Did Medieval Jewish Kabbalists Design the Tarot Deck?

Until the 18th century, tarot cards were simply playing cards. It was then that occult researchers became convinced that these cards in fact held magical properties, and that they contained a secret truth that originated in ancient Egypt and was preserved in Jewish mysticism…

It was during one of the early waves of the COVID pandemic, when the future seemed shrouded in mist and I was spending my time balancing a hectic schedule of frequent afternoon naps and proper nighttime sleep, that I was drawn deep into the world of Tarot. As usually happens when I begin to research an occult doctrine or theory that is new to me, I was apprehensive at first.

On the one hand, I consider myself to be a rational, logical, and sensible person and I knew that there was nothing to fear. On the other hand, maybe this stuff actually worked? A friend had mailed me my first tarot deck, and to quote the Israeli singer-songwriter Meir Ariel, every time I turned to my deck with a question – I immediately felt that the cards were able to “guess me and open themselves up to me”.

As I delved deeper into the history and mythology of Tarot, a question began to form in my mind that even the tarot deck couldn’t provide me with an answer to: were tarot cards influenced by Jewish mysticism – the Kabbalah – with which I was already familiar from my work at the National Library of Israel? How else can one explain the fact that the Sefirot from the Kabbalistic Tree of Life keep showing up in the tarot cards?


The Kabbalistic Tree of Life, consisting of the Sefirot


Many books have dealt with the connection between Tarot and the Kabbalah, and particularly – Tarot’s reliance on the latter. The majority of these books seem to presuppose the connection between the popular card deck and Jewish mainstream mysticism, and don’t feel the need to explain the relationship or prove its existence. But since we are, of course, rational, logical and sensible people, we will need to find the answer to this question within the complex and intricate history of the deck of cards that we refer to as Tarot. So, let’s dive in.

The first appearance of the tarot deck came about in medieval Italy when a new card game called Tarocchi became a hit among the Italian aristocracy. The structure of the new playing deck was different from other card decks of the era, which might have been the reason that an anonymous monk in 1377 decided that the tarot cards were the most complete and accurate representation of the “current state of the world”. And indeed, the first 22 cards in the deck, known as the Major Arcana, depict medieval personas, such as the Emperor, the Empress, the Magician, the Hierophant and the High Priestess. Alongside these, appear cards with conceptual values and symbols: the World, Justice, Temperance, the Wheel of Fortune and Death.

The 56 Minor Arcana cards are organized in a structure that would eventually inspire the playing cards we are familiar with today. The Minor Arcana cards are subdivided into four suits: Wands, Cups, Pentacles (also referred to as Coins), and Swords. Each suit begins with the number one card – which is the Ace – and runs up to the number ten card; following are the four Court cards: the Page, the Knight, the Queen and the King.

The 22 Major Arcana cards in the Rider deck


For centuries, the tarot deck was used as a regular deck of playing cards and for gambling. It was only some 400 years later, in the late 18th century, that the deck was attributed hidden powers. In 1781, a Protestant pastor named Antoine Court de Gébelin published a book dedicated to the tarot deck, and became the first to draw a connection between Tarot and ancient Egyptian theology. During one of his walks through the streets of Paris, Gébelin came across a group of women playing with a tarot deck and determined then and there that these were not ordinary playing cards but an arcane repository of timeless esoteric wisdom. In his ensuing studies he concluded emphatically that the tarot symbols were based on ancient Egyptian wisdom that had made its way to Europe through Jewish Kabbalah.

Although the ancient Egyptian language had not yet been deciphered at the time, the Frenchman asserted that the word “tarot” derived from two ancient Egyptian words: “tar” (road or path), and “ro” (king or royalty). Therefore, according to Gébelin, the meaning of the word “tarot” is, “the king’s path”. When Jean-François Champollion deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics in 1822, the etymology provided by Gébelin was revealed to be completely delusional.

Gébelin was not the first to view the ancient Egyptian religion as a significant and unique source of knowledge. Since the Renaissance, the belief had existed in Europe that western culture had its roots in ancient Egyptian theology, that its wisdom was handed-down to ancient Greece through conquest and expansion; and to Judaism (and from there on to Christianity) through Moses.

The innovative book contained a short article by the Comte de Mellet, who followed Gébelin’s esoteric thought, and asserted that the 22 Major Arcana cards are an illustrated representation of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This idea would subsequently become an anchor for those who claimed a direct connection between Tarot and Kabbalah, as flimsy as the evidence may have been: 22 cards correspond to the 22 letters of the alphabet.

Gébelin and de Mellet’s assertions instantly changed the way the tarot deck was perceived, to this day: from a popular pastime for European aristocrats, the tarot decks quickly became associated with fortunetellers, magicians and occultists. In fact, two years after Gébelin’s book was published, Jean-Baptiste Alliette popularized the tarot divination method.

The Death card designed by the occultist, Alliete


Éliphas Lévi further developed Tarot as a key to the great mysteries. This 19th-century French author and poet, born Alphonse Louis Constant, wrote more than twenty esoteric books about Kabbalah, alchemy, and magic. He maintained in his book Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, that “without Tarot, the magic of the ancients is a closed book”.

Lévi likened Tarot to a book. Whereas Alliette designed tarot cards, Lévi elevated the Tarot of Marseilles to the rank of sacred scripture. “One who is confined, with no access to any books aside from the Tarot, can obtain universal wisdom within a few years and proficiently lecture on all subjects unmatched and with undoubtable astuteness”, asserted Lévi, who believed that Tarot’s wisdom preceded even the Law of Moses.

The Tarot of Marseilles is a standard pattern that has been common in Europe since the Middle Ages. Historians trace this deck’s origins to the 15th century, in the northern Italian city of Ferrara. It was named the Tarot of Marseilles, since the city of Marseilles subsequently became a prominent printing center that produced an assortment of decks designed by different artists. Photograph: the version in my possession – the Tarot of Marseilles, designed by Claude Brudel, 1751


Lévi continued Gébelin’s line of thought. He accepted the correlation between the 22 Major Arcana cards and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In addition, he directly associated the first ten cards of each suit with the ten Kabbalistic Sefirot, and contended that each of the four tarot suits corresponds with a letter of God’s name (Y-H-W-H). Within a few decades, Lévi’s tenets reached England, and were circulated and enhanced by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This New Age of tarot and spirituality had begun to take shape.


The Rider-Waite Tarot and the Thoth Tarot Deck

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was a secret society that concerned itself with mystical doctrines. The Order was established in 1887, in London. For over a decade, the Order acted in its original configuration until it disbanded and split into various, and at times contentious, groups. One cannot overestimate the Order’s great influence on modern Tarot and Western spiritual movements.

Two members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn would subsequently design the two most influential and popular tarot decks of the New Age declared by the Order. They both deliberately embedded Kabbalistic symbols into their decks—along with emblematic drawings from astrology, Christian mysticism, alchemy, and ancient Egyptian theology. The members were, Arthur Edward Waite, who published his deck in 1909, and Aleister Crowley, whose Thoth deck was published posthumously in 1969.

The Rider-Waite pack is named after the publisher (William Rider) and its mastermind (Arthur Edward Waite). The name given to this deck disregards the essential contribution of the artist who actually designed the deck, Pamela Colman Smith. The major innovations of this deck are the illustrated scenes that Waite and Smith crafted into the Minor Arcana cards – which in the older decks resembled simple playing cards. The Kabbalistic influence is most apparent in the 10th card of the Pentacles suit. In this card, ten Pentacles are arranged in the pattern of the Sefirot in the Tree of Life, superimposed on a scene depicting urban life. The images of the Sefirot and the Tree of Life are central symbols in Kabbalah, visual representations of the divine Sefirot – the ten omnipotent powers of God, who is manifested from Ein-Sof (“the Infinite”) into the material world.

In the accompanying book written by Waite, which details his tarot deck, he made no reference to the Sefirot and the Tree of Life displayed on the card.

Ten of Pentacles (Coins) in a Rider Pack


Ten of Pentacles (Coins), from Tarot de Marseilles


The other clues disseminated by Rider are found in the Major Arcana: The Magician (card no. 1) lifts his right arm to the sky while his left points to the ground – a Kabbalistic emblem that signifies the connection between heaven and earth. The infinity symbol hovers over his head.


In card no. 2, the High Priestess is seen reading the Torah, with Boaz and Jachin, the two pillars of Solomon’s Temple, on either side of her. Waite wrote of the High Priestess, who in the Tarot of Marseilles is called La Papesse (“The Popess”): “In a manner, she is […] the Supernal Mother herself – that is to say, she is the bright reflection. It is in this sense of reflection that her truest and highest name in bolism is Shekinah – the co-habiting glory. According to Kabalism, there is a Shekinah both above and below.” This is one of the few instances in Waite’s commentary in which he interprets one of his tarot cards using a Kabbalistic symbol – the Shekinah or Shechinah, which is the last of the Kabbalistic Sefirot, and the female essence of the divine.


The Lovers card (no. 6) – in older decks, the card depicts a young, enamored couple with Cupid floating overhead, while in Rider’s deck the couple transforms into the naked Adam and Eve with the angel of God poised over them.

The Lovers, from the Marseilles Tarot deck, after Alejandro Jodorowsky’s restoration


The Lovers, from the Rider Tarot deck


The Wheel of Fortune tarot card (no. 10), features a wheel adorned with the Hebrew letters י-ה-ו-ה”” (Y-H-W-H, the divine name), and on its four sides stand the four “living creatures”, the animals described in the vision of the Prophet Ezekiel, each reading a book. In the older tarot decks, this card was called “The Wheel”, and the four creatures did not appear.

And these are just the most obvious clues.

Even though Waite published his tarot deck, he did not elaborate on his interpretation of the cards. In this sense, Waite was a faithful follower of Golden Dawn, an order whose members were not expected to impart its substance and secrets outside of its private circle.

With Aleister Crowley, the opposite was true. One of the reasons he was expelled from the Order was his reckless distribution of manuscripts and artwork compiled and composed by members of the Order. Of the two, Crowley was the one who put a particular emphasis on Kabbalah.

A Thoth Tarot deck together with the accompanying book written by Aleister Crowley

As early as the introduction in his book, after detailing the Tarot structure (Major and Minor Arcana), Crowley asserts that this structure might appear “arbitrary, but it is not. It is necessitated, as will appear later, by the structure of the universe, and in particular of the Solar System, as symbolized by the Holy Qabalah. This will be explained in due course”.

Thus, in a single paragraph, Crowley explains how he understands the Kabbalah: the Sefirot symbolize the universe, and not the ten omnipotent powers or qualities of God, as they do in traditional Kabbalah. Crowley combines astrology and Kabbalah in his interpretation of the tarot deck. And it seems that most of the cards refer to at least some aspect of Kabbalah – particularly one of the ten Sefirot. Many examples can be offered, but we’ll settle for two that stood out to us.

Card number 10 in the suit of Swords, called “Ruin”:


Crowley expounded on the deck he crafted in the book that accompanied the Thoth cards. His own interpretation of this card begins with:

“The number Ten, Malkuth [kingship/kingdom], as always, represents the culmination of the unmitigated energy of the idea. It shows reason run mad, ramshackle riot of soulless mechanism; it represents the logic of lunatics and (for the most part) of philosophers. This is reason divorced from reality.”

“The hilts of the Swords occupy the positions of the Sephiroth, but the points One to Five and Seven to Nine touch and shatter the central Sword (six), which represents the Sun, the Heart, the child of Chokmah [the wisdom Sefirah] and Binah [understanding].”

Another clear Kabbalistic influence appearing in Crowley’s deck is found in the Wealth card in the Pentacles suit, which Crowley referred to as the Disk suit: disks arranged as the Sefirot in the Tree of Life, with the central disk featuring the name of the Archangel Raphael, written in Hebrew.


Frieda Harris, who designed Crowley’s deck of cards, claimed that the tarot cards that originated in Egypt were lost. And so, the illustrator of the most peculiar and mysterious deck of tarot provided the most peculiar and mysterious claim about their origin: she claimed that Jewish Kabbalists were responsible for redesigning the tarot deck in the Middle Ages. The majority of advocates of the secret connection between Kabbalah and Tarot make a claim that is much more subtle: that medieval tarot illustrators were influenced by the Kabbalah, which was itself shaped by Egyptian theology, and that these influences were hidden among medieval images and personas such as the Emperor and the Hierophant.

Arthur Waite made another intriguing claim. He flat out rejected the idea that Tarot originated in ancient Egypt. By analyzing the two Arcana he understood that these were two disassociated decks that had been deliberately united in Europe. The inception of the tarot cards, therefore, is an unsolvable enigma. Historical research supports this conclusion. The tarot deck is a combination of ordinary playing cards and others featuring allegoric imagery. So indeed, Waite was correct.


The Kabbalah in Support of Tarot

In this article, we referred to the term Kabbalah, without expounding on its essence. It is important to emphasize that the two deck creators – Waite and Crowley – were influenced by the Christian interpretation of Kabbalah, rather than the Jewish Kabbalah. Christian Kabbalah, as this interpretation was termed, flourished in Europe as early as the 15th century, and its main objective was to promote Christian dogma while utilizing  Jewish Kabbalistic symbols.

Despite their differences in approach, it was not the intention of the creators of the two most prominent modern decks of Tarot to endorse Christian dogma. Waite and Crowley both believed that applying Kabbalistic aspects would allow them to restore the original, natural religion that preceded Christianity, and thus bring forth a New Age in which man would knock the gods off of their divine perch, and fashion a new life for himself, in his own way, according to his own wishes.

In line with the notion that the tarot cards symbolize the universe, Crowley altered card no. 21 – the World card – to the Universe card


Crowley was radical in everything he did, and even asserted that he aimed to replace Christianity with a new-ancient religion revolving around the Egyptian deity Horus, and thus he felt he was permitted to alter the original pack as he saw fit. Arthur Waite negated the concept of Tarot’s Egyptian origins, and the deck he and Pamela Colman Smith illustrated remains the closest to the older tarot decks. It is also currently the most prominent and accepted pack, and the one which the majority of new Tarot artists base their illustrations on.

The New Age concepts that the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn members promoted, later became the New Age that we are quite familiar with today. The New Age reverted its gaze from Egypt, and beginning in the 1860s, turned to the true Far East: India and China.

The World card in the Tarot and Cats deck, designed by Thiago Corrêa


The World card in the Rider Tarot


And what does academia have to say about the matter? Gershom Scholem, who was the founder of the modern academic study of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, utterly dismissed the Golden Dawn’s modern analysis of Kabbalah (this was a typical attitude of Scholem’s). Although he had some respect for Éliphas Lévi and his “erroneous but brilliant” analyses, he referred to Crowley as a “gaudy imposter” and determined that “it is pointless to waste words on Crowley’s ‘Kabbalistic’ writings and what he called “magic” in his books and his periodical ‘The Equinox’.” The scandalous notions and interpretations of Crowley and similar figures led Scholem to advocate for “a redemption of this forsaken field [the study of Kabbalah] by applying rigid rules of historical research. I am committed to this mission”.

So who was right? Does the tarot deck really have secret and possibly prophetic powers? Are these forces obtained from the Kabbalah? And is it possible for us to come to any conclusion? A fabulous way to circumvent the need for an unequivocal and clear conclusion was offered by the psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung, Freud’s prodigious student. Jung proposed to view Tarot as a direct path to our subconscious. A way to penetrate our deepest thoughts, to self-explore our place in the world and make sense of our own lives. I prefer this approach to the common mystical analysis. Because even if the cards do provide an answer to my question, isn’t the knowledge really emanating from my inner self and subconscious?



Further Reading

Aleister Crowley, The Book of Thoth (Samuel Weiser, Inc. 1985)

Arthur Edward Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (U.S. Games Systems, Inc., 1989)

Robert Wang, The Qabalistic Tarot: A Textbook of Mystical Philosophy (Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1983)

מורן גאם-כהן, גלגוליה של הקבלה דרך העולם הנוצרי עד ה”עידן החדש” על ידי בחינת מסדר “שחר הזהב”, עבודת גמר עבור תואר מוסמך בחוג למחשבת ישראל באוניברסיטה העברית, שנת 2011

אורי רז, האתר טארוט

גרשם שלום, זרמים ראשיים במיסטיקה היהודית, הוצאת משכל, 2016




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)

Once Every Seven Years: Dismissing Debt on Rosh Hashanah

The concept of Shemittah – the Jewish Sabbatical Year – includes among other things a provision to release people from debts owed to others. Though clearly a noble and moral sentiment, such a law can easily lead to problematic situations and even exploitation. Levi Cooper delves into one possible solution to this issue, provided by a 2000 year-old legal loophole…

A Rosh Hashanah greeting card depicting an act of charity, the Hebrew caption across the bottom reads: “Repentance, prayer and charity avert the severity of the decree”, early 20th century, the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection

One aspect of Shemittah – the biblically mandated Sabbatical Year – is debt relief: Creditors release debtors from loans that are due to be repaid. The release – termed Shemittat Kesafim (release of monies) – is triggered on Rosh Hashanah following the Sabbatical Year: sundown September 25, 2022.

The workaround

During the Second Temple period, it became apparent that creditors were not extending loans to the needy, lest they would not be able to recover the funds because of Shemittat Kesafim. Extending credit to the needy is a form of charity. Moreover, not providing loans because of Shemittat Kesafim is in conflict with the biblical warning not to let the remission hinder extending credit.

To combat the trend, Hillel the Elder instituted a legal instrument termed prozbul – a fictitious transfer of bonds held by creditors to the court of law. The sabbatical remission applies only to debts owed to individuals, and not to debts owed to the court. Hence, the bond remains intact despite the biblical debt relief. Creditors – acting as agents of the court – can then recover outstanding debts despite Shemittat Kesafim.

Prozbul involves a simple declaration attested by witnesses or judges: “I deliver to you [insert names] judges of [insert location], that any debt that I have [owed to me] that I may collect it at any time I choose.”

The specific goal of Hillel’s legal innovation was to help the needy by encouraging creditors to extend loans. The motivation for Hillel’s enactment is also described in general terms as mipnei tikkun ha-‘olam, for the sake of order of the world. In contemporary discourse, Tikkun Olam has become a popular – and one could argue overused – catchcry.

It was Greek to me

The meaning of the Greek term prozbul and its Hellenistic legal origins have been discussed by scholars. Already in Babylonia, the rabbis were unsure of the term’s etymology. Thus Rava sought assistance from a foreigner who spoke Greek as to the meaning of the term. The Greek-speaker explaned: Pursa (enactment) of the matter. Scholars have suggested that the term comes from προσβολή (prosbolé), meaning delivery and describing the transfer of the bond to the court. Other scholars suggested that the term is a portmanteau of πρὸς βουλῇ βουλευτῶν (pros boulé bouleuton), meaning before the assembly of councilors and describing the authority that receives the bonds. The Talmud offers a different explanation: The term comes from the words pros buli and buti – the enactment (pros) for the wealthy (buli) who can recover debts, and for the impoverished (buti) who can obtain loans.

Lost in time

By the Middle Ages, Shemittat Kesafim had been forgotten in many Jewish communities. It was not just that the loan remission was not observed, but executing a prozbul to avoid debt cancellation was also not widespread. This is apparent from legal sources that can be divided into four categories:

  1. Justifications for the neglect;
  2. Critique for the neglect and calls for reinstatement;
  3. Contractual stipulations – actual or implied – that circumvent the law;
  4. Communal ordinances that abrogate the law of debt cancellation.

To be sure, prozbul templates and documents from the Middle Ages have survived. For example, a prozbul from 1224 was discovered in the Cairo Genizah.

A prozbul document from the Cairo Genizah, 1224, Jacques Mosseri, Paris, France

The balance of the legal sources was a demand to keep the debt relief law, which meant choosing between two alternatives: either debt release or using a legal instrument to avoid debt release. This second path included various options, such as executing a prozbul, incorporating a circumvention clause in the loan contract, setting the payment date after Rosh Hashanah, securing the loan with collateral, and more.

No one suggested that there was a legal need or a religious value for creditors to do both; that is, cancel debts and avoid debt release. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with choosing different alternatives for different debts. It was at the discretion of creditors whether to cancel a debt or opt for a workaround. It is not hard to imagine a creditor applying the debt release to certain loans, while avoiding the release for other loans. For example, a creditor may choose to cancel a personal loan to a poor debtor, but execute a prozbul for a loan to a successful entrepreneur who has suffered a temporary loss. In other words, the circumstances might dictate the creditors’ decision. No sources suggested that there was a religious ideal to actively seek a way to fulfil the biblical command and release debts.

Symbolic loan

The great Baghdadi scholar, Rabbi Yosef Hayim (1835-1909), discussed debt relief laws in his Ben Ish Hai – a compendium of practical Jewish law, designed as a two-year programme of study. Rabbi Yosef Hayim was a prolific writer, but he is identified by the title of this volume due to its widespread popularity. After recounting the basic laws of prozbul, Ben Ish Hai added a watershed passage:

And behold there are those who act piously, after they write the prozbul, they lend some sum of money – ten grush or less or more – to a friend, and on that amount the prozbul is ineffective, since they loaned [the money] after the time of the prozbul.

And then, after Rosh Hashanah, when his friend brings him the funds to pay him back, [the creditor] should say to [the debtor] “I cancel [the debt],” and [the creditor] should not receive [the funds] from [the debtor], and the debtor can use these funds and enjoy them, and the creditor can enjoy the mitzvah of releasing monies [owed] that he actually fulfilled.

Grush refers to a silver currency unit used for daily transactions in the Ottoman Empire. The purchasing power of ten grush in Ben Ish Hai’s context may be estimated at US$15-20. Thus the loan that Ben Ish Hai was advocating was a symbolic gesture, though the amount was not worthless. The symbolism of the act is further emphasised by the identity of the recipient – a friend, rather than a pauper. This post-prozbul loan was an attempt to preserve an element of debt release, even if it was only a shadow of the original biblical commandment.

A prozbul document from the early 1860s, signed by Ya’akov Bar Ya’akov Amsalem, Morocco, donated by Ezra P. Gorodetzky, the National Library of Israel

Ben Ish Hai opened his description with the claim that “there are those who act piously” – indicating that this was an existing custom. Alas, documentation of such a practice has not reached us. At least as far as local practice was concerned, Ben Ish Hai seems to have introduced the custom in Baghdad, as the following biographical note suggests:

I instituted this mitzvah here in our city Baghdad, may God protect it. I printed prozbul documents and I distributed them to a number of people and they executed them.

And I also taught them that they should do thus – to loan any sum after the prozbul time and to actually fulfil the mitzvah.

Ben Ish Hai added a further angle:

And also if a person borrowed loaves of bread from his friend, even one loaf, the law of Shemittah applies to this.

In the eyes of the Ben Ish Hai, this was an opportunity for fulfilment of the mitzvah by another sector of the community:

Therefore, it is good if the woman loans a loaf of bread or two or three to her friend on the day before Rosh Hashanah, and after Rosh Hashanah when [the borrower] pays her back, she will say to her: “I cancel [the debt],” and thus this woman fulfils the commandment of Shemittah.

Once again Ben Ish Hai provided a local report, followed by a triumphant crescendo:

And thus a number of women did so in our city, may God protect it, because with the help of God may he be blessed, I preached [about] this matter in public. Fortunate is Israel!

“An Announcement on the Matter of prozbul” – a public notice on behalf of the the “Edah Haredit” community organization, mentioning that rabbis would be answering questions on the subject of prozbuls, “everyday between 3 and 4 in the afternoon”, 1966, the Pashkevil Collection at the National Library of Israel

Last minute loan

Lest we think that Rabbi Yosef Hayim was a lone voice advocating this creative course: Another authority, from a later period and from a different cultural milieu also signed a prozbul and then gave a loan in order to preserve an element of the original biblical requirement. This episode was reported in 1994 as Shemittah 5754 drew to a close.

On Shabbat afternoon, August 6, 1994 – the day before Rosh Hodesh Elul, the final month of that Shemittah year – Rabbi Pinhas Menachem Alter of Ger (1926-1996) spoke to his Hasidim, as was his custom. These talks were posthumously published under the title Pnei Menahem. As per the Ger practice, the title of the rebbe’s work became the standard name for the hasidic master.

Within a month of the talk, people would diligently execute prozbuls before the next Hebrew year began. At the end of his talk, Pnei Menahem added a vignette about his father, Rabbi Avraham Mordekhai Alter of Ger (Imrei Emet, 1865-1948):

I heard from one the elders who saw that my father of blessed memory (when he was in the Land of Israel) in the Shemittah year wrote a prozbul as per the institution of the sages, and nevertheless since he wanted to fulfil the commandment of Shemittat Kesafim, therefore after writing the prozbul he sought after a poor person to lend him a bit of money in order to fulfil the plain meaning of the verse “and your heart shall not be resentful [when you give to him; Deut. 15:10], since loans from here henceforth are released.

Rabbi Avraham Mordekhai Alter of Ger (The Imrei Emet), the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

There is no indication that the Polish hasidic master had been inspired by the Baghdadi rabbinic leader. Imrei Emet seems to have gone further than Ben Ish Hai in that he sought a needy person, so that the debt relief would provide real assistance to the impoverished.

Notwithstanding the difference, it seems that the two rabbis – who were educated in different cultural contexts – were driven by a heartfelt desire to fulfil the original biblical commandment, despite the existence of an acceptable rabbinic workaround.

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.