Finding women in the text of the Talmud (Daf Yomi Pesachim 42)

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“It shall not be seen, and it shall not be found.”Women are often relegated to a supporting role at best in the Talmud. They rarely have a name and are often referred to as “so-and-so’s-wife.” They almost never have a voice or any type of personal agency.  One can only surmise from reading between the lines of the text what their lives were like. I have attempted as I make my way through the daily readings to name these women when they appear, however fleetingly, and to give voice to those that do not have names. It is why Yalta who we were introduced to in the first Tractate is so remarkable: she has a name, a voice and respect from her husband. (see https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me/berakhot/berakhot-51)

Today, we are provided with some insight into the making of matza which appears to have been women’s work. The Rabbis created Rabbinic guardrails around the Torah with their rules, but the women were hard at work with their kneading and baking and all the while doing what they must to avoid any hint of leavening. I imagine their hands were left raw from all the kneading. And if something went wrong, they would be held accountable.

Rav Yehuda says that a woman must first leave the water outside overnight in order to allow it to cool so that it would not be of a temperature that would cause some leavening. This suggests that the water that was collected (perhaps from a well) would have been too warm to be used immediately. The text says that the dough would leaven at a faster rate if it was not allowed to cool in such a way. A woman would have to collect water in a cistern of some sort and haul it outdoors in order to allow it to cool off. And she would also have to cover it in some way in order to protect it from the weather or nocturnal animals.

The cistern with water would have to be dragged inside first thing in the morning before it was stricken with the sun’s rays. According to Rava, a woman must not knead the dough under the sun, with water that has been heated by the sun, or water that has been heated by coals. She must then very diligently continue with her baking and kneading with no breaks, even for a sip of coffee or tea. Rava makes this pronouncement in order to prevent the dough from leavening if there is an interlude in the baking. And he is even more prescriptive in how the baking should be completed: the woman requires a separate bowl for cooling her hands so that the heat from her hard work will not cause the dough to leaven.

The Rabbis debate if the woman should be punished if she doesn’t get all the directions exactly correct and accidentally heats the dough with her warm hands, and as a result causes it to start leavening. The Gemara asks if someone who has rendered food prohibited, should be punished. There is as usual a difference of opinion, but Rav Ashib would have punished her.  And hopefully, the punishment would be a sin-offering rather than the lashes the Rabbis are so fond of.

The Rabbis also make a pronouncement on cosmetics that contain leaven. We are told that if a women’s cosmetics contains any type of grain “it shall not be seen, and it shall not be found, on Passover.” I can imagine that finely-ground flour was used in face foundations, powder, blush and eye shadow. Would women be expected to burn their precious cosmetics ahead of Passover along with the leaven? This reminded me of when I went through Heathrow airport last February (my last trip before the coronavirus shut everything down) and security made me throw away an expensive foundation because it was slightly larger than what was allowable. How dangerous can a jar of foundation really be, or a small amount of wheat?

The women in the Talmud – those with names and those that are unnamed and those hidden deep within the text – deserve to be found and seen. While the Rabbis were busy arguing about the whether to burn or scatter leaven, the women were in the kitchen hauling cisterns of water back and forth and kneading the matza. We must name them and give them a voice because it is how women find their place in the ancient text.

https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me/pesachim/pesachim-42

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 https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me
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