The Jewish Women’s Reclamation Project
By Sylvia Herskowitz
In the Torah, women are major players whose actions often chart the paths of Jewish destiny. Beginning with Eve and then Lot’s daughters, followed by Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Tamar, Yocheved, Miriam, Zipporah, and many others, each can be said to have affected the course of our history. But when we leave the biblical period and go to post-biblical history, the search for women’s impact on Jewish survival becomes harder to track. The names of women and their achievements often are submerged in obscure texts, waiting to be discovered and reclaimed in our post-feminist era. With this thought, I present three significant sages who sought to memorialize the names of women who played key roles in their lives:
1. R. Yair Hayim Bacharach (1638-1702) was the grandson of R. Abraham Samuel ben Isaac Bacharach and his wife Hava, who had a broad knowledge of Hebrew and Rabbinic literature, unusual for her time. R. Yair Hayim Bacharach’s book of Responsa is called Havas Yair. In his introduction he writes:
...and in addition I also chose this name to be a good memorial for my grandmother, the pious Hava, the mother of my father the Gaon Moses Samson... . She was one of a kind in her generation -- learned in Torah. She had a Midrash Rabbah without a Peirush (commentaries) and she studied in it continually. Her intelligence and her wisdom in many places overtook the given explanation of the Rabbi, and she explained it in such a way that everyone who listened understood that she was right and I quoted some of her explanations in her name. And she did the same with Machzorim and Selichot and with the explanations of Rashi in the Humash and the Tanakh and the Targum and the Apocrypha. Many times, she added to the interpretations of the great Sages of our generation... . She was fluent in the written and spoken word, and also deeply pious... . I wanted this to be a memorial to my grandmother because of her great scholarship in Torah and her noble and glorious deeds.
2. Rabbi Ezekiel ben Judah Landau (1713-1793), born in Poland, was the foremost halakhic authority of the eighteenth century, one of the most famous rabbis at the close of the classical Ashkenazic era. He is known as the Nodeh B’Yehudah, the name of his important work published in Prague in 1776. In 1783, he published Tsiyun L’Nefesh Haya, a commentary on the tractate Berakhot. In his introduction to this work he explains:
...And for good shall be remembered the woman who was my Aishet Hayil, my modest and pious partner the Rabbanit Leba. In the introduction to Nodeh B’Yehudah I wrote about her in my young years and now, how good and pious she is in my aged years when my strength fails me. She watches over me ceaselessly, spending sleepless nights maintaining my health. May God repay her kindness and goodness by prolonging her days and years in pleasantness and with honor.
3. R. Simha Hayas wrote Novellae on the tractate Baba Metzia. He was the son-in-law of R. Aryeh Leib Horowitz and was Rabbi in Kushunz where he died in 1865. In his introduction he writes:
...I have been called by the name of my mother (Haya) since my early youth because of her piety. But my mother with all her physical strength and material might brought me up to the heights of Torah and Avodah, and loaded my shoulders with Avodat HaKodesh -- holy work.
Sylvia Herskowitz is director of the Yeshiva University Museum in New York.