June 10, 2022

Yevamot 77

One of the most frequently quoted verses in Orthodox girls’ schools and Seminaries are the words of Tehillim 45:14: כָּל כְּבוּדָּה בַת מֶלֶךְ פְּנִימָה מִמִּשְׁבְּצוֹת זָהָב לְבוּשָׁהּ which, though explained in many different ways, is generally translated to mean something like: ‘all the honour of the princess is within; she wears clothes embroidered with gold’.
Significantly, this verse is often quoted to describe the expected manners of, in some instances, the expected modes of dress of, ‘nice Jewish girls’. However, it is noteworthy that this verse is quoted in today’s daf (Yevamot 77a) as a prooftext by the Babylonian scholars to justify why the Amonite and Moabite women did not bring food and water to Bnei Yisrael as they travelled through the desert – which suggests that this verse has little to do with ‘Jewish’ values, per se. Instead, it seemingly speaks of certain cultural norms or the general reluctance of women to serve food to strangers and, specifically, to men that they do not know.
Alternatively, a different approach is offered by the scholars in Israel who claim that the justification for why the Amonite and Moabite women did not bring food and water to Bnei Yisrael was learnt from our matriarch Sara who did not bring out food and water from her tent to the three passersby who were, ultimately, men whom she did not know. What this suggests is that the cultural norm adopted by the Amonite and Moabite women was initially learnt from the actions of Sara.
Having explained all this I believe that there are a number of important lessons we can learn:
Firstly, those who adopted what they understood to be the lifestyle of כָּל כְּבוּדָּה בַת מֶלֶךְ פְּנִימָה did so autonomously. They were not told, and certainly not ‘policed’, to act in that way.
Secondly, while it could be argued that it is inadvisable – for reasons of personal safety – for women to offer strange men food and drink especially when they are in a vulnerable location, this does not mean that כָּל כְּבוּדָּה בַת מֶלֶךְ פְּנִימָה can or should be invoked to justify or to restrict women from doing things which are in their personal interest and for their own personal and financial security.
And finally, there are numerous moments in the Tanach, such as the period of the judges when Devorah delivered public pronouncements to the people, or the encounter between Ruth and Boaz in his field, which became profoundly positive turning points in Jewish history and which, according to the way כָּל כְּבוּדָּה בַת מֶלֶךְ פְּנִימָה is often interpreted today, would be deemed as being risqué, inappropriate and would have been protested at the time by self-proclaimed modesty zealots.
Of course, we should do what we can for the sake of personal safety. Still, there is a big difference between quoting a verse, explaining it, and using it to restrict people from a life they wish to lead. And unfortunately, all too often, this is how this verse is misused.
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