Did a Woman Really Read from the Torah in the 15th century?

Leifheit bat Asher owned a copy of the oldest printed Jewish prayer book. Was she also called to the Torah?

A copy of the world's oldest printed Jewish prayer book is held by the National Library of Israel. Leifheit bat Asher is just one of the women central to its story (Image: Portrait of a woman by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1480 / Public domain)

A name scratched into the back of an old book can sometimes lead down a historical rabbit hole. In this case, it has introduced me to a woman about whom we know very little, other than that she was a member of a prominent Italian Jewish family in the 15th century and that she saw herself as worthy of being called to the Torah for the prestigious reading of the first Chapter of Genesis.

Our story begins with the first ever Hebrew prayer book printed with movable type and the women linked to it.

Most of the earliest printed Hebrew books – which appeared in the last third of the 15th century – were texts for study. One pioneering printer, Rabbi Meshulam Kuzi, decided to go a different route and print a prayer book. He opened a printing press in the small Italian town of Piove di Sacco, outside of Padua. Having created stunning Ashkenazi-style typesets, he planned to print many books, but ultimately succeeded in producing only two: a work of Jewish law entitled Arba’ah Turim, and a book of Selihos, special penitential prayers recited prior to and during the High Holiday period.

Published around 1475, this second book is the first known Hebrew prayer book ever printed. One copy is safeguarded as part of the National Library of Israel’s collection.

Women of the Book

At least three women are linked to this copy.

Rabbi Meshulam passed away while working on Arba’ah Turim and his wife Devorah completed the project. In rhymed poems appearing at the end of the last two volumes, she describes her role in the printing. Though the Selihot prayer book was probably completed prior to Arba’ah Turim, if she was able to take over the printing business after her husband’s death, it is almost certain that she was working in the shop alongside her husband while he was still alive.

Two other women were counted among the owners of the copy of the Selihot book currently held at the National Library. From an inscription on the very first page, we know that one “Mrs. Esther daughter of Rabbi Asher” owned it.

Was she literate enough to pen the calligraphic signature on the front page of the book, which includes a warning to potential thieves? Or did she pay someone to add the note?

At the end of the book another inscription appears indicating that the book had also belonged to one “Leifheit daughter of Rabbi Asher”. The signature of a third owner, a man named Yaakov Hacohen Rafa, also appears.

Who are these three owners and is there any connection between them?

It turns out that there is.  After some information about the book was published on the National Library of Israel’s Hebrew blog and in the Israeli media, I received a call from a collector and dealer in rare Jewish books and manuscripts.

First, he informed me that one of the owners, Yaakov Rafa, was the father of the better known rabbi, scientist, doctor and renaissance man, Avraham Menahem ben Yaakov Hakohen Rappaport, who had extended the shorter last name, and authored the Biblical commentary Minhah Belullah.

More importantly, he said, he knew Leifheit bat Asher and her connection with Yaakov Rafa.


Connection, surprises and questions

We met at the Library and he showed me a small but beautiful parchment manuscript Mahzor from late 15th or early 16th century Italy (along with a detailed description by renowned scholar Shlomo Zucker), which he graciously allowed the National Library to scan.

The Mahzor contains the special blessings for those called to the Torah on the holiday of Simhat Torah.

Rather than leave blank the name of the person called to the Torah as “Hatan Torah“, a distinguised honor bestowed upon a prominent community member, the scribe had included the name of the person who had clearly commissioned the manuscript: Yaakov ben Yekutiel Hakohen, otherwise known as Yaakov Hakohen Rafa, who once owned the Selihot prayer book.

15th century Italian Mahzor honoring Yaakov ben Yekutiel Hakohen as “Hatan Torah” (Courtesy: Private collection)

The very next page of the Mahzor includes the special blessings for the “Hatan Bereishit“, the other main honor of the holiday – the person called up to begin the new Torah reading cycle. There, the name had originally been left blank. Yet in slightly smaller script someone had filled in a name: Leifheit bat Asher.

15th century Italian Mahzor honoring Leifheit bat Asher as “Hatan Bereshit” (Courtesy: Private collection)

It is not hard to speculate about how her name got there.

It seems likely that Yaakov ben Yekutiel Rafa and Leifheit bat Asher were married to one another. The family was well off enough to commission a beautiful manuscript on parchment, and Yaakov had included his name in the first blessing, perhaps because he actually was regularly called up for that honor. Either he or she decided that her name would make a good addition to the second blessing, and her name was added later in slightly smaller script.

Was this merely a kind of owners mark or a sign of honor?

Did Leifheit ask or insist that her name be placed there?

Was she actually called up to the Torah?

Today, there are many communities – including some Orthodox ones – that allow women to be called to the Torah, but in 15th century Italy I know of no evidence that such a thing actually occurred – though women were certainly honored as part of community Simhat Torah celebrations. It seems more likely that her name was added to the blessing as a combination of ownership mark and respect.

Regardless, it seems reasonable to speculate that Esther bat Asher, signed on the first page of the Selihot book, is Leifheit’s sister and Yaakov’s sister-in-law.

Moreover, in some way the story comes full circle after discovering a connection between the Rafa family and that of Meshulam Kuzi, the owner of the printing house.

The Vatican library houses an early 13th century Hebrew manuscript Bible, carefully illuminated and copied. This Bible was bought and sold a few times, and the first page of the manuscript includes a handwritten contract sealing the sale of the volume on the 7th of  the Hebrew month of Heshvan 5227 (1467) in Venice, from one Moshe ben Tanhum to none other than “Meshulam who is known as Kuzi.” One of the witnesses to the sale is a Menahem Cohen Rafa, certainly a relative of Yaakov.

It turns out, however, that the Kuzi and Rafa families were not only friends; they were relatives. A Meshulam Kuzi is also mentioned in a 15th -16th century Halakhic work, the responsa of Mahari Mintz, who was active in Italy.  The responsum discusses the upcoming bar mitzvah of Meshulam Kuzi, the deaf grandson of Meshulam Kuzi the printer. Meshulam the younger is referred to by a longer name – Meshulam Kuzi Rafa Katz.

Did one branch of a larger family take the family name Kuzi and the other branch the name Rafa? Or did the families marry together at some point in the late 15th or early 16th century?

Could it be that a member of the Rafa-bat-Asher family bought the copy of the Selihot prayer book directly from the printer, their family friends Meshulam and Devorah Kuzi?

We do not know much more about these men and women, or the Selihot book’s other owners. Yet the book’s wear – as well as the numerous handwritten notes throughout it that re-assert words erased by Christian censors – emphasize the importance the book had for countless cantors and lay readers – including women – who used it following its publication at the very dawn of Hebrew printing some 550 years ago.

Sukkah Scuffles: Surprising Testimony From the 12th Century

The only mentions of a sukkah in the Cairo Genizah refer to communal sukkot in synagogue courtyards. A fact that caused quite a bit of trouble.

False accusations and brawls on Sukkot

The Cairo Genizah is a famous collection of Jewish manuscript fragments, originally stored in Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue. It contains around 300,000 items, some of them over a thousand years old. It does not, however, contain any documentation of private sukkot erected in building courtyards or on balconies.

In the overcrowded neighborhoods of Fustat, the medieval capital of Egypt, now Old Cairo, Jewish residents shared common courtyards in multi-story apartment buildings, which was why on Sukkot, the sukkah was built in the courtyard of the synagogue. It should be remembered that for long periods, the synagogue was the center of communal life, the place where the community’s children learned, as well as a hostel for weary travelers, a soup kitchen for the needy and more.

The two synagogues in Fustat—the Iraqi synagogue of the Babylonians, and the “Shami” synagogue of the Syrian Jews, (who worshipped according to the custom of the Land of Israel, which was considered part of Greater Syria or “Sham”)—each had its own sukkah. As communal property, the sukkah was the responsibility of the community leaders, who also were in charge of the day-to-day upkeep of all the communal property. The first document we see here, from 1165, is an account in Judeo-Arabic of the “kodesh” (lit. sacred), meaning the communal assets, in this case of the Shami community. One of the expenses was “cleaning out the pipe in the entry hall, behind the Shami synagogue sukkah, in the presence of the rabbi—31 drahma.”

“….cleaning out the pipe in the entry hall, behind the Shami synagogue sukkah, in the presence of the rabbi—31 drahma.”

There was also a sukkah in the courtyard of the Iraqi synagogue, which followed the Babylonian rite. We learn this from an interesting testimony recorded in the middle of the 12th century, about an altercation between two respected members of the community:

“So say I, slave and servant of our rabbi, Abu Alkhir, that on Thursday evening, after the evening prayer, I was about to leave the Iraqi synagogue after the congregation left. And when I left the sukkah in the direction of the synagogue gate, I saw the honorable gentleman Abu Albaha, may God protect him, quarreling with Abu Alufa, and I don’t know how the quarrel began, but I saw Abu Alufa raise his hand to the gentleman Abu Albaha over and over, and expose his head [i.e., knock his head covering off] and level false accusations at him.”

Another testimony which appears later also confirms the details of the incident described above. The page was sent to the Nagid, the head of the Egyptian Jewish community, but alas, we still do not know the true reasons for the brawl or how the conflict was resolved.

So this year, while it can occasionally get hot and crowded in the sukkah, let’s try to be respectful and avoid any kerfuffles!

Happy Sukkot!


The “kodesh” expenditures can be found at Cambridge University Library, TSAr18 (1) .155, and were published by Moshe Gil in his book Documents of the Jewish Pious foundations from the Cairo Geniza, document 67. The testimony, also in Cambridge University Library, TS10J14.30, has not yet been published in full, and is mentioned in Shlomo Dov Goitein’s A Mediterranean Society, Vol. II.

A Half-Angel, Half-Demon Named Azazel and His Connection to Yom Kippur

What are the strange biblical origins of the term "scapegoat"? And what does it have to do with the Jewish Day of Atonement?

The demon Azazel from the Dictionnaire Infernal

You may or may not be aware that the word Azazel is often used in modern Hebrew in a similar function to the word “Hell” in English – as in a place where you can tell someone particularly annoying to go to. Some of you may also have heard of the ancient Jewish practice, dating from before the destruction of the temple, of se’ir la’azazel (“a goat for Azazel“), the ritual of sending a goat into the wilderness as atonement for the sins of the people, hence the term scapegoat. But did you know that Azazel was also the name of a dangerous and destructive angel, who according to Jewish mystical tradition, was responsible for teaching humans some of history’s most horrible lessons?

So, who exactly is this rebellious angel Azazel and how is he related to Yom Kippur?

HaSe’ir La’Azazel, Leora Wise. This is the second engraving in a series of nine on the scapegoat, inspired by Goya’s “Los caprichos”. Printed in the Jerusalem Print Workshop. For the series on Leora’s website: https://www.artleora.com/scapegoat

And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat upon which the lot fell for the LORD, and offer him for a sin-offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell for Azazel, shall be set alive before the LORD, to make atonement over him, to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness. [Leviticus 16, 8-10]

It begins with an age-old tradition rooted in the Bible that took place once a year on Yom Kippur. On that day, a day of atonement and fasting, the high priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and bring with him a sacrifice to the God of Israel. After leaving the temple, he cast lots for the two goats. The first would be sacrificed to God on the spot, and the second would be sent into exile to Azazel, after all the sins of Israel had been transferred to it. The casting of the lot symbolized God’s choice of the se’ir la’azazel (the scapegoat to be sent to exile to Azazel).

How are we to understand the instruction to send this creature to Azazel? It all depends of course on the meaning of the word Azazel. According to the Talmudic Sages, the word Azazel, which is mentioned three times in the Bible, is the name of a particular cliff or especially treacherous mountain (Az-el). They explained that on Yom Kippur the high priest would cast lots and decide which goat would be sent to Azazel. Then an emissary would accompany the goat that was selected to the location, some 7 miles from Jerusalem, and there he would throw the poor goat off the cliff to its death.

From the Lenkin Family Collection, the National Library of Israel

There is also another way of understanding the word Azazel, and that is as the name of a supernatural being to whom the poor goat must be sacrificed. If God is the essence of good, Azazel is an evil demon or a lesser god that is fed by the sins of the people.

This second interpretation comes from the Jewish apocrypha, or more specifically the First Book of Enoch, which details Azazel’s awful nature. Here there is no trace of a helpless animal forced to carry the sins of the collective through no fault of its own. Rather, Azazel is the rebellious angel at the head of a heavenly plot to take over the earth.

The First Book of Enoch retells the story cited in Genesis (6, 1–4) of the angels who had relations with the daughters of men. The offspring of their unnatural union were the nefilim—giants of renown who filled the earth. Enoch, the seventh generation between Adam and Noah, is naturally the central figure of this book and is chosen to bring God’s message to the rebellious angels. One of those evil angels, and second in importance only to their leader Shemhazai, is our Azazel.

Azazel’s influence on mankind is destructive and eternal: he “taught men to make swords, and knives, and shields, and breastplates, and made known to them the metals of the earth and the art of working them, and bracelets, and ornaments, and the use of antimony, and the beautifying of the eyelids, and all kinds of costly stones, and all coloring tinctures.”  He teaches humans not only how to make weapons of war, he shows them the power of artifice and hypocrisy. And as a result of this destructive influence, “there arose much godlessness, and they committed fornication, and they were led astray, and became corrupt in all their ways.”

Although Enoch warned the rebellious angels, they remained steadfast in their destructive ways. And were punished for it. Thus, Azazel finds himself bound in the desert. This is in fact an original and interesting explanation of the origin of the sacrifice of the scapegoat in the desert:

And again the Lord said to Raphael: ‘Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness: and make an opening in the desert, which is in Dudael, and cast him therein. And place upon him rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him abide there for ever, and cover his face that he may not see light. And on the day of the great judgment he shall be cast into the fire.”

Azazel appears in other Jewish works from the first centuries CE, and even more interestingly, he has a starring role in various Christian traditions. The religion that grew out of Judaism also preserved something of the scapegoat from the Book of Leviticus. According to some of the early Church Fathers, Azazel was even one of the names of the devil himself. Is it any wonder that so many illustrations show the devil with the hindquarters and hooves of a goat?

So the next time you decide to make someone a scapegoat, or heaven forbid wish someone a long visit to hell or some other desolate wilderness, we recommend that you hurry and cool off, appease your demons and prove to the devilish Azazel that you were just joking. There’s really no need for all that -after all, the modern kapparot (atonement) chicken is the natural heir to the Biblical and Talmudic scapegoat—a helpless creature onto which we transfer all our sins on the Jewish calendar’s Day of Atonement.

Who ‘Fixed’ the Jewish Calendar?

A glimpse at the Jewish year across time and space

These moveable wheels known as "volvelles" appear in an 18th century Germany manuscript called Sefer Evronot. They allowed readers to keep track of the Jewish calendar. From the National Library of Israel collection

In ancient Israel, there was no fixed calendar.

New months were only declared by the rabbinic court after witnesses came to testify that they had seen the new moon.

In this way, each month essentially reflected a partnership between the Jewish people who declared the moon and God who mandated that certain days be sacred, dedicated to sacrifices and celebration.

Using astronomical calculations instead of witnesses, a sage by the name of Hillel the Second boldly established the set Jewish calendar in the 4th century, a few centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

This is the calendar still used by Jews across the world until today!

Check out the clip below for a glimpse at a 900 year-old Jewish calendar and other rare treasures from the National Library of Israel’s world-leading collection, as well as some insights into how the Jewish year was recorded and remembered across the world over the centuries.

The film is part of “A Look at the Jewish Year,” a series presented by the National Library of Israel in collaboration with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, which provides insights into the Jewish calendar and holidays through the lens of the National Library of Israel’s world-leading collection of Jewish manuscripts, books, printed materials and more.

The project also includes source sheets with questions and links to additional materials that can be used to help lead group discussions and activities or enriched personal reflection.