Women in Judaism

Study Sheet #7

Mitzvah #1 -- Pru U'rvu (procreation)


Distinction in Subject (continued)

Opening source: T.B. Yevamot 65b


The reason presented by Rabbi Illa in the name of Rabbi Elazar bar Shimon for the exclusion of women from this mitzvah is based on the analysis of the word kivshu'ha, you shall conquer it, that is found in Bereishit 1:28. This reason has become the standard and is the one referred to most by the commentators. The exact understanding of the basis for exclusion is, though, a matter of intense investigation.

The gemara reads as such:

Rabbi Illa said in the name of Rabbi Elazar bar Shimon: The verse states "spread throughout the land and conquer it [v'kivshu'ha]". It is the way of man to conquer but it is not the way of woman to conquer. [The gemara questions:] It is exactly the opposite; v'kivhsu'ha [in the plural] implies two [i.e Adam and Eve]? Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak answers: v'kivsha [in the singular] is written.

Recognizing that everything G-d does is inherently intentional, a word written in the singular, although understood when read to refer to the plural, is deemed to be teaching an important lesson. In this case, the singular spelling of the word "conquer it" would seem to be teaching the exclusion of women from the mitzvah. The matter, however, is not so simple. What about the opening statement of Rabbi Illa regarding the nature of conquering - is that no longer part of the limud? What, also, of the reading in the plural - can we just ignore the way that it is read? In addition, how do we understand the concept that "the way of women is not to conquer"?

A review of the commentators, such as Rosh, Yevamot 65b, actually indicates that the operative part of this limud is the fact that it is the way of men to conquer, not the way of women. Rabbi Illa's statement is the reason for the exclusion; the singular form of the word is presented in support of this idea but in itself is not the basis of exclusion. While the technical process of this limud is a matter for further discussion, it is the concept of "conquering" that must draw our attention.

Rav Ovadiah MiBartenura, Mishna Yevamot 6:6 explains Rabbi Illa "that it is the way of man to conquer the woman". This would seem to be based on Bereishit Rabbah 8:12 which states that it is the man who "conquers" the woman preventing her from going out to the market place, i.e. from undertaking behaviour which could lead to impropriety. The problem with this approach, however, is that this understanding of kivshu'ha is according to Rabbi Yochanan ben Beruka who is the tanna who states that women are obligated in pru u'rvu. The midrash is explaining how Rabbi Yochanan ben Beruka would explain the singular form of the verb in writing; it is to teach us that a man should exercise control over his wife to prevent her from such behaviour. This question is further supported from the words of Perush Maharzav who understands the midrash as simply focusing on the singular-plural distinction in the word - one tanna uses it to teach us the exclusion of women from the mitzvah, Rabbi Yochanan uses it to teach us this. The language of Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishit 1:28, though, supports the view of Rav Ovadiah MiBartenura for there the explanation of the man "conquering" the woman is tied to the exclusion of the mitzvah. In fact, in the Yalkut, the language parallels the language of the gemara further supporting this connection.

The manner by which Rashi, Bereishit 1:28 introduces these two ideas is most interesting. "[Kivsha is written] without a vav [in the singular] to teach us that the man conquers the woman so that she should not be a yitzonit [translated by Rabbi Abraham Ben Isaiah and Rabbi Benjamin Sharfman as 'gadabout'] and also to teach that man whose way is to conquer is commanded in the mitzvah of procreation but not the woman." Bereishit Rabbah seems to make these two limudim mutually exclusive. Yalkut Shimoni and Rav Ovadiah MiBartenura seems to combine them into one limud that teaches two concepts by connection. Rashi, however, seems to derive both lessons from this limud but sees them as not connected. Mizrachi, though, declares that to be impossible as the two ideas, as expressed in Bereishit Rabbah are mutually exclusive; Rashi simply wanted to bring forth both ideas. Maharal, Gur Aryeh, however, declares that Rashi accepts both ideas, believing that those who exclude women from the mitzvah still accept the lesson of Rabbi Yochanan ben Beruka. Maharal further explains technically how two lessons can be learned from this one limud. See also Siftei Chachamim. Important for our discussion though is that, according to Rashi, the "conquering" that is the way of man and not woman, must be referring to something else. We must now turn to examine these other explanations of this term.

Tangent: Kol kavoda bat melech p'nima

The language of Bereishit Rabbah 8:12 in regard to a woman going to the market place seems to imply that this behaviour in itself is not inherently wrong but rather that it could result in problems, i.e. impropriety. The language of Rashi, Bereishit 1:28, though seems to invest this restriction with greater inherent value - going out to the market place is intrinsically problematic for a woman should not be a yitzonit. Yafeh To'ar, Bereishit Rabbah 8:12 would seem to support this perception for in explaining the midrash, he states "she should stay in the house and not run to the market for kol kavoda bat melech p'nima, all the honour of the daughter of the king is within (Tehillim 45:14). See also in support of this understanding of the midrash, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Ishut 13:11, with reference to the Maggid Mishna who specifically ties Rambam's halacha to Bereishit Rabbah.

The term, kol kavoda bat melech p'nima, represents an important Torah conceptual statement regarding women. What is this value? Do sociological changes affect the manifestation of this value in halachic terms? The fact that observant women today do go out more freely and readily may not indicate a rejection of this lesson but rather a different manifestation given changing sociological circumstances. Our markets, for example, may be different than the markets of the midrash. (For a further examination of the parameters for investigating a possibility of change in Halacha, see Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, "Examining the Ideal", NISHMA Update, December 1992 which discusses sociological change and Halacha.) In that this concept of kol kavoda bat melech p'nima extends beyond this one matter, an investigation of its full meaning must be undertaken as further information is gathered. In this regard, as reference to this term arises within subjects under investigation, it will be identified for a future in-depth analysis.

The issue of husband control also demands further study. From the language of Rambam, this midrashic direction, it would seem, is not meant to direct husbands to serve as wardens and to imprison women so that they never leave their homes but rather is meant to indicate a value that would seem to be fundamental to the Torah's view of women and should be part of the righteous woman's personal hanhagga. A further reading from Rambam's chapter 13; T.B. Ketubot 71b and Tur, Even HaEzer, chapter 74, including Bet Yosef do seem to support a limitation of the husband's control of his wife in this matter. A fuller exploration of the husband-wife relationship and this matter of control is an issue that has to be investigated and will be in the future as we discuss related matters within the mitzvot. Interestingly, though, one place where the husband is supported in limiting his wife's behaviour is in cases of potential pritzut, promiscuity. This would seem to support the original understanding of the midrashic direction - however, from examples such as Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 74:11,12, it would seem that this concern applies equally to both spouses. How Rambam refers to this issue, also seems to further support a view that kol kavoda bat melech p'nima is seperate from the issue of pritzut.

Next step

kivshu'ha (continued)

Opening source: Siftei Chachamim, Bereishit 1:28

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