A Feminist Reading
Dr. Marjorie Lehman
Kimchit as Heroine:
The Stories that Form Us
“I try to cover my hair at all times so that even the four walls will not see my hair. If I adhere closely to the laws regarding head-covering, I hope that I will be privileged to give birth to sons who are God-fearing and knowledgeable in Torah.”1
In these hopeful words, written by an observant Jewish woman, we hear the voice of Kimchit, the Talmudic mother of seven sons, all of whom served as high priests. When the rabbis ask her, “What good deeds have you done [to deserve such worthy sons]?” she answers, “May [evil] befall me if, in my days, the beams of my house saw the hair of my head or the seams of my tunic.” Kimchit claims that a mother’s modest behavior positively affects the outcome of her progeny.2
Arguably, for women who wear head coverings, Kimchit’s lesson is inspirational. The act of covering one’s hair becomes utterly praiseworthy and spiritually worthwhile because of the reward it yields. However, this story traps Kimchit and us in a script that she did not write. It justifies Kimchit as a positive model. She emerges as a Talmudic woman who teaches us about the importance of head coverings as a means to control women’s sexuality, upholding the rabbinic belief that woman’s hair exudes sexuality. But, a closer look from a feminist perspective at the sources that mention Kimchit tell another story.3
Kimchit’s Story in the Yerushalmi
The story of Kimchit appears in several places in rabbinic literature and is most commonly associated with its figuration in the Bavli (b. Yoma 47a). However, an earlier tradition found in the Yerushalmi (y. Yoma 1:1; 38d)4 has influenced many later sources (other than the Bavli), because of its more positive portrayal of Kimchit and the message she conveys about female modesty, as compared to the Bavli.5 Even so, a careful comparison between the b. Yoma and y. Yoma versions throw the image of her as a role model for women into question.
The Yerushalmi reads:
ירושלמי יומא א:א (לח ע”ד)
מעשה בשמעון בן קמחית שיצא לדבר עם המלך ערב יום הכיפורים ונתזה צינורה של רוק מפיו על בגדיו וטימתו ונכנס יהודה אחיו ושימש תחתיו בכהונה גדולה וראת אימן שני בניה כהנים גדולים ביום אחד
שבעה בנים היו לה לקמחית וכולן שימשו בכהונה גדולה שלחו חכמים ואמרו לה מה מעשים טובים יש בידך אמרה להן יבא עלי אם ראו קורות ביתי שערות ראשי ואימרת חלוקי מימיי
אמרון כל קימחיא קמח וקמחא דקמחית סולת וקרון עלה כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה ממשבצות זהב לבושה
y. Yoma 1:1 (38d)
There is a story about Shim’on, the son of Kimchit who went out to speak to the king on the eve of Yom Kippur6 and a drop of saliva sprayed from [the king’s] mouth onto [Shim’on’s] garments and he became impure. And his brother Yehudah entered and served as the high priest in his [Shim’on’s] stead. And their mother [Kimchit] saw two of her sons [serve as] high priests on the same day.
Kimchit had seven sons and all of them served in the position of high priest. The sages sent [a question to her] and they said to her: “What good deeds have you done [lit. have in your possession]?” She answered them: “May [evil] befall me if, in my days, the beams of my house saw the hair of my head or the seams of my tunic (undergarment).”7
They said [about Kimchit]: “All flour is flour, but the flour of Kimchit is fine flour.” And they applied to her the verse, “All her glory—the daughter of a king—is inside and her raiment is of golden settings.” (Psalms 45:14)
Kimchit as a Modest Woman of High Standing
Kimchit’s story stands out here as a positive role model because her modesty extends beyond the public sphere and into the private space she inhabits. Even the inanimate beams of her house never see her hair uncovered.8 In this regard, she models in her home-space the kind of upright behavior that we expect of her priest sons when they serve within the structure of the temple.
While she herself may not be born of priestly stock, and her sons receive this status from their father, it is only Kimchit who is mentioned here. Without any mention of her husband, the rabbis comfortably position her firmly within the priestly framework when they claim her as an upstanding mother to seven priests. On some level, she is a female parallel to the high priest, in that she too is at the top of an ordered family hierarchy. Kimchit is the matriarch who maintains a sense of family order by ensuring modest behavior even inside her home.9
What is in Kimchit’s Name?
Additionally, this Yerushalmi version of the source presents a positive play on Kimchit’s name, reminding us of its relationship to the Hebrew word for flour, kemach. By equating Kimchit with the finest flour, an essential commodity that is life-sustaining, she is portrayed as a mother unlike others in her ability to sustain the genealogical structure of the priesthood, presumably by birthing the children of her priest husband, who is oddly absent from this source.10
The Royal Princess Who Merits Sons Wearing Golden Mountings (Psalms 45:14)
In addition, Kimchit is associated with the “modest” royal princess of Psalms 45:14 who dons an exquisite dress “embroidered with golden mountings” (מִמִּשְׁבְּצוֹת זָהָב לְבוּשָׁהּ). The rabbis seem to be drawing a connection between Psalms 45:14 and the biblical descriptions of the high priestly vestments, which use the same term for golden mountings (see e.g. Exodus 28). They read the verse as suggesting that the modest princess will merit golden-mounting-wearing sons – i.e. high priests. The scene conjures up an image of the princess’ wedding day in which she is married off to a king and promised the reward of great sons who will be appointed as “princes throughout the land” (Psalms 45:16-17).
Relying on Psalms as a prooftext, the Yerushalmi refuses to doubt that Kimchit’s great sons are her reward. In this way, the rabbis propose that mothers’ behaviors play a role in their sons’ futures. They purport that female modesty is intimately tied to a son’s good fortune. A mother’s impact on them, therefore, is far more than biological and while Kimchit does not teach them Torah, she does think about how her own upright actions might affect them.
The Negative Reception of Kimchit
and her High Priests
But we cannot overlook the mocking that weaves its way through this source. The presentation of all her sons as high priests may be critical, suggesting that one after another her sons were disqualified or died at a young age. When the Yerushalmi reports that Kimchit saw two of her sons serve as high priests in one day, it is possible that this is a negative observation about the nature of the high priesthood. High priests never serve together at the same time, that is, in comparison to rabbis. One high priest took over from the other to serve in the temple, while rabbis are rabbis simultaneously, one learning from the other.
In the case of Kimchit, her son Shim’on (Yishmael in the Bavli) abandoned the temple precincts on the eve of Yom Kippur to meet with the king. A parallel source in y. Megillah 1:10, 72a and in y. Horayot 3:2, 47d uses the word, letayeil, which tells us that Shim’on went walking “with the king” likely a critical comment about how a religious leader, who was a priest, sauntered alongside a secular leader in friendship. While we do not have any sense of what dialogue transpired between the high priest and the king, leaving us to wonder why they met hours before Yom Kippur, we do know that the king sprayed saliva onto Shim’on,11 disqualifying him from performing the Yom Kippur ritual service (Avodah) and, at the same time, presenting him as someone who makes foolish choices immediately prior to the onset of Yom Kippur.
The interchange is shocking especially given tractate Yoma’s clear requirement that the high priest must be sequestered for a week before Yom Kippur in a separate chamber to protect his ritual purity.12 The reason for his isolation is to protect him from anything that could make him ritually impure, thus disqualifying him from performing the Avodah on Yom Kippur.13 As such, the high priest’s actions are tinged with irresponsibility as he puts himself into a situation that threatens his ritual preparedness to perform the ritual duties required of him in the temple, which is to clear the people of their sins on the holiest day of the year.
And so, is it a sign of great reward to have two sons serve as high priests on one day when one son walks into places where he should not be as Yom Kippur approaches? Is Kimchit glorified here as a mother in her association with her son, Shim’on, who acted senselessly? And if she had five more sons who also became high priests, is this a reward if one needs to replace the other because of some type of ritual disqualifications that could have been avoided?
The interchange between the rabbis and Kimchit, where the rabbis ask her a specific question about her behavior and its reward, makes the empty dialogue between Shim’on and the king all the more disturbing. The rabbis also seem to preserve a proper male/female boundary by “sending” Kimchit their question, rather than appearing before her. Shim’on and the king, however, are in such close proximity that the king’s saliva endangers the priest’s purity. This juxtaposition between rabbis and priests mocks Shim’on, highlighting that priests were not focused on learning any lessons or on discussing ideas with others. And when discussing trivialities, they could not even uphold their one basic responsibility: maintaining their ritual purity.
The rabbis, on the other hand, are bent on engaging in that which defines them—dialogue around matters of personal behavior and its reward. As such, the passage ends in true rabbinic fashion, with the rabbis lauding the behavior of Kimchit, calling attention to her upright behavior through the use of a prooftext from Psalms 45.
Where was the Father?
And yet, this story never mentions the father of the seven priests, nor even contains a patronymic—a rarity in Talmudic literature. 14 This is especially surprising since, according to Jewish law these sons inherit their priestly status only from their father. The lack of patronymic suggests a tainted lineage, requiring that a son be called after the name of his mother. 15
In sum, the story is not as straightforward as it seems. The rabbis are attributing virtuousness to Kimchit resulting in the reward of seven sons who became high priests—but these sons are disqualified from the priesthood and engage in inappropriate behavior, not to mention the fact that there is something questionable about their priestly line.
And so, I ask, why do the rabbis’ need to introduce a mother to teach this lesson of modesty, a woman who may not even be from a priestly family herself? Where is the father, who should have been highlighted in this story as a high priest himself?
More Difficulty for Kimchit:
Bavli Yoma 47a
The story in the Babylonian Talmud raises even more problems concerning Kimchit:
בבלי יומא דף מז ע”א
אמרו עליו על רבי ישמעאל בן קמחית: פעם אחת סיפר דברים עם ערבי אחד בשוק, ונתזה צינורא מפיו על בגדיו, ונכנס ישבב אחיו ושמש תחתיו, וראתה אמן שני כהנים גדולים ביום אחד.
ושוב אמרו עליו על רבי ישמעאל בן קמחית: פעם אחת יצא וסיפר עם הגמון אחד בשוק, ונתזה צינורא מפיו על בגדיו, ונכנס יוסף (עם) אחיו ושמש תחתיו, וראתה אמן שני כהנים גדולים ביום אחד.
תנו רבנן: שבעה בנים היו לה לקמחית וכולן שמשו בכהונה גדולה. אמרו לה חכמים: מה עשית שזכית לכך? – אמרה להם: מימי לא ראו קורות ביתי קלעי שערי. –
אמרו לה: הרבה עשו כן, ולא הועילו.
b. Yoma 47a
They said about Rabbi Yishmael, the son of Kimchit:16 Once, he conversed with an Arab in the market and a drop of saliva sprayed from [the Arab’s] mouth onto [Rabbi Yishmael’s] clothing [which rendered him impure for offering sacrifices in the temple]. And his brother, Yesheivav, entered and served as [the high priest] in his stead and their mother saw two [of her sons serve as] high priests on the same day!
They further stated about Rabbi Yishmael, the son of Kimchit: He once went out [of the temple] and conversed with a certain lord in the market and a drop of saliva sprayed from the [the lord’s] mouth onto [Rabbi Yishmael’s] garments and his brother Yosef entered and served as [the high priest] in his stead. And their mother saw two [of her sons serve as] high priests on the same day!
The Rabbis taught in a baraita: Kimchit had seven sons and all of them served in the position of the high priest.
They said to her: Many [women] did [not show their hair] and did not achieve [this level of honor].
Although the outlines of this story are similar to those in the Yerushalmi, it contains several telling differences. In this version of the story we find that Kimchit’s son, Yishmael, ventures outside the temple twice. The first time he is replaced by his brother, Yesheivav, and the second time by his brother, Yosef. Once again, the dialogue between priest and “Arab,” or priest and “lord,” is missing. The comparison of Kimchit to flour is also not here; and the prooftext from Psalms 45 supporting the notion that boundless virtue yields great sons is also absent.17 Instead, we have more of a direct interchange between the rabbis and Kimchit that ends with them challenging the very lesson she draws out from her experience as a mother of priests.
Kimchit Outside of the Confines of the Home
This version of the story presents a dialogue that seems to take place outside the boundaries of Kimchit’s home. Without the presence of her husband, she engages with a group of male rabbis in a scene that feels anything but modest and respectful. Indeed, we hear scornfulness in the rabbis’ response to her. The conclusion of the story, that plenty of women have acted similarly but have not received equal reward, raises questions about the significance of her modesty.18 It also questions whether Kimchit should even view her sons’ status as high priests as a reward for her own actions.
The rabbis’ mocking tone aimed at Kimchit casts aspersions not only on her motherhood, but also on the priesthood.19 Her blood relationship with her sons and her ability to birth many who all get a chance to serve as high priests offer the rabbis the opportunity to explore their concerns over the power of relationships formed through kinship rather than via Torah study and the achievement of Torah knowledge. Through Kimchit the rabbis reveal their anxieties about their relationship with the priests, a theme that surfaces in many places throughout tractate Yoma.20
That said by recognizing that the rabbis have constructed Kimchit both to laud her modesty on some level, but more so to challenge the connection of that modesty to the continuity and virtuousness of the high priesthood, we recognize the concern of the rabbis to assert their authority in the wake of the memory of a priesthood associated with their holy temple.
As Mieke Bal has argued, those responsible for the maintenance of patriarchal societies, like the rabbis, never admit to a patriarchy established with ease.”21 Kimchit highlights the need, on the part of the rabbis, to disempower not only the mothers of priests, but their priest sons as well in order to invent a well-deserved worthiness and sense of authority for themselves.
Retelling the Story of Kimchit: A Comment on the Contribution of Feminist Analysis
Feminist strategies of interpretation expose hierarchies and bring power dynamics to the fore. While it is true that the rabbis give Kimchit a voice regarding her modesty practices, we need to also ask why the rabbis connect her modesty to her serving as the mother of priest sons. This suggests that Kimchit is a literary foil; she brings to the surface a desire on the part of the rabbis to critique the priesthood, dependent as it is on body purity and a bloodline, as well as on the power of mothers (and not fathers nor rabbis) in raising sons worthy of praise.
And so, as a feminist reader with the goal of creating a more equal and compassionate society through the study of our ancient texts, I look to a text about Kimchit in order to think about the power dynamics of a rabbinic elite trying to assert their authority. Such readings expose the rabbis as men who engage in the process of “othering” not only women, but priests as well. In so doing, they become our “others,” that is, paradigms of behaviors we wish to resist.22
When we confront the challenges of negotiating with a patriarchy even in today’s world we should not justify relationships that are created on the basis of one dominating or discrediting another. To do so means we believe that the success of one person or group requires that we push others aside and, like the rabbis, we mock the ones whom we wish to control. I hope that uncovering this type of behavior in our sources produces more self-reflection regarding how we negotiate the limits posed by a patriarchy and the freedoms that become available if only we resist and reframe the models offered us.
- Susan Weiss, “Under Cover: Demystification of Women’s Head Covering in Jewish Law,” Nashim 17 (2009), p. 97. ↩
- According to b. Berakhot 24a, a woman’s hair is considered an enticement to men (ervah). Untamed, hair tempts men to commit sexual transgressions; for the rabbis, it is a sign of promiscuity. Female demons in rabbinic literature such as Lilith have long, uncovered hair, suggesting that a woman who runs about exposed, spreads evil (b. Eruvin 100b). See also m. Ketubot 7:6 where women who enter the bridal canopy without head coverings are presumed to be virgins, with marriage contracts (ketubot) valued at 200 zuz. See Susan Weiss, “Under Cover,” p. 94. ↩
- This article is part of a larger study of tractate b. Yoma where I rely on feminist hermeneutics to think about the agenda of the tractate as a whole. ↩
- Also see parallel sources in y. Megillah 1:10, 72a; y. Horayot 3:2, 47d and Vayikra Rabbah, Acharei Mot 20:11. ↩
- See for example, later collections of midrash such as Bemidbar Rabbah, Acharei Mot 2:26 and Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Acharei Mot 26:10; and commentators Rashi on b. Yoma 47a and Menachem ben Shlomo Meiri, Beit Habechirah, Yoma 47a where in their comments on the Bavli passage (47a) they highlight the lesson of Kimchit’s modesty by referring to Psalms 45:15, which is quoted in the Yerushalmi tradition and not in the Bavli version. ↩
- The parallel version in b. Yoma 47a does not include a reference to Yom Kippur. Still, most commentators including Rashi assume that the day was Yom Kippur. See also Meiri, Beit Habechirah, Yoma 47a. ↩
- Note that in b. Shabbat 118b the same is said about Rabbi Yose—“In all my days the beams of my house have never seen the seams of my tunic.” This, according to Rashi, was a way of describing the extreme modesty of Rabbi Yose. He would never simply undress and appear naked in his house. Rather, he would sit on the edge of his bed with the sheets around him before lifting up his tunic. See Rashi s.v. lo rau korot. ↩
- See Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: Exploration in Cosmology (New York: Vintage-Random House, 1973) where she equates body symbolism and social structures. Also see Natan Margalit, “Hair in TaNaKh: The Symbolism of Gender and Control,” Journal of the Association of Graduate Students in Near Eastern Studies, 5/2 (1995), p. 43. ↩
- See Margalit, 49. ↩
- See Vayikra Rabba (Margoliot edition), Acharei Mot, 20:11 where Rabbi Chiya bar Abba states that after Aaron died his son, Eleazar took over for him and after Eleazar’s death, his brother, took over for him setting up a hereditary framework regarding the priesthood. ↩
- The passive form of the verb for spraying suggests that the act was not one of malice. The king does not spit at Shim’on, he merely sprays saliva on him accidentally, while presumably trying to talk to him. Also note that y. Hagigah 3:8, 79d describes a similar type of incident in which a priest went out to speak to a woman about matters related to her nest offering. Some saliva spewed forth from her mouth and landed on the priest’s clothing, defiling him. Also see Dahlia Marx, “Women and Priests: Encounters and Dangers as Reflected in 1 Samuel 2:22,” Lectio Difficilior 1(2011): 12 where she discusses this source. ↩
- See m. Yoma 1:1 and the sugyot that comment on it both in the Bavli and Yerushalmi (ad loc). ↩
- Examples include a seminal emission or having sexual relations with his wife who might be menstruating. ↩
- See for example, b. Berakhot 16a, b. Shabbat 88b, b. Ta’anit 24b, b. Gittin 36b, and b. Bava Metzia 110a where Rav Mari is referred to as the son of Shmuel’s daughter. In other instances Rav Mari is also referred to as the son of Rachel–see b. Shabbat 124b, 154a, b. Yevamot 45b, 92b, b. Gittin 36b and b. Bava Metzia 73b. Rashi notes in his comment to b. Berakhot 16a (s.v. Berah devat Shmuel) that the daughter of Shmuel, Rachel, was abducted and raped by a non-Jewish man named, Issur. She became pregnant from that union. Although Issur converted before Rav Mari was born, the union between Rachel and Issur was not considered a holy union. For this reason, Rav Mari was referred to in the name of his mother, that is, in the name of the parent who had a purer Jewish lineage. ↩
- See Shmuel Eliezer Edels (Maharsha), Chidushei Aggadot, Yoma 47a. He too was bothered by the lack of patronymic and argues that Kimchit’s son, Yishmael, mentioned in the Bavli version had a father who was named Pabi. Also see y. Yoma 3:6 (40b); b. Yoma 9a; and b. Yoma 35b where this priest is recorded as the father of Yishmael. ↩
- Note that the parallel version of this source found in y. Megillah 1:10 (72a) and y. Horayot 3:2 (47d) claims the high priest to have been Shim’on, the son of Kimchit and not Yishmael. The brother that replaces Shim’on is Yehudah and not Yosef or Yesheivav. Also note that the version quoted above from the Bavli attaches the title “Rav” or “rabbi” to Yishmael’s name despite the fact that he is the high priest. This is an effort on the part of the redactors of the Babylonian Talmud to rabbinize the priesthood and to claim its priests as rabbis as well. See Marjorie Lehman, “Dressing and Undressing the High Priest: A View of Talmudic Mothers,” Nashim 26 (2014), p. 74, n. 78. ↩
- Rashi, s.v. Lo ra-u korot beiti, cites the parallel verse (found in y. Yoma 1:1; 38d) from Psalms 45:15 that is missing here in order to explain the end of the dialogue between Kimchit and the rabbis. ↩
- In this same talmudic passage (b. Yoma 47a), immediately prior to presenting the story of Kimchit and Yishmael, we find Yishmael defending his lineage by attributing his large hands, needed for scooping up great amounts of incense, and his physical strength, required for lifting the shovel of hot coals in the temple, to his mother’s decision to eat large amounts of zarid, a type of porridge made from broken wheat that was believed to be eaten by pregnant women to fortify their offspring (See Rashi). But, to undo the association of Yishmael with his mother, the rabbis immediately suggest that Yishmael attributed his strength to arsan, the semen of his father from which he was formed. ↩
- Bal, Lethal Love, 68. ↩
- For more references to this phenomenon in Yoma see my articles—Marjorie Lehman. “Dressing and Undressing the High Priest: A View of Talmudic Mothers,” Nashim, 26 (2014): 52—74; “Imagining the Priesthood in Tractate Yoma: Mishnah Yoma 2: 1–2 and BT Yoma 23a” Nashim, 28 (2015): 88—105; “Rabbinic Masculinities: Reading the Ba’al Keri in Tractate Yoma,” Jewish Studies Quarterly, 22 (2015): 109–36. ↩
- Mieke Bal, Lethal Love: Feminist Literary Readings of Biblical Love Stories (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 3. ↩
- Sarra Lev, “Talmud that Works Your Heart: New Approaches to Reading,” in Learning to Read Talmud: What It Looks Like and How It Happens, eds. Jane L. Kanarek and Marjorie Lehman (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2016), pp. 175-178. ↩