This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Lazy Ladies? *

For traditional Jews, the weeks leading up to Passover are defined by the Torah's command to remove all leaven and leavened products--ḥametz--from our households. Our sages insisted that the process culminate in a formal inspection of the premises on the evening before the holiday, in order to verify that no crumb has been inadvertently overlooked. All sorts of customs and rituals have evolved with regard to how best to conduct the inspection.

Family traditions may vary as to who actually carries out that last hunt for stray ḥametz. When our children were younger, we usually assigned most of the task to them, in the hope that their youthful enthusiasm and sharp eyes would do a more efficient job. Now that our nest has been emptied, I usually tackle it myself through the blur of my bifocals.

As far as I know, the ancient rabbis did not express any obvious preferences regarding this matter. The Babylonian Talmud states without political correctness that when it comes to the examination for leaven, we may rely even on a woman or a child. After all, it notes, this search is not an actual commandment of the Torah, but merely a precautionary procedure instituted by the rabbis.

To be sure, "relying" on somebody is not necessarily the same as having them do the actual job. And indeed, the traditional commentators and halakhic authorities had differing understandings about what exactly the Talmud had in mind in its ruling. Thus, Maimonides insisted that women were qualified to conduct the inspection itself; whereas Rashi argued that we may trust the ladies only when they were testifying that a proper search was carried out by somebody else, but they do not have the authority to perform the search themselves.

The matter would have been perplexing enough had it been confined to the interpretation of the passage in the Babylonian Talmud. However, the problem was complicated by an even more puzzling statement that appears in the Jerusalem Talmud. In that compendium, after citing the tradition about trusting "even women," Rabbi Jeremiah stated in the name of Rabbi Ze'irah that we should delete the word "even" from the text on the grounds that "women are themselves to be trusted since they are 'aṣelot' and they check even the tiniest specks."

The general drift of Rabbi Ze'irah's observation seems unmistakably clear. In his opinion, it is not just that women can be reluctantly relied upon in a pinch, but quite the opposite (as is evident to anyone who has ever ventured into a bachelor apartment)--they are the most diligent and uncompromising hunters of minute crumbs.

The main obstacle to understanding the text in the Jerusalem Talmud lies in the odd Hebrew word that Rabbi Ze'irah used to designate the female qualification for leaven-searching: "aṣelot." It is a word that normally translates as "lazy" or "indolent"--hardly a trait that we would expect to assure a conscientious inspection. Quite the contrary, it seems to cast aspersions on the aptitudes of the female ḥametz detectives for such a momentous religious task.

Several medieval authorities ruled in accordance with this disparaging interpretation of the word. The Tosafot commentary, for example, noted that women might be considered eminently dependable with respect to other important realms of Jewish religious law including kosher slaughter, food preparation, tithing and much more. However, they are at a disadvantage when it comes to practices that demand intense physical effort or exertion. In support of that contention they cited Rabbi Ze'irah's statement about women's alleged laziness.

In a similar vein, Rabbi Jacob Moelin of Mainz (the Maharil) conceded that women should be trusted when it comes to ritual prohibitions that are well known and widely observed, and if they are reporting that a man carried out the search for leaven--but we should still suspect them of falsification if they claim that they themselves performed a thorough Passover house-cleaning.

Not all the commentators were so disdainful of women's meticulousness. For example, Rabbi Menahem Hame'iri of Perpignan and other scholars from medieval Provence cited the Jerusalem Talmud in support of the claim that women are, if anything, more dependable than men in the matter of ḥametz inspection. They argued that the context of that discussion demonstrates that the word aṣelotshould not be translated in its usual derogatory sense of "lazy," but rather as "plodding" or "thorough." "They do their work methodically and are not distracted by other matters." Rabbi Hame'iri acknowledged that other commentators interpreted the passage in the opposite sense, but he dismissed their explanations entirely.

Although it is unreasonable to expect full consistency among such a diverse assortment of medieval scholars, I think that it is possible to discern a general line of differentiation that runs between the northern and southern European Jewish communities. That is to say, authorities from northern France and Germany were more likely to cast aspersions on the ability of women to perform demanding assignments, while those from Provence and Spain were favorably impressed by the rigorous efforts that the ladies invested in completing difficult tasks.

Most of these discussions were of a decidedly academic nature, based on the scholars' readings and interpretations of the talmudic texts. Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the impression that the rabbis' assessments of women's strengths and shortcomings were also influenced by their personal observations. And indeed, historians of Jewish law and society have tried to find some correlation between their halakhic rulings and the socio-economic factors that were at work in the respective communities.

One possibility that suggests itself is that the apparent disdain for female perseverance might have been a byproduct of the general improvement in economic and cultural conditions that took place during the twelfth century in Christian Europe, a development that had a far-reaching impact in enhancing the status of Jewish women, many of whom were actively involved in commerce and banking outside the home and were expected to manage the family businesses while their husbands was away on prolonged business trips. This meant that an increasing number of domestic chores were being delegated to servants.

It seems likely, therefore, that rabbis who lived among such women might entertain doubts about the steadfastness of their wives' commitment to household drudgery, even when it was channelled toward important religious objectives like the pre-Passover search for leaven.

The situation was somewhat different in Spain and Provence. Under the social conditions that prevailed in those lands, Jewish wives were more likely to be performing their traditional domestic roles, and their husbands--including the rabbis and authors of rabbinic law codes and commentaries--had better opportunities to observe and be impressed by their spouses' conscientious attention to the demands of household cleanliness.

I suppose that the best way to test the conflicting theories about women's competence as leaven-inspectors is to hold a competition. I therefore challenge any female or male readers to try their hands at doing the Passover cleaning in our house; and after it is all sparkling and kosher I will declare who did the best job.

In the meantime, I will be dutifully relaxing in order to conserve my energy for the Seder.

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For Signs and for Seasons

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, April 1, 2011, p. 19.
  • For further reading:
    • Grossman, Avraham. Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe. Translated by Jonathan Chipman. 1st ed. Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry Series. Waltham, Mass: Brandeis University Press, 2004.
    • Lieberman, Saul. Hayerushalmi Kiphshuto: A Commentary. Vol. 1. 1 vols. Jerusalem: Darom Publishing Co., 1934.