The Ten Commandments: A Gender Analysis

Are the Ten Commandments only for men?

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Reprinted with permission from JOFA,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.

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