In memory of Freda Leavey z”l (1921-2016), a gifted actress
and Aunt Sue Cooper z”l (1926-2017), a gifted singer.
Yehi zikhran barukh!
In February 2017, IKEA Israel published a new, Hebrew catalog aimed at the Haredim (ulta-Orthodox) who account for 20% of their sales in Israel. In that catalog, as reported by many Israeli newspapers on February 15-16, 2017, there are no women or girls at all. Thus, for example, a father is shown giving his two boys breakfast or studying a book, while his two sons play on the floor. On February 16, 2017, I received a question about this from Lissy Kaufmann, a reporter for the German Jewish newspaper Judische Allgemeine.
I wrote her a reply the next day which was summarized in her newspaper on February 24, 2017. This is an expanded version of that reply. DG
Dear Prof. David Golinkin,
“I am currently writing a story for the German Jewish newspaper “Jüdische Allgemeine” about the new Haredi IKEA catalogue that aroused some criticism. I would like to report about it less emotional, less opinionated, more fact-based:
Why is it something important for the Haredi community nowadays?
Why wasn’t it a problem many years ago?
And what does Jewish law say about women in public?
Toda rabba & Shabbat shalom, Lissy”
I. Are there rabbinic texts in the Talmud and Midrash which would prohibit including women and girls in pictures?
To the best of my knowledge, there are no such texts.
There are quite a few biblical and rabbinic texts which say that men should not look at women and they have been collected by Rabbi Louis Epstein (see the Bibliography). Some of them were codified by Maimonides (Hilkhot Issurei Biah 21:2), the Tur and the Shulhan Arukh (Even Ha’ezer 21).
However, both Rabbi Epstein and A. Sh. Hirschberg have indicated that there were conflicting opinions on the subject in the Talmudic period.
For example, we learn in Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah 1:8, ed. Venice fol. 40a and Bavli Avodah Zarah 20a-b that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel or Rabban Gamliel was walking around the Temple Mount before the Destruction and saw a beautiful non-Jewish woman. According to the Yerushalmi, he recited a blessing, while according to the Bavli he exclaimed “Mah rabu ma’asekha adonai, how great are your works O Lord” (Psalms 104:24). The Bavli adds that Rabbi Akiva lamented about the beautiful wife of the Roman official Turnusrufus, that her beauty will rot in the ground.
The Yerushalmi asks: is it the practice of Rabban Gamliel to look at women?! It replies that he happened upon her while rounding a corner and since he saw her, he recited the blessing. The Bavli also challenges this behavior: “And is it permissible to look at women? We have learned in a Beraita: ‘And you shall guard yourself from any bad thing’ (Deut. 23:01) – that a person should not look at a pretty woman even if she is single, at a married woman even if she is ugly!”
Furthermore, Hirschberg collected many rabbinic sayings about the beauty of women (pp. 4-6) – the Sages obviously could not have made these statements if they had not actually looked at beautiful women!
In any case, none of the rabbinic sources which forbid looking at women, forbid looking at pictures of women.
Indeed, when one reads the modern Haredi responsa and books which claim that it is forbidden to look at pictures of women in magazines or on television,
one can see that these rabbis are grasping at straws (see the Bibliography below).
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013) and Rabbi Moshe Stern (1914-1997) cite stories such as Nedarim 9b about a handsome young man who decided to become a Nazir which would require him to shave his head. He did so as penance for the fact that he once saw his reflection in the water and it increased his yetzer (evil inclination). These rabbis say that this story shows that even a reflection such as a television can lead to hirhur averah, evil thoughts. However, this story (which sounds like the story of Narcissus) is an Aggadah, not a Halakhah. It may teach us not to admire ourselves in a mirror; it has little to say about pictures of women in magazines.
Or they quote Rava: “The evil inclination only rules regarding what his eyes can see” (Sotah 8a), but the context there is whether one should stone a naked woman, not look in a magazine at a modestly dressed woman.
Or they quote the legend from Sanhedrin 39b that since Ahab was always cold, Jezebel made for him two images of prostitutes in his chariot in order that he would see them and warm up. Again, this is an Aggadah, not a Halakhah, about an evil couple found in the Bible and has nothing to do with looking at a regular magazine with modestly dressed women.
Furthermore, since these Haredi rabbis decided to quote midrashim, there is one midrash which directly contradicts their claims. Rabbi Yitzhak says in Genesis Rabbah (40:5, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 385) that an icon (picture) of Eve was passed down to the leaders of each generation. They would use it for comparison, e.g. to compare the beauty of Avishag (I Kings 1:4) and Sarah (Genesis 12:14), to that of Eve! Thus, the Sages had no objection to looking at a picture of a beautiful woman and comparing one beautiful woman to another.
II. “Go out and see what the Jewish people do” – The Visual Evidence.
As we have seen above, there are no rabbinic texts which forbid looking at pictures of women.
When there are no texts, it is customary in Jewish law to examine the actual practice of klal yisrael, the collective Jewish people, throughout the generations.
As I have written in my responsum regarding women and the mourner’s kaddish:
It is known that the Jewish people have great power to decide halakhic matters that are under dispute, and this is in accordance with several halakhic concepts: ma’aseh rav/action is great (Shabbat 21a and parallels); “leave Israel alone; if they are not Prophets, they are the sons of Prophets” (Pesahim 66a); Puk hazei mai ama devar/Go out and see what the people do (Berakhot 45a and parallels); “Every halakhah that is weak in the rabbinic court and whose nature you do not know, go out and see what the public does and do it” (Yerushalmi Peah 7:6, fol. 20c = Yerushalmi Ma’aser Sheni 5:3, fol. 56b; Yerushalmi Yevamot 7:2, fol. 8a). (The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Responsa, Jerusalem, 2012, p. 251).
It is very clear from hundreds of examples of Jewish art from the past 2,000 years that this recent Haredi opposition to all pictures of women and girls is an entirely new phenomenon, without precedent in all of Jewish history. Here is a brief survey of the visual evidence. I have purposely chosen images found in synagogues, Haggadot and other religious works, Yiddish books about Jewish customs, and the title pages of halakhic works:
1. Ancient Synagogues
Many ancient synagogues discovered in Israel and the Diaspora feature paintings or mosaics of women.
The famous synagogue of Dura Europos was buried under sand in 256 C.E., just five years after the paintings were completed. All of the walls are covered in paintings, containing mostly scenes from the Bible, including pictures of women. The Prophet Elijah is shown reviving the widow’s dead child; Queen Esther is seated on her throne next to King Ahasuerus; Pharoah is talking to the Israelite midwives Shifrah and Puah; and Pharaoh’s daughter finds Moses in the bulrushes. In the latter painting, there are eight women, including a young woman who is naked from the waist up standing in the water holding Moses (Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jerusalem, 1970, Vol. 6, cols. 283-286).
Unlike, Dura-Europos, Tiberias was a major center of Rabbinic Judaism where most of the Talmud Yerushalmi was written. The colored mosaic floor found there at Hammath-Tiberias (ca. 300 CE) contains the four seasons of the year (Tekufot) depicted as four women in the four corners of the mosaic. Each picture contains a frontal view of the head and shoulders of a woman (Moshe Dothan, Hammath Tiberias, Jerusalem, 1983, pp. 43-45 and plates 14-15 and 29).
Sepphoris or Tzippori was another center of Rabbinic Judaism where Rabbi Judah the Prince lived in the second century. Even so, the synagogue mosaic discovered there from the early fifth century also contains four women in the four corners, and the figure of Tammuz/Summer seems to have been naked (Zeev Weiss and Ehud Netzer, Promise and Redemption: A Synagogue Mosaic from Sepphoris, Jerusalem, 1996, pp. 26-29)
2. Medieval Manuscripts and Haggadot
There are hundreds of pictures of Jewish women and girls in medieval manuscripts from all over Europe, depicting all of the holidays and all of the life-cycle events, as well as in Haggadah manuscripts and printed Haggadot from ca. 1300 until today. The numbers listed below refer to the plates in Jewish Life in the Middle Ages by Therese and Mendel Metzger. The numbers preceded by “S” refer to the illustrations which I included in The Schechter Haggadah. A few of the pictures listed appear in both books:
Two women kashering utensils 108
Two men and a woman kashering utensils 114
Baking matzot 113, 253, 254, 257, S26.1
A wealthy man gives matzot to a poor woman and child before Pesah 318
A woman holding a matzah and reciting “Matzah zu, this matzah” 190
A family or couple celebrating a Seder – 133, 134, 150, 152, 165, 169, 193, 378, 379, 380; S3, S29, S33, S35, S7.2, S13.6
Cleaning the house for Pesach 143; S1.1
The Exodus from Egypt 174, 186; S30.1, S30.3, S30.4, S30.5, S30.6
Elijah, a father, a son, a mother, and a daughter on an ass arriving at the door for Shefokh Hamatkha at the end of the Seder S36.2
A husband pointing at his wife while reciting Maror Zeh (this Maror) 337; S28.1 and 28.2
A woman in Egypt giving birth to sextuplets, as per a famous midrash S15.1
Women in Egypt with six children, as per the same midrash S15.2, S16.2
A woman naked from the waste up as per Ezekiel 16:6-7 quoted in the Haggadah S16.1 and 16.3
A husband and wife sitting under an apple tree in Egypt; the wife is holding a mirror; in order to beautify herself before seducing her husband, as per a famous midrash S16.2
Men and women building Pitom and Raamses S17.1
Women dancing with Miriam and a tambourine 322
Men, women and children receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai 382
A husband making Kiddush for his wife on the second night of Rosh Hashanah 367
A family sitting in a Sukkah, including the wife 368
Two couples dancing on Purim 372
Men, women and children leaving a synagogue 88
Men and women in a synagogue 10
A woman giving a pauper a bowl of soup 149
A woman and two girls 160
Three young women 178
Men and women harvesting corn 218
A doctor seeing patients, including women 238, 242
Jews being driven from a city 271, 272, 274
A woman spinning with a distaff and spindle 282, 295
Women dunking new vessels in a Mikveh as required by Jewish law 111
Men teaching Torah to women S41
A wedding 183, 187, 335, 344
A bride and groom 199, 342
A bride on a horse in a procession to the city of her groom 343
A man reciting sheva berakhot at a table with the bride and groom 334
A husband and wife sleeping in separate beds, as per a midrash S20
A pregnant woman 291
Women giving birth 289, 290
A child with both parents 292
Men and women dancing 323
The Godmother and the women of the family bring a baby boy to his circumcision 339
A mother and two other women at a pidyon haben ceremony 341
A widow performing a halitzah ceremony with her late husband’s brother 345
Men and women mourning over a coffin 115
A man and woman dressed in black next to a coffin 346
Two women making symbolic gestures of grief next to a man who had just died 348.
3. Printed books of customs in Yiddish
Chone Shmeruk collected The Illustrations in Yiddish Books of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. They include:
A father, mother, two boys and two girls making Havdalah, Venice, 1600 – 25
A man and woman distributing food to children on Simhat Torah, Venice, 1593 – 34
Two women and two girls lighting candles, Venice, 1600 – 37
Men and women at a wedding ceremony, Venice, 1600 – 40
Adam and Eve naked in the famous Yiddish book Tzena Urena, Salzbach, 1692 – 58.
4. The Title Pages of Printed Books
In his recent book, Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History, Marc Shapiro has shown the way in which old Hebrew printed books have been censored in recent reprints and book catalogues. As he shows, the following classic halakhic works were printed with totally or semi-naked women on the title pages:
Rabbi Yosef Karo, Shulhan Arukh, Venice 1577-1578 (naked woman)
Rabbi Menahem Abraham Rapa Porto, Minhah Belulah, Verona, 1594 (two topless mermaids in the coat of arms at the end of the book)
Rabbi Jacob Pollak, Vayakem Edut Beya’akov, Prague, 1595 (Adam and Eve, naked)
Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe, Levush, Lublin, 1603 (Adam and Eve, naked)
Rabbi Yosef Karo, Shulhan Arukh, Amsterdam, 1698 (four naked cupids)
Rabbi Yoel Sirkes, Responsa of the Bah, Frankfurt, 1697 (topless women)
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Amsterdam, 1702 (two topless women).
Even so, Prof. Shapiro emphasizes (p. 185): “In fact, I am unaware of any evidence that rabbinic leaders ever expressed opposition to the appearance of female images on these title pages.”
I am only aware of two pre-modern cases of the censorship of women’s pictures:
a. The famous Prague Haggadah of 1526 features a naked woman next to the verses from Ezekiel 16:6-7. In the Venice 1603 Haggadah the young woman was changed to a young man and the caption even says so! (See Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi, Haggadah and History, Philadelphia, 1975, plate 41; Shapiro, pp. 191-193; and The Schechter Haggadah, second edition, 2009, plate 16.
b. Metzger, plate 336 depicts a wedding in Germany ca. 1272. The bride is covered from head to toe in a cloak which barely opens to reveal a featureless face. However, this may simply be an example of iconoclasm because in that Haggadah someone erased the faces in all of the pictures.
Thus, we see that this recent Haredi practice contradicts 1,800 years of Jewish practice in Israel, Dura Europos, in medieval manuscripts from all over Europe, and in printed Hebrew books from the 1500s until today.
III) Hehadash assur min hatorah – anything new is forbidden by the Torah
In the early nineteenth century, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the Hatam Sofer, borrowed a phrase from the Mishnah (Orlah 3:9 and Kiddushin 38b) and gave it a new meaning: “anything new is forbidden by the Torah”. He did this in order to oppose sermons in German, moving the Bimah, using an organ, abolishing Brit Milah and other radical innovations of the Reform movement at that time. Ironically, the Haredim since then have never had a problem inventing new stringencies which have no basis in Jewish law or history such as: dressing the way that Jews dressed 200 years ago, opposing all secular education, spending ten years or more in a yeshivah, not working for a living, the segregation of women at all public events and on buses, glatt kosher meat, new stringencies every Pesah, demanding that converts accept and observe all of the mitzvot, and eliminating women from all pictures. Thus, ironically, in their struggle against all leniencies in Judaism they invented many, brand new stringencies.
IV) When did this new Haredi practice of erasing women from pictures start and where did it come from?
I began to notice the censorship of women from pictures in the early 1980s when I bought illustrated tractates of the Mishnah in Meah Shearim to study with my children. The series is called Mishnayot Me’irot by Avraham Heshin. There are no women at all in these books, including when women are the subject of the Mishnah! For example, Mishnah Sukkah (Jerusalem 1982) talks about a woman taking the lulav from her son or husband and putting it in water on Shabbat (3:15), but picture 104 shows a Hassidic man putting the lulav in water!
Similarly, I have a booklet entitled Halakhot Meirot by Ehud Rosenberg (Jerusalem, no date) about the laws of heating food based on the book Shemirat Shabbat Kehilkhatah. On almost every page, there is a picture of a man with a black kippah and a beard cooking or heating up food for Shabbat, even though in religious society it is the women who do most of the cooking.
This phenomenon is now standard in the Haredi world:
a. They remove all women from news photos, e.g. Hillary Clinton, see Shapiro, p. vii.
b. When they reprint the early printed books mentioned above, they erase the women or change them to men. See Shapiro, Chapter Six, for pictures.
c. A few years ago, it was noticed that the billboards in Jerusalem and big ads on buses contain no women at all. Only after protest were women restored.
d. The new IKEA catalogue shows just how strange this new practice is – pictures of men and boys doing all sorts of things around the house, without women and girls. Needless to say, this is not the way most Haredi households look. Compare that with the famous Sarajevo Haggadah from Spain ca. 1350, which I reproduced in the Schechter Haggadah, plate 7.2, where the entire family is sitting together at the Seder.
It could be that this new practice came partially from certain rabbis as evidenced in the responsa quoted above.
However, when I consulted Prof. Menahem Friedman, professor emeritus of Sociology at Bar Ilan University and a well-known expert on Haredi society, he suggested that it came from Haredi men, not from their rabbis. He suggested that it started when young Haredi men started burning down bus stops in the 1980s because they included pictures of women, and then it spread.
However, it may also come from Haredi women. Dr. Lea Taragin-Zeller conducted in-depth interviews with 15 pupils and 6 teachers at a Bet Yaakov Seminary in Israel from 2008-2011. She presented her findings in her M.A. thesis, which she summarized in the journal NASHIM 26 (Spring 2014), pp. 75-96. She discovered that Haredi women in the Bet Yaakov Seminary spend as much time studying and discussing tzniut, modesty, as Haredi men do studying Torah. The teachers and girls emphasize that they keep adding new humrot (stringencies), not for the sake of men but for the sake of God. They have started a “modesty movement” at the school where they get together, hear a stirring talk by a guest speaker, after which one of the girls suggests a new humra to adopt such as slightly lengthening their skirts. In addition to the books on modesty written by Haredi rabbis, the female teachers at the Seminary write and teach their own pamphlets.
One of the teachers at the Seminary summarized this tzniyut ideology:
The central axis that a Jewish man is built on is the study of Torah, and there is no bigger or harder inclination than the inclination for bitul torah (wasting time from Torah study). And the central axis that the Jewish woman is built on is the virtue of modesty, and there is no virtue that is harder for her than modesty. (p. 82).
V) Reason for Optimism
Despite the fact that the Haredim have invented many new humrot in the past 30-40 years, including the one being discussed here, I am optimistic that, in the long run, the situation will improve. More and more Haredim are joining the army and more and more Haredim are joining the work force. This was highlighted in a recent article in The Jerusalem Post Magazine (March 3, 2017, pp. 16-19). It featured four dynamic young Haredi leaders, including two women who were pictured in the article, who are helping Haredim adjust to modern, Israeli society.
In conclusion, the elimination of women from Haredi books, magazines and newspapers is a very recent phenomenon which has no basis in Jewish law, custom or history. I hope that that this practice will disappear over the course of time, as more and more Haredim are integrated into the modern world.
The Schechter Institute
25 Adar 5777
1. Ancient rabbinic attitudes towards looking at women
Rabbi Louis Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism, New York, 1948, pp. 117-118.
Sh. Hirschberg, “The Beauty and Beautification of Women in the Time of the Talmud”, He’atid 4 (5672/1912), pp. 4 ff. (Hebrew).
2. Modern Responsa which forbid reading magazines which contain pictures of women and/or watching television
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Yabia Omer, Vol. 6, Orah Hayyim, No. 12, which appeared in a slightly different form in his Yehaveh Daat, Vol. 4, No. 7.
Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Sefer Otzar Dinim La’ishah Vilabat, Jerusalem, 1989, pp. 352, 370.
Rabbi Moshe Stern, Be’er Moshe, Vol. 3, No. 154:3; Vol. 4, No. 147:21-22; Vol. 5, No. 132 at the end.
Also see Orah Cohen, Tzniyut Ha’ishah Ba’idan Hamoderni, Bet El, no date, who summarizes quite a bit of the Haredi literature about modesty.
3. Pictures of Jewish women throughout the ages
David Golinkin, The Schechter Haggadah, Jerusalem, 2009.
Therese and Mendel Metzger, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, Secaucus, NJ, 1982.
Marc Shapiro, Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History, Oxford, 2015, Chapter Six.
Chone Shmeruk, The Illustrations in Yiddish Books of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Jerusalem, 1986.
* My thanks to Prof. Shaul Stampfer who put me in touch with Prof. Freidman and Dr. Taragin-Zeller.