Life in Biblical Times / Life in modern times
By Ziv Oren
It is obvious to most that our mode of life is radically different than those of our ancestors. But should laws that are based on an earlier modes of existence be modified to reflect our modern and changing times, or must we say that our Jewish laws are totally untouchable?
One of the more important areas of change involves that of women and marriage. To really comprehend the tremendous change that has come about, first we must understand what life was like during both biblical times and the times during the Temple in order to properly assess the situation.
Life basically revolved around agriculture; industry existed on a much reduced level from what we see today. The majority of work was concerned with growing, harvesting and processing food products. Slavery was common during this period and slave labor was to their period of time what machinery is to our time. In order to plant, maintain, harvest, and process the produce, slaves were used.
On the woman’s side, the household were her responsibilities and that included cooking, cleaning, and childrearing. There were no restaurants from which prepared meals could be obtained; it was on the women to prepare the meals. There were no water or sewage pipes; often the burden of bringing water to the house fell upon the women. Laundry also was done by hand and required much time and physical labor. Fires which were fueled by charcoal or wood were used for cooking, heating up hot water for work and baths, and for heat. Lambs’ wool and flax were processed and spun to be woven into garments. Imagine a woman who had several young children, in addition to nursing, she had to run and maintain a house hold while her husband was busy with the field work.
Women were generally not educated. If they could read and write, books as we know were not existent. General and secular education did not exist as we know, women were trained by their mothers in manners concerning their duties as wives. It was their mothers who instructed them in cooking, cleaning, weaving and spinning, and in child raising. Such was the life of the women.
Division of labor was simple: It was on the man to bring in the food, it was the women who made it edible. The man’s responsibilities were the work outside the house, while the women area was the work load inside the house. She was dependent on the man to bring in the raw materials; he depended upon her to run the house.
To augment a women’s workload, manpower was made up by having maids (either slaves or indentured servants) to help with the work load. In addition, polygamy was permitted and often practiced. This was a practical solution to maintaining a household. With several wives, one could help the other, or take a portion of chores to do and ease the load from the other wife or wives. A good husband was a good provider; romantic love as we know today was not high on the list of criterion that defined a good husband.
Being a single woman was not a practical life option. It was difficult for a single woman to maintain life in a society which required such difficult physical labor. ‘Jobs’ as we know were not readily available; there were no large industry which needed clerical manpower as there is today. For a woman to live alone was a great disadvantage. In addition, there was the social stigma of being a single woman that could raise suspicion as to the morals of a single woman. Generally a woman lived in her father’s house until she married; if she did not marry, she became a permanent fixture in his house.
If she was divorced, she had the option of either trying to live by herself, which was very difficult or she could return to her father’s house. A man who divorced his wife could have another wife or two, plus he had his slaves and servants fields to work. A woman normally did not have fields with the exception of special cases.
Since the plight of divorced women was so terribly difficult, and since a man could divorce his wife fairly easily, the rabbis introduced into the marriage contract the concept of a man having to pay money to the woman if he opted to divorce her. This protected the woman in two ways: One, if he had to pay a considerable sum, he would not be quick to divorces, and two, if he did divorce, and the woman would have a sum of money large enough to begin life alone. The rabbis have always protected Jewish women from quick marriages, from being ‘tossed out’ with nothing, and to maintain the women’s dignity and importance in the eyes of her husband.
Whereas a man had the ability to have more than one wife, a woman could have only one husband. (The prohibition to have more than one wife came later.) In order for a man to remarry, he needed only to find another wife, but a woman must be granted a get (a divorce document) from her husband before she is allowed to remarry. With out the get, she was legally married. Laws were later introduced to prevent men from having more than one wife, but still it was the man who gave the divorce document, not the woman.
In our generation, we witness many changes from the biblical times. The chief difference is that women are no longer dependent on a man’s support. She can work and support herself with no dependence on others. Women today are as educated as men are. Food and clothing can be purchased ready to be consumed; no need to spin and weave. Modern appliances and equipment are cheap and readily available to make life easy. Often a married woman can make a salary comparable or greater to her husband’s. Childcare centers and birth control are options that enable her to pursue a career.
A woman finds that she has options that were not available to her biblical sister. She can live alone, support herself and find time to enjoy life. Why should she marry or stay married to someone that is not fitting, or of a decent sort? Today she has a viable option that never existed before.
On the other hand, the laws of marriage require a husband to give a divorce document, the get, to the woman. A woman can not institute a divorce; she can only be the recipient. The laws that were instituted to protect a woman are today being used to harm her interests and extort money from her. Many unscrupulous men realize that a woman (or her parents) can generate much money. They use the get as a means of extorting money from the woman in return for granting a get. If she does not pay this money to him, she will never be able to get remarried. For certain an unprincipled man is not going to pay her the money that he obligated himself in the marriage contract, the ketubah.
From the man’s side, the ketubah is also unfair. He reasons that why should he be forced to pay her a lump sum of money, when she earns as much or more than him. It seems that the ketubah has become a source of difficulties instead of a bastion of strength for the Jewish marriage.
To make changes in the ketubah is very difficult since it was a rabbinical instrument for centuries. However, many rabbis are today calling for prenuptial agreements to give powers to the women to initiate a divorce and to nullify the need for a man to pay a large sum to the wife upon divorce.
What a prenuptial agreement does say not the scope of this article, but it does require both parties to agree to certain amendments to the ketubah. In effect it stops the husband from extorting money from the wife to give the get, requiring him to give the get It can curtail the large amounts of money that the husband would have give to his wife who may earn more than him for the divorce.
The ‘pre-nup,’ as it is called, is beginning to be accepted as a normal part of the marriage. It will lighten the burdens on all concerned, not just the husband and wife, but also on the rabbinical courts. All in all, the prenuptial agreement has the endorsement of a large spectrum of rabbis. Before you enter into a marriage agreement, I recommend that you look into a pre-nuptial agreement. Perhaps it is not for every one today, but soon it will become established as part of the ceremony, just like standing under the chupah.
from the June 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine