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Prof. Renée Levine Melammed, Parashat Chayei Sarah and an Unknown Matriarch

Sarah, Abraham’s wife and the matriarch of the Jewish people, is a strong and independent character.

Prof. Renée Levine Melammed, professor of Jewish history atthe Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies,shares a story of a special woman, who was renowned for her exceptional intellect in an era when many women did not learn to read. This unknown matriarch, Sarah Rivka Leah Rachel Horowitz, showed an appreciation of women’s traditional roles while demonstrating that women had far more learning abilities than was usually recognized.

Full transcription below:

In 18th century Poland, we find a very interesting woman. Now, first we’re going to want to know what her name was.

Well, she came from a very learned Rabbinic family. Her father was a rabbi, his brothers were rabbis, she marries a rabbi and they obviously couldn’t decide what to name her and they must’ve been very fond of the matriarchs. So, what did they name her? Sarah Rivka Leah Rachel. That’s a lot to call a little girl! In the end, they called her Leah and Leah married Rabbi Horowitz, and she was known as Leah Horowitz.

Leah Horowitz received an excellent education. It seems to me not much less than what her brothers received. She was quite, quite learned and, as a rabbi’s wife, she also had the reputation of being extremely learned. She wrote Tkhinnes, which were prayers especially for women. We also have stories about her that fill in a little bit more about her personal side.

One story is about this little boy who had to come and study with her brother on Shabbat, but he got there after lunch and her brother had eaten probably a big Chulent and fell asleep. He sat there baffled, how am I going to study and how am I going to pass my tests? Well guess who filled in? Leah was sitting there and prepare this young man every week for his Talmud tests. When her brother woke up, he passed with flying colors and he himself wrote a personal diary afterwards and told the story of how Rabbinit Leah had really saved him from failing.

The other story which is actually quite interesting, is told about a wedding, a very large wedding attended by all of the rabbis from the greater area. And the women of course were sitting separately at a table and they were talking, they were discussing Torah. Unusual, but they were learned and they’re discussing Torah. The head of the judicial court of the Biet Din happens to walk by and he hears this and he’s stunned. These women are talking Torah? He expected them to be gossiping, to be talking about the latest styles and fashion and he turns to Leah and he says, how can you be doing this? Did you make a joke before you started? Why? Because the tradition is that before you started studying Torah, you made a joke so that if Satan was walking by, if the devil was walking by, he wouldn’t have any idea what you were doing. And she said to him, we women have no need of this because it’s written in Hebrew. פיה פתחה בחכמה וחוכמה. Her mouth opens with wisdom. We can start directly with the Torah and he actually shut him up quite nicely.

Renée Levine Melammed, originally from Long Island, New York, received her degrees from Smith College and Brandeis University. Her dissertation and early research dealt with the lives of crypto-Jewish women in Spain and the way in which conversos coped with the issue of their identity; her current research is focused on women’s lives as reflected in the Cairo Geniza. She is an emeritus professor of Jewish history at Schechter, teaching courses in medieval Jewish history and gender studies as well as in Jews of Spain and Islamic lands.

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