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How the 'Aylonit Got Her Sex

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 November 2007

Sarra Lev
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Wyncote, Pennsylvania
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In this essay, I posit that the ’aylonit essentially receives her sex/gender assignment from her parallel, the natural eunuch. I reach this conclusion by demonstrating that the aggregate simanim (signs) of the ’aylonit are chosen specifically for their sex/gender-crossing attributes, fitting neither any known modern condition nor any ancient condition. Given that in the legal material the rabbis do not, in fact, understand the ’aylonit as a sex/gender crosser, the list of attributes seems to emerge from nowhere. The answer to the riddle of its origin is to be found in the text describing the seris ḥammah (the congenital eunuch, whose description parallels that of the ’aylonit in many ways). That is, the simanim of the seris ḥammah also present him as a sex/gender crossover despite the lack of supporting halakhic literature. But whereas the ’aylonit has no ancient corollary in the Greek and Roman literature, the attributes of the seris ḥammah directly match those of the Roman eunuch, who does appear in many of the contemporaneous Christian and Roman materials as a sex/gender crosser. It would seem, then, that the seris ḥammah shares his sex/gender with the Roman eunuch, and the ’aylonit receives her sex/gender from her mirror image, the seris ḥammah.

Research Article
Copyright © The Association for Jewish Studies 2007

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1. The term ’aylonit lacks an English equivalent. Essentially, she is, as the Tosefta describes her, a woman who does not experience physical puberty even after reaching the appropriate age.

2. The literal translation of לקוי is “damaged.” Lieberman understands it in context as “thin,” derived from M. Nega‘im 10:1, in which the word is clearly used as a parallel to the word דק, meaning “thin.” He introduces the commentaries of Rashi, who defines it as “soft,” and Rabbi Menachem ben Shlomo, who defines it as “thin and very soft” (see Lieberman, Saul, Tosefta Ki-fshutah: A Comprehensive Commentary on the Tosefta [Jerusalem: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1995], 6:104Google Scholar). This word is also used to describe the voice of the seris ḥammah. Because the voice of the ’aylonit is described as thick and the description of the seris ḥammah is the mirror image of the ’aylonit, it seems likely that the word לקוי does indeed mean thin.

3. Rather than saying “has difficulty during sex,” I intentionally use a colloquialism here, as I believe the use of the word “hard” conveys a possible wordplay, evoking the term מקשה עצמו, “to intentionally cause an erection” (see B. Niddah 13b, KR 2:8). See also this baraita as it appears in B. Yevamot 80b, which uses the form מתקשה, used elsewhere to describe an erection (see T. Shabbat 15:9; Y. Shabbat 19:6, 17b; B. Shabbat 137b). Nevertheless, the plain meaning is “has difficulty,” that is, she is not capable of “true” heterosexual sex.

4. The term שיפולי מעים is elusive. Marcus Jastrow translates it literally as “the lower part of the abdomen” (A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, with an Index of Scriptural Quotations [New York: Judaica Press, 1996], 1566). Others translate the term as mons veneris (see The Babylonian Talmud, ed. Isidore Epstein, trans. Israel W. Slotki [London: Soncino Press, 1961], Yevamot 80b, who also uses this translation for the term כף in B. Niddah 47b).

5. For an explanation of the two reading choices, see page 303.

6. Much of the halakhic literature reads the simanim as individual markers that each qualify a woman as an ’aylonit. This stringency understands all congenital infertility, not just one particular condition, as grounds to qualify a woman as an ’aylonit. Any woman, whether she exhibited none, one, or all of the simanim, would qualify as an ’aylonit if she reached the age of twenty and bore no pubic hair. In most cases, this protects a male (who has the obligation to procreate) from ever incurring a penalty if he accidentally marries a nonprocreative woman. This method of understanding a text in order to prevent all possible breaches of the halakhic system would be applied by later commentators and codifiers to the case of the simanim that describe the bogeret as well (see M. Niddah 5:8). The case of a bogeret, however, differs in that the stringent point of view varies with regard to the particular issue being discussed (See Rashi, B. Niddah 47b, s.v. להחמיר). Although I disagree with his conclusions on the matter, Daniel Malakh offers an excellent summary of the arguments in his article “Be-Din Hagdarat Seris Ḥammah Ve-’Aylonit,” in Sefer Refa'el: Ma'amarim u-Mekḥkarim Ba-Torah Uve-Mada‘e HaYahadut Lezikhro Shel Dr. Yitshak Refa'el, Zal, ed. Yosef Eliyahu Movshovits (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kuk, 2000).

7. Maimonides, Hilchot Ishut, 2:3–5; Maimonides, Hilchot Gerushin, 11:4.

8. Maimonides, Hilchot Ishut, 15:4.

9. Maimonides, Hilchot Ishut, 24:1–2, 7–8. The ketubah provides a woman with a guarantee that she will receive a certain minimum amount in the event that she is divorced or widowed. Under these circumstances, there are those who argue that a man should be released from this obligation, believing that the marriage was an “erroneous acquisition” (מקח טעות) of an infertile woman by an unsuspecting man. According to this opinion, this acquisition renders the man unable to fulfill the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.” The fact that it was an erroneous acquisition renders the original contract, and thus the ketubah, null and void.

10. Maimonides, Hilchot Gerushin, 10:13.

11. Maimonides, Hilchot Ne‘arah Betulah, 1:9.

12. Maimonides, Hilchot Sotah, 2:10–11. Whereas a “normal” woman would ordinarily be required to endure the ordeal of the sotah, the question arises as to whether the rabbis would wish to preserve a marriage to an ’aylonit, for whom there is no possibility of procreation. The goal of the ritual—to prove the woman's innocence and preserve the marriage—is called into question in this case.

13. Maimonides, Hilchot Ishut, 15:7.

14. From a literary structural point of view, it seems more feasible that the full list (excluding the two minority opinions) is a description of a single condition. Alternatively, it is possible that each of the simanim is meant to be considered individually, along with the definitive feature of a lack of pubic hairs. See my later discussion of the structure of the text.

15. Cf. Bernadette Brooten, who discusses female gender crossing and never once introduces the category of the woman whose body appears male-like in Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). The one exception appears in Aristotle's Generation of Animals 2.7, more than 300 years before the earliest date of this literature. Here, Aristotle notes that some women are born congenitally infertile, and he notes that they are masculine looking and do not enter puberty.

16. See Sarra Lev, “When Do Genitals Determine Sex? Rabbinic and Roman Concepts of the Congenital Eunuch,” lecture presented at the Association of Jewish Studies Conference, December 20, 2005, Chicago.

17. Also possible (though with much fewer parallels) is androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), in which the affected body does not develop hair and is often infertile but frequently does eventually develop breasts. Partial AIS bodies are often not infertile. The external genitals of an AIS body are female, although testes exist in the abdomen.

18. This makes it not only possible but probable that these rabbis had encountered this condition, even if the statistics were somewhat different then.

19. See note 3.

20. Lieberman, Tosefta Ki-fishutah, 6:33.

21. I differentiate here between prescriptive texts, which dictate the laws concerning the ’aylonit (and the seris ḥammah), and descriptive texts, which simply define or describe the nature of the category being discussed. Tannaitic texts that are descriptive often begin with the question?____איזהו and proceed to explain the nature of the person or object being discussed.

22. Unfortunately, no descriptions of the androgynus whatsoever can be found in the tannaitic literature. Thus, we have nothing on which to base a comparison between a figure who is clearly regarded as a sex/gender crosser in the halakhic material and one who is not.

23. Moreover, even given her status as nonreproductive, there is a discussion in the tannaitic material about whether, as is the case with a “normal” woman, she should be required to wait three months before remarrying. This discussion almost assumes that there is always the potential for reproduction, even in an ’aylonit (T. Yevamot 6:6). In contrast, the Mishnah and Talmud (B. Yevamot 33b, 34b–35a) rule on a similar case in which a minor girl who is mistakenly exchanged for her sister is permitted to immediately return to her husband after mistaken illegal sex because she is not considered in danger of having conceived a mamzer (a child born of illicit sexual relations).

24. See note 2.

25. Unfortunately, many of the Roman texts conflate the born eunuch with the castrated male, making it difficult to differentiate the attitudes toward the two. At the same time, however, this conflation reflects the way in which the Romans, unlike the rabbis, did not usually (and there are a few exceptions) differentiate between the two categories.

26. The translation “hermaphrodite” may be misleading, as the Greek term ἄνδρóθηλυς (androthēlys) is literally a combination of “male” and “effeminate.” Though Philostratus uses both this term and ɛὐνoυ´χoυς (eunouchous), he quotes Favorinus as referring to himself as a eunuch. The very fact that this refers to a born eunuch rather than a castrated male may explain the introduction of this separate term.

27. Philostratus, , Vitae Sophistarum [the Lives of the Sophists], trans. Wright, Wilmer Cave (New York: Putnam, 1922), 8.489Google Scholar.

28. Apuleius, , Metamorphoses, trans. Hanson, J. Arthur (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 8.26CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29. Lightfoot, J. L., “Sacred Eunuchism in the Cult of the Syrian Goddess,” in Eunuchs in Antiquity and Beyond, ed. Tougher, Shaun (London: Classical Press of Wales Duckworth, 2002), 72Google Scholar.

30. Galen, , De Usu Partium [On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body], trans. May, Margaret Tallmadge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968), 14.7Google Scholar.

31. See, e.g., Galen, De Usu Partium, 14.6.

32. Clement of Alexandria, Pedagogus,

33. In addition to all the specifically Roman references to sex/gender, it also seems logical to assume that the inability to urinate in an arch may have the same gendered quality as a description. The fact that men can urinate in an arch, whereas women cannot, may be yet another reference to the seris ḥammah's inability to enact his masculinity.

34. I concede that it is always possible to categorize in a myriad of ways and that this particular characterization of what each stage of the texts are doing may not, in fact, have been their intent. Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the correlations that exist between the two texts.

35. I have found nothing in the Greek or Roman medical or philosophical literature to account for these particular characteristics, although it is probable, given the other evidence, that they originate in that thought system.

36. This may also allude to gender crossing (see note 3).

37. This is a possible allusion to Hypospadias. Although this text could refer to semen, the version of the baraita found in B. Yevamot 80b reads, ויש אומרים כל המטיל מים ואין עושה כיפה. The usual term for dysfunction of the penis with regard to sexual matters is אינו יורה כחץ—“he does not shoot like an arrow.”

38. See, e.g., Neusner, Jacob, Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 238Google Scholar; and idem, , “Sifra and the Problem of the Mishnah,” Henoch XI (1989): 2526Google Scholar.

39. Some understand this chapter (M. Bikkurim, chap. 4, which is equivalent to T. Bikkurim, chap. 2) to be a later addition to Mishnah added from the material of the Tosefta. See Strack, H. L. and Stemberger, G., Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, 2nd ed., trans. and ed. Bockmuehl, Markus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 121Google Scholar; and Order Zeraim, vol. I, Mishnayot, 2nd ed., trans. Philip Blackman (New York: Judaica Press, 1964), 463.

40. Here again, not a great deal has been written on the topic of gender crossings. See, however, Plaut, W. Gunther and Washofsky, Mark, eds., Teshuvot for the Nineties: Reform Judaism's Answers for Today's Dilemmas (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1997), 191–96Google Scholar; Jacob, Walter, Contemporary American Reform Responsa (Pennsylvania: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1987), 293–96Google Scholar (found also in Jacob, Walter, ed., American Reform Responsa: Collected Responsa of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1889–1983 [New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1983], 416–19Google Scholar).

41. The law of levirate marriage requires the brother of a dead man to marry the widow of his childless dead brother, thereby providing his brother with his own (substitute) bloodline. Marriage to one's brother's widow would be forbidden under any other circumstances, thus making it imperative that the only enactment of that marriage is for the purpose of procreation. A congenitally nonprocreative male, then, exists in a gray area within the law. The rabbis must determine whether to include him within the proscription against this type of marriage or within the requirement to fulfill this duty of the living brother.

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