If you’ve been reading the Talmud for a while, or even if you haven’t, this fact is already glaringly obvious: all of the rabbis who wrote the Talmud were men. You probably know what you think about that fact, but what did the rabbis of the Talmud think about the society they lived in? Did they believe that men and women simply had different roles to play as a result of their biology, or did they think that women were subjugated and forced into a particular role while being excluded from others?
A midrash on today’s daf helps shed some light on that question. In the context of a broader discussion of women’s proper conduct within a marriage, Rabbi Yitzchak bar Avdimi offers an interpretation of Genesis 3:16, in which God describes Eve’s post-Eden life: To the woman God said: I will greatly multiply your pain and your travail; in sorrow you shall bring forth children; and yet your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you.
This already does not sound great for Eve — who will be ruled over by her husband, continue to desire his embrace, and then bring forth children in pain — but Rabbi Yitzchak bar Avdimi takes things a step further, claiming:
Eve was cursed with ten curses.
He then explains the derivation of each of these curses from different words in the biblical verse above.
“Greatly multiply”: these are the two drops of blood (representing the blood of menstruation and the blood of virginity).
“Your pain”: this is the pain of raising children.
“And your travail”: this is the pain of pregnancy.
“In sorrow you shall bring forth children”: in accordance with its plain meaning (i.e. no explanation needed).
“And yet your desire shall be to your husband”: this teaches that the woman misses her husband when he sets out on the road.
“And he shall rule over you” teaches that the woman demands her husband sexually only in her heart, but the man demands his wife verbally.
So far we are at seven curses; Rav Dimi completes the list by adding another three, though these don’t seem to be biblically derived:
A woman is wrapped like a mourner (meaning that she must cover her head and dress modestly), and she is ostracized from all people and incarcerated within a prison (because of the expectation that women will stay at home and not socialize or partake in civil society).
We’ve now moved from Rabby Yitzchak bar Avdimi’s enumeration of the difficulties faced by women in antiquity as wives and mothers to the restrictions they all faced in their everyday activities. If it didn’t look good for Eve after she ate the apple, it’s perhaps looking even worse for her by the rabbinic period.
The rabbis certainly aren’t rallying for radical feminist change here; on the contrary, they are presenting this difference between the sexes as divinely ordained. But at the same time, they are also acknowledging that it’s hard to be a woman in their culture. After all, these elements of female existence are enumerated as curses (thanks to Ishay Rosen-Zvi for this insight in his book The Mishnaic Sotah Ritual). The rabbis were not exactly proto-feminists, but we can give them credit for their empathy, and for their acknowledgement — free of apologetics — of real inequalities in their culture.