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Monday, August 22, 2011

Shelo Asani Ishah. An honest and articulate analysis by Rabbi Aryeh Frimer.

The Bracha of Shelo Asani Isha has elicited a range of reactions even among the Orthodox.  While it is obvious that the bracha refers to the male's obligation of more mitvos, its negative phrasing and its placement after goy and aved can be perceived as dismissive and belittling, and can make it uncomfortable to be in shul when an isha chashuva is behind the mechitza.


I saw this posted on another website, signed Rabbi Aryeh Frimer.  I cannot vouch for the authenticity of its authorship, but it conforms with his high standard of discourse, as I have personally experienced, for example, when he attended my daf yomi either fourteen or twenty one years ago.   Rabbi Frimer has written extensively on issues of Women and Tefilla, and I had the privilege of pointing out to him the Rosh in Brachos (seventh perek siman 20 and see Ma'adanei Yomtov if you can't figure it out yourself) that ties tziruf to a minyan to Bris Mila. UPDATE: Rabbi Dr. Frimer verified his authorship by personal communication.


I would like to make it clear that there is no doubt as to the authenticity of the text of the benediction she-lo asani isha─since it appears thrice in Rabbinic literature: in the Tosefta, the Talmud Bavli and the Yerushalmi. (B.T. Menahot 43b; J.T. Berakhot 9:1; and Tosefta Berakhot 6:18) Both the Tosefta and the Yerushalmi make it clear that the benediction is related strictly to men’s greater obligation in commandments. As is well known, women are generally freed from mitsvot asei she-ha-zeman gramman (time-determined positive commandments), which include, inter alia: sukka, lulav, shofar, tefillin and tsitsit. (See: Mishna Kiddushin 1:7; Tosefta Kiddushin 1:10; Talmud Kiddushin 29a, and Kiddushin 33b and ff) Reams have been written to explain the import of these benedictions and why they are in the negative. (“Birkot haShahar,” Encyclopedia Talmudit, IV, p. 371ff; Joseph Tabory, “The Benediction of Self-Identity and The Changing Status of Women and of Orthodoxy,” Kenishta, 1 (2001), pp. 107-138). I would like, however, to cite the comments of R. Reuven Margaliyyot (Nitsotsei Or, Menahot 43b, s.v. Rabbi Meir Omer), which I personally find very satisfying.
…A woman is not punished if she does not fulfill time-determined positive commandments, and her share in the World to Come is like that of a man. Hence, there might well be room for a male Jew to think that it might have been better had he been born a woman, for then he would have been freed from the yoke of these commandments. Hence, [the Rabbis] established that each male should make a daily declaration that these mitsvot are not a burden.
A similar approach appears in the writings of the 18th Century Talmudist R. Samuel Eidels (Maharsha Hiddushei Aggadot, Menahot 43b. See also Chabakuk Elisha, “Shelo Asani Isha,” A Simple Jew Blog, September 12, 2008, available online at: http://tinyurl.com/343e2g5) who writes:
…[A male makes this benediction because the role] of a man and a woman are each lenient on the one hand and stringent on the other. For if they are righteous, the reward of the male is greater, because he is commanded in more mitsvot than a woman. However, if they are not righteous, the man’s punishment is greater than a woman’s.
These scholars note that one who has greater obligation has greater potential for reward, but also for greater possible punishment should he or she not do as required. Thus, a man who doesn’t put on tefillin or sit in the Sukka is punished for bittul aseh─for not fulfilling the positive commandment he was bidden to obey. Hence, the Rabbis ordained that each day, each of us acknowledge that, mutatis mutandis, the Creator could have made us a non-Jew, or a slave, or a woman with fewer obligations, but also fewer risks. Yet, the Almighty chose not to. By reciting the daily identity berakhot “sheLo asani goy; sheLo asani aved; sheLo asani isha” each of us accepts upon ourselves the spiritual/religious role that we have been given. The “she-lo” is to be understood as “Who has not,” a sober acknowledgement and acceptance of a spiritual role, not a celebrative “because He has not.”
R. Nissim Alpert suggests a insightful rationale as to why these berakhot are formulated in the negative. Hazal wanted to communicate to us that the Creator only gives us the opportunity – He defines who we are not; it is up to us to define who we are and maximize our positive potential. (R. Joel Rich, personal communication (January 2011); see also comments to http://tinyurl.com/6l3ojup) Interestingly, the same idea appears in the writings of 19th century R. Zadok haKohen (R. Zaddok haKohen Rabinowitz of Lublin, Pri Tsaddik, vaYikra, Parashat Emor, sec. 7, s.v. “veAhar kakh.”).
And the reason one should not recite “who has made me an Israelite” is that man functions with freedom of choice, and one can be called an Israelite only if he chooses properly. And who can be sure that he/she will chose correctly? Hence, we can only recite the benedictions “who has not made me a non-Jew or a slave.” But, nevertheless, one has the choice to chose [whether to do these mitsvot] because he is not a non-Jew or a slave. The same is true for “who has not made me a woman” – it is in his choice to fulfill or not fulfill those mitsvot that stem from men’s greater mitsva obligation.
Many have waved this all off as “apologetics”. I guess one man’s apologetics is another’s honest explanation. The only authoritative guideline is the one given us by the Tosefta and the Yerushalmi─namely, that this bendiction relates to the fewer number of specific mitsvot in which women are obligated. Rabbi Kanefsky has chosen to interpret the berakha in a way which creates a problem and casts aspersions on Hazal. To my mind, it is far better to understand it so no problem begins!
The Berakhot are not Triumphal thanks – more like the acknowledgement of Barukh Dayan haEmet!

Aryeh Frimer

The remarks that came in have turned out to just as important as the original post and are herewith incorporated. 

Daniel's comment:

I don't understand why it's not crystal clear that the Torah holds a man's existence is greater than that of a woman's from the following:

a) Horayot 3:7 האיש קודם לאישה להחיות, ולהשיב אבידה.

b) the parashiot of Arachin

among a host of other related examples... 


Devorah's comment:

I think the Torah holds that a woman's existence is greater than that of a man, and the blessing "Shelo asani ishah" was wisely added as a feelgood moment for males, to give them the impression that they are indeed fortunate and in control... when any thinking person knows that it's really a smart woman who guides her man along the right path...


great unknown's comment:

a) Daniel: not "a man's existence is greater", but rather, a man's potential to do mitzvot is greater.

Arachin is not related to spiritual issues but to practical value to society. Until the past hundred years, muscle power was a critical item of capital, in many ways more valued than intellectual capital.
Similarly, the fact that a woman was confined to the house to a large extent.
The fairness of this home confinement is already discussed in Eruvin.

b) Devorah, I am convinced that you are correct. I have told many of my students that their tefillot would improve if they had kavana that they were dovening to a Female concept, k'veyachol. After, isn't that what the Shechina is?

Note also that the women in the midbar did not sin at the eigel or the meraglim [there is a question about the latter].

c) The approach presented here answers a major question. If I make a birchat hodo'ah on something, I make it once, and that's it. One shehechiyanu per item, one birchat hagomel, etc.
So why repeat the birchot hashachar daily?

Granted, most of them are indeed renewed hoda'ah every morning, because not everybody who goes to sleep with flexibility and vision wakes up the same way, R"L. But - absent the tender ministrations of a surgeon, if I go to sleep male, I expect to wake up a male [ignoring Kafka]. Similarly, a Jew will not wake up a goy. So why a new brocho every morning.

Based on this post, the bracha is not a birchat hanehenin or birchat hoda'ah, but rather a kabolas ol malchus shamayim in the precise measure it was given to me, and this is necessarily renewed every morning - comp. Krias Shma.

Which begs the question why not twice daily? To which I refer the interested reader to the hakdama of the Eglai Tal in the name of the Kotzker. While the entire hakdama is worth the investment of time and thought, this particular segment is near the end.


(Anonymous compiled several maxims that evince respect and honor for women.)



Tali's comment:

I was under the impression the blessing had more to do with female biology.

For example, every woman dislikes everything to do with menstruation, but understands that it is necessary for the female reproductive system.

Likewise, even "easy" pregnancies and "easy" births are inconvenient and uncomfortable at best. (Although I won't deny the specialness of knowing of and bonding with a little soul growing inside of you; I do feel privileged - but not every woman experiences even that.) At worst, pregnancy and birth are traumatic and even deadly.

Men can reproduce without discomfort and suffering, and without endangering their lives. Isn't that reason enough to bless God for not having made them a woman?


The next paragraph is from a post I put up a long, long time ago discussing the form of Kidushin.
Despite the language of Shelo asani Isha, despite the petur of zman grama, and despite the fact that divorce is done unilaterally, anyone impartially and thoroughly reading the whole of Rabbinic literature will know that (the claim that Chazal view women as chattel) is nonsense. If one finds the endless stories in Tanach and in the Gemara insufficient to demonstrate the domestic parity of husband and wife, the reaction is most likely symptomatic of a desire to rationalize one’s disrespect for Chazal by demeaning them and dismissing them as as primitives. But, in any case, there is the Gemara in Gittin 39b. If the Gemara isn’t clear enough, see Rashi there DH "Ve’ka daykis Minah.” This Gemara and Rashi state unequivocally that the idea of ownership is utterly foreign to our concept of marriage.  All the rules that a woman’s income go to her husband are for her benefit, in that they come with equivalent and counter-balancing obligations on the part of the husband. Furthermore, any woman that wants to remain independent during marriage has the unfettered ability to negotiate that right prior to the marriage. If the husband does not make it clear to his wife before marriage that he retains the right to plural marriage, he has no such right. According to most poskim, a woman may unilaterally declare her financial independence during the marriage even absent prenuptial agreement. Furthermore, the Torah obligations of spouses weigh heavily on the husband and barely on the wife at all. The Torah obligation of a husband is to provide “she’eir, kesus, and ona,” meaning room, board, clothing, and marital relations. A wife’s obligation is to live in the city her husband chooses, and to not unreasonably refuse marital relations.


And finally:  For an informed and intelligent dialogue on this question, see the Avodah Digest here.  Among the many worthy ideas there, this from Reb Micha Berger is perfect to bring this post to a close:
Life is too complex to be reduced to one axis and one ranking system.
Most aspects of the human condition have multiple ways of being measured.
E.g. A mal'akh is more qadosh than a person, as it is entirely set
aside to do Retzon haBorei (the definition of qedushah), but a person
is betzelem E-lokim and a mal'akh is not.

Having more mitzvos means having more opportunities to refine oneself,
get sekhar, etc... But also more opportunities to mess up. It means that
men are playing a higher stakes game.

However, our mean is less holy than that of women. (Compare who brought
gold to the eigel, vs who donated gold to the mishkan. Or the Maharal
on Shemos 19:3.) Men have more opportunity to rise (or fall), but still,
we start at a lower point.

So, men thank G-d for the extra mitzvos, and women thank G-d for
being made closer to His ultimate Will.

Each has its positives, and both could see their glasses as half full.

14 comments:

Daniel said...

I don't understand why it's not crystal clear that the Torah holds a man's existence is greater than that of a woman's from the following:

a) Horayot 3:7 האיש קודם לאישה להחיות, ולהשיב אבידה.

b) the parashiot of Arachin

among a host of other related examples...

Devorah said...

I think the Torah holds that a woman's existence is greater than that of a man, and the blessing "Shelo asani ishah" was wisely added as a feelgood moment for males, to give them the impression that they are indeed fortunate and in control... when any thinking person knows that it's really a smart woman who guides her man along the right path...

[ducking for cover after this one]

Love your blog B.

great unknown said...

a) Daniel: not "a man's existence is greater", but rather, a man's potential to do mitzvot is greater.

Arachin is not related to spiritual issues but to practical value to society. Until the past hundred years, muscle power was a critical item of capital, in many ways more valued than intellectual capital.
Similarly, the fact that a woman was confined to the house to a large extent.
The fairness of this home confinement is already discussed in Eruvin.

b) Devorah, I am convinced that you are correct. I have told many of my students that their tefillot would improve if they had kavana that they were dovening to a Female concept, k'veyachol. After, isn't that what the Shechina is?

Note also that the women in the midbar did not sin at the eigel or the meraglim [there is a question about the latter].

c) The approach presented here answers a major question. If I make a birchat hodo'ah on something, I make it once, and that's it. One shehechiyanu per item, one birchat hagomel, etc.
So why repeat the birchot hashachar daily?

Granted, most of them are indeed renewed hoda'ah every morning, because not everybody who goes to sleep with flexibility and vision wakes up the same way, R"L. But - absent the tender ministrations of a surgeon, if I go to sleep male, I expect to wake up a male [ignoring Kafka]. Similarly, a Jew will not wake up a goy. So why a new brocho every morning.

Based on this post, the bracha is not a birchat hanehenin or birchat hoda'ah, but rather a kabolas ol malchus shamayim in the precise measure it was given to me, and this is necessarily renewed every morning - comp. Krias Shma.

Which begs the question why not twice daily? To which I refer the interested reader to the hakdama of the Eglai Tal in the name of the Kotzker. While the entire hakdama is worth the investment of time and thought, this particular segment is near the end.

b said...

Thank you all for writing. Each of you has contributed something of real value. I'm putting the comments into the post.

Anonymous said...

Ephorism from Chazal:

1) "Isha k'sheira ATERET ba'ala", meaning that a goodly wife is the CROWNing glory of her husband.

2) In the welcoming hymne for Friday night: "Lecha Dodi...." The Day of Shabbat is called a bride.

3) The Zohar Ha'Kadosh is replete with superlatives and describes the Shekhina in the feminine gender

4) Also, our sages say that a man thanks Hashem for EXEMPTING him from the duties of a JEWISH woman! It is she, who is Commander-in-Chief of Home Affair and (usually) puts herself in the "line of fire".

5) Similarly the female lion is the fiercest among the beasts in protecting her offspring.

6) The Jewish woman is often described as the one who is 'moser nefesh' for the continuity of the Jewish People.

7) In the z'chut of Rachel Imeinu Hashem will redeem the Jews from this exile...

8) Melech ha'Moshiach is ben-achar-ben of our Matriach Leah.

9) Moshiach Ben-Dovid is a direct descendant of RUTH.

Tali said...

Thank you for the commentary.

I was under the impression the blessing had more to do with female biology.

For example, every woman dislikes everything to do with menstruation, but understands that it is necessary for the female reproductive system.

Likewise, even "easy" pregnancies and "easy" births are inconvenient and uncomfortable at best. (Although I won't deny the specialness of knowing of and bonding with a little soul growing inside of you; I do feel privileged - but not every woman experiences even that.) At worst, pregnancy and birth are traumatic and even deadly.

Men can reproduce without discomfort and suffering, and without endangering their lives. Isn't that reason enough to bless God for not having made them a woman?

(I'm trying to be objective. Personally, I like being a woman despite the biological hardships.)

Daniel said...

@great- you have misspoken. assuming you've learnt mishnayot arachin, you've described דמי עלי, not ערכי עלי. How in the world else could a down syndrome 35 yr old have higher ערך than a prime minister or other elite leader? Arachin gauge existential value, of which men are always higher than women. That's what בערכך נפשות לי"ה"ו"ה means.

@b- the torah clearly sees women as a possession(specifically land though, not מטלטלין) and something you own. (You're called a בעל and she's called קנין for goodness sake!!!)
your mistake though is in underappreciating קנין. It being something you're willing to give your life for, as in פכים קטנים, not something you trade in at the department store or on the stock exchange.

b said...

Daniel:
How do you understand the drop from 50 to 15 shekel on the sixtieth birthday? Odd, if we're dealing with societal status, in that we honor our elders and seek their counsel. If it's a matter of practical value to society, one can see that when you're nearing your pull date you have less value.

You evidently didn't read the added paragraph I pasted at the end from the Gemara in Gittin. As to why the term baal and kinyan is used, that is either a holdover from preTorah times when women were indeed purchased, or simply reflects the masculine role of going out and courting and convincing and getting. To say differently is to willfully ignore more than ample evidence of domestic parity.

Daniel said...

b- 1) I didn't fully understand the question. I think you might be getting at is according to what I've said how can existential value change by age, והא מצינו, that by the דין of מאי חזית דדמא דידך סומק טפי וכו' (which is also based on existential value) we make no such distinction i.e. even if you're a 35 yr, productive, contributing citizen you'd have to give up your life for a 70 yr, loser, bum, parapalegic... That is a question I recognize and I don't have a straightforward answer for.

2) I did read the Gittin reference but frankly felt like I must be missing something... I didn't see how it's related to the subject at all. A woman has a יד in Gittin, agreed, what does that have to do the discussion?

Furthermore, let's assume that existentially men are greater than women, what would that have to do with the subsequent arrangement they enter into themselves by way of marriage?

We've gone from discussing superiority of men per se, to superiority of husbands over wives, a subtle but significant difference.

b said...

Daniel-
Arachin are different than Damim, but even Arachin are based on a generalization of productivity, as indicated in Arachin 19a, where the Gemara points out the precipitous drop in a man's erech vis a vis a woman's, and explains that "an old man in the house is a burden in the house, an old woman in the house is a treasure in the house." This has nothing to do with existential value.

The Gemara in Gittin deals with the monetary ownership of an owner in a slave, and distinguishes that from the husband's rights in his wife, which are exclusively in the domain of issur and hetter. This was in response to your allegation that "the torah clearly sees women as a possession". That certainly was the milieu of biblical times; it is absolutely not what the Torah teaches, not Bichsav and not Ba'al Peh.

Daniel said...

1- Firstly I respect the question from 19a. It's relevant, factual, and intelligent. My thoughts to that:
I don't think it's so persuasive from 19a that it's referring to general productivity PER SE necessarily, but even assuming it is, existentialism is never divorced from its empirical manifestation ergo, the gemara most often will derive from the empirical external world we live in extrapolations that shed light on deeper existential phenomena, but the 15 shekel drop is because of what the old man IS, not how much productivity he can generate. The productivity rates of old men vs women is just an indication of deeper reality

2- why are you confusing "possession/קנין" with "monetary possession"?

Is שמים וארץ a monetary possession? ישראל a monetary possession? תורה? etc. and yet they are in fact a קנין to הקב"ה and inferior to him insofar as ownership goes...

that's not to say there can't be certain dimensions in which the בעלים and the קנין are equal as in
כל האומר ויכולו וכו' נעשה שותף להקב"ה במעשה בראשית

or even greater...
(Shemot Raba 52:5)
כך הקב"ה, בתחילה קרא לישראל בת, שנאמר (תהלים מה): שמעי בת וראי והטי אזנך ושכחי עמך ובית אביך, לא זז מחבבן עד שקראן אחותי, שנאמר (שיר ה): פתחי לי אחותי רעיתי יונתי תמתי שראשי נמלא טל קוצותי רסיסי לילה, לא זז מחבבן, עד שקראן אמי, שנאמר (ישעיה נא): הקשיבו אלי עמי ולאמי אלי האזינו כי תורה מאתי תצא ומשפטי לאור עמים ארגיע.

b said...

1. I think that with I think you don't prove anything. Or, as OWH said, Certainty is not the test of certitude.

2. The Baalus of the Ribono shel Olam includes ownership, as in the requirement to say a bracha because one who does not, "steals" what has not been given to him. Of course, we need to know why non-Jews are not obligated to make a bracha, and why brachos are not d'oraysa, but that's a question for another day. Back to earth- if the husband's baalus was real baalus, he would own his wife, and in fact he does not.

As I said, many terms and forms are carryovers from pre-mattan torah and can be misleading. It's really worth reading what I wrote some years ago in its entirety at
http://havolim.blogspot.com/2008/12/vayeishev-breishis-381-end-yehuda-and.html

Daniel said...

I think I have a further proof about 19a. Note that לכאורה the gemara's he'aro that an old man in the house is a burden, woman/treasure, does not explain [and actually then conflicts with) why PAST 60 the ערך of a man is GREATER than that of a woman [15 vs 10], only that the decline is greater... if you learn like me it works out better i.e. the example given is only meant as a shell of the deeper fundamentals, not the primary criteria itself of ערכין.

b said...

Daniel- I too have wondered about that point, and I have no good explanation for it, but I don't think the question is strong enough that one would not take the Gemara at face value.