Seder Nashim (Women)

Seder Nashim's primary concern is the protection of society's "exceptional" members.

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The seven tractates of Nashim, the third order of the Mishnah, examine and categorize intimate human commitments, including the bonds of marriage and the special categories created by the taking of vows. It presents discussion of religious law, social custom, historical circumstances, and both directly and tangentially related commentary and narrative. Nashim offers intricate reflection on the rabbinic attempt to create communal standards suitable for the intersection of its members' public and private life. Seder Nashim, Women

 

A Blueprint for an Ideal Society

Nashim deconstructs the core values, rituals, and functions of human bonds and obligations. As a guidebook for the social categories and personal decisions bound to affect most members of the community, the text formulates a blueprint for relationships in the Mishnah's ideal society.

While Nashim presents values contemporary Jews may find sexist and unjust--particularly with regard to the role of women--an overview of the text suggests that its primary concern is ensuring social systems that protect the people participating in them.

Yevamot (Levirate Marriages)

Yibbum (pl. yevamot) is levirate marriage, necessitated by the plight of a woman whose husband dies without leaving a son as heir. Deuteronomy 25: 5-10 and Ruth 4 provide biblical examples of the conditions requiring yibbum and possible implementation of halitzah, a ritual whereby a brother of the deceased husband cancels his obligation to wed the widow and is shamed publicly for this decision. While the obligation of a surviving brother-in-law to marry his dead brother's wife ostensibly serves the family of the deceased, allowing them to maintain his property and perpetuate his name, it also serves the widow directly.

The world in which the rabbis of the Mishnah live offers few options to the unmarried, mature woman. That a widow must be provided with a useful alternative after she is left without the validation of either partner or son (female children do not fulfill familial obligations in this period) speaks to the recurring theme of protection of the weak in Nashim. Those within the larger circle of the communal crisis of a widow are commanded to aid her cause: "If he would leave his decision undecided…they do not listen to him but they say to him, 'The duty falls on thee…'" (Yevamot 4: 6).

Ketubot (Marriage Contracts)

Grounded in the biblical edict concerning "money according to the marriage price of virgins" (Exodus 22:16), discussion of ketubot outlines the content, manner of presentation, and ultimate fiscal value of the standard Jewish marriage contract. The tractate Ketubot offers essential information on women's property and inheritance in the rabbinic world. These discussions include detailed commentary on the duties of husbands and wives to each other.

For example, the Mishnah in Ketubot cites the view of Rabbi Eliezer: "These are the duties which a wife must perform for her husband: grinding flour and baking bread, washing clothes and cooking food, nursing her child, making his bed and working in wool…Even if she brings him a hundred servants he should compel her to work in wool, for idleness leads to immorality" (Ketubot 5:5). There are numerous discussions of the conditions that allow women to seek divorce as well, including lack of sexual relations (Ketubot  5:6) and various physical defects in her husband (Ketubot 7: 9-10).

Nedarim (Vows) and Nazir (The Ascetic)

As is true for all of the major subject matter of Nashim, nedarim (vows) and nezirut (the status of a nazir) have biblical roots. (A nazir is someone who voluntarily takes on lifelong renouncement of certain behaviors, including all contact with fruit of the vine or any ritual impurity, as well as renouncement of the cutting of hair.) "If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips" (Numbers 30:3).

Vows generally, and nezirut specifically, do not on their face seem to belong with the other topics covered in Seder Nashim. But including wide-ranging discussion of the criteria for personal vows and commitments, in the middle of this seder seemingly dedicated to issues of women and marital relationships, makes sense, because the Torah spells out special rights to a husband over the vow-making power of his wife.

Tractate Nedarim is particularly concerned with vows that emerge because of temporary emotional imbalance. "The Sages declared four kinds of vows to be not binding: vows of incitement, vows of exaggeration, vows made in error, and vows which cannot be fulfilled because of outside pressure" (Nedarim 3:1). The tone of both Nedarim and Nazir discourages extreme commitments, advocating caution and setting clear guidelines for invalidating vows taken under inappropriate conditions.

Sotah (The Suspected Adulteress)

In one of the most difficult texts of the Hebrew Bible, a priest sets a suspected adulteress "before the Lord" (Numbers 5: 18) for a trial by ordeal to determine her innocence or guilt. At its core, this difficult law conflicts with the rabbinic system, which maintains distinct antipathy for reliance on divine intervention in matters of human behavior, as noted in the famous case of a child who falls from a rickety ladder. "And wherever the potential for harm is ever present we do not rely on miracles" (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 39b).

The Mishnah sets the stage for an eventual complete reworking of this ritual by the rabbis of the Talmud. It also introduces what will in the Talmud become an expansive discussion of the ways that women can protect and better themselves in society through engaging in the practice most beloved by the rabbis: study. "Therefore, ben Azzai said: A man ought to give his daughter knowledge of Torah so that if she must drink the bitter water she may know that the acquired merit will suspend her punishment" (Sotah 3:4).

In addition to confronting the issue of reliance on divine intervention, the Mishnah more generally supports at least one ideal behind the sotah system. Placing any wife in a position where a jealous or otherwise untrustworthy husband can lie about transgression, in court or another public forum, counters the rabbinic principle of protecting both members in a relationship. The rabbis emphasize a very public ritual exclusively in the hands of the priests, not those of an unbalanced husband. While the Mishnah does not entirely invalidate the trial by ordeal of the suspected adulteress, it does whittle down its strength and emphasize its many weaknesses.

Gittin (Divorce Certificates) and Kiddushin (Betrothals)

A get (pl. gittin) refers to a style of legal document employed both in divorce proceedings and in the release of slaves. Drawing on the biblical citation of gittin in the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 24:1-4), the primary focus of the mishnaic discussion of gittin is proper composition and delivery of the document, not the emotional or social causes or results of dissolving a union.

The specifics of Tractate Kiddushin, one of the most often studied and discussed sections of the Gemara and later commentaries, have little biblical precedent.  Both Gittin and Kiddushin follow a pattern of focusing on the legal and technical distinctions of the specific documents and transactions, and the categories of the people affected by them.

Like a widow or a person taking on a vow, individuals either entering or leaving a bond of marriage must not be allowed to remain with their status transitional or undefined. While the intensity of concern over legal status may overlook the emotional toll of these transitions, an important part of the Mishnah's intention is to protect people in transition from having an unclear (and thus problematic) personal status, or clouding or improperly affecting the social status of others.

The Relevance of Seder Nashim for Contemporary Jews

Though the contemporary reader may be uncomfortable with the seder's attempts to regulate human connections and obligations as well as the text's male point of view--particularly with regard to the various societal roles of women--Nashim provides a fascinating window onto the rabbinic attempt to map the shifting ground between private life and communal law.

By providing a guidebook for the intimate grammar of intersecting social categories and personal decisions, Nashim also provides a certain cohesion of purpose for the Mishnah's ideal society. Nashim emphasizes the Jewish communities' exceptional members--outsiders such as widows, overzealous seekers, and foreigners and non-Jews. Not only is consideration of outsiders necessary in constructing a societal model; the "other" provides necessary context for the insider to understand his or her status as well.

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Stephen H. Arnoff

Stephen Hazan Arnoff is the executive director of the 14th Street Y. He was previously the managing editor of Zeek and the director of Artists Networks and Programming at the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y.