Are Men and Women Equal in Judaism?

Dear Jew in the City,

According to verses in Vayikra, how do we understand men and women having a different value?




Dear MM,

Thanks for your question. What you’re talking about is parshas Bechukosai, the last parsha in sefer Vayikra (the book of Leviticus). Most of the parsha is dedicated to the tochacha – i.e., “the rebuke” – which describes what will happen to us if we don’t follow Hashem’s Torah. The very last chapter of the book, however – chapter 27 – deals with various kinds of donations that one might accept upon himself as an obligation. One of these is “erchin,” the valuations of different kinds of people. (In Hebrew, the plural of erech would be “arachim” but the tractate addressing this topic is typically referred to as “Erchin,” reflecting Aramaic grammar.)

One might accept upon his or her self to donate their own valuation or that of another person. If one does, the amount he or she owes depends on whose valuation they committed. According to verses 3-7:

The value of a male from 20 years old to 60 years old, his valuation shall be 50 silver shekels of the holy shekel, and if it is a female, the valuation is 30 shekels. And if from five years old to 20 years old, the valuation of a male is 20 shekels, and for a female ten shekels. And if from one month to five years, the valuation for a male will be five shekels of silver, and for a female the valuation three shekels of silver. And if from 60 years old and higher, if male the valuation shall be 15 shekels, and for a female ten shekels.

While the ratios may differ (5:3, 2:1 or 3:2), one fact consistently holds true: the valuation of men is invariably higher than that of women the same age. To what can we attribute this? The answer can be found in the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and in the US Tax Code. Let’s look at the latter first.

IRS Tax Topics #551 deals with the standard deduction. It says:

The standard deduction is a specific dollar amount that reduces the amount of income on which you’re taxed. Your standard deduction consists of the sum of the basic standard deduction and any additional standard deduction amounts for age and/or blindness. In general, the standard deduction is adjusted each year for inflation and varies according to your filing status, whether you’re 65 or older and/or blind, and whether another taxpayer can claim you as a dependent. The standard deduction isn’t available to certain taxpayers. You can’t take the standard deduction if you itemize your deductions. 

You can add up all your medical bills, business expenses, charitable donations, etc. If you do, that’s called “itemized deductions.” But maybe you didn’t keep your receipts. Or maybe you’re too lazy to do all the math. For whatever reason, a person can choose to take the standard deduction. In 2021, the standard deduction was $12,950 ($25,900 for a married couple). This can be more or less than a person’s actual expenses. If you were perfectly healthy, worked from home and were particularly miserly, your actual medical, business and charitable expenses might be zilch but you can still take the standard deduction. The standard deduction is based on certain generalized assumptions, which may not be true in all cases.

Now let’s look at the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. In Hilchos Arachim vaCharamim (1:9), he writes:

Damim are not like erchin. For example, one who says, “I pledge my actual worth,” “I pledge that guy’s actual worth” or “I pledge so-and-so’s actual worth”… he pays what that person would be worth if he were sold as a servant in the marketplace, whether it’s one dinar or 1,000 dinar.

Damim is another kind of commitment one might make; this one is like itemizing deductions. Calculations are made and the actual amount changes hands. Erchin is like taking the standard deduction – there’s a fixed rate, adjusted based not on blindness, income bracket or marital status, but solely on age. 

Since erchin is a “standard deduction,” certain assumptions are made. Generally speaking, a healthy, attractive 30-year-old male would sell for more than a healthy, attractive 30-year-old female because of a simple fact: men can generally perform more labor than women. The “standard deduction” reflects the norm. If you pledge the valuation of a 30-year-old-man, you would pay 50 silver shekels based on the general rule; this is so even if the man in question is a leper or missing a limb. But when calculating damim – the “itemized deduction” – a healthy, attractive 30-year-old woman would likely be valued at a higher rate than an unhealthy or unattractive 30-year-old man.

Let me ask you this: if your medical expenses are $0 this year, would you itemize your deductions next year because the standard deduction is “unfair?” Are you offended that the tax code makes certain assumptions that may not reflect everyone’s situation? Of course not! You’re happy to have the option! Similarly, there’s no reason to be offended that the Torah offers a simple procedure that reflects the general situation. If a person were so keen to pay a specific amount, then he could always pledge damim.

One final question: why does the Torah even tell us all this? Well, the Sefer HaChinuch tells us that the lesson of this mitzvah is to teach us the power of our words. We make a verbal statement and it becomes an obligation upon us. Not only that, based on one’s choice of words the appropriate amount of money becomes consecrated to God. That’s a pretty powerful lesson but why teach it here and like this?

Remember what I said earlier? Leviticus chapter 26 is the tochacha (the rebuke). The last words of the chapter are “These are the statutes, ordinances, and laws that Hashem gave, between Him and between the children of Israel, on Mount Sinai by the hand of Moshe.” Rabbi Menachem Leibtag notes that this would make a fitting conclusion to the book, so why not just stop there? And why continue with erchin?

Why we don’t stop there is easy: we never like to end on a negative note and the tochacha is the most negative note of all. But why end with erchinErchin is unique in that it’s not a mitzvah that God commands us; it’s a mitzvah that one obligates upon himself. After a book focused on our communal obligations, sefer Vayikra concludes by highlighting the individual’s special relationship with God. We may not fully understand all the details of this mitzvah but all in all, it’s actually very empowering.


Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent

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