The Rebbitzen

Rebbitzen Marguerite Merenda

The roles and responsibilities of a Proverbs 31 woman are many: Wife, mother, companion, friend, home-builder, teacher, and much more. Yet coupled with these roles is the unique position of “Rebbitzen.”

The Yiddish word has a convoluted etymology: Hebrew rebbə “master”, plus the Slavic feminine suffix -itsa and the German feminine suffix -in.

“Rebbitzen” has historically been the title used for the wife of a rabbi. The rabbi’s wife becomes the first lady of the community and assists him in performing religious duties, social tasks, and “outreach” roles. With the growth of independent scholarship among women, some women have received the title on their own merit, irrespective of their husbands.

The rebbitzen has her role not only in the home, but by her husband’s side in the sanctuary. Today, synagogues often seek not just a rabbi, but a “rabbinic couple” as well. A rebbitzen is a matchless position. She is knowledgeable of human affairs as well as religious ones. In many Chassidic courts, rebbitzens are considered to be spiritual counselors. As the rabbi’s wife, she is held up as a model of propriety. She is the perfect hostess, free of jealousies, above envy and petty squabbling, an ambassador of good will, a mistress of budgets and finances, modest, gentle, fair, amicable, firm, friendly, reasonable… and human. She is often expected to be active in the “sisterhood”, teach, intercede in prayer, orchestrate church activities, and be active in the community.

In many ways, she is called on to be as knowledgeable as the rabbi and can be approached when a woman does not feel comfortable approaching the rabbi. Part of it, certainly, is that she always has the rabbi’s ear and heart.

In reality, it is a role that few women can fulfill, simply because it is an ideal; people look to their rebbitzen to have those positive qualities that are sorely lacking in our world today. Nonetheless, there have been a few rebbitzens in Jewish history that have gone on into legend, notably Rebbitzen Rachel Akiba, Rebbitzen Beruryah Meir, and of course the most amazing of all…my best friend, my soul mate, my wife… Rebbitzen Marguerite Merenda.