Ketubot 59

Unpaid labor.

A New York Times article published in March 2020 determined that if American women were paid minimum wage for all the domestic work that went into maintaining a household, they would collectively earn $1.5 trillion dollars per year. Globally, that number would be $10.9 trillion dollars — more than all the revenue made by the 50 largest corporations combined. 

I thought about this as I considered the list of seven tasks that, according to the mishnah on Ketubot 59b, a wife is obligated to provide for her husband: 

She grinds wheat into flour, bakes, washes clothes, cooks, nurses her child, makes her husband’s bed and makes thread from wool by spinning it. 

The mishnah states that if she has servants, they can do the work for her, including hiring a wet nurse to breastfeed her child. The more servants she has, the less work she is required to do herself. 

Later on the daf, the Talmud records a different opinion, that a wife should not be required to perform these tasks after all, because:

A wife is only for beauty and a wife is only for children (but not for household tasks).

And Rabbi Hiyya teaches: A wife is only for wearing a woman’s finery.

And Rabbi Hiyya similarly teaches: One who wishes to beautify his wife should clothe her in linen garments. 

In this view, the ornamental value of a wife is primary, as is the legitimately difficult labor of gestating, birthing and rearing children. Rabbi Hiyya goes on to discuss what foods should be given to one’s daughter so that she develops a milky complexion. Clearly, he was a man who appreciated the beauty of women (possibly over their other qualities).

In the mishnah, the importance of requiring women to do labor is tied not only to productivity, but to the need to keep them busy:

Rabbi Eliezer says: Even if she brought him a hundred maidservants, he could compel her to make thread from wool, since idleness leads to licentiousness.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: Even one who vows that his wife is prohibited from doing any work must divorce her and give her the payment for her marriage contract, since idleness leads to idiocy.

It should surprise no one that the rabbis of the Talmud, living in the patriarchal society of late antiquity, believed that only women — wives, maidservants, wet nurses — were expected to fulfill all the elements of running a household while they themselves went to work and to the study house. (The Talmud is also full of examples of women who work outside the home, and yet are expected to get dinner on the table, the beds made and the laundry done. Sound familiar?) The value placed on beauty by Rabbi Hiyya is not unexpected (also sound familiar?) nor is the worth placed on a particular type of beauty — prizing a lighter complexion over a darker one, for example. Disappointing, but not surprising.

What is a surprise is the recognition that even a wealthy woman who has servants to do all of this work should not remain completely idle. Whether because idleness leads to lewdness (the fear that with nothing to do, a woman will be more likely to commit adultery) or to mental degeneration, the rabbis seem to recognize that their wives are adults that, like them, need purposeful work — for their own benefit, and the benefit of the household. 

It’s clear that the rabbis valued women for a variety of reasons: their role in creating children, their labor both inside and outside the home, and their beauty. It’s also clear that not all of them valued the same things, in the same combination. This flexibility gives us room for reinterpretation, and the idea that these values could (and, indeed, perhaps should) continue to change both over time and from couple to couple.

Read all of Ketubot 59 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 3, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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