Things My Teacher Told Me: Why Women Can’t Be Witnesses

This one came from Tamar from the west coast:

Our Chumash teacher was also the wife of our principal. She was explaining to us that women can’t be witnesses, and explained it like this:

“If there was a car accident at the intersection outside of our school, and the police came to ask for witnesses, and they asked the students, the students would get emotional and say “Omg I don’t know!!! There was this car, and then there was this other car, and there was this terrible crash and there was glass and omg omg!! It was horrible! The poor people! OMG!”


“But [principal] would calmly say ‘there was a car coming down Beverly, probably going over the speed limit, maybe 50 miles per hour, and there was a red light and it went through the red light and hit another car, it was a Honda, and it was driving pretty slowly, which then flipped over, and the first car started spinning…[you get the idea].’ And that, maidelach, is why girls can’t be witnesses.”


I have forgotten 90% of what that chumash teacher taught. This, I will never forget.


So, I did a little bit of googling. Eyewitness accuracy is generally notorious, but is there research on gender differences?
There is.
Most of it is summarized in this wikipedia article on eyewitness gender difference studies, although you can find a good deal of it on PubMed with some persistence. To summarize for you: there is nothing conclusive, but people seem to recall things they are familiar with better than things they aren’t. Also, people recall better when they aren’t freaked out.


Oh, and why aren’t women witnesses in Judaism?  There is a wonderful source sheet on women and witnessing here (Thanks Aqibha!) and you will have some trouble finding something about women not being trusted. 


Reason 1 is grammar: that the Torah specifies two men as witnesses. (Why grammar doesn’t absolve women from all commandments is another question.) 


Reason 2 is to avoid compelling women to appear in court. 


Someone, I’m sure, says that women are unreliable, but I have not yet found the source for that. Pity then, that women seem to  be the happiest to parrot this idea. 


Things My Teacher Told Me: Why Women Can’t Be Witnesses

18 thoughts on “Things My Teacher Told Me: Why Women Can’t Be Witnesses

  1. BYGRAD says:

    And this is why girls should learn gemara, or at least learn everything from the source. Right now, thousands of girls are being fed complete nonsense and distortions, and hundreds of them are blindly accepting it as truth, with no power to verify for themselves.


    1. Alex Alex says:

      This is a very important point.

      However, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is in fact a source that women’s exclusion from testimony is based on some sort of intellectual deficiency. Sefer Hachinuch mitzvah 37:

      ונוהגת בכל מקום ובכל זמן בזכרים אבל לא בנקבות שאין הנשים בתורת עדות שהעדות צריך כיון וישוב הדעת הרבה

      And in mitzvah 122:

      ונוהגת בכל מקום ובכל זמן בזכרים אבל לא בנשים שאין הנשים בתורת עדות לקלות דעתן


      1. BYGRAD says:

        I’ve always wondered what halacha would look like if it was developed and codified in a matriarchal or egalitarian society.

        I’m hoping it would look quite a bit different in some areas.

        It’s interesting to see how a post-feminist society has dealt with this mentality – that women are grouped with children and ‘shotas’ in regards to weak intellectual capacity, that women are the property of men (marriage transactions, selling daughters into slavery, etc.), etc. Some circles have accepted that it was influenced by patriarchal times and not really applicable today. Others have twisted themselves into pretzels and done cartwheels of apologetics to explain using the most stretched out logic, how these statements truly elevate and value the woman. And some circles I have ties to unfortunately still believe that these things are true and etched in timeless stone.


      2. Esther Bernstein says:

        Sefer Hachinuch was published in the thirteenth century – after even Rashi. It’s not the Tanai’m, or the Amora’im, or the Geonim. As such, it is already an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation, based on centuries of interpretation. If you want to prove that the Torah at any point says that women have less intellectual ability than men, you’ll have to go back to the source.

        As BYGrad so articulately says, the halacha we have today was developed in a patriarchal society. If you believe the Torah is true regardless of societal influence, if you believe that nothing can be changed regardless of social developments (ie feminism as a new thing doesn’t change Torah) then you have to acknowledge that patriarchal society itself influenced so much of the interpretation until this point – that the patriarchal interpretations are themselves a *change* to the Torah, that these interpretations came about because of societal influence.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Esther Bernstein says:

        Since I believe that the Torah was human-created and not god-created, I think there’s a problem with the source itself, written as it was in a patriarchal society by men who benefited from that patriarchal society. But that’s a whole ‘nother story…


      4. Alex says:

        I only just saw these responses to my comment, and I believe they deserve a response even all these months later.

        Of course the Sefer Hachinuch is not the be all and end all of Jewish thought, and I never intended to imply that this represents the “true-Torah-view”. (In fact, I have commented elsewhere on the fact that there is no such thing as the “true-Torah-view” .)

        What I did intend to show was that the idea that women’s disqualification from serving as witnesses is related to some form of intellectual deficiency was not invented by Bais Yaakov, but in fact has earlier sources in Jewish tradition.

        As an aside, the fact that the Sefer Hachinuch is “not the Tanai’m, or the Amora’im, or the Geonim” does not necessarily mean that it is “already an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation”. He does not say that he is interpreting any passage in Rabbinic Literature to mean what he says; he simply offers his explanation as a reason for why the commandment does not apply to women. This could very well be his own interpretation of the Torah itself.

        Also, the Sefer Hachinuch writes in a number of places that when he gives “reasons” for the mitzvos he is not giving the definitive “reason(s)”. E.g. his conclusion to Sefer Vayikra, Mitzvah 440, Mitzvah 545 etc.

        Also, I don’t understand your argument about patriarchal society. It seems you have set up a syllogism:

        Premise 1: “the Torah is true regardless of societal influence”
        Premise 2: “nothing can be changed regardless of social developments”
        Ergo: “you have to acknowledge that patriarchal society itself influenced so much of the interpretation until this point”

        I don’t see how the conclusion follows from the two premises. While it is certainly possible to assert that patriarchal society influenced the development of halacha, those on the Bais Yaakov side will simply respond that the developers of halacha were great enough to develop halacha without any outside influences. Neither of the two premises address which of these two possibilities is correct.


  2. Sarah says:

    I was taught an equally false variant: that women, being inclined to empathy, would inevitably alter their statements to favor the disadvantaged party. When I (respectfully) disagreed with the teacher, she (gently) stated that women will always, always be emotional and therefore unreliable. I didn’t protest because I was too stunned. At the nearest opportunity, I obtained a copy of Jewish Woman in Jewish Law but never had the nerve to photocopy the section on testimony and send it to the teacher. In hindsight, I should have asked my parents, but I was embarrassed to ask them about something that was so blatantly untrue and also sounded dumb.
    She was otherwise an excellent Chumash teacher, who actually showed us the text every source (but those pertaining to testimony), and I did learn a lot from her.


  3. BYGRAD says:

    In my beloved BY, we were taught this regarding female witnesses: Sarah denied the comment she made re being old, or that she had laughed, I don’t recall, and if Sarah, the most righteous of all women, can lie when frightened, then surely all women will give false testimonies!

    This was taught to us as complete Torah MiSinai.

    I’ve never investigated whether there was a source for this utterly illogical premise (Adam sort of lied to Chava too when he told her she can’t touch the tree – and if Adam, father of all beings can lie… then men can’t be witnesses either! And Kayan lied directly to Hashem when he pretended he didn’t know who Hevel was – if a man can lie to Hashem himself, all men are surely pasul eidim!).

    But this was definitely one of the small seeds that planted a strong minded young feminist.


    1. Alex says:

      That’s actually what the מדרש אגדה says on the pasuk of Sarah’s denial:

      ותכחש שרה לאמר. מכאן שהנשים כחשניות הן מפני הפחד ולכך פסלן הקב”ה מלהעיד עדות


      1. BYGRAD says:

        Hmmm…. So I see there is a source.
        I still disagree with the premise – that you can derive from one woman, in specific circumstances, to slap on a general rule for all women of all generations in almost all circumstances…

        Does the commentator derive similar restrictions for men based on one of one man’s actions? Is he consistent?


    2. Alex says:

      That’s actually what the מדרש אגדה on the pasuk of Sarah’s denial says:

      ותכחש שרה לאמר. מכאן שהנשים כחשניות הן מפני הפחד ולכך פסלן הקב״ה מלהעיד עדות


      1. NoName says:

        So why doesn’t it posul men from aidus? Are we saying Adam who lived in gan Eden isn’t supposed to be the epitome of humanity?


  4. David says:

    Your “grammar” reason is, honestly, a poor explanation. There is a reason the Torah specifies only men can be witnesses. You don’t give what the reason G-d decided only men can be witnesses.


  5. rubik says:

    In the future, can details please be left out when they identify the teachers whose remarks are being mocked? (i.e. west coast, wife of the principal, etc) Thank you.


  6. Tamar says:

    Leave out the identifying details? I had half a mind to give full names. If they’re so proud of what was said they surely won’t mind being associated with it.


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