Osnat Barzani (1590-1670) was a Kurdish Jewish poet and rabbinical scholar who is largely regarded as the first female rabbi.
Osnat was born into a well-known Jewish family in northern Kurdistan. Osnat’s grandfather, Netanel Halevi, was a rabbi and leader in Mosul. Osnat’s father, Shmuel, was also a rabbi and mystic. Concerned with the lack of Torah knowledge among the Jewish community of Kurdistan, he established various yeshivas to promote Jewish learning.
Because Shmuel had no sons, he decided to teach his daughter Osnat the Torah and Talmud so that she could become his successor. Osnat, in turn, dedicated all of her time growing up to learning Torah. When Osnat married Rabbi Yaakov Mizrahi, Mizrahi promised her father that she would do no housework so that she could dedicate her life to being a Torah scholar.
After Shmuel died, Mizrahi became the head of the yeshiva in Mosul. However, he was so consumed by his studies that it was Osnat that took the time to teach the yeshiva students and provide them with rabbinical training. After her husband died, the yeshiva officially passed down to her. She was then known as the “chief teacher of Torah.”
The yeshiva suffered from financial difficulties and was dependent entirely on donations from Jewish philanthropists. At one point, Osnat’s home and belongings were confiscated.
Officially, Osnat was known as a “Tanna’it,” the feminine form for a Talmudic scholar. During Osnat’s lifetime, the process of rabbinic ordination was not like it is today; there was no singular unified communal worldwide agreement of the requirements and rituals required for rabbinic ordination. As such, Osnat was never officially known as a rabbi, though in reality that was her role.
Osnat was fluent in Hebrew and was well-versed in Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. She is well-known for her mastery of lyrical prose in both Hebrew and Kurdish.
Osnat’s son also became a rabbi, eventually settling in Baghdad and continuing the legacy of rabbinical scholars in the family.
There are many legends about Osnat and the miracles that she performed. According to Kurdish Jewish folklore, her supernatural powers can be found in protective amulets. According to legend, Osnat had the power to limit her childbearing to two children so that she could continue to study freely. She could also ward off intruders by calling out holy names. There are stories that Osnat’s father came to her in her sleep to warn her of impeding dangers. There is a story that once, when a synagogue went up in flames, she was able to alert angels, who extinguished the fire. It was common for Jews to visit her grave in Amedi, Iraqi-occupied Kurdistan, but Iraq expelled almost the entirety of its Jewish community between the 1940s-1960s, and as such, only three or four Jews remain in Iraq today.
“Longing for Zion” by Osnat Barzani (1590-1670)
God looked and saw
Woe to the people, low in their fall
A breached wall, a room, a flock ascribed divine
Moving through the desert -- no cattle, no sight
A hairy seer bringing temptation
Your holy home, a safe waystation
The Living God -- how much destruction, destruction will stay
And will bring down the greedy from Dan in their state
Your graceful dove travels
In frost and lodged visits
And in Winter a crow, ambushes and sits
Go from God and beseech,
“Redeem us and now”
A dove will arrive inception, in your’s
I saw in return, my return to you
Clothes costumed in power, women of the precipice
Wait for me my home, your prize is with me
Raise your heads, sons preach for me
To me nations will bring a gift
Bring me out and I will unite a covenant,
I will build my temple I will preach and inherit
the roots of Ben Yishai and God will build a fortress
Zion and my narrow pride rebuilt
My soul will return, rise, roam, and shift
In my hall, in my people, and my name will lift
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