In the now classic self-help book Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus, John Gray argues that fundamental psychological differences between the sexes explain a lot of heterosexual relationship conflicts. Since its publication in 1992, the book has been critiqued for its misread of the data and for its gender essentialism. But the popularity of the book testifies to a social urge to classify men and women according to clear rules.
We see this exact same impulse at play on today’s daf. The mishnah shifts gears from a specific discussion of what to do if the meal-offering of the sotah is rendered impure and asks a surprisingly general question: Mah bein ish v’isha? What is the difference between a man and a woman? But where Gray turns to psychology and emotions, the rabbis on today’s daf use a different mechanism of differentiation: Law. Their first set of answers concern ritual issues relating to tzaraat (commonly mistranslated as leprosy) and being a nazirite:
A man lets his hair grow and rends his garments (when he contracts tzaraat), but a woman does not let her hair grow or rend. A man can vow his son will become a nazirite, but a woman cannot vow that her son be a nazirite. A man can shave (i.e. cut his hair and bring offerings to end his nazirite period) with his father’s naziriteship (i.e. offerings his father had designated); but a woman cannot shave with her father’s naziriteship.
The next set of answers addresses parents’ rights over their minor children:
A man can betroth his daughter, but a woman cannot betroth her daughter. A man can sell his daughter (into servitude in order to repay a debt), but a woman cannot sell her daughter.
Finally, the last set of answers addresses men and women’s punishments within the criminal justice system.
A man is stoned naked, but a woman is not stoned naked. A man is hanged, but a woman is not hanged. A man is sold into slavery for his theft (in order to pay his debt), but a woman is not sold for her theft.
Essentially, the mishnah answers its question — What is the difference between a man and a woman? — by listing specific differences in how the legal system treats men and women: ritually, within the context of family law and when it comes to punishment for crimes.
We might now wonder why these specific distinctions apply, though in some cases we might be able to guess (for instance, rabbinic approaches to women’s modesty could explain why the woman is not stoned naked). Predictably, the Gemara interrogates each of these legal differences. But in each case on today’s daf, the rabbis try to understand not the biological or social reason for the difference, but the biblical source. Let’s look at just one example, the fact that the bodies of men who have been executed for a crime are briefly hanged publicly, but women’s bodies are not.
What is the reason for this? The verse states: “And if a man has committed a sin worthy of death, and he is put to death, and you shall hang him on a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:22). “Him,” but not her.
For each difference identified by the mishnah, the rabbis point to a particular biblical verse about the issue, and read the Torah as referring specifically to men. They leave speculation about larger distinctions between the sexes to the side, and focus on each individual law and its biblical source.
Of course, there are plenty of places where the Talmud distinguishes between men and women on the basis of physical sex attributes or emotional needs. But I find it striking that on today’s page neither the rabbis of the Mishnah nor the rabbis of the Talmud point to biological or psychological differences between the sexes as the reason for these legal rulings. Instead, the mishnah explains differences between men and women as imposed by the law, and the Talmud does what it so often does — roots those rulings specifically in the biblical language around these laws.
Read all of Sotah 23 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 21st, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.