Aug 16, 2010

Rashi on Shaving: Ki Teitzei

I used to sit down, every week, in a coffee shop, and read the weekly Torah portion (aka parshah). I'd make notes in a notebook, which I still have, and then write up a blog post with some semblance of my thoughts made coherent. That ritual began when I was living in Washington D.C. in 2006, and it continued well into 2008 before I moved to Connecticut. But when I moved to Connecticut, I got busy with school and my weekly parshah study was replaced largely by my academic probes that translated into personal discovery with Talmudic and midrashic study, as well as Hebrew.

Something Elul has me thinking about and reflecting on is my devotion to weekly, if not daily, Torah study. Or examining the halachos or some other aspect of this Jewish life I carry so proudly. Thus, I give you, some thoughts on just a bit of the upcoming parshah, Ki Teitzei. 

(Deuteronomy 22:5, with Rashi commentary from

5. A man's attire shall not be on a woman, nor may a man wear a woman's garment because whoever does these [things] is an abomination to the Lord, your God.

ה. לֹא יִהְיֶה כְלִי גֶבֶר עַל אִשָּׁה וְלֹא יִלְבַּשׁ גֶּבֶר שִׂמְלַת אִשָּׁה כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְי אֱלֹקיךָ כָּל עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה:

A man’s attire shall not be on a woman: making her appear like a man, thereby enabling her to go among men, for this can only be for the [purpose of] adultery. — [Nazir 59a]

לא יהיה כלי גבר על אשה: שתהא דומה לאיש כדי שתלך בין האנשים, שאין זו אלא לשם ניאוף:

nor may a man wear a woman’s garment: to go and abide among women. Another explanation: [In addition to not wearing a woman’s garment,] a man must also not remove his pubic hair or the hair of his armpits [for this is a practice exclusive to women]. — [Nazir 59a]

ולא ילבש גבר שמלת אשה: לילך ולישב בין הנשים. דבר אחר שלא ישיר שער הערוה ושער של בית השחי:
because … is an abomination: The Torah forbids only [the wearing of] clothes that would lead to abomination [i.e., immoral and illicit behavior]. — [Nazir 59a]

כי תועבת: לא אסרה תורה אלא לבוש המביא לידי תועבה:

Okay. What struck me about this particular verse is that it relates that a woman shouldn't wear the article, or as it is understood, clothing item, that belongs to a man, while a man shouldn't wear "a woman's dress" is what it says specifically. Does that rule out bras? I'm joking, of course. The reason for this command, according to the text, is that it is an abomination. Rashi understands this to be because it would lead a man or woman to commit adultery. The modern and commonplace act of wearing pants and button-downs among women aside, how does Orthodoxy understand this?

Women in the Orthodox community wear skirts, by and large, wear skirts, so pants aren't an issue. But what about shirts that could be understood as men's clothing. A button-down, for example. The "boyfriend tee" as many places call it. A simple, classic, professional button-down shirt, skirt or not ... would it make Rashi shudder? 

And how do we view the man who wears a skirt on Purim for kicks and giggles -- is it in the spirit of this simple command not to don the dress of a woman? You won't find too many women in the Orthodox community donning full male attire for Purim (that whole skirt thing, of course), but men. Men wear dresses and skirts and get their hilarity on with ease. What validates this, considering this command from Deut. 22:5? It does seem, at the end, with Rashi, that only if the act of wearing a skirt or men's button-down would lead to "immoral and illicit behavior" is it an abomination. The assumption, however, is that the clothing itself will result in an abomination (no free choice?), so donning it isn't even an option or consideration. Or, rather, it shouldn't be. The point: No good can come from wearing the clothing traditionally worn by the opposite sex, so don't do it. Stam

What I'm really taken with, I will say, is the mention of how women remove their pubic and armpit hair. I was always under the impression that this was very much a 20th-century thing to do, a modern insecurity with the hair of our bodies. Now I have to wonder whether this was a normative activity even back in the 11th century. It seems strange to me, considering how difficult it must have been to shave back in the day. There weren't easy-to-use BIC razors, after all. No bikini-line razors and what have you. Definitely no Nair. Does anyone have a good history of shaving (for women, that is, I know Alexander the Great made a big to-do out of being clean-shaven; way to go Alexander!)?

I'm sure there are plenty of interesting and curious aspects of this simple verse from this week's Torah portion that I'm missing, so feel free to share what you see in it, or what you think about this whole "women dressing as men" and "men dressing as women" command. It's such a strange and unusual concept to us in the 21st century, even within the Orthodox community where women wear skirts and head coverings and men sport suits on their way to shul. I wonder what this verse will mean to us in 100 years? 500 years? What happens when we all go Star Trek and wear body suits? 

Thoughts a'plenty over here!


Drew said...

Very interesting!

I know in my antiquities courses we learned that noble roman women would literally pluck/tweeze their hair out. Under the arm and other places... It sounded painful then and still sounds painful now! The lengths we go for "womanhood" :-)

As for shaving, I can't remember when that became the norm... I could shoot the question over to my friend who teaches women in antiquity?

Mark said...

Definitely no Nair.

Maybe yes! I seem to recall somewhere in the Gemara (or perhaps in the literature of one of the Rishonim) a mention of some sort of compound that causes hair removal.

the rabbi's wife said...

Egyptian royalty were known for removing ALL of their body hair and then wearing wigs.
They used primarily shaving as their method of hair removal but had some kind of paste that slowed down hair growth also.

D said...

This is a fun history of shaving if you have interest.

Perhaps the most interesting thing for me was the Aztec habit of shaving with obsidian. One miss step there (especially for us who are men) and that could lead to some serious consequences very quickly.

Anonymous said...

Yes, shaving was done with tools (rocks, later metal) that was sharpened. I also read somewhere that babies were dipped in oil to retard growth of body hair. And there was wax...I imagine a Brazilian is nothing new to french women.

While I wear skirts when I got to shul or to work, I will wear capris when I am going to class or more casual outings. To me they are women's don't wear them and naturally, I don't have the intent to commit adultery. My Chabad rabbi told me the reason women don't wear pants is because pants (and I quote) "put it out there." In my community, skirts are the norm.

Anonymous said...

There are certainly poseks who would disagree about "no pants" being clear as day, stam. There are poseks who have said it's okay to wear pants as long as they're baggy enough that when you put your legs together they appear like a shirt. There are many very religious people in my life who hold that women can wear pants as long as they're made FOR women and aren't immodest. I took a class about this issue and in learning it, it became clear that the talmudic concern was primarily about men masquerading as women *in order to get something sexually from a person of the opposite sex via deceit* and vice versa. Which is not the same as transgender people (another discussion for another time), and is not the same as a woman today wearing pants. This leads some women to not feel like the halacha is so cut and dry, especially because "women's dress" has always been entirely dependent on cultural context and we live in a culture where there is nothing considered unusual or immodest or manly about a woman wearing pants.

Leah Sarah said...

Everything I've learned has pointed that women don't wear pants because they aren't as modest as skirts, not because of beged ish. If it were beged ish, clearly many shirts would apply as well as you mentioned. The reason we wear skirts below the knee is because we are trying to cover up the appearance of the inner thigh, which is arousing. I think pants vs skirts in that case would point to skirts covering form and pants only covering skin, which defeats the purpose of modesty in that case. I certainly think pants are NOT modest on me due to my form. Any pants that remotely fit me will hug my tush and hips too much to be considered modest. I do know a fairly large number of Orthodox women who wear pants, though, but I don't think any of them(except one) try to claim that pants are modest.

toby said...

Add me to the list of women who wears pants out of modesty! And I'm Orthodox! My neighborhood is really windy - if I wear a long flowy skirt, it quickly becomes immodest. And I find that tight skirts which avoid that issue are way less modest than my baggy pants.
So now there are two :)

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@BakerGirl @Mark @RabbisWife @D @ElianahSharon Thanks for the historical notes. Although, it would seem to me what royalty and the wealthy are doing wouldn't be what the rabbis were doing -- especially the vineyard-style folks like Rashi, not to mention the rabbis of the Talmud. Eh? I mean, the wealthy can afford plastic surgery, but that doesn't mean it's normative among the regular "village" folk like us :)

@Anonymous @LeahSarah @Toby Your comments about pants are the same I've heard from many people, and what people choose to do personally is of no business of mine. You gotta do what you feel comfortable with, what your rav says is okay, and what coordinates with how you understand the halakah. However, it would seem to me that an anthropologist would acknowledge that "pants," traditionally throughout history, in most cultures, were items worn by men. You can make "women's pants," that are cut appropriately, but they're still pants, which, as I just said, would be attributed as a male fashion item up until probably the mid/late 1900s when they became fairly normative among women. There are plenty of women who wear ties (there's that one actress who always does ..), but does that make it NOT a man's clothing item? No. I know I sound really old-fashioned and anti-woman here, but I'm just speaking from a very basic, pshat view that the rabbis would have understood.

Note: According to Wikipedia "women's trousers" were first produced in the 1960s. Prior to that, all the pants worn by women were actually their husbands, cinched or altered for women.

Also: Skirts have been a blessing for me ... I hated buying pants and with the way my tush is, without a doubt pants were far more immodest - no matter how baggy - than a skirt. So my tush is tzniut and my shopping time is more fun. :)

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

Pants: I don't know when it started, but many of the older Yemenite women I knew in the 70s and 80s wore pants under their skirts. It was quite typical. They were often embroidered down on the bottom. I thought this was something they did already back in Teiman.

Shaving: Hair removal by depilatory was known in Talmudic and Geonic times. Shaving the face with a blade is a separate prohibition in the Torah. The discussion then became is shaving other areas forbidden as an extension of what you've cited, or not. There are responsa from the Geonim that permitted this.

Shelby said...

I use to do the same thing, I would put that in the back of my women's pants and take it out when ever I had time to look at it!

Anonymous said...

No, specifically women's pants were not created in the 60s. You must have been reading an article about Western women's style history, and Judaism is not historically a Western religion. A significant portion of Indian & Pakistani women have been wearing pants (look up salwar kameez) for ages, and Yemenite and some other North African and Middle Eastern women (Persian, etc), among others, have also traditionally worn pants. Including Jewish women from those areas.

Anonymous said...

They waxed!! Well.. The wax was made of sugar and lemon juice.. it is something still used in the Middle East..

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