Tag Archives: Sexism

Parshat Tazria-Metzorah (2013)


Leviticus 12 – 15

Childbirth and the Implications of Purity: Is the Torah Being Sexist?

Mother and InfantThis week we are going to deal with ritual purification of people. This topic spans several seemingly distinct and diverse topics. This section deals with both ritual purity related to childbirth, and ritual purity related to tzaraat – a skin infliction commonly known simply as leprosy in English. It deals with issues of purity (teharah) and impurity impurity (tumah). As you see we deal with the incidental forms of impurity such as childbirth, and the consequential like tzaraat that is a divine punishment for lashon hara (slander). We deal with male childbirth, and female childbirth; and the sacrificial system that was set up for returning one to world of communal ritual after a initial birthing period has passed. It also explains how this happens for the person with tzaraat as well. This week we will mostly deal with the women’s issues.

Now I understand why many people are not so familiar with this section of Torah, except for the references related to gossip and slander. Often times people just skim over the rest in discomfort, over the seeming grossness of it all. I have even noticed in a lot of the commentaries, especially those for the youth, we just pass over this section related to the purity of women all together. Of all the verses that most of the commentaries choose to point out, it is the seemingly oddly placed third verse (see Leviticus 12:3) related to brit mila (circumcision) that we point out. I find this odd considering this is the one verse that our masters like Rashi ignored.

First before I seemingly get too critical, I must remind us that there is almost a logic to why we have done this. Circumcision is the paramount mitzvah, it’s the officiating sign of Abraham’s conversion, and for this reason is called brit milah because it is “the word of the covenant” or the “covenant promise;” milim means words or promises; interestingly it also means chatter or rhetoric. Maybe the topics of slander and purity are not so far off as we make them in our imaginations, but I digress.

As we learn from this section of Torah it is a serious thing that we stop all activities to perform. We take circumcision so seriously that it is nearly a universal custom for all Jews, even for the people who are not born into a religious family. Oddly even for someone who fell off the turnup truck like me, my family knew enough to have me circumcised just in case one day I did decide to be religious; I’m sure most of you from a suburban, secular background get this. Everything stops and we perform brit milah on a boy at eight days old because here in this section of Torah it specifically tells us to:

“On the eighth day

the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”

| Uvayom hashmini

| yimol besar orlato

Leviticus 12:3

From here we derive the custom of preferably performing it on the eighth day, and during the daylight, performing the mitzvah literally b’yom – meaning “on that day.” It is so important of a mitzvah that we rush to perform this on the eighth day even if it coincides with Shabbat! It is not just because the reception of this commandment predates the acceptance of Shabbat as our heritage, it is because this is a direct stipulation of the mitzvah itself as presented here. It stands alone as a positive mitzvah.

Now we should all be asking ourselves, why does it have to be on the eighth day? We can come up with folk logic and anecdotal medical theories as to why, but the truth is that the placement of this mitzvah does show that it is kind of related to the topic of female menstruation which is the first verse of this parsha (see Leviticus 12:1).

And this is why a lot of people don’t discuss it, first on the part of immature men who are too grossed out and oblivious about women’s reproduction to discuss it. It’s not just an issue of being tznius, its more of being squeamish about talking about a woman’s period. On the part of women, it’s because many of them are appalled that the Torah talks about a women’s period in terms of ritual purity; thinking we are talking about cleanliness instead of a state of ritual accountability. I want to remind us we are not talking about cleanliness at all, we are talking about being ritually pure to perform public and religious service, after all we are in Leviticus that concerns itself with priestly order and function more than anything else.

I’m not saying that this only applies to the priestly caste, no it relates to everyone. However this is a place in the Torah where we see the functions of the citizen Israelite and the priests meeting. No really, their obligations don’t just coincide but the priests and the Israelite actually meet up for reason of inspection of their ritual purity at a certain point after their time of separation and immersion in a mikveh. The priest are stated here to be the ones who determine if a person should return to ritual service in all cases; both after a form of “menstruation” which is childbirth (which is just a clumsy way of saying a vaginal discharge), and that of a skin discharge or irruption like tzaraat.

Despite how this looks on the surface, the Torah is not singling out women here. Nor is it degrading them, even though it can be almost seem like it is by some of the simplistic and quaint divrei Torah that men like to give about women’s issues. I’ll admit, there are a few reason that an egalitarian person might find themselves a bit appalled with the traditional take on Torah here. The first reason presented by most females is that the waiting period before returning to the Temple is twice as long if she gives birth to a girl than if one gave birth to a boy, and because the Torah present’s women’s menstruation first when dealing with human purity. Furthermore women’s menstruation is juxtaposing with the description of what makes animals kasher (kosher, meaning appropriate) and their blood.

I have to admit, maybe some men understand more about Jersey cows than women’s reproduction, but the Torah isn’t degrading women to the level of farm animals. Nor is it suggesting that we treat women like a piece of meat. Bodily discharge, as stated and presented throughout this parsha, is obviously an issue for men as well as women; chapter 15 of Leviticus details a mirroring immersion and purification process for a man with a seminal discharge to round out the message.

I have a personal reason why I believe the Torah starts our with women when it discusses human purity. First off, because women are the source of all life. The Torah does present the species of animals in a certain order in the creation story, and it does mirror that when presenting animals in Leviticus; domesticated animals, wild beasts, birds and then lastly the human animal. (see Rashi for Leviticus 12:1) But when it comes to the human animal is starts with the woman first, from whose womb life comes forth. Also, a female discharge be it related to menstruation or childbirth, it is just a matter of nature in the same way being a ritual unclean or not is a matter of nature for an animal. It’s not something they can help, it is natural and not consequential.

And because it is a natural process it is more recurrent, it’s probably logical that we deal with this one first. And also because the issue of female discharge is going to be something that is factored into the reason why we choose the eighth day to circumcise. It’s also going to hold some implications for how this affects the length of the then taharah period.

Though the topic is lengthy I want to try to keep it as simple as possible for us. We start out with the “yamim kimei nidat devotah titma / days of the menstruation period for which she is unclean.” She is unclean for seven days after her discharge, then immerses in a mikveh and at nightfall is ritually pure (tahor) and she is thus no longer tumah (ritually impure). Upon inspection we see that the man’s time of impurity is also seven days. This is always the case.

The reason why the menstruation period is first mentioned and then the circumcision is because we do not delay to rush to perform the mitzvah of brit milah (circumcision). We need the mother and the child with her to be reintroduced to the midst of the camp and dedicated into the community of Israel as soon as possible, and the morning of the eighth day is the first time possible. Both circumcision and naming is on the eighth day when he is presented.

Though this idea seems to hold some merit, one thing it does not answer for us is why the period of tahara is twice as long for the women who gives birth to a girl as it is for a woman who gives birth to a son. Nor does it answer for us why her nidah is also twice as long, being 14 days for a girl instead of 7 days as with a boy.

The period of waiting for a boy is 33 of tehara after 7 days of nidah; combined we get 40 days. I’m sure most of us see so many significance we can draw from that. But I ask us all to remember, she is only unclean for 7 during her nidah period, but after that she has a state of blood-purity (tehara) for an additional 33 days for a boy. For a girl however the additional days of tehara is 66 days; combined with 14 days nidah comes to 80. It rounds them for one to be exactly double of the other.

But notice it does not say that she is unclean, no she is in a state of purity (tehara), so even if blood (or spotting) emerges from her she is considered pure. Thus if this occurs she is not forced to dwell outside of the camp as a quarantined person, like one recovering from a physical affliction. True, she is not permitted to bring an offering yet until after her tehara period has passed, even though she is already considered clean and back in her own home.

And this is what the command is primary about, namely to give a mother time to bond with her child. Though a woman is returned to the comfort of the community, she is not demanded to return to the regular tasks of daily life. This is made clear to us by the words stating that she should not touch “kodesh,” meaning she should not eat of the holy donations or offerings of the Temple, nor should she enter into the holy Sanctuary. Though this offers an extended break from returning to the burdens of life for all new mothers, it is especially so for the Levite mothers by not requiring them to be active in the mechanism of Temple worship until after a time of rest.

For just a moment I would like us to consider the generations of Jewish mothers and the rebbetzins of our communities. Too often we consider the work of the rabbis and spiritual leaders, but forget the equal contribution that has been made by their partners. More often than not we get a two for one deal, by receiving not only a shliach but also gaining an equally dedicated partner along with them. Most often these are the people who plan our events, provide the elaborate onegs and simchas, work as educators, organize charity work, perform counseling and engage in the visiting of the sick, and a myriad of other tasks that people assume just happen on their own. Many times people think of the women contributors of our communities like we do the female Levites in this story, we fail to see the contribution they make because we perceive of their job of being present in the Sanctuary in order to consume the kodesh only as a privilege, but not for the truly demanding responsibility that it is. We fail to see all the background work and demands that come with it.

The Torah thus prescribes a forty-day rest for a mother after she gives birth to son and eighty days after giving birth to a daughter. In order to allow a time of rest, providing the mother her space to bond with the child and to recuperate both physically and emotionally. This also relieves her of the requirement to be examined by the priest for a question of ritual uncleanliness until after this resting period, which intern releases her from any type of concerns that would subject her to being set outside the camp for any reason.

It is true that our parsha does have one seeming inequality to it, something that almost can’t be helped giving the culture during the age of the Bible. The Torah through this command does show a great concern with introducing the male child quicker to the world of Jewish ritual than it does with females. Though a circumcision does not require one to go to the Temple, it can and will be performed literally anywhere and on any day of the week that the eighth day falls on; special considerations of ritual cleanliness would not play here. But it does for instances of a first-born male, which should be redeemed by the priests (traditionally done anytime after 31 days after birth). Our Torah does give preference that a male child should be able to be introduced to the full religious community as early as 40 days after the birth of the boy.

Though the period is extended to 80 days for the birth of a female. However even in this inequality the Torah appears to me to show a certain sense of tenderness. It seems to me to extend the period of assumed “blood cleanliness” and suspends health inspections of the mother and her daughter, as logic dictates that this would be more true in the cause of females (who are prone to spotting).

However I think it goes a bit deeper. I believe the reason for allowing a double portion of rest for the mother who gives birth to a daughter is because our Torah understands the unique bond between a mother and daughter that should not be so rushed. A mother should not be so quickly rushed away from the bedside of a daughter that she uniquely relates to through empathy and a unique form of consanguinity.

Whereas our parsha fails to deliver in “equality,” it does something touching in asking up to give twice as much chesed (kindness) to the females in our lives.

Advertisements

Parshat Va’etchanan (2012)


Parshat Va’etchanan
Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

The Formlessness of our G-d: Not Making G-d in Our Image

I’m always fascinated by the discussion about what it means to be made in the image of G-d, as described in the creation story of Genesis. There we see the term used b’tzelem Elohim – that we are like an approximate copy or projection of the Divine; like a shadow, or a traced copy (צל; tzel). We are not exactly like G-d, say anatomically, but we are reflections of the Divine Nature. G-d is incorporeal and above any physical likeness, therefore we cannot say that we are exactly like Him. It’s very important that we remember this or else we get caught up in a simplistic way of thinking, where tzelem takes on another meaning in the depths of our minds even if we don’t know it; that of an idol. (צֶלֶם).

Here near the start of Moses’ final declarations being documented here in Deuteronomy he begins to give his final summary of their experiences in order that they reflect upon the lessons that they have learned. Right away he pauses and explicitly goes into detail regarding one notorious occurrence, that of the giving of Ten Commandments. He reminds of how G-d gave us the Torah:

And Hashem spoke to you

from out of the fire

you heard the sound of words

but saw no form,

there was only a voice.”

| Vayedaber Hashem aleichem

| mitoch ha’esh

| kol devarim atem shom’im

| utmunah einechem ro’im

| zulati kol

Deuteronomy 4:12

Then Moses begins to talk about the paramount moment of the giving of the “Aseret haDivrot / The Ten Commandments;” or as the Torah explicitly calls them here, the “Aseret haDevarim / The Ten Words,” or the ten sayings. (v. 13). Moses defines his mission to Israel as teaching them how to follow these laws and rules for when they cross over into the Promised Land they can live by them. (v.14)

But then here he circles back to deal with one point again. Moses says:

Watch yourself very well,

for you did not see

any type of image

on that day that Hashem spoke to you

at Horeb from out of the fire,

lest you become corrupt

and make you

an image that depicts the form of a figure,

[do not make] a form in the image of

a male or a female…”

| Venishmartem me’od

| lenafshoteichem ki lo re’item

| kol-temunah

| beyom diber Hashem aleichem

| beChorev mitoch ha’esh

| Pen-tashchitun

| va’asitem lachem

| pesel tmunat kol-samel

| tavnit

| zachar o nekevah…

Deuteronomy 4:16

I like most people begin to trail off at this point because we all know where this is going. Moses explains that we are not to make any icon in the image of an animal, bird, of things that prowl and swarm on land (creeping-things), or even fish of the sea. (v.17-18). Interestingly the only thing that is left out from this type of prohibition is the making of the form of angels and cherubs; but only by means of omission. (see Parshat Chukat 2012)

Quite honestly for the most part we as modern people don’t have a problem with the latter part of this prohibition. Iconography is something that is foreign to all but the most primitive of people. Even our modern experiences of outright object veneration is considered merely symbolic and has most often been embraced as some sort of revivalism of ancient pagan ways. Modern people just don’t worship any form of animal or beast.

But us modern people should not feel less convicted by this call to pure and depiction-less worship. If anything, more so. We are so advanced in our thinking we seem to realize the role that we play in the “animal world,” but still in this respect we seem to exclude ourselves. Most of us think it foolish for a person to worship a cow for instance, or a bird. We can clearly see that is not divine, and that the concept of deity transcends any single form or representation in creation. But many of seem to have no problem with imaging the Divine in the form of humans; after our own likeness, in the form of the human animal.

I don’t want to drivel on with too much philosophy, our great teachers such as the Rambam wrote extensively on the subject of the almost iconoclastic call of Judaism, one that only sees parallels in the Islamic empire of his age. I can not do justice to his great way of describing it through his body of work. Ones in which he greatly stresses those shared beliefs that we have with Islam, that G-d is above depiction and that even the use of anthropomorphisms are a compromise of the transcendence of the Divine Nature.

Sure we often have to use mundane and human terms when trying to explain G-d, but fully with the understanding that G-d is not a person and that we are at best estimating in terms we can relate to. But that’s it. We try to be careful to keep that understanding because if we stray too far we may begin to think that we understand the mind of G-d. We can begin to think that G-d thinks and acts like us.

People want a G-d they can relate to. So we use approximations, but they are bad descriptions of G-d’s nature. He is above being mad or angry; above being pleased or happy even. G-d is transcendent above all. But in order for us to understand sometimes the scripture have to use these types of terms to get the point across, using feelings and ways of relating we all have in us.

The problem arises when we try to think that we understand the way G-d “thinks” or “feels” by reason of deduction in own mindset and sentiments. We project our likeness on to G-d. And that’s really what it is often times, people who think they have the mind of G-d just find a lot of ways saying G-d thinks like them. And that is utterly ridiculous, and we need to avoid such tendencies. Besides it’s just odd for us to do so anyhow.

For example, many years ago I worked for the Reformed Jewish movement in America. Our interim-director at the time was someone who was quite a feminist. Even though I was Orthodox, I didn’t have problems with her feminism. But what I did find odd was that when leading in the liturgy one at an event she changed the liturgy of Psalm 136; “Thank the L-rd for He is good,” then she changed the well-known response to, “for Her kindness endures forever;” exchanging the masculine of the text to the feminine back and forth. The older people looked at each other with a look of, “Oh how interesting.” Us few younger people looked at each other like, “That’s really lame.”

In a way we all could understand why she did that. We were all Americans, and we understood the statement that she was making. We all grew up in a pseudo-Christian America where G-d is understood as an old man. I emphasize man, because the image of G-d as Father to us all is not just symbolic but quite literal to people in this nation. The Almighty is the father of their god, and thus their idea of G-d is a male with all the trappings that entails. Only recently have some of the brave in their ranks begun to embrace and teach upon the female-like characteristics of the Divine. The “sacred feminine” was purposefully excluded. Not just merely for their theological convenience, but also to accommodate the sexism of the age we were raised.

However inclusive her intentions were, it showed a childish compromise of our tradition on her part. You see, her attitudes in having to utilize this unusual and almost provocative wording were reactionary to an immature concept of Deity on the part of our host society. Her way of reacting to that was with a response that was just as childish, stepping away from thousands of years of understanding G-d and the godliness of Elohim as being above gender and therefore utilizing the Hebrew masculine, plural; which is normative for things that are of genderless or in crowds of mixed genders. G-d is not man or woman, therefore we use a term that is above that, a lofty tense that holds the weight of both. Her engendering of G-d seemed to most people to fall short of that lofty concept. It seemed silly in the company of obviously dedicated religious intellectuals, in an age where embracing of Hebrew was so normative even in the far-liberal circles that the language change seemed more like a gimmick and projection of her own psychological need to have a G-d she could relate to by making it out to be like her. Mostly because such a sentiment was typical for people of her persuasion in that respect, that if G-d could not be like her then she didn’t want to have any part of it.

One should understand that why this is silly to people like me is because we have already seen this in our history. In fact going on throughout the history of the Jewish people in the Tanach we are going to see other competitive expressions of deity arising many times. One of the most infamous would be the Ashtarot; the chief goddess of the bronze age in the middle-east, her name being in the feminine, plural; as opposed to our G-d who is the masculine plural, though gender inclusive. The reason is quite clear if we understand who she was, in that she was responsible for restraining the wrath of the male god Baal who was lower in the pantheon. She was the ancients response to a harsh patriarchal system. But she, would be a female that would come with all their cultural hangups of gender in the end, and would find herself competing time and time again with male challengers for the lead of the pantheon of gods. Continuously in successive generations the battle would go back and forth between the male gods that were warlike and disciplinarian; and the female gods that were compassionate symbols of fertility, but overbearing and volatile. The people’s leanings would swing back and forth as they became tired of one extreme and would default back to the other again.

But here in this parsha Moses points out that a central purpose of this giving of Torah was to liberate us from this type of foolish constraints upon our understanding of G-d by limiting the Divine into any form. G-d is nothing, He is not one thing; and at the same time He is everything; all things in creation are reflections of G-d’s nature, but G-d is not like any one thing alone. We cannot study and try to pattern the behavior of the Divine like we are watching a subject on Animal Planet. We can’t try or claim to understand G-d’s mind and motivation like people try to with a mouse in a maze study.

We cannot not limit G-d, as the Divine is bigger and more than we can ever comprehend or describe. G-d is the Encompassing-All, everything exists in Him and through His will alone; even though “He” isn’t a complete description without qualification of its gender inclusiveness in our Hebrew language and mindset. This need of rising to this higher understanding is not just so we can have a mature idea of G-d, but also so that G-d can be more mature than the trappings of petty human characteristics in our own mind as well. If we can’t do that, the inevitable result is that we start projecting more and more of our own qualities and fickleness upon G-d. That is just as much an idol as limiting G-d in the form of a mamash beheima – an actual animal.

Related Articles:


Parshat Pinchas (2012)


Parshat Pinchas (2012)
Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

The Cost of Leadership: Having to take it up with your Higher Authority

Confused JudgeWhat is the cost of leadership? What type of price does someone need to pay in order to be in charge. It goes without saying that most people would not mind being a person of greater importance. Being ambitious is a good thing. Most people wouldn’t mind being the boss, with all the benefits and privileges that comes with leadership. “Being in Charge” is really attractive to most people. People always seem to think that it means that you have no one to answer to, until you find yourself being “The Decider.”

That’s not to say that everyone is ambitious for power. As we learn Moses was more humble than any man on the face of the earth (see Numbers 12:3). In fact he showed great resistance to taking on leadership (see Exodus 4:10-17). But it becomes apparent to us as we go on through the exodus story that Moses does actually grow into his job. In time he would take responsibility for the governance of Israel and hearing all the cases of the Israelites.

But as we learned along the way, this was not the ideal. Moses was challenged by his father-in-law Yitro to delegate responsibility because he could not do it all himself. (see Parshat Yitro, and Parshat Shoftim) Thus the cases were heard by tribal leaders and elders who served as judges. But if something was too hard for them to figure out it was to be brought to Moses. (see Deut. 1:17)

Here in this parsha we see one of these situations arise, where a case was appealed to Moses as an ultimate authority to rule on a subject. Starting with Numbers chapter 27 we see that five daughters of Tzel’ofechad, of the Tribe of Menasheh, descendant of Yoseph haTzadik (Joseph the Righteous), brought a case to be settled. Up until now the camps and corresponding land allotments are being given according to one’s paternal lineage; from father to son exclusively.

Among the few exceptions that were not accounted for out of all the families that were recorded in the census at the beginning of this book were the families of those who perished with Korach and his rebellion, therefore there were no living heirs. The other exception was the allotment to Yehoshuah and Kelev (Joshua and Caleb, the spies) who were given their choicest lands as a reward for their upstandingness instead of by lot (see Numbers 26:55; with Rashi; and corresponding references to Judges 1:20 and Joshua 19:49-51).

We find out that these five daughters who brought their case to Moses were the only living descendants of their father. Though their father had perished in the desert, his death was unique from the others in that he had not be in rebellion. His daughters stood before Moses and all the authorities and made their case that their father died of some sort of private sin, but it was not for incitement or rebellion. We don’t know why exactly, but our sages suggest everything for violating Shabbat or approaching Sinai when it was unsafe to do so, and therefore he died. The fact that their father was not a rebel was obvious from the fact that they were alive, whereas rebels and their kin had all previously perished (see Parshat Korach).

These women contended the only reason they were being excluded from the land allotments was because their father died without having any sons. Furthermore, they contended his error had nothing to do with them. Even yet, his sin to some could be considered a transgression based on ignorance which caused him to die in an untimely manner. Their father might have had his faults for which he paid ultimately for, but that didn’t warrant that his name should be forgotten and his descendants treated like they didn’t exist.

There was no remedy for them. An examples would have been the leverite marriage; someone closely related could have married them to help them keep their property. But no one stepped up to the call here, and this wasn’t their fault. Therefore they demanded a remedy. (Numbers 27:1-4).

The parsha (at the end of the third aliyah reading) reads as follows:

“And Moses brought their case

before Hashem.”

| Vayakrev Moshe et-mishpatan

| lifnei Hashem

Numbers 27:5

Rashi makes the most ingesting commentary regarding this verse:

So Moses brought their case:

The law eluded him,

and here he was paying

for crowning himself [with authority]

by saying:

‘and the case that is too difficult for you,

bring to me’ (Deut. 1:17)”

ויקרב משה את משפטן: |

נתעלמה הלכה ממנו |

וכאן נפרע |

על שנטל עטרה |

לומר: |

והדבר אשר יקשה מכם |

תקריבון אלי |

Rashi on Numbers 27:5

Surely other people had died in such careless ways as the father of these women, but the uniqueness of the situation was that there was no other living male in this case to help them. And even more unique, is all of these women were very wise and bold enough to adequately make their case before Moses and the elders. It had been appealed all the way to him to settle.

Keep in mind this wasn’t the first case of inheritance rights that was being brought to him to settle, we saw the case of the half-Egyptian Israelite earlier where he did appeal, but his claim was rejected and it resulted in a great crisis in their midst. The half-Egyptian flew off the handle and so it went no further, because he was so mad he cursed G-d and then died. (see Parshat Emor) These women also strongly presented their claim, yet they honorably made their case and so it stood to demanded a response.

So here arises this case. This time even more complicated, not a son, but daughters. And their claim seemed valid. It could not be so easily dismissed. So what does Moses do in response? He decides to bring the issue before G-d.

There are a few things we lead from Rashi’s commentary. The first is that this was something that Moses had not considered before. He didn’t think of mentioning such a situation in his previous instructions, only recognizing the rights of male-to-male relative inheritance. He didn’t possess an answer to remedy this situation. Moses was stumped.

Now it is true that Mosheh Rabbeninu – Moses our Teacher – as the author of our tradition, was the teacher par-excellence who understood Torah more so that any other person. But here it is admitted that something eluded him. This is not surprising to us Jews. Moses is not an oracle or avatar, he was a mere man who was limited in ability and understanding just like any individual. This is not so surprising for me to see this revealed in these scriptures

What is amazing to me is that Moses actually admits that this issues is beyond his compressions. He does what few people of high authority do; after struggling with the issue he admits that he doesn’t know the answer and he does not do anything until he consults G-d on it. This is yet another sign of his great humility.

Yet there is something more that amazes me still about Rashi’s commentary. He states that Moses “nefshar,” meaning that here he was paying the price. What was he paying the price for? For taking the “crown” of authority. He had previously said that if there was any issue that was too hard for the people then it should be brought to him, and here he was being called on to follow through.

And herein comes our lesson about authority and leadership. Everyone wants to be the king of the hill. It looks so easy to wear the crown. By “crown” we are being symbolic. But here in the biblical age it is quite literal. For the most part authority laid in the hands of monarchs. Even in Israel’s case, at this point in history they are without a monarchy and nobility, but the honored people of their tribes are still refereed to a princes. (see Numbers 1:16; Parshat BeMidbar) That is how much respect they commanded. But above them all was Moses, the final authority. We was the Commander-in-Chief; as they say, it appears that the buck stopped here.

Want to see the cost of leadership? Sometimes it’ written all over the faces of those in charge.

For a moment I would like us to consider our own leaders today, my friend. For a moment let us just consider our politicians and government officials. One of the most remarkable observations most of us have about leadership, being in a modern world where we are accustomed to seeing our leaders regularly, is how quickly they age when they get to the top off the ladder. The media loves to discuss how quickly we age our Presidents. The responsibility is so weighing upon them that is clearly evident to us that the burden they shoulder wears on them to the point that its prematurely ages them in dramatic ways. Being the boss isn’t as cozy and easy as it seems. They are people who we turn to in order to provide solutions to us for the really hard decisions. Such responsibility takes its mental and physical toll. This is the cost of leadership.

Let us consider the case again for a second, and try to understand what make it so perplexing to Moses. These daughters of Tzel’ofechad are not just being difficult women. They aren’t there to just nag him. Their problem is very pressing. The nation is going to ascend into the Land and they are going to be left homeless unless a situation is found for them. Moses’ instructions regarding inheritance seemed clear and easy enough to understand, there was very little ambiguity regarding it, but it did not address their needs. It was unthinkable that they should be left without remedy. Upon hearing their case and considering the real injustice in this matter if left unsettled, Moses appeals to G-d to give him the answer that is escaping him.

Again I want us to remember the situation of the half-Egyptian (in Parshat Emor). A remedy was not found for this man thus it led to blasphemy of the Name of G-d, and subsequently the man’s death. It appears to me that in light of this situation, when once again called to rule on an issue of inheritance, especially on an issue that was sorely neglected from his policy, Moses not only felt like he had to hear out their issue but he also seemed to feel the urgency of having to find a real answer. Their livelihood depended on it. He would not allow the children of Israel to stand back aloof once again; unbending, unresolved; and leaving these women in ruin.

Now despite all Moses’ wisdom this issue was beyond his ability to decide on his own. We should also keep in mind that this is a dramatic switch in inheritance rights in an age where women are ordinarily given no regard at all. Any change in policy would be a big deal, with huge societal consequence. In Moses’ humility he does not think himself wise enough to decide alone, and thus brings it to G-d to decide.

Of course we learn that G-d responds to Moses’ petition on this matter. G-d says that in this case “Ken benot Tzel’ofechad dovrot / the daughters of Tzel’ofechad spoke correctly,” and thus G-d commanded the transfer their father’s property to them (v.7). Our tradition says that it is said intensely and with great “evrah,” or anger or wrath on the part of G-d for the situation of these women. (Rashi on v.7)

Hashem therefore instructed that from then on any daughter of Israel may inherit their father’s property. Practically what this means is any woman who has no left her father’s household may retain it as her own property in his passing as inheritor. However, it is not to be transferred to another clan, say if she were to remarry. It was already the case that land and tribal holdings remain in the tribe, not to transfer forever to another; this law previously understood to apply to mere sales. Now in around about way it’s extending this law even to this situation, while allowing provision for a maiden to maintain her home and lifestyle should she not marry into another family. If this were to happen, then the father’s male relatives would inherit the property and keep it in trust for the tribe. Likewise, if a man was without any daughters as well as sons, then it would follow the regular method and likewise go to the nearest male relative. (v.8-11) Thus a legal remedy was found.

As we consider this weeks parsha, and we consider all the responsibilities and positions of authority in which we may find ourselves accountable for, I would hope that we would come away taking to heart the example of Moses. When people turn to us for help we should do everything that we can to provide the assistance and guidance they need. We should not just ignore their problem, thinking ourselves so smart and so important that we should not be questioned and further appealed to when our answers don’t seem to fit so nicely. We should not just harshly hold on to what we think we already know about something, but hear a person out regarding their situation. And if we do, we might find that we have don’t really have all the answers after all. The situation might not be as cut-and-dry as we expect.

We need to listen and really consider things. How could Moses have taken this issue to G-d if he hadn’t first listen enough to comprehend their concerns and adequately present their case to Hashem?

And the greatest lesson of all is that we should not just rely on our own understanding and impulses regarding something. We should take it to G-d, and continue to seek His guidance and understanding until we do understand and find a solution. This is not just a good idea. This is the cost of leadership. The weight of this crown his heavy; the cost of it is very great. If listening to people intently and giving heavy reflection was necessary for Moses, how much more is it necessary for us simpletons?

Something To Think About:

In the Jewish tradition we refer to the Torah as “Zot haTorah asher sam Mosheh lifnei bnei Yisrael; al-pi Hashem b’yad Mosheh / This is the Torah that was set before the children of Israel; upon the command of Hashem, by the hand of Moses.” This is said during the Hagbah – the lifting of the Torah for all to witness; in Ashkenazi tradition this is after the reading; it is composed of two verses, Deuteronomy 4:44 and Numbers 9:23; in the Sephardi tradition this is said before the reading, though interchanging the latter verse with Deuteronomy 33:4 instead, continuing with the words “Torah tzivah lanu Mosheh morasha kehilat Yaakov / the Torah which Moses commanded us, as a heritage for the congregation of Yaakov”. Traditionally people understand this as meaning that the Torah was written by Moses.

Whether or not Moses physically wrote the Torah in our tradition is something we almost consider irrelevant. We recognize that almost all of our tradition was mostly oral at one point. When we say “b’yad” (Heb. “by the hand of”) we don’t always necessarily mean that a person physically wrote something out themselves, but that it was “handed down” from them. Some of our tradition was written, some of it was oral for a great deal of our history. But either way we consider it coming from Moses because he had a hand in the decision-making and demonstration of these truths.

If we return to the commentary of Rashi we have a very interesting statement being made regarding our original verse we discussed in Numbers 27:5. The continuing commentary reads as follows:

“Another interpretation is

it was proper that this affair

be written down by the hand of Moses

but the daughters of Tzel’ofechad won [their case]

and so it was written in by them.”

דבר אחר |

ראויה היתה פרשה זו |

להכתב על ידי משה, |

אלא שזכו בנות צלפחד |

ונכתבה על ידן: |

Rashi on Numbers 27:5

What do we mean by this? There is something unusual about the verse. It does look quite out-of-place because it actually refers to Moses in the third-person; “and Moses brought their case…” How can this be if this is “written” by Moses. This seems like another interesting fluke akin to when the scriptures say Moses is the humblest of men; would Moses really speak of himself in this manner? I don’t know. But to me it’s still irrelevant to debate if Moses was the physical scribe.

However this question is kind of interesting to contemplate, because if we say that this phrase means Moses wrote out the Torah himself, are we saying here in this verse that these five Israelite daughters wrote this passage into the Torah themselves “al yadin / by their own hand?” Most likely not, but it doesn’t matter if they did or didn’t anyhow. The truth is had they not raised this issue before Moses and the elders to bring before G-d it would have never been documented in the Torah at all. Their veracity and wisdom regarding this matter makes it as good as if it was written by them, because without their insight this would have never have been mentioned and resolved at all. Through these five women a whole new insight into Torah was handed down for the benefit of all Israel. They “wrote” a new chapter in Jewish history.

Related Articles:


Parshat Matot (2011)


Parshat Matot
Numbers 30:2–32:42

All About Vows, Not All About Women

 Getting Up to Speed: How we got here

Our parsha begins with instruction that is given to the tribal heads of Israel, to the leaders of the clans. Remember in last weeks parsha I pointed out that much of the drama in the story of Parshat Pinchas  was related to the tribal heads not doing their jobs to discipline their own families, and letting the actions get out of hand until a plague began to engulf the people. We read how they are told to remedy the situation, but disaster is instead diverted by a striking act of zealotry by Pinchas the priest. (see Parshat Pinchas 2011)

A Whole Chapter That Turns Talmudic

This whole first chapter of our pasha is going to concern one single command, so it must be pretty important. Everyone important is there, and it has an important tone. This parsha opens up with giving a directive that it states in very direct and clear terms as “zeh hadavar asher tzuah Hashem / this is the thing that Hashem has commanded.” (Numbers 30:2)

Now this command has to be spoken about in such definitive terms because it’s going to talk about issues of gender and shake things up in a way that is pretty revolutionary for the time. Not that talking about these issues doesn’t raise a stir even at this point in history. I’m not ignorant, I personally know a few feminists rabbis that are going to give blood curdling speeches about how the Hebrew scriptures spew sexism and some will even go as far as suggest we should rip pages out of the sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) in objection. I’m against sexism, as much as anyone else. There is no room for it in Torah-true living. But expunging our true historic development and not putting things into a broader perspective is just intellectually dishonest. Besides, if we are going to keep this Torah we need to learn to read it other ways and give up our rigidness; this isn’t new, this is how traditional Judaism deals with advancement.

What do I mean by look at it in a broader perspective? Well, why do we not apply the rules of logic that we utilize with the Torah – namely Talmud, the oral Torah – to the text here. I say this because here is the assembly of all the elders of Israel both small and great, and they are being given commands and it is being discussed in much the same manner we do in the sanheidrin before a body of leaders. Many people who are not traditional or not Jewish might lose interest at this point because they can easily dismiss the Talmud on the basis of the various opinions concerning details of Jewish law and say that something so varying cannot be something divinely sanctioned; because it has to be black and white. But what many people miss about applying Talmudic legal thinking is that there is so much that is said in the silence of the discussion on certain elements. The real treasure of the Talmud is that it doesn’t insult the intelligence of a person by arguing the agreed upon, only the variances of the application of what is agreed upon. This might be a bit confusing so let me give you and example using our parsha and this mitzvah.

As our text opens we are given a concrete and certain idea to consider, verse 3 reads:

“A man who makes a vow to Hashem

or swears an oath to restrict himself with

upon his self

he shall not break his word,

all that comes out of his mouth he shall do.”

| Ish ki-yidor neder l’Hashem

| o-hishava shvu’ah lesor isar

| al-nafsho

| lo yachel d’varo

| kechol-hayotze mipiv ya’aseh

Numbers 30:3

We are shown here that a person is able to make a vow to G-d, or swear to anything of his own volition. Now what do we mean by a vow? The word used is neder, it means to make a promise. Neder is also the name of certain type of sacrifice, it is a sacrifice that is to be made in the Temple to honor that vow. Basically how it works is someone make a promise for anything and when it comes through they will offer a sacrifice to G-d.

The other option is to assar, or to make an oath; literally it means to forbid. It is along the same lines as the neder promise, but is characterized by including a promise to deprive oneself of a certain thing until a certain time or a certain occurrence takes place.

Now its true the word ish can mean person, not just man. It often means man in the general sense. For me this would be good enough, a person is able to make a vow and they should keep it. But here it really does mean man.

And this is where the gauntlet falls, now the text is going to go into specifying details regarding the application of the vows and oaths by means of examples. Now for those of you who say that Talmud is the only book to knit-pick, this is where the oral and written Torahs show they really are two halves to a whole. The text if very detailed, but for the sake of time I will quickly explain the examples it lays out for us:

  • If a woman (ishah) makes a vow or an oath while she is still a minor in her father’s house, and he does not say anything in objection to it then her vow is valid and she is obligated. But a father may invalidate her vow on the day he hears of it (or as some say, if he hears of it on that day). If the father intervenes in such a way G-d will forgive her because her father has restricted her. (verses 4-6)
  • What happens if the father has not invalidated the vow that she made while as a person of his household and she then gets married? We see that on the day the husband hears of the vow he may invalidate it. And because he has restricted her G-d will forgive her. (verses 7-9)
  • Then it gives us the example of a widow or divorced woman, anything she prohibits herself of by an oath she is obligated to uphold. (verse 10)
  • Now finally, the vows and oaths of a woman who is married; if a woman makes a vow or oath and the husband does not object then her promises are valid. However, if he objects then anything that comes out of her mouth is invalid, and G-d will forgive her because her husband restricted her. This is pretty much the same as a girl with a father. (verses 11-13)

And that’s the point that hurts many of the feminists, and I’m not going to try to limit the pain people feel in that they see that women historically were often treated like property transferred from father to husband. And I will politely listen as people in their pain say “this isn’t fair that men were able to interfere in the decisions of women from birth to death.” But this isn’t exactly true.

Notice there is one category of women that cannot have their vows and oaths overruled here, that is the widow and the divorcée. It is this third category that is going to show us the reason why involvement is and isn’t allowed. On the surface it may seem like an issue of respect as to why this is different for a formerly married woman, you don’t ask a person who has become a “lady” in her own right to have to be monitored by someone else so she is thus exempt.

But if we think about it logically we see a very sublime reason; all the other class of women their vows and oaths effect someone else. As a “minor” or as a wife making promises of offerings at the Temple is obligating her father or husband to pay up, of course he should be allowed to have a say in the matter. For a father, say for example he has a child that takes upon themselves extreme fasting as their vow (a quite common one by the way) the father can not only object, but his objection also pardons the child from being held accountable by G-d if they don’t follow through and it’s just a fad. Another one I have even seen among religious people who have gone off the deep end is that they fast too much and they forget to feed their children because they don’t eat themselves; a husband has a right to say, no this isn’t okay and it has to stop, and G-d will forgive her for breaking the vow. And this is the common theme that goes on is that G-d will forgive these women if someone steps in. And of course following G-d’s example, these men should forgive these women.

Bottom Line: Women Can Make Vows and Oaths

But before anyone gets hurt feelings I want us to step back for a minute and look at this in its entirety, the Talmudic way. What do we again see that is common factor about all of this as well? At this point in history it’s hard for us to see what some people saw so clearly then, and even then its very cleaver how we are distracted with the fine points that men and women both miss the main point.

We open up with men being given the right to make vows and oaths. These vows can be made at any time, and in any place. One does not need prior permission or an intermediary. There is no limitations as to why a person may vow, and as we see it can be a vow to G-d or an oath to restrict oneself.

What we learn of the women is that the same is true for her, except that a women who is in the house of her father or husband may have her vows annulled. Let me spell that out for you, the Torah is fast talking past the point that it is doing something that is almost unthinkable in this point in history by giving women the ability to make vows and oaths, saying they do not need prior permission or the sanction of state or priest. They can make them at any time and any place. For what ever reason they may make a vow or oath. Yes, there is one restriction, but they are given the ability nonetheless and it is wholly valid and ordered by G-d that they have that right.

But the nature of the situation when it comes to vows is that they usually entail someone promising something impressive and great. But most often these days it’s a serious self-restriction or deprivation that one vows to their own self.

Historically, making oaths like this were very common at that point in history. People made oaths for everything. Sometimes, in formal circles people made oaths just out of the blue to impress theirs guests; I know it sounds childish and it is. It was a colloquial way of exaggerating that made it impossible for people to really put trust in promises. People didn’t know when someone was telling the truth our just speaking to make themselves look good.

But most often, like in the lives of so many mothers, there were the oaths made under pressure; oaths for divine intervention. Vows that are made at an ill child’s bedside, or when one gets a tragic message from a family member (G-d forbid such things). And this is the reason some of our sages hold as to why this clause allows that a woman’s oaths can be annulled, because as an example women like mothers often dealt with the real disasters that befell the family. If the children went hungry, if someone was sick in the family, if the bill collectors were bugging all day, it was mom that was going to have to deal with real anguish and be most prone to make vows of desperation. Someone had to be able to step in and remind her she is making way too big of a promise.

So our chapter sums it up by giving us a display of the endgame, what it looks like when all applied:

“All vows and oaths

of a restrictive oath that embitters the soul

her husband can uphold them

and her husband may annul it”

| Kol-neder vechol-shvu’at

| isar le’anot nafesh

| ishah yekimenu

| ve’ishah yeferenu.

Numbers 30:15

And here is where we again get our idea reaffirmed, these types of vows are ones that embitter the soul and deprive the person. This is a key and central line, we are talking about people making vows that restrict a person and makes their life miserable in a way to try to atone or show devotion.

Now bear with me for a minute as I hope to tie this together for you. I will be one of the first to admit to my feminist friends, the bible is not equal when it comes to gender inclusion. In fact it doesn’t mention women for the most part unless it really has to. This we can all agree on, right? And if the bible was using it’s normal tone, if it was talking about the responsibilities of a minor it would normally mention a son. If we were talking about the honor of the family it would normally talk about the husband, not the wife. But it is my opinion this chapter uses general terms for relating to people because its making a point, not talking about specific people or genders. Look at the words it uses: ish (man), ishah (woman); ishah (wife), ish (husband); ishah (her husband). The meaning only becomes apparent when we consider each term in connection to the relationships and roles of each person described.

I am of the opinion this is applying a principal by example and parable. The reason it uses the example of a daughter and a wife is because these people cannot be misconstrued as “autonomous” people, whose decisions and vows have no consequence on the rest of the family. This is just an example taken to its most extreme but logical end, using the best appropriate examples. All our rabbis agree this is an example of something, and I agree; just stating that the principal is greater than the puppet examples used in this presentation.

If we look at it from this perspective this chapter takes on a way different meaning, and it holds a real world application that we can utilize today in order to keep this mitzvah. Let me explain in conclusion.

Keeping Silent Means Affirming a Vow

One of the first things we are told in our parsha, when the example is a daughter, is that if the father stays silent upon hearing her vow then she is bound by it. Why, because he is tacitly agreeing to the vow; by his silence he is implying that he approves and agrees with the vow. The same is in the case of a married woman, our text summarizes this principle:

“And if the husband remains silent

from day to day

he will have let all her vows stand

or any oath upon her he will have upheld

because he kept silent on the day he heard.”

| Ve’im-hacharesh yacharish lah ishah

| miyom el-yom

| vehekim et-kol-nedareiha

| o et-kol-esareiha asher aleiha hekim otam

| ki-hecherish lah beyom shom’o.

Numbers 30:15

I don’t know how I can stress this but the word above, hekim which bears the meaning “to let stand,” to sustain, or uphold, also means to establish as well. By keeping silent it is as though he is making this promise himself. He is considered in agreement. Day after day if he watches the suffering of the vow and doesn’t object, of course he agrees because any decent person would say “enough is enough, this really isn’t necessary.”

Let us consider the nature of promises here. As I had pointed out in the beginning, vows and oaths can be made towards G-d or towards ones self. What ever they are, they are a way of us causing bitterness to ourselves. In this day and age, because people don’t often give the appropriate consideration of G-d they think they don’t have to worry about vows. They can’t see all the vows and oaths they make to themselves and upon themselves, ones that embitter their lives. These vows are also vows made in desperation, and often times they are vows to not do that again, or not feel that way again, to not act that way anymore, etc. A broken heart promises not to love again. An obese person promises not to eat that anymore. These type of things are vows too, ones often made out of emotion and which one cannot possibly keep.

And there are some vows in which we should not ever have to keep. For a moment I want to bring our attention to another example in the Tanach when comes to vows. We are at the end of Mosheh’s leadership and they are about to move into the age of the judges. During this period there was the infamous story of Yiftach (Jephtha) in Judges chapters 10-11. Most of us will know the story, he vows that if G-d will give him victory in war he will sacrifice the first thing that comes to meet him when he returns home. It turns out his most beloved daughter came out to great him. Of course she wasn’t sacrificed like an animal, our tradition tells us she became a monastic virgin because human sacrifice is forbidden by Torah; but that’s besides the point, vows of chastity are considered cruel and merit-less in our culture where G-d calls us to be fruitful and understands it’s not good for us to be alone. The father is rightfully harshly criticized for not breaking his vow, as he could have just repented for his wrong. But instead he holds to his vow because he made a promise and he can’t go back on it (Judges 10:31). Mostly because he wanted to save face, to keep his honor. Surprisingly, many of our sages even go as so far as to criticize the daughter as well because she agreed in the end to go along with it and honor his vow; she agreed and affirmed it, then saw it through even though it wasn’t right. This vow though caused so much pain that we are told the young ladies of Israel would go up to weep with her year after year because she remained a virgin.

Now this is where some Talmud knowledge on the part of my more progressive friends would be helpful to put this issue of vows into perspective. It wasn’t only the vows of women that could be nullified. In Midrash Rabbah Genesis 60 we learn specifically about this through the story of Yiftach, it tells us that not only was he and his daughter responsible, but so was someone else; Pinchas, the kohen gadol (High Priest) at the time. Whereas we never find a punishment for Yiftach for his vow, we are told that Pinchas is punished because he did not annul the vows. The midrash bluntly and matter-of-factly tells us that the local priests, or Pinchas as high priest was able to annul the vow. He was in a role of respect and authority and needed to speak out, but he didn’t. Whereas Yiftach was too proud of himself to go to Pinchas to annul the vow, Pinchas in the end held the responsibility because he should have gone to Yiftach instead when he didn’t go, the buck stopped with him. By remaining silent our Midrash tells us that he was punished by G-d, because in his silence he affirmed this horrible oath which caused pain literally to the entire generation.

Sometimes the vows and oaths we take on in our lives are painful and ridiculous, not just for us but also painful for others as well as they watch us struggle and suffer through it. What we learn from this parsha is that there is always room to be corrected by someone we are in relationship with and accountable to because we also include them in our anguish.

And likewise when we see people in suffering we should stop their suffering, we need to use our clout and report with them to tell them to give themselves a break. Help them shoulder their burden to put it in perspective for them. Express to them because you are part of their lives their pain effects you, and you want them to know they don’t have to expect so much out of themselves.

Lastly, our parsha leaves us with two deep points. In its final verse of instruction (as verse 17 just repeats the players again) and gives us a good way getting those who harshly hold on to their strict vows to let go:

“And if he makes them null and void

after hearing them

he shall bear her guilt.”

| Ve’im-hafer yafer otam

| acharei shom’o

| venasa et-avonah.

Numbers 30:17

We can read this two ways, consistent with the rest of the chapter; if someone else nullifies their vows they are not held responsible for it, they meant the best in making the vow, but someone has restricted them from following through so they are atoned for and even credited that their heart was in the right place.

And then there is the second suggested meaning, namely that we can nullify a vow at anytime. Some of our sages teach that even if in that day a loved one affirm the vow and then changes their mind and nullifies it after the fact, the person who vowed it is again not responsible as they were restricted. It’s never too late to speak up! Use the clout and respect that a loved one has in you to convince them to let you lighten their load. If someone you love is stuck in a vow or oath they wont let go of, the best thing we can do and the Torah way is to tell them its okay, G-d understands and will forgive them. Express to them that your so confident of this that your willing to take the blame yourself and bear the guilt if necessary. You would be surprised how quickly that level of concern melts the heart of someone!

Related Articles:


Parshat Nasso (2011)


Parshat Nasso
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

The Adulterous Wife and the Offering of Jealousies

It has been a few weeks since we have had a parsha learning. The past few weeks have been difficult struggle with my health so I’ve been taking it slow. And as many of you know, I also have this thing about sticking with a parsha as long as it takes to feel it “click” on a heart level. But I realize that many of you really enjoy the time spent going through the Torah, hopefully I will bring you the past two weeks soon to fill in the gaps. To hang you over, this is a remix of a parsha study from 2009. The message has been tugging at me lately and I don’t feel like I’ve presented right in the past, so now I would like to share it with you all.

Introduction

This parsha opens with the words:

“And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying:

‘Take a census of the decedents of Gershon”

| “Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor:

| ‘Nasso et-rosh benei Gershon'”

Numbers 4:21

Thus our parsha is named after this key word “Nasso,” whose root “nisa” literally means “to lift up.” You literally lift the head of each person and account for them as individuals. (see Parshat Bemidbar)

This parsha opens with a census being taken of those that are eligible for caring for the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the Ohel Moed (the Tent of Meeting). We quickly see their responsibilities laid out and then we move on to certain rituals that took place in these holy places.

The Context

One of the most difficult to understand of all of these, and probably the most difficult for us to stomach in a egalitarian day and age, is the ritual of the Sotah; a woman who was suspected of infidelity, here in Numbers chapter 5.

Now one could debate the back-and-forths of the fairness of this ritual. I have read an excess of debates that call this ritual a symbol of sexism, as much as I have read support for this tradition as a step forward during an age of brutality. I lean toward the latter, because if we really understand the culture of the near-east, as well as ancient tribal culture, we clearly see that suspected adultery was and sometimes still is considered a justifiable cause of “honor killings.”

Our tradition opposes this extremism in the strongest terms. How can I say that? There are two ways in classical Hebrew to emphasize something. In the absence of punctuation the only methods of stating something with emphasis is 1) using strong words, or 2) repeating something a second time. I believe for this reason the verses regarding the ritual of the Sotah begins with the words, “Ish ish ki-tisteh ishto uma’alah vo ma’al / A man, any man, whose wife shall go astray and act unfaithfully (foolishly)…” The scriptures aren’t stuttering. It is making a point that taking justice into ones own hands is absolutely forbidden. In fact, unlike any of the other commandments we see an almost impossible form of adjudication in that the only way to know culpability and for judgment to be leveled is through a miraculous act of G-d. No man, not any person, is able to take this matter into their own hands; it’s something that needs to be brought to G-d.

For a student of halacha (Jewish law), it is well known that this ritual was abolished most likely in the second Temple period by Rav Yohanana Ben Zakkai (who lived, 30–90 CE; Sotah 9:9) although Tosefta is of the opinion that it was nullified much earlier and this fact was merely restated by Ben Zakkai (Tosefta to Sotah 14:1); the reason given is that adultery had increased in prevalence.

However, there is also a minor opinion that I have always been fascinated by that suggested that the ritual was discontinued because women turned the ritual around for ulterior motives. The result of a women being found innocent is that she bears a child (v.28). We see in Talmud Berachot 31b Hannah, the mother of Samuel the prophet, considering using the ritual to her advantage in wanting to be subjected to the ritual of the Sotah so she could be found innocent and give birth to a child, as she was barren.

What ever reason we have for the ritual falling into disuse, it is such a part of our tradition that a whole section of the Talmud is dedicated to it. As with all things that we do not perform in this day and age, be they precepts that have been annulled or ones that we cannot practically perform in galut (exile), we still study that so that our study of them be elevated to G-d as though we were actually performing them, and furthermore to grasp the underlying lessons displayed in these commandments.

If we take a good look at the ritual of the Sotah we quickly see that this ritual seems to have little to do with G-d as much as it seems to be focused on offering an outlet for the overwhelming emotions brought up amidst the breakdown of an intimate relationship.

An Offering of Jealousies

Now the halacha is clear, a person who accuses his wife of being unfaithful to him and demands the ritual of the Sotah must himself be known to be blameless of any sexual offense (verse 14; Sotah 28a). Furthermore, this ritual can only be suggested if a women has previously be warned (Sotah 3a; Rashi). We are told clearly in verses 13 that the situation applicable is one in which it appears that there was an attempt to conceal the illicit act, therefore there were no witnesses.

Now the order of the ritual was as follows; the husband would bring the suspect wife to the priests, along with a grain offering of plain barley (v.15). The woman is called forward by the priest in order to stand before G-d at the Tent of Meeting facing the Holy Sanctuary (v.16). Then the priest takes water from the copper Lavern placing it in a clay bowl, and mixes it with dust from the floor of the Tabernacle (v.17). The offering is taken and placed in the woman’s hands, the waters are held by the priest (v.18). The woman’s head is uncovered and an oath is administered to the woman that if she is guilty of adultery she will die as her bowels burst, and if not guilty she will become pregnant with a child; to which she agrees (v.19-22). Then the oath that is given is written on a parchment and the words dissolved the water (v.23). The woman then drinks the water (v.24) and the offering is taken by the priest and offered up (v.25-26).

No matter how many times I study this ritual, it amazes me every time. To our sages, this stands out as the most perplexing and other-worldly of Temple rituals. As I look at the practice, it’s hard to understand what form of merit rests in this style of adjudication. But the text gives us very distinctive clues as to its purpose, if we examine the irregularities of the sacrifice itself.

Furthermore, it purpose lies in a single key word that arises again and again, the word “kinah” meaning “jealousy.” Verse 14 makes it clean to us, this ritual is to be used because a woman might or might not be guilty of the adulterous act; either way, the husband is still jealous, and that is common denominator here. The purpose of the ritual therefore must be related to jealousy and not culpability.

This word “kinah,” is a very interesting word. When you and I think of of jealousy we think of an emotion. In fact if you ask the average person what they think of when they hear the word “jealousy” they think of someone being upset because they feel jilted. However, the word kinah does not mean that someone has perceived that they lost their spot as the first choice for someones affections; it means to passionately desire to be exclusive with someone. It means to have extreme feelings for and to zealously protect. This is why we see that even G-d, who is all knowing, uses this description of Himself saying “ki anochi Hashem elokecha el kanah / I am Hashem Your G-d, a jealous G-d;” He desires that we be exclusive with Him and no other. Notice G-d doesn’t says “if you do X and Y I will BE a jealous G-d,” no it says “I AM a jealous G-d,” because in this sense to be jealous is not necessarily something that is caused by another person.

This ritual is not a witches burning, or a stoning of any sort; it’s not a way of getting rid of the wife. If a man did not want to proceed in the relationship because of adultery, in fact for any reason at all, all he had to do was give her a bill of divorce. No, this ritual is in order to bring peace of mind for someone who wanted to be with his wife, but he could not go on if he was unsure of her exclusive love for him alone. Consider it, the result of the ritual working to vindicate the wife means that she will give birth to a child; meaning that upon embracing this ritual he must agree to not ever question the paternity of the future child, he’s leaving the incident behind and relying on the testimony of G-d to set his mind at ease. For this reason I believe when Mishnah Sotah 5:1 says “that as the waters probe her, they probe him as well” it means that just as much as the wife is being tried as to whether she is true, so too the jealousies in the heart of the man are examined to see if they are true or unfounded.

Now notice of the sacrifice itself it says in verse 15, “The man shall bring his wife to the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, a tenth-ephah.” It say he is the one to bring the offering for her! He is to bring a tenth-ephah of barley (about 2 quarts), the smallest amount of grain offering that there is in the scriptures. This is the only type of barley offering that we see offered aside from the waved offerings of the 49 day period between Pesach and Shavout (during the Omer Period, that we are currently observing), generally all other grain offerings are made of fine wheat flour and not barley as it is a cheap, unrefined grain mostly used as an animal feed.

This offering also is different from any other grain offering in that the text continues by saying, “he shall not pour oil over it, and shall not put frankincense upon it, for it is a grain offering of jealousies, a grain offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remember.” Ordinarily oil is mixed with the flour so that it goes up in smoke, the frankincense is added to produce a fragrant aroma. But here it tells us that one is not permitted to add this, because this is not an offering to expiate a sin; its not for G-d’s benefit, to be elevated and be a pleasing offering to Hashem. No this ritual is different, it is very apparent it serves to bring peace to the heart of man, not the Divine.

Herein the Torah is making a statement, that at the end of the day we are responsible for the jealousies of our hearts and no one else. Though other people might be players in the game, if we decide that we are to continue on with a relationship we need to deal with our own hurt feelings and suspicions and give what it takes to settle the issues, putting it behind us and not revisiting it. The Torah is expressing to us that if we set our heart on rectifying these issues it just requires us to give, not even a lot, just a little bit. Furthermore it doesn’t require anything grandiose, it just requires us to give up the most unrefined of our hurts and emotions.

So at the end of the day this ritual is the offering of almost worthless items, thus surely not a bribe to G-d or the priests. It is not an offering in the normative sense, because no one takes any pleasure out of this so that is the reason it is qualified as a “memorial.” But what type of memorial is this, a memorial for whom and of what? It is a “memorial, bringing iniquity to remember” to the husband employing this ritual; he is given a chance to recognize the situation, but then after that point it become a sin for him to remember it anymore. It is a memorial to forgetting, meaning he is not ever again revisit this crisis or he becomes the one guilty of sinning.

When we look at it from this perspective we see that G-d, just becomes a mediator in the mix of this problem; the Divine is presenting Himself as a solution to bring peace between a man and a wife.

On Protecting Ones Good Name

I recently made a new friend. As with most conversations I have, during the course of the discussion we began to speak about spiritual matters. I laughed when he responded with something to the effect “Wow you really are a Jew,” in reference to spelling “G-d,” without the “o.” I chuckled, not really giving it a thought at first. But as I sat there I began to consider the practice itself, because I use it so often.

About 15 years ago when I first started using the Internet, in 1995, I remember first having to deal with this issue which troubled the minds of many traditional people at the time. You see in accordance to Jewish law it is our custom that when writing letters, notes and such we do not spell out Divine Names.

The Torah commands in Deuteronomy 12 that when Israel comes in to the land of Canaan to inhabit it they are to destroy all the sacred objects of their temples and they are to “chop down the graven images of their gods, and you shall obliterate their names out of that place.” But then it continues with the command “But you shall not do this to Hashem Your G-d.” Based on this the Sifri commands that objects that are used in worship to G-d are not to be destroyed, and the Talmud declares that the name of G-d is thus to not be erased (Makkot 22a). Thus in the Jewish tradition two unique customs arose.

The first is to preserve all ritual and sacred items, as well as items which bear the Name of G-d and bury them in honor, so that they will not be destroyed. Such items are usually collected at local synagogues and when they have accumulated enough of them then they are buried in a special manner in a part of a Jewish cemetery, we call this collection of sacred material a genizah. The most famous of this is probably the Cairo Genizah, which was made famous by archaeologists that discovered it contained over 200,000 documents spanning from the years 800 to late 1880s CE. It has been considered a gold mine of information, detailing the religious and spiritual lives of people for nearly a thousand years. Books, contracts, correspondence, scriptures which were no longer fit for public use all being persevered herein if they bore Divine Names. This tradition is kept to this day.

Now the second tradition arose that in documents that could most likely not be preserved one should replace Divine Names with alternate spellings. This is the reason we refer to G-d as Hashem, and do not spell out the Four-Letter Name, in recognition that we should revere the Name of G-d. Over time, in English the tradition arose that in temporary documents Orthodox Jews would leave out the “o” in L-rd (which is used in place of the Four-Letter Name in English) and also in the word G-d.

Now in relation to the Internet, in the early days messaging and emails were considered temporary as data transfer and storage space was limited, we were troubled with the idea of deleting “sheimos” items, items which bear the Divine Name. The tradition quickly arose to leave the “o” out in word G-d as that was our daily tradition in regular writing, and it was worth carrying over int the modern ages as this form of electronic writing in our minds would surely replace the tediousness of pen and paper over time. As traditional people we wanted to continue to reinforce in the minds of people that G-d is eternal, and we show reverence to Him. There were so many Orthodox people that took to the new medium of the Internet in those early days that our tradition has since become widely known, and now is even practiced by many liberal Jews and even non-Jews who do not ordinarily live according to Jewish law. It has become a symbol of solitary and coexistence, that people revere this tradition with Jews in order to encourage communication.

When we read the ritual of the Sotah I cannot help but consider our traditions, when it says, “And the priest shall write these curses on a parchment, and he shall blot them out into the waters of bitterness.” (v.23) In this description the word parchment here is the word “sefer,” meaning a book or scroll; the same as in reference to the books of the Torah. This scroll bore the curse on it, which contained the Four-Letter Name of G-d therein. And yet we are told that that these words, which also by virtue includes the Divine Name, should be dissolved into the waters.

Here in this ritual of the Sotah we have G-d commanding us to do something that is ordinarily unthinkable, to take a ritual object and deface it, furthermore to erase the sacred Name of G-d! But it is from this that we see the beauty in how much the relationship between a married couple is valued by Hashem. That G-d values that there be peace between a man and his wife, even more than His desire that we revere His Name!

Herein I believe the Torah is charging us to consider our ways. Are our religious demands and seeming principals so high that we cannot show mercy with our partners? Do we hold on to self righteousness and empty piousness so that we cannot show leniency to our soul mate in order to rectify the relationship? Do we think so highly of ourselves and our honor that we cannot be merciful enough to salvage our romantic relationships? In the Jewish tradition there is no greater charge than to reverence the Name of G-d, in fact nothing that defines us more as religious Jews than the way we show respect in our speech and writing.

If we consider it, we are forced to ask ourselves do we think our own name and honor is greater than that of G-d Himself, who charges us with the task to do anything, even the most unthinkable to our sensitivities in order to rectify our personal relationships. To not do what ever it takes to bring shalom bayit, peace in the home, is to say to G-d that our good names are more precious than His. If Hashem is willing to suffer humiliation in order to bring peace between two hurt spouses who are dedicated to reconciliation, how much more should be willing to humble ourselves to bring peace to our homes.


%d bloggers like this: