Author Archives: Rachel Furst

About Rachel Furst

Rachel Furst is a Talmud teacher and a graduate student in medieval Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The Ten Commandments: A Gender Analysis

Reprinted with permission from


,The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

A sensitive reader cannot fail to note that the Ten Commandments, like many other legal passages in the Torah, are addressed explicitly to men. In accordance with the verses that begin the section on Matan Torah, in which Moses instructs the nation, “Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman,” the Ten Commandments themselves are written in the masculine form: “You (masculine, singular) shall have no other gods besides Me. You (masculine, singular) shall not make for yourself (masculine, singular) a sculptured image”; “You (masculine, singular) shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord, your (masculine, singular) God”; and so forth. 

Were Women Present at Sinai?

As several feminist scholars have observed, the Torah appears to have excluded women from the community that received the covenant at Sinai–or, at the very least, to have disregarded their presence. Just as the restriction on interacting with women in the days leading up to Matan Torah could only have been directed to a male audience, so too does the masculine language of the commandments seem to indicate that the listeners were men.

And yet, Hazal (the Sages), who transmitted and promoted a halakhic system that differentiated between men and women on a variety of planes, nonetheless found it inconceivable that women were absent at the moment of revelation or that they were left out of God’s covenant with the People of Israel.

The Rabbis’ Interpretation

To compensate for the Torah’s male centered language, the rabbis went to great lengths to read women into the text and to argue for their inclusion in both the moment and the message.

To begin with, Hazal asserted that all negative commandments in the Torah are incumbent equally upon women and men. Thus, the rabbis never questioned women’s obligation with regard to the majority of the Ten Commandments, which are negative precepts, despite the Torah’s masculine language. To Hazal’s understanding, women were included automatically in the prohibitions to make graven images, to take God’s name in vain, to murder, to commit adultery, to steal, to bear false witness, and to covet a neighbor’s property.

Science in Medieval Jewish Scholarship

From the tenth to fifteenth centuries, scholars throughout the Jewish world engaged in the appropriation and integration of classical and Islamic scientific traditions. So strong was the influence of this scientific trend that to be an intellectual, one was virtually required to study philosophy and the natural sciences. 

Early Middle Ages

Jews living in Islamic lands, who were well-integrated into their cultural environment, participated actively in the scientific renaissance of the early Middle Ages. In addition to acquiring scientific knowledge, producing their own scientific literature, and promoting the appreciation of natural wonders, these Jewish scholars, who wrote primarily in Arabic, played an important role in the transmission of Greek science to Islamic society.

They contributed to major, collaborative endeavors funded by non-Jewish patrons and served as physicians and astronomers in royal courts across Europe and the Middle East. Several prominent figures, among them Saadia Gaon (882–942) and Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), endeavored to demonstrate that the study of natural science and philosophy was not inconsistent with religious belief and was, perhaps, even a prerequisite to true faith.

Later Middle Ages

During the latter half of this era, Jewish scientific activity was focused in the Christian regions of southern France and northern Spain and was conducted primarily in Hebrew. In Provence, Jewish scholars skilled in Arabic and philosophical thought, including Abraham bar Hiyya (d. 1145), Levi ben Gershon (1288–1344), and members of the ibn Tibbon family, engaged in the translation of scientific writings from Arabic to Hebrew; the transcription of vernacular scientific works in Hebrew characters; and the composition of original scientific treatises.

jewish scienceMuch of this intellectual activity was inspired by the influx of Jews fleeing the Almohad persecutions in Muslim Spain. Some of these scholars were involved in large-scale translation projects sponsored by local patrons and functioned as intermediaries between Muslim and Christian cultures. By adjusting their medium, the transplants also succeeded in transmitting their cultural heritage to Provencal Jewry, a community whose literary language was Hebrew and whose primary intellectual endeavor was the study of Talmud and Jewish law.

Early Medieval Halakhic Texts

In the centuries following the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, Jewish legal scholarship was primarily recorded in the form of commentaries and responsa, which attempted to explain and apply talmudic law. Yet the early medieval period also witnessed the emergence and development of the legal code, an innovative genre of halakhic writing that came unto its own with the publication of Moses Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah in 1180.

Alfasi’s Work

Sefer Ha-Halakhot (Book of the Laws) by Rabbi Isaac Alfasi was the most significant halakhic work produced in the period prior to Maimonides. Isaac ben Jacob Ha-Kohen of Fez (1013–1103), best known by his acronym “Rif,” was regarded as a successor to the geonim, and his legal erudition was renowned in his native North Africa and his adopted Spain.

Within decades of its publication, Alfasi’s masterpiece of talmudic law became the cornerstone of study in Spanish yeshivot, and it wielded extraordinary influence on authorities of subsequent generations. Nonetheless, the northern European communities of Ashkenaz were slow to embrace the new legal genre and persisted in alternative forms of halakhic scholarship.

jewish booksLike the halakhic works of the early geonim, Alfasi’s digest is comprehensive in scope and follows the talmudic scheme. It corresponds to three of the six orders of the Talmud: Moed (holiday ritual), Nashim (family law), and Nezikin (property law and damages); and to two additional tractates from other orders, Berakhot (laws of prayer) and Hullin (dietary law).

Practical in orientation, Sefer Ha-Halakhot omits those sections of the Talmud that are focused on Temple worship or the Land of Israel. Alfasi’s magnum opus is not actually a legal code in the classic sense, with thematic divisions and sub-divisions, but it was designed to serve as a compendium of applicable law, and as such, it paved the way for later styles of codification.

Alfasi’s goal was to distill the halakhic essence of talmudic debates and deliberations and to determine the law in accordance with the interpretations and rulings of the geonim. Yet he retained a fair amount of talmudic material in his composition, citing even some halakhic discussions and narrative passages that do not have direct bearing on the law and earning his composition the appellation “Talmud Katan” (Little Talmud).

The Mishneh Torah

In size and scope, as well as organization and literary style, Moses Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah ranks among the greatest and most innovative Jewish legal texts of all time. In its own day, the Mishneh Torah was ground-breaking for its novel system of codifying halakhah (Jewish law), and in the more than 800 years since its composition, the Mishneh Torah remains matchless in its lucidity and breadth. 

Moses ben Maimon (1135–1204)–physician, philosopher, rabbinic authority–was a towering figure in the world of Jewish scholarship even before he composed his halakhic masterpiece.

As a young man, he wrote a commentary on the Mishnah, commentaries on several tractates of the Babylonian Talmud, and another composition  (most of which has been lost) focusing on the legal elements of the Jerusalem Talmud. Later in life, he wrote his philosophical classic, the Guide for the Perplexed. Yet the Mishneh Torah was the work Maimonides himself deemed his magnum opus (“Hibbur Ha-Gadol“). By his own account, Maimonides invested ten years of incessant drafting, revising, and editing in this tour de force, which was finally completed in 1180.

A Halakhic All-Inclusive

The Mishneh Torah (literally, “Review of the Torah”) was conceived as an all-inclusMishneh Torahive halakhic compendium, a guide to the entire system of Jewish law. Maimonides was explicit about his reasons for undertaking an encyclopedic work of such magnitude. He noted that the trials and tribulations of life in the Diaspora had deprived scholars and laymen alike of the ability to understand and assimilate the vast talmudic literature and the essential rulings of the geonim (the leaders of Babylonian and North African Jewry); consequently, Jews were unable to discern or properly observe the law. In its comprehensive scope, its pragmatic style, and its systematic classification, the Mishneh Torah was designed to simplify the process of study and to make the law accessible to all.

The Mishneh Torah is introduced by Sefer Ha-Mitzvot (“Book of the Commandments”), which Maimonides actually wrote some years earlier, in preparation for drafting his code. In Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, Maimonides enumerates the traditional 613 mitzvot of the Torah, dividing them into positive and negative precepts, and elaborating upon the rationale behind his system of classification.