Tag : talmud

April 20, 2020 by

When Your Family Is Someone’s Boss

When we work outside of the home, the roles of employer and employee are clearly delineated, with oversight by state and federal laws and agencies, often with HR departments to oversee their enforcement. When we employ others in our own households, however, even though state and federal laws also apply, it can be harder to view our home as someone else’s workplace. Fortunately, we have Jewish ethical teachings to guide us in this employee-employer relationship.

Home employment, by its very nature, is extremely intimate. Since ancient times, those employed by families have completed very personal responsibilities, from Abraham’s servant securing Isaac’s future wife (Genesis 24) to Rebekah’s former wet nurse who accompanies her into her new life with Isaac (Gen. 24:59) to the later example of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s maid who recognizes it was time for him to die (BT K’tubot 104a). As much as we need to be able to trust those we invite to work in our homes, we must recognize the great confidence the employee places in us to treat them with respect and to ensure their safety as they enter our homes, isolated behind closed doors.

Protecting our employees’ physical safety by upholding the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, literally “saving a life,” broadly applied to mean avoiding endangerment of a person’s health or safety, is primary. For example, this value directs us to ensure our employees’ health by outfitting them with the appropriate safety precautions, like good-quality gloves and masks when they are caring for the sick and safe cleaning products and proper ventilation when they are cleaning our homes. Creating a reasonable list of responsibilities for an employee is also part of protecting their health. If the employment involves working at odd hours, we must consider if the employee will have a safe method to get home. If the answer is no, then you, the employer, should provide cab money as part of the compensation.

Not only must the family employer be reasonable in the expectations of an employee’s responsibilities and the task performed, but we must also be judicious in the hours of employment. As described by the Talmud, commenting on Deuteronomy 24:15, workers may be willing to take jobs with dangerous tasks because they need the money desperately (BT Bava M’tzia 112a). We should also be aware that such need disempowers the employee from objecting when the family employer lengthens or switches work hours. Sometimes we unwittingly replicate the worst of corporate practices when we are family employers. Deviating from the set expectation for a worker’s hours is also an ancient issue discussed in the Talmud, which warns against hiring workers and then instructing them to work earlier or later than the local custom. The Talmud also warns against giving employees a raise and then demanding they work beyond their regular work the extra money is for the quality of work, unless it is clearly stated when the extra money is given that the expectation is that the worker will stay outside of the regular workday (BT Bava M’tzia 83a). The family employer must be clear about work hours and responsibilities.

Pikuach nefesh should also lead the family employer to help full-time employees (and perhaps, in part, limited-service employees) obtain health insurance and to include paid sick days. While concern for your employee’s health should be the motivating force behind these benefits, they also protect the employer by helping the employee to be healthy and to stay at home when sick. Pension also falls under the category of pikuach nefesh, as this financial safety net can make a huge difference in the quality of life one has in retirement. Unfortunately, among privately employed caregivers, only one in ten participates in an employer pension plan.

Paying a worker on time is highlighted in the Holiness Code, in Leviticus 19:13, “The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning,” and in the related text of Deuteronomy 24:15, “You must pay out the wages due on the same day, before the sun sets, for the worker is needy and urgently depends on it….” The law to pay the worker on the same day is explored and expanded in the Babylonian Talmud (Bava M’tzia 111a–113a). The family employer should not only pay the employee promptly at the proper time, but should also consider the best method of payment so that the employee does not incur high fees to access the money. Your employee may not have a regular bank account, a privilege many of us take for granted. If you provide payment in the form of a check, your employee may have to use a check-cashing service, which can charge exploitive fees as high as eight dollars per check.

Because of the intimate relationship between employer and employee in the household, the family employer may become aware of financial struggles plaguing the employee. Therefore, the employer may want to support the worker with offerings of tzedakah, either in the form of material items or money. However, it is vital not to confuse tzedakah for paying a living wage. Giving an employee tzedakah, either directly or indirectly in the form of a gift or interest- free loan (as Maimonides instructs for cases in which giving tzedakah directly may cause embarrassment), must stay in the realm of tzedakah and not be mistaken for appropriate compensation or a raise.

The people we employ in our households do vital work. We entrust these employees with our most precious beloveds, our children and our parents. Working in our homes, these employees deserve safe work conditions, a living wage, the assurance of health insurance and retirement benefits, and control over their work hours. We, the family employer, must see our homes as their place of employment, ensuring these basic rights.

From The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, edited by Rabbi Mary L. Zamore © 2019 by Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Used by permission of Central Conference of American Rabbis. All rights reserved.

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April 2, 2019 by

It Belongs to My Brothers


THE NEW RABBI IS RUNNING LATE. It’s the first day of eleventh grade and there is a buzz of hushed excitement in the room. Our brothers have been studying Talmud since they were seven or eight and we know its cadence. We’ve heard its rhythm chanted and recited at our kitchen tables while we stood cutting vegetables. Now, a select few girls in our grade will finally have the chance to participate in the legacy of learning, and there is a simmering anticipation.

Unacknowledged within the simmering is a dash of fear—that we will be inadequate; that we won’t be exceptional enough to justify the use of our rabbi’s time; that what our brothers read as a first language, we will struggle and fail to understand. That we will prove them right.

Our new rabbi sweeps into the room 10 minutes late. We straighten our backs and our never-opened tractates. He begins explaining the background of the Talmud, the characters involved, the style of dialogue. We listen and furiously take notes, taking care not to miss anything. Then, he finally begins talking about actual Talmud study and how we will engage with it, having never learned any Jewish texts outside of Tanach [Bible].

“The English translation isn’t true Talmud study. It is a watered down version of what is really there.”

We copy this down.

“People call it a crutch and that’s what it is, I’m not going to deny it.”

We brace ourselves for him to tell us we won’t be allowed to use the English translation.

“But none of you know anything about Talmud. You all have broken legs. So use the crutch.”

He says it so matter-of-factly.

I sit quietly at my desk, cheeks flushing red but not daring to speak for fear of losing my opportunity to learn.

Who broke our legs?

I never asked him.

After high school, I spent a year at Nishmat, a women’s seminary in Jerusalem dedicated to furthering women’s learning and participation as public voices of Jewish law. I was blessed to learn from an incredibly accomplished and knowledgeable teacher. He wasn’t a rabbi, just a man who cared enough to take us seriously as learners. For the first time, the expectations were set high for me.

I was expected to spend time after class with my female peers, finding commentaries, parsing out contradictions, and reasoning about what logical arguments led to the differences in interpretation. I stayed in the Beit Midrash and pored over medieval texts until well after dark every night. I loved it. I loved discovering the logic and the wisdom. I loved that when our teacher asked us difficult questions, he wasn’t trying to make us admit how much less we knew than him. He was expecting us to answer. Even though I came in with broken legs, he wanted me to walk, not crawl. This class met once a week for an hour and a half. It lasted one year, and I’ve never had a Talmud educator believe in me like he did since. Sometimes it feels like a dream. I am 21 now and reading the Talmud aloud still tastes like inadequacy. The Tanach [Torah] that I learned every day for 12 years feels like a part of me. The imagery and poetry of the Hebrew Bible are ingrained in my imagination and my consciousness and I am so grateful for this.

But what is respected in my community as the more intellectually rigorous and important body of text, the Talmud, makes me feel like a stranger in my own faith. Not because it is difficult or uninteresting, but because it doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to my brothers.

For one year it felt like the gatekeeper had let me in, like I could really stand with the men in the garden of Talmud. I am grateful for that year, but more than anything I would love to be my own gatekeeper. To have the key that would make the Talmud mine. For now I push it away. I devote my time to disciplines that don’t knock me down.

Men still like to explain Talmudic teachings to me that I once felt like I knew.

I let them.

Adina Singer is a current student at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in chemistry and minoring in English. She is a former chair of Shira Chadasha on campus and is committed to inclusivity in the Jewish legacy. This essay is used with permission from New Voices: The National Jewish Student Magazine (newvoices.org)

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The Lilith Blog

April 25, 2017 by

In Defense of Lashon Hara

Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan

Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan

On my grandmother’s wall, a black-and-white photograph of an old, bearded man stares down at me. “Do you know who that is?” she asks.

“Yes, Grandma,” I sigh. She asks me this question every time I go to her apartment. “That’s our ancestor, the Chofetz Chaim.”

“A great tzadik,” a righteous man, she agrees. “He preached about the dangers of gossip, of lashon hara.”

In 1873, my great-great-great grandfather, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, wrote a book on the biblical laws prohibiting gossip and slander. The book was called Chofetz Chaim, “Seeker of Life,” and his followers started calling its author by the same name. When I first learned about the Chofetz Chaim, I thought his opposition to gossip made sense; after all, nobody likes to be talked about behind their back.

But growing up, I realized that in day-to-day life, people rarely characterize remarks made by men as gossip. And then I wondered, is gossip just a derogatory term for women’s speech? And are prohibitions against gossip just another way to silence women?

In the Chofetz Chaim’s Orthodox, Eastern European world, women did not study Talmud in Yeshiva; and they were excluded from political activity. So women talked about work, family, and the ins and outs of everyday life. In other words, when and where women could not talk about ideas, they talked about people: a topic of conversation that the rabbis termed gossip

However, women didn’t and don’t just gossip when we lack access to highbrow intellectual conversations. We also engage in gossip in order to effectively combat injustice. We talk about people, rather than simply talking to them, because in a world of patriarchy and power imbalances, directly addressing those who harm us is often a futile or counterproductive strategy. Women, and all people in subaltern positions, gossip because we find strength in numbers.

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March 18, 2002 by

Bet you didn’t know… what the Talmud says about Gender Ambiguity



Whatever tendencies we might have to think that “gender studies” is a concept new to the world after feminism, the rabbis of the Talmud have been deeply fascinated by the exceptions and margins of gender for well over 1500 years.

The rabbis who created Jewish law lived in a male dominated society, so it is unsurprising that rabbinic law treats the male as the norm and the female, by definition, as an anomaly—a deviation from the norm. Still, the sages do perceive women as human beings, creatures similar to men in important ways. Women are both ‘like’ and ‘not like’ men.

This leaves the rabbis in a quandary when they stumble across individuals whose gender categories are even more unclear than those of women. Women, at least, have a role that is obvious to the sages—they are exempt from certain commandments, while Jewish men are obligated to all commandments under most circumstances. So, what is to be done with those who do not fit neatly into one of these categories?

It is not perfectly clear how many genders the rabbis recognized: perhaps as few as two (male, not-male), or perhaps as many as seven. In Tractate Yevamot (begins on79b) the Babylonian Talmud discusses the following gender categories;
• Androgynos: a person who has aspects of both male and female genitalia
• Tumtum: a person whose genitals are obscured, making their gender uncertain
• Aylonit: a female who fails to produce signs of female maturity by the age of twenty.
• Saris: the general term for a male who does not produce signs of maturity by the age of twenty (there is some debate about whether he needs to fail to produce all signs, or only some of them to be considered a saris). The category of saris can be further broken down into two: a saris khama is a male who is sterile because he was born that way, and a saris adam is a male who is sterile because he was castrated.

The Shining Tribe Tarot | Archer Tarot

Rachel Pollack’s Jewish Tarot “vision cards”

Note that the rabbis define a person’s gender strictly according to external physical attributes, not behavior; that is, they do not have the modern notion that a person might have male genitalia and still identify as a woman.

The discussion in Tractate Yevamot is typical of the talmudic process, attempting to clarify which people must observe which aspects of Jewish law. Generally, tumtumim are treated like women (exempt from many commandments), and androgynoi are somewhat in between the legal categories of men and women. For example, tumtumim and women cannot fulfill the obligation to blow the shofar for themselves or for others; androgynoi can fulfill their obligation for themselves, but not for others. A man, however, can blow the shofar for himself and for others. In this way, the Rabbis of the Talmud managed to include inter sex Jews into their system of Jewish law and ritual participation. 

Alana Suskin is a fourth year rabbinical, student at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles        


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