Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Protecting Daughters - Shabbat 65

One index of how free a particular society or culture or family is would be to look at how it treats its women – specifically, how protective the authorities are over women in different phases of life. In traditional Jewish life, before they were married women were under the authority of their fathers. In some cases, as with the legend mentioned a few days ago that holds that Rashi educated his daughters and taught them to wear tefillin [prayer boxes], paternal permissiveness ruled. In others, restriction was the rule.

Such is the case for a particular anecdote in today’s daf [page]. The Mishnah permits banot [daughters] to go out with threads in their ears, as an allowed ornament in place of an earring to prevent the ear-hole from closing. But Samuel’s father was extra strict: he would not allow his daughters to go out with threads in their ears. He also would not allow them to sleep together, and he went to extra effort to build them mikvaot [ritual baths] and thus facilitate their ritual purity. When it is pointed out that he forbids what the Mishnah explicitly permits, the difference is fudged by saying they had colored threads for their ears, which were more of a temptation to remove and show off. By the way, the same is true of a gold tooth – too tempting to remove to show off and thus carry too far; but a silver tooth is permitted.

And why prevent them from sleeping together? In some passages, it is assumed that women are not sexual beings until they are married, but here there is fear of Rabbi Huna’s saying: “women that commit lewdness with each other are banned from marrying priests” (i.e. not pure virgins as they must be to marry a kohen [priest]). As intriguing as this issue might be for modern sexual identity politics and history, the Talmud explains rather that he was more concerned that they “get used to a strange body.” In modern times in developed countries, sharing a bed, even with one’s loving partner, is a learned process since most have their own beds from childhood – anyone who has fought over the covers or been clocked in the head by a stray elbow knows the experience. In the Talmud, the focus is on preserving daughterly purity; today, we might call learning to share a life skill!

Rabbi Adam Chalom