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.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Women and Commandments - Shabbat 62

As we have seen on other pages, women are treated differently from men when it comes to rabbinic laws. After all, the Mishnah didn’t prohibit a man to leave his house wearing a “golden city” ornament. So when ‘Ulla’s saying that “what is fit for a man is not fit for a woman, and what is fit for a woman is not fit for a man” is brought to bear here, it is meant to claim that something like a signet ring can be simultaneously a “burden” for a woman (and thus not wearable out on Shabbat) and an “ornament” for a man (thus wearable). When one rabbi objects to this double standard for the same object, Rabbi Joseph responds that Ulla meant, “women are a different people.” Wise-crackers today might put it, “it’s like they’re an entirely different species!” And women might say the same about men.

We read here an assumed principle discussed on earlier pages, that women are exempt from all time-specific positive commandments [kol mitzvah aseh sheh-ha-zman gorma nashim p’turot]. In this case, Rabbi Meir argues that since tefillin [prayer boxes] are required both at night and on Shabbat, it is not limited by time and thus incumbent on women. There is a legend that the famous medieval Talmud commentator Rashi taught his daughters to wear tefillin, and a recent novel Rashi’s Daughters: A Novel of Life, Love and Talmud in Medieval France by Maggie Anton takes a romantic (and not too historical, according to a review I read) look at that story. In most traditional communities, however, the principle regarding time-bound positive commandments is invoked to prevent women from publicly reading from the Torah or participating in a minyan [prayer quorum] or reciting kaddish [prayer in honor of the dead].

Today’s page later delves into the gruesome cosmic punishments of Jewish women for being too seductive and haughty, but for us there is a bit of comic relief. How would you interpret the saying, “Three things bring a man to poverty: urinating naked in front of one’s bed, disrespecting washing the hands, and his wife cursing him to his face”? Fortunately, Raba clarifies each of these possibilities. Urinating facing away from the bed or into a chamber pot is acceptable, but on the floor is not. Even washing the hands inadequately is OK, as long as they are washed at all. And the wife’s cursing must be because of her jewelry, and he is only at risk if he has the money but doesn’t provide it. Incontinent slovenly penny-pinchers, beware!

Rabbi Adam Chalom