Skip To Content

Unsung Women | Babatha: The real housewife of ancient Judea

Editor’s note: For Women’s History Month, the Forward presents “Unsung Women,” a special project showcasing Jewish women — from biblical times to our modern moment — whose stories have rarely been told.

Who she was: Babatha, daughter of Shim’on

When and where: 2nd-century Judea

What we know: Born in the town of Mahoza in the Judean Desert, Babatha was a well-off member of her community’s prominent Jewish minority. She inherited wealth from her father and from her two husbands, Yeshu’a and Judah, both of whom died. As a single mother, she successfully sued to prevent court-appointed guardians from controlling her son’s funeral. She spent much of her life embroiled in legal battles with Judah’s first wife, Miryam, over assets to which both women believed themselves entitled.

In the 130s, Babatha’s life was uprooted by the Bar Kokhba revolt, a rebellion of Jews against their Roman occupiers. Although we don’t know exactly what happened to Mahoza, there is evidence that Babatha became a refugee and sought shelter alongside Bar Kokhba himself, inside the caves alongside a wadi called Nahal Hever. As the rebellion collapsed and the Roman army exacted revenge on Jewish civilians, Babatha may have been discovered and killed, or she may have simply died of thirst or starvation.

How we know it: Despite her untimely demise, Babatha’s memory persists due to her penchant for litigating. Babatha owned a trove of legal and personal documents that recorded her marriages and assets and detailed her fight against Miryam. When she fled to Nahal Hever, she took the documents with her. There they remained until Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin uncovered them in 1960.

Why it’s important: Babatha’s legal adventures offer a window into the lives of ancient Judean women, showing that they could own property, stand their ground in court, and deal with complex challenges in both family and business. Scholars have used the details of these exchanges to develop a fuller picture of what day-to-day life was like for women of Babatha’s era and class. Yet the trove also illuminates a different experience: that of a war refugee whose comfortable life was uprooted and ultimately ended by political convulsion. However Babatha’s life ended, court documents show how the Bar Kokhba revolt’s disastrous end affected ordinary people.

Thanks for reading this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war and rising antisemitism.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Support our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.