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Asenath Barzani

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Tanna’it Asenath Barzani (1590–1670) was a renowned Kurdish Jewish woman who lived in Mosul, Iraq. She was among the very first Jewish women in history known to have been given a rabbinic title [1]. She was the daughter of the illustrious Rabbi Samuel Barzani. She studied Kabbalah.

The life of Tanna’it Asenath

Barzani was given the title Tanna’it. Until the modern era, very few women were given a rabbinic title. After Tanna’it Barzani died, many Jews made pilgrimages to her grave in Amadiyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. Tanna’it Asenath was the daughter of Rabbi Samuel Barzani, who headed many yeshivas during his lifetime, and whose authority in Kurdistan was absolute. He was a master of Kabbalah, and he was said to have taught the secrets of Kabbalah to his daughter, who adored her father, whom she regarded as a King of Israel. He was her primary teacher, and after his death she took over many of his duties. Not only did Asenath serve as a rabbi, but she became the head of the yeshivah of Mosul, and eventually became known as the chief teacher of Torah in Kurdistan. In another source, it is said that, "Asenath Barzani in sixteenth-century Kurdistan supplicates the Torah sages of Amadiya so she can support the yeshiva her husband established in Mosul until her young son could take over"(see [2]).

A Flock of Angels

She was a poet and an expert on Jewish literature, and there are many Kurdish legends about the miracles she performed, such as the one described in “A Flock of Angels”. After Rabbi Samuel died, he often came to his daughter in dreams. He would reveal dangers to her and tell her how to ward them off, saving many lives. On one occasion, inspired by her father, she encouraged the Jews of Amadiyah to celebrate Rosh Hodesh outdoors, despite dangers from their enemies. As they proceeded with the celebration, there were shouts and they saw flames shoot up into the sky. The synagogue had been set on fire, but since the congregation had been outdoors, no one had been inside it. At that very moment, Tanna’it Asenath whispered a secret name, one that she had learned from her father. The people saw a flock of angels descending to the roof of the synagogue. The angels beat the flames with their wings, until every last spark had been put out. Then they rose up into the heavens like a flock of white doves and were gone. And when the smoke cleared, they saw that another miracle had taken place: the synagogue had not burned. Nor was a single letter of any of the Torahs touched by the flames. And they were so grateful to Tanna’it Asenath that they renamed the synagogue after her, and it is still standing to this day.

Status as rabbi

Some modern scholars regard her title of Tanna'it, and her role as head of a yeshiva with a rabbinical school, as being equivalent to being a "rabbi," and hence regard her as a rare example of a female rabbi in pre-20th century traditional Judaism.

References

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