Gender Differences: Oaths

The Torah uses two different words for husband: ish, in particular when used with the feminine possessive “ishahh” (her man); and ba’al. Interestingly, in the beginning of parashas Matos, the section on annulling vows, only ishahh is used (v. 8, 9, 11, 12, twice in 13, twice in 14, 15; observation made to Avodah by Akiva Miller), ba’al is not used at all.

This is noteworthy because ba’al is the term used for the owner of proper or the master of a slave.

וְהָיָה בַיּוֹם-הַהוּא נְאֻם-ה’, תִּקְרְאִי אִישִׁי; וְלֹא-תִקְרְאִי-לִי עוֹד, בַּעְלִי.

And it will be on that day, by the authority of G-d, that you will call Me “Ishi“, and will not call me anymore “Ba’ali“.

– Hosheia 2:18

“Ishi” is a language of husband and the attachment of one’s youth; ba’al is a language of mastery and awe.

– Rashi ad loc

By not using the term ba’al, the Torah here seems to be quite clear that the authority to annull vows has nothing to do with the man having authority over his wife.

Rav Hirsch writes (new translation of commentary on Bamidbar 30:4):

A man’s vow is binding on him from the outset. He can — and should (see ibid. 59a; cf. Commentary, Devarim 23:22ff.)  — submit his vow to the national community and its representatives, so that they should examine the vow and decide on its fulfillment. Only in this way can a man dissolve his vow. For a man creates his position in life independently, and if he binds himself with a vow that cannot be absolved, he introduces into his life a new element that is not ordinarily applicable. This element changes and individualizes his life, and, since he is independent, he is able to take this individuality into account when he shapes the conditions of his life.

Not so for a woman. The moral greatness of the woman’s calling requires that she enter a position in life created by another. The woman does not build for herself her own home. She enters the home provided by the man, and she manages it, bringing happiness to the home and nurturing everything inside the home in a spirit of sanctity and orientation toward God. The woman — even more than the man — must avoid the constraint of extraordinary guidelines in her life, for they are likely to be an impediment to her in the fulfillment of her calling.

From this standpoint, one can understand the prescriptions instituted here out of concern for the woman. The Word of God seeks to insure the vowing woman against the consequences of her own words, and therefore confers on the father and on the husband a limited right to annul vows — on the father, as regards vows of a youthful daughter still under his care; on the father and on the fiancé, as regards vows of a betrothed daughter; on the husband, as regards vows of his wife.

I think Rav Hirsch’s intent is better understood if we revisit his writings on gender differences. (The following is taken from an earlier post.) His translation of Tehillim 45:14 is “But the king’s daughter is all glorious within, more than the golden borders of her raiment.” As Michael Poppers pointed out (on Avodah), this better fits the hyphenation of “kol-kevudah” as well as the use of “kevudah” not “kevudas“. The commentary reads:

“But”, the singer adds with infinite tact and delicacy, “though the princess may appear glorious and splendid in public, she reveals her true glory in quiet, more private circles, and the splendid qualities she shows there are much greater than the exquisite beauty of the gold borders which shine at the hem of her garment.” Penimah “within,” is always used to designate an inner recess as opposed to the outer chambers.

What may better capture RSRH’s position is his comments on “peru urvu umil’u es ha’aretz vikvishuhah — be fruitful and multiply and fill the world and subdue it” in Judaism Eternal, ch 11 (The Jewish Woman).

Vikvshuha is read malei [full, ie with the vav], but written chaseir [deficient]. In other words, while it is read as though both should participate in conquering the world, it’s written “vikivshah“, that only one of them should.

… [T]he command to “subdue”, and with it to procure the means necessary for marriage and for founding a household, is addressed only to the male sex, to whose function it belongs to compel the earth through labour to serve the needs of man. Hence the command to marry and found a household has absolute force only for the male sex. Since, however, these commands are after all addressed to both sexes, it is obvious that for the performance of man’s task of building up the world the Law-giver reckoned on the harmonious and equal co-operation of both sexes. Further, by excusing the female sex from the hard labour of subduing and mastering the earth, … [H]e left it free to be devoted to the higher and more humanistic task of employing the products of man’s labour for the ethical purposes of building up a house and family, that is to say, in the service of his true vocation and his welfare as a human being.

R SR Hirsch explains this verse as being about the Talmudic aphorism that “man brings in the grain, and woman makes it into bread”. Man conquers and acquires, woman develops the raw material into a finished product. Man builds a society, woman gives it a religious backbone. Ideally it would be man who produces technology, and women who make sure we don’t dehumanize ourselves in the process.

This is akin to an observation by “Dear Abby” (Pauline Phillips, born Pauline Esther Friedman). She wrote that men are goal oriented, while women are process oriented. This is an alleged gender difference from a totally unrelated source, albeit one probably based on anecdotal evidence, that would fit the roles assumed above.

Rav Hirsch speaks in terms of “inside” vs. “outside”, community in service of its members, vs the expansion of the community’s domain, reach, and standard of living. (Until here the review.)

This partnership, between the man extending the reach of qibbush and woman making sure it is done in a sacred manner, that I associate with the notion of ish ve’ishah.

In contrast, this is how we described the concept of ba’alus in the past:

R’ JB Soloveitcik identifies of the root of “qinyan“, קנה, with the notion of manufacture and repair. That a qinyan is a means of exchanging ownership caused by developing one thing for the work someone else put into their object or service. I therefore suggested, “By making marriage assume the qinyan format we are acknowledging that the bride and groom were literally made for each other, and hopefully will remain together until the end of time.”

Thus, qinyan refers to the work and to the responsibility of repair. This would explain why many of ususe a qinyan sudar, a kind of qinyan involving handing over a small object, usually cloth, to delegate the job of selling our chameitz. The rabbi isn’t acquiring our chameitz, he can’t own it any more than the rest of us can. He is assuming the responsibility for its sale, to serve as our shaliach, our proxy.

In the same way, Boaz takes responsibility for marrying Rus (in a quasi-yibum) by the exchange of a shoe with the unnamed relative. This too is a qinyan, “vezos hate’udah beyisrael — and this is a contract in Israel”. Qinyan as accepting responsibility.

R’ Dovid Lifshitz was once approached before shiur by someone who had recently bought a co-op. The problem was that the co-op board didn’t allow him to change the appearance of the outside of his domicile from the co-op’s standard by hanging a mezuzah.

Rav Dovid suggested (warning: I can’t recall if this was his conclusion or a hava amina, a possibility raised to be rejected) that perhaps someone who doesn’t have the authority to hang a mezuzah lacks ba’alus, and therefore wouldn’t be obligated to. (In either case, he suggested moving to a friendlier venue.) Note the implication: even if this lack of ba’alus is not sufficient to remove his obligation, it remains that a renter who can hang a mezuzah has more ba’alus than an owner who may not. And in any case, a renter doesn’t own, but is a ba’al with respect to hilkhos mezuzah. Ba’alus is not the same concept as that denoted by the English word “ownership”. A ba’al is one who has responsibility. With responsibility comes authority, but that meaning of ba’al is the derived one.

And so, we have a means of making a distinction between the two terms for husban. Ishahh, her man, is her partner in mastering the world. The ba’al, however, is the one who accepts responsibility for her food, clothing and sexual needs, and because of accepting that responsibility also must have the authority to carry it out.

By explicitly using the term ishahh rather than baalah when discussing the anulment of vows, we see that the husband has the power of hafaras nedarim not in his role of provider and therefore holding control (as anyone who holds the purse-strings will), but because it’s his role in the partnership to be the one who sets new directions, just as It’s hers to insure that they are developed in a holy way.

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