(photo credit: Courtesy)
Whenever one reads about Jewish women in
medieval Ashkenaz, the name of Dolce of Worms is certain to
appear. (Dolce is derived from the Latin for pleasant or
charming). Her life is described in the famous elegy composed by her
widowed husband which is his version of “A Woman of Valor” (Proverbs 31). This
poetic composition is preceded by two paragraphs in prose that provide graphic
details of her death in 1196.
The poem contains the author’s name, R.
Elazar, in an internal acrostic; its content portrays an ideal woman who seems
to have been involved in an unbelievable number of activities. Dolce and Elazar
were German Jewish pietists, known as Hasidei Ashkenaz. Thus the emphasis in the
elegy on her piety, her God-fearing lifestyle and her saintliness are part and
parcel of the values of this society.
It seems as though Dolce never sat
still for a moment, or at least not according to her husband’s account. She
engaged in the usual wifely activities expected of an Orthodox woman, cooking
for her family and allowing her learned husband to be totally involved in Torah
study and good deeds and encouraging her sons to study. This might seem to have
been enough to occupy her time, but Elazar was nowhere near finished. As it
turns out, Dolce was busy spinning thread for tefillin and for binding books as
well as scrolls. According to this report, she sewed approximately 40 Torah
scrolls and prepared the wool for prayer shawl fringes.
In addition, the
rabbi’s wife took care of and fed her three children as well as the boys who
studied at her husband’s small yeshiva; she even sewed their clothes and torn
books. Dolce prepared feasts for the community, dressed brides on their wedding
day, visited the sick, and cared for the deceased by ritually bathing them and
preparing their shrouds.
This energetic woman prepared wicks for oil
lamps for the synagogue and study rooms, attended synagogue religiously,
arriving first and departing last, and recited psalms as well as prayers and
She taught and led the prayers in the women’s section;
when her husband, known as the Rokeah, gave a sermon, his wife was attentive and
thus knew what was required and what was forbidden by Jewish law. The list of
activities for which she is credited is exhausting unto itself, but, as Judith
Baskin pointed out, the final praise in this overwhelming list is her ability to
abide by her husband’s will and to avoid angering him.
(“Dolce of Worms,”
Judaism in Practice, 2001) She must truly have been an amazing woman! For the
historian, the prose portion that precedes this eulogy is the most interesting,
for here R. Elazar describes the attack upon his family that led to Dolce’s
death. Two men armed with swords entered their home and struck his wife, killed
their two daughters, Bellette and Hannah, and wounded their son, the rabbi, his
students and a teacher. Dolce immediately leaped up and ran into the street,
calling for help and hoping to distract the attackers. She succeeded, for they
followed her out of the house, enabling Elazar to lock the door and prevent
Unfortunately, the murderers savagely killed Dolce on the
Because this occurred during the era of the Crusades, it had been
automatically assumed that this was a Crusader attack, but it seems that these
men were actually fortune hunters who knew that this was a wealthy household
with valuables to steal.
At this point in the prose, two more details are
included: 1) the authorities pursued and caught the attackers. Her death was
viewed as an outrage, her murderer was sentenced to death and justice was
carried out. 2) She was the breadwinner in the family, whose source of income
was by means of money-lending. This most likely explains why the murderers chose
Dolce’s home, expecting to find objects of value there. Ultimately this eminent
rabbi was left to fend for himself, bereft of his daughters, a son and his
amazingly impressive wife of valor.
The writer is a professor of Jewish
history and dean at the Schechter Institute as well as academic editor of the
journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental
Jewry and on Jewish women.