“The Value of a Woman”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Bechukotai, the second of this week’s double parashiot, Behar-Bechukotai, we learn of the laws of valuations–the practice of those who wish to donate their own “value” to G-d, known in Hebrew as Ah’rah’chin. The regulations governing Ah’rah’chin are among the most complex and least understood of all the laws of the Torah.

In Leviticus 27:2, G-d tells Moses to speak to the Children of Israel and to say to them, “Eesh kee yahf’lee neder b’ehr’k’chah n’fah’shoht la’Hashem,” Any man who articulates a vow to the L-rd, regarding a valuation of living beings…The Torah then specifies the particular value that each person must donate to the Temple.

The donated amount varies according to the sex and age of the person. A male, twenty to sixty years old, is valued at fifty sacred silver shekels. A woman, twenty to sixty years old, is valued at thirty silver shekels (ratio 5:3). From ages five to twenty, males are valued at twenty silver shekels and females at ten silver shekels (ratio 2:1). A male thirty days old through five years old is valued at five silver shekels and a girl thirty days old through five years old is valued at three silver shekels (ratio 5:3). A male over sixty is valued at fifteen silver shekels, a woman over sixty, at ten shekels (ratio 3:2). As one would expect, there is much discussion and controversy regarding the concept of valuing, especially concerning the lower level at which women are valued.

Citing Rabbi Elie Munk, the Stone edition of the ArtScroll Chumash explains that these valuations reflect the holiness inherent in each Jew, the so-called, “value” of that person’s soul. Since there is no way to evaluate the human soul, the Torah assigns the amounts based not on health, strength, earning capacity or commercial value of the subject, but solely on the person’s age and sex.

Rabbi Joseph Hertz, in his Pentateuch and Haftorahs, argues to the contrary. He claims that the valuation, “seems to be made on the basis of what might be called the ‘market value’ of the individual’s labor. A woman not possessing the physical strength of a man had a lower valuation set upon her.”

Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the valuation, which is made on the basis of the slave market value, is based on physical value and on the physical labor that can be performed. Consequently, Rabbi Hirsch points out, as the man and woman grow older, women increase in value, since older women can still perform domestic labor.

Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman and Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer believe that the valuations reflect spiritual value. Since a man is commanded to do more mitzvot than a woman, he has a greater value.

Many commentators struggle to explain the rise and decline in proportional values of men and women as they mature and grow older. These commentators note that since a young boy gains greater physical strength as he grows, his value as a young boy compared to that of a young girl is proportionally greater than that of a grown man in contrast to a woman. A woman, who is constantly subject to the physical threat of childbearing, has a lower value as an adult. A male infant, who is subject to the dangers of circumcision, also has a lower valuation. A woman, however, is worth more as she grows older. In fact, the Talmud (Arakin 19a) states, that having an old man in the house is like having a stumbling block in the house, while having an old woman in the house is like having a treasure in the house.

It should be noted that, remarkably, the Jewish valuation system values every life equally, no matter who the twenty year old man is, or the sixty year old woman might be. Whether the man or woman is sick or healthy, strong or weak, their value is always equal. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin notes that the valuation system underscores that human life is inestimable, and therefore, only human strength can be valued, but not a human being’s essential worth.

Since men in ancient times served as the primary breadwinners, the higher values ascribed to males represent the higher earning power or the potential earning power of men. It can also be that the Torah is subtly suggesting that a woman should not be a full-time employee, in order to make certain that the domestic chores and care for children are not compromised.

It is interesting to note that, despite the patriarchal nature of ancient Jewish life, women, in general, were held in great esteem. Very early in the account of creation (Genesis 2:18), the woman is called, “ayzer k’neg’doh,” a helpmeet to the man. This implies that while men and women have separate roles, they are really partners in everything.

Because of the physical differences between a man and woman, it was presumed that the man would be the hunter, the food gatherer, and the primary earner, whereas the woman would attend to the domestic chores and take care of the children. Because of the sensitive nature of the woman and her preoccupation with the household chores, a woman was exempt from all positive mitzvot that depended upon time.

Especially in light of the attitudes that prevailed in the ancient world, it is quite remarkable to read the many favorable and flattering things that the ancient rabbis said about women. Certainly, there is no shortage of unflattering statements that are attributed to the personal views of particular rabbis, but, given the paternalistic nature of the ancient Jewish community, the frequent favorable statements are quite impressive. The rabbis in Talmud Megillah 14b elevated the importance of the woman to a very high degree, declaring women to be soft of heart and highly compassionate. They also (Sotah 11b) attribute the redemption of the People of Israel from Egypt to the righteous women of that generation.

Throughout Jewish history, the devotion of Jewish women to their families and to the Jewish community was boundless. The wives of great scholars would take upon themselves the responsibility for feeding their families, so that their scholarly husbands could focus on studying Torah without any worldly concerns. Rabbi Isaac the son of Samuel of France (grandson of Rabbeinu Tam 1100-1171, who was the grandson of Rashi, and one of the foremost Tosafists) said glowingly about the women of his state, “If they are not themselves prophetesses, they are the daughters of prophets and great men. One may rely on all their practices as being entirely correct and adhering to Jewish law.”

The Midrash Rabbah in Genesis 18:1 states that women were endowed with a “Binah Y’tay’rah,” special intellectual insight that a man does not possess. The Talmud (Yebamot 62b) recommends that a man should love his wife as much as he loves himself, and honor her, even more than he honors himself.

As King Solomon wrote in Proverbs 31:10: “A woman of valor who can find? Her value is far greater than rubies.”

May you be blessed.