Kimchit’s Head Covering: Between Rabbis and Priests
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.”
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.
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.
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) 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. 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
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 Kippur 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.
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
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).”
אמרון כל קימחיא קמח וקמחא דקמחית סולת וקרון עלה כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה ממשבצות זהב לבושה
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. 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.
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.
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, 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
b. Yoma 47a They said about Rabbi Yishmael, the son of Kimchit: 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!
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.
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!
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. –
The Rabbis taught in a baraita: Kimchit had seven sons and all of them served in the position of the high priest. The sages said to her: What did you do to merit this? She replied: In all my days, the beams of my house did not see the braids of my hair.
אמרו לה: הרבה עשו כן, ולא הועילו.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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.” 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.
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.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
Dr. Marjorie Lehman recently co-edited Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues (28, 2015) in honor of Judith Hauptman, a volume focused on writing feminist commentary on the Babylonian Talmud. Dr. Lehman is writing a feminist commentary on Massekhet Yoma. She has also just completed co-editing two books, one with Jane Kanarek and the other with Simon Bronner and Jane Kanarek, Learning to Read Talmud: What it Looks Like and How It Happens (Academic Studies Press) and Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination (Littman Press). Developed along with Michelle Chesner, Adam Shear, and Josh Teplitsky, their cutting-edge digital humanities project, Footprints, tracks the movement of copies of Jewish books through time and space and promises to change the way research is done on the history of Jewish books. Her first book, The En Yaaqov: Jacob Ibn Habib’s Search for Faith in the Talmudic Corpus was published by Wayne State University Press (2012).
Essays on Related Topics: