Ki Teitzei & Kedoshim: Two Kinds

August 20, 2021 at 12:57 pm | Posted in Kedoshim, Ki Teitzei | Leave a comment

House in ancient Israel with parapets

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“If you go”), is packed with ethical rules.  But right after the law about building a parapet around your roof so no one can fall off, Moses gives a apparently senseless rule about segregating different crops.

The contrast is more pronounced in a similar passage in the portion Kedoshim (“Holiness”) in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.  Right after the command to love your neighbor as yourself, the Torah switches to rules about segregating different species of animals, plants, and even fibers.

In Kedoshim

You shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am God.  My chukot you shall observe: You may not breed together livestock of kilayim, you may not plant your field with kilayim, and clothing of woven material of kilayim may not go over you.  (Leviticus 19:18-19)

chukot (חֻקֺּת) = decrees, fiats.  (Early commentators wrote that chukot are the divine rules that humans cannot figure out using reason, but that Jews must obey anyway.1)

kilayim (כִּלְאָיִם) = two kinds; an enforced mixture of two different kinds.  (Kele, כֶּלֶא = imprisonment + ayim= a suffix meaning a pair.2)

Were these three rules about forbidden mixtures always chukot, or was there an early rationale behind them that was lost over the centuries?  No definite reason for the rules has yet been discovered, but many commentators have argued that these rules instill respect for God the Creator.

Attempting to crossbreed two different species of animals (or even a wild donkey with a domesticated donkey3) insults God by implying that the animals God created are insufficient or imperfect.4  Growing crops of two different species without a clear separation between them, or grafting a branch from one tree onto another kind of tree, gives an observer the impression that species of plants that God created have been altered—another insult.5

19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch even applied this argument to clothing made with kilayim (mixed wool and linen, according to the Torah portion Ki Teitzei) when he wrote: “…every seedling and fiber of organic life does the Will of its Creator, without deviating from its assigned task.”6

In Ki Teitzei

The three chukot from Leviticus change a bit when Moses repeats them in Deuteronomy, right after the law about the parapet.

You may not plant your vineyard with kilayim, or else it will be holy: [both] the full yield of the seeds that you plant, and the produce of the vineyard.  You may not plow with an ox and with a donkey together as one.  You may not wear material woven of wool and linen together as one.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:9-11)

The version in Ki Teitzei refers to mixing seeds in a vineyard rather than a field, and adds the warning that such a mixture is holy.  (Usually when something is holy in the Torah, it is prohibited from ordinary use and reserved for God, but here the grapes and other produce are merely prohibited from use.)

The next change in the Deuteronomic version is that plowing with two different animals is banned, instead of breeding them.  Finally, Ki Teitzei specifies that only woven material that mixes wool and linen is forbidden.7

Commentators have used these changes or clarifications to generate additional explanations for the inexplicable chukot.  If the rationale that the rules enforce respect for God the Creator is not convincing, we can read arguments that the chukot about kilayim are instructions for distinguishing between the traits of Cain and Abel, or for segregating the holy from the ordinary.  The second rule, about plowing with two kinds of animals, has also been interpreted as an ethical command.

Distinguishing Cain from Abel

The distinction between linen and wool suggests the story of Cain and Abel, in which God rejects Cain’s offering of plants, but accepts Abel’s offering of a sheep, and Cain kills his brother Abel.8  In the 8th or 9th century C.E., the author of  Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer wrote: “Rabbi Joshua ben Ḳorchah said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Heaven forbid ! Never let the offerings of Cain and Abel be mixed up (with one another), even in the weaving of a garment …”9

13th-century Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah went farther.  Besides identifying Cain’s offering as flax (the raw material for linen), and Abel’s as sheep which grow wool, he declared that Cain’s father was the serpent in the Garden of Eden, while Abel’s father was Adam, so Cain and Abel were themselves kilayim, as well as the first murderer and the first murder victim.10

Segregating the holy

Another explanation is suggested by the reference to holiness in the rule about vineyards.  In the 19th century, Hirsch wrote that only wine from grapes grown in observance of God’s rule could be taken into the sanctuary as a libation to God.11  In that case, holy means prohibited for any use.

But in the 21st century, Richard Elliott Friedman speculated that all three chukot might forbid those particular combinations because they are associated with gods, and therefore holy.  “The law against cooking a kid in its mother’s milk may be because that was regarded as a food for a deity, since a Ugaritic text pictures the chief god, El, having kid cooked in milk …  The law against wearing wool and linen together may be because they were both used in the Tabernacle …  And so it may be in the case of mixed seeds, as well: the prohibition of mixing them may not be because the mixing is bad in some way but rather because some mixtures are regarded as divine.”12

Wool and linen are combined for several sacred uses in the Torah.  In God’s portable sanctuary, both the screen at the entrance of the tent and the curtain concealing the Holy of Holies inside must be made out of “sky-blue and red-violet and red and linen”.13  The technology to dye linen was unavailable in the Ancient Near East, so the colored threads must be wool.14

High priest vestments

A priest’s vestments are woven out of the same combination of colored wool and linen,15 and priests dedicate their lives to serving God at the sanctuary.

In the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, men are required to wear fringes on the four corners of a garment, and each fringe must include a cord of blue wool.  Whenever they glance at it, they will remember God’s commandments.16

In this week’s Torah portion, people may not wear or cover themselves with material woven of wool and linen together.  The mixture is prohibited for these ordinary uses of fabric, and reserved for holy purposes.

Ethical plowing

The need to separate the holy and the profane does not explain the middle rule: You may not plow with an ox and with a donkey together as one.  (Deuteronomy 22:10)

Some commentators claimed this rule was derived from the prohibition in Leviticus about breeding different species of animals.  If a farmer used two different animals to plow together, he would house both in the same shed, where they might try to mate.17

But by the 13th-century, Chizkuni offered: “An alternate interpretation; G-d’s mercy extends not only to human beings but to all of His creatures. Therefore these two categories of beasts being mismatched as one is far stronger than the other, it would be causing the donkey pain to be part of such a team pulling the plough.”18  This is the dominant interpretation today.


I confess that until this week I was only interested in the prohibition against yoking a donkey and an ox to plow together.  This rule not only opposes cruelty to animals, but can also be extended to cover situations in which human beings with unequal abilities are expected to perform the same tasks.  How often have you heard people with good jobs or inherited wealth accusing the poor of being lazy or careless?  We need to oppose cruelty to humans, too.

Now that I have studied the chukot about kilayim, I am also pondering the human need to make distinctions.  We want clear choices and definite rules so we can navigate our ordinary daily lives without unnecessary anxiety.  Here is a vineyard, over there is a field of wheat.  Here are the foods on my diet, over there are the things I don’t eat.

But when it comes to our spiritual lives, we embrace paradoxes and non-rational unifications.  So although we try to avoid kilayim in mundane things, we celebrate merging on a spiritual level.  God fills the universe, God once lived inside the Tent of Meeting, and today God spoke to me.  God creates disasters and approves of wars, and God is good and loves every individual.

Are these good approaches to mundane and spiritual life?

  1. The Tanchuma (circa 500 C.E.) and subsequent commentaries, including Rashi.
  2. Following 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra Part II, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, pp. 629-630.
  3. Mishnah Kilayim 1:6 (circa 200 C.E.).
  4. g. 12th-century rabbis Abraham Ibn Ezra and Ramban (Moses ben Nachman); Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher (1255-1340).
  5. Mishnah Kilayim 3:5, translated in : “One may plant a cucumber and a gourd in one hole, as long as this [species] inclines in one direction, and the other [species] in the opposite direction. And he should tip the leaves of one [species] one way, and the other the opposite way, since all that the sages prohibited [in matters of kilayim] they only decreed because of appearance.”
  6. Hirsch, ibid., p. 633. He then launched into an argument that this divine decree is a reminder that a man’s (sic) animal nature should rule over his vegetative nature—unless he is a priest, who can wear wool and linen in the same garment because his whole self is dedicated to God.
  7. The word sha-atnez (שַׁעַטנֵז), probably a loan-word from Egyptian, appears only in Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:11. It may mean “woven material”, in which case Leviticus prohibits material woven with any kilayim.  Or it may mean “woven material combining wool and linen”, in which case Leviticus and Deuteronomy agree.
  8. Genesis 4:1-8.
  9. Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 21:6, translated in
  10. Hezekiah ben Manoah, Chizkuni, (13th century) translated in
  11. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Devarim, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 516.
  12. Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah with a New English Translation, HarperCollins, 2001, p. 632.
  13. Exodus 26:31, 26:36.
  14. Friedman, ibid., p. 633.
  15. Exodus 28:5-6.
  16. Numbers 15:38-39.
  17. g. Abraham Ibn Ezra.
  18. Hezekiah ben Manoah, Chizkuni, translated in


Shoftim: More Important Than War, Part 2

August 26, 2020 at 9:29 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei, Shoftim | 1 Comment

Israelite Soldier (artist unknown)

Once the Israelites have taken over most of Canaan and established their own country, Moses says in last week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), a king will have more important duties than wars of conquest, and some men will have more important duties than being soldiers.  Battles are inevitable in the Torah, and advantageous to the winners; winning king expands his kingdom, and his soldiers get shares of the booty.  But the portion Shoftim opens a door to an attitude that values peace.

In last week’s post, Shoftim: More Important Than War, Part 1, I covered the four rules a good king must follow, all of which would make a war of conquest more difficult—unless God intervened.   Later the portion Shoftim says:

If you go out to battle against your enemies and you see horse and chariot, more troops than you have, you must not be afraid of them, because God, your God who brought you up from the land of Egypt, is with you.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 20:1)

Individual men must still be prepared to die, but they should know that God is on the side of their country and their comrades.

If the war is defensive, protecting the kingdom from attack, then all able-bodied men who are age 20 and older must serve in the military.1  But if the war is offensive, designed to expand Israel’s border or its prestige, then four kinds of circumstances excuse men altogether from going to battle.2

Israelite house, artist unknown

1) Then the officials will speak to the troops, saying: “Who is the man that has built a new house and not chanako?  He must leave and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man yachnekhenu.”  (Deuteronomy 20:5)

chanakho (חֲנָכוֹ) = dedicated it, inaugurated it.  yachnekhenu (יַחְנְכֶנּוּ) = he will dedicate it, inaugurate it.  (From the same root as chanukah, חֲנֻכָּה = dedication; the name of the winter solstice holiday.)

According to Talmud Bavli (Sotah 43b) this exemption applies to any man who has not dedicated a new house, whether he built it, bought it, inherited it, or received it as a gift.  What does it mean to dedicate a new house?  According to Targum Yonatan, it means putting a mezuzah on the doorpost.3  But this takes only a few minutes, not long enough to stop a man from going to battle.  Rashi wrote that dedicating a house means living in it.4

If the new owner died in battle, he would never know that another man was living there.  But the Torah does not want to deprive the owner of the satisfaction of moving into the new house.  In the Torah, a man who lives in his own house is the head of a household, no longer a dependent on an older family member.  He should not be denied the joy of his new status.

Grape vine, artist unknown

2) “And who is the man that has planted a vineyard and not chilelo?  He must leave and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man yechalilenu.” (Deuteronomy 20:6)

chilelo (חִלְּלוֹ) = made profane use of it; made personal use of it.  yechalilenu (יְחַלְּלֶנּוּ) = he will make profane/personal use of it.

The Talmud defines a vineyard as at least five grape vines, and extends the exemption to include those who had planted at least five fruit trees.5  No fruit may be harvested from a grape vine or a fruit tree for the first three years after it is planted.  In the fourth year, all of its fruit must be donated to God—either brought to the priests at the temple, or exchanged for silver which is brought to the temple.  Only in the fifth year can the owner eat the fruit himself, or sell it for profit.6

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra, in which these rules are laid out, is primarily concerned with the holy rather than the profane.  But here in Deuteronomy, Moses emphasizes the importance of feeding yourself and your own household.  After waiting four years for his vines or trees to mature, farmer should not be denied the joy of making a living from them.

Isaac and Rebekah, by Simeon Solomon, 1863

3) “And who is the man that has paid the bride-price for a wife and not lekachah?  He must leave and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man yikachenah.” (Deuteronomy 20:7)

lekachah (לְקָחָהּ) = taken her, had sexual intercourse with her, married her.  yikachenah (יִקָּחֶנָּה) = he will take her, have sex with her, marry her.

Is the fiancé exempt from battle so that he is not deprived of intercourse with his bride, or so that he can beget children with her?  This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, says:

When a man takes a new wife, he must not go out with the army for any purpose; he shall be exempt for his household for one year, and make his wife glad.  (Deuteronomy 24:5)

This implies that a new wife must not be deprived of the joy of intercourse with her husband.

The Talmud, Sotah 43b, says that the bridegroom is sent home whether he paid the bride-price for a virgin or a widow, or he is doing his duty for his deceased brother’s widow.  Under Israelite and Canaanite law, a childless woman whose husband died was is entitled to get a son through her husband’s brother.  “And even if there are five brothers, and one of them dies in the war, they all return for the widow.”7  Perhaps giving the widow a son is so important that if one brother fails, another must be available.  This Talmud passage implies that the purpose of the exemption is to get a new wife pregnant.

Whether the goal is to make the wife glad, or to have a child, a husband should not be denied the joy of living with his new wife.

Rembrandt history painting detail, 1626

4) “And the officials will continue to speak to the people, and they will say: “Who is the man who is yarei and rakh of heart?  He must leave and return to his house, and not melt the heart of his brother [soldier] like his heart.”  (Deuteronomy 20:8)

yarei (יָרֵא) = afraid, fearful.

verakh (רַךְ) = sensitive, tender, weak, delicate.

The Talmud (Sotah 44a) offers two reasons why a man might be fearful: Rabbi Akiva said the man would be terrified by the sight of a drawn sword; Rabbi Yosei HaGelili said the man would be afraid because of his sins (implying a view of the afterlife that was invented after the Hebrew Bible was written).8  Both of these reasons address fear, but not sensitivity.  Perhaps the rabbis of the Talmud interpreted the sentence as describing the man as “fearful and weak-hearted”, making weak-hearted a synonym for fearful.

Talmud tractate Sotah 44b says the reason for this fourth exemption is that fear spreads, making formerly brave and hard-hearted soldiers feel qualms about going to battle.

But the officials could also be asking “Who is the man who is afraid and tender-hearted?”  Since the adjective rakh applies to a mental attitude as well as physical condition, this man would feel tenderness toward all human beings, and be afraid of killing them rather than of being killed.

A tender-hearted man’s reluctance to kill could also spread to other soldiers if he were allowed to march with the troops.

According to the Talmud (Sotah 44a), all four exemptions are announced at once to spare a fearful man from embarrassment; for all the other men know, he is leaving the ranks and going home because of a house or vineyard or wife.

But what if the exemption for a fearful or tender-hearted man is parallel to the other three exemptions?  Then perhaps he must also leave and return home for his own good.  Maybe a peaceful, gentle man must not be denied the joy of living in peace.


What is more important than going to war?



Family, whatever form it may take.


  1. Numbers 1:2-3.
  2. The Talmud distinguishes between optional wars of conquest, and obligatory wars to defend the kingdom of Israel or Judah from invasion. (Sotah 43b-44b)
  3. Targum Yonasan (a.k.a.Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, between 4th and 13th centuries C.E.) as cited by Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Devarim, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn, NY, 1995, p. 205.
  4. Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century C.E. Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  5. Talmud Bavli, Sotah 43b.
  6. Leviticus 19:23-25.
  7. Talmud Bavli, Sotah 44a, William Davidson translation,
  8. See Talmud Bavli, Eiruvin 19a.  Jews did not adopt the idea that souls survive death until the second century B.C.E.  The idea of souls burning in an underground fire came from Greek and Persian sources, which Jews developed into the myth of Gehinnom (later called Gehenna) and Christians developed into the myths of Hell and Purgatory.  The Talmud was written during the third through fifth centuries C.E.


Ki Teitzei: Virtues of a Parapet

August 22, 2018 at 9:34 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei, Samuel 2 | 2 Comments

When you build a new house, then you shall make a ma-akeh for your roof; then you will not put blood-guilt on your house if the faller falls from it.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:8)

ma-akeh (מַעֲקֶה) = parapet: a low wall along the edge of a roof or another structure.

This verse appears in a compilation of practical laws in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“When you go out”).  At the most literal level, it simply requires a parapet around a roof as a safety precaution to prevent anyone from falling.  If the faller were being injured or killed the owner of the house would be liable, bearing the “blood-guilt”.

Roofs from Egypt to Babylon (as well as in other parts of the world with dry climates and mild winters) were usually flat and built to bear weight, so people could walk, sit, sleep, and work on them.  In the Ancient Near East, builders ran wooden beams or whole logs from wall to wall.  They covered the beams with framed straw or reed mats, then topped the roof with several layers of clay compacted with stone rollers.  Sometimes they added latticed rooftop structures to provide shade for people using the roof.  A parapet around the edge made the top layer more durable, as well as improving safety.

The Hebrew Bible mentions using rooftops for private conversations,1 for sleeping,2 for storage,3 and for making sacrifices at altars for other gods.4  The Talmud also mentions keeping small lambs or goat kids on one’s roof.5


A roof without a parapet is unsafe not only because a person might fall off, but also because something might fall, or get pushed, from the roof onto a person below.  When an unsavory king in the book of Judges, Avimelekh of Shechem, captures the town of Teiveitz, its residents flee to the tower in the middle of their town.

And they shut themselves inside and they went up onto the roof of the tower.  And Avimelekh came up to the tower… to set it on fire.  Then a woman sent down an upper millstone onto the head of Avimelekh, and it cracked his skull.  (Judges 9:51-53)

The Talmud (Bava Kamma 15b) extends the requirement for a parapet around a roof to all other hazards in a house, such as keeping a vicious dog or setting up an unstable ladder.  If the owner does not remove the hazard, he is liable for damages and a court can even excommunicate him.

Even if the owner is the only person who lives in the house, he must still make it safe for the benefit of guests and future residents.6


A sufficiently high parapet also provides privacy.  According to the Talmud (Bava Batra 2b) if the roof of one house adjoins the courtyard of another house, the owner of the first house must build a parapet four cubits high,7 so he cannot look into the neighbor’s courtyard when he is using his roof.  A similar ruling is that a wall separating the courtyards of two adjacent houses should be four cubits high, so neighbors cannot see into each other’s courtyards  (Bava Batra 5a).

Even if houses are not adjacent, a higher parapet may be needed for privacy.  If two houses are on opposite sides of a public road (Bava Batra 6a), both owners are likely to build a parapet high enough to prevent anyone on the road below from seeing them; but each owner must also build one side of his front parapet high enough to block the view from the opposite roof.  Then both families will have privacy (and share the expense equally).

A story in the bible illustrates another situation in which a high parapet would have provided privacy.

Bathsheba, by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1889

It was evening time, and David rose from his bed and walked around on the roof of the king’s house.  And he saw a woman bathing, from up on the roof, and the woman was very good in appearance.  (2 Samuel 11:2)

For the sake of privacy, Bathsheba would have been bathing either on her own lower roof, or in the enclosed courtyard of her own house.  But King David’s view was not blocked by a high enough parapet.  Enamored of her naked beauty, he found out who she was and sent for her, assuming that since  her husband Uriah was away at war, he would never know.  When Bathsheba became pregnant, King David had Uriah sent home from the front, but he refused to sleep with his wife until the war was over.  So David arranged for the death of the innocent man.  None of this would have happened if King David’s parapet had been four cubits high.

Metaphor for Pride

The original injunction in this week’s Torah portion has also been interpreted allegorically, with the rooftop standing for pride.  Philo of Alexandria wrote in the first century C.E. that when people give themselves credit for intellectual and social advancement, instead of crediting God, they are likely to fall from their high positions and be destroyed.

For the most grievous of all falls is for a man to stumble and fall from the honour due to God; crowning himself rather than God, and committing domestic murder. For he who does not duly honour the living God kills his own soul …  (The Works of Philo, trans. by C.D. Yonge, “XXXIX, On Husbandry, 171”)

A Poet’s Fall, 1760

The Hassidic commentator Dov Baer Friedman interpreted Deuteronomy 22:8 by applying the metaphor of pride before a fall8 to a Torah scholar’s pride in coming up with a new interpretation.

This refers to one offering a new interpretation of Torah.  “Make a railing for your upper storey.”  If the verse were referring to a literal house, it would have said: “for its upper storey.”  As it is, the upper storey is on you, referring to the swelling of your pride at this new teaching.  Do not let your head get turned by pride!  Even though this is a bit of Torah that no ear has ever heard, it comes not from you, but from God.

            “Should somebody fall from it.”  You are all set for such a fall.9


Building a Mental Parapet

Pride: All of us who enjoy either personal achievement or a high position in society should build a mental parapet to prevent ourselves from falling into the self-delusion of pride.  This mental parapet might be a prayer or a reminder that our success depends on the deeds of other human beings, on the family and society we inherit, and on the genes that nature or God gave us.

Privacy:  We can also find an inner meaning of the Talmud’s extension of the law in Ki Teitzei to cover privacy.

Just as humans need privacy in our living quarters, we need privacy in our own mental lives.  You can share your physical space with close family members, and you can share your personal information, random thoughts, and emotional reactions with a trusted partner who knows you well.  But sharing these things with neighbors, friends, or strangers can cause them to feel uncomfortable, to make false assumptions about you, or to feel burdened by your apparent neediness.  It can even give false friends information they can use against us or against other people we know.

When it comes to privacy, we should to set our own boundaries, building a mental parapet so we do not reveal the wrong things, whether in response to an inappropriate question, or in a gush of good will or exhibitionism.

Those of us with flat and inhabitable roofs still need parapets to prevent people and things from falling off.  But we all need parapets when it comes to the contents of our own minds.

  1. Examples of using a roof for private conversations: Joshua 2:6, 1 Samuel 9:25-26.
  2. Examples of using a roof for sleeping: Joshua 2:6, 2 Samuel 11:2.
  3. A roof is used for storing flax in Joshua 2:6.
  4. Examples of using a roof for altars to worship other gods: 2 Kings 23:12, Jeremiah 19:13 and 32:29, Zephanaiah 1:5.
  5. Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 6b.
  6. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Devarim, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2009, p. 513.
  7. A cubit is the length of a forearm from elbow to fingertips. Four cubits would be over 6 feet, or almost 2 meters.  (Bava Batra 2b also provides rules for window and courtyard partition placements to prevent a neighbor from being able to look inside the house next door.)
  8. Proverbs 16:18.
  9. Dov Baer Friedman of Miedzyrzec, Or Torah (1804), translated by Arthur Green in Arthur Green, Speaking Torah, vol. 2, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2013, p. 124.

Ki Tavo & Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 2

September 5, 2017 at 6:36 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo, Ki Teitzei, Yitro | 1 Comment

A person’s inner state and outer garment should match, according to the Torah.

And God said to Moses: Go to the people and consecrate them, today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their semalot. Then they shall be ready for the third day, for on the third day God is coming down before the eyes of all the people on Mount Sinai. (Exodus/Shemot 19:10-11)

semalot (שְׂמָלוֹת) = plural of simlah (שִׂמְלַה) = a long, loose outer garment resembling a caftan or cloak. (A variant spelling is salmah (שַׂלְמָה), plural salmot (שַׂלְמֹת).)

If you are consecrated, made holy enough to behold God, then your simlah must also be purified. Although men remove their semalot to do physical labor, stripping down to a less bulky garment underneath, the Israelites in the Bible wear their semalot for public appearances, as well as for protection from wind, sun, and rain. At night one’s simlah serves as a blanket.

Three of the laws in last week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, assume every individual has the right to a simlah. Even an impoverished debtor and a captive of war must be allowed to sleep in their semalot. Depriving someone of a simlah would not only expose them to the elements, but deprive them of human dignity. (See my post Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 1.)

Two other laws in the portion Ki Teitzei (4 and 5 below) show how a simlah can reveal something about the essential nature of the person who wears it. And this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you enter”), ends with miraculous semalot that reveal the nature of humankind.

  1. Abominable or godly?

One of the laws about the simlah in Ki Teitzei has become notorious:

The equipment of a man shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not put on the simlah of a woman, because anyone doing this is to-eivah to God, your God. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:5)

Head of a prince or princess from Ugarit, 13th century B.C.E.

to-eivah (תוֹעֲבַה) = abhorrent, abominable, anathema.

The first clause in this verse may be a reaction against a Canaanite myth (discovered in the ruins of Ugarit) about Paghat, a young woman who wears weapons under her female clothing and sets out to avenge her brother’s murder.1 The Bible frequently denounces Canaanite religions, and the Talmud (Nazir 59a) agrees that the “equipment of a man” consists of weapons of war.

The second clause in the verse may be a reaction against a Canaanite practice in which male temple functionaries cross-dressed and offered themselves as surrogates for gods in homosexual religious acts. According to the Bible, this happened even at the Temple in Jerusalem until King Josiah put an end to it.2

A man wearing a woman’s simlah may be to-eivah because the only men who appeared that way in public were those paid for sexual rituals from another religion—a practice God clearly abhors according to a later law in Ki Teitzei:

No daughter of Israel shall be a female religious prostitute, and no son of Israel shall be a male religious prostitute. You shall not bring into the house of God, your God, the fee of a harlot [female prostitute] or the price of a dog [male prostitute] for any vowed offering, because both of them are to-eivah to God, your God. (Deuteronomy 23:18-19)

Nevertheless, for more than two millennia people have used the law in Ki Teitzei about cross-dressing to promote the traditional gender roles in their own societies. (See my post Ki Teitzei: Crossing Gender Lines.)

Today many people reject the idea that every individual must squeeze into one of two gender roles defined by a particular society. Some individuals in the 21st century C.E. choose apparel that blurs gender lines in order to reveal their own nuanced identities.

In the 7th century B.C.E. kingdom of Judah, a man who wore the simlah of a woman also revealed an essential part of his identity: he was dedicated to gods other than the God of Israel, and he served these gods by providing ritual sex for worshipers.

  1. Fraud or honesty?

The remaining law in Ki Teitzei that mentions a simlah is about the virginity of a bride. It begins:

If a man takes a wife and he comes into her, and then he hates her, and he brings charges against her and gives her a bad name, and he says: “I took this woman, and I approached her, but I did not find evidence of virginity in her!”— (Deuteronomy 22:13-14)

Detail of “Hymen” by Marc Chagall

This was a serious charge in ancient Judah. A marriage was a contracted alliance between two households. The legal contract included the dowry paid to the groom’s household, and the bride-price paid to the bride’s household. When the bride and groom had intercourse, the marriage was completed. The bride (but not the groom) was expected to be a virgin (unless the contract stipulated otherwise).

So if a man claimed, after the wedding, that his bride was not a virgin, he was not only defaming her and her parents, but also suing her family for contract fraud. If the village elders ruled in his favor, he got a divorce, the bride (if she was permitted to live4) became unmarriageable, and the bride’s father had to return the bride-price to the groom. The grooms’ household, on the other hand, got to keep the dowry, the bride price, and the family’s good name.3

What if a groom tells a lie in order to get a divorce with a lucrative financial settlement? Then, according to Ki Teitzei, the bride’s parents should bring “evidence of the girl’s virginity” to the elders sitting as judges, and the bride’s father should say:

“But this is evidence of the virginity of my daughter!” And they shall spread the simlah before the elders of the town. (Deuteronomy 22:17)

The evidence is the simlah the bride wore on her wedding night. When the couple goes to bed, she lies on top of her own simlah—and leaves a bloodstain if her hymen breaks.

In much of the ancient Near East, a bride’s parents collected her wedding simlah the morning after—just in case they would need to display it.

The law in Ki Teitzei affirms that a bloodstained simlah is evidence of virginity, and punishes the lying husband. He is flogged; he pays 100 shekels of silver to the bride’s father (to compensate for impugning his honor); and he may never divorce the bride.

The good name of the bride’s family is restored. The bride herself at least has the consolation of a salvaged reputation and a guaranteed home (even if she might prefer to be the property of a different man).

Thus the condition of the bride’s simlah proves something about her character: she was honest when she affirmed she was a virgin.

  1. Natural or miraculous?

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, Moses quotes God:

“And I led you forty years through the wilderness. Your salmot did not wear out upon you, and your sandal did not wear out upon your foot. Bread you did not eat, and wine or alcohol you did not drink, so that you would know that I, God, am your God.” (Deuteronomy 29:4-5)

During their 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites did not need to grow grain and grind it into flour; manna miraculously appeared every morning. They did not need to cultivate grapes and make wine; God provided fresh drinking water in the desert. They did not need to make leather for sandals, or weave cloth for semalot; God continuously renewed their clothing.5

Instead, the Israelite women wove cloth to make God’s sanctuary. All the weavers were generous volunteers.6  And God generously volunteered the small miracles that kept the people clothed and fed. All God wanted was acknowledgement “he” was their god.

The Israelites in the books of Exodus and Numbers did praise God for saving them at the Reed Sea and for giving them victories in battles. But in ordinary daily life, they complained about the food, were impatient when they ran out of water, and did not even notice the condition of their semalot.

Moses introduces God’s words at the end of Ki Tavo by saying:

But God did not give you a mind to know, or eyes to see, or ears to hear, until this day. (Deuteronomy 29:3)

Only at the end of 40 years in the wilderness to the people notice God’s daily generosity.

The portrayal of God’s character must be taken with a grain of salt. The Torah sometimes portrays God as a patient parent, sometimes as an angry mass murderer. This is the result of trying to explain everything in terms of an anthropomorphic god.

Yet the passage at the end of Ki Tavo does offer insight into the character of human beings. Human nature takes good situations for granted—until we are deprived of them, or until we grow wise enough to see how fragile our lives are. To find that wisdom—a mind to know, eyes to see, ears to hear—might take 40 years. And we cannot force ourselves to become wise.  It comes as a gift.

  1. She emerges, dons a youth’s raiment, puts a k[nife] in her sheath. A sword she puts in her scabbard, and over all dons woman’s garb. (“The Tale of Aqhat”, The Ancient Near East, Vol. 1, by James B. Pritchard, Princeton Univ. Press, 1958, p. 132)
  2. And he smashed the houses of the male religious prostitutes that were inside the house of God, where the women wove fabrics for Asherah. (2 Kings 23:7).  The book of Deuteronomy was probably written during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 B.C.E.), and encouraged his campaign to wipe out the practice of other religions in Judah.
  3. Victor H. Matthews & Don C. Benjamin, Social world of Ancient Israel 1250-587 BCE, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass., 1993, p. 127-128.
  4. But if this charge is true, evidence of the girl’s virginity was not found, then they shall bring the girl out to the entrance of her father’s house, and the men of the town shall stone her with stones. And she will die because she did a serious offense in Israel, fornicating in the house of her father. (Deuteronomy 22:20-21)
  5. Deuteronomy 8:2-6 and Nehemiah 9:20-21 report similar miracles. (See my post Eikev: Not by Bread Alone.)
  6. Exodus 35:20-29.

Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 1

August 30, 2017 at 6:37 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei | 3 Comments

If he is a man overwhelmed by poverty, you must not lie down with his pledge. You must definitely return the pledge to him when the sun sets, and he shall lie down in his salmah, and he will bless you, and you will be righteous before God, your God. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 24:12-13)

Semites, tomb of Knumhotep II, painted circa 1900 BCE

simlah (שִׂמְלַה) or salmah (שַׂלְמָה) = a long, loose outer garment resembling a caftan or cloak (two variant spellings).

The Torah assumes everyone has at least one simlah or salmah. At night one sleeps in a simlah instead of a sheet or blanket. By day one might wear it over other clothes to provide protection from cold, sun, rain, or blowing sand—or to dress formally in public. But a man takes off his simlah to do physical labor.

What does a simlah look like? Around 1900 B.C.E. a simlah was a single rectangular cloth wrapped around the body, leaving one shoulder bare.

Three men from Israel wearing simlahs over tunics; Assyrian relief, 850 BCE

By 640-610 BCE, when most scholars believe the book of Deuteronomy was written, a man’s simlah was an ample cloak or caftan. One common pattern was to sew two long rectangles of cloth together up the back, but leave the front open, and belt the whole thing with a sash.

Assyrian woman, 700 BCE

All we know about a woman’s simlah is that it looked different from a man’s, and that she wore a tunic under it. So far, archaeologists have found neither art nor text describing the clothing of women in Judah. But clothing styles might have imitated those in Assyria, the empire to which Judah paid tribute.

The simlah or salmah appears in five of the laws given in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“If you go out”). In the three laws under discussion in Part 1, the difference between justice and injustice hinges on whether a person gets to be home with his or her personal simlah.

  1. Uncompromising or compassionate?

You must definitely return the pledge to him when the sun sets, and he shall lie down in his salmah(Deuteronomy 24:13)

salmah appears in this excerpt from the passage opening this post as a typical item used by an impoverished man as security for a loan.

The poor had to repay loans with labor. One repayment method was to give a wife or child to the creditor as a temporary slave. Then that family member also served as security for the loan. Another method was for a man to work as a day-laborer for the lender. In this case, he generally gave the lender his simlah as a pledge; he not have any other item of value.

But the lender is obliged to return the cloak every night, so the borrower has something to sleep in.1 He may be impoverished, but he is still a human being with a right to protection from the elements. A minimum level of compassion is a legal part of the justice system.

The verse immediately before the rule about returning a poor man’s salmah at night declares:

If you make a loan to a poor person who gives you something as security, do not enter his house to seize it. Stay outside and let the debtor bring the pledge to you. (Deuteronomy 24:11-12)

And later in the Torah portion, a creditor is forbidden to take any garment belonging to a widow as a pledge.2

Considered together, these laws about pledges for loans assume that all citizens (including temporary slaves) are entitled not only to food, clothing, and shelter, but also to human dignity.

  1. Loot or person?

The requirement for granting human dignity to an impoverished citizen also applies to a woman forcibly brought into the country as a potential wife. The Torah portion Ki Teitzei opens with the instruction:

Women of Midian Led Captive by the Hebrews, by James Tissot

If you go out to battle against your enemies, and God, your God, gives [them] into your hand … and you see among the captives a shapely woman, and you desire her and you would take her as a wife, then you shall bring her inside your house, and she shall shave her head and do her nails and remove the simlah of her captivity. And she shall stay in your house and cry for her father and mother for a month, and afterward you may justly come into her [have intercourse] and you may marry her as a wife. And if you do not like her, then you shall let her go free; you definitely may not sell her for silver, since you have violated her. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 21:10-14)

Female war captives are often raped, enslaved, and/or killed in the Torah. (For example, see my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.) However, this week’s portion prescribes a more humane treatment. The soldier who wants a captive as his concubine must treat her as a mourner; after all, she has lost her parents (either when they were killed or when she was forced to move to another country). He must give her food and shelter in his house as she goes through the rituals of head-shaving, fingernail-trimming, and weeping for a full month. Moreover, he must replace her simlah of captivity.

We can only guess the meaning of “simlah of captivity”. Maybe it is a torn and bloodied garment, the simlah she was wearing when the Israelite soldiers captured her town and dragged off the women. Or maybe she was stripped of her own clothing and given a cheap cloth to wrap herself in.

Either way, the change of clothing is important because when someone wears a captive’s garment, she is seen as a captive, a foreign slave. If she wears other clothing, she can be seen as a person, an individual who will either become a full-fledged wife or be set free.

  1. Finder or keeper?

The Torah portion Ki Teitzei also mentions a simlah as a lost and found item.

You shall not watch an ox or a lamb belonging to your brother [fellow man] going astray, and hide yourself from it; you must definitely return it to your brother.  And if your brother is not in your vicinity, and you do not know him, then you shall hold it inside your house, and it shall be with you until your brother inquires about it. Then you shall return it to him.  And thus you shall do for his donkey, and thus you shall do for his simlah, and thus you shall do for any lost item of your brother’s that goes astray and that you find.  You shall not dare to hide yourself!  (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)

This law defends the right to personal property. If you find a stray farm animal or a simlah, you may neither keep it for yourself nor leave it abandoned. You must guard it until you can return it to the owner, even if you have to wait a long time.

Keeping a stray animal safe includes feeding it, though the Talmud notes that one can also use its labor until the owner shows up.3 I would argue that keeping a simlah safe includes not wearing it yourself. The practical reason would be to avoid tearing it or wearing it out. The psychological reason would be to avoid the appearance of theft or of impersonating the owner of the simlah. Garments are expensive in the Torah. Only kings and their chief advisors could afford large wardrobes. Anyone else might be recognized from a distance by their simlah. Just as you must respect the owner’s personal property, you must respect the owner’s identity and reputation.

These three examples of laws involving a simlah or salmah recognize the rights of people who are otherwise powerless: the impoverished, the war captive, the person who has lost something valuable. The other two examples in the portion Ki Teitzei, about cross-dressing and about a bride’s virginity, are more problematic. I will discuss them in next week’s post, along with the salmah in next week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo.

Meanwhile, may we all be inspired to extend the ethical principle of these three laws in Deuteronomy, and grant every human being the right to respect and dignity, as well as health and safety. May we view all people as if they are wearing their own inviolable simlah.

  1. An earlier version of this law is given in Exodus 22:24-26.
  2. Deuteronomy 24:17. Perhaps it would shame a woman to be seen outside wearing only a tunic, without a simlah.
  3. Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 28b, which also says that the finder of an animal that does no productive work can be sold, and the money set aside to return to the owner whenever the owner is discovered.



Haftarat Ki Teitzei—Isaiah: Owners and Redeemers

September 13, 2016 at 10:32 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Ki Teitzei | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19) and the haftarah is Isaiah 54:1-10).

            For a little while I abandoned you,

            But with great compassion I will gather you in. (Isaiah 54:7)

This week’s haftarah is a poem in which the husband is God, and the wife is the Israelites living in exile in Babylon.

I discussed the portrayal of God as a defective husband in my post Haftarah for Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser, so this week I will focus on a verse in which the poet, second Isaiah, tells the Israelites they will no longer experience public disgrace—

            Because your be-alim is your Maker;

                        “God of Tzevaot” is His name.

            And your go-eil is the Holy One of Israel;

                        “God of all the earth” He will be called. (Isaiah 54:5)

be-alim (בְּעָלִים) = plural of ba-al (בַּעַל) = owner, husband, lord, master; or a god in other Canaanite religions. (A noun related to the verb ba-al (בָּעַל) = possess, rule over, take into possession as a wife.)

tzevaot (צְבָאוֹת) = armies. (“Sabaoth” in older English translations.)

go-eil (גֺּאֵל) = (singular) redeemer, ransomer, avenger.


The word ba-al in this context does not mean a Canaanite god, but rather lord or husband. The eighth-century B.C.E. prophet Hosea introduced the idea of God as Israel’s husband, and it became a popular prophetic motif in the Bible. Hosea uses two words for “husband”: ba-al and ish. God tells “his” straying wife (the Israelites) that when she returns to him,

            You will call Me “my ish”,

            And no longer will you call Me “my ba-al”. (Hosea 2:18)  

sketch by Rembrandt

sketch by Rembrandt

ish (אִישׁ) = man, husband, person, someone.

The term ish puts the husband and wife on friendly and equal footing. The term ba-al makes the husband the wife’s owner and ruler.

This week’s haftarah uses the plural of majesty, calling God be-alim. The plural of majesty is appropriate for the kind of husband who owns and rules over his wife, a ba-al rather than an ish.

When second Isaiah then calls God “your Maker” (osayikh(עֺשַׂיִךְ)—also a plural of majesty), the prophet may be implying that God owns them because “he” created them in the first place.


Next comes the name “God of Armies”, commonly translated as “Lord of Hosts”. The Bible uses the word tzevaot both for the armies of nations at war, and for the constellations of stars in the sky—considered as formations of God’s angelic servants. God has ultimate power over the success or failure of all armies. The time when God rejects “his wife” in the haftarah corresponds to the beginning of the Babylonian exile in 587 B.C.E., when the Babylonian army razed Jerusalem and deported its leading families to Babylon, which they were not allowed to leave.

Second Isaiah was written around the end of the exile in 538 B.C.E., when the Persian army captured Babylon and its king, Cyrus, decreed general freedom of religion and movement. The prophet’s agenda was to encourage the Israelite exiles who had been assimilating in Babylon to return to their own religion and their own former home. By using the name “God of Armies”, second Isaiah might be saying, “Do not despair! Your husband, owner, and maker also has the power to replace the army that punished you with an army that will rescue you!”

(Another reason for including the name “God of tzevaot” might be to counter the Babylonian view of stars as gods, and remind the people that the God of Israel controls the stars.)


A go-eil in the Bible is the kinsman whose duty is help his close relatives in one of three ways. When an impoverished relative sells himself into slavery, the nearest kinsman who can afford it is the go-eil who must buy him back. When an impoverished relative sells a field, the go-eil buys back the land to keep it in the family, and lets his relative farm it. And when a judge orders the death of a relative’s murderer, the go-eil serves as the executioner.

The Israelites in exile are like slaves because they are unable to leave Babylon, the house of their master. And they are landless because the Babylonians now rule their own former kingdom of Judah.

When second Isaiah calls God the go-eil of the Israelites, it means that God will rescue them from their captivity in Babylon and return them to the land of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem. But it also implies that God’s relationship to the Israelites is not only like that of a husband-owner, but also like that of a brother or uncle who is responsible for rescuing them.

This intimate view of God probably did comfort and inspire some of the Israelites in Babylon. I can imagine that other exiles would prefer either an abstract “God of all the earth”, or a friendlier sort of divine husband, an ish.

After all, when God’s wife and possession (the Israelites) did not obey him, her ba-al punished her by arranging for the Babylonian army to seize Jerusalem. Now, when God is in a better mood, he will be the ba-al who takes his wife back to rule over her again, and the go-eil who redeems her by executing her Babylonian enemies and arranging for the Persian army to seize Babylon. The Israelites are in the same position as the wife of a despot; they must meekly accept whatever God does, and be grateful when anything good comes their way.


Last week, in Haftarah for Shoftim—Isaiah: A New Name, I wrote that each of the seven haftarot of consolation (the readings from second Isaiah during the seven weeks between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah) offers a different view of God. This is the fifth haftarah of consolation, and its view of God is open to several interpretations.

I think there is some truth in the idea that all human beings, not just the Israelites in Babylon, are like the wife of a despot who must meekly accept whatever our God does, and be grateful when anything good comes our way. After all, we can take actions that change our lives, but we cannot make our lives from scratch. “Whatever God does” could mean everything that is out of our hands, from the laws of physics to our genes and the world we were born into. If we do not accept reality, we doom ourselves to perpetual anger and misery.

But besides taking whatever actions we can to improve ourselves, our lives, and our world, we can also be grateful for the good that happens to come our way. I am grateful I happened to meet my beloved husband. And on another level, I am grateful for the sight of marigolds in the sunlight outside my window.

But I am also ready to say “God of all the earth” instead of thinking of God as an autocratic family member!

Ki Teitzei: Crossing Gender Lines

August 26, 2015 at 8:26 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Joan of Arc 15th century CE

Joan of Arc, 15th century CE: Toeivah?

The equipment of a gever shall not be upon a woman, and a gever shall not wear the outer garment of a woman; for toeivah of God, your god, are all those who do these things.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:5)

gever (גֶּבֶר) = an adult man; a man in a position of power; a warrior or soldier.

toeivah (תּוֹעֵבָה) = abhorrent, repugnant, causing visceral disgust; an “abomination”.

A hasty reading of the above verse in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“When you go out”) leads some people to think that God finds all cross-dressing abominable.

Last week, in Shoftim: Abominable, I wrote about how attributing toeivah to God is an anthropomorphization.  Whoever wrote down this verse in Ki Teitzei1 probably found everyone found everyone who did “these things” disgusting, and wanted to reinforce a social norm by attributing that disgust to God.

But does the verse actually prohibit cross-dressing?

The Babylonian Talmud (Nazir 59a) states that the purpose of the verse cannot be to teach that men should not dress like women, and vice versa, because mere cross-dressing is not an abomination.  It suggests two other reasons for the verse.  The first is that someone should not cross-dress in order to sneak into a single-sex group in order to seduce someone.  (According to the Talmud, unauthorized sex is abominable.)

Assyrian bronze sickle sword

Assyrian bronze sickle sword

This first interpretation fails to account for specific words in the verse in Deuteronomy, which prohibits a woman from wearing the equipment of a man (kli), not his clothing.  Furthermore, the text uses the word gever, which implies a warrior or a ruler, rather than ish, the common term for any man.  In the Torah, the equipment of a warrior is his sword or his bow and arrows; the equipment of the ruler of a clan or tribe is his staff.

Ivory cosmetics box from Sidon

Ivory cosmetics box from Sidon

The second Talmudic interpretation, attributed to Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov, fits the verse better: women should not go to war bearing weapons, and men should not use cosmetics to beautify themselves.2

In today’s terms, it would be acceptable for a woman to wear pants, but not for her to carry a gun (a common weapon today).  A man could wear a skirt (for comfort, not to show off his legs), but he should not wear make-up.

The underlying assumption is that weapons and war are part of a man’s nature, and  personal beautification is part of a woman’s nature.  This assumption was rarely questioned until the 20th century C.E.

As late as the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that Deuteronomy 22:5 “forbids each sex that which is specifically suited to the nature of the opposite sex.  A man shall not attend to his external physical appearance in the way appropriate to a woman’s nature, and a woman shall not appear in a vocation suited to a man’s nature…”  He added that a woman’s place was in the home—i.e. that motherhood was the calling of all women, and any other vocation was for men only.

I suspect it did not occur to Hirsch, any more than it occurred to my mother and many other women born in the 1920’s and 1930’s, that women who made beauty and sex appeal their top priority were planning to be dependent on men for financial support.  From Biblical times until my own “baby boomer” generation, most cultures assumed that war and jobs requiring either muscle or authority were for men, while housework and child care were for women.

This view of the “natures” of men and women is countered by two stories in the Hebrew Bible: one about a primping man, and one about two warrior women.

The Primping Man

The Torah does not say that Joseph primps or applies cosmetics.  But the book of Genesis/Bereishit does say that Jacob spoils his son Joseph by giving him a fancy coat or tunic.  When Joseph becomes a slave to Potifar, and Potifar’s wife tries to seduce him, the Torah says:

“The Glory of Joseph” by James Tissot

And Joseph was beautiful of shape and beautiful of appearance.  (Genesis/Bereishit 39:6)

Rashi, following Midrash Tamchuma, commented: “As soon as he saw that he was ruler (in the house) he began to eat and drink and curl his hair.  The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “Your father is mourning and you curl your hair!  I will let a bear loose against you.”Other classic commentary implies that Joseph not only curled his hair, but put kohl around his eyes and wore elevated heels.

Yet Joseph eventually became a viceroy of Egypt, and Jacob’s deathbed blessing praises Joseph’s power with a manly weapon:

And his bow was continually taut, and his arms and hands were agile… (Genesis 49:24)

Thus Joseph has a reputation as both beautifying himself like a woman, and being a gever with both weapons and the power to rule.

The Warrior Women

A story in the book of Judges features two women who engage in acts of war.  The prophetess Devorah serves openly as the general of an army recruited from some of the tribes of Israel, though she wears no weapon and her male lieutenant, Barak, leads the soldiers into battle.  When the Israelites win, the enemy general, Sisera, flees to a tent where he believes he will be safe.  (Sisera’s king is friends with the owner of the tent, Chever the Kenite.)  Cheve, the owner of the tent, is not at home, so his wife Jael welcomes Sisera inside and gives him a drink of milk.

"Study of Jael in Red Chalk" by Carlo Maratta

“Study of Jael in Red Chalk”
by Carlo Maratta

Sisera naturally assumes all women are subservient to their men, so he swallows the milk and relaxes.  Then she kills him.

The Bible gives two accounts of the murder.  In the first one, Jael waits until Sisera falls asleep, then kills him by hammering a tent peg through his skull.  Next comes an ancient poem describing the same incident, but implying that Jael crushes Sisera’s head with a hammer while he is still awake and upright.  Either way, Jael does not have access to men’s equipment, so she improvises her own weapon.

Far from censuring her for using a weapon and taking the authority to make an independent decision, the book of Judges praises Jael—as a woman.

Most blessed of women is Jael, the wife of Chever the Kenite; most blessed is she in the tent.  (Judges/Shoftim 5:24)

Thus  a man who is beautiful (and perhaps enhances his beauty as if it were the “outer garment of a woman”), and a woman who improvises the equipment of a gever, are both praised for taking on the roles of two genders at once.

Adopting roles previously associated with the opposite gender is commonplace in advanced societies today.  Some men are tender parents of infants and young children, and some men devote themselves to looking sexy.  Some women succeed in vocations previously reserved for men, and some women are soldiers.

Perhaps we are moving away from the society preferred in this week’s Torah portion, and toward a society in which both men and women are complete people, like Joseph and Jael.

  1. According to current scholarship the book of Deuteronomy was written, or at least recorded in written form, in 7th-century B.C.E. Judah.
  2. This is also the interpretation of Targum Onkelos, the first century C.E. translation of the Torah from Hebrew into Aramaic, which says that men should not beautify their bodies in the manner of women.
  3. Genesis Rabbah 86:3, edited in the 4th to 5th centuries C.E.
  4. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), following Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeshev 8, translation by

Ki Teitzei: Forgetting to Be Selfish

September 2, 2014 at 3:15 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei | Leave a comment
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Last week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, told us not to cut down fruit trees when we are besieging a city. By Talmudic times, this injunction had been expanded into the principle of bal taschchit, do not destroy anything useful. (See my post Shoftim: Saving Trees.)

Some of the rules in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“When you go out”), have been similarly expanded. Here is one, nicknamed “The Forgotten Sheaf”:

If you harvest your harvest in your field, and you forget an omer in the field, you shall not turn back to take it. It shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow, so that God, your god, will bless you in everything your hands do. (Deuteronomy/Devarium 24:19)

omer (עֹמֶר) = a dry measure, roughly 2 quarts or 2 liters, used in the Torah for both manna and cut ears of grain.

The word omer is sometimes translated as “sheaf”, but the omer of manna discussed in the book of Exodus/Shemot consists of tiny white spheres the size of coriander seed.  Manna could hardly be gathered into a sheaf! Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the word omer refers to grain, and can easily be translated as a quantity of grain heads. (The sheaves in Joseph’s dream in Genesis/Bereishit are called alumim (אֲלֻמִּים), an entirely different word.)

Commentators over the centuries have agreed that the purpose of the rule about the so-called “Forgotten Sheaf” could not be to provide for the poor (epitomized by three types of people unlikely to own land or to be supported by wealthy men: resident aliens, orphans, and widows). One omer of grain might feed one person for one day. Landowners and their employees would have to be extraordinarily forgetful to accidentally leave enough grain to feed all the poor in their area.

detail from R.F. Babcock, "Ruth Gleaning"

detail from R.F. Babcock, “Ruth Gleaning”

Moreover, the Torah already requires landowners to deliberately leave behind grain, grapes, and other produce for the poor to glean.

When you harvest the harvest of your land, you shall not finish harvesting to the edge of your field, nor gather up the gleanings of your harvest.  And you shall not glean your vines nor gather up your fallen grapes in your vineyard; to the poor and to the stranger you shall leave them. (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:9-10)

The Torah portion for this week in Deuteronomy adds orchards to the fields and vineyards.

When you beat out your olive tree, you shall not strip the branches behind you; they shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow. (Deuteronomy 24:20)

If landowners are already required to leave food in their fields, vineyards, and orchards for the poor to glean, why does the Torah tell them not to go back and gather an omer they forgot about?

The 13th-century book Sefer Ha-Chinukh answers that the purpose of this commandment is to help people develop the habit of generosity. Even if you are giving to the poor as required by gleaning laws, tithes, or taxes, as you work to increase your own wealth you must still cultivate the belief that sharing wealth is more important than maximizing your own profit.

Philo of Alexandria’s commentary, written in the first century C.E., criticizes people who devote themselves exclusively to increasing their own wealth, and never notice that their gains would be impossible without the natural world God gives us.  (I would add that the gains of the money-hungry also require the labor of other people.) And in the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that the commandment not to go back for the forgotten omer is intended to clear possessiveness and greed from your thoughts.

Besides breaking the habits of possessiveness and greed, leaving the forgotten omer behind might also help someone to overcome the habits of worrying about being cheated, or thinking of everything in terms of private property.

What if a farmer left grain in the field, and nobody came by to pick it up?  Would this violate the principle of bal tashchit, “do not waste”?

This was not an issue in ancient Israel, where there were always people without land of their own  who gleaned to feed themselves.

Gleaning projects are being revived today in the United States, collecting food that would otherwise be wasted.  But we can also update the principle of the forgotten omer.  What if you are fumbling with your purse or billfold, and you accidentally drop money on the sidewalk?  If you leave it behind, the money will not go to waste; someone will pick it up. What if you forget to collect your change at the counter, or discover you left too large a tip?  Going back for your money would shrink your soul.  Leaving it for someone else gives you practice in keeping your priorities straight.

When you have forgotten to do a good deed, go back.  But when you have forgotten to be selfish, go on, and be grateful for your forgetfulness.

Ki Teitzei: Captive Soul

August 14, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei | 1 Comment

When you go out to battle against your enemies, and God, your god, gives [one of them] into your hand, and you capture captives from him; and you see among the captives a woman who is yefat to-ar, and you desire her, then you may take her for a wife. (Deuteronomy 21:10-11)

yefat to-ar = beautiful of form, shapely, attractive.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“When you go out”), opens with a standard situation in war: the men on the winning side of a battle take all the losers’ possessions, including their women.  In other Torah portions, the enemy’s women are merely listed as part of the booty; their fate is not addressed until the portion Ki Teitzei.

The implication in the passage above is that the Israelite soldiers will restrain themselves from raping most captive women, but a woman who has a beautiful shape is a special case.

The Hebrew bible describes three people besides the captive woman as yefat to-ar (feminine) or yefeh to-ar (masculine): Rachel, Jacob, and Esther.  Rachel’s beauty in the book of Genesis/Bereishit makes Jacob fall in love at first sight and labor for 14 years in order to marry her.  When her son Joseph is serving as Potifar’s steward in Egypt, his beauty makes his master’s wife lust after him so much that she grabs his clothing to pull him down.  Esther’s beauty in the book of Esther makes the king of Persia fall for her and crown her as his queen.

Clearly if you are yefat to-ar, your body is bound to inspire someone with extreme desire. Perhaps that is why this week’s Torah portion does not ask Israelite soldiers to refrain altogether from sex with the enemy’s women. But it does raise the bar for a man who desires a shapely captive. Instead of (or according to some commentators, in addition to) raping her in the field, he must bring her home.

You shall bring her into the midst of your household, and she shall shave her head, and she shall do her nails. And she shall remove the cloak of her captivity from herself, and she shall sit in your house, and she shall weep for her father and her mother for a month of days. After this, you may come into her and become her husband, and she will be your wife. But it happens that you do not want her [any more], then you shall send her out as her own nefesh. You shall certainly not sell her for silver, nor shall you take advantage of her, inasmuch as you violated her. (Deuteronomy 21:12-14)

nefesh = soul, person, individual; appetite. (In post-Biblical Jewish writings, the nefesh is the level of soul that animates the body.)

By bringing the captive woman into his household, and exchanging her captive’s cloak for ordinary clothes, the man publicly changes her status from war booty to prospective wife.  Next, she gets a full month to mourn for her old home and family, by shaving her head (a common mourning practice in the Hebrew bible), trimming her nails, and weeping.  During this month, the man is forbidden to molest her.  The month of mourning grants the woman a measure of human dignity.

At the end of the month, the man chooses whether to espouse her or to send her away free.  Being a woman, the former captive does not have the right to negotiate her own marriage.  Nevertheless, she now has as much status as an Israelite woman with no father; she is either married or free, not a slave.

On a literal level, the law of the captive woman teaches men to restrain their sexual desires and reserve sex for responsible and committed relationships.  It also teaches men to choose their partners after a period of consideration, rather than in the first heat of physical passion.

But the Chassidic rabbis of the 17th-19th centuries found other levels of meaning in the passage about the captive woman. The one that speaks to me this year comes from 18th-century Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi (with some interpretation by Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Sholomi).  Schnuer Zalman saw the Israelite soldier as the conscious ego, and the captive woman as the nefesh, the level of soul that animates our bodies.  He called this the “animal soul” because it is the seat of physical desires.  The nefesh is held captive not by the body itself, but by the limited perspective of our physical desires and aversions, and by the compulsions of our bad habits.  The nefesh is a “woman of beautiful form” because, despite its captivity, it expresses some of the beauty of the neshamah, the divine level of soul that transcends the physical world.

When your conscious self longs to connect with the beauty of the divine, you have to free your nefesh from its captivity, so it can become a clear vessel for your divine neshamah.  According to Schnuer Zalman, the way to do this is to shave its head and cut its nails—that is, to renounce physical desires for the sake of spiritual desires.

This year, my rational mind knows my body would benefit from a weight-loss diet.  Another part of me craves comfort food. Now I wonder if my craving for comfort food is a bad habit that grew because of the limited perspective of my “animal soul”.  My nefesh is short-sighted enough to prefer feeling better right now over restraining myself for the sake of a distant future benefit.  Now the bad habit holds my nefesh captive.  According to Rabbi Schneur Zalman, I should renounce my physical desires in order to elevate my nefesh.

But I do not want to renounce ALL of my physical desires.  After all, some of them are good for my body, nefesh, and neshamah.  For example, sometimes I feel the urge to stretch, take a walk, kiss my husband—or eat green beans and mint from my garden.  I want to feel these desires, since acting on them results in joy and gratitude for the gifts of the universe.

Can I renounce only one physical desire: the craving for comfort food?

I have never been able to stick to a diet I undertake for the sake of my body.  But what if I dieted for the sake of my soul?

My heartfelt impulse is to give the captive woman in this week’s Torah portion a safe home and a position of dignity, respect, and freedom.  Maybe I can see my own nefesh as a captive who is being enslaved by my bad habit.  If I intervene, will God give me the strength to rescue my soul and give it a good home?

Ki Teitzei: Too Many Vows

August 28, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

When did you last make a vow or swear an oath?  In our society, we often sign contracts and promise to do things; but a solemn, witnessed vow is usually reserved for a wedding, an oath of office, or (in some religions) an initiation into a religious order.  Nevertheless, when we violate solemn promises we have made to ourselves, we find ourselves in the same position as ancient Israelites who failed to fulfill their vows.

One warning about vows appears in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“when you go out”):

When you vow a vow to God, your god, you shall not delay in fulfilling it, because God, your god, will certainly call you to account, and there will be guilt in you. But if you refrain from vowing, there will not be guilt in you. You must guard what comes out of your lips; and you must make any voluntary gift that you spoke with your mouth, as you have vowed to God, your god. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 23:22-24)

The majority of vows mentioned in the Hebrew bible are vows to give something to God. People vow to offer an animal at the altar, or to give money to the Temple treasury, just because they want to do something extra for their religion. Both this week’s Torah portion and a similar passage in Ecclesiastes/Kohelet state that when you vow to make a gift to God, you must fulfill it with minimum delay, or you will be guilty of wrongdoing. Someone today would be guilty of similar wrongdoing if they promised to donate extra money to their congregation, but then took years to get around to it.

Another type of vow is the vow of self-denial. The most common vow of self-denial in the Torah is the vow to be a nazir, someone who abstains from haircuts and from wine (or anything else made with grapes) for a fixed period of time. (See my post Naso: Distanced by Hair.)

But like us, Israelites and Jews thousands of years ago made individual vows of self-denial, which are mentioned in the Hebrew bible and discussed in detail in the Talmud tractate Nedarim (“Vows”).  In modern American one common individual vow of self-denial is to abstain from certain foods.  Two thousand years ago this was also a possible vow, but vows to refrain from sex with your spouse get more coverage in the Talmud.

Carrying out your vow without delay is also a requirement for vows of of self-denial. The book of Numbers/Bemidbar says: If someone vows a vow to God or swears an oath to abstain an abstention for himself, he shall not desecrate his word; according to anything that goes out of his mouth he must do. (Numbers 30:3)

Making a vow before God seems to be a common human impulse.  Yet both Deuteronomy and Ecclesiastes, as well as the Talmud, emphasize that it is better to simply do what you intend without making a vow.

What is so bad about making vows? The Torah and the Talmud discourage vowing because the consequences are terrible if you do not fulfill your vow. All too often, people make vows and then fail to live up to them because of circumstances they did not anticipate.  Some people are simply stymied by bad luck. But others are carried away by their emotions at the time of the vow, and rashly promise more than they can realistically deliver. Some people make vows they regret the next morning.

Traditional commentary points out that people tend to find excuses to justify their failure to deliver on a vow, and comfort themselves with the thought that at least they meant well. This is a form of self-delusion that leads some people to substitute making vows for actually doing the right thing. Thus people who makes rash vows end up behaving less ethically.  They also suffer because other people stop believing what they say.

I have also noticed another reaction to the failure to fulfill a rash vow. I know people who made solemn promises to themselves to increase their Jewish religious observance–not just by adding one daily blessing or one small restriction, but by taking on a full day of orthodox Shabbat observance every week, or by switching from a diet of bacon cheeseburgers to keeping kosher so strictly that they can no longer eat out. And when they failed to fulfill their rash vows, they did not excuse themselves on the grounds of good intentions.  Instead, they gave up on their religion–an easy thing to do, in our modern society. And that, too, can be bad for the soul.

I agree with the Torah and Talmud that it is better to guard your lips and stop yourself from making vows. But if you need to make a vow, consider it carefully, over a period of time, to make sure it is something reasonable that you can fulfill.

But what if you have made a vow you cannot, or no longer want to, fulfill?  In Talmudic times, people called upon rabbis to annul their ill-considered vows of self-denial. Jews today have Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement.  If we break our vows to other people, we can only make things right by going through a process of atonement with those individuals. But if we have failed to carry out our vows to ourselves, or to God, then we can atone in our communal prayers on Yom Kippur.

The holy day begins with the singing of “Kol Nidrei”, which means “All vows” in Aramaic. The Kol Nidrei prayer may have begun as a way to absolve Jews from vows of conversion to another religion, since so many Jews had to pretend to convert to Christianity in order to save their lives. Now it serves as a heartfelt introduction to the day when we can release ourselves from guilt over the personal vows before God that we now wish we had not made.

This week is the second week of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur. The Jewish tradition is to spend this month examining ourselves, apologizing and atoning for the wrongs we have done to other people, and recognizing where we have failed the God inside each of us.

This month of Elul, may we all catch up on the good deeds we promised to do but never got around to; may we find ways to clear ourselves and start fresh with every person we have wronged; may we recognize and accept our failures to fulfill our personal vows; and may we figure out ways to improve ourselves gently, without making any rash vows.

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