Jewish women have unquestionably had a tremendous impact on history.
The sages teach us that the Jewish people were redeemed from slavery in Egypt only in the merit of righteous Jewish women[i]. Furthermore, the sages go on to say that we will be redeemed from our current exile, too in the merit of the righteous women[ii].
We will discuss some of the most prominent examples of impactful Jewish women in history. To cover all of them, if at all possible, would be beyond the scope of this short article.
Our nation was founded by the four Matriarchs, Sarah, Rivka, Rochel, and Laya (Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah), alongside the three Patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). The matriarchs also provided critical input at crucial times, shaping the nation so that it would be pure. From Avraham’s distancing Yishma’el (Ishmael) at Sarah’s behest, to Rivka’s interference so that Yitzchok bless Yaakov rather than Esav (Esau), to Rochel’s role in Yaakov’s mistaken marriage of Leah (according to tradition, Yaakov prepared secret signs with Rochel to ensure Lavan (Laban) would not switch her for Leah. Fearing Leah would be shamed, Rochel let her in on the secrets, at unfathomable self-sacrifice).
Moving on to our first exile, in Egypt, Yocheved, Miriam, and Basya brought us Moshe Rabbeinu, savior, teacher, and leader of the Jewish people, through their combined efforts.
Tradition teaches that Moshe’s father Amram had separated from his wife Yocheved, when Paroah (Pharaoh) decreed all Jewish baby boys be drowned in the Nile.
His daughter Miriam argued that would make things worse, as it would prevent the birth of girls too. Remarkably, Amram accepted her criticism, despite her young age (she was no more than six!), and a leader was born.
Little Moshe could not have lasted long though, without the intervention of the tyrannical Paroah’s very own daughter Basya, who rescued the baby from a basket floating on the Nile, and brought him home, caring for him under the auspices of Moshe’s very own nemesis, Paroah.
Other impactful Jewish women include:
- the seven prophetesses, including the leader and judge Devorah
- Queen Esther, who saved the entire Jewish people together with Mordechai, during the story of Purim, recounted in their very own “Megillas Esther”.
- Yael, who killed the enemy general Sisra, thereby saving the Jewish people from his wicked might. This was not long after their original entry into the Land of Israel.
- Yehudis, during the oppressive Greek rule, in the Second Temple period. Forced into having relations with the local ruler Eliporni (Holofernes), she fed him milk and cheese until he became sleepy, upon which she amputated his head, ran back home with her “loot”, and hung the head out to dry, which quickly inspired the ruler’s soldiers to flee the area.
- The daughters of Tzilafchad, who approached Moshe with the argument for daughters’ inheritance, in the absence of sons. Their appeal was instrumental in having that law added to the Torah, on the directive of God.
- Bruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir; Yalta, wife of Rabbi Nachman and daughter of the Reish Galusa; Abaya’s [step] mother (name unknown); the maidservant of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi (quoted for linguistic knowledge) – all cited in the Talmud.
On the negative side, at some points in history we suffered from less-than-righteous women, who used their capabilities for the bad, including:
- Shimshon’s wife Delilah, who caused the leader’s downfall.
- Queen Izevel (Jezebel), who introduced idolatry to Israel at an unprecedented level, and murdered all prophets she could get her wicked clutches on, besides arranging the capital framing of Navos H’yizre’eli.
- Queen Asalya, who nearly succeeded in eradicating the Davidic royal family and dynasty.
- The wife of Potiphar, who caused Yosef much anguish and pain. In her case, though, the story had a happy ending; eventually bringing about Yosef’s emancipation, and rise to power.
And last, but certainly not least:
Chava (Eve) was technically not Jewish. Nor does she fit neatly in the box of “good” or “evil”. She certainly played a significant role in Jewish history, and world history, though. Arguably the most impactful human being ever. Eating from the Eitz Hada’as (the Tree of Knowledge) and seducing her husband to do the same, she permanently changed the world with her actions.
Still, as Adam said, she was the “mother of humanity”, a noble and pivotal role as well.
More questions about Jewish women in history and beyond? Get your answers.
[i] Sotah 11b
[ii] Yalkut Shimoni Rus 606 (according to the understanding of Yalkut M’am Loez Parshas Shoftim “Maalas ha’isha hakshera”
By Rabbi Pinchos Fried