The name of Rivka bat Meir of Tikotin is relatively unknown, a surprising fate for the author of the first known published work by a Jewish woman.

Her work, “Meineket Rivkah,” a Torah-based ethical guide to social and spiritual conduct, was published posthumously in 1608 in Prague. The name of the book—chosen by the publisher—referred to the biblical “Nursemaid of Rebecca,” an allusion to the author’s own name, while representing the book’s goal to be a source of spiritual sustenance for all Jewish women.

Women Teachers

Now, Rivka was far from the first woman teacher of Torah.

Learned women, from Hulda the Prophetess to Bruria, wife of Rabbi Meir, have long had a special place in Jewish tradition. And even closer to Rivka’s time, gravestones and memorial books attest to women having led and taught prayers to other women in the women’s synagogues that existed alongside the main sanctuary, which was reserved for men.1

The vibrant spiritual life of Ashkenazic women was expressed in a thriving culture of composing techinot—informal prayers for life-cycle events. Simultaneously, Jewish wisdom became accessible to unschooled women via the proliferation of Jewish literature published in the Yiddish vernacular, rather than scholarly Hebrew.

The Book

Rivka’s unusually extensive education becomes evident in the wide range of sources she quotes throughout the book, including Rashi and Maimonides, Sefer Chassidim2 and Reishit Chochmah,3 all while constantly referring to sources in Tanach, Midrash and Talmud. In a rhymed Hebrew introduction to her Yiddish book, she outlines the book’s purpose: to reduce laxity in observance by women stemming from gaps in education. Throughout, she addresses her audience with wit, wisdom, and sensitivity.

Meineket Rivka is divided into 7 chapters corresponding to the 7 branches of the Temple Menorah. The first chapter, about a woman’s religious and ethical obligations, represents the stem. The remaining 6 rods are her hands outstretched to reach all those in her life—husband, parents, in-laws, children, daughters-in-law, and household members such as servants, guests and yeshivah students who would be rostered for meals.

In the first chapter, Rivka introduces the idea of a woman’s dual role as nurturer of the physical and the spiritual, which she refers to as the “wisdom of the body” and “wisdom of the soul.” Accordingly, she addresses the responsibilities of the Jewish woman, such as practical mitzvot that a woman is entrusted with such as family purity and kashrut, along with her social and moral responsibilities.

In the second chapter, she encourages women to support their husbands’ Torah study, even if it means financial sacrifices, and also urging that the businesses they run to support their families remain honest and fair.

The longest chapter is devoted to the discussion of child-rearing. She provides instructions about hygiene and nursing, the most intrinsic contributions of the body. But lion’s share is devoted to directions for educating a child to study Torah and have good character.

In Print

Title page of Meineket Rivkah. Prague, 1609.
Title page of Meineket Rivkah. Prague, 1609.

As Rivka’s book was published in 1608, three years after her passing, the printer indicated that he had produced it at his own effort and expense, probably expecting that the demand would be high enough to make it worthwhile. Her prestige already stands out from the title page, where she is named as rabbanit (a female word related to “rabbi”) and darshanit (“preacher”). Perhaps Rivka’s reputation as a speaker would attract women to purchase the book of her teachings.

A reprinting of Meineket Rivka in 1618 is evidence of its success, yet its readership was likely limited to women in the 17th century and early 18th centuries, and today there are only two extant copies of that printing.

One other work by Rivka bat Meir survives as well: Simchas Torah Lid, a song describing the giving of the Torah and a festive banquet when Moshiach comes, likely sung in the presence of the Torah scrolls as part of the Simchat Torah festivities.

Her Legacy

In the crowded old Jewish cemetery in Prague, among the stone memorials to the city’s famous rabbis, financiers, book printers and craftsmen, her headstone still stands. Her full engraved name is “Rivka, daughter of our teacher, Rabbi Meir of Tikotin,” indicating that either she or her father had emigrated from the Polish city of Tykocin, and the date of her passing is recorded as the 25th of Nissan, 1605.

A laudatory acrostic is formed by her name, expressing her beloved reputation.

Many daughters have accomplished valor, and you have risen above them all רבות בנות עשו חיל ואת עלית על כולנה
Our hearts trusted in her, like Abigail, in her life her merit protected בטח בה ליבנו כאביגיל בחייה בזכותה להגינה
Like a ram burnt as an offering, her death provided atonement קרבן כליל כאיל במות לכפרה ניתנה
She would preach day and night to women in every faithful city היתה דורשת יום ולילה לנשים בכל קריה נאמנה

The high praise is echoed in the one other surviving fragment of Rivkah’s memory: the Sefer Zikkaron (Memorbuch) of the Altneushul in Prague.4 “יזכור אלוקי’ את נשמת הזקינה הרבנית מרת רבקה – G‑d should remember the soul of the elder, the Rabbanit Madam Rivkah,” on account of her husband Betzalel giving tzedakah in her memory. It also adds her role of “preaching to women in every city.” Rivkah seems to have passed at an advanced age, and as her entry in the Memorbuch makes no mention of her children, it may be presumed that she was childless, or that they predeceased her.5

King Solomon writes in Proverbs, “Listen my son, to the rebuke of your father, and do not forget the Torah of your mother.” Rivka of Tikotin perceived the unique voice of a mother’s Torah—a voice that nurtures both the ‘wisdom of the body’ and ‘the wisdom of the soul.’

Extract From Meineket Rivka, Chapter 5:

If she has grown sons she should sit in the house in order that she should hear how they are praying and saying blessings, and not depend on the teacher … also the learning that a child learns from his mother is much more successful than that which he learns with another.

This can be inferred from the verse, “Listen my son to the admonitions of your father, and do not forget the Torah of your mother.”

This is explained in the Talmud: “Why is it written ‘Torah of your mother’ and ‘admonitions of your father’? Because the father is distracted with his business and isn’t found in the house except intermittently, and when he sees his son is acting inappropriately, he rebukes and admonishes him. But it is on the mother, who is constantly found in the house, to supervise her children and she has the ability to generate a lot of good actions, to learn with them and to be precise with them about every step and every word.

As it says in our Torah, “... and you should teach your children and you should speak to them, when you sit in your house etc.” This is that you should teach your children and speak to them when you are sitting, meaning that you should sit beside your children and speak to them words of Torah and not words of emptiness.

The grave of Rivka, the daughter of Rabbi Meir Tikotin.
The grave of Rivka, the daughter of Rabbi Meir Tikotin.