“Women need their own prayer books that are different from men’s” according to a 16th century rabbinic ruling by Rabbi Meir Benveniste, who decided to undertake the composition of a siddur (prayer book) for women, named “Seder Nashim.” The siddur, which was written in Ladino, since at the time many Jewish women were not literate in Hebrew, has been republished recently in Ivrit by Machon Yad Ben Tzvi, according to Israeli daily Yediot Acharonot.
Although the majority of European Ashkenazi Jewish women used the same siddurim as men for prayers, the siddur composed by Rabbi Benveniste served a different purpose. In his introduction he wrote that generally it was difficult for women to spend time praying because “the men would be concerned that the long prayers were too much for them (the women) that they will neglect taking care of their children.” He therefore sought a way for them to learn prayer “without taking away from their duties as mothers.”
Rabbi Benveniste taught his daughters to read and write in Ladino, beat their chests while they recited the “Al Chait” prayer for past sins. At a time when most women did not know how to read or write, he recommended for a man “to teach his daughters a little bit of the reading every evening.”
What is unique about Benveniste’s siddur for women is that in addition its compiling of the laws that specifically pertain to women (including the removal of the clause from Grace After Meals “By your covenant we sealed by our flesh,” a reference to Jewish male circumcision), the siddur also contains laws that guide women towards a generally Jewish way of life.
The siddur also includes the liturgy to be recited for holidays, including a Passover Haggada specifically designed for a women’s only seder, including the blessings of Kiddush and the matzah written in grammatically feminine form. On Purim, Rabbi Benveniste ruled that women should be permitted to drink more than they are accustomed to.
Historical records indicate that this book predates the feminist movement by 500 years, breaking boundaries at its time. Many passages of the regular prayers were dropped to accommodate women for whom these prayers weren’t appropriate. The siddur does not contain the Kadish or Kedushah (which are only said with a minyan). The morning prayer blessing thanking G-d “for not creating me a woman,” was also dropped, and unlike one fifteenth century siddur, was not replaced with an alternative.
In the introduction to the new edition of the siddur, Ora Shwartzhold explains that the reason why this Ladino prayer book for women did not succeed in pioneering the creation of more siddurim with a similar focus was due to the opinions of the scholars of that generation. “Generally it seems they did not view advancements in women’s education in a favorable light, seeing that it was not necessary for women to understand the reasons behind the mitzvoth and its foundations,” Shwartzhold wrote.