Women's Changing Role in Torah and Mitzvot, Yesterday and Today

            January 2013    
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With What Merit do the Women Gain Access to the Next World?

By Avi Lazerson

What is the merit that allows women to enter into heaven? This is a question that is asked in the Talmud.

Before the concept of feminism, before women began to attend schools, before women's rights, the life of women and their boundaries were simple: it was basically the home, meaning cooking, cleaning, and raising children. The Jewish men were different, not only did their life include the hard field work, but also learning and teaching. The Jewish men were literate, they could read and write, but the Jewish women were not so fortunate; they were generally illiterate. Along with literacy came intelligence, but the women had to depend on their husbands for this.

The Jewish concept of learning and studying was not merely a means to becoming a rabbi or achieve some other literary distinction; rather learning was necessary in order that one could properly perform G-d's mitzvoth. Remember the printing press and availability of books as we know today was not known in ancient times, therefore the mode or style of learning also was different than today's schooling system.

Learning involved much memorization and abstract analyzation. Besides learning to read and write, a man had to attend classes in which concepts were taught and had to be memorized. This was generally the teachings of the Mishnah. The Mishnas deal with various aspects of mitzvoth, arguments between rabbis as to the proper way to perform the mitzvoth. After many of these Mishnas were committed to memory, the next step was the aspect of analyzing them to arrive at the underlying principles which brings one closer to proper performance of the mitzvoth and hence closer to G-d.

Mitzvoth are divided into two groups, positive commandments and negative commandments. Men are commanded to observe all of the mitzvoth with certain exceptions, both positive and negative; women observe only a few of the positive mitzvoth, but must observe all of the negative mitzvoth.

In addition, men have the mitzvah to learn and therefore they grow intellectually whereas the women of those times, who as noted above could not read or write, had no mitzvah to learn, nor had they the possibility to learn. They were basically house bound.

The Talmud (Brachot 17a) states that the promise that G-d gave the women is greater than that that which was given to the men. The women have a promise from G-d that even the men do not have; they are promised ease and confidence. The Talmud then quotes the prophet Isaiah (32:9) who says, "Rise up, you Jewish women that are at ease, and hear my voice; you confident daughters, give ear unto my speech."

Two of the post Mishnah rabbis are quoted as talking. Rav asks Rabbi Chiya regarding this statement, with what do women merit the next world? After all they do not study or learn, they do not perform many mitzvoth, so what is their secret that the prophet gives them a promise that the men do not merit to receive?

Rav Chiya responds by saying that they do two things: one is that they bring their children to the study house so that they can learn while they are still young, and two, they encourage their husbands to go out to the advanced study halls to learn and then wait patiently for them to return. This, Rav Chiya explains, is the merit of women that stands them good and provides them with all they need to enter into heaven.

The commentators on the Talmud try to understand what is so great about taking the children to the school and encouraging the husband to go out to learn. The men read, write, learn, analyze and perform numerous mitzvoth which provide them with a place in heaven. Women also have a few mitzvoth, why is this not enough to provide them with entry into the next world?

The answer is this: We think that since the men 'earn' their place in the next world as a cumulative reward for their personal performance of the mitzvah that they do. The more mitzvoth that they do, the greater is their share in the next world; the more they learn, the more they are able to do. Therefore entrance to the next world is earned by accumulative merit based on performance of the mitzvoth. This is true, but not absolutely.

Based on this premise, the question that is aroused by Rav makes sense. Women perform relatively few mitzvoth. If it is the accumulative merit of performance of mitzvoth that give one reward and entry into the next world, and since women do few mitzvoth, therefore their next world should be an impoverished place in heaven. This Rav does not accept since the Talmud understands the prophet Isaiah as referring to the women as being at ease and confident, it must mean that they do have much merit. If so what is it?

Rav Chiya answers him by saying that it is not just a mathematical addition of mitzvoth like pounds of chicken fat, which is the key to heaven. It is not just the doing of the mitzvoth that generates merit; it is also enabling another with the ability to perform the mitzvah that also gives merit. Just like some one who donates the books to the study halls that students may study and thereby the donor derives merit for this because with out his donation, no one could study, also the women who self-sacrificingly leave their own comforts and take their sons to the school halls and encourage their husbands to go off to learn, but this encouraging actions on the part of the women to enable another generation to study and perpetuate the observance of mitzvoth, it is by this that the women earn their merit to enter also into heaven.

This shows the greatness of someone who helps another person perform a mitzvah, not only does the person performing the mitzvah earn a reward but also the person who help that person to do the mitzvah gets a reward.

Today, our generation of women are well educated and can study on their own. They also take more part in doing mitzvoth. But they (and we men too) should not forget that helping someone do a mitzvah or to learn adds up to a mitzvah too.


from the January 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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