This week we begin reading the Torah anew, starting with the first parasha, Beresheet. After describing God’s creation of His universe and all the living beings within it, we are brought to the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve live in a perfectly harmonious world. Then, a certain “serpentine” creature entices the humans to consume a mysterious fruit, and upon doing so the world is drastically changed, imbued with death, suffering, and evil. On top of this, God decrees a series of curses upon each of the three guilty parties: the Serpent, Adam, and Eve.
The Serpent is cursed by having its limbs removed and being forced to slither on its belly upon the dust of the earth, the lowest of the low. It is important to note here that the classic image of a snake enticing Eve is totally wrong, since it was only after the Fruit’s consumption that the Serpent had its limbs removed and was transformed into the figure of a snake. Until then, Jewish texts agree that the Serpent was an angelic being with a human-like figure.
Next, Eve is cursed with the pains of pregnancy and childbearing, as well as an inferior status to that of men, who will “rule over” women. Finally, Adam is cursed with having to toil endlessly to make a living, suffer in doing so, and eat by the sweat of his brow. The earth, too, is cursed, making it even harder for humans to survive.
Midrashic commentaries explain that God decreed a total of 39 curses: 10 each for the Serpent, Adam, and Eve, plus nine for the earth. These 39 curses correspond to the 39 melachot, actions prohibited on Shabbat. By observing the Sabbath, one is actually performing a tikkun, a spiritual rectification, and reversing the 39 curses. For the same reason, the Tabernacle was constructed and maintained with these 39 tasks, as the Mishkan (and later Temples) also served to perform a tikkun for Eden.
Of course, with the coming of Mashiach, the 39 curses will be repealed entirely, and the world will once again return to a state of perfection. Remarkably, we see that many of the curses have already disappeared (at least in the “developed” or “Western” world). Most people no longer have to labour tirelessly just to eat. Food is produced in abundance with machines that allow just a couple of people to operate massive farms with ease. And even people who don’t work at all need not starve, as food banks and charities abound, and governments provide welfare.
At the same time, the pains of pregnancy and childbearing have been significantly eased thanks to modern medicine and inventions like the epidural anesthetic. While in the past it was very common for women to die in labour, it is now very rare in modern hospitals. Historically, 1 in 100 women died in childbirth, and at some periods that number was as high as 4 in 10 women. Today, that number is 1 in nearly 50,000 in many Western countries!
In fact, a more detailed look at Eve’s curses shows that just about every one of them has been reversed or considerably lightened. While the Talmud does not specify Adam’s ten curses or the Serpent’s ten curses, it does give the entire list of Eve’s curses:
Rav Itzchak bar Abdimi stated: Eve was cursed with ten curses, since it is written: “Unto the woman He said, ‘and I will greatly multiply’”, which refers to the two drops of blood, one being that of menstruation and the other that of virginity, “thy pain” refers to the pain of bringing up children, “and thy travail” refers to the pain of conception, “in pain thou shalt bring forth children” is to be understood in its literal meaning, “and thy desire shall be to thy husband” teaches that a woman yearns for her husband when he is about to set out on a journey, “and he shall rule over thee” teaches that while the wife solicits with her heart, the husband does so with his mouth—but is this not a fine trait of character among women?—What was meant is that she ingratiates herself with him. But are not these only seven? When Rav Dimi came he explained: She is wrapped up like a mourner, banished from the company of all men, and confined within a prison. What is meant by ‘banished from the company of all men’? If it be suggested that she is forbidden to meet a man in privacy, is not the man also forbidden to meet a woman in privacy? The meaning, rather, is that she is forbidden to marry two men. (Eruvin 100b)
Rav Itzchak derives seven of Eve’s curses from the plain text of the Torah: pains associated with the menstrual cycle, and with loss of virginity, the difficulties of raising children, trouble conceiving a child, the pain of delivering a child, yearning for a husband while he is away from home, and having to work hard to please him.
We can see how these seven curses have changed drastically in modern times. As mentioned, the pains of menstruation, virginity, and childbearing have all been greatly lessened through various technological innovations. Similarly, modern advances allow many women to conceive where in the past they would have never been able to. With changing social norms, women are no longer expected to be at home all the time (“yearning for their husbands”) and are just as free as men to go out to work, study, travel, and so on. The burden of raising children, too, is now more or less equal, with both parents expected to contribute to the growth and wellbeing of the child. And women are no longer expected to “please their husbands” any more than men must please their wives.
The Talmud continues with Rav Dimi adding the three missing curses. The first is that women must be exceedingly modest in their dress, “wrapped up like mourners”. Today, of course, women are free to dress as they wish, and cover as much of their bodies as they feel necessary. Second, women are “banished from the company of men”, meaning that while men were allowed to marry multiple wives, women were not allowed to marry multiple husbands. Today, polygamy has been banned in the majority of the world’s countries (and has been banned within the Jewish world for centuries). Monogamy is the standard, as it was in the Garden of Eden. The last curse is being “confined in a prison”, referring to being home all day. As discussed above, this is no longer the case either.
It is therefore quite clear that all the “curses of Eve” are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Thankfully, women are finally reclaiming their rightful position in the world, and steadily – together with technology and scientific progress – helping to usher in the return to Eden. This is just another of many signs that we are truly living in the ikvot haMashiach, the footsteps of the Messiah.