I want to comment on the Mishnah order in chapter 5. I think attention to order (and disorder) reveals the Mishnah’s awareness of woman’s need for a certain amount of economic independence within marriage.

The Mishnayot seem to be following the order of the natural progression of events in planning and executing a wedding. At the engagement the price of the Ketuba is set (Mishnah 1), then during the couple’s engagement both the man and women are entitled to a year’s time to work to make money for building the household, making the furnishings, or executing the wedding (Mishnah 2); if the wedding date comes and goes, certain rights and responsibilities kick in at the end of 12 months even if the wedding is pushed off (end of Mishnah 2). The fourth Mishnah picks up where the 2nd left off: it details the responsibilities of a wife to her husband once the marriage has begun. The fifth talks of the husband’s responsibilities to his wife after the wedding.

The third Mishnah in this chapter seems, raises eyebrows and seems totally out of place. It asks can a husband donate or vow to donate his wife’s handiwork to the temple, making the forbidden for everyday use. The larger question at hand is to what extent is the woman economically independence in the marriage and in control of her earnings. The Gemarah fills in some details: the Rabbis dictate that during marriage a woman should hand over her handiwork to her husband in exchange for his responsibility to feed her. However there is a debate as to what comes first. Perhaps he is essentially responsible to feed her, but in order to not to create bad feelings, the Rabbis ask her to pitch in by contributing her earnings to his total assets. Or maybe he owns her handiwork automatically and in return he is responsible to feed her. In the end of the day he can only donate her handiwork if he owns it a priori, or if he has control over her “hands,” meaning he has the ability to force her to work.

Ultimately most opinions suggest that a woman can opt out of such a contract – even though it may be built to protect her – she can choose to refuse his food and thereby keep her own handiwork to support herself, demonstrating that she owns her own handiwork and can choose how to use it. First point I want to make is that on the basic level this discussion reminds us that women were not always as economically dependant on their husband’s as we may imagine. They worked both in and out of the house, sometimes bringing the second salary into the household, sometimes choosing maintain their own savings.

We are still left with our original question: why does the Mishna bring up issues of bank accounts during marriage, when the progression of the Mishnayot are still dealing with the pre- marriage stage? Why not lay out the basic rules of the game (Mishna 4’s description a wife’s basic responsibilities) before discussing the exception to the rule, the woman who keeps her own savings, the man who tries to donate his wife’s salary as if it were his own?

I think this out-of-place Mishnah addresses the transition FROM independent wage earning woman (albeit young) who spends the year before her marriage earning money and furnishing her new house TO dependant wife who is fed at her husband’s hand and turns over all her earnings to his bank account. This Mishna answers perhaps the emotional needs of a transitioning woman; even when she becomes part of his family estate, she maintains a certain amount of control over her contribution to the family. Despite the fact that she may deposit her money into his bank account, so that he can divvy out the spending money for the week- still she has some independent control over her own productivity in that he can’t donate it against her will, and that she has the right to craft a more independent economic arrangement.


The pesky Tznuot and Perutzot, about whom we gossiped on daf 3a reappear on daf 3b, surprise surprise! On daf 3a we were concerned that the meek woman would think the best of her husband (who left her over a year ago with a suspicious conditional divorce) and assume she was still married, rendering herself an agunah; while the brazen woman would purposely remarry despite her husband’s intention to return. (Picture Romare Bearden. Two Women in a Landscape, 1941.)

On daf 3b they play different though similar roles. As we discussed earlier, the meek woman would prefer to be killed then allow a local governor rape her on her wedding night (perhaps for halakhic reasons because she believes she won’t be allowed to return to her husband, or simply for emotional reasons). On the other hand the lascivious woman will actually enjoy the first night’s rights- her desire transforming it from rape to adultery, after which she really is not allowed to return to her husband.

In some ways the tznuot and the prutzot play a similar role in both sugyot. The Rabbis would like to build a perfect world, with clean clear legal standards and set rules, but reality keeps rearing its ugly head, and it has two faces. The minute we step from the ideal into the real, we find women, real live people with personalities and opinions. And they don’t always listen to Rabbis. In fact the Perutzot, listen to the Rabbis and then manipulate the system with the knowledge of halakha, while the tznuot, a term we would usually consider praise, are in fact those that reject halakha and rabbinic loop holes on the grounds of their emotions or sense of the world.

Reality doesn’t always work out as planned. But the Rabbis do want to make things work in the real world, and so time and again they have to face the women, the real people for whom the law exits and adapt.


This post - about a rally that included Modern Orthodox Rabbis pressuring other Rabbis to treat women in the divorce process with more respect - is refreshing. If only we had a few Rabbis here in Israel who were brave enough to stand up and and target specific Rabbis who abuse their power.


The Gemarah on daf 3a (yes we are still on daf 3 in my Iyun class) describes a takana enacted to solve the problem of Tznuot and Prutzot- the modest and the brazen or lascivious.

The problem at hand is as follows: if a man writes a conditional divorce “If I don’t come home in a year, you are divorced,” the woman waiting at home may not know whether she is in fact divorced. If he chose not to come home at the end of the year, then she is in fact divorced because the condition was fulfilled purposely by the husband. But if some accidental circumstances forced the husband not to return, then she is still married because the condition was not fulfilled by the husband, but rather by the an outside force (let us call it an act of God.)

According to Rashi the modest/meek woman takes this lack of information and never remarries rendering herself an aguna, while a brazen woman fills the void with a new husband and may unwittingly give birth to Mamzerim (bastard children) if she in fact is officially still married. For both personality types the problem is the lack of information that allows these women to create ill consequences for themselves, which the takana can solve by pronouncing her divorced in any event no matter why the husband didn’t return.

Tosfot has a bit of a different read. The problem is not lack of information but the women themselves are problematic, each personality type with her own machinations. The modest woman, says Tosfot, really can get married because statistically it is unlikely that her husband was held up by circumstances and so she is halakhicly allowed to remarry (though I’m not sure whose doing their statistics). She with her own personal stringencies refuses to except the halakhic statisticians’ pronouncement and therefore she creates her own igun. The Perutza on the other hand knows for a fact that an accident of fate has held her husband up in some foreign land- only she doesn’t tell anyone. She takes advantage of the same statistics proffered to the modest woman and tells the world she is remarrying because her husband isn’t returning and the divorce took affect, when she knows this not to be true.

Are these stereotypes worth anything to the modern Feminist reader? And whose fault is the gemarah really pointing towards? I think all women will have a similar problem if the husband asserts an essentially vague condition to a divorce. If he is negligent enough to write her a conditional divorce without sending word as to why he didn’t return then any woman will be in trouble. Perhaps the gemarah is taking his faults and turning it into extreme personalities of women.

If I am positing that the fault is of the husband then why call this “the problem of Tznuot and Prutzot.” A “normal” woman, who is neither quick to remarry nor slow to get over her denial, will herself be transformed into a neurotic, trying to weigh the possibilities. Has enough time passed? Did he want to remain married and is trying to get back yet was prevented against his will from returning? Was he eaten by a lion? Did he willingly chose to abandon me because he met a younger more beautiful woman to start a family with in some far off town? The imagination is a dangerous thing.

The experience of not knowing of being trapped in your thoughts and in your nightmares in itself could turn a woman into a Perutzah or a Tznuah. One woman may shrink into herself, nurse her romantic memories, refuse to see the truth of his betrayal and spend the rest of her life mourning his disappearance. While another woman may turn to anger and brazenness. She may let that anger blind her from the hints of his return or prevent her from waiting some reasonable time, or from hiring a private eye. She says “he left me! Well I’m not waiting for him to find himself.”

I like this reading of the text because it doesn’t mean women are by nature extreme emotional beings who can’t be trusted. Rather it is unfair to leave women hanging in lacking of control and lacking information. The fault belongs to the man for leaving her with a worthless conditional divorce, and some of the blame can be shared ultimately with the structure of one-sided marriage that leaves only the woman helplessly chained. Perhaps it’s this blame that actually propels the rabbis to find a way out, to validate this questionable divorce so she can move on. 


When does the marriage actually take affect? There are in affect many moments that signify the marriage: The engagement ring, the discussion with you betrothed parents, the engagement party, opening up a joint bank account for the gifts, the veiling, the chuppa, the wedding party, moving in together, and of course the sex.

According to some reads of Ketuboth, the process of marriage may take affect in stages, because the marriage itself is made up several different relationships - sexual, familial, economic, social.

One place this issue arises in on page 56a. If the husband adds on to the base price of the Ketuba, when does the wife actually acquire the rights to that money. The Gemarah tries to answer from a psychological perspective: what was the reason he added on to the basic requirement of the Ketuba? Does he promise it in order to make her happy to sleep with him, or because he is paying her to sleep with him, or he is paying for her specific level of experience or virginity- in which case she would only own this part of the Ketuba after they consummate the marriage. Or perhaps he adds the money to make her happy at the Chuppa, perhaps representing the more social or even communal element of their relationship. Then after the chuppa she would be entitled to this money.

In some ways this discussion raises the question: how central is sex? Does sex represent some kind of love and personal relationship that has already been initiated at the Chuppa. If so perhaps the promise of fidelity made at the chuppa is enough to solidify the marriage in that it hints to the consummation to come, based on the emotional (and legal) promises made. Or perhaps none of these promises and projections are meaningful until they are fulfilled and made tangible.


I had the weirdest dream last night. ( I know those of you who read this blog are not used to reading the personal fluffy stuff- but I promise it’s related.)  So I had uncovered the truth, that in ancient Hebrew society powerful women, queen like, goddess like women, were in charge. These women, in their collaborative spirit were the first to come up with the idea of the Talmud a way to pool brain power. Different women would remember different pieces of information different Mishnayot. Each woman was like an individual server and together they could recreate all the learning that was being forgotten.

This is clearly a mixture of a couple things I’m reading right now. Tikvah Frymer Kensky’s book on Goddesses traces the decline of the Goddess in Ancient Summerian and Assyrian lore. Male Gods slowly took over the roles women had played, just as in my dream the Rabbis were actually replacing an early group of women. Also on my desk is Albeck’s Overview on the Mishnah, which discusses the theories of how it was organized and finalized by Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi. This fused with Halivni who describes certain student’s whose responsibility it was to remember the official version of Mishnayot and Braiytot, so he like a computer could repeat it back to those who needed it. And servers….well my computer is my closest companion theses days.


I was struck by one of the Mishnayot at the end of Masechet Ketuboth. Both a woman and man can force their spouse to move to Israel and if either of them refuses then it is grounds for divorce in both directions.

This statement stuck me as radical found at the end of a masekhet that treats men and women as diametrically opposite beasts. Even while women are protected, or benefited, or controlled and men are given power and have their power limited, the two sexes are positioned differently in every institution mentioned: Marriage, Ketuba, divorce, widowhood, inheritance, responsibilities towards children, relationship to parents- you name it.

Not only does the Mishna mention the law, but the words
אחד האנשים ואחד הנשים
 emphasize the long awaited parody between husband and wife.

The final chapter, especially the last few pages, of most Masechtot often throws us a curve ball as part of the summation. Perhaps here the Mishna is winking at us. Despite the differences in how the sexes function in marriage and divorce - deep down we all want the same thing. Both mates want to live the good life, to move to Israel, which for the Rabbis meant to bask in messianic fulfillment. What is our “Israel” our messianic hope? Husbands and wives the world over ultimately don’t want fair divorce settlements or cold but regular food for their children; they want to live in the nice house in the right neighborhood, receive compassion, companionship and love from their partner, (and throw in good sex) and meaningful relationships with their children.

Perhaps all the squeaky grimy machinery revealed in this Masekhet is meant to work back stage, so that the potential fulfillment and ecstasy of human relationships can take center stage.

If only the wonders of aliyah today would outshine the hardships- maybe we’d have more happy couples moving into our neighborhood.