Were Women Segregated in the Ancient Synagogue?

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Did women play a passive role in the synagogue congregations of antiquity? Were they separated from male members of the congregation during prayer and study, as is the case today? According to Professor Shmuel Safrai, the answer to both questions is a resounding “No.”

When discussing the form and character of the synagogue, one should consider data from the land of Israel along with data from the Diaspora; there is no justification for treating them separately. The sources we will consider here pertain to synagogues in Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple, throughout the land of Israel during the period of the Mishnah and Talmud, and in the Jewish Diaspora in Egypt, Syria and Greece.

The sources reveal that women regularly attended the synagogue and took part in its services, listening to sermons and to the reading of the Torah. Women also studied in the bet midrash (study hall).

A Woman’s Obligation

Prayer was a religious obligation not just of men, but also of women:

Women, slaves and minors are exempt from recitation of the Shema and from putting on phylacteries, but are not exempt from praying [the Eighteen Benedictions], affixing a mezuzah [to the doorpost of their house], or saying the blessing after meals.[1]

Women, like men, were obligated to pray the “Eighteen Benedictions” prayer daily. Rabban Gamaliel said: “One must say the ‘Eighteen’ every day.”[2] Although it was usual to pray the Eighteen Benedictions in an assembly of the congregation, women—and men—were permitted to pray them privately.

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This article originally appeared in issue 52 of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the original magazine article.

  • [1] Mishnah, Berachot 3:3. Women were also obligated to listen to the reading of the scroll of Esther at Purim (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 4a; Arachin 3a).
  • [2] Mishnah, Berachot 4:3.

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  • Shmuel Safrai [1919-2003]

    Shmuel Safrai [1919-2003]

    Professor and Rabbi Shmuel Safrai died on July 16, 2003. He was buried the following day in a section of Jerusalem's Har ha-Menuhot Cemetery reserved for faculty of the Hebrew University. His grave is only a few feet from the grave of his close friend…
    [Read more about author]

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