Women in First Century Synagogues

Women in First Century Synagogues March 7, 2013

From Rabbi Joshua:

Question: What do women do by way of leadership in messianic Judaism today?

During the Second Temple period in ancient Israel, women were able to actively participate within the larger society, both socially and religiously. Women served as leaders of synagogues, participated in ritual services, learned and taught Jewish law, were counted in a minyan, and from archaeological evidence, do not seem to have been physically separated from men during prayer. There was active participation of women in all facets of Jewish ritual life. According to Shmuel Safrai:

In the Second Temple period women were religiously the equals of men: ancient Jewish sources from the land of Israel and from the Diaspora show that women frequented the synagogue and studied in the beit midrash (study hall). Women could be members of the quorum of ten needed to say the “Eighteen Benedictions”…and like men, women were permitted to say “Amen” in response to the priestly blessing.[1]

Archaeological evidence supports that women were not necessarily separated from the men in the synagogue. This is the result of no apparent evidence from any of the numerous synagogues that have been excavated that would seem to indicate men and women were required to sit separately….

This scholarly assumption is supported by Safrai, who comments, “Rabbinic sources mention various functions for synagogue balconies and upper rooms, but there is never a connection made between these structures and women.”[3] The first reference to a mechitza is connected to Abaye (4th Cent. CE) in the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 81a). In many opinions, it is unrelated to the synagogue.[4] As a result of recent scholarly insight into this arena, any kind of inference of women’s inferiority based on supposed separation during prayer is not supported by archaeological or textual evidence.

Inscriptions discovered in ancient synagogues from the early centuries also testify to women having served in various leadership capacities throughout the Jewish world. These inscriptions include heads of synagogues (αρχισυναγωγος), leaders (αρχηγισσα), and elders (πρεσβυτερα and other parallels).[5] These inscriptions (in feminine conjugations) bear witness to the very public roles of women. Thus further proving that women were indeed active members within their spiritual communities.

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