The mishnah under discussion on today’s page contains a ruling that women may not go out on Shabbat wearing a ring that contains a seal — an imprint used for affixing a unique mark to something. This becomes the occasion for a heated debate about just how different men and women are, and not only in their adornments.
It begins when Ulla asserts that while a woman may not go out with a ring with a seal but may go out with any other sort of ring, the reverse is true for a man — he may go out with a ring containing a seal but no other kind. In fact, Ulla continues, generalizing with considerable rapidity, everything a man may wear a woman may not, and vice versa. It’s a pretty broad assertion to hang on this mishnah (though he may be drawing on Deuteronomy 22:5, which prohibits cross-dressing, as well), so another rabbi immediately shoots it down:
Rav Yosef raised an objection from the Tosefta: “Shepherds may go out on Shabbat in garments made of sacks.” And not with regard to the shepherds alone did the sages say that they are permitted to go out in sacks on Shabbat; rather, any person may do so. However, the sages taught the halacha with regard to shepherds because it is the standard practice of shepherds to go out in sacks.
In antiquity, apparently, shepherds frequently made clothing out of sacks. So, Rav Yosef explains, when the rabbis promulgated a law about wearing sack garments on Shabbat, they explicitly mentioned shepherds. But that doesn’t mean that no one else ever wears clothes made out of sacks. Similarly, Rav Yosef admonishes Ulla, the mishnah about women wearing rings with seals is not making a grand statement that men only wear one kind of ring and women another — or, even more ludicrously, that men and women can never wear the same garment. And then he adds a kicker:
Rav Yosef said: Ulla holds that women are a people unto themselves.
The word here translated as people is am (עם) — the same word that is used for the people of Israel. It’s always difficult to be certain of tone in the Talmud, but it seems likely that Rav Yosef is lampooning Ulla for his stark views about the distinction between men and women.
At this point, Abaye rushes in with another teaching that proves women and men are not so wholly different they may never wear the same garment, and this one goes even further in eroding Ulla’s rigid distinctions. Abaye essentially argues that women, under certain circumstances, can wear tefillin, a commandment generally considered by the rabbis to be the exclusive reserve of men who are obligated in time-bound, positive mitzvot. Abaye states that if anyone, man or woman, finds tefillin laying around outside the city on Shabbat, they should wear them back into the city (so as to neither disrespectfully leave them lying around nor carry them through the public domain).
And then the Gemara takes it even a step further, making the surprising claim that not only may women wear tefillin in this exceptional circumstance, but they are in fact obligated in the mitzvah of tefillin. Here’s the argument:
There Rabbi Meir holds that night is an appropriate time to don tefillin, as well as Shabbat and festivals. Consequently, the mitzvah of tefillin is a positive mitzvah that is not time bound; and in every positive mitzvah that is not time bound, women are obligated.
This text cuts against the grain of many traditional perspectives on women and tefillin. It demonstrates that although the Talmud is certainly a product of its time, the rabbis were inclined to reject rigid gender roles that rested on flimsy pretexts.