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In Ancient Israel, Women Did All the Work

How did the people of the ancient Levant really live? For women, it was grinding on their haunches.

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The term “signs and wonders” appears in the Bible 19 times, but these are the works of the Almighty. The daily grind was the province of humans. When it came to transforming raw materials into food, clothing and shelter there are references going back to the story of Adam and Eve, that this was man's work.

Or rather, according to the Bible and ancient rabbinic sources, women’s work. The Talmudic tractate Yebamoth outs it: “If a man brings home wheat, does he chew the wheat? If flax, does he wear it raw?”

References in ancient sources to women's hard labor in the name of daily existence are borne out by archaeological finds throughout Israel and elsewhere in the Near East, not to mention contemporary traditional societies where people still live much as they did in antiquity. What sort of finds? Bones bearing clear signs of the debilitating nature of by repetitive physical labor, for instance.

The ancient household centered on the courtyard, which had space for everything - food processing, weaving and storage, children’s play and even a poultry feeding corner, archaeological finds have shown.

The women - mom and grandmom (who very likely shared the same household back in the day) - would rise before dawn for their first task of the day, after everyone had emptied their chamber pots, of course, probably in the nearest stream. It was making the fire in the clay oven to bake bread using brushwood they and their children had gathered.

The “loaves” of antiquity didn’t look that different from what we call Druze or Iraqi pita bread of today, but the process of making it took a lot longer.

Evidence of orthopedic diseases

Grain can actually be eaten fresh, but only in early spring, when it’s still green and full of sugar. It can also be toasted, which is the way Ruth and Boaz enjoyed it on their first lunch date (Ruth 2:14: At mealtime Boaz said to her, Come over here. Have some bread and dip it in the wine vinegar. When she sat down with the harvesters, he offered her some roasted grain.)

Turning it into bread was a lot harder.

The earliest food processor in history was a grinding stone, the likes of which have been found in excavations going back many thousands of years. Scholars say that even though the baking itself took only a few minutes after plastering the raw dough on the inside walls of the oven, it probably took a woman about three hours to produce enough flour for a minimum-sized household of six.

A makeshift tabun at a Bedouin village, Israel.
A woman weaving in the traditional style, Rahat.
A woman weaving in the traditional style at the Women's Craft Center, Rahat.
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A makeshift tabun at a Bedouin village, Israel.Credit: Tal Cohen
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A woman weaving in the traditional style, Rahat.Credit: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh
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A woman weaving in the traditional style at the Women's Craft Center, Rahat.Credit: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh
Women's work tabun

Ideals of female beauty have changed over the ages. The ancient Jewish sages pictured their beauty queens in terms neither Rubenesque nor Photoshop-emaciated. It was, apparently, well-defined biceps that attracted them, at least according to the Talmudic tractate Niddah 48b. Thanks to grinding flour from a young age country girls were supposedly more developed than city girls, who had others to do the work for them, or at least the Talmudic sages wrote as much.

Female skeletal remains from excavations clearly show the toll the “daily grind” took on women. They developed nodules on the vertebrae and arthritis in the neck from bearing heavy burdens such as firewood. Wear patterns on ankle bones are a stark reminder of the hours our foremothers spent squatting over the fire.

Working for The Man

The earliest looms were another reason for women to have orthopedic problems – they too were on the ground, as is demonstrated by weavers at the Rahat Craft Center in the Negev. Only later was the standing loom invented, leaving behind evidence of their existence in the form of small, perforated balls used as weights to hold warp threads in place.

In Bible times and on through the Second Temple era, sources weaving is frequently mentioned as women’s work. The famed poem of Proverbs 31, traditionally entitled the “woman of valor” and still part of the Sabbath eve liturgy in many Jewish homes, notes that the praiseworthy subject “stretches out her hands to the distaff, And her hand holds the spindle…she makes linen garments and sells them…she makes tapestry for herself…and supplies sashes for the merchants.”

Merchants? Indeed: At Megiddo, conquered in 732 BCE by the Assyrian Tiglath-Pileser, scholar Jennifer Peersmann suggests that the large number of textile tools in the remains of the Assyrian provincial capital indicates production for an industry that was part of the Assyrian tax system. Such textiles, Peersmann writes, were manufactured at home, but not necessarily for home use.

At Hazor, in the Upper Galilee, loom weights were found frequently either in courtyards (or central rooms) or on top of roof debris, indicating that weaving was also done on the roof, researcher Deborah Cassuto concluded in her 2004 M.A. thesis. Loom weights found in locations such as storerooms have led some scholars to suspect they weren't loom weights after all. However cross-cultural studies show weaving was seasonal work, done in winter, after which the loom was stored away. And for a final piece of evidence that working the woof was women's province, the Roman-era Mishnaic tractate Sotah, derogatorily describes women meeting to spin – and gossip – in the moonlight.

Next time: How the other half lived.

The writer is the author, among other books, of Women at the Time of the Bible, Food at the Time of the Bible, Teach it to Your Children: How Kids Lived in Bible Days, and The Scroll.

The tabun oven, usually made of clay and sometimes of stone, used to bake bread, goes back centuries. This one was photographed in 1898-1914.Credit: American Colony, Wikimedia Commons

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