Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Jewish women reading
  • Creator: Israel Ben Meir
  • Description:

    A haggadah is a guide to the prayers and rituals of the Passover Seder. The Seder is a yearly ritual family meal that recounts the story of the exodus from Egypt and invites the participants to see those ancient events as his or her own life story. This page from the First Darmstadt Haggadah begins the readings after the meal, known as the Shfokh Chamatkha, which begins with a call on God to wreak vengeance on non-Jews and ends with praise of God and a fourth cup of wine. The illustration is remarkable in its depiction of women reading books and discussing both with men and other women.

    This manuscript page has the Hebrew letter Shin in the center, followed by three lines of Hebrew text from Psalm 79: 6 “Pour out Your anger upon the nations that do not know You, upon the kingdom which your name." The rest of the quote continues on the following page,"does not know.” Arranged around the text are figures inside of an architectural representation of a temple. The figures at the topmost left and right are a woman looking down possibly at the figures below, then two men looking straight out and a woman bent over a book. The next level has three groupings of three figures. The far left is two women with open books and a man kneeling. In the center prominent position, is a man seated with a book open and two women flanking him also with books, but appearing to be engaged in discussion. On the right, a woman and man facing each other, with her above him while he kneels, both holding books and talking, and a different woman facing them but reading. To the left and right of the text there are two layers of two figures each. The top left is a man and a woman facing each other, she with an open book, he with a closed book. Below this, a man on the floor and a woman seated on a chair, speaking, he with an open book, she with a closed book. To the right of the text, the upper picture is an older man with a white beard and mustache talking to a woman with a closed book on her lap. Below that, two women facing each other, the one on the right with an open book. Below the inscription there is a central image, with one figure separated by an arch frame on each side. The side figures are a seated woman on the right with an open book and a seated woman on the left with a closed book. In the center are nine figures seated around a presumed seder table, four men and five women. In this scene, from the left, a bearded man is speaking with a woman who is touching a book, and a figure peers over her shoulder. In the center two women are speaking both with one of their hands resting on a book while another figure peers over their shoulders. To the right of them a bearded man with a hand on a book points at another man with his hand on a book, while a third man listens in. There are four small golden circles on the table presumed to be matzah. The manuscript’s scribe concludes with a colophon identifying himself as Israel ben Meir of Heidelberg.

    In Ashkenazi Jewish life, many upper-class women were literate in the vernacular and records exist of their business and commerce ventures. Working outside the home in midwifery, money lending and medicine was common, and women had a public life. Grossman notes that because of women's business and economic impact in Germany, all women were considered “important women” when interpreting the Babylonian Talmud rule that an important woman could recline at the Passover table. Therefore, women had a role in the worship during the Seder which is pictured in this scene. Although women's leadership in the Jewish religion was rare, they were included in synagogue worship in the Ashkenaz region from the late 12th century onward. Occasionally women were found to be prayer leaders for other women in the late 12th and early 13th centuries with examples including Dulce and Urania of Worms, Belette of Le Mans, and Richenza of Nuremberg.

    Medieval rabbis were not united in their opinions of women's reading of Scriptures. Institutions dedicated to women's study of Hebrew scripture did not exist at the time of this Haggadah, but there is evidence of a vernacular school for women in Ulm in 1353. Buda observes that by the late 14th century the ideal woman for both the Jewish and Christian faiths had grown to include being able to read a prayer book. Jewish women were generally more educated than their Christian counterparts in central Europe. The Sefer Hasidim, written prior to 1217, which was the foundational guide for Ashkenazi Judiasm, exhorts fathers to teach their daughters Torah in the vernacular language. Grossman argues that most Ashkenazi Jewish women could read the vernacular, and some could read Hebrew, while only a few most educated, usually from scholarly religious families, could understand it. The women noted with Hebrew knowledge in the Middle Ages are scarce. Rabbi Meir ben Rothernberg, writing in the 13th century, allowed a woman to be called to Torah and read the blessings in Hebrew, if the community was all from a priestly family. By 1460 some of the extant letters and rabbinic writings have concerns about women studying with men. Riegler and Baskin, through their study of colophons, have found that there were some women scribes of Hebrew texts in the late medieval period in Ashkenaz. Also, according to their study there were women book owners who commissioned religious works especially during the late medieval period.

    Women using books on this page reflect a contemporary reality in the Ashkenaz region, where women read in the vernacular, and it is also an idealized vision of women being able to read the religious texts in Hebrew. According to Blount, the architecture suggests an idealized communal worship space rather than a family home, and therefore are likely an idealized Jewish community. Buda argued that there is borrowing from contemporary Christian iconography of Mary, replacing the Christ child with a book. Blount agrees and says it is not merely an artistic copying but a subversive message affirming the place of the book in the Jewish faith.

    Jewish figural art was common from the third to the sixth centuries and then nonexistent for 700 years because of interpretations of the Biblical prohibition on images and idolatry. It began to reemerge in 13th century Germany possibly because of secular urban art training becoming accessible to Jewish painters and changing Rabbinical opinion. One of the earliest examples of figural Jewish manuscript illuminations in the Middle Ages is the Birds Head Haggadah which is dated circa 1300.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Ashkenazim Books Books in Art Jews Judaism Literacy Readers Readers in Art Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: Germany
  • Century: 15
  • Date: ca. 1430
  • Related Work: Israel Ben Meir, The First Darmstadt Haggadah Folio 6r , 1430, Hessische Landes- und Hochschulbibliothek
    Israel Ben Meir, The First Darmstadt Haggadah Folio 7r 1430, Hessische Landes- und Hochschulbibliothek
    Israel Ben Meir, The First Darmstadt Haggadah Folio 38r 1430, Hessische Landes- und Hochschulbibliothek
    Israel Ben Meir, The First Darmstadt Haggadah Folio 48v 1430, Hessische Landes- und Hochschulbibliothek
    Digitized manuscript, Israel Ben Meir, The First Darmstadt Haggadah 1430, Hessische Landes- und Hochschulbibliothek
    Master of Saint Veronica Enthroned Virgin and Child, with Saints Paul, Peter, Clare of Assisi, Mary Magdalene, Barbara, Catherine of Alexandria, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Agnes, Cecilia, Margaret of Antioch, and George 1410, Philadelphia Museum of Art
    Master of Holy Kinship, the Elder Triptych Holy Kinship Circa. 1420, Wallraf-Richartz Museum
    Menahem, Bird's Head Haggadah Circa. 1300, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem
  • Current Location: Darmstadt, Technical University of Darmstadt, Hessische Landes- und Hochschulbibliothek, Cod. Or. 8
  • Original Location: Ulm, Germany
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Ink; Paints; Gold leaf
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 24.5//35.5
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources:

    Baskin, Judith R. "Some Parallels in the Education of Medieval Jewish and Christian Women." Jewish History 5, 1 (1991): 41–51.

    Blough, Karen. "Adoption, Adaptation, and Subversion of Christian Motifs in the First Darmstadt Haggadah." Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History 23 (2020): 1-26, 297.

    Buda, Zsófia. "Our Lady at the Seder Table." Religions 15, 2 (2024): 144-160. Available open access from the publisher.

    Epstein, Marc Michael. The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative and Religious Imagination. Yale University Press, 2011.

    Grossman, Avraham. Pious and Rebellious: Jewish women in Medieval Europe. Brandeis, 2004.

    Harris, Julie A. "Making Room at the Table: Women, Passover and the Sister Haggadah (London, British Library, MS Or. 2884)." Journal of Medieval History 42, 1 (2016): 131-153.

    Kogman-Appel, Katrin. "The Audiences of the Late Medieval Haggadah." Patronage, Production, and Transmission of Texts in Medieval and Early Modern Jewish Cultures. Jonathan Decter and Esperanza Alfonso, eds. Brepols, 2015. Pages 99-143.

    Kogman-Appel, Katrin. "Christianity, Idolatry, and the Question of Jewish Figural Painting in the Middle Ages." Speculum 84,1 (2009): 73–107.

    Kogman-Appel, Katrin. "Portrayals of Women with Books: Female (Il)literacy in Medieval Jewish Culture." Reassessing the Roles of Women as 'Makers' of Medieval Art and Architecture. Volume Two. Brill, 2012. Pages 525 - 563.

    Parnes, Stephan O., Bonni-Dara Michaels and Gabriel M Goldstein, eds. The Art of Passover. Hugh Lauter Levin, 1994.

    Riegler, Michael and Judith R. Baskin. "'May the Writer Be Strong': Medieval Hebrew Manuscripts Copied by and for Women." Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues 16 (2008): 9–28.

    Shalev-Eyni, Sarit. "Manipulating the Cup of Blessing: Gendered Reading of Ritual Images in European Hebrew Books." Studies in Iconography 39 (2018): 207-234.

    Tabory, Joseph and David Stern. JPS Commentary on the Haggadah: Historical Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Jewish Publication Society, 2008.