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Babatha & the Role of Women in the 2nd Century

February 18, 2018 | by Dr. Henry Abramson

Exploring the mysterious 2nd-Century find in the Cave of Letters.

Nearly two thousand years ago, a Judean woman hiding from Roman soldiers buried her most precious legal documents in a cave. Discovered by an Israeli archaeologist, Babatha's archive reveals a vivid portrait of the life of a second-century woman.

When Babatha wrapped her precious scrolls in a small leather pouch and hid them under a loose rock in the floor of the cave, she probably expected to retrieve them after the Romans ended their hunt for the Bar Kochba rebels. The documents were her only hope to regain her family’s land, full custody of her child and a large debt owed to her by her late husband’s first wife, and therefore, Babatha did not easily surrender them to the earth.

The brutal Roman-Jewish war, coming just seven decades after the destruction of the Temple, left her no choice: the political upheaval forced this 30-year-old Jewish woman to seek refuge along with several hundred men, women and children in the cave complex near the Dead Sea.

Leather pouch that contained Babatha’s scrolls.

The documents remained intact and undisturbed in their makeshift tomb for nearly two thousand years, as Babatha did not live to taste the air of the open desert again. The scrolls were only discovered in 1960 by the great archaeologist Yigal Yadin in a remote location that has since been named the Cave of Letters.

The scrolls, 35 in all, were a series of important legal documents. Written in Greek and two dialects of Aramaic (Nabatean and Judean), they represented her ongoing struggle to regain control over several aspects of her personal property and child support for her only son, and as such they reveal a tremendous amount of information about the lives of upper-middle class Jewish women in Israel during the 2nd century of the common era.

A cluster of papyrus containing Bar Kokhba’s orders found in the Judean desert by modern Israeli archeologist Yigal Yadin.

Babatha was born at the beginning of the century in Maoza, at the southern tip of the Dead Sea. Her name was probably a diminutive form of Basya. The fact that she received a date orchard as an inheritance suggests she was an eldest child with no surviving brothers.

The documents chronicle a tragic life: her first husband passed away, leaving her dependent on two court-appointed guardians. Babatha challenged the arrangement, arguing that the guardians were not disbursing child support funds appropriately.

She married again, this time to Yehudah, a man likely 20 years her senior, who was already married to another woman named Miriam (it would be a millennium before the Ashkenazic Jewish community instituted a ban on polygamy). When her second husband died, she entered into a legal dispute with Miriam over a loan Babatha had extended to marry off Miriam’s daughter Shlomtzion. To reinforce her claim to the money, Babatha seized legal control of Miriam’s orchard in Ein Gedi.

The records indicate that Babatha was illiterate, but she certainly had no fear of using the courts to demand her due. Ironically, it seems that her dispute with Miriam did not prevent her from forming a close relationship with Shlomtzion, who may have been much closer to her in age: Shlomtzion’s ketubah is included in Babatha’s cache. It is likely that Shlomtzion fled into the cave with Babatha, and she probably met the same fate, as neither she nor Babatha would have left these valuable documents behind.

Jewish women were fully engaged in a wide variety of economic activities, and defended their rights under Jewish law with every legal tool available.

Most likely, both women were among the hundreds of bodies of Jews discovered in one of the chambers of the Cave of Letters, victims of the Roman persecution during the Bar Kochba rebellion.

Registration document for four date orchards owned by Babatha

Babatha’s legacy to the world was transmitted 2000 years later to her people with the awesome discovery of the Cave of Letters in 1960. Scholars continue to study Babatha’s life, seeking to understand the role of women in the 2nd century, but one message comes through with exceptional clarity: Jewish women were fully engaged in a wide variety of economic activities, and were ready and able to defend their rights under Jewish law with every legal tool available. Babatha’s example demonstrates how Jewish women claimed mastery over their own destinies. Babatha was a true descendant of the daughters of Tzelofchad, advocating for her inheritance rights. Like Tselofchad's daughters, her love of the land of Israel and presence with the Bar Kochba rebels suggests that she was willing to throw her lot in with those who fought Roman oppression.

Her archive preserves preserve a vivid picture of one woman’s life in ancient Israel, filled with tragedy and drama, yet hope for the future.


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