Nekhame Zlate Golezynski, wife of Rabbi Peysekh; he was head of the Łomża yeshiva, Łomża, Poland, 1923. (YIVO)

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The Yiddish term rebetsin was the most prestigious title available to Jewish women. Its simplest definition is the wife of a rabbi, though the term also connotes a pious woman, a woman with good lineage, or a woman learned in religious matters. In Eastern Europe, rebetsins developed reputations for piety, scrupulous observance, religious leadership, and concern for the poor. Just as their rabbi husbands often emerged as community leaders, so too did rabbinic wives serve as important figures in the towns and villages of the region.

The four-woman managing committee of a local bikur ḥolim (“visiting the sick”) society: Mrs. Goldman, Mrs. Shtern, Rebetsin Morgenshtern, and Mrs. Abramtshik, Wyszków, Poland, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)

Some rebetsins were revered for their knowledge of biblical and rabbinic texts and fine points of Jewish law, especially concerning dietary laws, family purity, and Sabbath and holiday observances. This was particularly true of rebetsins who were rabbis’ daughters. By living in a home where rabbinic affairs were conducted, these women were privy to such discourse both by studying directly with their fathers and by absorbing the religious issues and concerns that were discussed at home.

Other rebetsins were noted for writing tkhines (prayers primarily composed for women), serving as women’s prayer leaders, and modeling fervent spirituality. For example, Perele, the daughter of Yisra’el of Kozhenits and later the wife of Ezra Zelig Shapira of Magnishev (Magnuszew; d. 1849), was remembered for wearing ritual fringes, fasting on Mondays and Thursdays, receiving petitions from her followers, living a life of poverty, and distributing funds to the needy. Lubavitch rebetsins became known for the tradition of holding gatherings before the holidays to dispense blessings to fellow Hasidim. Among the most notable Hasidic rebetsins, Sarah Horowitz-Sternfeld (d. 1939), the Khentshiner rebetsin and daughter of Yehoshu‘a Heshel Fränkl-Te’omim and wife of Ḥayim Shemu’el Horowitz-Sternfeld, exemplified the tradition of charismatic leadership among rebetsins. She developed a far-reaching reputation for her asceticism, exemplary character, meticulous observance of Jewish law, devotion to the poor, and miraculous powers.

Since rabbis were expected to devote themselves to the study of sacred Jewish texts, leaving the burden of earning a living to their wives, many rebetsins developed a reputation for resourcefulness and frugality in running their households. Some managed stores that had the exclusive right to sell indispensable household items such as candles, yeast, wine for ritual use, salt, sugar, and kerosene. This helped rebetsins support their families but also heightened their burden, as in tsarist Russia the government levied a greater tax on these items and expected rebetsins to collect it. Some rebetsins displayed exceptional business acumen. For example, Rayna Batyah—granddaughter of Ḥayim of Volozhin and later the first wife of Naftali Tsevi Yehudah Berlin (1816–1893)—kept the financial records of the Volozhin yeshiva, administered loan guarantees to students, and dispensed stipends for landlords who housed local yeshiva students.

The Melitser rebetsin, wife of Melekh Horowitz, rabbi of Mielec, Poland, with her four children, 1930s. (YIVO)

Yaffa Eliach, in her chronicle of the shtetl of Eishyshok, recalls Rebetsin Hendl Krechmer Hutner (wife of Zundl Hutner, rabbi of Eishyshok from 1896 to 1919) as an outstanding exemplar of these characteristics. Hutner supported her family as an agent for a Russian dye company who was determined that her husband would pursue his studies with a minimum of distraction. Knowledgeable in rabbinic texts and principles, Hutner merited having students and scholars alike stand up out of respect when she entered a room—a custom usually reserved for rabbis and teachers. She rendered routine Jewish legal decisions, especially in the area of dietary laws, and comforted the dying while working with her husband to minister to the sick, old, and poor during World War I. In Eliach’s view, Hutner represented “a group—at least two centuries’ worth of Lithuanian rebetsins—who used their husbands’ status to gain entrée to the intellectual élite, but they secured their place there on their own merits” (Eliach, 1998, p. 110). Rebetsin Ester Rubinstein, wife of Yitsḥak Rubinstein who served as rabbi of Vilna in the interwar years, had such a prominent communal role that a memorial book devoted to her activities was published after her death (Sefer zikaron leha-rabanit Ester Rubinshtain, ed. S. L. Zitron; 1925).

The term rebetsin also conjures up derogatory images. As Chaim Grade depicted in fiction, rebetsins were sometimes seen as envious, nasty, meddling, haughty, and embittered. They also suffered what they believed to be unrelenting scrutiny by the community for their every action. The rebetsin’s lot, then, was a paradoxical one: On the one hand, she was pitied for bearing the brunt of a community’s frustrations. As the Yiddish saying warns, “Better a son a bath attendant than a daughter a rebetsin.” On the other hand, the role gave learned, pious women the opportunity to serve their communities as religious leaders through the status that they attained through marriage to a rabbi.

Suggested Reading

Yaffa Eliach, There Once Was a World: A Nine-Hundred-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok (Boston, 1998); Chaim Grade, Rabbis and Wives, trans. Harold Rabinowitz and Inna Hecker Grade (New York, 1982); Shuly Rubin Schwartz, The Rabbi’s Wife: The Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life (New York, 2006); Shoshana P. Zolty, And All Your Children Shall Be Learned: Women and the Study of Torah (Northvale, N.J., 1993).