Listening, Reading, and Understanding: How Jewish Women Read the Yiddish Ethical Literature (17th to 18th Century)

Jean Baumgarten. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies. Volume 16, Issue 2. 2017.

In the Ets hayyim, the abridged Yiddish translation of the Shnei luhot habrit (Frankfort on the Oder, 1789, first edition Fürth, 1693) by Yehiel Mikhl Epstein, in the chapter on civility (derekh erets) (fol. 10v), we find a description of the pious Jewish woman as she is commonly represented in the rabbinical literature:

A woman must be honorable and pay attention to keep her house in order so that no danger may occur; no container must be left so that no dog or cat can come to eat out of it. It is better to give the food to the poor. The food must be nicely prepared and arranged in clean and pure containers. When she brings the dishes to the table, in order to find favour in her husband’s eyes and as a sign of submission, especially on erev shabbes, she must pay attention not to argue with her husband, children and servant. She must not fast on Friday in order that she may taste the food. However, she must respect public fasts, even on erev shabbes. If her husband is a scholar (lamdn), she must make sure that the food is ready on time in order that he will not be diverted from study because of the meal. The same is true if he is a merchant (handls man), in order not to delay his transactions because of the meal. When she sees that her husband is angry or worried, she must console him and not increase his troubles. She must be at peace with her husband, because from peace comes luck, blessings and success. Where there is peace, the Divine presence (Shekhine) rests. When the husband is angry, she must keep quiet until his anger passes.

In the continuation of the chapter, the virtues of the pious woman (eyshes khayl) consist of respect for her parents and family, good behaviour, piety and the necessity for daily prayer. Education plays a leading role as, for example, the duty to teach children, among other prayers, the Shema Israel and the Birkat hamazon, to punish in order to inculcate proper education (tarbes) and to study every day. Then the text explains (fol. 11a) that God trusts women because they bring their children to the teacher at the synagogue and they wait for their husbands to come home after they have been studying at the house of study (beit hamidrash). If the woman plays a leading role in the education of the children and the transmission of values, no mention is made of her relationship to study. This omission, based on talmudic and rabbinical prescriptions (Biale 1984, 29-410), comes from women’s exclusion from synagogue ritual during the reading of the Torah and from study at the beit hamidrash, which is the prerogative of men. For example, that the most popular ethical book, the Menorat Hama’or by Isaac Aboab, stresses in many chapters the importance of study. However, the text is intended exclusively for men. It very rarely mentions women. This book, one of the most widely read of Jewish ethical literature, reproduces the gender division between men’s activities, connected mainly to political power, juridical authority, study, divine service and women’s activities, confined to the domestic sphere, especially the children’s education. The text underscores, among other things, marital submission and the obligation of procreation. It does not allude to the relation to study, except for learning the duties incumbent on pious Jewish women.

Recent studies on women in Ashkenazi society during the Early Modern period help us to reconsider this binary simplification. The masculine perspective that restricts the role of women to some ritual duties has been revised. Old Yiddish literature, long defined as a minor literature destined for a female readership with a minimal degree of instruction, provides substantial information on modes of cultural appropriation among women. The study of the vernacular texts helps to go beyond the twofold division between the learned rabbinical elite and the less educated Jews, which prevailed for a long time. Indeed, we find a gap between, on the one hand, those codes of behaviour and idealized expectations as they are described in many ethical books written by rabbis and, on the other, the diversity of sociocultural and practiced religious norms. The strict dichotomy between the scholars (talmidei hakhamim) and the uneducated (amei ha’aretz) must be modified. We find, in fact, many links between these two cultural categories as well as intermediate levels composed of less educated women who could, with more or less facility, decipher, read and study. Parallel to texts written in Hebrew by and for men, the Yiddish chapbooks, especially the ethical treatises, testify that women might have a specific relation to Jewish tradition, to the revealed texts, religious practices, education and rituals.

Old Yiddish ethical books reveal many facts concerning the practices of reading among Jewish women. Even if the Yiddish ethical literature was largely analysed, this specific question has been unexplored for a long time. Most of the studies were mainly focused on the type of books women used to read but less on the ways they read them. Yet the prefaces, introductions and texts themselves either determined by the printers, publishers or written by authors, translators or adaptors, are full of advices, descriptions showing how the books must be read or were read and used by women. A good example is given by the Seder mitsves ha-noshim (Fram 2007, 264) by Benjamin Slonik (Cracow, 1577):

Take care and read this booklet at least once every month and do not say: “I have already read it enough”. Believe me, it is better for you and for your body and for your soul than if you read all the Yiddish and moralistic books that were ever produced. And it (the benefit) will be for you as if you have read the weekly Torah portion in Yiddish. And when you do read the weekly Torah portion in Yiddish, you see that you understand it as well as a man and it awakens you and reminds you and your poor soul.

We must first remember, that women took part in all stages of the production, dissemination and transmission of Yiddish books. We find references to women who copy or commission copies of texts, who write, print, sell books (Baumgarten 2010, 85-90) and, of course, read them. Although there are no statistics concerning the rate of literacy among women, the multiplication of Yiddish books shows that a minimal instruction gave them access to reading and, to a lesser extent, to writing. Printers, authors and translators understood the importance of the new market. Reading was, for a long time, either less studied, or viewed as a uniform practice that did not change. However, there is a history of the practices of reading that underwent transformations between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period (Chartier 1992). Reading means, furthermore, a plurality of practices that depend on individual parameters and socio-religious factors. Grasping the meaning of a text, understanding, deciphering and comprehending it can be accomplished in a wide variety of ways, which are unstable and heterogeneous, interweaving oral and written and including the voice, especially the singing voice, hearing, as for example, in passive listening and the eyes during interpretative reading (Certeau 1980, 279-296; Chartier 1993, 79-113). This essay will present only the most widespread practices of reading among Jewish women as they appear in some Yiddish ethical books.

A central idea mentioned in the Jewish popular literature concerns the concept of understanding (far shtand) and the imperative to understand (far shteyn) the texts. For example, on the title page of the ethical book, the Brantshpigl (Frakes 2004, 420-431) (Hanau, 1626, chapter 3, fol. 11v), we read: “For men and women who cannot read (leyen) and understand (far shtehn) books in the Holy tongue and the sermons (deroshes) delivered on Shabbes.” In the introduction of the Menorat Hama’or by Isaac Aboab (Amsterdam 1722), the translator Moshe Frankfurter (Gutschow 2007, 68, n° 235) explains that the Yiddish translation of the Hebrew ethical book aims to “help women to understand the commentary of the Torah.” We may observe a complementarity between listen (hern), read (leyen), understand (far shteyn) and know (visn). From proper understanding of the literal meaning comes the possibility of correct commentary. When you do not understand what you read, you can make mistakes, lose your way in erroneous commentaries and pervert the divine word and the sayings of the sages. This is one of the reasons why, during the Renaissance period, little Yiddish grammars began to be printed to facilitate the understanding of the texts. We can mention the Sefer mides  (Isny, 1542) in which we find at the end (fol. 99r-100r) some brief rules of pronunciation dedicated to “an honorable and modest woman, Dame Morada” intended for the proper reading and correct interpretation of the ethical text: How one can learn to read Yiddish (vi man zol lernen toytsh leyen). It is not a grammar for scholars but, rather, basic rules for women readers in order not to distort the divine messages and to avoid incorrect interpretations. Proper reading, good pronunciation of the text can reinforce piety and belief, remove frivolous thoughts and hold back the work of Satan and the demons (rukhes roes), who like to confuse meanings and lead the spirit astray. It is the same with the proper understanding of the rules, customs and laws. In the Ets hayyim (Frankfort an der Oder, 1789, fol. 38a), we find this excerpt concerning the supposed “teachers” who mislead and confuse women:

Each person who is a learned person (lamdn) must decide concerning the halakhic rulings about forbidden and authorized food and the related laws (iser veheter). He who is not learned must not make halakhic decisions. But nowadays, because of our great sins, there are teachers (melamdim) in small communities (yeshuvim) who study mostly the Khumesh and with great difficulty. They make decisions concerning the Laws. As they are called “masters”, they think they can make halakhic decisions. In these communities, the women accept their rules and say: Our master has prescribed it! But they do not know that the masters, without knowing it, feed them with impure food (maykhel-tarfes). Their souls [of these women] will be reincarnated as dogs and will not be raised from the dead.

The necessity to understand the literal meaning, as the first step leading to the just commentary, explains the great number of explanations of the biblical verses, followed by the formula “it means” (dos iz taytsh), paraphrases and repetitions that facilitate commentary and memorization. These are not erudite readings for scholars, which would suppose an immediate understanding of the content, the possibility of imagining different interpretations and multiply inter-textual references. We are dealing with a minimal reading that aims to grasp the basic meaning of a discourse. A link is established between the literal understanding of a text and the strengthening of faith, devotion and repentance. The ritualization of reading, based on repetition and memorization, helps to reinforce the ideas the texts instruct, foster repentance, remove sins and inscribe the precepts into the hearts of women readers, but also allows entry into the Garden of Eden to access eternal life (Berger 2013).

Concerning the proper time for reading ethical books, it can be divided mainly into readings during oyneg shabbes, during the holidays and during the week, depending on a woman’s free time. Reading by women may also accompany some rituals. If women are excluded from the rite of circumcision, they may participate before and after the ceremony, for example, the night vigil that precedes the brismile, during which they may read ethical books and recite prayers for the child (Horowitz 1989, 45-69). The same is true of the preparation of the bride, during which bridal songs are sung and instructions are given or read concerning the laws for women. Another case is the watching of the dead, during which women recite Psalms and could read moralistic books.

Another aspect that helps reading is a good disposition in the mind of the reader. The authors suggest standing during individual readings in a location apart from the others, without agitation and noise to interrupt the daily activities, to exclude any entertainment, to concentrate on the page and avoid being assailed by parasitic thoughts (makhshoves roesbeyze gedankn) or material, idle reflections (veltlekhe zakhn). A clear contrast is made between, on one side, secular reading, a source of dissipation, of inner disorder and a waste of time that should be spent on Torah study (bitl toyre) leading the reader astray, and, on the other side, pious readings, which tend to purify the soul. Reading demands an intention (kavone) that is pure and disinterested (leshem shomaim). In the translation of the Shevet musar (Fürth, 1762, paragraph 41, fol. 75r), the author explains, concerning the study of ethical texts, that the most important is not quantity, but fervour, concentration for the glory of God, which leads to coming together with the upper worlds and helps to reach the world to come. The woman reader listens or reads, and can also re-read a passage several times, concentrating on the words of the text with piety, to absorb the meaning and to join her heart to the sayings of the sages.

We may note that the ethical books contain two comparisons often associated with reading. First, is the image of the mirror (shpigl): reading as a mirror of the soul highlights the defects that the reader can correct and also reveals the qualities and the virtues that must be cultivated. Second is the medical metaphor: just as the doctor cures the body, reading cures the soul. The reading of ethical books is compared to medication (refue) to purify sins. The introduction to the Menorat Hamaor (Amsterdam, 1722) stresses that the reading of ethical books is a great remedy or a great virtue (sgule) for the soul.

Now let us analyse the main practices of reading among Jewish women. We must first notice that some medieval modes of reading persisted a long time after the invention of printing. Jewish women did not study at the beit hamidrash, so that books were read mainly at home, and in a multitude of ways. Some prefaces mention that one may simply glance through a page (an shoynleyen un zehen) without reading it carefully, line by line, and without necessarily understanding all the meaning. Reading aloud is omnipresent in cultural transmission. Some introductions—often based on the verse (Isaiah 55,3), Hearken and you shall revive—stress the importance of hearing (heren) the texts. Hearing and reading a page (heren un leyen) are two complementary activities, which help, depending on the degree of literacy and amount of free time, to grasp and understand the content of a discourse. In the introduction to the Sefer derekh hayashar le`olam haba (Frankfurt, 1717) by Yehiel Mikhl Epstein, we read:

When you live in a large community, you can ask a rabbi; but when you live in a small community or a village, sometimes there is nobody to teach and guide you when you need to know what to do. This is why I wrote this book in order that people may learn and, thanks to this book, follow the right path to serve God. Because we, children of Israel, are, thanks to God, a holy people and obedient sons who respect what they hear (heren) and read (leyen) in order to know how to behave in the service of God.

Collective reading aloud plays a leading role, whether it be in small groups within the family circle, part of the immediate neighbourhood, or among close friends, or for women, sometimes in larger assemblies. We find modes of assisted reading, either with the help of a learned person, a rabbi, or a husband who explains to his wife and children the main laws and practices. In this case, the man teaches the woman by means of oral instruction. It could also be a woman reader who reads and studies a book with another woman or a group of women. In the preface to the Sefer hen tov (Amsterdam, 1756), we read: “Every householder will read the book in a cycle of thirty days to his wife and children around the family’s table.” A mother, sometimes a grandmother, is obliged to teach her daughter or granddaughter with the help of edifying books, pedagogical manuals or with illustrations (Shmeruk 1986, 53-56), through oral transmission or assisted reading in order to help to learn and memorize the moral duties of pious women and “to awaken children’s pleasure of reading” (From the title page of the Mayse Bukh, Amsterdam, 1701). We are not talking about studying, a form of reading sacred texts which require a deep knowledge of the Talmud and of difficult commentaries in Hebrew. It consists only of studying the literal meaning (peshat) of the Bible, the essential prayers, the laws referring to women and the Yiddish ethical literature. A good example is given by Rivka of Tykotin (Tiktiner), the daughter of a rabbi, who wrote an adaptation of rabbinic moral advice, the Meneket Rivkah (Prague 1609) (Shmeruk 1978 13-23; Rohden 2009). In the introduction to her booklet, she explained that she faced difficulties in studying, so she decided to write her booklet in order to help and instruct Jewish women:

I have observed, I have studied according to my heart, I have raised up my voice and read. Now I have come and today I have gone out and I have found a well of water and I have rolled a large stone and I have drunk from it and I am thirsty and I said to my heart I will go and bring (water) to my neighbours and relatives.

At the synagogue, the prayers, the weekly portion of the Pentateuch (parshe) and the sermons (droshes) are heard in Hebrew during the divine service. They may be translated, spoken in a low voice by a firzogerin or zogerke, a woman who understands the Hebrew prayers enough to lead the other women in Yiddish during the service at the synagogue (Fram 2007, 65). Some authors speak about studying by listening (tsu heren lernen). In the Brantshpigl (Hanau, 1626, paragraph 1), we read:

Some persons cannot always be present at the sermons (deroshes) in which they can hear (heren) the punishments and teachings, and how people must behave on any occasion. Even if they come (are present at the sermons) it is useless, because they don’t understand what is said. The sermon explains the literal meaning (peshotim) of the sidre with biblical commentaries (midroshim) and stories (aggodes), mostly in the Holy tongue … even more so when they speak of Targumin and Kabbalah. Or they speak about the sacred duties (mitsves) that women are not obliged to respect or about two or three mistves but without speaking about all the duties.

In a passage from the Shevet musar (Fürth, 1762, chapter 1, fol. 4v), we find the same idea concerning the religious importance of the translation from Hebrew to Yiddish for the less educated Jewish men and women and of listening in order to understand a sermon or a text not by reading with the eyes in a printed text but through an aural transmission, a way to grasp the meaning of a text by hearing somebody reading it aloud:

Every person must go to see the scholars with determination to hear them saying the Torah. When a scholar preaches, the person must listen to him diligently and with great desire. He must think: this is God’s will. Because listening must be considered the equivalent of studying by oneself (zelbert lernen). He must be devoted to study and love the sages, listen to their sayings, exactly as we must respect the commandments.

Because the pages contain the Divine Name and words of ethical advice, the mere fact of hearing them could be sufficient for purification, personal improvement, repentance and association with the divine. The sacred words possess a magical power, a virtue of protection, of purification of sin and of struggle against the evil inclination (yester hore). One can simply hear them, or read them even without understanding, to be protected and inwardly transformed. In the Brantshpigl (Hanau, 1626, chapter 1, fol. 5v), we read:

Thus I have decided and held to be useful to write down in a book punishments and instructions, so that a woman can read or have it read aloud and thus she might know everything that she ought to do and not to do … I have written a book of punishments and instructions; each person who reads it or who has it read in public (lost zikh es foyr leyen) and who will respect (the commandments) will take part in the feast in the world to come.

Many texts used this expression foyr leyen, which means to have it read aloud before others, especially for those who cannot read themselves. In the Shevet Musar (Fürth, 1762, Introduction, fol. 3v-4r), the text explains the most important imperative is to hear or read the Torah and then the reward will come:

Many people say: As I can’t understand the Torah by myself, I am not going to study. This person is wrong, because one is obliged to do what is ordered to do, as the verse says (Joshua 1,8): Recite it day and night, which means that you must study. It is not written you must understand. We find the same with the saying of a Tane in the Gemore: if you study the Torah a lot, you will be rewarded. It is not written: if you understand, but if you study. If you understand, it is good; if you don’t understand, you will nevertheless receive the reward of study … When a person says: I will not study because I don’t understand, this is really an incitement of the evil inclination (yester hore).

We also find mixed types of reading. This may consist of the recitation of a text by a female reader who reads a passage aloud in a larger or smaller group of women; it might also be a small circle of women, each reading from her own book, interrupted from time to time by a collective discussion; it could also be an individual silent reading in a group of women. The principal goal is to memorize a text in order to use it and to put into practice the moral advice given, without asking a rabbi or another man. We also find readings with songs, especially the collections of hymns and religious songs (zmirotpizmonim or religieze lider). The most representative example is the anthology of rhymed religious songs the Simkhes ha-nefesh (Fürth, 1727) (Shatzky 1926), which could be read or sung during shabbes or holidays at home, for example, during the Seyder of Peysekh and at Purim. The text mentions, for example, some hymns (shir lesimhat torah or simkhes-toyre lid) sung by women when they prepare the decorations of the Torah scrolls for the procession of the hakofes around the bime. At the head of each song, we find musical annotations, which lead us to think that the hymns could be sung accompanied by one or more musicians.

The period of the invention of printing coincides with the transformation and the evolution of reading practices among Jewish women. One of the most significant changes is the modification of the balance between reading by men, considered as more active, reflexive, complex, interspersed with interpretations and reading by women, defined as more passive, silent, connected to ignorance, under the authority and submission of men who possess the power to comment and to transmit the truth of the sacred texts. The myth of learned literature read only by erudite scholars, and popular literature read only by the less educated must be reconsidered. Even though we cannot ignore the sociocultural divides and gender distinctions, books circulate among heterogeneous groups. They are read in a multiplicity of possible ways, oral or visual, without presupposing a rigid correlation between the social group and the mode of reading. Of course the balance between men’s culture and women’s culture in traditional Jewish society does not change radically. We do see, however, a gradual evolution in the access to rabbinical culture. The equation connecting man to learning and to the cultural elite and women to less learning and the realm of ignorance (amoretses) must be abandoned. The prefaces to many Yiddish books include children, women and men as potential readers of the Jewish popular literature. We find the most remarkable example in the Brantshpigl (Hanau, 1626, chapter 3, fol. 10v). One passage refers to men whose insufficient knowledge of Hebrew prevents them from having access to the original texts and who therefore read books in the Jewish vernacular language:

This book was written for women and for men who are like women and cannot study very much. When Shabbes comes, they cannot read. They cannot understand what they read because the books are in the Holy Tongue. They (the books) speak of talmudic argumentation (pilpl) and Gemore that they cannot understand, even if they contain many descriptions of good virtues in the Yiddish language.

New types of reading, listening and commentary appear among Jewish women from the sixteenth century with the development of printing, instruction and the dissemination of chapbooks in the Jewish vernacular language, which transform the practices of reading and establish a new relation to the revealed texts and to the authorities (Turniansky 2004, 121-148; Glikl 2006). The female readership seems less passive. The reading was usually led by a scholar, a rabbi, a tutor, a teacher or the husband, who guided and gave the proper interpretation. The women remained silent, listening to the instructor or teacher’s commentaries. With the greater availability of chapbooks, the women participate in the reading more intensively, with body and soul. They may show signs of approval, satisfaction, doubt and disapproval; they can interrupt the reading and add personal interpretations. There is also a mental change with a more emotional, intimate, spiritual investment which aims to internalize the ethical advice and to put it into practice. With the process of individualization of the reading, it can be punctuated with meditation, pauses or reveries, which allow the imagination to wander, to escape from the daily routine.

The development of printing, the demands of marketplace, bring about greater possibilities for women to engage with Yiddish ethical literature. Furthermore, a whole group of texts which, up to the sixteenth century, were the exclusive prerogative of men or limited women to passive listening, were now at the disposal of women, who read, studied and interpreted them either individually or in small circles devoted to education, edification and the pleasure of reading among friends, family and close relations. Books formerly inaccessible to women begin to appear on the market. They leave the exclusive sphere of influence of erudite male readers, including the intellectual elite, the rabbis and the initiated, the kabbalists, to acquire a new visibility. We can cite, among others, the adaptations of mystical treatises, for example, the partial translation of the Zohar into Yiddish by Tsvi Hirsh ben Yeramiel Chotsch, the Nahalat Tsvi (Frankfurt, 1707) which was, as mentioned in the introduction, explicitly intended for men and women for their pious readings, either private or collective in small study groups.

Even if oral collective reading continues to play an important socio-religious role, reading becomes a more private, silent and solitary practice. It presupposes a slow, careful (flaysik leyen), meditative (meharher), unhurried deciphering of each page, sometimes stumbling laboriously through the text, sometimes reading more quickly and confidently. The women could read and re-read the same passage several times in order to immerse themselves in the text to understand it correctly. In the Ets hayyim (Frankfort on the Oder, 1789, fol. 39b) we read:

When you read a parshe, and there is a repetition or duplication, you must not read quickly, but word by word. Because in the Torah there is not one useless word. The Oyrekh khaim wrote that in each word of the Torah there are tens of thousands of worlds.

This is a kind of intensive reading (Engelsing 1974) which means the continuous return to a limited number of books which are tirelessly read, re-read, studied (iber lerneniber leyen), sometimes from the beginning to the end (oys leyen), but more often by following the weekly portion of the Bible or some specific theme connected to the holidays or the laws. The best-known example is the Tsenerene (Hanau, (Pseudo-Basel), 1622) (Prijs 1964, 475, n°319) read by women during Oyneg shabbes in relation with the parshe. Another important example is the Seder mitsves hanoshim (Cracow, 1577) (Prijs 1964, 475, n° 319) that women could read when they wished to know the right rule and the laws to be respected concerning their pious duties. The same is true for the tradition of the Sifrei haminhagim in which female readers could look for a passage concerning a ceremony or a holiday to know the right custom or the order of the prayers (rekhte seyder) without being obliged to ask a rabbi or the husband. The ritual prescriptions and ethical advice are read and re-read until they become a habitus, naturally practiced without the mediation a male authority. Memorization is essential in the transmission of the sacred texts, as we read in the translation of the Shevet musar by Elijah ben Solomon Abraham ha-Cohen (Fürth, 1762, paragraph 30, letter lamed):

Each person must make sure to study, after the meal, a lot or a little. If he has no book, he can remember a mishne or recall a law which he repeats by heart.

In the chapter entitled: The Gate of Repentance (Sha`ar hateshuva) of the Gidul bonim (Homburg, 1747) all the good that comes from a simple reminiscence of the titles of the books even explained. Their recitation has a moral effectiveness, a magical power to contain bad thoughts and to purify:

In the Siftei yeshenim, it is written that if you cannot study [the books] you must think about their titles as, for example, Gemore, Zoyer, Tikune (Zoyer). This, too, is a source of merit.

We observe a greater privatization of reading. Of course, the oral collective reading of a book or a manuscript, generally owned by a wealthy Jew, is still essential. Nevertheless, the multiplication of the cheap chapbooks encouraged private readings at home. A new relationship is established between the female reader and the world of printing—editor, translator, adaptor, printer and writer—who try to attract Jewish women by creating a relationship of familiarity and complicity. The goal is also, in order to stimulate buying, to make reading more common, usual, less solemn, less severe, free from any fear and the shame of not knowing, not understanding. This historical change is associated with a greater respect for the book, which must be protected, as it was suggested in another excerpt from the ethical treatise the Shevet musar (Fürth, 1762, paragraph 17, fol. 41r):

Some people give their child a book to play with and the child tears it. It is a great fault to play with sacred letters. We also find elderly people who leave their prayer book or their tefilin on a bench where they sit. This is a sign of their great contempt for the books.

If boys study with a melamed at the kheyder, women receive first and foremost a both oral and written instruction from their mother at home. Young girls learn how to decipher, read and sometimes write, of course with varying degrees of competence. Women may also, in the wealthier families, hire a private tutor who teaches them the rudiments of writing and reading. When they master the reading, they can study by themselves (zelbst lernen), which means to read excerpts from Yiddish books during their free time or oyneg shabbes. There may also be private oral instruction and tutoring, for example, a father studying with his young boys at home, a husband who reads an ethical book to his wife and explains the pious duties to her. In the richest families, the father could also hire a tutor to instruct her daughters, to teach her how to read and write. Afterwards the woman can transmit to other women what she had learnt. In the Shevet musar (Fürth, 1762, chapter 11, fol. 31v), we read:

A man who is ignorant (amorets) and who cannot study at all, must go, on shabbes, holidays and when he has free time during the day, to the house of study in order to hear (heren) the Torah. He must then, at the end of the day, report what he has learnt to his wife and children. During the period of the year where the nights are long and when the neighbors are accustomed to gather, he must tell (far tseylen) (what he has heard or read). He must recount the miracles that happened during his days. In this way he will favor the unification (baheftung) with God.

We also find a woman who reads and comments on a passage of a book in a circle of friends, neighbours or relations. In the colophon page of the Midrash lePirkei Avot the author, Anshel Levi, explains that he has written his commentary for his patroness, Dame Perlen, in order to fuel her pious readings either individual or shared with other women. (Maitlis 1978, 174) Copying such manuscripts was restricted to the wealthiest members of the Jewish communities. In this example, a husband commissioned a scribe to copy a manuscript to give as a present to his wife so that she could read by herself or with a small group of women. Conversely, a woman could encourage her husband to study with her, as we find mentioned in the Sefer mitsves ha-noshim (Cracow, 1577) (Fram (2007, 264):

If your husband is not someone who studies, make him read from it [the booklet] just like you. And read it often and do not let yourself grow weary of it. Then your body and your poor soul will be relieved for one year in the Garden of Eden from where the four rivers flow.

This type of reading presupposes a kind of control or submission because it is the man who decides what is good for the woman and what is not, as we find in this other excerpt from the Sefer Mitsves ha-noshim (Cracow, 1577):

A man may take pleasure [in reading] this book because there are women who don’t know how to read. Such a woman may often lose her way (makes mistakes). Then her husband can teach her, so that she may pay attention to these questions (nide), not committing misdeeds in this world and in the world to come and not following the evil inclination (yester hore).

The evolution that began with the invention of printing led to a decrease in collective oral reading, but which nevertheless continued, and to a progress of silent reading at home. The tradition of the Tekhines (Weissler (1998) the prayers of supplication, shows the privatization of faith and piety focused on the depths of the conscience, based on a personal relationship with God, with whom the woman converses when she is in distress or when she has a request to make for her husband or children. The ethical literature is connected to reading as a corrective, edifying activity, considered as a mitsve, an educational practice. Immoral readings that deviate from the right path are condemned, whereas didactic, moralistic readings are praised because they can transform the reader. Reading is likened to a spiritual exercise, a sacred activity and a positive commandment that leads to better self-knowledge and repentance. Reading also has a purifying virtue, almost messianic in the sense that it could create the conditions for, and even hasten, the coming of the Messiah (Berger 2013 214-215).

Other reasons for the change in the reading practices of Jewish women are the reduction of the price of books, a better commercialization and circulation of Jewish chapbooks and the increase in literacy and education among women, especially at home. We must also mention the improvement in printing technologies and, above all, an improved and more aesthetic layout. The printers’ effort to compose and edit books with a greater readability favours a better understanding of the texts. This important aspect would deserve a detailed development in order to show how much the printers thought about the material aspect and structure of Jewish popular books. They gave the Yiddish book a simpler, more agreeable, nicely spaced form, and inserted tools that facilitate understanding and textual markers such as size, typography, punctuation, chapter divisions, indexes and tables of contents. All this technical progress frees the attention, makes the reading more efficient and facilitates meditation and interpretative creativity.

The invention of printing and the increase in the number of Yiddish books opened a new historical period during which Jewish women took a greater part in the world of the book, its production, its acquisition, its preservation and its use in a multiplicity of possible readings. From the Renaissance period on, the practices of reading change, slowly of course, but notably. Even if the cultural control, the impact of the rabbinical authorities, the prestige of Hebrew remain intact, reading tends, with the privatization of the public sphere and the importance given to inner devotion, to become more diverse, individual, solitary and silent. It is less dependent on rules of transmission imposed by the rabbinical elite and learned readers. Reading becomes a more creative, unstable, inventive, multi-faceted practice shared by a larger readership made of men, women and children from all the social strata. Among the more visible signs of this social, religious and cultural transformation, parallel to the increase of the number of chapbooks and the rise of the level of the literacy, we find the diversification of reading practices among Jewish women.