“Post-Biblical and Rabbinic Women” by Tal Ilan

Reference: Jewish Women's Archive

In post-biblical Jewish antiquity women were not viewed as equal to men or as full Jews. In this, Jews were no different from their various Greco-Roman, Semitic or Egyptian neighbors. The difference lies in the explanation Jews gave to their views. All Jews of late antiquity (whether they belonged to a sect, such as the Pharisees or the Dead Sea Sect or were simply ordinary people, often disparagingly termed in the sources as “the people of the land—am ha-arez”) considered women’s position in Judaism as determined by the injunctions of the Old Testament. Their subordinate position was viewed as emanating from Eve’s role in the creation narrative, both as created secondary and as guilty of the original sin. Thus the second century B.C.E. Palestinian sage Ben Sira bitterly laments women’s role in bringing death to the world (Ben Sira 25:24), referring to the incident in the Garden of Eden. A Jewish pseudoepigraphic composition, usually referred to as the Book of Adam and Eve, greatly elaborates on this theme, constantly reiterating woman’s involvement in man’s fall, her guilt and his accusations against her. Later midrashic literature continues in the same vein: women are eternally punished for their involvement in the original sin. Thus, they not only suffer giving birth and are subjected to their husbands (as already mandated in the Bible), but they are also locked up at home as in a prison, go out with their heads covered and must separate from their husbands while menstruating (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan version B, 42). Even the special commandments reserved for women—lighting the Sabbath candles, setting aside the hallah portion and menstruation (niddah)—are viewed as punishments for that sin (e.g. Jerusalem Talmud:Shabbat 2:4, 5b). The Mishnah Shabbat 2:6 states that women who transgress keeping these commandments will die in childbirth.

Contemporary concerns and Hellenistic influence were brought to bear on the biblical justification for women’s subordination. In one midrash the rabbis quite transparently compared the biblical creation myth of woman as secondary and the cause of humankind’s expulsion from Eden with the Greek Pandora myth, in which woman is also seen as created secondary and the source of all the evils of the world. In the Greek myth, the first woman was given a box, which she was told not to open. However, her curiosity got the better of her, releasing all the evils into the world, including death. In one parable Eve is compared to a woman whose husband gave her all his property save for one barrel, which she was not supposed to open. Unable to contain her curiosity, she opened it and found the barrel full of scorpions and snakes which bit her and caused her agony (Genesis Rabbah 19:10). This can be compared, the rabbis claim, to the story of Adam and Eve, who were permitted to eat from all trees but the tree of knowledge. However, Eve did eat from it and as a consequence she and Adam both suffered and subsequently died.


Jewish women’s legal position was also based on the Hebrew Bible, particularly on injunctions mentioned in the legal sections of the Pentateuch. Biblical law in general was of Semitic origins and supported a society that upheld polygyny and bride-price marriages. However, internal developments, as well as the influence of the western civilizations under whose aegis the Jews had come beginning with the third century B.C.E. (the Greeks and then the Romans), tended toward monogyny and dowry marriages. Thus, some of the biblical injunctions associated with women came under scrutiny.

Numbers 27 (1–11) discusses specifically the Jewish daughter’s right to inherit from her father. The daughters of Zelophehad, who had no brothers, demanded of Moses recognition of their right to inherit, since otherwise their father’s estate would be lost to the family. Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord said to Moses, that the plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just, but the decision clearly stated that Jewish daughters could inherit from their fathers only where there were no sons. Although this ruling is often upheld as an example for an emendation made in biblical law in favor of women, it was certainly not egalitarian since it denied other daughters the right to inherit. It also prevented further egalitarian legislation in this field in antiquity, since in this ruling the Bible itself appeared to make a clear distinction between sons and daughters. Thus Second Temple Pharisees, in their legal dispute with their Sadducee opponents (Jerusalem Talmud [JT]: Bava Batra 8:1, 16a), zealously upheld this ruling as the final word on the matter. Their opponents, on the other hand, were probably influenced by the Greco-Roman world, in which women were equal heirs to their fathers, when they claimed that the law was unfair and therefore could not reflect divine intention. Their reliance on the sages of the gentiles (hakhme goyim) is stated explicitly in the source. Yet the Pharisee position which, in this case, upheld biblical law, won the day.

Levirate marriage is the obligation of a childless widow to marry her dead husband’s brother. This custom, presented in Deuteronomy 25:5–10, was initially explained as an act of charity toward the dead husband and brother. The rabbis of late antiquity adopted the same attitude. An entire tractate in the Mishnah (Yevamot) is devoted to the intricacies of this institution. Praise for its merits was still voiced in the fourth–sixth century C.E. Talmud. Rabbi Yose ben Halafta (mid-second century C.E.), who took his sister-in-law in levirate marriage, is greatly praised for his action (e.g. JT:Yevamot 1:1, 2b). However, the Bible also includes, albeit grudgingly, a move to release the levirate bride from her levir. This action, halizah, requires a ritual during which the reluctant levir is denigrated: his intended spits in his face and removes his shoe. Despite praise for levirate marriage, it was almost completely abandoned by the end of the second century C.E. as it often clashed with the move toward monogyny. One talmudic text suspects all levirate matches as emanating from lust of the partners, and likens the offspring of such unions to bastards (mamzerim—Babylonian Talmud [BT]:Yevamot 39b). The rabbis ceased to view halizah as negative and maintained that in their day halizah was the norm rather than the exception. Thus we see how in some cases post-biblical Judaism maintained biblical law without maintaining its spirit.

Some biblical laws were greatly expanded. One example is the laws of menstruation (niddah), which are discussed in Leviticus 15:19–30. It is not clear whether these laws originally applied to the entire population or were intended for the separation and special elevation of the priestly caste. In the Second Temple period, however, the laws of niddah were strictly upheld by most segments of Jewish society and greatly elaborated upon by the rabbis in the Mishnah. They state specifically that the Sadducees and Samaritans observed these rites differently (Mishnah Niddah 4:1–2), obviously indicating that control of women and their actions was a site of sectarian struggle. Although most purity regulations were abandoned after the destruction of the Temple,niddah regulations were upheld and even expanded. For example, the rabbis demanded that a woman examine her internal parts frequently to discover whether she was bleeding, since they maintained that everything a woman touched between one examination, when she discovered herself pure, and the next, when she was found to be menstruating, was retroactively defiled (Mishnah Niddah 1:2). They demanded that women who ceased to bleed refrain from sexual intercourse with their husbands for a further seven “clean” days, to insure absolutely that they not defile them (BT Niddah 33). This phenomenon suggests a mechanism by which the rabbis hoped to maintain control over women’s unruly biological functions.

Another biblical institution was the test of the bitter water (sotah), according to which a wife suspected of infidelity could be tested by a magical procedure in the Jerusalem Temple (Numbers 5:11–30). This practice was still in use in Second Temple times, but was strongly criticized and perhaps even abandoned altogether toward the end of the period, reportedly due to Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai, the leading rabbi of the last decade before the destruction of the Temple (Mishnah Sotah 9:9). Whether the report is correct or a retroactive projection on earlier times is not clear. In any case, the problematic nature of this institution may be reflected by the fact that the biblical text of the sotah was inscribed on a golden tablet and donated to the Temple toward the middle of the first century B.C.E. The donation, which came from an influential Jewish convert and foreign queen, Helene, was probably a political statement on the sotah debate (Mishnah Yoma 3:10). This does not necessarily mean that women supported the procedure while men rejected it. It suggests, more probably, that this specific woman—Helene—and this man—Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai—were to be found on two different sides of the debate. In any case, after the destruction of the Temple the institution was often viewed as ineffective. Guilty women, it was maintained, could withstand the test if they had a meritorious past (Mishnah Sotah 3:4). Wives of men guilty of the same transgressions could not be tested by the water (Mishnah Sotah 5:1). This confirms that rabbinic texts represent Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai’s side in the debate.

There were also issues associated with women’s position which had not been dealt with by the biblical legislator. Second Temple and Talmudic Judaism innovated greatly in these fields. Thus, according to rabbinic sources, the rabbinic leader Simeon ben Shatah (first century B.C.E.) reformed the Jewish marriage contract (ketubbah), in favor of the woman during the Second Temple period (Tosefta Ketubbot 12:1; JT Ketubbot 8:11, 32b–c; BT Ketubbot 82b). The intent of his reform was that several of the woman’s rights in marriage be made legally binding by a written document. It made support for a widowed or divorced wife part of the legal system and not an act of charity. Marriage contracts were legal documents produced by some of the societies the Jews came in contact with, such as the Greeks. Furthermore, this institution was a viable one and not a mere rabbinic fiction. Contemporaneous Jewish marriage documents have been discovered in the Judaean Desert. Many of these display a plethora of traits that are incompatible with the rabbinic ketubbah, but can be easily traced to Greek and Roman legal tradition. Others indicate the early legal and historical (rather than literary) basis of this seemingly rabbinic institution, since most of these documents pre-date the Mishnah by several decades.

To continue reading, please click here.