By Israel Drazin


I think that women should be treated with respect and have the same rights as men. Many ancient Jewish sages felt the same, but not all of them. The question was raised[1] why did the very wise Greek philosopher Aristotle,[2] disparage women? The answer given is that he was unfortunately persuaded by the widespread notion about women held by the masses, and he saw that women acted in an inferior manner.[3] The same solution can explain the sages’ negative statements about women.[4] The following are some of them from Genesis Rabbah.[5]


Rabbi Hanina son of Rabbi Adda said: From the beginning of the Bible until here (the creation of the first woman Eve) there is no (Hebrew letter) samech. But as soon as she (Eve) was created, Satan (whose name begins with a samech) was created with her.[6]


Rabbi Joshua made a number of insulting comments about women, such as: women need perfume because their bodies begin to smell quicker than the body of men. Men are more easily appeased than women. “Why does a man go out bareheaded while a woman goes out with her head covered? She is like a person who did wrong and is ashamed of people; therefore she covers her head.”[7] Women have menstrual periods “because she shed the blood of Adam” (by bringing death into the world by eating the forbidden fruit).


Yet, Rabbi Joshua’s final statement is that women were given the precept to light the Sabbath candles “because she extinguished the soul of Adam.” This doesn’t seem to be bad. He may be saying that despite her role in eating the forbidden fruit, she is assigned this ceremony because she is the one who creates and spreads the Sabbath joy that is symbolized by the light of the Sabbath candles.


This statement is followed by another positive description of women. Rabbi Eleazar said women are endowed with more understanding than men.[8]

[1] By Robert Mayhew in his The Female in Aristotle’s Biology.

[2] The same question can be asked about the great philosopher Maimonides.

[3] They were forced to act in this way by men who sometimes didn’t realize what they were doing. Ironically, many of the ancient women as well as many today have come to believe what some men want them to believe, that they are lower than men or that they must behave in an inferior manner.

[4] The worst statement about women that I read was by the generally rational sage Gersonides (1288-1344) who wrote that women are mediocre creatures between animals and men.

[5] Scholars date the final editing of this Midrash around 400 CE.

[6] She, like Pandora in the Greek myth, brought evil into the world.

[7] Needless to say, women cover their heads in many cultures as well as most of their bodies because of the ancient male fear of being seduced by women.

This ancient fifth century statement that men do not cover their heads shows that the practice of men covering their heads and wearing yarmalkas began recently.

[8] He supported his view by an exegesis: Genesis 2:22 states that God built (vayiben) the woman, and the word vayiben is similar to bina, understanding.