The problem of the rights of woman in Jewish law and custom is presented mainly in five phases: (1) the power of the father over his daughter; (2) woman's right of inheritance; (3) the powers and duties of the husband; (4) woman's opportunities for self-improvement and for following various occupations; and (5) the position of the mother.

Paternal Power.
  • (1) An early intimation of woman's freedom to choose her mate in life is found in Gen. xxiv. 58, where Rebekah, when her hand is sought for Isaac by the steward of Abraham, is asked: "Wilt thou go with this man?" Apparently, however, Isaac was not consulted at all as to whether he preferred a wife from Mesopotamia or a Canaanite or Hittite damsel. Although the story of Rebekah proves a deep-seated sentiment that a girl should not be coerced into marriage, the civil law gave no force to this sentiment, but recognized (Ex. xxi. 7) the power of the father to sell his daughter into bondage with the evident intention that she should become the wife of her master or of her master's son. The limitations to the rights of the father, as established by tradition, have been discussed under Slaves and Slavery. The daughter must be under the age of puberty, and the sale is justified only by extreme poverty, although the principle that the father can dispose of the daughter's hand remains intact, as is attested by expressions found elsewhere in the Torah, such as Deut. xxii. 16: "I gave my daughter to this man to wife." Tradition teaches (Ḳid. ii. 1), however, that a mature girl (), i.e., one more than twelve and a half years of age, had the right to give herself in marriage, and the same privilege was allowed to a "widow from marriage," even in case she was immature. On the other hand, the father had the power to take a wife for his infant son without the son's consent (Ket. ix. 9).Although marriages are celebrated between very young grooms and brides in Europe, it has for centuries been unusual, even in the eastern part of the Continent, to give immature girls in marriage. The form of the ketubah, as found in the "Naḥalat Shib'ah," published in 1666, speaks only of the bride as personally accepting the groom's proposal, and has no alternative form by which the father might accept for her.The father is entitled to the work of his daughter's hands, and to what she finds (Ket. iv. 4), until she attains the age of maturity, which is reached very early; and he has the same rights over his infant son, the term here lasting six months longer.The father was empowered to release his daughter from her vows (Num. xxx.), although, according to the Mishnah (Ned. x. 2), this power ceased when she attained her majority. This power of loosing vows was a great step in the progress of woman's freedom, marking an advance over both Babylonian and Roman law, under which the father could impose vows on his daughter even against her will.
Female Inheritance.
  • (2) While in some systems of ancient law daughters or sisters were excluded from all rights of inheritance, and while in other systems they were put on an equality with sons or brothers, the Mosaic law gave the inheritance to the daughter or daughters when there were no sons, and, by analogy, to sisters or paternal aunts when there were no brothers (see Agnates). In no case, however, either under Mosaic or under rabbinic law, did an inheritance go to the mother (B. B. viii. 1). Theinstitution of maintenance for minor daughters, and the rule that the father's estate must provide a dowry for the younger daughters which should equal the portion received by their elder sisters (unless the father had become impoverished, when the minimum dowry should be fifty zuzim), show that in the great majority of cases the daughters fared better than the sons (see B. B. ix. 1; Ket. iv. 11; and the clause concerning "benan nuḳban," or "female children," in the ketubah). No such favor was shown, on the other hand, to sisters or other kins-women of the decedent, and traditional law sought merely to soften the hardships of agnatic succession in accordance with the natural feelings of a dying father, instead of setting the inheritance aside, as was done by the one hundred and eighteenth novel in the Roman Code and by American statutes enacted since the Revolution.The position of the daughter or sister in regard to the right of inheritance was at least no worse than it is now under the law of England in case of landed estates.
Relations to Husband.
  • (3) The position of married women in Israel was naturally improved when the wife brought a dowry to her husband instead of being purchased. , the word for "dowry," appears for the first time in the arrangements for the wedding between King Solomon and Pharaoh's daughter (I Kings ix. 16). The literal meaning of the term is "dismissal," since it was the father's present to his daughter when she left his house. The use of the word in this place proves the existence of a custom of bestowing on the daughter such gifts as would inure to the husband's benefit. In later times the Babylonian word "nedunya" was substituted for the Hebrew term. The "moḥar," or "price," which the groom had to weigh out according to the Pentateuch, was originally the sum paid for the bride, like the "tirḥatu" of Babylonian law; but in Israel, as in Babylon, it early became customary for the bride's father to restore this price to the husband at the wedding, whereupon it was secured by contract (the ketubah) to the wife as a jointure, payable upon the death of the husband or in case of divorce. Thus the moḥar was no longer incompatible, either in Babylonia or in Canaan, with the dowry bestowed upon the bride from her father's house. The obligation to return the dowry and to pay the jointure (ketubah) served as a good security against divorce on insufficient grounds.Polygamy must have been very rare during the period of the Mishnah and Gemara; for though the wives of many rabbis are mentioned, there are no allusions to plural marriages. Among the personages named by Josephus, King Herod is almost the only polygamist. Concubinage, or the taking of an inferior wife (see Pilegesh), was no longer practised in mishnaic times.The husband's duties to the wife are set forth in detail under Ketubah. In the body of that instrument he binds himself to work for her, and to honor, support, and maintain her. The wife, if she brings no dowry, is bound to do such housework for the husband as grinding, baking, washing, cooking, suckling her child, spreading the bed, and working in wool (spinning, knitting, and the like). If she brings one slave woman, or the means to buy one, she need not grind, bake, nor wash clothes; if two, she need not cook, nor suckle her child; if three, she need not spread the bed nor work in wool; if four, she may "sit still in her chair" (Ket. v. 5). She must, however, do certain small services for her husband which it would be improper for any but the wife to perform, such as washing his hands and face (comp. the Talmud ad loc.). R. Eliezer maintained, however, that though she brought a hundred slaves, the husband might insist on her working in wool, lest idleness should lead her into intrigues; and R. Simeon ben Gamaliel declared the husband should not allow idleness in his wife, as it would drive her into melancholia. It is noteworthy that a married woman was never bound to work in the field.As shown under Assault and Battery, the husband must not strike his wife; if he does, he is liable for "damage, pain, and shame," the same as to a stranger. The legal remedy was less effectual as a protection to the wife, however, than the religious warning (B. M. 59a), which ran: "A man should always be careful lest he vex his wife: for as her tears come easily, the vexation put upon her comes near [to God]; since, though all other gates be shut, the gate of tears is never closed."
Woman and Culture.
  • (4) The fear that an idle wife would fall either into intrigues or into melancholia shows that study or reading was not a common diversion of women. The Talmud (ad loc.) suggests that they might maintain cheerfulness by playing chess ("nardeshir"). On the other hand, it would appear from a passage of the Mishnah (Ned. iv. 3), that it was usual to teach girls to read, which of course meant to read the Bible, though it was regarded as highly improper to instruct them in the oral law.The tone which pervades the Bible and the Talmud, however, is not very different from that which runs through the literature of other nations, showing that woman was held of less account than man. Leah boasts of the many sons she has borne to Jacob; Hannah prays to the Lord for a man child; and the Mishnah speaks of him who prays that his wife may bring forth a son rather than a daughter. In Hebrew law women were not competent witnesses either in civil or in criminal cases. It was a disgrace to a warrior to be killed or disabled by a woman, while a woman who could not find a man to marry her was held in contempt. Recognition was won, however, by women of high talent, such as Deborah in Israel's heroic epoch, the prophetess Huldah in the later days of the kingdom of Judah, and R. Meïr's wife in the mishnaic period; while the nine years' reign of Queen Salome was a golden age in Jewish history. The last chapter of Proverbs could not have been written among a nation which despised its women. Wives were frequently empowered by their husbands to manage a shop or store ("ḥanut"), and widows were appointed guardians for their infant children; so that business was not an unknown field to them (Ket. ix. 4-5.) In modern times much of the retail trade of the Jews, and not a little even of wholesale commerce,has been carried on by women, while their husbands have been poring over the Bible or Talmud, either at home or in the bet ha-midrash.
Woman as Mother.
  • (5) The position of the mother is higher under the Mosaic law than under any other system of antiquity. By the fifth commandment the mother is to be honored equally with the father, while in the moral law (Lev. xix. 3) the command to "fear" the mother, that is, to treat her with respect, is placed even before the duty of "fearing" the father. Death is threatened him who strikes or who curses his mother, as well as him who thus offends against his father. The Talmud, in showing under what extreme provocation the righteous man will maintain an outward regard for his parents (Ḳid. 30b-32a), gives stories of outrageous mothers who were treated with the utmost respect. This sentiment was not shown by the Greeks toward even the best of mothers; for in the first book of the "Odyssey" Telemachus reproves Penelope, and imperiously sends her away to her own apartment to mind her own womanly business. In the so-called Sumerian family laws, the Babylonian code goes farther than Mosaic legislation, for the son must leave the parental house at his mother's bidding. The Book of Proverbs is full of expressions of reverence for the mother, who is the teacher of all virtues. It states that King Lemuel was taught wisdom by his mother. A curse is foretold for the man who forgets to reverence his mother.The Baraita teaches the influence of the mother on her offspring through simple heredity when it says: "Most sons follow the nature of the mother's brothers" (B. B. 110a). This very belief that the mother gave her child a legacy of good or evil qualities which, though hidden in her, appeared in her brothers, must have raised the standing of mothers and of womankind in general.See also Daughter in Jewish Law; Husband and Wife; Majority; Marriage; Mother; Widow.
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