The freedom of women to say no (Daf Yomi Eruvin 82)

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Even a six-year-old prefers the company of his mother to that of his father.”

It is imperative to comment when the Talmud provides a view of women with some sense of free will. Granted, the sense of female agency is rather limited in today’s Daf Yomi text because it is discussed in the context of an eruv, but still it is something. And by extension, an eruv can symbolize the larger world around us.

We are told that the conditions upon which an eruv can be established for others are limited, and we learned in the story from the other day of the daughter-in-law who was stranded after dark, that an eruv can only be established on behalf of another with their knowledge. The chorus of Sages, who have appeared more often lately in the Talmud, have told us that a person may establish an eruv on behalf of his minor son or daughter or a “Canaanite servant”, either with or without their knowledge. But he may not do so on behalf of a Hebrew, an adult son or daughter, or his wife.

An eruv may not be established for one’s wife because “she can object by saying that she does not want her husband’s eruv.” In other words, she has free agency to establish one of her own, or to forego the entire eruv process entirely and just stay home.  There is some disagreement among the Rabbis on the agency of adult sons and daughters, but they all agree that a wife must establish her own eruv because she can object to her husband’s. It might be that sons and daughters are more deferential to their fathers, while the wives, well, the wives have the power to just say no.

This past Saturday morning when I was walking in my neighborhood of Chelsea, I found myself behind a Hassidic family. The father had a prayer shawl slung over his shoulder and small children on each side of him, like a chain of flowers that are linked through their stalks. They spread out across the sidewalk holding hands and singing joyfully. The song was in Hebrew and sounded sort of like “Dayenu,” but I know it’s the wrong time of year for a Passover song. It was something with repetitive verses that was as lyrical as Dayenu, but something else.

It is unusual to see a Hasidic family in Chelsea and it was such a happy scene that I longed to be part of a world that always seemed so closed to me. And for a moment, I thought, how wonderful that a father has taken his children to synagogue and given his wife (who may have rejected his eruv) a break. The only synagogue I know of in Chelsea is Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, which serves the “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and straight community who share common values.” It is a wonderful community, with a senior Rabbi who I deeply respect, but somehow, I doubt that is where this Hasidic family was headed.

And then I noticed that there was a young woman with a wig and in the Hasidic garb of heavy stockings and woolen clothes walking about half-a-block behind the father and children. She was quiet with her head down and I put two and two together, and figured that she was the wife, following silently behind her singing family. What was in her heart at that moment was unknowable.

Maybe this woman was happy to walk behind her family, so that she could take a moment to have her own thoughts while her husband entertained the children. Maybe it was nothing more than a happy family out for a walk. Or maybe, just maybe, there was a caged bird within this woman waiting for a moment to raise her voice and sing.

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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