Tag Archives: Women’s Rights

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.

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Parshat Yitro (2013)


Exodus 18 – 20

Anshei and Eishet Chayil: Resourceful Men and Women

Shabbat Candles - Eishet ChayilParshat Yitro is not a particularly long parsha. It’s three small chapters, but it only really has two major themes to it. The first is the set-up and delivery of Moses’ father-in-law’s advice as to how to govern. (see Parshat Yitro 2012) The second part is the set-up and delivery of the Ten Commandments episode.

I want us to take a look at the first part of this story this week. In it we are told that Yitro advises Moses that what he needs to do more that just be the representative of the people before G-d, bringing all their issues before Him. Moses needs to also delegate and deputize people under him to help establish law and order. We read the following statement being made to him:

“Moreover you shall select from all the people

men of valor who fear G-d,

men of truth who hate gain.

And you shall place over them

leaders of thousands,

leaders of hundreds,

leaders of fifties

and leaders of tens.”

| Ve’atah techezeh mikol-ha’am

| anshei-chayil yir’ei Elohim

| anshei emet son’ei vatza

| vesamta alehem

| sarei alafim

| sarei me’ot

| sarei chamishim

| vesarei asarot.

Exodus 18:21

Moses is told that he needs to establish a chain of command under him. Leaders are appointed over certain sectors of the population. Some leaders only in charge of as little as ten people, then there are people above them that supervise a larger population of say fifty, another to supervise one hundred, and then authorities continue in like fashion until they represent thousands of people as magistrates. At the top of this leadership was Moses as a final office holder in this structure of appellate courts. But Moses function would be to advocate for them, not just before G-d but “mul Elohim / against G-d.” Thats what it means by he shall bring their cases unto G-d. He represents them as an advocate for the people. (Exodus 18:19)

There are two sets of qualities mandated for the people who are to be judges and magistrates under Moses. First is for them to be “anshei-chayil yir’ei Elohim / men of valor who fear G-d.” Second is for them to be “anshei emet son’ei vatza / men of truth who hate gain.”

The second of the qualities hardly needs explaining when we are talking about appointing judges and authorities. They should be men who are honest, people who hate “vatza / profit.” People who are not concerned with amassing money. Most often this term vatza comes with more than just a connotation of greed, but the idea that one gains profit from dishonest dealings. In 1 Samuel 8:3 we see this shown to be on the level of bribe taking. Instead these judges should be honest men, who can’t be bought off.

In this same vein as this it should make sense for us to understand the term “anshei-chayil / men of valor,” to mean men who aren’t afraid of doing what is right. Men who can’t be intimidated or bought through bribes or blackmail.

Normally when we think of the word chayil we think of someone being brave, like a soldier. This is very fitting because this word variant can be used to describe people as individual fighters (chayal, soldier; chayalim, soldiers), but also a unit of men called a chayil can also mean an army (see Isaiah 36:2, 2 Kings 18:17). Earlier in this book of Exodus we even explicitly see the forces of Pharoah that got destroyed in the sea called “l’chol chayil Paroh / the whole army of Pharoah.” (see Exodus 14:28)

If we think along these lines we should understand that a person that is called to be a leader needs to be a valiant and fearless person, not necessarily that he is combative. We are talking about a brave man who is not afraid to fight the good fight. This is what it means in essence to be a “ben chayil,” or as we would say a mighty man. (see 1 Samuel 14:52, also used in the plural “bnei chayil / men of valor” in Deut. 3:18). It is their bravery and strength that we are considering when we used this term. We are describing their character more than categorizing their profession.

The fact is that in order for one to be able to resist the pressure of bribes or intimidation that is often levied against those in authority one needs to be a very brave person. One must to be fearless. But surely it’s not their combative nature that is sought here. I can say this with some certainty because when most of us religious people think of the term chayil we don’t think of bnei chayil. No instead we think of an “eishet chayil / a woman of valor.” (see Proverbs 31:10, Proverbs 12:4) And no one wants a combative woman, don’t just take my words for it, the scriptures even attest to this, “Do not give you strength (chaylecha) unto women, nor your ways which obliterates kings.” (Proverbs 31:3) No offense to women soldiers, but the ideal of a womanhood is not to be warring brute. I don’t think it is any different for us men though.

I say the ideal character for a woman, because the way that most of us know the term chayil is through one of the aforementioned examples of the term Eishet Chayil where it is a virtue. Every Shabbat evening in religious homes it is the custom for the family to gather around the table and for all to sing from Proverbs 31 before Kiddush. The family praises the wife and mother of the house as a women of valor (eishet chayil). It is reinforced into us since we are young boys to find this type of woman, and for girls to aspire to be this type of person, “A woman of valor who can find? For her price is above rubies. The heart of her husband does safely trust in her, and he has no lack of abundance.” (Proverbs 31:10-11) A matriarch of a family should be a woman of valor, virtue, strength and substance. In the Eishet Chayil we praise the ideal woman.

Now as we think back to our parsha, and we try applying this type of characteristic to men, that they should be anshei chayil – men of valor – we find that our teacher Rashi also stresses this point of substance. His commentary understands the text as follows:

Men of substance: (anshei chayil)

wealthy men, [or the bountiful]

one that does not flatter

or show favoritism.”

אנשי חיל: |

עשירים, |

שאין צריכין להחניף |

ולהכיר פנים: |

Rashi to Exodus 18:21

Now I must admit that Rashi’s interpretation rubs me the wrong way. I whole-heartedly disagree with his understanding, I don’t think that the rich are any more better suited to govern others. Nor do I necessarily believe that the wealthy are less likely to show favoritism and partiality. That is not how it appears to me, especially in this day and age where the wealthy corporate voices have taken over politics. Especially in a country like America, where it is notorious for people who are major business owners to get special tax incentives and no-bid contracts merely for having financial clout and social connections.

So why does Rashi make this point at all? It is because the word chayil does actually mean substance. And in some cases it means more than just substance of character, it also means to be of monetary substance. During the blessing of the tribes we read of Moses blessing Levi this way, “Hashem Bless his substance (chai’lo) and accept the work of his hands.” (Deut. 33:11) There are several places where chayil clearly means riches (see Isaiah 8:4, 30:6; Genesis 34:29)

Now the reason that Rashi says this is not because he is following some conservative political doctrine that says that people who are bigger money makers show through their wealth that they are wise enough to be in-charge. He is not asking us to ascribe to some type of libertarian view that government should be run like a business and people good at finance should be allowed to be larger decision makers in our society.

His reason is revealed in his commentary for the words “hating monetary gain.” Rashi says therein that a judge should hate to have their own property in litigation. They are not frivolous litigants or quick to sue a person. Or as others understand it, not just that they are not in legal and financial dispute but that they should not owe money to anyone. They should be above reproach financially and be independently wealthy. One is more prone to be honest if they don’t need to gain anything by swaying justice one way or the other.

And sadly for me that is one reason I believe that his point doesn’t necessarily fit our current society. Today the wealthy often placed themselves in charge in order to advocate the gain of their own upper-class. They often come out of the corporate lobbying world prior to holding public office and go right back into it when they leave office. More often these people, because of their familiarity, become crooked as they are just not brave enough to stand up to pressure of their peers or colleagues. They are rarely people whose nature is to hate dishonest gain, people who are already satisfied with their existent wealth. The corruption in our culture tells us this is not true for us today.

I do not believe that to be among the anshei chayil (men of valor) means to be a rich man any more than it I believe that eishet chayil means a “rich woman.” Men and women of wealth are not any more capable than people of modest means. In fact we have one notorious eishet chayil mentioned in the scriptures that was not rich at all, she was a penniless widow that needed to be redeemed by Leverite marriage; Ruth, the grandmother of King David! Notice in Ruth 3:11, of her it is said, “…for all the men of the gate of my people do know that you are a virtuous woman (eishet chayil).”

However it must be said that this word does give us the connotation as a term that can be applied to a certain quality of person, a person that does show great capability. In Genesis 47:6 when Pharoah gives the land of Goshen to Joseph and his family to settle he tells him, “…and if you know of any capable men (anshei chayil) among them, then put them in charge of my livestock.”

And this is most likely what this term “anshei chayil” means. It means men of great capability, of exceptional leadership qualities.

No I don’t believe anshie chayil means rich men any more than eishet chayil means a rich woman. Most certainly I can’t deny that if we use the example of the text of the Eishet Chayil as a comparison, I cannot say with certainty that it cannot be suggested to mean “woman of substance;” meaning that finding a well-off bride is a catch as good as finding rubies. In the biblical era the giving of a dowry was common. It may seem odd to us today that people would pay men to marry their daughters. However we must also understand that women did not have the rights of owning property or making a living outside of the home. Marrying off your daughters was an interesting dance of trying to find the best person to not just be a provider for her but to also take on the inheritable property of the family. Sure, sometimes a man could make out well by marrying a prominent bride, but I don’t think this is what it means.

True, if we look at the Eishet Chayil text in Proverbs 31:10-31 we do see that this woman brings great gains for the husband and the family as a whole. Though if we carefully consider it we find all this is kind of striking because of all we think we know about how generally patriarchal ancient Hebrew society was. It is not the picture of a woman who is too fragile to work, or a lady that is too inept to be in involved in business. She does bring financial gain and prosperity to the home, but in this praise of women of virtue we find a description of a very empowered and capable type of woman. Her contribution of wealth and success is not incidental, it’s not just through happenstance like inheritance. She is said to seek out fabrics and fibers to work into cloth. (v. 13) She is competent at imports and purchasing. (v. 14) She not just feeds the family day and night (v. 15), but she also invests in land and farms it with her own hands (v. 16). She clothes her own family, and cares for the needy of the community. (v. 19-22) She not only makes garments for her family but she also fabricates them and other merchandise to sell for profit. (v. 18; 24) She is not just a passive contributor to her family, she is praiseworthy because of the work of her hands and she reaps the benefits of the fruits of her labor (v. 31) She is so good at business that her husband is said to sit at the gates with the elders of the land, instead of engaging in work he is hearing cases of law and studying Torah in the public square with the rest of the men of status. (v. 23) She is not just a woman of resources, she is resourceful.

If we consider this description of the Eishet Chayil it should not necessarily sound weird to us, especially those of us of haredi backgrounds. Even thought gender roles are notoriously strict in the ultra-orthodox world we still see that this description of an Eishet Chayil actually is quite appropriate for haredim, more so than even for the secular. Quite frankly, it is actually quite common in the haredi world for many men to not seek out a typical profession. Often times when a man marries it is common for the family to not just give seforim (holy books) as gifts but also its quite customary for the family of some brides to subsidize the income for the couple so that the husband can continue to study in a kollel – a yeshiva, a Torah academy for married men. Fervently religious people encourage the husband to get the best Torah learning he can so that he can help raise children knowledgable in it. It is common for the wife to take on work or business in order to help keep the family afloat, in addition to her caring for their daily needs of them all. Even in the “old-world way” women are not just gentle little creatures that mostly sit on their virtues, they are depended on to be strong and resourceful pillars of the home. A mother is nothing if not resourceful. An eishet chayil is very resourceful and capable woman.

Likewise, in the same line of thinking I believe that anshei chayil is better understood to mean capable and resourceful men. It does not just mean brave or valiant men, nor does it just mean that men called to leadership should be people of virtue and substance. I believe it does means one should be bold. But I don’t believe that it has to mean that people need to be wealthy to be in governance, as Rashi suggests. I do believe that it means that these leaders should be people who instead do well for themselves, but primarily because they are resourceful people.

We need to place more capable and resourceful people in leadership. In the defense of the underprivileged and the disadvantaged (like women). More often than not, it is these people which have struggled hardships and societal setbacks, these people are most resourceful in this life. Honestly, most of us can’t think of a person more resourceful than our own sweet mothers who always did what it took for us to get by. This is something that men can learn a lot from their female counterparts about.

In an ideal world we would have more women that strive to be an eishet chayil so that we can have more men learn to also be among the anshei chayil.


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.

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Parshat Ki Teitzei (2011)


Parshat Ki Teitzei
Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

An Exploration of Conversion through the Experience of Special Women

This study is dedicated to all the other people who work hard and struggle daily in the pursuit of being part of the Jewish people. All you Jews by choice, this one is for you!

As we come into the weeks parsha, we walk in after the discussion of the establishment of the centralized government, and the local judiciary discussed in Parshat Shoftim. This is an active system established throughout all levels of the citizenry. This citizenship, to be a member of Kahel Hashem – the Congregation of Hashem – is something that we are going to discuss in this parsha. In this section we are going to read about central commands relating to Torah true living, and their symbols such at tzitzit.

But even more importantly this parsha is going to deal with the issues of what identifies a citizen and how they are to be dealt with in a society of order. Though of course if we are going to talk about citizenship we at some point have to talk about what makes a person a citizen, and how to deal with non-citizens in this society.

We must understand that at this point in history religion and nationality are synonymous. This is not unique, this is generally the case among the peoples and nations-states; each of them following after their own religion. When one joined the society, they also joined the religion as it was central to their way of living.

In this parsha we begin to deal with the topic of people joining this Kahel Hashem – this Congregation of the L-rd. This is not because people have not joined in the nation of Israel up until now, most certainly we know that others joined in with the Israelites. This goes all the way back to exodus, where we read “gam erev rav alah itam / and a mixed multitude went out with them.” Note, this may seem controversial but this can also mean they went up with a crowd of Arabs, yes as this term also is used of the merchant “mixed people” of Arabian origins sometimes known as the Mereb (see 1 Kings 10:15). Some of these people were convicted in their hearts to repent and join with the nation of Israel. However, they still appear to me to have remained independent and did not assimilate right away because in Numbers 11:4 during the complaining over food during the desert journey they were identified distinctively for their role in the chaos.

However, here in Parshat Ki Teitzei we begin to see how this is going to work once people go into the land. Obviously one would expect that many of the people who went up with the children of Israel were themselves escaping from bondage and persecution. I believe it is for this reason in this section we are also going to read about the mitzvot relating to the runaway slave. Unlike the charters of the nations that we know of from that age and region that ensure return of such fugitives, our Torah commands that no one is to wrong him and he can live where ever he likes among the settlements of Israel as a free man. (Deut. 23:16-17)

Though first, here in this parsha we see the doors being made wide open for people to become full Israelites. But what were the restrictions upon joining? It should be no surprise to us those in close relation to the nation such at the Edomites would be extended this welcome, even though they were not friendly they were relatives. But it surprises many to find that the Egyptians were also given this welcoming hand, the reason given is because they were once strangers in their land. (Deut. 23:8:). Then we read that them and their children, and children’s children were also welcomed into the tribes. (v.9)

But before we get there, the Torah first tells us who is not welcome. We are told, that the Ammonites and Moabites are not allowed unto the tenth generation. And not even allowed to enter or draw close (lo yavo) to the Congregation of Hashem. We read it is because they did not meet the people with bread and water (v.4), but instead sought out a curse against them. (v.5) Actually, when we studied this in Parshat Balak and Parshat Chukat we learned that the people were not asking for anything for free, they actually asked to pay for goods, water and passage but were instead turned upon with hostility. We then read that because G-d loved Israel the curse was turned around for a blessing. (v.6) Then we also read a very striking and definite command:

“Do not seek their peace

or their well-being

all your days, forever.”

| Lo tiderosh shelomam

| v’tovatam

| kol yameicha, l’olam.

Deuteronomy 23:7

The children of Israel are commanded to not seek to make a treaty with them, to not even given them audience to hear them in their time of need. Not just in the immediate generation, but forever.

Now this is going to be an interesting issue pointed out by the rabbis. We can all look at the situation, especially when everything is juxtaposed together as it is, and be confused at how there is such a harsh sentence laid out for the Ammonites and Moabites and yet they are commanded to show empathy for the Egyptians that oppressed them brutally for hundreds of years. But when discussed by the greats such as Rashi, it is explained that even though there were tribal hostilities with Edom and there was physical persecution by the Egyptians, these oppressors only went so far as to seek to harm their bodies. However, when it came to the Moabites and Ammonites they sought to harm the people spiritually in seeking a curse upon Israel and to degrade them with idolatry in order to bring harm upon them. Its like this; Egyptians tried to destroy the body, the Moabites tried to destroy the soul!

The Queen Mum of Coverts: Ruth, the former Moabite

For all the amount of commentary there is when it comes to the topic of who is permitted to convert and who is not, there is one thing that is told to us in certainty and that is the Moabites are not to be allowed to approach the Congregation of Hashem. This issue should be very problematic for the Torah student, because we do actually know of one women who was a Moabite who became an Israelite, in fact not just any Israelite but joined among the people of Yehudah (Judah)– thus becoming in every sense a Jew. The Book of Ruth in the Tanach is entirely about this amazingly unique and beautiful story. Yet for having a book dedicated to it, when reading through the Chumash we do not see the rabbis going out of their way to answer for what seems like a significant contradiction.

But I think if we look a bit at the story of Ruth and contrast it to the situation at hand we don’t need too much suggestions from the rabbis, nor need to rely on much Midrash to fill in the story for us. Let us touch on it for a few minutes.

We are told that a man by the name of Elimelech and his wife Naomi, along with their two sons Machlon and Chilyon had gone to the country of Moav (Moab) during a famine. They were from Beit-Lechem (Bethlehem) in the tribe of Yehudah, which quite close by. Elimelech ended up dying there, along with his two sons. We assume that the sons died of poor health, which is hinted at by their names. We are told that they stayed for about ten years, long enough for each of the sons to marry a Moabite wife.

Again, how can this be. First off we learn in the Torah that there is a general prohibition against marrying gentiles (goyim) understood. However when we actually read the prohibition in Deut. 7:1-3 we told that we are not to marry our sons or daughter to any of the seven Canaanite tribes that inhabit the land. Yes, it even counts them out “sheva goyim / seven nations.” In the strictest sense, they were not violating this prohibition.

And furthermore, unlike the prohibition of our parsha, Moabites did not approach the Congregation of Hashem, it was quite the other way around. These holy Jewish men came out of necessity to a strange land and they were welcomed in this time. Even though these men’s very names said they were ill men, or as we would say disabled, they were given wives which we should also remember in this day comes with a dowry. We do not even find that these Jews needed to convert to find such kindness among the people because when their wives are told by Naomi, the matriarch of the family and only survivor, to return home to their mothers house and their gods it was obviously because in their homes they only worshiped the G-d of Israel.

Naomi sought to return to her own people, being alone and no longer having anyone to care for nor anyone to provide for her after her sons died. She encouraged her daughters-in-law to return to their own kin and even remarry. Nonetheless we read that they did not want to leave Naomi and wept bitterly at the very thought. In the end Naomi persuaded one of the women to return to her own people, but the other named Ruth would not go. Naomi would spend a good part of a chapter trying to encourage these young women to return, especially Ruth after the other Orpha had already gone. But Ruth gives one of the most stirring commitments in all of the scriptures:

“And Ruth said:

‘Do not urge me to leave you,

to turn away from following after you.

For where you go, I will go

and your people will by my people

and you G-d, my G-d.

Where you die I will die

and be buried there.

Thus may Hashem do to me,

this and more

if death doesn’t causes us to part.’

When she saw that she was determined

to follow her

she departing, speaking to her.”

| V’omeret Rut:

| al-fif’egi-vi

| l’azve’ach lashuv may’achar’aich.

| ki el-asher tailechi ailaich

| uva’asher talini amaich ami,

| v’ailohaich elohai.

| Ba’asher tamuti amuti,

| vsham ekaveir;

| koh yaaseh Hashem li,

| v’koch yosif,

| ki ha-mavet yafrid baini uvainaich.

| Vateiret ki mitameiteit hi

| laleicheit itah,

| vateichdal, l’dabeir eileiha.

Ruth 1:16-18

From this Judaism gets its tradition to turn away potential convert at least three times. And thereafter if they still want to join with us, it is then permissible. We are given this example of welcoming par excellence from this young lady that choose to join another people and show steadfast dedication to the G-d of Israel.

It was not for reason of being well off, in fact Noami was now poor and destitute. We clearly see that they went up in need of bread, and even then gleaned from the fields as impoverished people. But her commitment was to stay, even to death. This is what I believe it is to be a true Jew, to be a one that is willing go through hard times with the Jewish people, that decided that their lot be the same of ours, that if death comes to the Jewish people it also comes to them.

And thus we read that Ruth returns to Beit-Lechem with Noami, as part of her own family. This story stands as an amazing testament of the bonds of sisterhood, in a male oriented bible; and a stirring love affair. In the end Ruth married a distinguished man from Naomi’s clan and was redeemed as a widowed wife according to the custom of Israel known as the yibum – the levirate marriage (see Deut. 25). This was declared and certified at the courts at the gates of the city who adjudicated law as we learned in last weeks parsha (see Parshat Shoftim).

Now though I don’t want to get too much into the story or Ruth and Naomi, as it truly demands a study of its own, we must understand that Boaz was not the only possible redeemer. There was another clansmen first in line. However, it appears very clearly that because she was Maoviyah – or as the classical bibles say Moabitish (see Ruth 2:6, were the term is first used of her once in the Land) that she not considered in proceedings of the estate. If ill will didn’t have any sway in her being over looked, at the very least we learn the other man was married and could not remarry without causing harm to his estate. Apparently it was clear that Noami’s sons married wives according to the benevolence of Moav, but that did not mean here in Israel the wife was considered a complete convert up until now, shes was still a little bit Moabite. Boaz takes a gamble and recognizes her and uses a mitzvah, the symbols of yibum and chalitzah (with the sandal) to have her recognized as a true Jewess, and his wife.

So too today people use a mitzvah to show that they are truly a Jewish person once they have joined; as Jewish people do Jewish things. Most often this is by immersing in a mikveh – a ritual spring bath in order to symbolize purification and rebirth, and circumcision for men. For one that converted as a child it might be being called to the Torah for their bar mitzvah – they might have lived as Jews up until now but here they have to made the choice and perform a Jewish rite themselves. So too Ruth’s coming of age came in the mitzvot related to her unique marriage.

The reason that Moabites are not permitted to approach Israel in this case were invalid, her people were the exception to the rule in doing good to these sons of Israel both by helping their physical needs and respecting their spiritual identity. And Ruth, this Moabitish woman did not approach the congregation for her own well being; her case was heard for the well being of the entire clan of Elimelech, and redeeming honor to Noami her matriarch. By submitting to Torah law she was showing where her dedication was. She could no longer be considered anything else other than a true Jewess, this was now her true family.

The Tomb of Ruth and YeshaiThis single conversion, through this single mitzvah of marriage resulted in not just bringing honor to Naomi. Ruth and Boaz had a child, whom they raised as heir to Naomi’s clan and also brought great honor to all of Israel. As we read this son was named Obed, who was the father of Yeshai (Jessie), who was the father of David, King of Israel. (see Ruth 4) The great king that would establish Yerushalayim as our eternal capital would come from this beautiful marriage to a former Moabite woman named Ruth. You can visit her near burial spot in the first capital of Israel, in Hevron buried near the resting place of Yeshai.

The simple answer folks, she was able to be married into the Jewish people because she was no longer a Moabite anymore. She was a new person! Though there were great barriers to converting such a woman this situation shows us that there are indeed exceptions to the rule. Situations and their uniqueness needs to be taken into account. Creative ways should be found in order to welcome those who cast their lot with the Jewish people to be properly recognized, as honoring them brings honor to all Israel! But I for one use this definition, that those whose choose their fate to be among the people of Israel are truly part of our people.

The War Wife

We have had a long study through the details of biblical conversion, but I think its really important that we take a look at another strange example of how one was converted in the Torah. This unique and archaic way of looking at things really needs to not be looked over. One, so that we see how much we have progressed in human development that war and slavery are atrocities in our world and not the norm. Two, so that we can see get some other hints at the thoughts in the mind of those engaging in conversion.

As we were taught the people were not to marry the Cananite women, this came as a general prohibition against marrying among the other nations. In fact it is true we read the Canaanites are to be annihilated mercilessly, male and female alike. (see Deut. 7) So as we begin this parsha we read a strange command:

“When you go out to war

against your enemies

and Hashem you G-d delivers them

into you hand

so that you have captives,

and you see among the slaves a woman

of beautiful form

and you desire for her

to take her and maker her your wife;

in that case you shall bring her to your house

and shave her head

and do her nails.”

| Ki-teitzei lamilchamah

| al-oyveicha

| unetano Hashem Eloheicha

| beiadecha

| veshavita shivyo.

| Vera’ita bashivyah eshet

| yefat-toar

| vechashakta vah

| velakachta lecha le’ishah.

| Vahavetah el-toch beitecha

| vegilechah et-roshah

| ve’asetah et-tsiporneyha.

Deuteronomy 21:10-12

Now we are told by Rashi concerning this text that the reason this command was given was so that people who looked upon a beautiful women at the time of war desired her for a wife would have remedy, instead of them being left merely in error by following after their yetzer yara – their evil impulse, their base desires to desire for an illicit woman. This was a unique instance, and it should be dealt with uniquely.

Now what do we mean by a “eshet yafat toar – a woman of good form?” In the most common sense when we think of yafut – we think of beauty, being appealing to the eyes. But when it comes to the word toar, this does not necessarily mean her physical form, it means that she can be described as a certain way. Sure in the literary sense can mean her appearance, but it can also mean she’s well spoken of, she has a good name, classification, or status. But I must contest, that surely this does most likely refer to her physical appearance.

If he found an exceptional woman, and desired her we read that he is to take her to his house and he is to shave her head and fix her nails. The rabbis and the Talmud disagree on the exacting meaning of “doing ones nails” so we have both opinion presented to us, Rashi saying to let them grow, and interpreters like the Septuagint saying to cut them. Nonetheless this practice surely had something to do with purification as it is very similar to the purification of the Levites in Leviticus 14:8 and Numbers 8:7 who were required to shave their entire bodies, heads and even eyebrows. This was a symbol, of becoming new and growing anew.

She was allowed to grieve for a month, and an additional month for her father, and an additional month for her mother. After that time had passed, when she decided to stop mourning by changing into proper garments she would present herself and become the man’s wife. They would have intercourse and become a fully married couple officially.

However, if after that time he decided that he did not want her to be his wife, then she would be sent on her way as free woman. She could not be sold, she could not be kept as a servant. The reason given is because “tachat asher initah / because after you humbled her.” It’s not a pretty phrase, and its not explicitly clear what it means. To many it plainly means that he had his way with her, a true and valid interpretation. But it can also mean that he dealt harshly with her or even looked down upon her. Either way as a women being present in his house in a conservative society, they might as well have been in a relationship. In fact its very likely this is some time of betrothal period, in which they would be bound just as a married couple until it was officiated. Engagement in Israel was a very serious and contractual thing, which is something often missed in our modern age where it is merely symbolic. Her reputation would be damaged therefore he must deal with her properly and send her away as a proper lady.

Now for a moment I want us to step back to the symbols of the mitzvah, the acts of purification for the conversion process. We find that the women is made to shave her head, which our sages all agree is a symbol of humbleness. Her hair, especially for a woman is a symbol of her beauty, surely this detracts from her beauty. Why would such a thing be commanded?

The Ohr Ha Chaim – the 17th century Sephardic teacher – taught that the reason the solider was attracted to such a women was not purely because of her beauty, but because he saw beyond the klipah – the husk, the outside of the person – and saw a “beauty” of a soul imprisoned inside this women.

I am of the opinion that he was made to take away the symbol of her beauty, and see her in mourning garments in order truly see her for who she was. Could he still desire her if she didn’t look all made up, but was at her worst? He needed to know for sure it was not just for her appearance that he desired her, that he truly sought her for what could be found underneath it all; in her soul.

Rashi explains to us that this type or marriage was something to be frowned upon, as it was merely a way of taming the yetzer hara, because he was seeking out a wife that was normally not permitted of him. And it is also suggested of the women being lovely enticed by the man. Rashi then say these types of marriages lead to disaster. Because he sought the women in the end only out of desire eventually he would come to despise her. Surely he would get another wife and this one would be the jilted one, is what Rashi hints at. This would be the wife of impulse and vice. And this type of marriage caused the other ills written in this parsha such as the cases of laying down inheritance for sons from loved and unloved wives; and thus causing cases of a wayward and rebellious son. They are juxtaposed herein because they are very much related.

How can we as people today try to apply this mitzvah in a world were thankfully such war and slavery is illegal? We can do our best to look into be people and try to find those diamond in the rough, even among the most hostile of people there could be a beautiful soul looking to be liberated, a person in need of a home and a people!


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!

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