The Jewish egalitarian revolution that almost was in Renaissance Italy
15th century ‘feminist’ prayer books open a window into the Jewish world’s female scribes, first published poetess, and first evidence of women-centric prayer
Dr. Aviad Stollman stood in a glass-walled room in the center of the National Library of Israel that is best described as a people aquarium. From a climate-controlled cardboard box ordered up from the vaults, the head of collections carefully lifted out a petite prayer book and set it on the table in the soundproofed room.
Stollman expertly flipped through its delicate pages — handwritten over 500 years ago — and pointed out, oohing and ahhing, the book’s intricate illustrations. With gold filigree and a rich palette forming flowery scrollwork on its pages, in Stollman’s hands, the ornately decorated Hebrew volume looked positively dainty.
Appearances, however, should not deceive: Inside this beautifully crafted sacred book is arguably evidence of a Renaissance-era sexual revolution.
Written in 1480, this work is one of three “feminist” prayer books penned by scribe Rabbi Abraham ben Mordechai Farissol, who changed one of the most contentious blessings in all of Hebrew liturgy and adapted it for women. There are two siddurim composed in Hebrew, in 1478 and 1480, and one in 1485 in Judaeo-Provençal.
According to Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem Prof. Dalia Marx, these prayer books represent the first tangible evidence of a “feminine experience” of prayer.
“Liturgy reflects the way we understand the world, the way we understand reality, how we explain the existence in the world,” said Marx, who is also a rabbi, in explaining why the changes made by Farissol are notable.
Through today, most Orthodox men recite a blessing during the morning prayer that praises God for not having made them women. In its place, most religiously observant women recite a blessing thanking God for having made them “according to his will.”
The three extant Farissol prayer books for women instead state, “Blessed are you God, our Lord, King of the World, for You have made me a woman, and not a man.” In other blessings, the gendered Hebrew terms are shifted to feminine versions.
What is most remarkable, said Marx, the Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Professor of Liturgy and Midrash, is that in his choice of language, scribe Farissol uniquely addressed the high-status Hebrew-literate female owners of these prayer books and applied and adapted the liturgy to their needs.
Through these prayer books and other texts of the era, we encounter other surprisingly egalitarian roles filled by women: female scribes, a poetess who translated liturgy from Hebrew to Italian, and the owners of Farissol’s works, who praised God for being made women, and not men.
Today, with new databases, including the recently launched Sfardata from the National Library, scholars are able to generate a more three-dimensional image of these Renaissance-era Jewish women and their place in society.
Talking about a (digital) revolution?
The book cradled in Stollman’s hands was donated to the National Library by Felix Guggenheim in 1973 and, according to its colophon or dedicatory plate, was written as a present for a wealthy Italian woman from her husband in 1480. Almost as broad as it is high, the book is bound in a white leather cover, with several clasps to hold it closed.
The book was originally written in what appears to be two or three sections, said Stollman, who pointed out the clean cuts on its edges, indicating it had been sliced and rebound at some point in its history. In addition to the yearly prayer cycle, it also holds a Hagaddah for Passover, and a page dedicated to the pictorial depiction of a psalm as a menorah, a kabbalistic custom which was added by another scribe at a later period, said Stollman.
Other later changes include erasure of certain passages deemed denigrating to gentiles, which were often censored by Jewish-born Christian converts, said Stollman.
The prayer book is carefully stored at the National Library and can only be viewed by special request, by scholars. However, its texts were uploaded to the Ktiv website, the largest collection of digitized Hebrew manuscripts, whose catalog holds some 85,000 texts.
In addition, all of the prayer book’s physical and typographical qualities appear in the new Sfardata website. These in-depth searches relating to over 200 identifying characteristics help scholars gain a better understanding of the 90 percent of manuscripts that do not have dedicatory plates, said Stollman.
The genesis of the Sfardata website began in 1969, said Stollman, with data collected by Prof. Malachi Beit-Arié. As such, through analysis of this Farissol prayerbook and similar books’ colophon data, scholars have been able to identify some of the literate women of the era who used or commissioned the writing of Hebrew books — and in some cases even created the works themselves.
Pioneering Women’s Studies scholar Prof. Judith Baskin wrote a 2008 Nashim article with Michael Riegler delving into the various ways women used or created sacred texts in the early Renaissance. In “‘May the Writer Be Strong’: Medieval Hebrew Manuscripts Copied By and For Women,” the authors siphoned information from available manuscripts’ colophons and discovered a handful of female scribes who were active during the early Renaissance, especially in Italy and Ashkenaz (Germany).
Of special note is the work of 16th-century poetess Deborah Ascarelli of Rome, who translated Hebrew liturgical extracts into Italian. A volume of her work, “The Abode of the Supplicants,” was printed in Venice in 1601. According to the authors, the rhymed Italian translation of Hebrew prayers is “Likely the first book published by a Jewish woman.”
Explaining that it was quite common in Christianity for nuns to work as copyists, the authors cited several Jewish women — usually the daughters of scribes — who also fulfilled this function. Among others, there was Pola, who lived in late 13th-century Rome, who copied “hundreds of parchment folio pages,” and Fromet, a female scribe from Ashkenaz, who lived in the mid-15th century and is known to have copied commentaries on the Talmud for her husband.
Most unusually, the authors cite Miriam daughter of Benayah, who in late 15th century Yemen inscribed in a dedicatory plate a sentence many new mothers can still understand today, “Do not blame me if mistakes are found in it, for I am a nursing mother, Miriam daughter of Benayah the scribe.”
Baskin and Riegler also describe situations in which women commissioned texts from male scribes as a way of expressing piety, including Dolce, the murdered wife of R. Eleazar ben Judah of Worms (d. 1238), who related in a eulogy that “she purchased books with the profits of her business and also contributed to the actual making of books.”
In the essay, the authors describe the Farissol prayer books and their “change in a highly contentious prayer.”
“According to the colophons, from which, for some reason, the names of the men who commissioned the books are erased, these siddurim were wedding gifts, one from a man to his wife and the other from a brother to his sister. The third example is a complete Judaeo-Provençal translation of the prayer book, also presented as a wedding gift by a man to his sister.”
Feminist scholar Baskin said that the changed blessings were not meant to spark a societal change, but were intended by the gift-givers as a form of appreciation by their loved ones for the women’s status and literacy.
“I would say that this change was meant as a compliment to the particular wealthy Jewish women for whom these siddurim were commissioned by fiancés or family members (brothers),” Baskin told The Times of Israel in an email exchange, in which she emphasized that the prayer books were not meant for public synagogue worship.
“To me, this statement of thanksgiving for being created female strongly indicates that some Jewish women of the sophisticated and somewhat acculturated milieus of northern Italy and Provence chafed at the implication that women were second best and that these significant men in their lives wanted to reassure them that they were not,” said Baskin.
An Italian feminist bubble
Since the change in language is isolated to these three prayer books, scholars are reluctant to call it a “revolution.”
“It’s something new and previously unknown but I wouldn’t call it revolutionary since this isolated innovation did not have a significant or lasting impact on Jewish liturgy as a whole – even in Italy,” said Baskin.
Not only were they unique in their historical period, the three prayer books are the only manuscripts found for hundreds of years in which the language was adapted for women. That clearly does not indicate a liturgical revolution, said Queen’s University History Prof. Howard Adelman.
“I would say that it is reflective of Jews’ tinkering with the liturgy, and it reflects a sense that something in the blessing made some Jews uncomfortable, and this is reflected in at least a few prayer books prepared for women,” Adelman told The Times of Israel. Adelman does not rule out the possibility that other similar prayer books have been lost.
But the prayer books’ scribe Farissol (circa 1451–1525) was in no way a reformer but rather a product of his newly awakened and intellectually charged society. A Jewish Encyclopedia entry states that after his birth in Avignon, Farissol moved at a young age to Ferrara, Italy, and later worked in Mantua.
Particularly in Mantua, Adelman noted, there lived several high-profile women who “had the education to cross customary boundaries, actions that of course were opposed by some, but that took place and were endorsed by others.”
Adelman, the author of the new book “Women and Jewish Marriage Negotiations in Early Modern Italy: For Money and Love,” explained that Mantua at the time was an anomaly of opportunity for Jewish women.
“In Mantua, and almost exclusively in Mantua, Jewish women received official licenses after passing the necessary certification processes to ritually slaughter animals,” Adelman wrote in an email exchange.
Citing other examples of unusual Jewish women, Adelman wrote, “Fioretta or Batsheva Modena studied Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, Halakhah, Rambam, Kabbalah, and Zohar. Pazienza Pontremoli corresponded with Isabella Gonzaga d’Este, the Marchioness of Mantua. In their correspondence they drew on rabbinic and classical literature. Madam Europa was a musician in the court of the duke of Mantua.”
Aside from his work as a scribe, Farissol was a well-known personality in Ferrara, and was chosen by its Jews to represent the community in a “disputation” before the duke Ercole d’Este over the theology of Judaism with two Dominican monks — a somewhat common court diversion of the era.
In addition to several theological works, Farissol was also an early Jewish World reporter: He wrote the first modern Hebrew geographical account, called “Iggeret Orḥot Olam,” whose 30 chapters include tales of the 10 Lost Tribes and accounts of the recently discovered New World.
When choosing to revise the liturgy in his prayer books, it is likely that Farissol was not aiming to suddenly create new horizons in Judaism. Rather, it is possible that based on other traditions he encountered he felt equipped to make this gendered change in a prayer book basically meant for private home use.
But could this revision be considered kosher today?
Liturgical scholar Marx said that in a way, the formula used by Farissol harkens to an early version of the blessing that was found in the Cairo Geniza — a trove of manuscripts and fragments discovered in modern times — and likely date to the beginning of the 2nd millennium.
“We do have a versions of these blessings in the Cairo Geniza that refer to God in the second person,” said Marx. In Farissol’s prayer books, the morning blessings were written addressing God exclusively in the second person, whereas the modern version switches in the middle of each blessing to refer to God in the third person. These geniza texts, she said, are closer to the old Palestinian rites which have been largely lost over time.
“The interesting thing is sometimes Italian liturgy preserves old Palestinian traits because of the migration routes. The Jews left Israel, migrated along the Mediterranean and reached Italy and then from Italy to Ashkenaz, to eastern Europe… So in a way, the further from the Land of Israel, there is less Palestinian influence,” she said.
At the same time, Marx called Farissol’s changes in language “an anomaly” and the text “idiosyncratic.”
“Even today if you go to the Italian Rite synagogue, they have some differences in the morning blessings than in traditional siddurim… but don’t have this formula,” she said.
Because of its ever-evolving nature, vast literary variety and inclusion of material from different historical eras and parts of the Jewish world, Bar-Ilan University Prof. Joseph Tabory calls the Jewish prayer book his “proverbial desert island book.”
In his 1997 essay, “The Prayer Book (Siddur) As an Anthology of Judaism,” Tabory states: “…We must be aware that there is no standard edition of the siddur nor can there be one.”
Some more progressive Modern Orthodox rabbis, including Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Asher Lopatin, have written about the changes they included in their personal recital of the morning blessings.
For liturgist Marx, the formula for this blessing is no longer an issue in the liberal Judaism she observes. However, she added, the feminist movement in Orthodoxy is holding a discussion that is “very interesting, very fruitful, and very learned.”
She cautioned about the effects reciting “difficult” statements every morning can have upon men, and how it impacts the way they view women.
“This is not the reason for sexism, or illiteracy among women, or violence toward women, but when you are saying things that are very difficult liturgically, you’re not just saying a prayer and then resuming real life,” she said.
“The siddur is the most common book Jews come across — the book of books — more than the Bible or the Torah. This is what you use to explain yourself and your existence,” said Marx.
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