Men of the Hour


And Moses ascended to G-d. And G-d called to him from the mountain, saying: “So you shall relate to the house of Jacob, and pronounce to the children of Israel…”

Exodus 19:3

“The house of Jacob” are the women; “the children of Israel” are the men…. Relate the general principles [of Torah] to the women, and pronounce [its] exacting particulars to the men.

Mechilta, ibid.

As physical beings, we are subject to the rule of time, that faceless force that drives us from a receding past, through a fleeting present, to an ever-elusive future.

As Jews, we attain a more intimate experience of time. With a series of time-related mitzvot, the Torah empowers us to delve beyond time’s homogeneous expanse to behold a terrain of great diversity: a terrain marked by workdays and a weekly Shabbat; annual landmarks of shofar,sukkah, and matzah; weeks designated for the counting of sefirat ha’omer, days for putting on tefillin, hours for reciting the Shema; and a host of other time-specific observances. As Jews, the very entity “time” becomes another object of our life’s mission of developing G-d’s creation, as we reach within its featureless flow to uncover its multi-faceted nature and actualize its particular potentials.

And yet, fully half of us are exempted from this aspect of Jewish life: according to Torah law, the Jewish woman is absolved from virtually all time-specific mitzvot.[1] To be sure, a woman can (and many do) observe these mitzvot,[2] but the very fact that she is not obligated to do so implies that they are not intrinsic to her mission in life. Why, indeed, does the Torah de-emphasize the Jewish woman’s role in its program for the development of time?

Separated At Birth

Our sages tell us that when G-d sent Moses to tell the Jewish people to ready themselves to receive the Torah, He sent him to the women first, and then to the men.

The entire community of Israel was given the same Torah. But the fact that this was preceded by two separate communications, one to the women and another to the men, implies a basic distinction between the women’s reception of Torah and the men’s. In other words, men and women differ not only biologically and psychologically, but also spiritually, having been charged and empowered by their Creator with two distinct roles in mankind’s overall mission in life. Hence there are mitzvot commanded only to men, and mitzvot specific to women.

This is not to say that each of us relates to only half a Torah. Indeed, if man and woman were two separate species, such would be the case. But man and woman are two dimensions of a single soul, separated at birth and reunited through marriage. So each individual soul is charged with the implementation of the entire Torah–its masculine element, acting through a male body, to carry out the Torah’s masculine commandments; and its feminine element, vested in a female body, to realize the Torah’s feminine goals. In the words of master Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria,[3] “When the male performs a mitzvah [commanded specifically to men], there is no need for the woman to do it on her own, since she is included in his performance of the mitzvah.… This is the deeper significance of what our sages have said, ‘A[4] person’s wife is as his own body.’”[5]

Particular Man

What exactly does this “division of roles” entail? Man and woman are both multifaceted and complex creatures, and no single sentence or thesis can possibly summarize the many ways in which they complement and fulfill each other. Ultimately, we can only say that G-d, who created the human soul and halved it into two separate bodies and lives, has ordained for each a program for life–delineated by the Torah– that is consistent with its strengths and potentials. The Torah, however, does provide a number of clues that illuminate certain aspects of the “male” and “female” roles.

One such insight into the distinction between these roles is expressed in the Midrash quoted at the beginning of this essay. As the Mechilta derives from Exodus 19:3, G-d told Moses to relate the “general principles” of the Torah to the women, and its “exacting particulars” to the men. The woman relates to the essence, the all-inclusive, in Torah; the man relates to the detail, the specific law, the particular application.

[This distinction is also seen in the role of the father and mother in determining the identity of their child. According to Torah law, it is the mother who determines the Jewishness of the child: if the mother is Jewish, so too, is the child; if the mother is not, neither is the child, no matter how much “Jewish blood” there is in his parentage. On the other hand, regarding the particulars of his Jewishness–his tribal identity,[6] or his classification as a “Kohen,” “Levite,” or “Israelite”–the child takes wholly after his father.]

Thus the man is the one with the more “intellectual” relationship with Torah–it is to him that the commandment “study it day and night”[7] is directed. The woman, on the other hand, imbibes the Torah at its supra-rational root with her female faith and receptiveness. She is one with the truth of G-d, without the need to dissect it and analyze it–a process that is crucial for the particular-minded man, but which cannot but deflect its force and refract the intensity of its light. [8]

Women First

This also explains why Moses was sent to the women first. The Torah’s revelation to mankind unfolded from the general to the particular, from the supra-spatial point of concept to the breadth and depth of thought and law. Originally, we received the Torah from G-d in the form of a single divine utterance, which encapsulated all Ten Commandments.[9] Then, we heard the two basic precepts of the Torah, “I Am the L-rd your G-d,” which embodies all the positive commandments (mitzvot assei), and “You shall have no other gods,” from which all prohibitions (mitzvot lo taasseh) derive.[10] These were followed by the communication, through Moses, of the other eight Commandments and G-d’s inscription of the Ten Commandments on the Two Tablets. For the next forty years, Moses taught the people of Israel the particulars of Torah, which he transcribed, by divine dictation, in the Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses ); but the Written Torah, with its 613 mitzvot, is only a detailing of the principles embodied in the “Engraved Torah” of the Ten Commandments.[11] Nor did the extrapolation of Torah end with Moses: thirty-five generations of interpretation and application produced the Mishnah, and a further 300 years of analyzing the Mishnah gave us the Talmud. Indeed, it is a process that continues to this very day, as the many streams of Torah–Halachah, Aggadah, Kabbalah, Chakirah, Mussar and Chassidut–continued to flow from the wellspring of Sinai, an ever-expanding mass of wisdom and law, every word of which is encapsulated in the single utterance of the original divine communication.[12]

So when G-d sent Moses to prepare the Jewish people to receive the Torah, He sent him first to the women. First, the Torah must be received as is, free of Talmudic pilpul, free of philosophical theorizing, free of mystical experience–free of everything save the unequivocal identification with its truth. Go first to the Jewess, said G-d to Moses, for she is the prime conduit of this first step in the communication of My truth to humanity. Then, go to the men and instruct them of the details; it is they who shall play the pivotal role in the second stage–the application of Torah to the particulars of man’s external experience of his world.

Trees and the Forest

Now we can understand the different emphases that the Torah places on men and women’s respective roles in the sanctification of time.

The detail-oriented spiritual life of the male is a process–a sequential string of particulars in which each item is dealt with on its own terms and fitted into context with the others. In time, his is the domain of the year, the month, the week, the day and the hour. So it is he whom the Torah charges to imbue these time-particulars with holiness, to develop their individual natures and potential.

But while man is of the hour, woman is time incarnate.[13] She relates to the essence of time, to the pure potential of change and flux as it transcends the particulars of quantified time. So the mitzvot assigned to her are primarily “time-neutral,” relating to the whole of life rather than the specific slices of it defined by calendar and clock.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks, Shabbat Yitro 5745 (February 9, 1985) and on other occasions[14]


Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1]. The exemption of woman from time-specific mitzvot applies only to themitzvot assei, or “positive commandments,” not to the mitzvot lo taasseh, or “prohibitions.” Thus, a woman is equally obligated to observe time-specific mitzvot that entail a mitzvat lo taasseh, such as resting on Shabbat or fasting on Yom Kippur. In addition, there are certain positive commandments to which the Torah specifically obligates the Jewish woman, such as the active observances of Shabbat (kiddush, etc.) and eating matzah on the first night of Passover. For a full treatment of the woman’s obligations under Torah law, see Encyclopedia Talmudit, vol. II, pp. 242-257.

[2]. With the few notable exceptions (e.g., putting on tefillin) proscribed by law or custom (see ibid., pp. 250-251).

[3]. The “Holy Ari,” 1534-1572.

[4]. Talmud, Menachot 93a.

[5]. The Ari’s Likkutei Torah, Bereishit 15a. Cf. Zohar, part I, 91b; ibid., part III, 7b, 109b and 296a; Genesis 1:27 and Midrash Rabbah, ibid.; Talmud, Sotah 2a (“Forty days before the formation of the fetus it is announced in heaven: ‘The daughter of so-and-so [shall marry] so-and-so’ ”). See Cloven To Cleave, WIR, vol. VI, no. 5.

[6]. The Jewish people comprise twelve shevatim, or “tribes,” descendent from the twelve sons of Jacob. A Jew’s tribal identity determines his share in the Holy Land as well as his role in Jewish life.

[7]. Joshua 1:8. See Talmud, Kiddushin 29b; Shulchan Aruch, part II, 246:6.

[8]. Another related distinction that the Torah points to is that the male has been equipped with the nature and inclinations of a “conqueror” (Genesis 1:28, as per Talmud, Yevamot 65b.) while the woman is basically a cultivator and nurturer. Thus, man has the more “extroverted” role–it is he who battles a world hostile to G-dliness, struggling to wrest a civilization of holiness from the wilderness of a material and egocentric world. The woman, on the other hand, is entrusted with the mission of cultivating the G-dly: it is she who brings children into the world and plays the major part in forging their personalities; it is she who is the “homemaker” in the ultimate, spiritual sense, setting the tone of the sanctum of divinity that is the family. Man fights to transform mundanity into holiness; woman recognizes and safeguards the holiness implicit in G-d’s creation. Man does; woman is.

As with all human traits, a person’s “masculinity” or “femininity” can be properly channeled, or abused. The man’s conquering nature can be applied to its divinely intended aim, or corrupted into the aggressive and brutish behavior that typifies the “insensitive male.” On her part, the woman can develop her nurturing potential, or allow her “femininity” to fester into a fatalistic docility. The human being having been granted freedom of choice, he or she can even choose to attempt to assume the role of the opposite sex. Usually this results in an emulation of a negative application of masculinity or femininity. But even when a man pursues a positive feminine ideal, or vice versa, this constitutes a tragic denial and suppression of one’s own highest potentials.

[9]. Mechilta on Exodus 20:1.

[10]. Talmud, Makot 24a; Tanya, ch. 20. See Yes and No, WIR, vol. VII, no. 8.

[11]. Rashi, Exodus 24:12.

[12]. Jerusalem Talmud, Pe’ah 2:4.

[13]. In the language of Kabbalah, woman is malchut (“sovereignty”), which is the source of time and space (see Ohr HaTorah, Pinchas, pp. 1191-1203).

[14]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXXI, pp. 93-98.


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