Just How Literate Were Jewish Women of the Past? The Cairo Geniza Tells All

Boys in antiquity were taught to read and write – this we know. But were girls their brothers’ peers? What about their mothers?

An unconventional suggestion: strike the child at home as well

A question that seems to reoccur more often than not about Jewish women of the past is: Were they literate? What did they learn and where? With the new school year upon us, we must ask these pertinent questions about studious girls, women teachers, and mothers involved in their children’s education.

As a rule, women received minimal education. Women were taught domestic duties such as embroidery. Many women did not have a grasp of the Hebrew language in speech, let alone in reading and writing. Nonetheless, evidence from the Cairo Geniza suggests that even girls of low stature and economically poor backgrounds received some kind of Jewish education, and girls of higher stature received more.

Various documents from the Geniza tell of girls gone who went to school, and women who were teachers.

In the letter you see here, the teacher is telling the child’s parents that the beatings he gives the child do not help, and he suggests that the parents strike him at home, as well. He goes on to say that the beatings are not working because, “Every time I strike him, the teacher jumps in and dismisses him after four-five strikes.” The gendered nature of Hebrew informs us that the dismissing teacher was a woman and most likely the other teacher’s wife. The couple most likely taught children together, boys and girls. How can we know this? Well, the aforementioned child is written about as, “Never ceases to fight and curse, he and his sister.”

An unconventional suggestion: strike the child at home as well

Teaching couples seemed to have been common, and the education occurred in the teachers’ home, or at the child’s home, if a wealthy family could afford a teacher. In a list of the needy from Fustat there is mention of “The (Female) Teacher from Domyat,” a town in the north eastern region of the Nile Delta, and right next to her there is mention of “The (Male) Teacher from Domyat” – possibly her husband. Perhaps due to some trouble the couple had to flee Domyat to the capital.

The teachers are tzedakah beneficiaries

Teaching was a family profession. In a complicated question to Maimonides, a woman and her children were abandoned by her husband, and the woman sought livelihood. In the document it is written, “And the woman had a brother who would teach the little ones Bible and the woman had knowledge of the Bible.” Perhaps her knowledge came from her father who would teach her along with her brother? In any event, the woman in need of aid began to teach the Bible to her children alongside her brother for years. “And afterwards, when the brother travelled away, she sat in his place, took the little ones, and taught the Bible to them for four years.” She even took her oldest son, a grown man by that time, to teach by her side.

We saw girls being educated and women teaching both boys and girls. And mothers were very involved in their children’s education, especially widows. Melicha, the widow of Abu Sa’ad, arrived at the Beit Din (the rabbinic court) accompanied by her brother and another man by the name of Abu Alfachel. It was agreed by all sides of the court that Abu Alfachel would teach Melicha’s son, Haba. The document below tells us that Haba will be taught to write a letter without misspelling and without mistakes, as well as how to use an abacus.

May everyone’s up coming school year be as successful!

A contract between a teacher and a mother regarding the education of her son
5th row: “So that he may write a letter without misspellings… and without mistakes…”

(The letter by the teacher who beats pupils can be found in the Cambridge University Library: TS8J28.7 and was originally published in a paper by Shelomo Dov Goitein. The Tzedakah listing including the teachers from Domyat is also at Cambridge: TSNS320.30, as is the contract of the widow Melicha regarding the education of her son Haba:  TSNSJ401.I and published by Goitein in the same paper.)

Cairo Genizah - A Micro History

The Ben Ezra Synagogue was built thousands of years ago in Fustat, the heart of ancient Cairo, and still stands today. In this synagogue was a special room in which the Jews of Fustat deposited their worn and torn writings - Jewish liturgy, marriage ketubot, divorce gets, court documents, private letters, and more. This page is dedicated to those people and their lives – who they married and when, with whom they feuded, what they cooked for shabbat, where they lived, what synagogue they prayed in, and which synagogue they swore they'd never step foot in.

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