Pesach-cleaning is as time-sensitive a mitzvah as one can imagine. Given the standard explanations for women’s exemptions from other mitzvot, one might reasonably imagine a position that exempts women from Pesach-cleaning, and perhaps even a position that sees the task as so inherently masculine that women are discouraged or forbidden from engaging in it.
There may in fact have been such a halakhic position, although until the twentieth century it was based on more astonishing grounds than calling it a mitzvat aseh shehazman garma. Tracing its arc through time may cast interesting light on some challenging contemporary issues.
A beraita cited in Yerushalmi Pesachim 1:1 says something like the following. (The question marks in the text point to places where there is controversy about what the text should be; the exclamation points mark words that are challenging to translate.)
All are believed regarding the elimination of chametz, even women and slaves.
Rabbi Yirmiyah in the name of Rabbi Zeira: Strike “even women” from here.
Women !atzman! are not believed Because they are “atzeilot” and they inspect “kol shehu kol shehu”
The eighteenth century R. David Frankel in his Rashi-type commentary Korban haEdah sees here a dispute that in this context is purely theoretical. Whoever cited the beraita held that in principle women should be less credible than men regarding the elimination of chametz, but nonetheless even women are believed, whereas Rabbi Yirmiyah held that there is no difference between men and women with regard to this issue, and so the words “even women” should be struck from the beraita; rather, women are believed here just as men are. The Yerushalmi’s editor then adds what to modern ears is an utterly astonishing justification for the original text that read “even women”: Women are lazy, and they do merely perfunctory inspections for chametz.
In his Tosafot-type commentary Shiyarei Korban, Rabbi Frankel attributes this interpretation to the 14th century Rabbeinu Nissim of Gerondi. He notes that Rabbeinu Asher (ROSH) in the thirteenth century seemed to read the text differently. As he understands ROSH, R. Yirmiyah erased not “even women”, but rather “women”, meaning that women are simply not credible regarding the elimination of chametz. Rabbi Frankel rejects this position as unable to read the next line, which says that women are credible just as men are. He concludes that ROSH must have had a different text of that line.
Such a text is invented by Rabbi Frankel’s contemporary Rabbi Moshe Margolies, author of the Rashi-like Pnei Moshe and Tosafot-type Mar’eh HaPanim. He simply changes הן to אין, thereby making the line “Women are not believed just as men are”. This new text has the advantage of leading smoothly into the next line about women’s laziness.
What emerges is that the original text held that women cannot be trusted regarding Pesach-cleaning, and that task must therefore be reserved for men. Rabbi Margolies then notes that Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 4b (as he understands it) suggests that women are believed regarding Pesach-cleaning only because it is only a Rabbinic requirement, as a verbal nullification is sufficient Biblically. This position itself is controversial. Rabbi Yirmiyah’s position excluding women can correspond to the position that cleaning is Biblically required, whereas the original beraita’s position corresponds to the Bavli’s conclusion that the requirement is Rabbinic. The halakhah follows the Bavli’s conclusion.
Rabbi Yissachar Tamar (1896-1982) suggests a different connection. The anonymous first position in Avot d’Rabbi Natan (B) 45 holds that the trait of atzlaniyot, or laziness, is found more in women than in men. Rabbi Yose, however, holds that the trait is found equally in men and women. The beraita in the Yerushalmi follows the first position, while Rabbi Yirmiyah follows Rabbi Yose. (Rabbi Tamar further suggests emending the text for what seem to me insufficient cause.)
Rabbi Tamar hastens to say that women are only lazy about checking for chametz because it is not a “mitzvah incumbent upon them”, whereas they are diligent about their own mitzvot. It’s not at all clear to me what he means by “not incumbent upon them”, nor how he squares this claim with the connection to Avot d’Rabbi Natan.
His apologetics were preceded by Rabbeinu Nissim, who argued (RAN al haRIF Chullin 1:1) that women are lazy only and specifically with regard to searching for chametz, because they simply don’t believe that they have to search in places where there is unlikely to be chametz. Chiddushei HaRan (Chullin 6a) adds that they would only be lax with regard to Rabbinic requirements, and therefore can be believed with regard to all Biblical laws.
Rabbi Chaim David Halevi, late 20th Century Sefardi Rav of Tel Aviv, in Shu”T Mayim Chayyim 1:28, refuses to countenance any suggestion that women are less diligent than men about mitzvot, let alone about chametz. Women are of course as or more diligent than men about mitzvot. It’s just that at the last moment, because they have been so involved in preparing the house, they can’t believe there is any chametz left. So the final inspection is perhaps best done by men, since they will not be embarrassed if they find anything.
Rabbi HaLevi then points out that there is an entirely different stream of interpretation that for some reason escaped the notice of the standard commentators on the Yerushalmi. The clearest exemplar is the 13th century Rabbi Menachem haMeiri, who writes:
“ובתלמוד המערב אמרו על סוגיא זאת “לית כאן נשים
כלומר לא הוצרכו להכשיר בדיקתן מטעם זה
שמתוך שהן עצלניות בודקות כל שהן –
ר”ל עושות מלאכתן במיתון ואינן טרודות בעסקים אחרים
ובודקות כל שהן –
רוצה לומר בכל כוחן יפה יפה
על דרך שאמרו גם כן: למה לאור הנר? מפני שהוא בודק כל שהוא
ויש מפרשים אותו בהיפך. ואין דבריהן כלום
In the Yerushalmi they say regarding this “Erase ‘women’ from here” –meaning that one can believe women even if the search is Biblically required because since they are atzlaniyot they inspect kol shehein meaning that they do their task patiently and are not distracted by other matters and they inspect kol shehein meaning with all their strength, extremely well in the same manner that they said: Why by lamp light? Because it inspects kol shehu. Some interpret it as saying the reverse. Their words have no value.
Meiri’s position seems much more in accord with the contemporary iconography of women cleaning far beyond the demands of the halakhah (although certainly not beyond the dreams of all contemporary halakhists).
Rabbi Yerucham Fishel Perlow (1846-1934), however, brings us back to this essay’s opening. Rabbi Perlow contends that all previous explanations of why the Yerushalmi and the Bavli consider differentiating credibility by gender with regard to chametz have been forced and implausible. The only explanation he finds attractive – one he attributes rather speculatively to Saadia Gaon and the Tur – is that eliminating chametz is considered a positive commandment of tashbisu, and that commandment is time-sensitive, and therefore women are exempt from it. Every step of this explanation can of course be challenged.
One important takeaway from this intellectual history is that even the most sanctified contemporary religious sociology may not have deep or secure roots, especially in the area of gender. Woman as Pesach-cleaning sorcerers’ apprentices is a pet meme of contemporary rabbis, who then style themselves as chivalric heros writing to the halakhic rescue. But fine scholars have maintained that women are temperamentally unsuited to the task, or else that it simply is masculine religious work.
A question to ponder is the relationship between Talmud Torah and experience. How strong an intellectual or halakhic bias should we have toward interpretations and positions that comport with our sense of the world, even if they don’t comport as well with our understanding of texts?
Finally, a blatant historical tease. Pshat in this Yerushalmi, by a long and winding road, will help us determine whether women actually served as shochatot in Medieval Ashekenaz, which may have implications for some contemporary arguments for and against women’s ordination. Stay tuned!
Chag kasher vesameiach!