King Solomon describes the ideal woman in his acrostic poem ‘Eshet Hayil (Proverbs 31:10).’ His female model, though, may come as a bit of a surprise. He describes her as a working woman, labouring for the benefit of her family. It is a far cry from the popular image of a ‘traditional wife’ who is mostly a homemaker and child bearer.
The fifth verse particularly resonates for me as Shelomo Hamelekh champions the woman that “is like merchant ships, bringing food from afar.” This evokes images of the celebrated Portuguese merchant Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi. Born in Portugal, she lived with her husband and family in Lisbon. Following her husband’s death, Gracia did not shrink, but carried on the family spice trade business. In the process she became fabulously wealthy. She used her riches to escape to the Ottoman Empire whereupon she and her family returned to open Jewish practice. From there she capitalised on her immense fortune and influence to ferry thousands of other Portuguese Conversos to freedom and to Jewish life.
The Torah also presents the matriarch Rachel in this way. It says “she was a shepherdess (Genesis 29:9).” Some of the commentaries struggle with this identification, as it seems ‘unladylike.’ However, as Jacob is previously described as a ‘tent dweller,’ one could imagine that Rachel’s knowhow likely played an important role in Jacob’s ultimate success in the business. The daughters of Zelophehad are also recalled for carrying on their family’s agricultural business (Number 27).
Historians point out that many of our contemporary sensibilities concerning the home role of women are actually a result of recent history. The popular image of the genteel lady not getting her hands dirty developed during the Georgian and Victorian eras. Prior to that time in was common for ladies to work with their husbands to make ends meet. While the man of the house might spend his time trading beyond the city, wives often managed the business’s more local affairs .
Perhaps the best example of this partnership is expressed by Gluckel of Hameln. She lived with her husband and family in 17th century Hamburg Altona. They were Ashkenazic, though the region at that time was home to a large Portuguese Jewish community. Amazingly, she wrote a memoir of her life in Yiddish. In it she describes the wonderful relationship that she enjoyed with her husband Hayim, as well as her pain at his loss. Gluckel writes that her husband “took advice from no one else, and did nothing without our talking it over together.” She further reports that on his deathbed her husband said “my wife knows everything, she shall do as she has always done.” (Translation by Marvin Lowenthal)
From Biblical to contemporary times Jewish sources admire industrious and ambitious women. Many sources stress that ultimate value comes from inner achievements (“A woman who fears G-d is to be praised (Proverbs 31:30),” and “All the honour of a ‘princess’ is internal (Psalms 45:14)”), but they also celebrate the woman that succeeds in what often seems to be ‘a man’s world.’ We live in changing times, but thankfully the Torah and Portuguese Jewry provide us with a beautiful paradigm to follow.