Coming to terms with the Talmud’s expectations for women (Daf Yomi Pesachim 43)

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“The Torah rendered a man equal to a woman for all punishments of the Torah.”

I wanted to read this sentence without the last six words: “The Torah rendered a man equal to a woman for all punishments of the Torah.” How nice it would have been to simply have read that the Torah rendered men and women equal. But we know they were not considered equal at the time of transcription, and women are secondary characters – at best – within the text. Today there is the determination that although women’s lives were constrained by lowered expectations, they were liable for punishment if they transgressed.

I have been pondering since I first read in Tractate Berakhot what it really means to exempt women from time-bound mitzvot. Is this a good thing or not? On the one hand it suggests that expectations for women are less than those for men, because of an assumption that they are less. On the other hand, it frees them from observing all the rules and regulations that were devised by the Rabbis that were constrained by time. And it allows them to be more self-directed in how they uphold religious obligations.

Today’s text examines if a woman who is not obligated to eat matza, which is by definition a time-bound mitzva, should be liable for punishment if she ate leaven over the Passover holiday. To the untrained eye, to subject someone to punishment for something that she is not obligated to observe in the first place seems like a major inconsistency. Of course, the Rabbis had to resolve the matter because they couldn’t have their wives and daughters sitting at their dining table eating moist leavened bread on Passover when they were obligated to eat dry unleavened matza.

The Gemara looks to the Torah for resolution and a quote that says, “whosever eats anything leavened, that soul shall be cut off from the people of Israel.”  Emphasis is placed on the word “whosever” which is inclusive of men and women. Rabbi Eliezer confirms that the term indicates that women are included in the punishment for eating leavened bread, which is karet, or as my fellow Daf Yomers tell me, a spiritual death.

Now that the Rabbis have settled on the issue of prohibiting women to eat leaven on Passover, they turn to the issue of the time-bound mitzva to eat matza. Rabbi Eliezer attempts to be consistent in his prior pronouncement and says that indeed, women are obligated to eat matza. He quotes from Deuteronomy, “You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat with it matzot.” The Gemara supports this conclusion by coming to the revelation that the word “anyone” includes women in the following verse: “For anyone who eats leavened bread…shall be cut off.”

I continue to struggle with the fact that the Talmud tells us that women are exempt from performing a time-bound mitzva. We were told back in the first Tractate that there are exceptions related to certain festivals and rituals at certain times of the year. Today’s portion explains one of those exceptions. But still, what does it mean to have lower expectations for women in a learned, religious society?

The converse of not requiring women to uphold time-bound mitzvas, is the decision to do so voluntarily and out of a self-directed commitment. Women who are wading through the text of the Talmud today are doing so out of a myriad of reasons, but none are based on an obligation to anyone but themselves. They are claiming the Talmud through study groups and online forums and making it their own. They are not time-bound to study but do so with much passion and perseverance. This is more profound from my secular sensibility than any time-bound obligation.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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