Tag Archives: Halakha

Making Babies: Is it Possible to Influence Gender?

Note: for the purposes of this article, the terms “gender” and “sex” are used interchangeably.

This week’s double parasha, Tazria-Metzora, begins with the laws of when “a woman conceives and gives birth to a male…” (Leviticus 12:2) The actual Hebrew wording here is ishah ki tazria, literally “when a woman gives seed”. Based on this, our Sages taught that if a woman “gives seed” first, the child will likely be male, whereas if a man “gives seed” first, the child will likely be female (Niddah 31a). How exactly is this to be understood?

The classic explanation is that if the woman climaxes first during intercourse, the child from that union is more likely to be male—and vice versa. Of course, this statement is not a guarantee, for there have surely been countless situations where this was not the case. Some say, therefore, it is only a segulah for having boys. A further issue with the statement is that, scientifically-speaking, while for the man the climax does coincide with “giving seed”, for a woman the emission of the ovum (egg) is not related to climax. A woman “gives seed” on a cyclical basis, roughly once per month. Having said that, there may be a scientific basis to our Sages statement after all.

In the 1960s, Dr. Landrum B. Shettles, one of the pioneers of in vitro fertilization technology, proposed a method for sex selection during conception. Physiologically, it is the male seed that determines the gender of the baby: sperm carrying a Y chromosome produce a male, while sperm carrying an X chromosome produce a female. (Eggs, meanwhile, always have an X chromosome.) The Y chromosome is significantly smaller than the X chromosome which would, together with other factors, make the “male” sperm lighter and faster than the “female” sperm. At the same time, male sperm are more fragile and less likely to survive the acidic conditions of the uterus.

A karyotype showing all 23 pairs of human chromosomes. Note the size of the Y chromosome compared to the X chromosome.

Based on this, to conceive a male, it is best to wait a few days so that the egg has travelled further down the fallopian tubes, allowing the male sperm to reach it faster, and before dying out. To conceive a female, it is best not to wait at all, and try to conceive earlier, while the eggs are deeper in the fallopian tubes, where male sperm are unlikely to reach. Shettles recommended that, if a couple desires a boy, they should start trying at ovulation time while if the couple wants a girl, they should try two or three days before ovulation. Ovulation is usually around Day 14 of the cycle.

Factoring in halakhah, if we add the seven clean days following menstruation, it generally comes to around Day 12 of the cycle. All other factors aside, this may favour the conception of a girl. Waiting a couple of days, meanwhile, might favour the conception of a boy. It is important to note that cycles vary; for some women ovulation might be a day or two earlier, or later. This may explain why some families have all girls, or all boys, for it is likely that conception always takes place on mikveh night, ie. at the same point in the cycle every time. Having said that, the Shettles Method is thought to be only 75% effective, and some studies say it isn’t effective at all, for there appear to be no major physiological differences between Y- and X-carrying sperm.

Intriguingly, the Shettles Method also recommends, as our Sages did, that a woman should climax first if the couple seeks a male child. This is because a woman’s uterine environment is acidic, but the secretions are actually more alkaline (basic), which diminishes some of that acid and makes it more likely for the male sperm to survive the journey.

The most significant factors are probably not biological at all, but spiritual. At the end of the day, God will send whichever gender is meant to be born. Thus, our Sages state that whoever is expecting a child and prays for a particular gender, “it is a vain prayer” (Berakhot 60a). However, Rav Yosef raises an objection to this statement, since we see in the Torah how Leah, after six boys, prayed for her next child to be a girl, the result being Dinah. It appears that praying for the desired gender does work! The Talmud resolves the contradiction with a Baraita:

The first three days [after intercourse], one should pray that the seed not putrefy. From the third day until the fortieth, one should pray that it will be male. From the fortieth day until three months, one should pray that it will not be deformed. From the third month until the sixth, one should pray that it will not be stillborn. And from the sixth month until the ninth, one should pray that it will be delivered safely.

So, one is permitted to pray for the desired gender of the child until the fortieth day of pregnancy. This is an incredibly precise scientific statement from our Sages, as today we know that the sex organs begin to form in the fetus around Day 42. While the chromosomes may have already determined the gender right at conception, God could certainly make a switch before Day 40 (who would know?) but after that point, the sex organs have begun to form and there is no going back. The Sages were also accurate regarding the putrefaction of the male seed, for today we know that sperm survives in the uterus for around three days, and no more than five days.

For the strict materialist-rationalist, there is nothing that can be done to select gender—it is just a game of chance, depending on which sperm penetrates the egg first. For the most pious person, there is no need to do anything either, for God knows best and it all depends on Above. Truly, it makes no difference, for each child is precious, and a miracle in its own right. I believe this is the deeper message behind our Sages’ debate on what is the ideal number of children that a couple should strive to have (Yevamot 62a):

Rabbi Natan taught: Beit Shammai say two males and two females, and Beit Hillel say a male and a female… It was alternatively taught [in a different Baraita]: Rabbi Natan said that Beit Shammai say a male and a female, and Beit Hillel say either a male or a female. Rava said: what is the reason? …as it is written: “He did not create it to be void; He formed it to be inhabited…” (Isaiah 45:18)

We are first given the most stringent opinion, that of Beit Shammai as expected, that a couple should ideally have two boys and two girls. At the end, we are given the most lenient opinion of Beit Hillel, the school of thought that Judaism is practically based on, which is that even a single boy or girl is enough to fulfil the mitzvah of reproduction. The Scriptural proof is a verse in Isaiah where the prophet quotes God as stating how He created the world to be full of life. The Sages are making an equivalence between the entire world and the birth of even a single child, which is enough to fulfil the mitzvah of populating the entire world. Each child is a world of his or her own and, as Abarbanel (1437-1508) comments on that verse in Isaiah, brings the world one step closer to the Final Redemption.

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Do Men Have More Mitzvot than Women?

This week’s parasha, Tazria, begins by describing the rituals that a mother must perform upon giving birth to a new child. If the child is male, the mother is considered “impure” for seven days following her delivery, and then spends an additional 33 days in purification. For a female child, the durations are doubled, with the mother “impure” for 14 days, and purifying for another 66 days. Why is the duration of purification for a female doubly longer than a male?

‘Garden of Eden’, by Thomas Cole

The apocryphal Book of Jubilees (3:8) suggests an interesting idea: Adam was made on the Sixth Day of Creation but, apparently, Eve wasn’t made until a whole week after. This is why a mother of a male child is impure for a week, but a mother of a female child for two weeks! Jubilees also holds that Adam was only brought into Eden forty days after being created, while Eve was brought in after eighty days. This is why a mother of a male child needs a total of forty days to purify, and a mother of a female child needs eighty days. Of course, Rabbinic tradition rejects the Book of Jubilees, and it is accepted that Adam and Eve were both created on the Sixth Day, and were in Eden from the beginning.

Commenting on this week’s parasha, the Zohar (III, 43b) states that it takes a soul 33 days to settle in the body. This is primarily referring to the new soul that enters a newborn baby, as it takes time for the ethereal soul to get used to its descent into a physical world. The Zohar doesn’t add too much more on this, but we might assume that, based on the words of the Torah, it takes a male soul 33 days to settle, and a female soul 66 days to settle. At the same time, the Zohar may be referring to the soul of the mother, too, as she is the one that spends 33 or 66 days in purification. As we’ve explained in the past, the severing of the mother’s direct connection to her child distresses her soul for 33 or 66 days following childbirth.

Whatever the case, the implication is that a female soul is somehow greater than a male soul. It has more spiritual power, taking longer to settle. The notion that female souls are greater is found throughout Jewish texts, especially mystical ones. Sefer HaBahir, one of the most ancient Kabbalistic texts, states that the female soul is the most beautiful of all, and an aspect of the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence (chs. 173-175). It explicitly makes clear that life on Earth would be impossible without the life-giving mother, who in this regard is much closer to God.

On that note, it has been said that God created the world sequentially from simple to complex, starting with the basic elements: light, air, water, earth; progressing to plants, then simple animals, then mammals, then man, and finally woman. The woman is the last of God’s creation, and therefore the most intricate and the most refined. It may be because of this that the Arizal taught that while male souls typically reincarnate to rectify themselves, female souls rarely if ever reincarnate at all (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 9).

It is important to mention here that we are speaking of female souls, not necessary to all women. The Arizal (as well as the Zohar cited above) speak of the possibility of female souls in male bodies, or male souls in female bodies. And it should also be mentioned that this does not necessarily affect the body’s sexuality. A “female” soul in a male body can still very much be a heterosexual male, and vice versa. (For more on this, see Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh’s lecture here on the female soul of the forefather Isaac, as well as the prophets Samuel, Jonah, and Habakkuk.)

There are a number of consequences to the greater souls of females. For one, it gives them binah yeterah, an “extra understanding” sometimes referred to as “women’s intuition” (Niddah 45b). This is one reason why the women of the Exodus generation, for example, did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf, nor the sin of the Spies. In fact, the Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, 1550-1619, on Numbers 13:2) states that, had Moses sent female spies, there would have been no problem at all!

On the other hand, a more elevated soul and an extra depth of understanding means a greater sensitivity to the world, which makes women generally less prone to violence and drug abuse, but significantly more prone to depression and anxiety. The greater female soul has the amazing potential to bring life, yet simultaneously (to balance the equation) the potential for severe destruction, “more bitter than death”, to borrow from King Solomon in Kohelet 7:26. This is symbolically reflected in the menstrual cycle, where a lack of conception of life necessarily results in the shedding of blood, a “minor death” that is then rectified in the living waters of the mikveh.

Finally, a greater soul means that women require slightly less mitzvot than men. After all, the “mitzvot were given only in order that human beings might be purified by them… their purpose is to refine…” (Beresheet Rabbah 44:1) A more refined female soul does not need the same mitzvot that a male soul does. Unfortunately, this has sometimes been a point of contention in modern times. Yet, upon closer examination, we see that the differences in mitzvot between men and women are actually minimal and, contrary to the general belief, there is a perfect balance between those mitzvot done exclusively by men and those done exclusively by women.

“Time-Bound” Mitzvot?

The general rule is that, at least in principle, women are exempt from any mitzvah that can only be done at a particular time. This includes mitzvot like prayer, tefillin, and tzitzit. However, in practical terms we see that this “rule” isn’t really a thing, and there are many time-bound mitzvot that women are obligated in. For example,

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Can Women Wear Pants?

In this week’s parasha, Ki Tetze, we read that “A man’s attire shall not be on a woman, nor may a man wear a woman’s garment because whoever does these is an abomination to Hashem, your God.” (Deuteronomy 22:5) In addition to the general prohibition of cross-dressing, this verse is typically used as a source for related rules such as, for example, forbidding women to wear pants, which are considered “man’s attire”. A deeper examination of the classic commentaries reveals some surprising things.

A 16th-century illustration of Rashi

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105) points out on this verse that cross-dressing is referring to a person who completely takes on the appearance of the opposite gender, so much so that they are able to go out among members of the opposite gender without being recognized. The ultimate purpose of this is to commit an act of adultery or some other sexual immorality. This is why the Torah says it is an “abomination”. The abomination, Rashi holds, is not the act of cross-dressing itself, but rather the abominable sexual sin that follows. So, technically, a person who wears the clothes of the opposite gender in private, without going out in public, or committing any sexual act, hasn’t sinned according to the letter of the Law. This is also one reason why many permit wearing costumes of the opposite gender on Purim, for there is no intent of sexual immorality.

On a related note, Rashi comments that for a man to shave his underarm or pubic hair is also forbidden, as this is a practice of women. Again, all depends on intent. If the man is doing so to appear feminine, it is certainly prohibited. However, if the man is doing so only for hygienic reasons, there is technically no problem.

While for a man to put on a woman’s dress (simlat ishah) is clearly forbidden by the Torah, for a woman to put on a man’s garment is not so clear. The term used is kli gever, literally a “male instrument”. The simplest interpretation is that it is referring not to clothing—which is not an instrument—but to weapons. The use of the word gever (as opposed to ish, “man”) is further proof, since the root of gever is associated with strength (gevurah) or battle. Kli gever, therefore, is very likely just a “battle instrument”.

This is how Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiyahu ben Menashe, c. 1250-1310) holds, and in doing so, brings as an example the Biblical Ya’el. Recall that Ya’el was the righteous woman who killed the wicked military oppressor Sisera (Judges 4-5). Chizkuni writes how Ya’el used a tent peg to kill Sisera, for it is forbidden for a woman to have implements of war. Chizkuni concludes with a further proof from an earlier commentator, the Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1089-1167). Ibn Ezra explained that the parasha begins by stating Ki tetze l’milchama, “When you go out to war” so the prohibition of kli gever is evidently referring to war instruments. Going out to battle, he says, is unbefitting a woman, and more gravely, would result in female and male soldiers fornicating.

Ibn Ezra also mentions the “abominable” connection to sexual immorality. Unlike Rashi, who speaks of adultery, Ibn Ezra cites those who speak of sodomy, or homosexual intercourse. A man might dress like a woman with the intention of seducing another man (or a woman of another woman). Ibn Ezra does not agree with this opinion, and says it is already abominable even without this, for one who cross-dresses is messing with “God’s Work”.

Pants or Skirts?

If the Torah does not explicitly prohibit women from wearing “male garments”, what is the issue with a woman wearing pants? In ancient times, there were no pants at all, of course. Everyone wore various tunics and robes. There were certainly pants by Rashi’s time, and one of his comments on the Talmud is particularly intriguing:

In discussing which parts of the body are immodest to expose, the Sages state that the shok is inappropriate to reveal, or to look at (Berachot 24a). The big question is: what is a shok? Some say the shok is the thigh, while others are more stringent and say the shok is the calf. In the latter case, wearing pants is actually favourable since it completely covers both legs down to the feet. Indeed, Rashi suggests in another place that women were required to wear pants for purposes of modesty!

“Ezra reading the Law in the hearing of the people” by Gustav Doré

The Talmud (Bava Kamma 82a) states that Ezra the Scribe made ten decrees upon Israel:

That the Torah be read [publicly] during Minchah on Shabbat; that the Torah be read [publicly] on Mondays and Thursdays; that courts be held on Mondays and Thursdays; that clothes be washed on Thursdays; that garlic be eaten on Fridays; that the housewife rise early to bake bread; that a woman must wear a sinnar; that a woman must comb her hair before performing immersion [in a mikveh]; that merchants be allowed to travel about in the towns, He also decreed immersion to be required by those to whom “pollution” has happened.

One of Ezra’s pronouncements was that women should wear a sinnar in the interests of modesty. Rashi comments here that a “sinnar” is like michnasaim, “pants”. Apparently, pants might be more modest than skirts.

Modesty and Halacha

Perhaps the major issue of wearing pants is that of pisuk raglaim, “separating the legs”. It is immodest for a woman to do so, and this has implications in a range of areas, particularly in horseback riding, which is discussed in the Talmud (Pesachim 3a). While the Sages suggest that a woman should ride a horse, camel, or donkey by sitting side-saddle, it goes on to quote verses from the Torah which clearly depict women, including Rebecca and Tzipporah, riding in the regular way. The Talmud concludes that this is because of “fear”. They were afraid to ride side-saddle, whether because of the animals, or of the night, or some other reason. There is no clear conclusion to the passage, with two of the disciples throwing in the towel and saying the discussion has drained all their energy.

Various halachic sources use pisuk raglaim as a key proof that pants are forbidden for women to wear, since they cause a separation of the legs. Others point out that pants are only a problem if they are tight-fitting, making a clear, visible “separation of legs”. So, loose pants might be permissible. It is said that Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin (1881-1973) permitted loose pants. His grandson, Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, shows that pisuk raglaim only refers to spreading legs in a sexual nature (as in Ezekiel 16:25, where the term originates). It has nothing to do with wearing pants—or even horseback riding, for that matter. (See his Bnei Banim, Vol. 4, Siman 28, Passage 6). Meanwhile, Rav Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013) ruled that it is sometimes better for women to wear loose pants than tight or short skirts (Yabia Omer, Vol. 4, on Yoreh De’ah 14).

In Scotland, it is still customary to wear a kilt to a wedding. Jews in Scotland wear kilts, too. (Credit: Brian at XMarksTheScot.com)

Finally, pants are not considered exclusively for men in today’s society. Women are just as likely to wear pants as men are. A woman that wears pants, even in public, does not set off any alarms in the public eye, just as a man wearing a kilt—skirt—in 18th century Scotland wouldn’t stand out. Much depends on the surrounding society and culture. Today, Jewish men are forbidden from wearing skirts or dresses, but in ancient times it was common for them to wear skirt-like and dress-like garments. This is illustrated in the Torah itself, which warns that the altar should have ramps instead of stairs, so that the priests would not have to lift their legs and expose themselves (Exodus 20:22). There were no pants or underwear in Biblical times after all.

While mainstream society should not dictate our modesty standards, it nonetheless plays a role. And while every Jewish woman (and man) must still prioritize utmost modesty, a woman who chooses to occasionally wear loose pants (especially in situations where skirts would be uncomfortable or inappropriate like, for example, horseback riding) certainly has upon whom to rely.

For more on pisuk raglaim and the modesty of pants, see here: