Copyright © 2012 by Gary Konecky

By Gary Konecky

One of the most fascinating and least understood variations of the human condition is gender.  As difficult as it is for some people to understand (or come to terms with) sexual orientation in all its many variations, gender is even more challenging for some people. 

Therefore, we are going to deal with the traditional Jewish approach to issues of gender involving people whose gender cannot (repeat cannot) be determined with certainty.  Our society teaches us that there are only two genders, male and females, and that all human beings are either one or the other.  We will soon discover that nothing could be further from the truth. 

Before we start our discussion, we need to cover one additional point:  According to the Jewish tradition, Jews are obligated to fulfill the 613 commandments that were given during the revelation at Mount Sinai.   

With these thoughts in mind, we come to the wisdom and insights of the sages of the Mishnah (completed in the year 189 CE) and Talmud (completed in the year 475 CE). 

The sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud dealt with a fascinating problem.  Many of the commandments that G-d gave the Jewish people at Mount Sinai are gender specific.  The following are just several examples of commandments that are binding on adult males:

·        The commandment to recite the Shema (note 1) twice a day

·        The commandment to dwell in a sukkah (note 2)

·        The commandment to wear tzizith (note 3) is

·        The commandment to wear tefillin (note 4)

·        The commandment to hear the shofar being blown (note 5)

·        The commandment to make the pilgrimage to the Temple (note 6).

Having mentioned commandments that are binding on adult males, it is important to note that there are also commandments that are specifically binding on adult females as well.

Having mentioned that many of the commandments are gender specific; we now come to the issue of gender and it variations; male and female, tumtum, and androgynous (hermaphrodite).  One of the monumental works explaining Jewish religious law is the Mishneh Torah, which was written by the great Jewish sage Maimonides.  This impressive set of books distills thousands of pages of Talmudic discussion down to a massive collection of conclusions reached by the Talmudic sages, conclusions that are the basis of Jewish religious law. 

The Mishneh Torah teaches us:

A person who possesses both a male sexual organ and a female sexual organ is called an androgynous. There is doubt whether such a person should be classified as a male or as a female; there is no physical sign that can ever enable such a distinction to be made. - Mishneh Torah by Maimonides - Ishut » Chapter Two Halacha 24

A person who possesses neither a male sexual organ nor a female sexual organ, but instead, his genital area is a solid mass, is called a tumtum. There is also doubt with regard [to this person's status]. If an operation is carried out and a male [organ is revealed], he is definitely considered to be a male. If a female [organ is revealed], she is definitely considered to be a female. - Mishneh Torah by Maimonides - Ishut » Chapter Two Halacha 25

With these definitions in mind, let us now look at a Mishnah (Bikkurim, Chapter 4):


The Talmud (Yevamoth 83a) tells us:

For it was taught: R. Jose stated, ‘The hermaphrodite is a creature sui generis, and the Sages did not determine whether he is a male or a female’…

            At the school of Rab it was stated in the name of Rab that the halachah is in agreement with R. Jose in respect of the hermaphrodite…

As discussed in part seven of this series, Adam (prior to the creation of Eve) was a hermaphrodite, for a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 8:1) tells us:

… R. Jeremiah b. Leazar said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, created Adam, He created him an hermaphrodite [bi-sexual], (2) for it is said, Male and female created He them and called their name Adam (Gen.V, 2). (3) R. Samuel b. Nahman said: When the Lord created Adam He created him double-faced, then He split him and made him of two backs, one back on this side and one back on the other side. To this it is objected: But it is written, And He took one of his ribs, etc. (Gen. II, 21)? (4) [Mi-zalothaw means] one of his sides, replied he, as you read, And for the second side (zela’) of the tabernacle, etc. (Ex.XXVI 20)…

(2) Normally androgynos means one whose genitals are male and female; but here it means two bodies, male and female, joined together.

(3) Thus Adam himself was originally male and female.

(4) This certainly implies that woman was a separate creation.

It is interesting to note that the rabbis in this discussion are exploring not if Adam was male and female, but how Adam was male and female.  The only point of disagreement is that of the unnamed person who is concerned because the plain text of the bible mentions rib and not side.  Rabbi Samuel b. Nahman addresses this concern by explaining how the Hebrew word used can mean rib or side.  Rabbi Samuel b. Nahman explains this by citing the use of the same Hebrew root word (zela’) as used to mean side in Exodus 26:20 as his proof.  Rabbi Samuel b. Nahman having rebutted this unknown person’s challenge; the conclusion of the rabbis’ that Adam was originally male and female stands.

Additionally, some commandments may be fulfilled with the assistance of another person.  For example, not everyone knows how to blow the shofar (note 5).  This brings up an important question; can someone who is obligated to fulfill a specific commandment fulfill it with the assistance of someone not obligated in that commandment? 

To answer this question, we will again return to the Mishneh Torah and our previous example involving the commandment that adult Jewish males are obligated to hear the Shofar being blown:

Whoever is not [himself] obligated regarding this matter cannot facilitate the performance of the mitzvah for one who is obligated. Thus, if a woman or a minor blows the shofar, one who hears does not fulfill his obligation.

An androgynous can facilitate the performance of the mitzvah for one of his kind, but not for one who is not of his kind. A tumtum cannot facilitate the performance of the mitzvah [for anyone], whether of his kind or not of his kind, for if [the layer of skin covering] the tumtum's [genitalia] is cut open, it is possible that it will be discovered that the tumtum is a male, but it is possible that it will be discovered that the tumtum is a female. - Mishneh Torah by Maimonides –Shofar » Chapter 2 Halacha 2              

The source for Maimonides statement is the Talmud (Rosh HaShana 29a).

It is important to note that the 613 commandments that Jews are obligated to fulfill cover every aspect of life, from one’s birth to one’s death. The laws cover food, clothing, prayer, ritual purity, sexual activity, charity, acts of kindness, mourning, inheritance, etc

Given the comprehensiveness of Jewish religious law, and that many of these laws are gender specific, it should come as no surprise that the tumtum and androgynous are discussed numerous times, shofar just being a single example.  The question that intrigues me is:  Why did the sages spend so much time discussing what had to be an extremely small percentage of the entire Jewish nation?  My best guess is that the sages understood that these people were unique members of the community, and that if they were to be integrated into the community, and to be welcomed into the community, then a place had to be found for them in the community.  For the Talmud (Berachoth 19b, Menachoth 37b, Shabbath 81b) tells us:  “Great is human dignity, since it overrides a negative precept of the Torah.”  Therefore, my best guess is that as the sages knew they had to preserve the dignity of these unique people, for that dignity is great.


(1)    “The Shema is an affirmation of Judaism and a declaration of faith in one God. The obligation to recite the Shema is separate from the obligation to pray and a Jew is obligated to say Shema in the morning and at night (Deut. 6:7)”

(2)  “You will dwell in booths for seven days; all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths. -Leviticus 23:42

In honor of the holiday's historical significance, we are commanded to dwell in temporary shelters, as our ancestors did in the wilderness. The temporary shelter is referred to as a sukkah.”

(3)  “Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make throughout their generations fringes (tizzy) in the corners of their garments (Numbers 15:38).“

(4)    “Tefillin are two small black boxes with black straps attached to them; Jewish men are required to place one box on their head and tie the other one on their arm each weekday morning. Tefillin are biblical in origin, and are commanded within the context of several laws outlining a Jew's relationship to God. ‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a frontlet between your eyes’ (Deuteronomy 6:5-8)”

(5)  “A shofar is an instrument made from the horn of a ram or other kosher animal. It was used in ancient Israel to announce the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh) and call people together. It was also blown on Rosh Hashanah, marking the beginning of the New Year, signifying both need to wake up to the call to repentance, and in connection with the portion read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Binding of Isaac (Genesis, chapter 22) in which Abraham sacrifices a ram in place of his son, Isaac.

Today, the shofar is featured most prominently in the Rosh Hashanah morning services. It is considered a commandment to hear the shofar blown.”

(6)  “According to the Torah, God commanded the Israelites: ‘Three times a year shall all your men appear before the Lord your God in the place that God will choose [referring presumably to the Temple in Jerusalem], on the festivals of Pesah (Passover), Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), and Sukkot (the Festival of Booths). They shall not appear empty handed. Each shall bring his own gift, appropriate to the blessing which the Lord your God has given you’ (Deuteronomy 16:16).”      

Sources (not cited above):

The Soncino Talmud, Judaic Classics by David Kantrowitz, Version 3.0.8, Copyright 1991-2004, Davka Corporation. 

The Soncino Midrash Rabbah, Judaic Classics by David Kantrowitz, Version 3.0.8, Copyright 1991-2004, Davka Corporation. 

An English translation of the Mishneh Torah can be found at:

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