Recently I was occupied by organizing keys to the house and to the gate leading to the garden. The housekeys have to be coupled with remote controls for the alarm system, and the batteries need to be working, lest the alarm will be triggered when we enter.
It turns out that looking after the property and being in charge of the keys was duty of the woman of the house even in the time of Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, the 11th century French Jewish scholar, commentator on the Talmud and the Bible. The contemporary historian Merav Schnitzer is a researcher of material culture in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. She uses an innovative way of looking at the communal life of the period through objects of clothing and jewelry. An article about her work in Haaretz English edition (Friday, July 23, 2021) reveals fascinating information about the life of the community through exploring handwritten texts of responsa written on questions of Halachic (laws pertaining to Jewish practice) topics regarding the use of jewelry on the Sabbath.
Reading ancient texts at the library, she came across an item of jewelry described as a key clasp worn by Jewish women to hold together their upper garment at the neck. Realizing that she was only a few meters away from the Cluny Museum of medieval art and history, which holds the Colmar Collection, she went there to see if the item that she read about was in the museum’s collection. After searching in the volt, she was able to actually hold in her hand a small silver key, with a hole for a clasp. The key is also essential to understanding the status of women in the community, and to understanding the way rabbis of the community were involved in the life of the community, and found creative solutions to accommodate their needs. It also shows the status of women in the community at the time.
In fact, women were the keepers of the keys. They were in charge of looking after the financial and commercial affairs of the household. The financial papers, money, and all valuables of the family were kept in large trunks, and the keys were carried by the woman on her belt. The more keys a woman had on her belt, the higher her status in the community. This was a general practice, not only a Jewish one. However, Jewish women had a dilemma. According to the strict Halacha, it is forbidden to carry keys on Shabbat, so what happens if she leaves them at home when the entire family goes to synagogue, and only the servants stay in the house? A wise woman asked if she could have a jeweler fashion a key to close a small box which would hold all the other keys, and wear it as a clasp to hold her garment closed. In other words, functional jewelry. Rashi, whose wife and 3 daughters were looking after his household and wine business, realized the practicality of the matter, and ruled it permissible. Thus, the status of a Jewish woman was also determined by the type of key jewelry she was wearing. Obviously, poorer folks could not afford keys made of precious metals.
The use of objects reveals hidden layers of historical story, claims Schnitzer, and for the investigation of women’s place in the community they are a treasure-trove of fascinating material. Speaking of material, it is the use of fabrics in clothing which was documented in ancient writings that reveals the cultural development and preferences of the society in northern France. It turns out that already then France was the center of fashion. With the trade routes from Turkey and the east came finer fabrics, that could be sewn with fine needles from China. Rashi describes an item called qatla which is a kind of brassiere, which is mentioned only in the writings of Jews. Rashi apparently described the item in detail, because it gave rise to Halachic issues. Rashi and other Halachic sages following him described the custom of women wearing a loose white linen garment, on top of which they wore the qatla. Rashi described it as “an important piece of garment that was hung by the neck and covered the heart…And she tied the strip tightly around her neck strangling herself strongly in order to push up the flesh, to be seen as if she has a lot of flesh.” The problem from the sages’ point of view was not with the fact that the women were accentuating and lifting their breasts. The Halachic discussion was about what to do with this item when undressing for immersion in the ritual bath on Shabbat, in terms of having to untie knots.
It is interesting to see the involvement and apparent leniency and understanding of rabbis in the northern French communities. Schnitzer postulates that the majority of rabbis expressed appreciation for esthetics and for the women in these communities. Perhaps the reason is that they lived in regions where trade routes passed, creating the fashion revolution of the Middle Ages. She claims that the rabbis in those communities were “an integral part of the community, connected to every day life, to the inner feelings of the community’s members. The rabbis are not aloof!” It is interesting to look at the historical development of objects like clothing, which can help to understand women’s place in the society. When you see the various Jewish communities today, you can certainly weave a story of the place of a woman in that society. The type of dress, the hair covering (or not), the accepted style and the status within the various communities can be determined by the dress code. I find it refreshing to see that if the rabbi is indeed part of the community life, he or today she also can decide on Halachic questions according to the practices prevalent in the community. Even more so on the status of women in the community and their willingness to accept the decrees of the rabbis. After all there is a golden rule that states that no law that the community will not follow can be imposed upon the community.
The keepers of the keys today are still the women of the community. Not only their home keys, but public keys to places of prayer, to schools, and even slowly to rabbinic positions and to law interpretation. It looks like some of our important sages recognized and appreciated the women of their community. My hope is that we, as women, recognize the importance of carrying the keys.