Why You Can’t Learn Chumash or Talmud

Every Chareidi Jewish woman is barred from learning Judaic texts. If you’re in an insular chassidish enclave, that means never learning to read a Chumash. If you’re in Bais Yaakov, it means you can only learn excerpts of Talmud on an as-needed basis from photocopies.

We all know why. Because somewhere in the Talmud it says that any man who teaches his daughter Torah, it’s as if he taught her “tiflus.”

Very few of us have seen that quote in context because, well, it’s in the Talmud and we can only learn excerpts on an as-needed basis from photocopies.

Nobody every photocopied that page for us.

So here is the page from a Mishnayos. I have rendered a rough translation. You can confirm it yourself in any way you’d like.

And you can decide for yourself if it is relevant to you, and your Torah study, today.

Background, this is in Mesechet Sotah. The discussion is the test to determine whether a woman is guilty of infidelity by giving her special water to drink in the Beis Hamikdash.


If she has a merit, it [the effects of the waters] will be suspended. There are [some kinds of] merit [that] will suspend it for a year. There are [some kinds of] merit [that] will suspend it for two years. There are [some kinds of] merit [that] will suspend it for three years.

From here Ben Azai says: A man is obligated to teach his daughter Torah, so that if she drinks [the sotah waters] he knows that the merit [of her Torah learning] will suspend [the punishment] for her.

Rabi Eliezer says: Anyone who teachers his daughter Torah, it’s as if he’s taught her “tiflus.” [licentiousness.]

Why You Can’t Learn Chumash or Talmud

10 thoughts on “Why You Can’t Learn Chumash or Talmud

  1. “From here Ben Azai says: A man is obligated to teach his daughter Torah, so that if she drinks [the sotah waters] he knows that the merit [of her Torah learning] will suspend [the punishment] for her.”

    I would have translated this line differently. The way you translated it, Ben Azzai is saying that a man should teach his daughter Torah IN ORDER to give her a protective merit. I think a simpler reading is that Ben Azzai is saying that one should teach his daughter Torah so that she will know that a merit can protect; we don’t want her to see the waters not working and think that it’s all a scam.

    It is true that the Gemara gives Torah as the example of the protective merit for a woman, but it specifies that it’s the Torah of her husband and sons, in which case Ben Azzai would not advise to teach her Torah, but to have her support her husband/sons’ Torah.

    Also, “תדע” would refer to the woman, unless it was second-person, in which case the Mishnah would be changing from the third-person “אדם” immediately preceding.

    I am not saying that your explanation is incorrect; however, I think that it doesn’t fit the word “תדע” as well.


    1. I can’t answer your question because then I would be guilty of teaching Talmud to women. Just kidding.

      My understanding of the dispute is that Ben Azzai is saying that (even though women have no obligation to study Torah) one should teach his daughter Torah so that she understands the sotah process and won’t laugh away the whole concept if she sees that she survives. Ben Azzai makes no comment as to whether teaching her Torah will bring her to tiflus. (In other words, he might agree that in a vacuum it is bad to teach Torah to women, but the concern of her misunderstanding the efficacy of the waters overrides the negatives of teaching her Torah. I am not saying that Ben Azzai actually holds this; I am just raising the possibility.) Rabbi Eliezer simply says that teaching her Torah is like teaching her tiflus. He is simply noting a cause and effect (or perhaps a correlation). He could have said “אסור לאדם ללמד את בתו תורה” (much like “אסור לאדם שילמד את עבדו תורה” in Kesubos 28a) but he did not. In fact, Rabbi Eliezer might agree with Ben Azzai that there is a benefit in teaching one’s daughter Torah. All Rabbi Eliezer does is point out the negative. He doesn’t even say that the negative outweighs the positive (although one could argue that this is implied). And more than that, the pasuk that the Gemara quotes as Rabbi Eliezer’s source makes no mention of women. It simply says that Torah can teach a person מזימות. Seemingly, then, Torah study would be problematic for men in the same way that it would be problematic for women. The difference is that men have an obligation to study Torah, so they have to even if there might be negative consequences. In other words, it is a value judgement – the obligation of Torah study on one side and the negative consequences of Torah study on the other side. I think that it is the same for women – it’s a value judgement. On one side is the value of the woman understanding the sotah process (as Ben Azzai points out) while on he other side are the negative consequences of Torah study. Ben Azzai clearly states that the positive outweighs the negative, while Rabbi Eliezer simply states the negative.

      Since I’m not sure if the above paragraph actually clarified anything, let me conclude succinctly: Your explanation of Torah study being the merit under discussion is very good. In fact, purely in “sevara” I prefer it to my explanation. There are several difficulties with my explanation. It doesn’t explain why she has to be taught Torah in general as opposed to this one thing (though one could argue that this is but one example of a situation in which we want her to understand what’s going on). It also doesn’t explain why Ben Azzai says “שאם תשתה” – the problem should come up if ANYONE has to drink the waters. Despite these difficulties, I believe my explanation is correct on textual grounds. Ben Azzai states “שאם תשתה תדע שזכות תולה לה”. The word “תדע”can refer to the father (second-person) or to the daughter (third-person). If it’s referring to the daughter then it is irrelevant – it should simply say that if she drinks then she will survive. If it is referring to the father, though, it must be second-person which would be strange considering that the immediately preceding clause (…חייב אדם) addresses the father in third-person.

      I’m not sure if I answered your question, perhaps because I’m not sure I understood what you meant about Rabbi Eliezer paralleling Ben Azai.


      1. Not that this enhances my argument, but I did subsequently find that in the footnote of the Soncino translation they say something similar to how I explained it:

        ” In the absence of such a knowledge, the woman who passed through the ordeal unscathed may be led to doubt the efficacy of the water of bitterness searching out sin, and thus indulge in further immoral practices. By realising however that merit has suspended the effects, she would pause and be in constant dread of the fate hanging over her.”


  2. Bad4Shidduchim says:

    Thanks! I got it.

    By parallel, I meant that Ben Azzai and R’ Eliezer should be addressing the same issue. Ben Azzai relates Torah study to the sotah process; R’ Eliezer merely makes a dismissive, negative statement about women. He doesn’t really address either the sotah process or Ben Azzai’s point in a qualitative way, as you noted (although you came up with a good apologetic for it).


    1. Thank you for clarifying. It turns out I had not understood your question. So now I should myself clarify that there are two separate discussions. The first discussion is about what Ben Azzai meant; the second discussion is about Rabbi Eliezer’s response. My point in my original comment was to explain Ben Azzai’s statement differently from how you explained it. In my second comment, where I discussed Rabbi Eliezer’s response, I was just explaining my overall understanding of the sugya, which I think supports the implicit position of this post (that women should be able to learn). It is true that according to my understanding Rabbi Eliezer’s response does not directly relate to Ben Azzai’s assertion (as Rabbi Eliezer does not challenge it) or to the sotah process (as Rabbi Eliezer does not say that one should not provide his daughter with this protection from the waters). If this is indeed problematic then you have to reject my second point (I won’t be insulted). But I don’t think my first point is dependent on my second point. I.e. you can say that Rabbi Eliezer is issuing a direct response and saying that it is forbidden to teach your daughter Torah, yet still explain Ben Azzai’s statement as I did. Ben Azzai would be saying to teach your daughter Torah so that she doesn’t misunderstand the sotah process, while Rabbi Eliezer would be saying not to teach your daughter Torah, even if she will misunderstand the process.


    2. Here’s the parallel you wanted:

      Ben Azzai is saying that one should teach his daughter that a zechus can protect against the sotah waters. Rabbi Eliezer responds that this is in effect teaching her how to be unchaste without getting punished (she just needs to get a zechus and then she’s safe from the sotah waters).

      In other words, Ben Azzai is trying to address a problem (namely, that a woman’s faith in the system will be shattered) but Rabbi Eliezer responds that the solution is (or perhaps could be) worse than the problem – we have removed the fear of punishment.


  3. Just looked at the Maharsha on the gemara (not the mishna) – as far as I understand, he explains the gemara as meaning that women have a stronger desire for licentiousness, and will ignore the Torah’s warnings; therefore, “מוטב שיהיו שוגגין” etc.


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