Business Women in the Mishnaic and Talmudic Period

By Valler, Shulamit | Women in Judaism, Annual 2001 | Go to article overview
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Business Women in the Mishnaic and Talmudic Period


Valler, Shulamit, Women in Judaism


Abstract

An examination of women's role in the economic life of the mishnaic and talmudic periods might lead one to assume that women were excluded from the business domain. However, evidence from the rabbinic literature demonstrates that women did participate in business and property transactions with peers and family members, and this was not perceived as a deviance requiring a special approach.

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An examination of women's role in the economic life of the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods might lead one to assume that women did not participate in the business domain, and hence could not have had any economic influence. Such an assumption could be derived from the many laws that regulated the life of the ordinary woman resulting in economic dependence for most of her life. It could also be deducted from a series of sayings reflecting a worldview that excluded women from negotiations with men, and from any other business and legal matters.

Nevertheless, this assumption does not imply that women did not participate in economic life at all, since the Mishnah and the Talmud contain many examples of women's work and occupations (1) that were common in the lower classes of Jewish society. In addition, there is evidence that wealthy, upper class women contributed their own money to public causes. (2)

Until she got married, a girl was economically dependent on her father. The Mishnah states in Ketubbot 4:4: "The father has authority over his daughter in respect to her betrothals ... He is entitled to anything she finds ... and is not entitled in her lifetime to usufruct" (of property she may have inherited from her maternal grandfather, though if she dies unmarried the father becomes the beneficiary). Mishnah Ketubbot 4:5 continues: "She remains under the authority of her father's until she enters the authority of her husband, in marriage."

A married woman is completely dependent on her husband. Ketubbot 4:4 explains: "When she marries the husband acquires the right to the fruits in her lifetime." That is, in addition to the above-mentioned rights of her father, the husband is entitled to enjoy the fruits of the property she has acquired before and after her marriage, and to inherit these if she pre-deceased him. (Mishnah Ketubbot 8:1-5; Babylonian Talmud Ketubbot 78:2)

The arrangement between man and wife set forth in the Hebrew law does not deprive one party, because it is based on mutuality (3) that gives the husband almost complete control of his wife's property, both as to its management and the profits derived from it, while she may get complete economic security.

This is explicated by a passage in Babylonian Talmud Ketubbot 47b: "She is given maintenance in return for her handiwork, redemption from captivity in place of the fruits of her property, and burial in return for her ketubbah. A husband is entitled to usufruct." The Amoraim Abaye and Raba express the wife's abdication of her property rights within marriage. Abaye replied: "In the case of a married woman, the husband's rights have the same force as the wife's." Raba said: "His rights are superior to hers." (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 39a and Ketubbot 83a). Moreover, R. Ilish quotes to Raba a halakhah that appears to have been common knowledge, but somehow escaped Raba. Said R. Ilish to Raba: "But whatever a woman acquires belongs to her husband." (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 77b). (4)

Just as we have seen above, everything a woman owns belongs to her father and later to her husband so does any property she has acquired through inheritance or gifts. An argument between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai is settled with the following statement "even if she has sold it or given it away, the husband may seize it from the buyers ... (5) If she came into the possession of money land should be bought therewith and the husband is entitled to usufruct ... If she aged bondmen or bondwomen fell to her they must be sold and land purchased with the proceeds and the husband can enjoy the usufruct thereof.

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