Asenath Barzani, also Asenath Barazani (1590–1670) (in Kurdish: Asênat Barzanî), the daughter of the eminent Rabbi Samuel HaLevi Barzani, was a renowned Kurdish Jewish woman who lived in Mosul, Iraq. Her writings demonstrate her mastery of Hebrew, Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and Kabbalah, and her letters are both lyrical and erudite. She is considered the first female rabbi of Jewish history by some scholars.
Life and work
Asenath Barzani was the daughter of Rabbi Samuel HaLevi Barzani, a rabbinic scholar in Kurdistan, whose authority was absolute though he held no official position. He had founded several yeshivot and was head of the yeshivah in Mosul. He lived in great poverty and was regarded as a saint. He had no sons, and he was his daughter's primary teacher. A master of Kabbalah, he was said to have taught his daughter the secrets of Kabbalah. Barzani adored her father, and regarded him as a King of Israel. In a letter, she described her upbringing:
“I never left the entrance to my house or went outside; I was like a princess of Israel ... I grew up on the laps of scholars, anchored to my father of blessed memory. I was never taught any work but sacred study.”
Barzani was married to one of her father's best students, Rabbi Jacob Mizrahi, who promised her father that she would do no domestic work and could spend her time as a Torah scholar. After her father's death, her husband became head of the yeshivah in Mosul. He was so involved in his studies that she essentially taught the yeshivah students and provided them with rabbinic training. Following her husband's death, the leadership of the yeshivah passed to her naturally, and eventually she became known as the chief teacher of Torah in Kurdistan. As neither her father nor her husband had been successful fundraisers, the yeshivah was always in financial difficulties, and Barzani wrote a number of letters requesting funds in which she described her and her children's difficult situation. Her home and belongings had been confiscated, including her books, but she felt that as a woman it was inappropriate for her to travel in search of financial support. Barzani wrote:
“And he [my father] made my husband swear that he would not make me perform work, and he did as he had commanded him. From the beginning, the Rabbi [Mizrahi] was busy with his studies and had no time to teach the pupils; but I taught them in his stead, I was a helpmate for him... [Begging for support for] the sake of Father... and the Rabbi... so that their Torah and names should not be brought to naught in these communities; for I remain the teacher of Torah...”
In spite of the financial problems, she successfully ran the yeshivah which continued to produce serious scholars, including her son, whom she sent to Baghdad, where he continued the dynasty of rabbinic scholars.
In letters addressed to her, one can see the respect and admiration of fellow scholars from far and near. Her few extant writings demonstrate a complete mastery of Hebrew, Torah, Talmud, Midrash, as well as Kabbalah, and her letters are not only erudite, but also lyrical. After her death, many Jews made pilgrimages to her grave in Amadiyah in Northern Iraq, where her father is also buried.
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Barzani was given the title Tanna’it, a rare honour for a Jewish woman. The title of Tanna'it, and her role as head of a yeshiva a rabbinical school, is not equivalent to being a rabbi, and hence she is regarded as a rare example of a female Rabbinical Teacher (but not a real rabbi which equals to a Judge) in pre-20th century traditional Judaism.
There are many Kurdish stories and legends about her and miracles she performed, including the one described in “A Flock of Angels”. In local folklore her sexuality plays a central role, while in life it did not seem to have presented a problem. Many of the stories which allude to her supernatural powers were found in amulets. These include her ability to limit her childbearing to two children so that she could devote herself to her studies, and the ability to ward off an intruder in order to prevent him from raping her by loudly calling out holy names.
A Flock of Angels
According to the legend, her father often appeared in Barzani's dreams, revealing dangers to her and telling her how to avert them. On one such occasion, she went to Amadiyah where she convinced the Jews to celebrate Rosh Hodesh, the new moon, outdoors, as had been their custom before they were threatened by hostile gentiles. As they proceeded with the celebration, there were shouts and they saw flames shoot up into the sky. The synagogue had been set on fire, with all the sacred books and scrolls in it. After Barzani whispered a secret name she had learned from her father, the people saw a flock of angels descending to the roof of the synagogue. The angels beat the flames with their wings, until every last spark had been put out. Then they rose up into the heavens like a flock of white doves and were gone. And when the smoke cleared, everybody saw that not only none of the Jews had been hurt since the congregation had been outdoors, but that another miracle had taken place: the synagogue had not burned, nor was any of the Torah scrolls touched by the flames. After that miracle, the Jews of Amadiyah were not harassed by the gentiles for a long time. Gratefully, they renamed the synagogue after her, and the legend ends with the words "and it is still standing today".
- Her first name has various spellings besides Asenath, such as “Asnat” or “Osnat”.
- Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, eds. (2007). "Barazani, Samuel ben Nethanel Ha-Levi". Encyclopaedia Judaica (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA) 3: 138–139. Retrieved 6 June 2012.
- Renée Levine Melammed (2007). Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, eds. "Barazani, Asenath". Encyclopaedia Judaica (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA) 3: 138. Retrieved 6 June 2012.
- Renee Levine Melammed (1 March 2009). "Asnat Barazani". Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Jewish Women's Archive. Quoted from: Mann, Jacob. Texts and Studies in Jewish History and Literature, Vol. I. New York: 1972. p. 511. Retrieved 6 June 2012.
- The German Jewish ethnologist Erich Bauer, who included Barzani's letter without mentioning her name in his study of the “Jews of Kurdistan” in the early 1940s was convinced that: “The letter... could hardly have been composed by her, since it is full of melitzot [poetic expressions] and reveals no small knowledge of Hebrew and rabbinical literature.” Brauer, Erich. The Jews of Kurdistan, ed. Raphael Patai. Wayne State University Press, Detroit 1993, first published 1947, ISBN 0-8143-2392-8. pp. 176-177
- "Asenath Barzani". Kurdistan's Women. April 9, 2008. Retrieved 6 June 2012.
- Renee Levine Melammed (1 March 2009). "Asnat Barazani". Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved 6 June 2012.
- Laura Quercioli Mincer (2011). "56: Asenath Barzani e gli angeli del Kurdistan". 101 Storie Ebraiche che non ti hanno mai raccontato (in Italian). Newton Compton Editori. ISBN 978-88-541-2995-5. Retrieved 6 June 2012.
- Howard Schwartz; (Illustrated by Monique Passicot) (2000). "The Day the Rabbi Disappeared. Jewish Holiday Tales of Magic" (PDF). Viking. pp. 9–14. ISBN 978-067088733-0. Retrieved 6 June 2012.
- Asenath Barzani. "Asenath's Petition", First published in Hebrew by Jacob Mann, ed., in Texts and Studies in Jewish History and Literature, vol.1, Hebrew Union College Press, Cincinnati, 1931. Translation by Peter Cole.
- Shirley Kaufman, Galit Hasan-Rokem, Tamar Hess. Defiant Muse: Hebrew Feminist Poems from Antiquity: A Bilingual Anthology, Feminist Press, 1999, ISBN 1-55861-224-6. (see page 7 and “Asenath's Petition” page 66).
- Yoel Bin Nun, Daniel Sperber, Joshua Maroof. Responsa Regarding Women's Roles in Religious Leadership, March 22, 2009, p. 2.
- Erich Brauer. The Jews of Kurdistan, ed. Raphael Patai. Wayne State University Press, Detroit 1993, first published 1947, ISBN 0-8143-2392-8
- Tirzah Firestone. The Receiving: Reclaiming Jewish Women's Wisdom. HarperCollins, 2004, ISBN 978-006008271-0.
- Avraham Grossman. Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe. Brandeis University Press, 2004, p. 163.
- Jacob Mann. Texts and Studies in Jewish History and Literature. Vol. I. New York, 1972.
- Uri Melammed and Renée Levine. Rabbi Asnat: A Female Yeshiva Director in Kurdistan, Pe’amim 82 (2000), pp. 163–178 (Hebrew)).
- Yona Sabar, The Folk Literature of the Kurdistani Jews. Yale University Press, New Haven 1982, ISBN 978-030002698-6.