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Reviewed by:
  • My Dear Daughter: Rabbi Benjamin Slonik and the Education of Jewish Women in Sixteenth-Century Poland
  • Moshe Rosman (bio)
Edward Fram My Dear Daughter: Rabbi Benjamin Slonik and the Education of Jewish Women in Sixteenth-Century Poland With a transcription of Benjamin Slonik’s Seder mizvot nashim (The Order of Women’s Commandments), translated by Edward FramAgnes Romer Segal Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2007

Seder mizvot nashim (Cracow 1577; hereafter: SMN) was one of the first printed mitzvah manuals intended to instruct women, primarily, in the observance of the three classic “women’s commandments”: niddah (the laws concerning menstruation and sexual activity), ḥallah (the laws concerning separating and dedicating to God part of the dough when baking) and hadlakat nerot (lighting candles at the onset of the Sabbath and holidays). However, this book is not entitled Benjamin Slonik’s Seder mizvot nashim: Text, Translation, Introduction. At the end of the Introduction, Edward Fram notes that his monograph, composing half of the volume, “is accompanied by a transcription of the 1585 edition of the SMN and a running facing-page English translation of the text.” That word “accompanied” lends the text of SMN in the second half of the volume the status of an appendix and signals the reader that she should focus, in the first instance at least, on the monograph. Fram’s primary interest, teaching history, is accomplished more directly through his scholarly study than through Slonik’s primary source.

The history that concerns Fram is the answer to the question: How did Slonik, a sixteenth-century Polish rabbi, come to write and publish a Yiddish manual of ritual observance, aimed explicitly at a female audience, with this particular content, slant and style? The answer comes in several parts. [End Page 242]

First is the bibliographical context. Here, Fram concisely and comprehensibly traces the complex interaction of multiple factors: the traditions of the Jewish halakhic handbook and “women’s commandments” books; the prodigious effect of the penetration of printing on Jewish, Polish and European culture; the overlapping debates about sharing elite Torah knowledge (in accessible Hebrew forms or in the Yiddish vernacular) with laymen and about educating women; and the question of literacy, especially that of women. Slonik decided that the potential for female religious improvement inherent in the practical utilization of print technology outweighed any threat it posed to the rabbinic monopoly on knowledge and any possibility of misinterpretation or abuse of the instruction offered in his book.

Next is the cultural-geographical context. Fram describes how, at approximately the same time as Poland became the demographic center of Ashkenazi Jewry, it also became its cultural entrepot. First, the German lands declined as the focal point of Ashkenazi culture. Then Italy rose and fell. Finally, Polish Jewish communities, in dialogue with Italian ones, established themselves as the Ashkenazi cultural capital.

The third component of the answer to Fram’s basic question is entitled “Glimpses into the Lives of the Main Audience” (i.e., women). This is the heart of the book and the part that readers of Nashim will probably find the most compelling. Male rabbinics scholars have traditionally approached the issue of “women in traditional Jewish society” from an apologetic stance. Fram, though no less in control of rabbinic texts, is different. In describing early modern Polish Jewish society with respect to gender, he walks a tightrope. While displaying respect for rabbinic integrity and sometimes giving rabbis the benefit of the feminist doubt, he unflinchingly, if undramatically, records “misogynist views” (p. 41).1 For example, he insists that much of the rabbinic resistance to popular halakhic literature for women was really an expression of opposition to any popularization of halakhah. Nevertheless, he faithfully delineates the ways in which “women were not only excluded from much of Jewish intellectual and religious life; they were at times denigrated by it” (p. 37). As he acknowledges, women were viewed as a threat to men and as spiritually tainted; life was organized “separately and unequally” along gender lines (p. 45); a woman’s place was viewed ideally as being in the home, utterly subordinate to her husband, to the point where she was expected to endure physical...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1565-5288
Print ISSN
0793-8934
Pages
pp. 242-247
Launched on MUSE
2008-12-12
Open Access
No
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