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The Wisest Woman in Kurdistan

Dr. Pearl Herzog

Having no sons, 16th-century Rabbi Shmuel Barazani selected Osnat, his brilliant and pious daughter, and groomed her for a life of avodas Hashem. She was renowned for her Torah wisdom, and Jews and non-Jews alike sought her aid and benefited from her miraculous powers of healing.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mosul, the city in Kurdistan where Osnat was born, is located on the west bank of the Tigris river opposite the ancient city of Nineveh. In 1590, when Osnat was born, Mosul had a thriving Jewish community, of which her father Shmuel Barazani was a prominent rabbi.

The surname Barazani is derived from the name of the region — Barazan, Kurdistan, where this family seems to have originated. Osnat’s paternal grandfather, Rabbi Netanel HaLevi Barazani, was a prominent dayan and scion of the most prestigious rabbinic family in Kurdistan. He owned a large library of books and manuscripts — a rare phenomenon in those days.

Legends abound about him and his son, Rabbi Shmuel HaLevi Barazani, but the bare facts are impressive enough. “Any community that does not have a beit medrash is as if it has no G-d,” he was known to say. And indeed, Rabbi Shmuel ben Netanel HaLevi Barazani established yeshivos all over Kurdistan — including those in Barazan, Akrah, Mosul, and Amadiyeh, and his disciples filled positions of Torah leadership in many Jewish communities.

Although many kabbalistic seforim written by Rabbi Shmuel Barazani have been lost, among his manuscripts that have survived are Avnei Zikaron on the laws of shechitah, Sefer HaIyun, Sefer Derishot, and Sefer Charuzot. A number of his piyyutim and special Yom Tov tefillos have been incorporated into the liturgy of Kurdish Jewry.

During his life Rabbi Shmuel ben Netanel HaLevi was described as a saint and angel, whose face exuded a radiance comparable to that of Adam HaRishon. Non-Jews and Jews alike mourned his passing and his grave in Amadiyeh became a place of pilgrimage.


The Art and Craft of Heaven

Rabbi Shmuel Barazani was not blessed with sons, and when he saw his daughter Osnat’s exceptional brilliance, he made the unconventional decision to raise her as a Torah scholar. While her sisters and friends were helping their mothers carry laundry down to the Tigris, Osnat was sitting with her father, mastering the methodology of the Talmud and even being initiated into the secrets of the Zohar. Osnat became known as a beki’ah baShas. Rabbi Shmuel Barazani excused Osnat from doing any domestic chores, insisting her life be only devoted to Torah and to her spiritual growth.

“Never in my life did I step outside my home,” she writes about herself in a letter recovered from the Cairo Genizah. “I was a princess of Israel. I was raised by scholars: I was pampered [not through physical but through spiritual sustenance] by my late father, who taught me no art or craft other than heavenly matters.”

Rabbi Shmuel Barazani’s yeshivah attracted scholars from as far away as Egypt and the Holy Land. But when it came to choosing a chassan for Osnat, he took his own nephew, prize student Yaakov ben Yehudah Mizrachi Amedi from the city Amadiyeh, a two day’s walk from Mosul.

At the eirusin, Rabbi Shmuel Barazani stipulated that his daughter be exempt from domestic duties, so that she could focus on her spiritual growth. Her chassan and first cousin complied with these wishes. Osnat did not cook, bake, or engage in the multicolored handiwork of Kurdistani women.

Rabbi Yaakov and Osnat Mizrachi had two children: a son, Shmuel, and a daughter. When Osnat’s father passed away, her husband became the head of the yeshivah. She writes that since her husband, a great talmid chacham, was involved in his Torah learning and did not have time to teach the rabbinical students, she would teach them in his stead. She also composed a commentary on the Book of Mishlei , which unfortunately has been lost.

Osnat’s husband died while her children were still small and, until her young son was old enough to take over the position of rosh yeshivah, Osnat headed the yeshivah in Mosul.


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