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.)

The Feminist Version of the Jewish Morning Blessing

Do you thank the Almighty for making you a man or a woman? Two fifteenth-century manuscripts show the choice is yours!

The words “who has made me a woman and not a man" are highlighted here in a siddur kept at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York

Farissol’s revised version in the 1471 siddur now kept at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

The traditional Jewish morning blessing includes a verse in which males thank God with the words: “who has not made me a woman.”  Women reciting this verse often modify it to “who has made me according to His will.” This tradition took root in the siddur (Hebrew prayer book) centuries ago, but two fifteenth-century manuscripts reveal a groundbreaking thinker who chose a somewhat more progressive wording for this controversial blessing.

Abraham Farissol changed the familiar wording of the blessing to “who has made me a woman and not a man” in two prayer books he dedicated to two anonymous women.

As a Jewish thinker of the highest order, Abraham Farissol’s reputation preceded him. Recognized for his erudition in his lifetime, Farissol’s many pursuits included cantor, scribe, and teacher. Deeply interested in the advancements of the Age of Discovery sweeping across Europe, he composed the first essay in Hebrew dealing with the discovery of America.

Along with being a pioneering thinker, he was also an exceptional man of faith.  In 1471 and 1480 Farissol hand-wrote two prayer books for women which contain a fascinating feminist innovation. In the prayer book as we know it today, the man reciting the morning blessings thanks God for life that is renewed each morning, for not making him a Gentile, for not making him a slave, and in the words of the prayer that has provoked countless debates, he blesses the Almighty “who has not made me a woman” or in another version “who has made me a man and not a woman.” The woman, for her part, thanks God with the words “who has made me according to His will.” In fact, the text of the accepted blessing for women – “made me according to His will” – is not found in the Talmud, but is mentioned in the early–fourteenth-century halakhic work Arba’ah Turim (lit. “Four Rows,” an important work of Jewish law by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, known as Ba’al Ha-Turim – “Master of the Rows).

And so, 150 years after the Ba’al Ha-Turim, when Europe was moving out of the Middle Ages, Abraham Farissol wrote two Hebrew prayer books which changed the accepted wording of this morning prayer. In the age of the Renaissance, Farissol abandoned the medieval wording “made me according to His will” in favor of a more interesting, progressive verse – “who has made me a woman and not a man.” One of these books is today kept at the National Library of Israel, while the other is preserved at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

Farissol’s revised version in the 1480 siddur, kept at the National Library of Israel.

We do not know the identities of the two women who Farissol dedicated his books to, as their names were erased from both siddurs. It is possible that Farissol wrote additional prayer books with this blessing which have not yet (or may never) come to light. It is not clear how widespread the change Farissol introduced was or whether it remained the exclusive province of the thinker. What is certain is that at least these two women walked with their heads held high, feeling proud that their Creator had chosen to make them women, and not men.

The morning blessing in the siddur kept at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America
The morning blessing in the siddur kept at the National Library

A Rare Find: The Prayers, News and Blessings Concealed Within the Pages of Visitors’ Books from Rachel’s Tomb

The difficulty of daily life in the Jewish Yishuv, coping with the Holocaust and the breakout of the War of Independence revealed.

Every morning, except for Sabbath and festivals, Shlomo Eliyahu would board bus no. 22 from Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem and arrive at Rachel’s Tomb at around nine o’clock in the morning. Armed with a pistol out of fear of attacks from the local Arabs, he would open the entrance door with his long iron key and receive the visitors who came to pray at the Tomb. This was relatively novel in comparison to his predecessors: in their time, the Tomb was open to visitors mainly during the month of Elul and during the festival period.

Shlomo Eliyahu Freiman prepares the oil lights in Rachel’s Tomb. The picture is taken from the book “Al Em HaDerech: Sippuro Shel Kever Rachel” by Nadav Shragi

There is Hope for your Future

And they journeyed from Beth el, and there was still some distance to come to Efrata,

 and Rachel gave birth, and her labor was difficult.

 It came to pass when she had such difficulty giving birth, that the midwife said to her,

 “Do not be afraid, for this one, too, is a son for you.”

And it came to pass, when her soul departed for she died that she named him Ben oni,

 but his father called him Benjamin.

So Rachel died, and she was buried on the road to Efrata, which is Bethlehem.

 And Jacob erected a monument on her grave; that is the tombstone of Rachel until this day.

(Genesis 35, verses 16-20 – English translation from www.chabad.org)


Fifty eight words in the original Hebrew. Five verses. One of the most tragic events of the book of Genesis is told with familiar Biblical brevity: On the way to the house of Isaac, the father of her beloved husband, Rachel gives birth to her second son and dies in childbirth. She did not even hear her child’s (final) name – Benjamin.

The tragedy of Rachel’s death is intensified by the fact that Jacob’s voice is unheard. What did he feel? What did he do? The Bible does not provide details. The only tears to fall in the Bible are those of Rachel herself. In the book of Jeremiah, the third matriarch is mentioned as one weeping for her children’s fate: “So says the Lord: A voice is heard on high, lamentation, bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted for her children for they are not. So says the Lord: Refrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for there is reward for your work, says the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. And there is hope for your future, says the Lord, and the children shall return to their own border” (Jeremiah 31: 15-17 – English translation from www.chabad.org).

It is this image of Rachel which has been preserved through the generations: the mother who prayed for her children throughout her life continues to worry about them after her death. So too the traditional place of Rachel’s burial is perceived as a place of prayers and pleading for the sons and daughters of the  “tearful mother”s .

The Last Caretaker of Rachel’s Tomb

The last Ashkenazi caretaker of Rachel’s Tomb, Shlomo Eliyahu Freiman. The picture is taken from the book ““Al Em HaDerech: Sippuro Shel Kever Rachel” by Nadav Shragi

Shlomo Eliyahu inherited the position of Ashkenazi caretaker of Rachel’s Tomb from his father, Yaakov “Yankele HaShamash” Freiman, who served as caretaker for only two short years until his death in 1918. Shlomo Eliyahu had a lot to live up to and he was determined to fulfill the mission he had received.

From as soon as he began his role until it ended under tragic circumstances 29 years later, Shlomo Eliyahu conducted a daily record of the events at the Tomb in the visitors’ journal. The National Library of Israel recently received the last two surviving volumes of the visitors’ journal, out of 24 that are known to have existed. The period they relate to is a crucial period in Jewish history and that of the “State in the making” – the third and fourth decade of the 20th century.

For the ledger from 1932 click here

For the ledger from 1942 click here

What is in the Journal?

The cover of the visitor’s journal. View the complete visitors’ book

The visitors’ journals were arranged in chronological order on a wooden shelf in the room where Rachel’s tombstone is situated. Most of the journals’ pages are full of the names of the various visitors. The many visitors and the varied places they came from show the significance of Rachel’s Tomb, not only to the Jews of Israel and the Diaspora, but also to the many Christian visitors – some of them pilgrims, others soldiers in the allied forces or commanders in the British Mandate. There were visitors who did not suffice with simply writing their names, and added requests from “Mama Rachel”.

Most of the names are unfamiliar to a modern day reader of the journals; others will immediately conjure up images of key figures in the Jewish settlement and in the future State of Israel: Dr. David Yellin, Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, Henrietta Szold, and even a 7 year old Ezer Weizmann who came to visit together with his mother Yehudit and his sister Yael.

Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi visits Rachel’s Tomb, page 4 of the first visitor’s journal

The anonymous visitors are objects of greater interest: What became of Rachel Frank from Lithuania who visited in 1932, a decade before the Holocaust? Was the couple Esther and Rachamim’s dream to have children fulfilled? Who were the visitors from Persia – new immigrants or tourists who returned to their native country? Each page brings more and more questions.

“Esther Rachamim daughter of Chanina with her husband Rachamim son of Pericha”, page 24 of the first Rachel’s Tomb journal

Eliyahu Freiman made slightly different use of the journals: dozens, and perhaps hundreds of his comments and observations in the two journals provide a more in-depth glimpse into the impact of the dramatic events in the Land of Israel and Europe on the Tomb’s activities. For him, the journals were a way to document the daily activity at the Tomb and his impression of the various visitors. They served as an account of the renovations and repairs, which Freiman himself (usually) carried out, out of fear of the Arab workers, and contain a description of his tense relationship with the local Arabs while mentioning the dramatic events taking place in the world.

“Please do not forget the caretakers who are here daily throughout the year and who endanger themselves to maintain and supervise this holy place and to keep it clean and tidy.” A notice enclosed in the second visitors’ journal

From 1940 onward, the terrifying descriptions of the Second World War and the decimation of the Jews take a central place in the journal. As well as the emotional pleas for help to which Freiman was accustomed. The Holocaust, which the Jewish people was enduring, awakened criticism of “Mama Rachel” as abandoning her sons and daughters.

It is doubtful that Freiman, or any of the visitors at the Tomb, were aware of the extent of the destruction taking place in Europe. Nonetheless, prayers for the salvation of the Jews “who are in danger of destruction” began to fill the journal’s pages. A fixed wording appears in the journal almost daily: a group of Jews comes to the Tomb, and they pray for the welfare of their brethren in occupied territory. One of the detailed examples is on the page dated April 5, 1943. On this day, Freiman notes there was a mass prayer of “several thousand visitors, including schools from throughout the country and several hundred soldiers”. Due to the crowdedness “there were several hours when it was impossible to visit inside due to the multitudes who stood and prayed.” In this emotional prayer “the cries and weeping…were unnatural.” The sights and things said in the Tomb were so disturbing that “several people fainted in distress upon hearing details of the anguish of our brethren who are suffering in the occupied countries.”

“May it be God’s will that we merit to see the complete redemption and the building of the Holy Land this year, speedily in our days, Amen.” Page 94 of the second visitors’ journal

A few days before the end of the War, on April 26, 1945, Freiman records a touching event which took place, when “an historical parokhet [curtain for a Holy Ark] which was preserved from several dozens of synagogues in Poland from the time of the riots which took place in several cities, and still has blood stains on it” was brought to the Tomb. It can be assumed that the parokhet was brought to the Tomb in the early days of the War, as the Freiman family brought the parokhet to the Tomb for several years “And now, on the 14th of Iyar 5705 [April 26, 1945], it was mended and brought once again as a memorial in the holy place.”

The story of the historic parokhet. Page 312 of the second visitors’ journal

Five days before the German surrender, on May 3, 1945, Freiman began the victory celebrations by drawing a large ‘V’ on page 314 of the diary. On the next page he wrote in large letters, perhaps in a very emotional state, the words: “Germany surrendered unconditionally, the war in Europe has ended, today was officially declared Victory Day”.

“Germany surrendered unconditionally, the war in Europe has ended”. Page 314 of the second visitors’ journal

Frieman dedicated the following two pages to writing a blessing of thanksgiving for victory day and a prayer of thanks. The victory celebrations continue at the top of the next page as well.

“On this day, we gather the glorious victory of the allied countries against the forces of darkness and tyranny… to give thanks to Your great name which is praised in bravery.” Page 316 of the second visitors’ journal
“Today was officially declared victory day” Page 318 of the second visitors’ journal

Rachel’s Tomb as the Arena of the National Struggle

Even though many of the visitors expressed concern for the survival of the European and North African Jews during the Holocaust, Freiman dedicated the lion’s share of his writing in the journal to the Jewish-Arab battle around Rachel’s Tomb. Even some of his most banal reports contain expressions of the escalating battle around Rachel’s Tomb. Freiman, who tried to remain on warm terms with the local Arabs as much as possible, found himself, together with them, in an impossible situation. He tried to help his Arab neighbors whenever they approached him for help, but never denied his identification with the Zionist mission and the nation to which he belonged.

When the time came to carry out repairs and renovations in the ancient building, Freiman and his Sephardi counterpart were forced to do the work themselves, out of concern of creating a precedent supporting employment of Arab workers on the site.

On 3, 4, 5, 6 Shevat we repaired the roof and all of the floors, it was scary and fearful but went successfully,” Shlomo Eliyahu Freiman’s comment, page 33 of the first visitors’ journal

Throughout his years as caretaker, Freiman was concerned that the Mufti and the Waqf would attempt to take control of the site by creating small de facto precedents. On March 26, 1936, the secretary of the Mandate government came for a visit and ordered the caretakers to file a report about the tensions with the local Arabs. 

The Secretary of the Mandate Government’s visit to Rachel’s Tomb, page 358 of the first visitors journal

As the years passed, even the most encouraging visits turned sour. When a number of Arabs came to ask for water during Passover of 1940, they told him that they want “the Arabs and the Jews to live in peace”, and did not forget to mention that “the situation is very bad for them because they are not gaining.”

In 1946, a pipe bomb was thrown on Freiman and two Arab neighbors who he was spending time with. This was an omen of what was to come. As the security situation in the Land of Israel became increasingly unstable, and with the mutual preparations for war, the feeling of security at Rachel’s Tomb was lost.

Leading up to the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1947, Rachel’s Tomb becomes unsafe. Freiman relates the throwing of a pipe bomb from a car. Page 382 of the second visitors’ journal.

In one of the last entries in the journal, Freiman copied the letter which he sent to the National Committee in March 1947, in which he informs them about the worrying developments: the appointment of an Arab guard by the Waqf. Ibn Hassan, the guard stationed in the nearby cemetery, antagonized the two caretakers and told the local Arabs that he is the guard of the Tomb. Whenever Ibn Hassan dared approach Freiman and threaten him with commands, Freiman made clear to the National Committee, “I shout at him and he leaves immediately”.

A few days after the U.N. vote on the Partition Plan, Freiman arrived at the Tomb and prepared it as if it was a regular day. The tremendous tension in the area eventually convinced him that he should pack up his belongings and leave. He did so, not before giving the journals to an Arab sheikh who lived nearby. This was last time he saw Rachel’s Tomb.


A news report published on July 3, 1967 about the discovery of Rachel’s Tomb’s visitors’ journal. The report was published in the Davar newspaper.


The two journals belong to an anonymous donor who chose to give them over to the National Library of Israel for safekeeping.



How Did Jewish Children Learn to Write a Thousand Years Ago?

How did children practice their Hebrew letters in Medieval times? A glimpse through the Cairo Geniza offers us an answer and reveals that not much has changed.

How do children practice writing the Hebrew alphabet?

By writing each letter, one at a time, over and over again, of course. This is common practice today and it was common practice back in the middle ages. There are several pages preserved in the Cairo Geniza which contain these types of children’s writing exercises. The Cairo Geniza is a famous collection of ancient Jewish manuscript fragments that was originally stored in Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue. It contained around 300,000 items, some of them over a thousand years old.

Practice sheets: Cambridge manuscripts T-S H 5.17


Practice sheets: Cambridge manuscripts T-S H 5.19

Often a child would learn the entire alphabet and practice writing all the letters in a row. You can see that kind of practice sheet here, accompanied by children’s drawings drawn on the margins of the page.

Practice sheets with children’s drawings: Cambridge manuscripts T-S H 5.19


Practice sheets with letters and nikkud, the signs representing vowels in Hebrew: Cambridge manuscripts T-S K 5.25

More skillfully written letters may have been inscribed by the Sofrim (scribes of religious scrolls) in order to teach the children the most correct way to write Hebrew.

Letters outlines and colored in: Cambridge manuscripts T-S K 5.13


Practice sheet with a Torah blessing on the bottom: Cambridge manuscripts T-S K 5.10

As Geniza scholar S. D. Goitein remarks, “Even then they understood that the most efficient way to teach is by making it into a game. The letters were written in different colors, the teacher would stencil large outlines of letters and the child would fill them in with red, brown, green, and any of the other abundant colors… or the other way around, the teacher would draw letters in black ink and the child would give it a colorful frame.” (From S.D Goiten’s book:  Jewish Education in Muslim Countries, Jerusalem 1962)

These practice sheets that show the methods used a thousand years ago were discovered in the Cairo Geniza.

Practice sheets signed by the writer, Saadia Bar Yehuda: Cambridge manuscripts T-S NS 110.11


The child wrote the sentence over and over again: Cambridge manuscripts T-S NS 129.11


Cambridge manuscripts: T-S AS 118.272

Translated and abridged from the original Hebrew article by Prof. Shulamit Elizur, researcher of Hebrew piyyut and poetry from the Late Antique Period until the Middle Ages.