Sunday, December 04, 2005

. . . v’hashkamat bet hamidrash shacharit v’arvit: Did Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1450 rescue Jewish women from illiteracy?

Talmud, Shabbat 127a: "These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world but whose principal remains intact for him in the world to come, and these are they: . . .early attendance at the house of study morning and evening . . .”

I am by no means a historian, so this is pure speculation on my part. Nevertheless, I think it might be interesting to consider the possibility that women's opportunities for learning may have been limited in the days before the invention of the printing press. After all, when all books had to be handwritten, who could afford them, except the very rich? Since most of the populace couldn’t afford to own their own books, the only way to study was to go to the bet midrash (study house), because the bet midrash was the only public library in town. This explains why the Talmud made attendance at the bet midrash such a high priority.

I may be under the wrong impression, but I assume that the bet midrash was reserved for men. The closest thing that I have to an actual proof text for that assumption is from Philip Birnbaum's siddur (prayerbook), in which he states, in a footnote, that the women's brachah/blessing Praised is [the One . . .] who made me according to His will (Baruch she-asani kir'tzono) "is mentioned by David Abudarham (fourteenth century) as a recently introduced blessing to be recited by women." So, were the women in the centuries between the era in which Anshei Knesset Hagedolah, the Men of the Great Assembly, composed the main prayers and roughly the fourteenth century just skipping the men's blessing—or were they not using the standard prayers at all, because they had nowhere to learn them?

Assuming that women were not welcome in the bet midrash, where, exactly, were they going to learn to read? And even if, by good fortune, they’d been taught the alef-bet, where could they go to get books?

It was only with the invention of the printing press that books came to be affordable for the common person. Nowadays, any woman who wants to study can buy herself a text and learn in the privacy of her own home, or with a chevruta (study partner), without setting foot in any place where a woman might not be welcome.


Post a Comment

<< Home

<< List
Jewish Bloggers
Join >>