Megillah, Matzah, and Equality

This is an exciting time of the year to be an observant Jew. The religious momentum in the months of Adar and Nisan begins to build up two weeks before Purim with Parshat Shekalim and culminates at the night of the first Seder. What makes the spring time so special is that the central mitzvah of each holiday – the public reading of the megillah on Purim and the private eating of matzah on Passover – are among the few time-bound commandments that apply equally to men and women.

The reason is well known. In the language of the Rabbis, women must hear the megillah and eat matzah because “af hein hayu b’nes” – women too were included in the miracle of the rescue in Shushan and the exodus from Egypt. In the Rabbinic mind, salvation from the mortal danger which threatened the entire community rendered all Jews equal. Eve, the primordial woman, was cursed with dependence on her husband when she was banished from the Garden of Eden. But, when Pharaoh and Haman threatened the Jewish people, equality between husbands and wives, men and women, was at least partially restored. Essentialist differences based on gender are erased on Purim and Passover.

It is becoming a widespread practice among Open Orthodox think tanks like Beit Hillel to publish responsa engaging with contemporary issues relating to gender in modern Jewish life, including the questions of women’s obligation in time-bound commandments. One discomforting aspect of these well-intentioned papers is a reliance on standard halakhic categories. Much of the discussion focuses on personal status rather than the performance of the mitzvah itself. The point of departure is invariably the relative rank of men versus women rather than the intrinsic capacity of the person to fulfill the mitzvah. For example, when considering women’s participation in prayer services, the discussion hinges on the position of women in the hierarchy of obligation (slaves, children, deaf people, mentally incompetent people, women and men) and this determines whether or not women can fulfill specific roles such as reading from the Torah or leading prayers for the congregation. The same logic prevails even in the laws relating to the reading of the megillah. Some halakhic authorities persist in affording women a lower status than men and do not permit women to read on behalf of men. There have also been attempts to support specific practices with innovative applications of established halakhic principles that transcend gender status. A good illustration is Rabbi Sperber’s invocation of the principle of kvod ha’briyot, “human dignity,” to enable greater participation by women in communal prayer and Torah reading. But this is a notable exception. Usually the think tank responsa compile a list of lenient positions without establishing an underling legal basis and, as such, are unconvincing.

Back to megillah and matzah. If an external military or political threat provided a sound rationale for full equality in the requirement to perform these two mitzvot, can this model be extended to internal existential threats to Jewish survival? The notion of mortal threat to the Jewish people could be expanded to include the internal peril of inter-marriage and assimilation that is fostered by persistent gender inequality in defining status and requirement to perform mitzvot. Women and men who are fully engaged in the modern world may find Orthodoxy’s adherence to traditional gender roles, with its limitation of women’s involvement in all of the commandments, increasingly untenable and drift away from Orthodoxy. Alternatively, internal threat could be viewed on an individual level in which a person’s inner motivation to grow and thrive religiously is stymied by perceived gender inequality. This, too, might cause talented and committed men and women to abandon Orthodoxy for more egalitarian alternatives. This threat would represent a new point of departure for developing a gender neutral assessment of who should be obligated to perform all time-bound mitzvot.

Based on this reasoning, the requirement to eat, sleep, and sit in a sukkah or to participate in a daily minyan, prayer service, would be equally incumbent upon men and women. Instead of finding a reason to mandate performance of a specific time-bound mitzvah as an exception to the rule, this reformulation of the meaning of “af hein hayu b’nes” would assume that men and women are equally responsible for fulfilling this category of commandments. Rather than representing a betrayal of the Rabbinic tradition, it would remain integrally linked to classical legal texts by reformulating a concept that the Rabbis used to promote the observance by women of two specific commandments, reading the megillah and eating matzah at the Seder, to a wider context. Perhaps, looking to the future, the arrival of Adar 5776 and the change of seasons can serve as a springboard to broaden the halakhic discourse to one that emphasizes the essential equality of men and women in performing time-bound mitzvot.

Discover More

A New Purim Hero?

This year on Purim, several minyanim in the U.S. and in Israel will be reading the Megillah with a twist. ...

Including Agunot on Purim in Montreal

Every year costumed women and children arrive from communities across the island, all aglow and abuzz with great anticipation. Purim ...

Leyning In

Two summers ago I was having a relaxed conversation with Judy Heicklen, the president of JOFA. She mentioned to me ...