Equal Rights

Print pagePDF pageEmail page

imageEquality is a modern topic, particularly even if not exclusively American. However, modern topics may also have been important an ancient times. Perhaps it should not be surprising that the rabbinic concordance Otzar Ma’amarei Chazal by J.D. Eisenstein, published in 1922 in New York, contains an entry for “equal rights” (shivyon zekhuyos) that cites rabbinic sources emphasizing this value.

Eisenstein quotes the Tosefta (Sanhedrin ch. 8) that Adam was created alone so that the righteous cannot claim that they (alone) are descended from someone righteous nor the wicked claim they come from someone wicked. No one can say that their ancestor is better than another’s. Rather, we are all descended from the same person and presumably, therefore, equal.

The Torah (Deut. 29:9) lists the people listening to Moshe’s speech — “Your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers , with all the men of Israel.” The Midrash Tanchuma infers from the list that all people — the elders, officers, men of Israel, etc. — are equal before Moshe. Not just adult men, continues the midrash, but also the women and children. God is merciful on all His creatures and does not pick favorites.

The midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 48:1) tells how R. Yossi’s wife was once yelling at her maid. R. Yossi scolded her that she should not do so, as it says (Job 31:13): “If I did despise the cause of my manservant or of my maidservant.” Eisenstein explains in a footnote that even servants have equal rights.

The midrash Yalkut Shimoni (Torah, no. 76) quotes God telling Moshe that He does not show favoritism among humans. Neither, the midrash says, between Jew and gentile nor between man and woman. Any person who performs a mitzvah receives the appropriate reward.

And finally, the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 19a) describes the advice given to Jews when the gentile government forbade learning Torah, circumcising babies and observing Shabbos. They were told to protest in the streets and cry out: “For God’s sake! Are we not your brothers? Are we not children of the one father and mother? Why are we different from every nation that you decree against us?” The government annulled the decree and the sages declared that day a holiday.

(Reposted from 2011)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.


  1. What about Tana D’bei Eliyahu’s surprising statement: מעיד אני עלי שמים וארץ, בין איש בין אשה, בין גוי בין ישראל, בין עבד בין שפחה, הכל לפי מעשיו, רוח הקודש שורה עליו

    • Since you brought it up, that line is strikingly very similar to a much older one:

      “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in…”

      “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free…”

      As the first quote is from Galatians and the second is from Colossians, you can guess how they end.

      • It’s the opposite, and to your point possibly intentionally. Tanna D’vei Eliyahu says that it is all according to one’s actions, rather than one’s faith.

      • Is it indeed much older? From the same era as the line RNL cites is attributed to, Rav Meir also has his “…shelo asani goy/nakhri … shelo asani aved … shelo asani ishah.” Same three distinctions as made by Paul, in the same order.

        I think the whole issue was just part of the zeitgeist. We were resisting being absorbed into the Roman Empire to the extent of losing our national identity as the Am haTorah. So, the culture’s class distinctions were a significant topic of discussion.

        • Well, the Gemara itself attributes the midrash to R’ Anan, which would be about 150 years after Paul. R’ Meir would be about a hundred years after Paul. But you’re probably right: I doubt either was copying the NT; these things were probably out there.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: