Sunday 4 July 2021



R. Baruch haLevi Epstein (1860-1942) is best known for his Torah commentary Torah Temima.  His father was R. Yechiel Michel Epstein of Novarodok, author of the Aruch haShulchan. R. Baruch Epstein moved to Pinsk where he remained all his life, besides for a short time he spent in America trying unsuccessfully to get a job as a rabbi. He worked as a bookkeeper. R. Epstein had studied at Volozhin Yeshivah under his uncle Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv (who later became his brother-in-law after being widowed and remarrying R. Epstein's sister[1]). He died in Pinsk during the Nazi occupation of that city, while he was a patient in the Jewish hospital which the Nazis had burned down.

Besides his Torah and other commentaries, he also wrote an autobiography entitled Mekor Baruch. Some of this work was translated into English under the title, My Uncle the Netziv. Surprisingly, this book was later banned, see Kotzk Blog: 053) Hey, Teacher Leave the Text Alone!.

This article, based extensively on the research by Don Seaman and Rebecca Kobrin[2], will examine one aspect of that autobiography, concerning R. Epstein’s aunt, Rayna Batya – the first wife of the Netziv - who was denied the Torah education she so longed for.



Towards the end of the four-volume work is a chapter called Chachmat Nashim or Wisdom of Woman. It deals with the Rebbetzin or Rabbanit, Rayna Batya. The Netziv married her when he was thirteen years old. Rayna Batya was the daughter of R. Yitzchak of Volozhin, the son of R. Chaim of Volozhin. One of Rayna Batya’s sons was the famed R. Chaim Berlin who became the Chief Rabbi of Moscow.

Rayna Batya, thus positioned in the heart of the Jewish world of traditional scholarship of the nineteenth century, was not satisfied just being a wife and mother. She too sought after scholarship, which would have been most unusual for women at that times.

R. Baruch Epstein’s uncle, the Neztiv, struggled to make a living.  He only earned thirteen rubles a weekfrom the Yeshiva. This would have placed some strain on the relationship as the Netziv was apparently upset that his wife could not manage the household affairs. She was also of ill health.

R. Epstein recalls the relationship between his uncle and aunt:

“Despite being a ‘kosher’ and wise woman, modest and wonderfully learned, almost like one of the whole men[3], and despite her concern for [Rabbi Berlin’s] health and welfare, she was unable to look to her household and its sustenance, because of her illness and weak nerves”[4]

However, we read further that all Rayna Batya wanted to do was to study:

“Such was her way, to sit always near the winter oven that was in the kitchen (even during the summer) with all sorts of books spread before her on the table; Bible, Mishnah, Ein-Yaakov, various midrashim, Menorat ha-Maor, Kav ha-Yashar, Tzemah David, Shevet Yehudah, and many other books of this nature, as well as volumes of Aggadah. All of her focus and concentration…[was] in the books - her hand hardly moved from them! But of all that concerned the maintenance of the household, she knew little, almost nothing.”[5]

Seaman and Kobrin notice that R. Epstein clearly is of the prevalent view that women are meant to look after the household while men are meant to study. In this sense, Rayna Batya is out of step on two counts; 1) she is occupying herself with study which is the exclusive realm of men, and 2) she is not doing what women are supposed to do which is to manage domestic affairs.

The Netziv is depicted as physically suffering because of this. Sometimes he went without meals because of his wife’s preoccupation with study, but interestingly, while upset about the household affairs, he is never portrayed as being upset with Rayna Batya’s forays into the world of study.[6]

It must be pointed out, however, that Rayna Batya’s study curriculum is not, in fact, traditionally male orientated at all. The titles of the books (beside the Mishnah) she is reported to have studied indicate works that were not written exclusively for men and sometimes referred to as ‘story books’. According to Daniel Boyarin, however, Rayna Batya was “highly learned by any standards”.[7]

Amazingly, the references to her studying Mishnah and Aggadah, have been omitted from recent English translations of sections of Mekor Baruch.[8]

R. Epstein mentions scattered examples of occasional Jewish women in the past who had engaged in scholarly activities like Beruria in the Talmud [See Kotzk Blog: 111) THE 'BERURIA' TEXTS:] and:

“the rabbanit from Shklov, Tzertal, daughter of Rabbi Joshua Halevi Ish Horowitz … who is wise and distinguished in Torah and the sciences like one of the whole men.”[9]

Seaman and Kobrin are, however, quick to point out that this oft used strategy simply highlights exceptions that prove the rule.

But Rayna Batya was not just content to sit quietly and study. She is depicted as an angry and desperate activist who wanted to perform the same mitzvot as men:

“More than once I heard her complain and bemoan, in sorrow and pain, with unpleasant countenance and a bitter soul, the pain of the bitter fate and narrow portion of women in this life, because the fulfilment of positive, time bound-commandments, such as tefillin, tzitzit, sukkah and lulav, and many others, had been deprived them. From hidden recesses would break forth … accusation and spiritual jealousy against men who had been given everything. As she put it. ‘men have received 248 commandments, while oppressed and disgraced women were only given three.’[10]

Once again, the censored versions of the English translation for religious readership, mentioned earlier, has omitted or reworked such statements of outrage by Rayna Batya. This censorship was just a continuation of the attitude prevalent in much of rabbinic writing during that time. For example, R. Baruch Epstein’s father, R. Yechiel Epstein writes in his Aruch haShulchan that mothers should teach their daughters all they need to know about Judaism orally, and not from books. He writes in praise of the religious obedience of the women:

“[O]ur women are very careful to enquire about every questionable matter, and do not rely on their own opinion even for the smallest of things.”[11]

But Rayna Batya wouldn’t hear about such things and she vociferously challenged such attitudes. She would want to find and read the answers for herself.

A similar approach is found in another parallel memoir published at the same time as Mekor Baruch, entitled Zichron Yaakov, by R. Yaakov Lipschitz:

“With the great affection which these women bear the Torah, whose reward is greater than any merchandise, they are like merchant ships bringing bread to the houses of their husbands. Their whole longing and desire is that they and their daughters be wives of scholars, who will sit in study of the Torah and meditate upon it day and night. Therefore they gird up their loins like men to provide for their husbands, their sons-in-law, and their families from the labor of their own hands and from their own effort.”[12]

Strikingly, in this instance, woman can behave like men and provide for their families, but they cannot behave “like one of the whole men” when it comes to studying the Torah.

R. Lipschitz continues:

“The groom leaving his marriage canopy does not take upon his neck the yolk of the kitchen stove, the yolk of a wife, because angels are grinding the grain provided for him by heaven at her father’s table; he studies Torah in purity … and does not fear the day when this manna will cease, because his wife has already preceded him in finding a means of support…”[13]

Rayna Batya was nothing like the “merchant ships bringing bread to the houses of their husbands” as women were depicted in Zichron Yaakov. She found her voice and she could argue convincingly. R, Baruch Epstein recalls one such discussion he had with his aunt:

“She said, ‘Meanwhile, bring me the book, Avot de-Rabi Natan.’ I went and brought it – and fell into her net! For there … it was written: ‘The House of Shammai say, ‘a person should only teach those who are wise and humble and rich.’  The House of Hillel say. ‘Teach all people, for there were many sinners in Israel who were brough close to the Torah, and from them came those who were righteous…’

When she had read these words, she turned towards me with a wrathful voice and said. ‘How crooked are your ways! Or perhaps you wanted to lead me astray, when you based your words on the opinion of the House of Shammai, while every child who studies Talmud … knows that when the Houses of Hillel and Shammai argue, the halacha follows the House of Hillel. Here the School of Hillel permits teaching everyone … [b]e careful about such things in the future!’”[14]

Rayna Batya then found a text from a sixteenth century Italian rabbi, Shmuel Archivolti - a student of the Maharam of Padua and the teacher of R. Leon of Modena [See Kotzk Blog: 164) RABBI LEON OF MODENA – GAON, GAMBLER OR HERETIC?] - who encouraged women to study Torah:

“[A]s for those women whose hearts draw them to…the labor of G-d … the sages of the generation should glorify them, magnify them, set them in order, strengthen their hand and encourage their limbs: Do and succeed, and from heaven will you be aided.”[15]

Rayna Batya made her nephew, R. Baruch Epstein, read it and he recalls:

“When I had finished reading, she said to me, ‘In my opinion, each and every one of these words should be encased in a casing of gold like precious stones or pearls, and the whole book in a silver band. What do you say about them?”[16]

R. Epstein writes that he tried to argue that R. Shmuel Archivolti was not such a well-known rabbi and raised some other points, but hastens to say that his words were “like a spark in a barrel of gunpowder”, and Rayna Batya accused her nephew of being “mean-spirited like all the men”.

Towards the end of the chapter, R. Epstein describes how he adopted a no holds barred approach to this debate with his aunt. He ties to show that Torah study is like warfare and woman, therefore, have no place in that enterprise:

“[W]hen scholars occupy themselves with Torah they are like combatants struggling amongst themselves to clarify the law, its logic and reason …[T]he establishment of Torah requires a person to stand fast in warfare against himself and his own flesh. [He must] accept upon himself that which troubles the body and wearies the soul, as the Sages said: ‘The Torah will only be established for a person who kills himself over it’ [Berachot 63b] … They also said: [Eruvin 22a] ‘The Torah is only established for one who makes himself cruel towards his own children and family [by long hours of absence while studying, or by economic hardship].’”[17]

But even after this sharp response, R. Epstein allows his aunt the final word:

[S]he said to me: ‘What can be done? Yes, yes, thus it is. ‘Turn to the right, turn to the left’; in the end it is for us disgraced women to bend our heads beneath our evil fortune … Just as everything has an end and a limit, so let there come an end and limit to this painful matter.”[18]

Seaman and Kobrin conclude most poignantly that this account has no real conclusion or closure:

“Rayna Batya never makes peace with her condition in Mekor Baruch, and it is left tantalizingly unclear whether or not Epstein intends that we, his readers, should make peace with it.”


For some contemporary Halachic views that may represent some of Rayna Batya's dream of a time when there will be an “end and limit to this painful matter” concerning women and their participation in study and mitzvot, see:

Kotzk Blog: 051) Women, Tefillin And Cars

Kotzk Blog: 058) Please Don't Hide My Judaism From Me

Kotzk Blog: 066) Women Studying Torah?


Over the years I’ve spent in the rabbinate, I've come across many women who have had a tremendous thirst for learning. The opportunities for women to learn are better today than they have probably ever been. However, sometimes, these women’s classes and programs are somewhat condescending and standards do not correspond to the opportunities provided for men. At best, scholarly women will only be regarded as “almost like proper men”. Some women, therefore, may want to try another angle.

My humble suggestion is to explore religious Academic Judaism. This is a field I had absolutely no knowledge of until just a few years ago, and I was beyond surprised to discover how vast, broad, comprehensive and exacting it really is. It is very difficult to make things up in this field of endeavour and one quickly learns that facts don’t lie. I personally, have just this year embarked on a four-year PhD program and I am loving every moment of it. I have chosen to research the relationship between the Sabbatian movement and the emergence of the Chassidic movement.

I have come across great woman scholars who have such depth of knowledge in Talmudic texts and know, not just how to read them, but understand their provenance and context in relation to other contemporaneous texts.

I have come across women who are working on newly discovered Rashi texts and are reconstructing parts of literature that many rabbis have never even heard of. There is an ocean out there and you will be treated with dignity and respect – and you will be dazzled by the array of knowledge and information available. There are, today, religious universities and institutions where such study is available and there are numerous online opportunities as well.

More importantly, by seriously persuing such scholarship, you could not just repeat parrot fashion what you learn, but perhaps actually make a contribution to the intriguing and expanding world of Religious Jewish Academia. Facts, learning, knowledge, information and truth are not gender dependant.

[1] Their son, R. Meir Berlin, who became known as Meir Bar-Ilan, was to become the founder of Bar-Ilan University.

[2] Don Seaman and Rebecca Kobrin, “Like One of the Whole Men”: Learning, Gender and Autobiography in R. Barukh Epstein’s Mekor Baruch.

[3] Gevarim Sheleimim – Literally “whole or proper men”, i.e., men who know how to learn.

[4] Mekor Baruch p. 1949.

[5] Mekor Baruch pp. 1949-1950.

[6] Mekor Baruch p. 1979.

[7] See Daniel Boyarin, 1997, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, University of California Press, Berkeley, 178.

[8] See Moshe Dombey, 1988, My Uncle the Netziv, Mesorah Publications, New York, 156-168.

[9] Mekor Baruch, p. 1954-1960.

[10] Mekor Baruch, p. 1950.

[11] Aruch haShulchan, Yoreh Deah, 246:19.

[12] R. Yaakov Lipschitz, Zichron Yaakov, II, p. 158.

[13] R. Yaakov Lipschitz, Zichron Yaakov, II, pp. 158-159. 

[14] Mekor Baruch, p. 1952.

[15] See Robert Bonfils, 1994, Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy, University of California Press, Berkeley, 133 and 169.

[17] Mekor Baruch, p. 1969.

[18] Mekor Baruch, p. 1976.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, Please send them towards Jewish Academia. Lord knows the scholarship over there cannot get any worse.