Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Can women grow beards, and if they can, are they allowed to shave them under Jewish law? That was just one of the questions that arose in last week’s Daf Yomi reading, as the rabbis pondered the implications of gender in halakhah. One of the fundamental principles of Judaism is that men are subject to more commandments than women are. There are many mitzvot that women are not obligated to perform, such a wearing tefillin and tzitzit, sleeping in the sukkah, and studying Torah. One might think that being excused from these obligations is a positive thing for Jewish women, making their lives that much easier. But in Judaism, the opportunity to do a mitzvah is a blessing, not a burden. Indeed, as Pirkei Avot puts it, “the reward for a commandment is another commandment”; since following God’s orders is the best thing a human being can accomplish, a mitzvah is its own reward. This means that, spiritually, a Jewish man is better off than a Jewish woman, since he can do more mitzvot than she can. That is why, in the traditional morning prayer, men thank God “shelo asani ishah,” “for not making me a woman.”

It is in chapter 1 of Tractate Kiddushin that we find the classic formulation of men’s and women’s responsibilities when it comes to mitzvot. As the mishna on Kiddushin 29a says, “With regard to all positive, time-bound mitzvot, men are obligated and women are exempt.” That is to say, anytime God commands us to perform a specific action at a specific time, only men are required to do it. If a mitzvah doesn’t have a time restriction, however, or if it is a negative commandment or prohibition, then men and women are equally obligated. This explains why, as we saw last week, both men and women must honor their parents—this a positive, non-time-bound commandment. Likewise, prohibitions on Shabbat labor or theft are binding on both sexes. But since a Jew only sleeps in a sukkah at the designated time during Sukkot, and only wears tefillin during the day, women do not have to perform these mitzvot.

But there is an obvious question here: Why? Why are women not required to perform time-bound positive commandments? If you are looking for an ethical or practical reason, you will come away from the Talmud disappointed. The principle of gender difference is stated, but it is not justified. As the notes to the Steinsaltz Talmud explain, many later commentators tried to fill this gap, by coming up with a plausible reason for the distinction between men and women. One argument is that, since a woman is subservient to her husband and responsible for running a household, she has too many demands on her time to be able to fulfill all the time-bound mitzvot.

There are, however, two obvious objections to this theory. First, it slights God, by putting a woman’s duties to her husband above her duties to God; and second, not all women are wives and mothers, so the time argument doesn’t always apply. Another, more flattering theory is that women do not need so many mitzvot because they are spiritually more advanced than men and so don’t require regular testing and reminders of God’s will. But this idea, ascribed to the 19th-century Orthodox theologian Samson Raphael Hirsch, does not feel authentic, at least to me; nowhere in the Talmud can you find such a Victorian view of women’s sanctity.

For the rabbis, explaining the gender distinction in Jewish law was not a matter of homiletics but of biblical interpretation. Nowhere in the Bible does it explicitly state that women are not obligated to perform time-bound positive mitzvot. This idea must have entered into Jewish tradition at some point via custom or the Oral Law. As always, however, the rabbis strive to find a textual basis for their practice. But in the Gemara in Kiddushin 34a, this proves to be harder than expected. For every example the rabbis raise, a counter-example is available.

The argument begins with the mitzvah of wearing tefillin. “Just as women are exempt from phylacteries,” the Gemara proposes, “so too, women are exempt from all positive, time-bound mitzvot.” But where in the Torah does it actually say that women don’t have to wear tefillin? In fact, it doesn’t. In Deuteronomy 6, in the passage that forms the Ve’ahavta portion of the Shema prayer, Moses instructs:

And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the door-posts of thy house, and upon thy gates.

The text mentions three technologies of memory: Jews are supposed to “talk” continually about the commandments, wear them in tefillin, and put them on their doorposts in mezuzot. According to the Gemara, women are exempt from the second of these commandments, wearing tefillin. The reason, ostensibly, is by analogy with the first of them, teaching Torah; just as women are not obligated to teach or learn Torah, so they are not obligated to wear tefillin. But, the Gemara goes on to ask, what about the third item on the list, mezuzot? A woman is certainly obligated to put up a mezuzah on the door frame of her house. Why not draw an analogy between tefillin and mezuzot and conclude that she is also obligated to wear phylacteries?

Similar contradictions arise with other biblical texts. For instance, while women are generally exempt from time-bound commandments, there are a few exceptions, including the obligation to eat matzo on Passover; women must do this just like men. Why then, the Gemara asks, are they not similarly obligated to dwell in the sukka on Sukkot? Aren’t these both time-bound commandments related to holidays? Indeed, since women are commanded to rejoice on all Jewish holidays, just like men, why not deduce from this that they are obligated in all time-bound commandments, just like men? Disentangling these problems requires a great deal of hermeneutic effort from the rabbis, and their answers, while technically impeccable, are not greatly compelling. The basic gender distinction at the heart of traditional Judaism comes to seem like a technicality.

It is in the course of this discussion that we come to the matter of women’s beards. The Bible commands that Jews are not permitted to “destroy the corners of your beard.” Exactly what this means is the subject of dispute in the Talmud—the consensus is that shaving is forbidden, but tweezing and trimming with a scissors is permitted. But there is no doubt that it is a prohibition and therefore should apply to men and women equally. Yet the Gemara says that women are not included in this prohibition. Why not?

The first answer the Gemara gives is the obvious one: “If you wish, propose a logical reason, as ordinarily women do not have a beard.” That is, since women can’t grow beards, the rule doesn’t apply to them at all. But the rabbis go on to point out that, in fact, sometimes women do grow facial hair; there is even a baraita stating that “the beard of a woman … is considered like a beard for all matters.” Shouldn’t it follow that, if a woman grows facial hair, she must not destroy it? Once again, it takes some interpretive dexterity to show why women are not included in this prohibition, this time focusing on the singular Hebrew verb in the commandment. Whenever such arguments are employed, I can’t help feeling that the rabbis are arguing ex post facto—that is, they are finding textual reasons to defend what they already believe in as tradition, or simply as common sense. I wonder how differently such arguments might have turned out if there had been women in the study hall to begin with.

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