The Ten Commandments: A Gender Analysis

Are the Ten Commandments only for men?

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In addition, the rabbis endeavored to demonstrate that the two positive commandments among the Ten--the mitzvah to observe Shabbat and the mitzvah to honor one’s parents--were also intended for women, despite several mitigating factors.

Women & Postive Time-Bound Commandments

The Mishnah in Tractate Kiddushin (29a) rules that, in contrast to the negative commandments, women are exempt from certain positive mitzvot, namely those that are classified as time-bound. Shabbat falls within the parameters of this category of “mitzvoth aseh she-ha-zeman geraman” because it is observed only once a week, and women should, thereby, be exempt.

Yet Hazal declared that when a positive commandment is intrinsically linked to a negative one, women are equally obligated. Noting the distinction between the language employed in the Exodus rendition of the Ten Commandments--“Zakhor et Yom Ha-Shabbat le-kodsho” (Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy)--and that employed in the Deuteronomy version-- “Shamor et Yom Ha-Shabbat lekodsho” (Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy)--the rabbis suggested that the two terms were uttered by God simultaneously, in a single breath, and are, thus, inherently intertwined.

The positive precepts of Shabbat, represented by the term “Zakhor,” are inseparable from the negative precepts of Shabbat, represented by the term “Shamor,” and Shabbat is, therefore, an exception to the rabbinic rule regarding time-bound mitzvot.

Indeed, the Torah itself seems to take women’s obligation for granted, instructing the reader to ensure the Shabbat observance of “you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements” but not “your wife,” implying that she herself is subject to the same commandment.

The Torah is straightforward about a child’s requirement to honor both father and mother, leaving no question as to women’s status as recipients of filial devotion. Yet women’s obligation to mete out the requisite honor to their own parents is not as obvious.

What About Honoring Parents?

Although honoring one’s parents is a positive commandment that is not time-bound, the type of positive precept, which, according to Hazal, is incumbent upon women, a related verse from Leviticus complicates matters.

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