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Women Leading Prayers—in the 16th Century

Since at this season many of us spend more time in synagogue or temple than at any other, it’s a good time to remember our precursors in prayer. Here is a brief history of women’s special role in synagogue, from The JPS Guide To Jewish Women 600 B.C.E.-I900 C.E. by Emily Taitz, Sondra Henry & Cheryl Tallan (Jewish Publication Society, 2003):

Documents and gravestones point to the fact that by the sixteenth century, almost every synagogue in Germany and Eastern Europe had its own woman precentor who was able to lead the prayers and sometimes translated them into Yiddish for the women. They were called firzogerins (literally, those who said the words “before”) or zugerkes. Both these words mean “prayer leader” and both assume a feminine gender. Although women functioned as prayer leaders throughout the Ashkenazic world and a few are documented as early as the Middle Ages, that role became institutionalized in Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century. Some firzogerins were inspired to add to the liturgy for women by offering their own translations or creating original prayers….

Many of the prayers authored by these firzogerins suggest that they were produced for recitation in the synagogue before a female congregation. A good many of the synagogues had a separate women’s room, including the one at Worms (Germany) and, later, Prague. Some even contained a separate ark in which a Torah was kept.