The Ten Commandments: A Gender Analysis

Are the Ten Commandments only for men?

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Leviticus 19:3 states: “A man shall revere his mother and his father.” As the rabbis assert in a baraita that appears twice in the first chapter of Tractate Kiddushin, the opening word of this verse, “ish”--“a man”--(and, one might add, the masculine pronouns for “his mother and his father”) suggests that only male offspring are obligated to revere their parents.“From where,” ask the rabbis, “[do we learn that] a woman [is similarly obligated]?”

The baraita explains that despite the singular subject of the verse, “a man,” the verb “shall revere” appears in its plural form--“tira’u”--which serves to indicate that women are also included in the instruction.

Women as Objects Rather Than Subjects

The very tone of the query posed in this source, which assumes women’s inclusion rather than questioning it, demonstrates that Hazal were convinced of women’s equal obligation—and this despite the verse’s explicitly gendered wording. Although, from a rabbinic standpoint, women’s obligation in the Tenth Commandment is seemingly self-evident--“You shall not covet” is a negative precept--the wording of this dibrah is perhaps the most troubling from a feminist perspective.

The Exodus rendition is the more difficult of the two versions of the Commandments, as it seems to implicitly relate to women as their husband’s property: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (In the Deuteronomy rendition, wives are at least set apart from other forms of property: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not crave your neighbor’s house, or his field, or his male or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s”).

Explaining "You Shall Not Covet"

Although it is unlikely that feminism was the guiding motivation behind Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s commentary on these verses, I would suggest that the midrash nonetheless betrays a certain discomfort with the inclusion of women in the Torah’s list of assets.

The midrash seeks to demonstrate that no item on this list is extraneous, rather, each clarifies a different point concerning the applicability of the commandment.The neighbor’s wife is included, according to the Mekhilta, so as to exclude the neighbor’s daughter, whom one could (assuming she is single) theoretically marry--in other words, coveting a connection with another human being is prohibited only when the desired relationship is in fact forbidden.

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