to listen.


The Days of Praying Together

The Mishnah and the Talmud are full of examples of women who regularly participated in prayer in public, by either reading from the Torah or listening to a sermon in the synagogue or study house. But where did the women congregate when they came to pray and listen? In this article we will try to locate the origins of the ezrat nashim, the women’s section or gallery in the synagogue.

When the synagogue was founded in the days of the Second Temple, there was no separate women’s section, nor any partition inside the physical structure. Therefore, according to the religious law of the time, women were required to sit and pray alongside the men. Today, in most Orthodox synagogues, the presence of women in the same prayer space as men would be viewed as inappropriate, but in the time of the great Jewish sages it was a routine occurrence.

The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria told of synagogues in Alexandria where women and men prayed in the same hall, but in separate locations. Women’s participation in prayer was an agreed and accepted practice and was not even affected by the prohibition against women’s appearance in public (on the grounds of protecting their modesty).

To be able to participate in prayer requires basic literacy. Documents in the Cairo Genizah show that women received a Jewish education at home and learned to read and write so that, among other things, they could take part in prayer. A girl’s father was responsible for her education, and in rare cases adult women tutored girls. Additional evidence from the Cairo Genizah shows that in medieval Egyptian society, women, especially Jewish women, were granted freedom of occupation and economic independence, with some even becoming rich. These wealthy women often contributed to the construction and renovation of synagogues and their upkeep, as well as financing oil for the lamps so that the worshipers could study at night.


From the Women’s Gate to the Women’s Gallery

So when did today’s familiar partitions first appear? It seems that for hundreds of years the term ezrat nashim, meaning women’s gallery, was not in use at all. The renowned scholar Shlomo Dov Goitein presented several sources from the Genizah dealing with the sha’ar nashim, the “women’s gate” in the synagogues of Egypt, proving that in the 11th century at the latest, special entrances were created for women through which they would go up to a gallery above the main hall, where they could then participate in prayer.

The term beit knesset nashim, “women’s synagogue,” first appeared among Ashkenazi Jews in the 12th century. But while the “women’s gate” in the synagogues in Egypt was an entrance to a gallery that separated the men from the women in the same space, the “women’s synagogue” in Ashkenaz was a physical structure separate from the “general” synagogue. The buildings were sometimes located at a distance from one another, but surprisingly, while the individual prayer services for men and the women were held in these separate locations, when the sermon began, the women would join the men in their hall and would either sit alongside them or a partition would be put up.

Apparently, the first exception to this rule was the synagogue in Worms in Germany. This synagogue was built in 1175, and a women’s gallery was added in 1213. An inscription on the wall of the building is the earliest evidence of the existence of a women’s gallery as a separate room in the synagogue next to the men’s section.

The synagogue in Worms to which a women’s gallery was added. Above: the building façade. Below: the inscription on the wall of the synagogue. Photos: courtesy of Prof. Rachel Elior]


With the establishment of the “women’s synagogue” in the Middle Ages, a new creative world of women’s prayer flourished, featuring women poets, prayer leaders and cantors. The tombstone of one such Jewish woman, Ornea, daughter of the cantor Rabbi Abraham of Worms, who died in 1275, features the epitaph: “This headstone was erected for the lady Ornea, the exceptional and esteemed woman, daughter of Rabbi Abraham, chief of the poets, whose prayer was glory, who with a pleasant voice petitioned on behalf of his people, and she too in a sweet voice, sang hymns for women.”

Women such as Ornea, who were called sagerke and firsagerin in Yiddish, served as readers and poets who read or sang the words of the prayers for the illiterate in the women’s gallery.

Only in the 17th century were the practices that had appeared in Egypt centuries earlier adopted in Ashkenaz, with partitions and galleries erected, thus enabling the merger of the men’s and women’s synagogues. The widespread use of the term ezrat nashim in the sense of a “women’s gallery” stems from this time.  The Venetian Rabbi Leone Modena (1571–1648) wrote the following about the women’s section in his local synagogue: “And in the room there is a special place above or on the side with a wooden lattice, where the women stand to pray and watch everything that happens in the synagogue, but they are not visible to the eyes of the men and do not interfere with them in the prayer service so that the intention of the prayer is not corrupted by sinful or criminal thoughts.” And so, in a single sentence, Rabbi Modena clarified the theological and historical rationale for the partition separating men and women.


Praying in the Basement

In France, on the other hand, women’s galleries, which were still called women’s synagogues, were established below the ground floor of the synagogue. The Swiss traveler Thomas Platter, who visited Avignon in 1599, described the town’s women’s synagogue as a basement into which light penetrated from the room above through a hole in the floor. Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azoulai, also known as the Hida, visited France more than a century later, noting in his book Ma’agal Ha-Tov: “After the prayer we traveled from Avignon to Cavaillon and I lodged in the home of Yisrael HaCohen […] and under the synagogue there is a women’s synagogue and there are shafts on the floor of the synagogue from where they see the Torah scroll and they have a cantor who prays for women in the local language.” This had also been the custom in the women’s galleries in synagogues in Spain, where the prayer was apparently conducted in the local Spanish or Catalan language, and not in Hebrew.

The women’s gallery in the synagogue in Cordoba, Spain. Photo: Tulum, Wikipedia


There were even more restrictions for women in the Muslim world in the Middle Ages. Documents in the Cairo Genizah offer proof of the strict limitations placed on women’s movement. The Ashkenazi traveler R. Petahiya of Regensburg, who, around the year 1175, travelled to the Islamic lands, wrote with amazement that “in the city of Baghdad there are a thousand Jews […] and no one sees a single woman there and no one goes to his friend’s house, lest he see his friend’s wife; he would immediately say to him: ‘Thief, why did you come?’ Rather, hitting a tin [knocker], he [the friend] comes out and speaks with him.” And on the rare occasions that a woman was seen on the street, the traveler pointed out, she was made to wrap herself “until she has covered her entire body with a shawl like a tallit.” And so, the adoption of the institution of the women’s gallery in the synagogue allowed women a gathering place of their own in a society that severely restricted women’s rights.

There were places where women were completely excluded from prayer. This was the custom in Yemen, as noted by the researcher Vered Madar: “There was no women’s gallery in the synagogues in Yemen. Women were completely excluded from taking any part in intellectual life or the world of Torah study in Yemen.”

Drawing from the manuscript Sefer Sod H[ashem]. We have noticed that in scenes of synagogues in Hebrew manuscripts women are either absent entirely or depicted on the margins. In this illustration of a circumcision, the godmother is allowed to bring the child to the entrance of the synagogue but no further as she is forbidden from entering the main hall along with the men. Click here to view the manuscript in the National Library of Israel catalog

And what was the situation in the Land of Israel? “The women’s section was shrouded in darkness, there were no lightbulbs, and only a little light penetrated through the wooden lattice used as a partition between the men and women,” writes the scholar and Orientalist Yaakov Yehoshua about his childhood in Jerusalem at the turn of the 20th century. The synagogues in Jerusalem contained women’s galleries that were usually situated on the floor above the main sanctuary. Religious regulations in 19th-century Jerusalem show an increasing severity in restrictions placed on women in the synagogue. First women were forbidden from listening to the “Kaddish Batra” recited at the end of the prayer service, to ensure that the women would leave the synagogue before the men and not mingle with them. In 1854, the regulations became even more strict, so that “no woman under forty years of age shall go to the synagogue for afternoon or evening prayer […] either on the weekday or on Shabbat except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” In other words, young women were banished from prayer on weekdays and were only allowed to participate on the High Holy Days because “on these days they would wait in the women’s gallery in order to allow the men to leave first and avoid meeting them.”

Despite the attempts at exclusion, even in Jerusalem of the late 19th and early 20th century, women managed to find their way “into the synagogues”. Historian Margalit Shilo, in her book on the female experience in the Jerusalem of that period, writes, “The poorest among them saw to the physical needs of the synagogue, such as the preparation of candle wicks, while the rich raised funds, and sometimes even financed the construction of synagogues. In 1913, there were six synagogues in the Holy City that were founded from donations of Jerusalem women and were even named after them.”

The construction of a partition at the Western Wall was forbidden during the Ottoman period, and therefore, writes Shilo, “women preferred to visit holy sites, such as the Western Wall, Rachel’s Tomb, and the graves of the righteous rather than their place in the synagogues because it was a clear expression of their exclusion from the camp.” Indeed, in postcards and photos dating from the early 20th century to the beginning of the British mandate, men and women are seen praying together at the Western Wall.

The Western Wall in Jerusalem in a postcard from 1911. From the Bitmuna Collection


And as the partition and women’s gallery took root across the Jewish world, it is interesting to discover that the first place where the partition was abolished and joint prayers were held for women and men was the old medieval synagogue in Worms—the first to have installed a partition. The change occurred in 1834, when during a thorough renovation of the synagogue structure the partition was removed and from that moment on men sat on the right side and women on the left inside the sanctuary. Today, in Reform and Conservative synagogues, male and female worshipers sit together.


Jewish Women’s Solidarity

In the 20th century, the term ezrat nashim, which up to that point had signified the physical and symbolic partition between women and men, was given a new meaning in the sense of Jewish women’s solidarity (ezrat nashim can also be translated as “Women’s aid”). In 1901, the Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden (“Relief Organization of German Jews”) was established in Germany. Its women’s branch was known as Ezrat Nashim. This was a pioneering Jewish organization that worked to protect and improve the lives of Jewish women everywhere. In 1902, the organization sent Bertha Pappenheim, one of the pioneers of Jewish social work, to Galicia to examine social conditions in the region that had suffered terrible pogroms. There she was exposed for the first time to the female trafficking industry, in which tens of thousands of Jewish girls and women were sold into prostitution by Jewish procurers who deceived them with false promises of decent work in South America.

Following her activity on this issue, Pappenheim was the first woman in the Jewish world to call for equal opportunities in employment and education for women and men, and the first to work for the integration of women into the field of Torah study and into community life. In her view, a decisive factor that allowed human traffickers to exploit and enslave Jewish girls from Eastern Europe was the girls’ tremendous ignorance, which resulted from the lack of education imposed on them by their communities.

Bertha Pappenheim at age 22. Photo from the Bellevue Sanatorium Archive, Germany


The archive of the League of Jewish Women is currently preserved at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Faced with the many attempts to exclude them from active participation in prayer, Jewish women throughout history have found other ways to make themselves present in the synagogue: by donating to the construction and renovation of synagogues, through crafts such as sewing Torah curtains and covers or by supplying candles. And as we mentioned, from the 13th century to the 20th century, in Germany, Eastern Europe and Italy, women led other women in prayer, while elsewhere women composed hymns and poems for their female peers.

Any historical examination of the place of women in the synagogue, and in Judaism more broadly, will encounter a central and glaring difficulty: the lives of Jewish women have often been ignored by the men whose writings we rely on as primary historical sources. And yet, if there is a clear voice that emerges from the sources, it is of the Jewish women who treated the synagogue as an important meeting place for their religious and communal lives.


Further Reading:

Women and the Synagogue, Edited by Susan Grossman & Rivka Haut (The Jewish Publication Society, 1992)

עדי אוסט, מעמד האישה בתלמוד, מתוך “הפרוטוקולים של צעירי בצלאל”, 2010

רחל אליאור, סבתא לא ידעה קרוא וכתוב: על הלימוד ועל הבּוּרוּת, על השעבוד ועל החירות, ירושלים הוצאת כרמל, 2018

ש. ד. גויטיין, יציע נשים בבנין בית הכנסת בתקופת הגאונים, תרביץ לג (תשכ”ד)

בטחה הר-שפי, נשים בקיום מצוות בשנים 1350-1050 בין הלכה למנהג, חיבור לשם קבלת תואר דוקטור לפילוסופיה, האוניברסיטה העברית, תשס”ב

ורד מדר, שירי נשים מתימן ליולדות וקינותיהן על מתים: טקסט, גוף וקול, חיבור לשם קבלת תואר דוקטור, האוניברסיטה העברית, 2011

שמואל ספראי, האם הייתה קיימת עזרת נשים בבית הכנסת בתקופה העתיקה, תרביץ לב (תשכ”ג)

מרגלית שילה, נסיכה או שבויה? החוויה הנשית של היישוב הישן בירושלים 1914-1840, (זמורה-ביתן, 2001)

Martha, Daughter of Boethus, Who Died From Stepping Out Onto Jerusalem’s Streets

More delicate than the princess from "The Princess and the Pea", more spoiled than a Kardashian. Among the Talmudic legends surrounding the destruction of ancient Jerusalem is the strange story of a wealthy woman who was unaccustomed to contact with the outside world. Why did the Talmudic sages choose to focus on this particular tale, and is there a modern lesson to be learned from it?

A Jewish woman in fanciful dress, studio portrait, Tunisia. Courtesy of the Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Institute

Martha daughter of Boethus was a rich woman who lived in Jerusalem during the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. She was a member of a priestly family with close connections to those in power. Martha daughter of Boethus was so wealthy that following her wedding to Yehoshua ben Gamla, she bought him the office of high priest directly from the king.

Martha daughter of Beothus spent most of her time at home, among the servants and extravagances reserved for a woman of her status. But once a year, on Yom Kippur, she would leave the comforts of her house and make her way to the Temple to see her husband, the high priest, lead the ceremony in front of the Holy of Holies. On Yom Kippur it is forbidden to wear leather sandals, which meant that Martha daughter of Boethus had to go out into the street barefoot. But Jerusalem’s dirty streets were not worthy of her delicate feet, and so, according to the midrash, on Yom Kippur the servants would lay a carpet across the city just for her. A carpet on which only she would walk, from the threshold of her house all the way to the Temple, just so that her precious feet would not have to touch Jerusalem’s dirty cobblestones.

The story of Martha daughter of Boethus in a 19th century manuscript of the midrash Eikhah (Lamentations). From the collections of the Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Institute, made accessible through the Ktiv Project, the National Library of Israel

But then came the Roman siege. Little by little, food disappeared from the marketplace and Martha daughter of Boethus’ money too became worthless. Day after day she sent her servant out to purchase food but day after day he returned empty handed. There no wheat flour, no barley flour and not even bran to be had.

Marta daughter of Boethus decided that there was no other choice, she would have to go out herself. She would to go down into the city, out among the people and search for something to eat, or else she would surely starve.

She was in such a hurry that she went out barefoot. Yes, the woman who never dared to venture out onto the streets of Jerusalem without a carpet being laid in her honor, now stepped outside barefoot.

Model of Jerusalem from the Second Temple period. From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

One can only imagine the streets of Jerusalem at the time. The siege weighed heavily on the city No one could enter, no one could leave. There was no food or water to be had anywhere, chaos reigned and sewage flowed in the alleyways. As fate would have it, the moment she put one foot outside her door, Martha daughter of Boethus stepped on a piece of dung and died. Or, as the Talmud put it, “Dung settled on her leg and she died.”

Why did Martha daughter of Boethus perish so suddenly? Did she die of disgust, or perhaps from anxiety?

Clearly, with this story the Jewish sages intended to criticize the elitism, corruption and detachment of the wealthy priestly families from the people. The rich priestly class had become so remote and aloof that they did not see the hunger, suffering, pain, and poverty all around them until it was too late, until it was impossible to save the city and its people.

The story of Martha daughter of Boethus in a 19th century manuscript of midrash Eikhah (Lamentations). From the collections of the Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Institute, made accessible through the Ktiv Project, the National Library of Israel

In the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Gitin, 56a) Martha daughter of Boethus’ story is preceded by a tale about three rich men—Ben Tzizit Hakesset, Nicodemus Ben-Gurion, and Kalba Savua —who chose to donate food to the residents of the city to help them withstand the siege. Martha daughter of Boethus on the other hand, does not make good use of her wealth. She keeps the money for herself, which is perhaps the very reason it ultimately cannot save her. Her vast riches—wealth belonging to her priestly family—are worthless.

There is another aspect of this story that relates to Martha’s place in society as a woman. Women of that time were often restricted to the home. Hence, Martha daughter of Boethus, whose feet were accustomed to only the softest and cleanest surfaces, was ill prepared to deal with reality as it was, as she never encountered the real world. Thus, one interpretation of the dung in this story is that it symbolizes life’s difficulties, the complexities and challenges we face in our everyday life. Martha daughter of Boethus simply did not know how to cope with these.

Embedded in the story is an idea that connects to our own times, and one that could account for the story’s inclusion among the legends surrounding the destruction of the Temple. Martha daughter of Boethus was only ever exposed to people like herself, of her echelon. She never rubbed shoulders with the outside world. She never met men and women of different classes or who held religious or political outlooks different from her own.

The Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem. Colored postcard by Karl Vetke, a German artist known for his exotic landscapes. The postcard is part of Archive Network Israel (ANI), accessible through the cooperation of the Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem, and the National Library of Israel

The first time she goes out into the real world and is forced to grapple with the rest of Jerusalem society, she is suddenly overwhelmed, to the point of death.

A possible interpretation of the story of Martha daughter of Boethus, is that it contains a lesson teaching us to be receptive to the world, encouraging us to meet one another face to face. Perhaps the sages are even calling us to confront complex and painful issues head on, as opposed to shielding ourselves (or our children) from life’s difficulties. If we do not meet with each other, get to know each other, our resilience as a society may be undermined, the Talmud hints to us. If we dare not look directly at each other, we may find ourselves alone, and without the ability to cope when we are under siege.

The story of Martha daughter of Boethus reminds us to take down the barriers that divide us and to learn to live together, to discover how we can simply meet, face to face.

The Hebrew Manuscript That Dared to Depict God

We decided to examine the manuscript that boldly violated the explicit commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness”

Genesis 2:23 “she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man”. The Braginsky Collection, Zurich, manuscript photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama

The second of the Ten Commandments states “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness” (Exodus 20:2-3). The conventional understanding of the second part of this commandment concerns first and foremost the image of God. Was this not what set the chosen people apart from other peoples? Was this not what set monotheism apart from polytheistic religions?  According to tradition, the God of Israel has no face and no form, except in a metaphorical sense.

Of course, some would disagree with this blanket claim and say that already in ancient times the Children of Israel sculpted their gods, but that their tools were words. The Bible opens with the personification of God when it speaks of Man created in God’s image, and is replete with other images of God personified, such as Moses seeing the back of God, descriptions of God’s wrath using metaphors referring to his nose (חרון אפו – charon apo), and much more. True, one can argue, as did the great Jewish sages and thinkers including Maimonides, that this is a classic case of “the Torah speaking in human language.” But of course there are other examples of the physical image of God in Jewish tradition and literature that would be hard to argue with: for example, the Hekhalot and Merkavah literature, esoteric writings that likely stemmed from the Talmudic period, and which describe God as standing behind the curtain in the center of the seventh heavenly palace. The purpose of the Ma’aseh Merkava, (“Account of the Chariot”) is to observe the king in his palaces, that is, to see God sitting on the throne of honor.

However, the boldest text by far is the Shiur Koma (lit. dimensions of the body), a work dedicated to the description of God’s enormous physical stature. According to this book, the pupil of God’s right eye measures thousands of parsot (an ancient measurement of distance), and “each and every parsa is three miles, and each and every mile is ten thousand amah (cubits) and each amah is three zeratot (spans, though the singular zeret also means ‘little finger’) […] and his zeret is the breadth of the entire world.” In other words, the measure and form of God’s body cannot be grasped in human terms.

But if this is how God is represented in words, how did illustrated Hebrew manuscripts deal with the biblical prohibition relating to making images of God? And were there some that nevertheless disregarded the strict prohibition? Let’s begin by looking at some of the ways the prohibition was circumvented.


Image for illustrative purposes only


In the context of Hebrew manuscripts, there are a number of conventional methods of representing God, and the first of these is depicting an image of God’s hand. The hand of God commonly appears in medieval Hebrew manuscripts in scenes of Abraham’s rescue from the fiery furnace. There are also earlier examples which appear in synagogue art, for example in the third-century CE synagogue of Dura Europos (south-eastern Syria) and the 6th-century CE synagogue of Beit Alpha, near Bet She’an in northern Israel.

Leipzig Mahzor | Library of University of Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany, 14th century


Detail, the hand of God appearing from the clouds to deliver Abraham from the fiery furnace


While Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people, is indeed a biblical figure, the story of his rescue from the fiery furnace into which he was thrown by order of King Nimrod appears in the Midrash Bereishit Rabbah and the Babylonian Talmud, but not in the Bible. Nevertheless, the story captured the imaginations of illustrators, and we can find several versions of it in Hebrew manuscripts.

Sometimes, however, even this image was too bold a choice, and angels were brought in to replace the divine hand, as in this example from the Barcelona Haggadah. In this case, the illustrator chose to emphasize another aspect of the midrash about Abraham and the furnace, which recounts that when Abraham was thrown into the fire, he not only remained unscathed, but was even quite able to sit and converse with the angels.

Barcelona Haggadah | the British Library, London, England, 14th century


Another way to depict God is to closely follow the biblical text and represent “the voice of God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day,” as in the Sarajevo Haggadah, which was written and illuminated in the same century as the two manuscripts we have already mentioned. Despite its name, this spectacular Haggadah was probably written in Barcelona, ​​Spain in approximately 1350. The Haggadah is displayed in the city of Sarajevo at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Sarajevo Haggadah depicts Adam and Eve in a series of illustrations somewhat reminiscent of a comic strip. First, in the upper-right corner, Eve is created from Adam’s rib, a scene immediately followed by Adam eating from the forbidden tree as Eve and the serpent watch. At bottom right Adam and Eve cover themselves with fig leaves after realizing they are naked. And in the final illustration below on the left, they are expelled from the Garden of Eden: Eve is fully clothed, and Adam tills the soil by the sweat of his brow.


In the lower right image, where Adam and Eve cover themselves after realizing they are naked, the sharp-eyed viewer will notice rays of light emanating from above the tree at left. The artist has found an interesting compromise for depicting God through a close reading of the biblical verse: “And they heard the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” “Where art thou?” God asks Adam, who immediately explains: “I heard your voice in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked and I hid myself.” The unknown illustrator of the Sarajevo Haggadah visualizes the voice of God as heavenly light.


Some 30 years before the appearance of the Sarajevo Haggadah, around the year 1320, another Passover Haggadah was written and illustrated, also in Catalonia. This Haggadah is known as the “Golden Haggadah” for the gold backgrounds that adorn the 128 illustrated pages out of its 322 pages in total. This manuscript also opens with illustrations of biblical scenes.

The second illustration in the Golden Haggadah depicts two scenes that we encountered previously in the Sarajevo Haggadah: the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib and the eating of the fruit of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Above the illustration is written “Adam and his wife naked.” Here, however, is a truly astonishing innovation in the depiction of the figure emerging from a cloud to admonish the three sinners—Adam, Eve and the serpent. We can assume that this is not the figure of God himself, but an angel, an acceptable and even reasonable choice. It reminds us of yet another biblical story—that of Jacob wrestling with an angel of God, who is presented as God himself.

The second illustration in the Golden Haggadah: a heavenly figure rebukes Adam and Eve

Yet the clearest and most baffling example of the personification of God comes from a Hebrew illuminated manuscript written in Corfu in the 18th century. The manuscript, titled Piyutim Le’Hatan (“Liturgical Hymns for the Bridegroom”), is preserved in the Braginsky Collection in Zurich, and includes, besides the many piyutim and poems, 60 illustrations in gouache of various scenes from the book of Genesis, by the hand of a talented artist who likely was trained in Venice.

At the bottom of the illustration it is written, “Creation of the heaven and earth, the sun and moon.” The Braginsky Collection, Zurich, manuscript photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama. Click on the image to enlarge


At first glance, the figure with the crown could be mistaken for King David standing in front of the wonders of creation, as in Psalm 8:4: “When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the star, which you have made.” If not David, it could also be interpreted as a depiction of the long-awaited Messiah, traditionally a descendant of King David.

However, by the third illustration in the manuscript, there is no longer any mistaking this figure for David. While the Jewish sages and biblical commentators had much to say about the early chapters of Genesis, they certainly never suggested that it was King David or the Messiah who created Eve from Adam’s rib.

“And He took one of his ribs” (Gen 2:21). The Braginsky Collection, Zurich, manuscript photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama. Click on the image to enlarge


The fifth illustration leaves no doubt about the identity of this figure as God, who is portrayed admonishing Adam and Eve before their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

“And the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen 3:8), image on the left. The Braginsky Collection, Zurich, manuscript photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama. Click to enlarge

How could practicing Jews rationalize such a blatant violation of the second commandment? Contrary to the example we will examine next, the owner of this manuscript made no attempt to delete or cover up the problematic illustrations—three in all—alongside the other 57 illustrations of scenes from Genesis, most of them incidentally depicting the life of Joseph. On the contrary, below each illustration, a corresponding biblical verse was inserted.

Another interesting detail related to the manuscript is that the order of the illustrations runs counter to the text. In other words, the first illustration—God creating the heavens and the earth (and the sun and the moon)—appears at the end of the manuscript rather than at the beginning. This may very well be the clue we were looking for: The images are intended to be displayed in the book from left to right, suggesting that the illustrator was a Christian who obviously did not work closely with the Jewish author of the text. It is also possible that the Christian artist illustrated the manuscript independently, before it was subsequently bought by a Jew who had the texts added later. This would explain the captions in Hebrew under the illustrations and the fact that the texts do not relate to the illustrations, all of which are from the Bible, while the texts are liturgical hymns meant for a bridegroom.

We now turn to the opposite example, in which the violation of the biblical prohibition was not overlooked. In 1984, while studying the biblical illustrations in a manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah in the David Kaufmann Collection at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, researcher Evelyn Cohen noticed a puzzling detail. In the scene showing Moses giving the Tablets of the Covenant to the people of Israel, she spotted the remains of a figure that had been erased and covered up by a later correction.

Click to enlarge


The first illustrated manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, written 90 years after the death of its author who was one of the Jewish people’s greatest thinkers, indeed shows the image of God giving Moses the Tablets of the Law. It is difficult to distinguish the image as it was erased and all that remains of it is a single hand at the right holding the Tablets along with Moses at left. This hand apparently originally belonged to an image of God in all his glory, which was covered up and turned into a mountain. Here too, as was the case with the manuscript from Corfu, the artist was likely a Christian who was not aware of the prohibition against making any graven image or likeness. Or, what is more likely, since the prohibition also exists in Christianity, the artist may have simply interpreted its meaning differently

Can you spot the hand holding onto the Tablets of the Law along with Moses?


One can always make excuses: It is possible to claim Christian influence, or as the Jewish philosopher Rabbi Saadia Gaon argued, that at stake is God’s glory and not his body, as God does not and cannot have tangible form. Be that as it may, we have now seen several examples in which an image of God was certainly created.

In fact, so long as the illustrations were related to Kabbalistic theory, various loopholes have enabled artistic representation of the figure of God for centuries. Visualization of the Sefirot has always been permitted in Jewish tradition, even when it includes the figure of Adam Kadmon (lit. primordial man), who according to the Kabbalah is the first of the Four Worlds (spiritual realms in the descending chain of existence) created by God, who extracted them from Ein-Sof (infinity). Essentially, this means that the figure of Adam Kadmon is not a separate entity from God but rather part of the Godhead itself. At the risk of oversimplification, this is therefore an image of the one true God. No?

Amulet for exorcising a dybbuk, Jewish Theological Seminary, New York. Click on the image to enlarge



Thank you to Daniel Frank and Sara Offenberg for their help in preparing this article


Who Wrote These Magical Ancient Jewish Bowls?

Were they men or women, rabbis or sorcerers, legal experts or ignoramuses?

Ancient Babylonian incantation bowl from the National Library of Israel collection. This bowl was donated to NLI by Ms. Aliza Moussaieff.

Growing scholarly interest in late antique Jewish amulets and magic bowls has greatly advanced our understanding of Jewish magic, yet a fundamental question remains unanswered: who composed these magical Jewish artifacts?

Were they men or women, rabbis or sorcerers, experts in rabbinic law or ignoramuses?

The answer to this question remains elusive; the amulets and bowls do not contain a name of a scribe; nor do we generally possess any external accounts of their creation. This confusion is reflected in the many ways scholars of Jewish magic refer to amulet-writers: ‘scribes’, ‘practitioners’ or ‘professionals’, as well as ‘exorcists’, ‘magicians’ and ‘sorcerers’, are often employed interchangeably.


Exorcists, rabbis or women?

More than 600 Jewish Aramaic incantation bowls, created in Sasanian Babylonia roughly 1,500 years ago, have been researched and published, while at least three times that number remain unpublished. They contain numerous incantations, usually designated for the general protection of a named individual but also designated for other purposes such as medical cures, business prosperity, love charms, curses and more.

Other than a few dozen Jewish seals, the incantation bowls represent our only surviving material evidence from Jews in the Sasanian Empire in Late Antiquity. This was a crucial time in Jewish history, as this was the period in which the Babylonian Talmud was redacted and transmitted, a period that therefore shaped the course of Jewish religion for generations to come.  The bowls therefore provide us with first-hand and contemporary knowledge of Jewish practices at a formative time, knowledge that we would not gain from reading the Talmud alone. Although the incantation texts contain potentially invaluable historical information as well as biblical quotations and parallels to rabbinic texts, they remain primarily the subject of study of scholars of linguistics or of Jewish magic.

A number of scholars have proposed historical identifications of the bowl authors. In his pioneering volume of incantation bowls published in 1913, James Montgomery made an important distinction between, on the one hand, the majority of the bowls written by ‘exorcists’ with ‘professional possession of occult powers’ and, on the other, the poorly written bowls, especially in pseudo-script, which he suggested were written by laymen.

­­A Babylonian incantation bowl featuring relatively crude penmanship. The bowl was donated to the National Library of Israel by Ms. Aliza Moussaieff. Click image to enlarge

About a century later, Shaul Shaked also emphasized the wide range of writing skills of the authors of the bowls while noting the range of knowledge of scripture and other Jewish expressions. Shaked suggested that the authors who were learned in matters of Jewish formulae were connected to the ‘rabbinic tradition’.

קערה בעלת כיתוב בארמית בבלית יהודית להגנת היולדת וילדיה. מאוספי הספרייה הלאומית
This Jewish incantation bowl, created sometime between the 5th and 7th centuries CE, was made to protect newborn babies. From the National Library of Israel collection

In recent years a few scholars have argued that women wrote incantation bowls, most notably Rebeca Lessees, Yaakov Elman and Dorit Kedar. The main argument for female authorship of the bowls is that a few of them are seemingly written in the female first-person singular. However, ascribing authorship of the bowls based on the use of the first-person is highly problematic, as it does not necessarily echo the voice of the scribe. Rather, as scholars have noted, the use of the first-person, male or female, and sometimes the first-person plural, to refer to a husband and wife, is simply a magical technique in which the client(s) of the bowl is listed.

For example, sometimes female and male clients are listed in the first-person as serving a divorce document to a demon, thus employing proper legal document formulae. Moreover, the vast majority of these bowls begin by listing the client in the first-person singular, but later in the same text switch back to the regular expected third-person ­singular, indicating that the first-person is not a reflection of the incantation bowl’s scribe, but rather a technique to distance malevolent forces from the client(s). This would also explain why we have different first-person formulae, with varying names, written by the same hand. It bears stressing that professional scribes were necessary in pre-modern societies in which many individuals, male and female, were illiterate.


Legal magic

Other prevalent features in bowl incantations point instead to a guild of scribal professionals. The texts appearing on some magic bowls bears a striking resemblance to the contemporary Jewish divorce document, and this is hardly coincidental. It is part of a much larger phenomenon of the use of legal formulae in the bowls, a phenomenon that should be linked to scribal professionals responsible for a range of legal documents. In fact, signs of professional scribal practices in the bowls have been identified by scholars, including Siam Bhayro, who has concluded that, “the same scribes who would be employed to write Jewish legal documents … were able to supplement their income by writing incantations”.

Writing exercises of a scribe, including the initial wording of a marriage contract, 1086. From the Cambridge University Library, available online via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Indeed, the most striking feature of knowledge of scribal practices is the use of precise Jewish legal formulae. For example, the use of time designations as part of the divorce formula, including specific dates according to the Seleucid era; presenting the clients with the additional words ‘and any name he/she has’, in line with the Tannaitic instruction; employing Jewish divorce formulae; uses of perpetuity clauses and closing formulae.

Together, there are at least twenty different Jewish legal formulations found in the bowls, phrased in line with Jewish legal formulations found in archeological findings of ancient documents, rabbinic instructions, and later legal documents from the Cairo Genizah This finding is best explained by attributing knowledge of scribal practices, and even particular Jewish legal writing, to the bowl authors.


Writers of books

Further evidence regarding the scribal profession of the bowl authors may be found in their designation for their opponents. In one carefully written bowl (known as “AMB6”), which was published and translated by Shaul Shaked and Joseph Naveh and is currently on display in the Israel Museum, there is an intriguing text designated for the protection of Berik Yehabya son of Mama. The bowl ends with a unique spell for protection:

“I adjure you in the name of He who is great and fearsome that you may silence for Berik Yehabya son of Mama the mouths of all people who write books, who sit in forts, who sit in market places, and in streets, who go out on the roads, so that their tongues should cleave to their mouths, and that they should not speak evil words against me. In the name of he who commanded and it came into being. Amen, Amen, Selah.”

The formula begins with an adjuration silencing the mouths of the people who ‘write books’ (‘sifrei’), who sit in various places and go out on the roads. In Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, the word ‘sifra’/’sefer’ can mean ‘scroll, scriptural book or document’.

This leads to the question: why would the client, Berik Yehabya, seek protection from writers of books?

Perhaps, because these writers are professional scribes who write documents and scrolls, but also curses and magical spells, such as bowls. Thus, this scribe is attempting to ‘silence the mouths’ of other scribes who write curses. From this it would seem that the way this magic bowl author referred to himself and to his competitors is not as professional magicians or sorcerers, but as scribes. Indeed, among the malevolent forces the bowl incantations regularly sought to ward off are other curses and spells aimed at the clients. This unique incantation would therefore target not only the opposing incantations, but the scribes responsible for them. Other contextual clues, including the names of the locations in which they sit, provide additional evidence for the professional scribal nature of these writers.

A traditional Jewish scribe. Image part of the Israel Archive Network project, made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The bowl also makes clear that these scribes were not confined to the marketplace, but in fact some went out on the roads, peddling their goods from door to door. This evidence, alongside the extensive use of legal formulae and the presence of self-designations from the legal sphere, substantiates the conclusion that many bowl writers were in fact professional scribes.

This would fit the material aspect of the bowls as well. Bowl scribes carefully used ink in order to write small square letters on the surface of a bowl. The penmanship of some bowls are particularly striking and my initial research demonstrates that there may be a correlation between the quality of the handwriting and learned content of the bowl texts.

Certainly, this conclusion does not contradict Montgomery’s and Shaked’s assertion that the bowls demonstrate a variety of expertise. On the contrary, in a recent article, Simcha Gross and I argue that the Jewish incantation bowls should not be viewed as a single corpus. Rather, the bowls were produced by different groups of scribes, some of whom were socialized according to rabbinic norms and some of whom were closer to the traditions of neighboring religions. Though the medium they employed – ceramic bowls – was the same, their producers were not necessarily part of the same scribal circles. We should instead think of a market of competing scribes with differing scribal expertise, where the same client could commission a bowl from a scribe who in turn wrote a bowl that would fend off the incantations of his scribal competitors.


If indeed some of the bowl writers were professional scribes, they may have engaged in other forms of penmanship such as biblical and liturgical writing. It is important to note that in Aramaic there is no lexical distinction between different kind of scribes; therefore there is seemingly no reason to limit some of the ‘writers of books’ to just bowls and legal documents. Indeed, the incantation bowls quote a wide variety of biblical passages, and Targum, as well as liturgical texts, which may attest to expert knowledge in these fields.

This incantation bowl written in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic was commissioned by someone named Gia Bar Imma for the purposes of an exorcism. The bowl was donated to the National Library of Israel by Ms. Aliza Moussaieff. Click image to enlarge

While there are sometimes minor divergences from the Masoretic spellings, these may be due to scribal practices of the time and place of the bowl writers and do not necessarily contradict the possibility that scribes of bowls engaged in copying biblical texts.

Another important component of many bowls is liturgical quotations, such as blessings and prayers, including the Shema. This too may attest to the profession of the bowl scribes many of whom may certainly also have engaged in some sort of liturgical writing. Given the various scribal roles apparently performed by these authors, the terms ‘magician’ and ‘sorcerer’ may be too restrictive of the professional functions of these Jewish writers.


Babylonian rabbis and expert (amulet) writers

Focusing on the professional aspect of the bowl writers may shed light on attitudes towards these practitioners in the Babylonian Talmud. Some scholars have searched for rabbinic attitudes towards the bowl writers, in stories concerning witchcraft and/or female sorcery, but following the conclusion that bowls were produced by professional scribes, the conflation of bowl writers and sorcerers may lead us astray. Indeed, it would be more accurate to search for rabbinic passages dealing with amulets, since the bowls were considered amulets by their producers, as can be deduced from the common introductory formula: “this is an amulet”. The rabbis identified amulet writings with “experts” and amulets written by such experts are even permitted to be carried on the Sabbath (Mishnah Shabat 6:2). Moreover, in at least one story in the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis themselves engaged in amulet writing (Tractate Pesachim 111b).

This incantation bowl, written in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, features a demon in the form of the cat, and the words “this cat is bound”. The bowl was donated to the National Library of Israel by Ms. Aliza Moussaieff. For more on the images, see here. Click image to enlarge

Rabbinic sympathetic attitudes toward amulets fits the proposed identification between the incantation bowls and expert writers. As with other professionals, the rabbis accept the fact that there are non-rabbinic experts in a variety of areas and rely on their expertise. The rabbinic views of amulet writers as experts, alongside the clear scribal nature of the incantation bowls, problematizes the common use of the generic term ‘Jewish magicians’. There is no rabbinic term to designate these ‘magicians’, and certainly no pejorative term. Once we appreciate these Talmudic passages alongside the conclusion that many bowl scribes emerge from a professional scribal context, the rigid binary between rabbis and magicians begins to unravel.

On a social level, the clear scribal nature of the incantation bowls challenges the common scholarly perception of the ancient Jewish “magicians”. The bowl writers may have even been viewed as a religious elite, consulted at times of need. Indeed, challenging the popular/ elite dichotomy is true not only on the social or professional level. We may even go one step further by challenging the categorical dichotomy between law and magic as forms of high/scholastic versus low/popular cultural expressions.

As we have seen, the magical texts themselves are replete with legal formulae, and it seems reasonable to assume that for the scribes of the Babylonian incantation bowls the lines between magic, law, and religion were not rigid, and perhaps nonexistent.

A version of this article, “Who were the Jewish ‘magicians’ behind the Aramaic incantation bowls” originally appeared in the Journal of Jewish Studies (