Levant: Women in the Jewish Communities after the Ottoman Conquest of 1517

by Ruth Lamdan

Studio portrait depicts two Jewish women and a Jewish man from Bursa (city in northwestern Anatolia) in 1873.
Photograph by Pascal Sébah, courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.
In Brief

Following their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, many Jews settled in Palestine, Egypt, and Syria – regions which fell under Ottoman Control in 1517. Girls in the Levant were married off at very young ages and obtaining a get proved very difficult, even when a woman was clearly suffering. While men could use a childless marriage as justification for divorce, women could not do the same. Polygamy was also common among Jewish communities in the Levant. Some women turned to Muslim courts to circumvent Judaism’s rigid and disadvantageous marriage laws. Women spent most of their time doing housework, but many were also involved in various kinds of economic activity outside the house. In Palestine and Egypt, ketubbot contained a unique clause stipulating that money a woman made belonged to her alone.

Sephardic Jews Arrive in the Levant

Far-reaching changes began to take place in the Jewish world at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Following the expulsion from Spain in 1492 there was a period of wandering and political, demographic and social upheaval. On the one hand, this led to an encounter of the Jews who had left Spain and Portugal with Jewish traditions of Eastern Europe, North Africa, Italy and the Orient; it also led to many personal crises, sundered families, and other disasters, which left women as agunot and widows.

Among the great centers in which members of different communities met and in which the sages’ attitude toward women found expression, the melting pot of the Levant—Syria, Palestine and Egypt—after the Levantine conquest in early 1517 is of special interest.

From the beginning, the new government brought order and security, opening up a variety of economic possibilities. In addition, Jews of the expelled generation saw the conquest of Palestine as another stage in the “messianic pangs” prior to redemption, and therefore many people from Spain and Portugal came to the Holy Land. Some of them were delayed on the way and settled in the Balkans, Greece and Anatolia, in various cities already under Ottoman rule. Others came to the borders of Palestine and settled in nearby cities such as Damascus, Aleppo, Sidon and Tripoli in Syria. Those who stopped in Egypt settled mainly in Alexandria and Cairo. The Jewish communities in all these places grew and thrived in the sixteenth century.

The spoken language of the Levant was Arabic and the local Jews, who were called Musta’rabs, took after the Arabs in dress and custom. They were joined by Jews from Spain, Germany, the western regions (the Maghreb—North Africa), Italy and other places. Each community organized its own separate enclave and kept the traditions and customs of its country of origin. The differences between the communities found expression not only in their way of life, which was usually influenced by their surroundings, but also in their The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.halakhic decisions.

The sixteenth century was a time of mutual influence between the communities in the Levant, but at its end the victory clearly belonged to those who had left the Iberian Peninsula. This was due to their cultural, demographic and economic status, which allowed them to assimilate other communities, mainly Arabic-speaking Jews.

One might expect a change in society’s treatment of women at the time of the expulsion from Spain, with its general and personal upheaval, especially since during the time of forced conversions, separation of families and economic difficulty, women had proven themselves and shown spiritual strength and survival ability no less, and even greater than those of the men of their community. It was mostly the women who preserved their Jewish identity in secret and made sure to pass it on to their children, sometimes at the risk of their lives.

But in practice the effects of the expulsion on Jewish family values and on the status of women were minimal, finding expression only in areas of benefit to men and not to women. One of the few instances in which one may find consideration for women is that of permitting agunot to remarry. A great deal of effort was expended to free agunot and solutions were found for most of the problems that arose, since there were fears that women who were not freed from their bound status would form illicit relationships or leave Judaism entirely. But usually the halakhic decisors of the sixteenth century, great as they were, were loyal to basic The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.halakhah and traditional customs and edicts, without considering the factors of time and place even when it was possible to ease women’s suffering by using a broader interpretation.

Attitudes Towards Women

As a rule, the image of women in the eyes of sixteenth-century rabbis was not especially favorable, as is indicated in contemporary sources such as commentaries, prayers, proverbs and Halakhic decisions written by rabbinic authories in response to questions posed to them.responsa, which all show the routine expectations of a woman: good character, obedience, fidelity, willingness to serve her husband properly, and of course preparedness to do all the work that women must do for their husbands as set forth in the Lit. "teaching," "study," or "learning." A compilation of the commentary and discussions of the amora'im on the Mishnah. When not specified, "Talmud" refers to the Babylonian Talmud.Talmud. If for any reason the woman cannot fulfill her obligations, her husband may derogate her rights or take a second wife while he is still married to her.

For the rabbis of that generation, marriage was seen as a stay against the body’s lusts and sexual temptation on the one hand, and on the other hand as freeing the husband to study Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah, his supreme purpose.

At the same time, paradoxically, many rabbis viewed women as a threat to be guarded against, since they distracted men from their main purpose and caused them to waste their time on foolish pursuits. For these rabbis, women were the main obstacle to achieving ethical and spiritual perfection. Woman was the mother of all sin and one could not think about her, gaze at her or be anywhere near her without arousing the evil inclination. Therefore, women were a threat to the masculine world.

This point of view found extreme expression among the sixteenth-century kabbalists, especially in the writings and behavior of the hasidic-kabbalistic groups in Safed. Among them were many conversos who had returned to Judaism and sought to atone for having converted by reaching the highest level of spiritual and ethical perfection and complete attachment to God. In their writings, woman is the chief stumbling block to a pure way of life.

In accordance with this attitude, we find among the edicts of the sixteenth-century kabbalists of Safed the following regulation: “As much as possible, avoid looking even upon a woman clothed.” The well-known kabbalist R. Eliyahu de Vidas (1518–1592) adds: “[A man should] close his eyes to anything he does not need to see and not look upon a married woman, a virgin or a widow […] and [so] follow the verse: ‘He closes his eyes to an evil sight’ […].” Elsewhere, de Vidas enumerates the dangers inherent in woman and compares looking upon her to idolatry: “Do not look upon a woman’s beauty by day in order not to fall into impurity by night. And that is what is meant by: ‘Let him not turn to false gods’—that is, one who gazes upon a woman’s beauty by day […].” We also find this attitude, which attributes evil and impurity to women, in the writings of R. Hayyim Vital (1542–1620) and other kabbalists.

In considering how the attitude and expressions of the sixteenth-century rabbis affected the community, it is obvious that there were gaps between the ethos that degraded women and demanded that men stay away from them and daily reality. Sometimes, women’s very weakness or ignorance in daily life was a source of power, since the rabbis took their part out of paternalism or pity. Similarly, women who were blessed with the good qualities required by societal and religious norms won praise and esteem. On the other hand, women who deviated from the idea of “the woman of valor,” and women who tried to show any sort of independence, were unanimously condemned.

Unfortunately, there are no extant contemporary sources written by women, since Jewish women in the Levant were, as a matter of course, not literate. In this they were different from German and Italian women, who were usually more educated. The few letters written to women and by women (most if not all of them with the help of a professional scribe or acquaintance) do not mention their feelings or daily routine, but rather emphasize their urgent needs: food, clothing, bedding or shrouds. Any attempt to describe their way of life is based mainly on judicial-The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.halakhic sources, which by their very nature speak of complaints, problems and claims that arose in the community or in the family. However, a close reading of the responsa literature and other sources reveals various facets of family life, for good and ill.

Preference for a Son

As might be expected in a society where one’s destiny was determined by one’s sex, all the prayers, charms and blessings that accompany a woman during her pregnancy were expressly for the purpose of bearing a male child. Among the kabbalistic societies in Safed and their followers, the preference for a son arose from the fear that whoever had no son would have no repose in the afterlife. Mothers did not rejoice if they bore daughters, mainly because their status in the family and in society was determined largely by their ability to bear sons, but probably also because they knew all too well the difficulties their daughters would face in the future. Also, sons could support the mother in her old age, while daughters left the home and became dependent on their husbands.

Many fathers saw the birth of a daughter as a “trouble” – their main concern was preparing a dowry and marrying her off as soon as possible. The poor among them often had to raise funds for the dowry by begging. The more affluent ones had the trouble of ensuring that money and property given to their daughter upon her marriage would not pass through her to her husband’s family. For them, assistance to a son was a more secure investment. Assistance to a daughter required legal “trickery” and prompted a need for special edicts that protected the interests of her father’s family.

The longing for male offspring became even stronger after the expulsion from Spain, not only for economic and religious reasons; following the catastrophes, the separation of families and the tribulations endured by the generations nearest the expulsion gave rise in the sixteenth century to an overwhelming and desperate desire for sons who would continue the family line. The expelled ones and the penitents cry out for sons. Many of them lost their children before and during the years of wandering and prayers for male offspring appear again and again in their writings. The birth of a daughter is not seen as a blessing.

Betrothal & Marriage of Young Girls

Another outstanding phenomenon in the sixteenth century is the early age at which girls married. Despite the fact that in The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.halakhahthe rabbis do not encourage the marriage of minor daughters, the The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.halakhicliterature of the time contains so many instances of child marriage among girls that there is no doubt that the marriage of immature girls was an accepted and popular custom. While it might be that this is connected to the strong need for continuity which characterized the generations nearest the expulsion, it may also be that marriage at an early age was thought to be a safe means of keeping away from sin. The betrothal of minor daughters relieved their parents of the constant tension involved in preserving their innocence and modesty. Although at the time there was also a tendency to marry sons off at an early age, a father might not betroth his minor son, and the betrothal of a son below thirteen years of age was not valid. This did not apply to daughters.

Since the father’s intention was presumably to benefit his daughter and provide for her future, it would seem that as long as he made the financial and property arrangements, there was no reason for the marriage to fail. In a society where the best a woman could hope for was to marry and become a mother, it is obvious that her father would see it as his duty, not just as his right, to marry off his daughter early. For him, a good match was one that was economically sound and the bride’s age was of no significance. It was expected of her that after the marriage took place she would adapt to her new life as women had always done. But the sharp transition from childhood to adulthood was not always successful, which not only caused the parents to involve themselves deeply in the couple’s life, but also led to widespread wife-beating.

In addition, the betrothal of minors created “technical complications,” mostly when it turned out that the groom was not willing to wait patiently until his bride became mature (at about the age of twelve), or when he himself turned out to be a ne’er-do-well upon reaching maturity, so that the bride’s father regretted the match. Often, conditions changed and one of the sides could not uphold its financial commitments. In each of the instances, the young girl needed a get so that she could remarry, and this made her vulnerable to extortion.

The sources demonstrate another phenomenon: an increase in ill-considered betrothals made while drunk or in levity. This indicates an atmosphere of disregard for the fate of the women and exploitation of the power that the law granted to fathers in the belief that they would use it for the good of their daughters and their families. The father usually regretted his hasty actions later, but by that time his daughter’s marital status was uncertain, and so she needed a get.

Obtaining a Get

Some scholars believe that Muslim society, in which betrothals of minors were common, influenced Jewish communities in Arab-speaking countries. But even if the surrounding environment had an influence, the results were nevertheless completely different for Jewish women. According to Islam, a girl married at an early age could appear before the kadi on reaching maturity and sue for the retroactive termination of her marriage. This was easily done, requiring only a financial arrangement between the families. But according to Jewish law, the annulment of a marriage—the receiving of a get—was possible only if the husband was willing and any demand for a divorce could serve as an opening for extortion and extended deliberations. Despite the tireless efforts of decisors to find a solution for every instance of doubtful betrothal (usually by seeking a technical defect in the betrothal that would allow for annulment), this was not always possible. In the end, the young girl or her family were forced to pay large sums to obtain her release, since the act of divorce can take place only with the man’s consent. A get given under duress, or a get that a man claims to have given under duress, is not valid (Codification of basic Jewish Oral Law; edited and arranged by R. Judah ha-Nasi c. 200 C.E.Mishnah Yevamot14:1).

Often, legitimate claims against the husband were not investigated. Even when it was obvious to the judges that the woman was suffering, that her husband was abusing her or that there were other justifiable causes, they could not release her from the marriage in his stead. The man had to do this himself, of his own free will. The sixteenth-century rabbis were very strict in this matter. The Moses ben Maimon (Rambam), b. Spain, 1138Rambam (1138–1204), who was considered the leading decisor (the mara de-atra, or supreme halakhic authority) in Palestine and Egypt, explicitly ruled: “If [the woman] said: ‘I cannot abide him or be intimate with him willingly,’ we compel him to divorce her immediately, for she is not as a captive that she must be intimate with one who is hateful to her” (Hilkhot Ishut 14:8). But it is precisely in this matter, which relates to women’s welfare, that his opinion is not accepted. Although in sixteenth-century Palestine there were some rabbis who felt that a wife should not be as a captive to her husband and that it was possible to compel the husband to grant a divorce in certain cases, they were very much in the minority and won no support from their colleagues. Usually the decisors were suspicious of any woman who claimed that she could not abide her husband and she was seen as a Rebellious wifemoredet, a “rebellious woman,” who had become interested in another man or whose sole intent was to rob her husband of his property.

Other factors that were raised in the halakhic debates concerning the demand for a get, apart from the general claim of being unable to abide the husband, were the frequency of arguments between the couple, violence, extortion and profligacy on the husband’s part or his failure to provide for his wife’s basic needs: food, clothing and sexual intimacy. In cases like these, the desire to reach a compromise between the two prevailed, and it is often the wife who was required to be more compliant and tolerant. As a result, women who had no rich, supportive families to back them economically, psychologically or socially, had almost no hope of obtaining a get without giving up all they possessed.

Another focus for halakhic debate was the issue of childless women who sued for divorce, wishing to try their luck with another husband. Here we see clearly how a certain interpretation of the verse “And God blessed them and said to them: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28) affected the fate of women for generations. Taken at face value, this verse is simply a blessing that God gives to humans, both male and female. But the accepted interpretation claims it is not a blessing but a command, “Be fruitful and multiply” being said in the imperative. Also, despite the fact that the words are spoken in the plural, the rabbis interpreted them as though the A biblical or rabbinic commandment; also, a good deed.mitzvah of procreation applied only to men. As a result, any childless man could divorce his wife without her consent or take another wife while still being married to the first, in order to try to have children with another woman, claiming that he was required to fulfill the mitzvah. However, the wife, who was not commanded to fulfill the mitzvah of procreation, could not sue for divorce and certainly could not obtain a get with this justification. The sixteenth-century rabbis, led by R. Joseph Caro of Safed (1488–1575), determined that if a husband wished to see whether he could have children with a second or even a third wife, he was permitted to do so, while his first wife had to wait and was forbidden to marry anyone else.

The Issue of Polygamy

It emerges that seventeen percent of divorce claims by women in the Levant were based on a woman’s objection to her husband’s taking a second wife. Indeed, polygamy was much more common among the Jewish communities in Palestine and Egypt than was at one time thought. This was almost certainly due to the influence of Muslim society. In the local Jewish musta’rab community, which took after the Muslim community in its way of life and language, multiplicity of wives was accepted and common.

But what sets apart the sixteenth century in Palestine and Egypt is the fact that many of the new immigrants who arrived from Germany and Spain—countries in which a monogamous Jewish society had developed and which were not accustomed to polygamy—were unable to resist the Mediterranean “temptation” that surrounded them and also asked to take a second wife.

In Germany, two edicts attributed to Rabbenu Gershom ben Judah Me’or ha-Golah (c. 960–1028) were accepted: one prohibiting taking two wives and another prohibiting divorcing one’s wife against her will. These edicts became the foundation of Jewish family life. But even in Spain and southern France, where Rabbenu Gershom’s edicts were not accepted, similar arrangements were made locally. In nearly every standard Marriage document (in Aramaic) dictating husband's personal and financial obligations to his wife.ketubbah a clause was inserted in which the husband commits himself and swears not to take another wife in addition to his first wife except to fulfill the mitzvah of procreation. In other words, only if his wife had no children for five or ten years, as stipulated in the clause, would he be allowed to take a second wife.

In Egypt and Palestine some people inserted these clauses into the ketubbah, but here the clause was only optional and not considered “the custom of the land.” Therefore, if the clause was not written out explicitly in the ketubbah, the man was permitted to take another wife or even two or three, because that was the accepted custom of the surrounding community. Among Spanish Jews, however, the insertion of the clause was common and considered customary.

When the new immigrants came to Palestine and Egypt, some of them wished to be released from their vow and contractual clause in order to take another wife; it seems that the local rabbis acceded to their request in nearly every case. R. Joseph Caro, together with a large number of rabbis from Safed, felt that Rabbenu Gershom’s edict had long lapsed and ruled that there was no impediment even for German (Ashkenazi) Jews who wished to take a second wife. As for Jews from Spain and other communities, who agreed to a contractual clause or swore that they would not marry two wives, the local rabbis accommodated them as well, finding pretexts or various technical errors in the wording of the clause in the ketubbah which allowed them to marry an additional wife or, alternatively, to divorce the first wife against her will.

Alongside those women who objected strenuously to taking a rival wife into their homes and sued for a get and the monetary settlement stipulated in their ketubbah, there were many others who were won over by their husbands and agreed to live with their rivals. Others were presented with a fait accompli with which they had to come to terms as best they could.

Usually the wife made her consent conditional upon separate living quarters. This condition had great significance in Eastern reality, in which several families lived around one courtyard or entranceway and used the same outhouses, oven and well. If rival wives were unwilling to live together peaceably, daily life might become an ordeal. Thus, the rabbis had to deal with many quarrels between rival wives about the use of common utensils or a jointly-owned serving woman, or because one of them, jealous of the other, informed on her. In one instance, a woman who at first agreed to live with her rival later complained that her husband was having sexual relations with her rival in her presence and demanded a separate apartment of her own. Her husband denied the accusations, claiming that each woman had her own room and had to be content with that.

Often, the husband was the focus of tension and jealousy between the wives, but when he was absent for an extended period or when he died, all the old resentments were suddenly forgotten and we find that the women cooperated so as to preserve their joint economic interests.

Women’s Daily Lives

As stated above, the The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.halakhic sources give only a few details about women’s daily lives. By their very nature, they tell of problems that arose and of the legal deliberations, rather than normative, routine life. Even so, a few details come to light from several descriptions by travelers, letters, appeals to various authorities, and rabbinical Halakhic decisions written by rabbinic authories in response to questions posed to them.responsa.

A woman’s day was certainly busy and tiring. She spent much of her time doing housework such as cleaning, caring for the children, sewing and preparing food: grinding flour, kneading, preparing wine and baking, sometimes in a common courtyard and sometimes in a more distant community oven. Only a poor selection of utensils was available to her and because these were so expensive, they were passed down as an inheritance or given as gifts to dear friends. Copper utensils were especially precious and were used only by wealthy families, while the poor had to make do with pottery.

In Cairo, Safed, Jerusalem and cities throughout the region, families lived in rooms or small apartments around a courtyard or joint entranceway. Routine home activities such as drawing water from the well, cooking in the common oven and using the common outhouses in the courtyard, were performed outside the living quarters. Carrying water for domestic use was not a simple matter, especially in years of drought. Neither was the weekly laundry day, which took place at the local spring, from which the laundry was carried home and spread on the roof to dry. Many women, especially the poorer ones, also contributed to the family income. However, wealthy women had slaves or servants, and their lives were undoubtedly much easier.

Imposing Community Norms

The crowded living conditions and the common courtyards allowed for cooperation, communal labor, everyday conversation and exchange of visits. The conditions even allowed for meetings between the sexes. But the courtyard was also a hothouse for gossip. Women spied on each other and there were many instances of jealousy and informing among neighbors. There was virtually no privacy. In order to protect the moral character of the community, and with the encouragement of rabbis and public figures, surveillance and informing were common. Slander shook many marriages. In Safed, a neighborhood institution, “The Committee for Investigating Transgressions,” a sort of “modesty patrol,” was formed to ensure moral behavior. The conditions allowed inquisitive neighbors to spy on every deviation from the norm and to report them to the general public.

Despite the overcrowding and lack of privacy, the various sources show that in practice, deviations from accepted norms were fairly common, though the rabbis of the generation complained bitterly about them. The documents contain many items about single women, divorcées, and married and betrothed women who had extramarital relations. The halakhic discussions on these matters concerned these women’s legal status in relation to their husbands and their lovers, as well as the legal status of any children born under these circumstances.

We may surmise that the high incidence of deviation from accepted norms and the daring of women who “strayed” arose mostly from the wanderings and family catastrophes common in Jewish society following the expulsion from Spain. In the reality that was created, that of an immigrant society, it was hard for a normative society to impose its norms on the individual. Moreover, in Syria, Palestine and Egypt, women had the option of turning to the Muslim courts, which deprived the rabbis of much of their power base.

Not only did Jews in general go to the kadi for various civil matters and find him sympathetic, but many women did so to circumvent the strict laws of marriage and inheritance or to obtain a get from a recalcitrant husband. Muslim religious law benefits women more than Jewish law in certain cases, and even if a woman were not equal to a man, she still had a right to some of the inheritance. Sometimes a threat from a woman or her family to go to the kadi was all it took to make a husband change his behavior and the rabbinic judges adopt a more flexible position on financial and personal matters.

Guardianship of Men

Throughout almost their entire lives, women were under the guardianship of a man—a father, husband or brother. Laws, edicts and customs restricted their activities. Even when women owned property—and usually this was property they inherited or received as a gift—their husbands managed their affairs. Widowhood was practically the only situation where women won their freedom. This was particularly significant for wealthy women: as affluent widows, they were not only recognized as legal entities in their own right, but also won status and respect in their communities. Widows and divorced women received their Marriage document (in Aramaic) dictating husband's personal and financial obligations to his wife.ketubbah and increments. They left the guardianship of their father, brothers or husbands. Now they were older and could make decisions independently, manage their assets, bequeath or give them as gifts, or even choose a new husband. Information about them comes mostly from legal deliberations following complaints by relatives and inheritors who wanted to undermine their rights.

The responsa literature shows that many husbands, prior to their death, appointed their wives as guardians of their assets and their children, demonstrating trust in the abilities and skills of their wives, who in many cases gained the support of the religious courts. Another phenomenon that comes to light in the sources is that widows and divorcées soon remarried. Nearly every woman in the period under discussion had several marriage cycles. Divorce was not a stigma and divorced women apparently had no problem in remarrying.

The very fact that widows and divorcées were willing to give up their independence so quickly shows that the situation of single women in society was far from pleasant. They were a prime target for malicious gossip and lawsuits by various inheritors. Therefore even the affluent among them, who seemingly could stand on their own, chose to remarry, thus absolving themselves of responsibility and saving themselves the trouble of dealing with the public. Because they now owned money or property, they could set demands or conditions that benefited them. Upon remarrying, they could set a pre-condition that a certain portion of their assets would remain their own to use as they wished. Their names appear in the legal discussions dealing with wills, donations and gifts to various institutions and communities.

Women’s Economic Activities

In addition to widows, we find that many women expressed their independence by being involved in various kinds of economic activity. First and foremost, many women were involved in real estate transactions: they rented or paid rent on houses, bought, sold and renovated their property. They did not hesitate to confront their opponents on rights to the house or a part of it; when necessary, they unhesitatingly appealed to the Muslim courts. These women were not always wealthy; they were mostly members of the middle class and sometimes poorer women, who would rent out a room or attic in their homes to support themselves. Another, relatively safe, way to invest money was to lend it with interest, whether to Jews or gentiles. Another accepted possibility was to deposit the money with an honest and knowledgeable man who would invest it for them in the best way available, so that they would be able to enjoy the dividends. The common factor in these three activities is that the women needed no special professional training and that they could conduct them from their homes in relative privacy.

Jewish women in the east, especially those who did not own much property, also took their place in economic life in other ways, mostly as merchants, dealing primarily in woven wool, linen or silk, agricultural products, wine, olive oil, spices, foodstuffs or vegetables. These were not large-scale businesses: most of the women were peddlers or owned a modest stall in the market.

Alongside them were craftswomen or professional women. The rabbis of Safed, for example, discussed the case of a woman who owned an iron-welding factory and quarreled with her partner. In Egypt, women raised civet cats, whose musk was used in perfume-making. Women made wines and cheeses; some worked as agents, healers, and of course as weavers, seamstresses and spinners, work that was not restricted to women. In these kinds of activities, which required going out into the public sphere, Jewish women were different from Muslim or Christian women who lived in Muslim society, whose economic activity consisted almost entirely of buying and selling real estate or lending money at interest and who only worked from their homes.

“Her Labor is Her Own”

The involvement of Jewish women in Palestine and Egypt in economic life and trade can be explained, inter alia, by the unique clause in the Marriage document (in Aramaic) dictating husband's personal and financial obligations to his wife.ketubbahpertaining to rights to their own work. In this matter, the musta’rabs were different from the recent immigrants: most Jewish communities added a customary clause which said: “Her labor is his, and he must provide her with clothing.” In other words, the fruits of a woman’s labor belonged to her husband; in exchange, he was obligated to provide her with clothing and other necessities. By contrast, it was customary to write in the ketubbot of musta’rabs in Palestine and Egypt: “Her labor is her own and he [the husband] must give her such and such per year for her clothing” (italics provided). In other words, the amount that her husband had to give her was limited, but her profits belonged to her.

This unique condition, which was accepted in the east, certainly spurred the women’s economic activities, and it is no wonder that some of the rabbis who had arrived only recently were dissatisfied. For example, R. Joseph Caro sharply criticized the fact that “they [the must’arabs] are not permitted to touch [the woman’s] assets, and even if he [the husband] is in handcuffs, iron chains, and bound in poverty, still she will not allow him to control one item of her property!”

It should be pointed out that the women who went to work—widows and married women, Ashkenazic and Sephardic—did so mostly out of economic necessity. Most of their investments were moderate or small and the kinds of professions they engaged in, except for a few isolated cases, show that they were not trained to be breadwinners exposed to the public, but homemakers. When they had to support themselves or their families, they performed tasks that did not require specialized training. The more affluent women or those of the upper middle class invested their money mostly in loans with interest or in buying or renting real estate—activities that did not require them to leave the house, since public exposure was considered a stain on a woman’s honor.

When they went out in public, Jewish women would drape themselves with a wide outer garment that covered their bodies and wear a scarf on their heads. Although they did not wear veils like Muslim women, they remained inconspicuous. From inventory lists of dowries, inheritances and wills we learn that there were wealthy women who possessed jewelry, expensive weavings and objets d’art. But jewelry and fine clothing were worn only in private, for family events. Outdoors, Jewish women looked no different from Muslim women.


Regrettably, it cannot be said that the Spanish expulsion and the changes that followed it brought significant improvement in the expectations and treatment of women. In inheritance claims, the women almost always lost; divorce suits by women were rejected out of hand unless they agreed to give up their property and their ketubbah settlement; extortion in cases of doubtful betrothal or reliance on the custom of Marriage between a widow whose husband died childless (the yevamah) and the brother of the deceased (the yavam or levir).levirate marriage or halizah were common. However, there were women who managed to cope with the inequality by turning to the Muslim religious courts.

Spanish influence in the Levant increased during the sixteenth century and most communities, except for the Ashkenazi ones, were influenced by the immigrants from the Iberian Peninsula. Many Sephardi customs found their way into general use. Yet the Spanish Jews were clearly influenced by the local population in two areas closely connected to women’s welfare: first, in the tendency toward polygamy, which accorded with local custom, and secondly, in the changes in edicts pertaining to the husband’s inheriting his wife’s possessions if she died without issue. Contrary to the edicts that were accepted in Spain and other places, the nuclear family lost its power in the inheriting husband’s favor in Palestine, Syria and Egypt, as The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.halakhah mandated and according to local custom.



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How to cite this page

Lamdan, Ruth. "Levant: Women in the Jewish Communities after the Ottoman Conquest of 1517." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 22, 2024) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/levant-women-in-jewish-communities-after-ottoman-conquest-of-1517>.