The third Book of the Torah, Leviticus (Vayikra), begins with a description of the olah (the burnt offering) brought by an individual Israelite. Just before the offering of the animal, it is said: “You [the offerer] shall lay a hand upon the head of the burnt offering, that it may be acceptable in your behalf, in expiation for you” (Leviticus 1:4).
As a vegetarian and a Reform rabbi, I must admit that the laying on of hands on the offering feels somewhat challenging. But if I consider this ritual in its original context, I learn that it was very significant for the individual in the cultic culture of the Temple: it established a special connection between the offerer and the offered animal.1 The visceral contact with the animal just before its slaughtering, enhanced a symbolic identification between the offerers and their offering. It also meant that the Israelite, the lay person, got to actively participate in the offering process, which other than that was reserved to the priests. Therefore, we may conclude that this was a very important ritual, and that it was perceived as the ultimate act of atonement and transference of the offerer’s sins to the offered animal.
Who was obliged (or entitled) to the laying on of the hands? The Torah says: “Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When any person [ adam] of you presents an offering . . . ” (Leviticus 1:2). This seems to include all of the people of Israel, and those who are associated with or living among Israelites. Yet the Mishnah says: “All may perform the laying on of hands excepting a deaf-mute, an imbecile, a minor, a blind man, a gentile, a slave, an agent, or a woman” (M’nachot 9:8). This set of exclusions is rather unexpected: the list of people who are not entitled to the laying of the hands includes atypical categories of people, and it only mentions women at the very end.
The exclusions seem to be a later rabbinic innovation compared to the inclusive language used in the Book of Leviticus to describe the laying on of the hands. In this way, although women were welcomed in the Temple and were allowed (and sometimes required) to bring their own offerings, they were deprived from an essential aspect of the offering ritual. Nevertheless, at least some tannaitic sages argue that women were allowed to do so, and one sage testifies to a case where women actually did lay their hands on their offering:
“The sons2 of Israel lay on the hands [on their animal offering] but the daughters of Israel do not lay on the hands. Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Simeon say: The daughters of Israel are permitted to lay [the hands on the sacrificial animal]. Rabbi Yosi said: Abba Eleazar told me: Once we had a calf which was [designated to be offered as] a peace [whole] offering and we brought it to the Women’s Court, and the women laid the hand on it, not because women are required to lay hands but in order to gratify the women” (Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 16b; also Sifra, Vayikra Dibbura D'nedavah Parashah 2:2).
The anonymous ruling determining that women do not lay their hands is challenged by Rabbi Yosi who maintains that women are allowed to lay their hands on the sacrifice. He quotes Abba Eleazar, who witnessed the laying on of hands by women, but only in order to cause them nachat ruach (gratification) and not necessarily to fulfill a religious commandment.
Whether laying on of the hands by women was considered halachically satisfying or whether it had only an emotional but no halachic significance, whether it was a frequent occurrence or a unique event, we witness here an attentive approach to the religious feelings of women, a consideration of their need to have a tangible part in the offering process and a genuine effort to accommodate these needs. No less important, nachat ruach (or as we say in Yiddish, naches), the “gratification” of women serves here as a halachic argument. If there was indeed any substantial prohibition for women to lay their hands on the offering, it would have prevailed over the argument of gratifying the women.
The exclusion of women from laying on of the hands in the Rabbinic literature may serve as a test case for a very subjective and perhaps biased understanding of the Torah (after all, what reading is not subjective and somewhat biased?). And yet, the Rabbinic literature itself opens a window for us to other considerations and teaches us that our sources can be read in more than one way. In our time, when some people claim to have the only “true” understanding of our canonical texts, it is our duty, more than ever before, to be attentive to the many facets and the many voices of our tradition and to our obligation redeem the many voices often neglected in our texts.
1. Laying on of the hands is found in many contexts in the Hebrew Bible. It usually concerns blessing (Genesis48:13-20), guilt (Leviticus16:20-21), or authority (Numbers27:15-23). Most of the individual animal offerings require the offerers to lay their hands on the head of the sacrificial beast (Numbers 8:10-11)
2. Here, the Mishnah understands the phrase B’nai Yisrael to mean “the sons”—not “the children”—of Israel, as it often does.
Rabbi Dalia Marx is an associate professor of liturgy and Midrash at the Jerusalem campus of HUC-JIR. Her new book is Tractates Tamid, Middot and Qinnim: A Feminist Commentary, published by Mohr Siebeck.