A Mystery on the Tombstones: "Women's Commandments" in Early-Modern Ashkenazi Culture

Article excerpt

Abstract

In a cemetery in Alsace, many of the women's tombstones bear the inscription that the deceased kept the so-called "Women's Commandments." The article argues that two reasons may, among other reasons, account for this custom: one is for the sake of the deceased, proclaiming that she has atoned for the sin of Eve, and the other is for the sake of her descendants, arming that they are not "Bnei ha-Niddah," descendants of a woman who ignored the Jewish laws regarding menstruation. Please note: this article includes links to high quality large pictures (LP.). If you would like to see them, you must be connected to the internet.

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1. The Jewish Cemetery at Rosenwiller

One of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Alsace (presently in the department of Bas-Rhin in eastern France), lies between beautiful agricultural lands and forests near Rosenwiller, a small village (2) about a twenty-minute drive west of Strasbourg. In its heyday the cemetery served dozens of communities, and is estimated to be the last resting place for about six thousand Jews. Except for the one or two Jewish families who ran the cemetery, there was never a Jewish community in the village of Rosenwiller itself. On the other hand, the adjacent village, less than two kilometers from Rosenwiller, is Rosheim, famous in Jewish history because of one of its former inhabitants, Josel (Joseph) ben Gershon (ca. 1478-1554), the most well known communal representative of medieval German Jewry.

Josel moved to Rosheim ca. 1515, and lived there for the remaining forty years of his life. Was he buried at Rosenwiller? A registry reference to a Jewish cemetery established near Rosheim between 1349 and 1366 does exist, but it is unknown if the reference is to the current burial ground near Rosenwiller. Josel's resting place remains unknown as well.

It is clear that the Rosenwiller cemetery was in use at least from the middle of the seventeenth century, although no tombstones from its first decades have been found thus far. It is possible that the first "gravestones" were actually made of wood, and therefore did not survive. The burial registry of the cemetery, beginning on 1753, contains records of some five thousand tombs. (3) This registry is currently being translated into French by Avraham Malthete and will hopefully be available to the public in the near future.

Today one can find a few remnants of tombstones from the very beginning of the eighteenth century, but most stones on which the writing is extant and decipherable date from the nineteenth century onward. The cemetery is still used, albeit rarely: about one or two people have been buried at Rosenwiller each year during the last few decades. More recently, as of this writing (March 2003), the last grave dates from 2000. In 1988 Robert Weyl published a beautiful book, in French and German, containing pictures and inscriptions of some fifty graves from this cemetery. (4) French organization, Le Cercle de Genealogie Juive, is currently trying to gather funding for a much needed project which will undertake to photograph and decipher all the stones in the old section of this cemetery. It is an urgently needed project, as dozens and dozens of stones are quickly deteriorating with each winter.

The first findings that led to the writing of this article were collected while I was hired by Le Cercle de Genealogie Juive to do an initial survey of the cemetery during the summer of 2002. I continued the survey privately during the spring of 2003, when I was examining several thousand stones, dating from ca. 1700 to 2000. (5)

2. A Surprising Inscription

While exploring the cemetery, I was surprised by some of the inscriptions on women's tombstones. It is well known that deceased Jewish women were and are often praised using formulas taken from the text known as the "Eshet Hayil" ("A Woman of Valor"), the last chapter of the book of Proverbs. …