The ideal medieval Jewish woman

His story/ her story: The life of Dolce of Worms is described in the famous elegy composed by her widowed husband.

Bible 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bible 521
(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 supplications.
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 their re-entry.
Unfortunately, the murderers savagely killed Dolce on the spot.
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.