A private tutor for girls in 12th century Cairo

While we know that there were religious elementary schools for boys, we know very little about 12th-century girls education.

Maimonides 311 (photo credit: Yair Haklai/Wikimedia Commons)
Maimonides 311
(photo credit: Yair Haklai/Wikimedia Commons)
Maimonides was presented with an interesting question concerning a private tutor who had been hired to teach some young girls. In this responsum, the question was far more interesting than the answer, which did not require a great deal of erudition.
One wonders why the Jewish court bothered this incredibly busy scholar with such a query; perhaps it was due to the unusual nature of the situation. [For the original Judeo-Arabic text and the Hebrew translation, see Joshua Blau, The Responsa of Maimonides, Vol. 2 (1968), pp. 524-25.] While we know that there were the equivalent of religious elementary schools for boys, we know very little about 12th-century girls education.
In one responsum dealing with a female teacher at the study hall, one learns that her education had been informal and was obtained rather arbitrarily. Her husband taught her the Hebrew alphabet and some basics; her brother later filled in the gaps. Elsewhere, a synagogue in Egypt is referred to as the “Synagogue of the Women Teachers,” but thus far, no explanation for its name has been found.
At any rate, it appears that in the Cairene Jewish community there were parents who were interested in procuring some sort of education for their daughters. In this particular case, a teacher was employed, who, as it turns out, was blind. This teacher became involved in an argument during which he apparently lost his temper and swore that he would never teach the girls again.
He seems to have immediately regretted having made this oath.
After all, how would he compensate for the salary he was about to forfeit and find employment elsewhere? The text also informs us that these girls normally wore scarves on their heads, which they did not usually remove in the presence of men (due to the influence of Muslim societal norms). However, in the presence of this particular teacher, one imagines that they enjoyed an unexpected freedom by virtue of the fact that he could not see them; thus there was no need to don the scarves. I often wonder whether or not these young ladies took advantage of their teacher’s disability and misbehaved in the classroom. While we have no idea why he “had words” and was so upset with them, perhaps it had to do with behavior problems in the class. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing.
According to the report, there was no one immediately available to replace this teacher, who realized that he had been hasty in swearing that he would never teach the girls again. Perhaps the father(s) who hired him were also uncertain as to how to proceed and how to seek a replacement for him. The teacher also realized that in addition to his salary, he had some benefits that he was about to lose as well; without a doubt, he clearly regretted his hotheaded decision.
The truth is that even after making an oath, the oath can be nullified; one simply has to arrange for three men to hear the nullification and the oath is no longer valid. This was, as they say, a “no-brainer” for Maimonides.
Another edition of this responsum adds an interesting statement: “There is no point having a woman teacher, since women teach incorrectly.”
Also mentioned is the fact that the teacher explained the prayers to the girls in Arabic, but we are not informed whether this was his only task or whether it was included with other duties.
When asked if this man may teach them, Maimonides does not choose to discuss whether or not girls may learn or what they are allowed to learn. He simply lets the teacher know that the aforementioned vow can easily be nullified. In other words, the blind teacher can return to his previous place of employment and continue to instruct the girls once again. Hopefully, all remained calm once he returned to the classroom.

The author is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and academic editor of the journal NASHIM.