By Rabbi Yaakov Klass
Question: Though I am a truly religious woman, being in the workplace, I’ve encountered people who seek to challenge me with the argument that the Torah places scant importance to women and at times mentions them only in passing, almost begrudgingly, such as Serach bat Asher and Yocheved bat Levi. I would appreciate very much if you could provide me with the necessary “ammunition” to refute them.
Mrs. C. Grosz
Editor’s note: This response is based upon a shiur – lecture that I addressed to a women’s Torah study group a number of years ago. It bears some relevance on our yearly mourning period for the loss of our Hoy Temple and the concurrent destruction of Jerusalem that results in our ongoing exile. It is the Nashim Tzidkaniyot – the righteous women whose heartfelt prayers will surely rise up to the Holy Throne and please G-d, restore us to in our land to our former glory
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Answer: We shortened your rather lengthy question in which you noted the prominent roles of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, as well as the roles of Miriam, Deborah and Esther, which these same individuals, that you encounter, dismiss too as merely serving as supporting roles. Your citing those women who are indeed merely mentioned in passing provides us with both a challenge and an opportunity and hopefully some “ammunition” as well.
King David offers praise to the virtuous woman (Psalms 45:14) “Kol k’vuda bat melech pnima mimishbetzot zahav levusha – The grace (virtue) of the daughter of a king is in private, [far] better than garments of gold.” This translation of this oft quoted verse is more in line with the interpretations of Rashi and Ibn Ezra (ad. loc.) than some of the translations that I have seen.
This virtue that King David observed is actually one that has been present from the beginning of time. Torat Moshe, the Divinely inspired word of G-d, has not one extra word. This forms the many discussions throughout our Talmud and Midrash as to the relevance and teaching associated with even one word. Thus when names of people in Tanach are mentioned it is always for a reason. We find the names of the sons of man as mentioned in all the early generations as being recorded because these were the heads of families. On the other hand those of no consequence are merely referred to without being named, such as in Parashat Berishit. “… he lived … years and he begat sons and daughters and he died….”
Universally women were not recognized as the heads of families – rather patrilineal descent determined family heads as well as inheritance. In Judaism there is a stark contrast to one aspect of this universal rule. One’s Jewish bonafides are determined purely by matrilineal descent. One might ask why is this so.
The answer our sages (Yebamot 23a) offer, citing the Torah (Deuteronomy 7:4), “He will cause your son to turn from Me …” Rashi (Yebamot ad. loc.) explains that this admonition refers to the gentile husband of your daughter. The son of your daughter even from a non-Jewish father is still considered your son. HoweverHowever the son of your son from a gentile mother is not considered your son.
The reason is obvious. It is the mother who is the akeret habayit – the main force in the household. It is the mother (and wife) who determines not only the orderly running of the home but more significantly she provides the necessary guidance for the proper behavior of all members of her family.
Equally where she lacks in those values she actually instills improper behavior. That is not to say that there aren’t many fine gentiles and sons and daughters of gentile women, but Jewish values can only emanate from a Jewish mother.
There are four women who we single out as hidden women of the Tanach. They are Na’ama, Ma’acah, Serach, and Yocheved. These women are mentioned as opposed to others of their contemporaries who are not. Yet the mention does not include any storyline. What is their significance? In our discussion we will refer to them in their chronological sequence.
The Torah (Genesis 4:22) states; “And Tzila, too, she bore Tubal-Cain, who sharpened all cutting implements of copper and iron, and the sister of Tubal-Cain was Na’amah.” Rashi and Siftei Chachamim (ad. loc.) seeking to explain the passing mention of this woman cite the Midrash that she was the wife of Noah.
Siftei Chachamim explains further that she and her two brothers Jabal and Jubal (the sons of Adah) were all righteous while her brother Tubal-Cain was wicked as evidenced by the Torah’s singling him out and including of his occupation which was actually the manufacture of implements of war.
Ramban in his commentary to this verse compares it to other verses in the Torah. One of the verses he cites is at the end of Parashat Vayera (Genesis 22:24), “And his concubine, whose name was Reumah, also bore children: Tebah, Gaham, Tahash and Ma’acah.”
Sforno explains the reason for being singled out. Would he (Abraham) not have chosen Rebecca (as the wife for Isaac) she (Ma’acah) would have been fitting for his son. We thus see that Ma’acah was also a righteous woman.
I might offer the following connected explanation that this is similar to the high priest which the Talmud (Yoma 2a) states that for the Yom Kippur service they prepared for him an additional wife in order to assure the fulfillment of the Torah’s requirement (Leviticus 16:17), “… and he shall atone for himself, and for his household and for the entire congregation of Israel.”
The Talmud explains that “his household” refers specifically to his wife, and were she to die he would not be able to fulfill the requisite atonement. Thus the need for a second wife at the ready. Isaac would carry forth the task of building the Jewish nation but without a righteous wife that would be impossible.
The Torah in Parashat Vayigash (Genesis 46:17) states: “And the sons of Asher [were] Imnah, Ishvah, Ishvi, Beriah, and their sister Serach; and Beriah’s sons, Heber and Malchiel.” Targum Yonatan (ad. loc.) explains the relative importance of Serach – that she entered heaven alive because she gave her [grandfather] Jacob the good tidings that Joseph was indeed alive.
He is citing a midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer Zuta 1) that Joseph’s brothers, fearful that by their suddenly delivering even good news to their father might prove too much of a shock and endanger his life, sought a proper means of subtly delivering the news.
As they returned home they came upon Serach, Asher’s young daughter, who played the harp and was musically inclined. Thereupon they asked her to deliver the message that “Joseph is alive and more so he is the ruler of all Egypt.” She sat down before her grandfather and as she played her harp she sang those lyrics to him. Jacob upon fully comprehending the message blessed and told her that she will never experience the “taste” of death.
Tradition has it that Serach, who was still living t the time, was the one of those to whom the elders turned to verify whether the sign (“… pakod pakad’ti etchem … – … I have surely remembered you…”) that Moses gave them that he was the redeemer from their Egyptian bondage was accurate.
Further the Talmud (Sotah 13a) relates that when it came time for Bnei Yisrael to leave Egypt, it was to her that Moses turned for advice as to where Joseph was buried.
As to the last of the four enumerated women, Yocheved, though she is mentioned by name only in passing, the Torah (Exodus 2:1-3) refers to “Ish mibeit Levi – a man of the house of Levi and Bat Levi” – a daughter of Levi, whom Rashi identify as Amram and Yocheved.
She was truly unique in that she merited to be the wife of the gadol hador, Amram (Sotah 12a); she merited that her three children Moses, Aaron and Miriam (and some include Eldad and Medad as well) became prophets.
And, of course, her heroism and that of her daughter Miriam (though it is hidden as we only know from the Midrash that Shifra referred to in the verse [Exodus 1:16] is Yocheved and likewise Puah refers to Miriam) who both saved the Israelite male infants earned them (Rashi, Exodus 1:21) G-d’s blessing: Houses of Priesthood, Houses of Levites and Houses of Royalty.
The Houses of Priesthood and Levites are both descended from Yocheved and the Royal House of David is descended from Chur, the son of Miriam and her husband Caleb.
Indeed, we see that far from being considered inconsequential, we cite here four women, who though their mention is only fleeting, are nevertheless recognized by our sages for their righteousness. Indeed, it is the righteous woman who builds her true Jewish home. A feat that many a righteous man alone would find quite difficult to accomplish.
May we merit, especially now as we approach the sorrowful days of our national tragedy – the three weeks, that in the merit of the Jewish mothers G-d grants us a reprieve and redemption speedily in our days.
Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Kahal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.