Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • Women in Judaism
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Yaakov Ben Behora

The Woman and Her Commandments

Essentially, men and women are created equal and both are graced by the divine image through which every human being is created. Likewise, the unalterable chosenness of the Jewish people and their innate holiness embraces men and women alike.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

1. Men and Women - Mutually Complementary
2. Exempt from Time-bound Positive Commandments
3. Intellect and Emotion
4. The Virtues of Man and the Intellect
5. The Virtues of Woman and Emotion

Men and Women - Mutually Complementary
Essentially, men and women are created equal and both are graced by the divine image through which every human being is created. Likewise, the unalterable chosenness of the Jewish people and their innate holiness embraces men and women alike. The Torah was given to the entire nation of Israel regardless of sex. The Sages learn from the verse, "These are the laws which you must place before them" (Exodus 21:1) that "Scripture made man and woman equal with regard to all of the laws in the Torah" (Kidushin 35a).

However, one cannot disregard the specific differences between man and woman. Physically and mentally, God made each unique, and their obligations as far as religious observance is concerned are also disparate (women, for example, are exempt from positive time-bound commandments). These differences allow man and woman to compliment one another.

In order to allow divinity to become manifest in the world, it is necessary that there be two complementary channels at work. Each individual creature is limited and therefore lacks the capacity to act as a vessel for divine perfection. But through the body of the congregation of Israel, divine perfection becomes disclosed in the world. This is what makes the unity of Israel so important. Only the nation of Israel with all of its component parts is capable of receiving the Torah and using it to rectify the world.

Because of the difference between the souls of individuals different meanings may be derived from the words of the Torah, as it is written, "God spoke one, I heard it as two" (Psalms 62:12). It is also written, "Like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces" (Jerimiah 23:29), and on this verse the Sages explain that "just as [the rock] is split into many splinters, so also may one biblical verse convey many teachings" (Sanhedrin 34a). They also explain that "just as a hammer is divided into many sparks, so every single word that went forth from the Holy One, blessed be He, split up into seventy languages" (Shabbat 88b). And as they said with regard to the disputes between the schools of Hillel and Shammai and all other disputes between the Sages, "Both [opinions] are the words of the living God" (Eruvin 13b).

Existence's most significant expression of reciprocation is that which exists between male and female, by which man is able to reveal the inner divine image and to achieve consummation. This is true not only of humanity but of all realms of creation; from the most sublime and lofty spheres down to our own worldly existence there is a division of male and female and each sex is unable to exist independently without being complemented by the other.

This fundamental principle is dealt with extensively in Kabbalistic literature. This is what Rabbi Elazar meant when he said that "any man who is without wife is not a man, as it is written 'Male and female created he them. He blessed them and named them Man' (Genesis 5:2)" (Yevamot 63a). The Sages similarly teach us that "any man who is without wife lives without joy, without blessing, without goodness . . . without Torah . . . without a [protective] wall" (Yevamot 63a).

Just as the differences between male and female are what allow them to marry and reproduce, so do their spiritual and mental differences allow them to unite, complement, and stimulate each other spiritually. In light of all this, it is possible to understand somewhat the fundamental reason for the differences between men and women with regard to religious observance.

Exempt from Time-bound Positive Commandments
The plain and accepted explanation for the fact that women are exempt from time-bound positive commandments is that this dispensation allows them to fulfill their role - to build the family household. The woman bears the great responsibility of building up and sustaining the family, and it is the family upon which our individual and national future rests. This responsibility stems from her inborn nature, the woman's capacity to give birth and breast-feed. Their feminine and motherly nature also contains the special traits which make them suited for building and nurturing the family.

Often, the responsibility of running the house and raising and educating the children demands a devotion which continues all hours of the day and the night. Were women given the responsibility of fulfilling time-bound commandments, the fulfillment of which calls for stopping one's ordinary flow activities, they would not be capable of duly caring for their families (Abudraham and Sefer Hasidim).

It is possible in this manner to explain also the reason that women are exempt from the commandment to study Torah. Torah study demands extreme self-sacrifice, both in the early years of life when one is busy acquiring the fundamentals of study, and also later throughout ones entire lifetime when one must set aside ample time each day for studying Torah. Were women obligated to study Torah, they would not be capable of dedicating themselves to the building of the family.

While clearly women must study so that they be able to live according to the Torah, they are not obligated to learn Torah analytically and scrutinizingly in order to achieve theoretical depth. Thus, women are relieved of the ongoing pressure which accompanies the men who are commanded to dedicate themselves to constant progress in the understanding of Torah.

From here we can understand just how important the family is. Women have been exempted of the obligation to study Torah and of all of the positive time-bound commandments in order to nurture the family.

It should be added that the very ruling which declares women exempt from the study of Torah and all of the positive time-bound commandments implies that women are by their very nature less in need of them, and that they are able to achieve spiritual consummation without them (see Yalkut Shimoni, Shmuel 78). Accordingly, it is possible to understand why even a woman who bears no domestic yoke is released from these commandments.

Intellect and Emotion
Our mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook, was accustomed to emphasizing the point that men and women are equal. Having made this fundamental point, however, he would sometimes point to the differences between men and women. "The intellect is more discernible in man; on the other hand, emotion is more salient in woman" (Sichot HaRav Tzvi Yehudah, pg. 413).

Obviously men too possess emotion, and women posses intellect. Overall, though, men tend to intellect and women tend to emotion. This position has of late received support from various studies on the human brain and personality. It has been demonstrated that there are two types of intelligence, intellectual and emotional.

Because of this difference, in certain fields man is more active and woman tends to be passive. It is the nature of the intellect that after it reaches conclusions, it creates and builds. Emotion, on the other hand, allows itself to receive impressions from the outside. It does not initiate them, it receives them. Therefore we find early Torah Sages describing men as having a tendency to influence and women as having a tendency to receive.

Via these two traits, which complement one another, we are given the ability to achieve a complete connection with divinity, to grow in faith, to live a life of Torah, and to rectify creation through the Kingdom of God. By way of the analytic and defining intellect we establish the principles upon which our lives are guided, and by way of natural, living emotion we are better able to receive the faith and vitality of the Torah.

In the following paragraphs I will try to continue to clarify this idea according to the teachings of our mentors, Rabbi Avraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, and his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook.

The Virtues of Man and the Intellect
It is man's intellect which distinguishes him from all other animals. By employing the intellect man is able to analyze, arrive at conclusions, plan his actions, and create significant changes in the world. By virtue of the intellect man is able to act cooperatively, form organized groups and reach impressive heights. Therefore the intellect rules man and society.

The principles and foundations upon which human life rests are arrived at through the dictates of the intellect. In this sense the intellect is general and inclusive while emotion focuses upon detail, in accordance with personal experience. The intellect gives every idea a fixed general definition, and when these ideas are received by the emotion they splinter into innumerable branches in accordance with the unique character of each individual. Even within the lone individual ideas are received in various manners in accordance with his or her changing moods.

In light of this, it is possible to grasp the great significance of the commandment of Torah study, which is carried out via the intellect. Through exacting and analytic study, a rational, Torah-based outlook is established by which it is possible to govern and rectify the world.

This is likewise the role of time-bound positive commandments. These commandments act to direct our attention to important specific ideas which are meant to give direction to the people of Israel. The reading of the Shema, for example, recalls the fundamental values of Torah and faith. Tzitzit, which is obligatory only during daylight hours, reminds us, via our clothing, of all the Torah commandments and calls upon us to beware of the evil inclination. Thus, all time-related positive commandments direct our attention toward Torah values which are supposed to guide our lives.

It is also possible, in light of this, to understand why leadership tends to concentrated in the hands by men - kings, judges, police, and soldiers. The Sages teach: There is no kosher but she that does the will of her husband" (Yalkut Shimoni, Shoftim 42; Eliyahu Raba, 10).

The Virtues of Woman and Emotion
On the other hand, emotion receives and is impressed upon and is capable of absorbing faith more naturally and vitally. In this sense, women are closer to the divine expression and they are more all-embracing, for it is from the general divine expression which breathes life into the world that come all of the fundamental categories which the intellect clarifies and defines.

The woman's advantage is an integral part of her makeup. Man was created from the dust, woman from a more refined material - the rib. And because the matter from which woman was made was of higher quality she is better able to receive the divine influence. Woman's intuition is closer to faith, and therefore, even without the agency of the legal guidelines of religion, and without the aid of specified time-grounded commandments, women are able to link up in a profound manner to the Torah and its purpose. Men, on the other hand, must turn to Torah study and the performance of divine time-bound laws in order to create an inner foundation which will allow them to link up with faith and Torah.

We indeed find that in all important historical events which have effected the Jewish people, the preeminence of women was revealed. They consistently preceded the men in expressing faith and determination. It would appear that the intellectual analysis of men is sufficient under normal conditions, but where additional spirit and faith are called for, it is the female attributes which are most appropriate.

"Rabbi Akiva taught: It was due to righteous women that the Israelites left Egypt" (Yalkut Shimoni, Tehilim 795, and see Rashi on Exodus 38:8). When the Torah was given, the women were addressed first (Rashi on ibid. 19:3, based on the teachings of the Talmudic Sages). It is from women that we learn the obligation to venerate the Torah (ibid. 7:1). Even men learn Torah by virtue of the profound recognition of the women (See Berakhot 17a and ibid.), and women did not take part in the Sin of the Golden Calf (Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer 45) or in the Sin of the Spies (Tanchuma, Pinchas 7). Regarding the future, the Sages teach that we "will not be redeemed but through the merit of the righteous women of the generation" (Midrash Zuta, Ruth 4:11).

The same trait that allows women to absorb and receive the divine essence also allows them to absorb the masculine ingredients and give them expression in life. Men are better able to define the idea, but women are better able to actualize the ideas in life. The inception of a baby starts with the man, but it is the woman the develops, feeds, and raises the infant in practice. Therefore, women constitute the essence of the household, and it is they that merit occupying themselves with the great ideal of creating the family.

The virtue of woman also finds expression in the Hebrew language. Many great inclusive matters are voiced in the feminine: Chadashot (new), Nifla'ot (wonders), Nisgavot (supernal). Also Emuna (faith), Torah, Mitzvot (commandments), Tefilah (prayer), Yahadut (Judaism), Kehunah (priesthood), Melukha (kingdom) are feminine. This, as noted, is due to the fact that the feminine nature is more closely linked to divinity (Sichot HaRav Tzvi Yehuda, Bereshit pg. 77).

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