One of the reasons a married woman could maintain her independence was her dowry, since it was her uncontested property with no strings attached. If a divorce occurred, the dowry was hers to take back to her father's house, or to buy her own home or business. But that did not leave the poorer woman at the mercy of her husband, either. In most cases, even if the bride did not bring a sizable dowry, a clause in the marriage contract required the husband to pay a specific sum of money in case of a divorce. An interesting marriage contract from the days of King Nebuchadnezzar specifies that if the husband married a second wife, it would be considered the equivalent of a divorce from the first wife. The first wife would get her full dowry back, with an additional sum of money to compensate her for the loss of her married state. This document is not unique; polygamy was discouraged and penalized financially.
A dowry did not have to consist of strictly money. It could include slaves, domestic animals, furniture, and household goods. In such cases, the value of the people, animals, and objects was carefully calculated and stated clearly in the contract. If the father of the bride was dead, or her mother was a well-to-do divorced woman, the mother would supply the dowry. If both parents were dead, another member of the family would do so. And there were many nuances to family relationships and responsibilities. For example, another document from the time of Nebuchadnezzar states that the father of the bride says that the creditors of the groom’s father should never have a claim on the bride’s dowry, or anything else that she personally possesses. It is amusing to think that the bride’s father suspected his new in-law of not being entirely solvent. Why did he allow his daughter to marry into a family he suspected of financial trouble remains shrouded in the mists of time, but it’s entirely possible that the girl was in love and determined to marry this young man. There is nothing new under the sun…
In the Semitic world, Babylonia was unique in the way it treated women’s rights and position. Probably due to the early matriarchal society, women often took precedence over men. Everywhere else women were permitted diverse levels of autonomy, but were always subordinate to men. Jewish men treated women with respect, but they were not equal to men. One of the early sovereigns in Babylonia was Ellat-Gulla, a queen. In neighboring Assyria, the bas-reliefs of the great king Assur-Bani-Pal, show his queen sitting next to him during a feast in a place of equal importance. Another major king, Sargon, left a list of trees brought into Babylon from another land; the entire transaction was carried out by his queen, who clearly was involved in the affairs of the state.
I was very happy to see quite a lot of interest in the role of Shekhina as the female side of God, so I thought that this Sunday I would present a second representation of her, as Shabbat Hamalka, Queen of the Sabbath and Bride of God. Next week I will return to the more practical side of women’s lives in Babylonia and Judea during Hillel’s life and times. The links in red should take you to related articles in Enclyccloped Mythica www.pantheon.org which may be of interest to you, and where this article had appeared first some years ago.
Among the goddesses representing either the female side of Yahweh or his consorts, such as Asherah, Shekhina, Anath, and Lilith, Shabbat Hamalka has a unique personality and origin. Her myth strongly influenced Jewish thought, and contributed to the strength of home and family that had improved the odds for physical and spiritual Jewish survival. The name means Queen of the Sabbath, and the entity is the personification of the Jewish day of rest, Saturday. She still possesses a prominent position in Judaic mythology. For example, Israeli children, even in completely nonreligious surroundings, still sing songs to her every Friday afternoon (in Hebrew "Erev Shabatt" meaning the Sabbath Eve) before the Queen "descends" from Heaven to grace the world for twenty-four hours. When the Jews started their return to Palestine, long before the state of Israel was declared, new mythology had to be created or recreated. Shabbat Hamalka, prominent and romantic, was one of the first candidates. The great National Poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, who was an expert on folklore and mythology, had a lot to do with preserving the image of the Queen in the renewed home of the Jewish People. He invented "Oneg Shabbat," meaning "Sabbath Joy," and combined the customs of group study, festive dinner, lectures, and singing of both old and new songs. The custom spread to the United States and is still observed by many.
While the trickledown theory does not really work for American economy, it does work very well when it comes to theology -- a nation is strongly defined by the deity it serves. The God of the Jews, Yahweh, is a male deity, and the society that worshipped him from the earliest times was patriarchal; women were respected, but were undoubtedly second class citizens. The early Babylonians were matriarchal and worshipped several female deities, and women had equal rights. Even later, during the times we are discussing and when Babylonian culture was influenced by the Semitic culture, women still had almost equal rights. Their position was very close to that of American women -- not one hundred percent equal, but close enough to make life quite pleasant.
But life for the Jewish woman was not entirely bleak -- and for that we have to thank a mindset that created a very interesting entity: Shekhina (also spelled Shekhinah), who is the feninine side of God. To understand the Jewish mind, one must understand the Shekhina. Therefore, before we delve deeper in women's place in Judea and Babylon, I am attaching an article that I have written some years ago for the wonderful Encyclopedia Mythica (which I am sure you would enjoy greatly if you go to that site --www.pantheon.org. I doubt anyone here read this particular article, but if you did, I apologize and I promise to put up new material next Sunday.