Seder Nashim (Women)

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

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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).

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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.