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Pesah: A Liberating Experience For Women

  • Pesah
  • 5773

Pesah: A Liberating Experience for Women

By Rabbi Judith Hauptman | E. Billi Ivry Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture, JTS

posted on March 4, 2013 / 22 Adar 5773

This piece first appeared in the Winter 1993 issue of Masoret.

There is no festival more home- and family-oriented than Pesah. Sukkot may run a close second, but the seder places Pesah way ahead. Although celebrating at home with a lavish family meal should make this holiday a pleasure to anticipate, for many women this is not so. The painstaking conversion of the kitchen from leaven-filled to leaven-free status has turned the Festival of Freedom into an intense period of domestic labor rather than a celebration of personal and national liberation. That was not the intention of the halakhah.

A close look at our classical texts will uncover evidence of a struggle among the rabbis over the issue of women's involvement in the celebration of Pesah. As time passed, the law moved from indifferent acceptance of women's participation in the rituals to enthusiastic advocacy. Examining a selection of rabbinic texts enables us to track this development.

1. Although the Mishnah (Pesahim 2:5,6) explains in detail the nature of men's obligations to perform the Pesah rituals, defined in Temple times as sandwiching the paschal lamb with matzoh and lettuce or maror (bitter herbs), it makes no reference at all to women's obligations to do so. One can reasonably conclude, from this silence, that the Mishnah viewed women as exempt from participating in these rituals.

Yet the contemporaneous Tosefta states (Pesahim 2:22): "The lettuce, matzoh and paschal lamb are obligatory on the first night of Pesah; from then on, they are optional. R. Simon says: for men they are obligatory, for women optional."

This passage indicates that women's participation was, in fact, a topic of concern to the sages, and even a matter of dispute. R. Simon holds that on the first night all three rituals are obligatory upon men only. The anonymous first speaker, understood to be everyone else (except for the editor of the Mishnah), holds that both men and women are equally obligated to perform them.

2. Chapter 8 of Mishnah Pesahim opens with a fascinating glimpse into women's lives. It says that if two men -- a woman's husband and her father -- each slaughtered a lamb with her in mind, she must join her husband's chavurah (eating fellowship) and partake of his paschal lamb. But if she went back home to celebrate the first Pesah with her parents after she had gotten married (apparently new brides were accustomed to doing so), and both her husband and her father had her in mind when they slaughtered the lamb, she may eat with whichever one of the two havurot she chooses.

The circumstances described in this Mishnah are rather astonishing: two men each make assumptions about a woman's holiday plans, but neither one bothers to consult with her even though religious and legal matters hinge on her response. Note, furthermore, that whatever this Mishnah may be suggesting about authoritarian family structures, it is also saying that it was standard practice (although not required) for women to participate in the ritual.

3. Combing the Tosefta for parallel material, we find nothing on this subject but one passage on a related matter. Tosefta Pesahim 7:4 says: "A man may not slaughter a paschal lamb for his grown son or daughter, his Jewish male or female bondsman, or his wife, unless he first obtains their consent. But he may slaughter on behalf of his minor son and daughter and his male and female Gentile slave with or without their consent."

The two balanced but contrasting clauses highlight the fact that a wife is an independent legal personality in the eyes of the Tosefta, much like a Jewish bondsman, and not a dependent such as a child. Not only must her father and husband find out her plans, but they must seek her consent to join their eating fellowship. According to the Tosefta, the Mishnah's strange scenario could not possibly come to pass.

The difference in the legislative approach of these two codes probably reflects a division of opinion among the sages of the day about the status of women, some viewing a wife as occasionally in control of her own affairs and others as always under male domination.

4. Since the Mishnah and not the Tosefta became the authoritative code of Jewish law, one might assume that the Mishnah's lesser opinion of women became enshrined in the Jewish legal system. In this case, at least, that is not so.

If we examine the relevant material in the Babylonian Talmud, we discover that instead of interpreting the Mishnah according to the simple meaning of its words, the sages chose instead to read it in the light of the parallel passage in the Tosefta.

The final product, the Gemara, is a blend or conglomerate of all this material -- citations of Mishnah, Tosefta, and the analyses of these two strands by the talmudic rabbis (200-700 CE). When examining R. Simon's statement that women are not required to eat matzoh, the Babylonian rabbis express incredulity that anyone could issue such an exemption (Pesahim 91). The reason for this pointed response is that R. Elazar, a Palestinian rabbi of the third century CE, declared that anyone who is obligated to abide by the restrictions of Pesah is similarly obligated to engage in the positive ritual acts. Since women are prohibited from eating leavened food on Pesah, they are therefore required to eat matzoh.

That is, the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud replace the Mishnah's silence with the Tosefta's expressed opinion. And, in the process of doing so, they force both sides of the dispute into agreement. They claim that not only do the majority of the rabbis in the Tosefta mandate women's participation, but even R. Simon -- the individual who appeared to be least interested in women's religious self-expression -- requires them, despite the fact that they are exempt from the paschal lamb, to eat matzoh.

What we see in all this material is that, first, on the topic of women, the rabbinic tradition speaks in many voices rather than only one, as generally thought; and, second, that the rabbis engage in results-oriented reinterpretation of earlier texts for the purpose of providing women with greater opportunities for religious satisfaction.

In this case, the Tosefta's more sympathetic view of women and the greater demands it makes of them, even though sometimes at odds with the more conservative Mishnah, became, in the course of time, part of normative Judaism. In a similar vein, elsewhere in Pesahim, the rabbis state that a woman is required to drink four cups of wine at the seder and to recline, because these are signs of freedom (108a).

By the time they analyze all of the Pesah-related issues, the rabbis take women out of the kitchen and into the dining room, transforming their role from primarily preparatory to significantly participatory.   

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