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Ladies First

Ladies First

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Even in this day and age, most women graciously accept the traditional "ladies first" rule, whether it's getting off a sinking ship or going through a ballroom doorway. Commonly perceived as a concession to the weaker gender by the stronger, the rule is actually founded upon a very different rationale, at least in the Jewish tradition.

When G‑d instructed Moses to prepare the people of Israel to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai some 3,300 years ago, He said: "Speak to the house of Jacob, and tell the sons of Israel" (Exodus 19:3). The "house of Jacob," our sages explain, are the women; "the sons of Israel," the men. In other words, speak first with the ladies.

Up until that point, the rule was "men first." Adam, as we all know, was created before Eve. Noah and his sons entered the ark first, followed by their wives — at least that's the order they're listed in Genesis 7:13 (a "sinking ship" situation in the reverse, if you will). When Jacob traveled with his family, the males rode up front and the womenfolk behind them (Genesis 31:17) while Esau placed the women before the men (ibid. 36:6); the sages make note of this difference and see it as an indication of Jacob's moral superiority over his hedonistic brother.

So why did G‑d give the Torah first to the women? The Midrash offers several explanations. For one thing, women are more religious than men (turns out that certain things haven't changed in all those centuries); get them to agree to accept the Torah, and the men will fall in line, too (another thing that hasn't changed). According to Rabbi Tachlifa of Caesarea, it's the other way around—the women are the rebellious ones, so they have to be won over first: "G‑d said to Himself: When I created the world, I commanded Adam first, and only then Eve was commanded, with the result that she transgressed and upset the world. If I do not now call upon the women first, they will nullify the Torah."

Chassidic teaching delves deeper and finds the explanation in the essence of manliness and womanliness. Man derives from the "line of light" (kav) that penetrates the vacuum (makom panui) formed by G‑d in which to create the world. But it turns out the that the makom panui is not an absolute "vacuum" — a residue of divine light remained behind, forming an invisible ether of G‑dliness that pervades and underlies our existence. It is from this "residue" that the female component of creation derives.

So man is an actor, a conqueror; his role in creation is to banish the earthly darkness and bring down light from the heavens. Woman is a nurturer, relating to what is rather than what must be done, finding G‑dliness within the world rather than importing it from without.

Both are integral to the Creator's plan: our mission in life is to bring G‑d into the world (the male role) and to make the world a home for G‑d (the woman's specialty); to vanquish darkness (male), and to uncover the light implicit within the darkness (female).

For the first twenty-four centuries of history, humanity had its hands full battling darkness. So the male component dominated. But then came the day when G‑d, yearning for the home He desired when He made the world, prepared to reveal Himself on a mountaintop in the Sinai Desert and transmit to His chosen people a Torah outlining the plans for His home's construction. Man will still have to do battle, but all his battles will henceforth be founded upon the principle that, underneath it all, the world is a G‑dly place.

Time to have a word with the ladies, said G‑d to Moses.

For more on the male and female dynamics of creation see Tzimtzum

By Yanki Tauber; based on the teachings of the Rebbe.
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Zelig London January 11, 2013

Sources and footnotes Great article.

Would be even better if you provided sources in footnotes.

Thank you. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hllls, ma February 11, 2011

women of the Bible I think it's interesting that very recently, women of Biblical Times have been a major source of subject material for novels and historical books.

An example of this is Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, a book that became a best seller, and yet, the subject matter is not happy, being about a tragedy. It is, however, about bonding, about women, the power of women, and the telling of their stories.

The Israeli woman author, Halevi, has written many lovely books about Biblical women, including Ruth. I corresponded with her, briefly.

In ancient times, there was goddess worship all over Europe, and in Malta, there is such evidence in some beautiful works of art. It is clear, that women played a very prominent part in history, and that recently those roles are being re captured, through literature and in the empowerment of women, such as the organization NOW.

As mothers, as women who are the identified nurturant force in society, there are profound metaphoric connects to our importance. Reply

Brian Thwaites Sheffield, England February 10, 2011

Ladies First Very profound as has been said, although I get the impression that G-D already knew what we have only recently realised. If the women are convinced first the men will follow. Reply

Perry Reich Lakewood, NJ January 19, 2011

Perry This is soooo profound
Bravo!!!! Reply

Ro Fermenich S Falls, SD February 7, 2010

Ladies First. . . I appreciated your comment concerning the 'House of Jacob' vs. Israel. I do believe from personal experience that you are correct.
Many years ago, G-d told me to "set up a standard." He did not say this to my husband; he impressed me with that comment.
As for Esau and Jacob as Jacob led first, and covered or protected the women as i believe you are insinuating - perhaps Esau sent the women out first as by then he had met Hagar and subscribed to the cults from Egypt, etc. if you understand what I am saying which is totally upside down from the standard G-d has set up for HIS people. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, MA February 5, 2010

make way for the ladies A fascinating article. I look at words, and in English we have she, which contains "he", and we also have woman, which contains "man", and then there is the shekinah, a Hebrew word which contains she.

I like it that aurally in Hebrew who is he, and he is she.

So, it's time to make way for the ladies! Reply

Linda Cincinnati, Oh February 5, 2010

House of Jacob Wow! I would have never known that "the house of Jacob" means women. Why was that term used? Reply

Anonymous February 5, 2010

Second try There is no doubt that facing the panic of darkness alone is very hard on the male physical health. A battle that if done alone would physiologically handicap the ability to do the males job(PROVIDE/REQUIRER). It would be like taking on two appointments at the same time. Most likely if you do not have some kind of help you odds of winning are very slight. The women is our help to man without them the future is very foggy and not clear. Without the women to help us, the male construct would break down and commutation would be not readable. The women gives us new chances to refine our being. I might not be very intelligent but for sure my sons and daughters will be taught the Torah from the ground up. And that is what a women is made of. Reply

Walter H. Steinlauf Sacramento, CA, USA February 4, 2010

Ladies First This is splendid news and long overdue. The problem with being 100% dominant is that when things go wrong - as they inevitably will - you (dominant, patriarchal males) are 100% liable. Think About That! Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn, NY February 12, 2006

Ladies First Yanki Tauber, as always wrote a wonderful article. I would like to point out that, halachically, when a man and woman enter a doorway, he must go first. Reply

Anonymous Cape Town, South Africa via chabad.co.za March 10, 2005

Ladies first What a brilliant explanation of one of Modern Judaism's greatest misconception; The role of women. Thanks you for this enlightening peice. Reply

ChaimDovMiller Guilderland, New York via chabadofcolonie.com March 8, 2005

Todah Rabbah for this very good article. My Mother, B'H, taught me to be a gentleman. But this article includes specific Torah ruling on the role of man and the role of woman. Equally important, Divinely Distinct. Reply

Anonymous March 6, 2005

Good article! Reply

casey October 25, 2004

i thank you for your website helped me on some homework but why in the world do you not ever completely say the name of God? in every place i've seen so far it is G-d and i dont understand why. Reply