“Women are not accustomed to pouring wine”: On Women and Liberation

Thu, 03/21/2013 - 12:00am -- JOFA

By Naama Goldberg

The holiday of freedom sets the tone for the entire month of Nisan –  the month of freedom – during which time the concept of freedom is expressed through a whole range of halachot, especially some of those connected to Seder night. The Mishnah in Pesachim  (10:1) reads: “On the night of Passover ….. even the poorest of Israel shall not eat until he reclines, and shall drink no less than four cups of wine, even if it comes from the tamhui (soup kitchen)”

One of the laws that most emphatically expresses the idea of freedom on Seder night is that of reclining. According to Rambam, “We are commanded to eat while reclining in order to eat the way of kings and great men, the way of freedom.” The Jerusalem Talmud (Pesachim 90:1) similarly writes: “Rabbi Levy says: Since the way of the slaves is to eat standing up, therefore  we eat while reclining in order to pronounce that we have gone from slavery to freedom.” The Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 108a) relates a debate about the obligation to recline while drinking the four cups, a debate from which we learn that the obligation is only upon those who are able to fully experience the feeling of being free. For this reason, women in the presence of their husbands and students in the presence of their rabbis are exempt (but not students in the presence of their vocational teachers or sons in the presence of their fathers).

“A woman in the presence of her husband is not required to recline – but if she is an important woman, she is required.” Much has been written about this halacha. Rashbam writes there that a woman in the presence of her husband is not required to recline “because of the fear of her husband to whom she is subordinate….” From here we learn why an “important woman” is required to recline: because an important woman does not live in fear of her husband, and is not subordinate to him. This distinction makes it clear that the reason why a woman is not required to recline is a direct outcome of her relative position in society – specifically, her position vis-a-vis her husband. Similarly, it is clear that this relationship is not a matter of absolute destiny and is not essential or inherent but a clear result of her societal status.

There are other reasons why women are not obligated to recline despite the fact that they (we) are required to drink four cups, such as the fact women are not accustomed to pouring wine (brought in the name of Rav Aha the Geon), or the idea that women are busy at that moment with preparing food (Rabeinu Manoach’s interpretation of Rambam). It is clear, however, that these interpretations are entwined in the actual societal role of the woman, and the derivation that women are exempt from reclining may change as women’s societal role changes.

Rema strengthens this thesis with his ruling on the Shulchan Aruch (472d) that “today” (that is, in Rema’s time, 1520-1572), “all of our women are important women”. As an aside, it is worth noting that there is a halachic debate that Rema refers to as well, about the obligation to recline when even important people do not recline during their meals, but this debate is equally relevant, according to Rema’s interpretation, to both women and men today.

In this case, we see a flexible approach to women’s obligations and readiness to fulfill commandments, which depends on women’s place in society at a particular time. There is no statement here that women are “unequal”, but rather that within the societies under discussion, they are unable to achieve certain qualities the way men do for the sake of fulfilling commandments We see similar thinking in a different context in the Mishnah in Gittin (2:6), which deals with who is fit to be a messenger to send a gett (writ of divorce):

“Everyone is fit to bring a gett except for a deaf, fool and minor, a blind person, an idol worshiper. If a minor received it and grew up, if a deaf person became a hearing person, if a blind person became a seeing person, if a fool became wise, or if an idol worshiper converted – they are still not fit. However, if a hearing person became deaf and then became hearing again, or a seeing person became blind and then began to see again, or a wise person became dumb and then returned to being wise – he is fit. This is the rule: whoever began with mind and ended with mind is fit.”

Here, too, we see that a person is not excluded from sending the gett for some kind of inherent reasons. The only problem is his actual suitability for the task, his ability to know and understand the world around him. When a person’s circumstances change, and he becomes a “person of mind,” his halachic status also changes and he begins to be fit for roles that he could not fulfill in the past, when he was a person of lesser capabilities.

There are times when it is hard to avoid being frustrated with our place in halakha as it is reflected today. We are in an absurd situation in which, for example, when we finish our work at the end of the day and we go –  all together, with one heart, with our colleagues, our bosses and our junior colleagues – to pray Minchah, we find ourselves standing in the back, not “counted” in the most literal sense, unable to contribute anything, forbidden from being actual participants – all of this in a setting in which a moment earlier we were full equals. Our place in society at large has undergone tremendous changes since the beginning of the feminist revolution (even before then) until today, and yet we still have an undeniably long road ahead of us. At times it seems like in one of our most internal circles of personal definitions – our religious one – we feel the most left behind, without a chance of finding a solution.

As we approach the holiday of Passover, it is worth remembering that processes and developments happen here, too, on our “home turf,” and that laws that originate in sociological inequality between women and men have a solution, even if it has not been found yet, and that it is possible to find freedom and liberation, like that of Israel – “first slowly, slowly, what continues going will gather speed and continue going” (Esther Rabbah 10:14).

Crossposted and translated from the Kolech blog 

Naama Goldberg is an Intern in the Supreme Court in Israel.


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