I. Women Today
Women’s roles and opportunities have changed dramatically in the past century and some have called for halakhah to recognize this new situation. Women now have greater financial independence. They can choose from almost any occupation and even no occupation, opting to remain at home. Women often hire household help who free them from cleaning and cooking. Such a different daily existence calls for a reevaluation of women’s halakhic status, some would say, acknowledging the historic changes.
Indeed, R. Yoel Bin Nun has reportedly called for such a radical rewriting of Jewish law (see this post: link). Arguing that women’s exemption from positive, time-bound commandments is based on their dependent status, R. Bin Nun suggests that women are now required to perform every mitzvah. The exemption no longer applies. No one has yet, to my knowledge, fully explored this argument’s radical implications for halakhic egalitarianism. However, the idea of incorporating women’s new status into Jewish law excites the imagination.
But is this really called for? I submit that the Talmud, as understood by its commentators, were aware of women who were financially independent and free from household duties. Such women existed as a minority in the ancient world and today they dominate. The status is not new, just its prevalence. (See also R. Aryeh Frimer’s critique of this view: link – PDF, pp. 94-98.)
We see this in the laws of Pesach. The Gemara (Pesachim 108a) states that while women are generally exempt from leaning on their side during the seder, an important woman — ishah chashuvah — must lean. What defines an ishah chashuvah? The commentaries disagree (the following is based on Haggadah Shelemah, pp. 70-72).
Rashbam writes that a woman is normally exempt from leaning because “of the fear (or awe) of her husband and she is dependent on him.” Or Zaru’a similarly writes, “a woman is dependent on her husband; it is improper for her to display mastery and freedom in front of him.” According to them, an independent woman would presumably be considered an ishah chashuvah.
Rabbenu Manoach (Hilkhos Chametz U-Matzah 7:8) offers other definitions of ishah chashuvah. One is an unmarried woman. Another is a righteous, God-fearing woman. A third is part of an explanation of why a regular woman is exempt from leaning: Women are busy preparing and serving the food. Therefore, he explains, the rabbis exempted women from leaning just like the Torah exempted them from positive, time-bound commandments. A woman with servants, however, is an ishah chashuvah and is obligated to lean.
One group of Medieval authorities — Tosafos, as quoted by the Mordekhai and Rabbenu Yerucham (see Beis Yosef, Orach Chaim 472) — state that all women of their time (14th century France) reach the status of ishah chashuvah and must lean. I hope to explain next week why this is not the common practice. This raises a question of how Tosafos define ishah chashuvah. One is hard pressed to believe that most women in 14th century France were totally independent or free from housework. I heard in the name of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (second-hand, so take it for what it’s worth) that Tosafos define ishah chashuvah as someone who has a significant role in making the family’s decisions.
III. Independent Women
We see that the concept of independent women with financial means, who do not rely on or fear their husbands nor shoulder household duties, is not new. The Talmud does not clearly define its concept of an independent woman but Medieval commentaries do. And those descriptions seem quite appropriate for women’s contemporary status. Even if they did not consider the possibility of independent married women, the Talmudic sages knew of widows and divorcees who attained all of these qualities of an ishah chashuvah.
Yet neither the Talmud nor its commentaries ever suggest that an ishah chashuvah attains a radically new halakhic status. Rabbenu Manoach says the opposite fairly clearly. Women are exempt from leaning and time-bound, positive commandments for the same reason. The only change for an ishah chashuvah, to whom this reason does not apply, is that she must lean. Her obligations to the other commandments remain unchanged.