Women Behind the Wheel

The internet is currently aflame with debate over (just fired) Google engineer James Damore’s “anti-diversity” memo or manifesto (Gizmodo; Motherboard; Medium), containing the incendiary suggestion that:

Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership.

and the corollary that:

Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.1

This post considers one of the most curious instances of an apparent Talmudic assumption of a “difference in distribution” of a particular characteristic between men and women (although as we shall see, the nature of the characteristic in question is unclear), and its concomitant halachic significance.

The Talmud rules:

ת”ר השוכר את החמור לרכוב עליה איש לא תרכב עליה אשה אשה רוכב עליה איש ואשה בין גדולה ובין קטנה אפילו מעוברת ואפילו מניקה2
בבא מציעא עט:‏

The clear implication is that female riders place more strain, or cause more wear, on donkeys than do male ones, although the Talmud, and (so far as I am aware) the medieval commentaries, are silent as to exactly why this is the case. The Sema gives the startling interpretation that “[a woman] is heavier [than a man]”:

לא ירכיב עליה אשה. שהיא כבידה:3

This explanation is problematic, on two counts. Firstly:

“Males weigh about 15% more than females, on average. For those older than 20 years of age, males in the US have an average weight of 86.1 kg (190 lbs), whereas females have an average weight of 74 kg (163 lbs).”

It is possible (actually, very probable) that this is at least somewhat culturally dependent. Even if we assume that there’s a natural, inherent disparity in average weight between men and women, this can surely be affected by factors in which cultural variations between genders exist, and vary across societies and eras, such as diet, physical activity and aesthetic preferences about body image. Perhaps, then, in the Talmudic era women actually were heavier, on average, than men, even though this is not the case today. [We know, after all, that women of that period actually preferred to look “fleshy”4, in stark contrast to the modern Thin Ideal.] If this is the case, however, we would expect poskim to note that these halachos do not apply, or actually apply in reverse, in contemporary times.

Secondly, even if we do assume that women of the Talmudic era were indeed heavier than men, this was presumably only true of the average, but surely there were many men who weighed more than many women. Since one who rents his donkey for use by a man is (presumably – see below) willing to allow any man to ride it, he should also be presumed to allow those women who weigh less than men to ride it. To this we can counter that the halachah establishes general rules, even if they sometimes result in illogical consequences. Since in general women are (or were) heavier than men, we presume that one who rents his donkey for use by a man means to limit it to such use, even though some of the allowed riders will be heavier than some of the disallowed ones.

In any event, this second objection was raised by the eighteenth century Italian Rav David Pardo:

ובטעמא דלא ירכיב אשה לא פירש”י ולא מידי ובחו”מ סימן הנזכר פירש הסמ”ע לפי שהיא כבידה ואני שמעתי ולא אבין מאי פסקא דאטו לא משכחת איש גדול ושמן ואשה קטנה וכחושה ואפילו הכי סתמא תנא לא ירכיב אשה אפילו קטנה

ונראה דהאי טעמא משום דסתם אשה אינה בקיאה ברכיבה ואינה יודעת וגם אינה בת דעת כל כך להשגיח להנהיגו יפה בדרך כבושה ושמא יתקלקל בהליכתו בדרך עקלתון או כיוצא בזה וכן נראה שהבין ריב”א הביאו המרדכי בפרק הנזכר וז”ל

פסק ריב”א דכל שכן אם הרכיב עליו גוי דגרע מאשה כי אינו חס על ממונו של ישראל ע”כ

מזה נראה דאשה נמי מהאי טעמא הוא לפי שאין לה דעת להקפיד ולהשגיח לחוס עליו שלא יוזק ומשום הכי אתי שפיר דאשה מרכיב עליה איש ואפילו גדול וכבד דהא מדקאמר אשה סתם היה יכול להרכיב אפילו גדולה וכבדה ביותר אם כן כשמרכיב איש על כל פנים עלויי קא מעלי ליה מטעמא דאמרן …5

In other words, R. Pardo understands that women are poorer drivers than men: they are less proficient, and have inferior judgment.

A major ramification of the varying interpretations of the Sema and R. Pardo is the halachah’s relevance to automobile rentals. According to the Sema, it would presumably not apply, since the relatively minor weight difference between males and females is insignificant in the context of automobiles. According to R. Pardo, however, the situation is less clear. Conventional wisdom stereotypes women as bad drivers, but the evidence is actually somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, the statistics show that in general, male drivers cause more accidents than do female drivers. But on the other hand, this may be wholly or partially due to the fact that the former drive far more than the latter. Furthermore, at least one famous study found that women are actually overrepresented in certain types of crashes (although exactly why this is so is not entirely clear, and may even be caused by “common stereotypical expectations” that the drivers have of each other):

While men and women often disagree about which gender has better driving skills, a new study by the University of Michigan may shed some light on the debate.

Using data from a nationally representative sample of police-reported crashes from 1988 to 2007, Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the U-M Transportation Research Institute studied the gender effects in six different crash scenarios (based on crash angles, direction of approach and speed). These two-vehicle crash scenarios included various maneuvers in which one vehicle turned in front of the other, one vehicle side-swiped the other or both vehicles collided head-on. …

Sivak and Schoettle compared the actual frequencies of different combinations of involved male and female drivers in the six crash scenarios with the expected frequencies if there were no gender differences. The expected frequencies were based on annual distance driven for personal travel by male and female drivers. Because men drive about 60 percent of those annual miles and women drive 40 percent, men are expected to be involved in a higher percentage of crashes for each scenario, road conditions and driving skills being equal.

But the researchers found that crashes involving two female drivers were overrepresented in five of the six crash scenarios, including two by at least 50 percent more and two others by more than 25 percent greater than what was expected. On the other hand, crashes involving two male drivers were underrepresented in four of the six scenarios, including two by more than 20 percent and another by just less than 20 percent. In crash scenarios involving both male and female drivers, actual frequencies tended to be close to the expected frequencies.

“The results indicate that in certain crash scenarios, male-to-male crashes tend to be underrepresented and female-to-female crashes tend to be overrepresented,” Sivak said.

“This pattern of results could be due to either differential gender exposure to the different scenarios, differential gender capabilities to handle specific scenarios or differential expectations of actions by other drivers based on their gender.”

In all, success in handling on-road conflicts depends not only on psychomotor ability but also on the outcome of complex social interactions between traffic participants. In turn, these interactions are influenced by expectations based on prior experience “and a set of common stereotypical expectations that drivers have concerning the behavior of male and female drivers.”

A mini-haburah that I delivered a couple of years ago (partially) on this topic is available at the Internet Archive. A follow-up post will, בג”ה, deal with the propriety of women driving in general, beyond the context of rented conveyances.

  1. This controversy is reminiscent of the one of a decade ago over Larry Summer’s hypothesis (inter alia) that “different availability of aptitude at the high end” may explain “the very substantial disparities … with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions.” []
  2. בבא מציעא עט:‏ []
  3. סמ”ע ריש סימן ש”ח []
  4. שבת ריש נז:‏ []
  5. חסדי דוד (חלק שני) שם פרק ד’ (עמוד לג.) ד”ה השוכר את החמור להרכיב איש []

What’s In A Name?

My weekly lectures (available at the Internet Archive) and column for this past פרשת במדבר discussed the legitimacy of the use of non-Jewish names by Jews:

In parashas Bemidbar (1:2), Hashem commands Moshe to count the Jews “with the number of their names”. The Sforno explains that this census (as opposed to the one at the end of chumash Bemidbar) included their names, since everyone from that generation had names that alluded to their personal nature, a distinction that the subsequent generation did not possess.

Elsewhere (Bereishis 29:35), the Sforno opines that the names that Yaakov Avinu’s wives chose for their children were not invented by them, but were preexisting names that they chose due to their linguistic applicability to their personal circumstances.

According to the Sforno, then, Biblical names were not necessarily natively Jewish. The Talmud itself contains a similar opinion about the name Esther. According to one view, Esther’s true name was Hadassah, while Esther was the name that the “nations of the world” called her, alluding to “Istahar” (Megilah 13a), meaning either the moon (Rashi), or the planet Venus (Yaavetz, Targum Sheni Megilah 2:7).

This etymology of the name Esther as being of non-Jewish origin has an important ramification for the law of gittin (bills of divorce). A fundamental dichotomy in these laws exists between “Jewish” and “non-Jewish” names, with different rules applying to how they are written in a get, and the question arises as to how to categorize a name like “Alexander”: on the one hand, it is certainly of Greek, and not Jewish, origin, but on the other hand, it was already a common Jewish name in the Talmudic era. One of the classic works on the laws governing the writing of names in gittin, the Get Mesudar (Mavo Shearim, Pesher Davar #2), rules in favor of the view that “Alexander” is treated as a Jewish name, for “even the name Esther did not sprout from holy ground, for it is from the Persian language … but it is nevertheless considered a Hebrew name since it had become common among Jews back when they still spoke the Holy Tongue, and it is also written in the Holy Scriptures, and so too Alexander and similar [names]”.

[We have previously discussed Esther / Istahar / Venus / Ishtar here.]

The earliest halachic discussion of this basic topic of which I am aware is that of Rav Shmuel de Medina (Rashdam):

שאלה אלו האנוסים שבאים מפורטוגל והיו להם שמות כשמות הגוים ואחר שבאו לבקש את ד’ ואת תורתו משנים שמם לשמות בני ישראל ויש להם צורך לכתוב ממקום אשר הם יושבים ביהדותם אל המקום אשר היה להם שמות כשמות הגוים אם לקרוביהם ואם למי שנושא ונתון ממונם אם יכולים לכתוב ולשנות שמם כשמות אשר היו להם בגיותם או אם יש חשש איסור בדבר מפני שנראה מקיים היותו עדין גוי ובלתי מודה בתורת ד’

תשובה אמת כי מדת חסידות לא קאמינא דודאי מדת חסידות הוא להרחיק האדם עצמו בכל מיני הרחקות שאיפשר ובפרט למי שעברו על ראשו המים הזדונים אכן מן הדין נראה בעיני דבר ברור שאין בזה חשש איסור כלל

[ועיין שם שהאריך להוכיח להתיר, ובתוך דבריו כתב:] שמות הגוים אינם אסורים ליהודים וראיה לדבר דאמרינן בגיטין פ’ א’ [פרק א’] … ולא תימא דוקא שמות הרגילים ישראל וגוים יחד אבל שמות מובהקים לגוים לא שהרי מתוך דברי הרא”ש משמע בפירוש שהיו ישראלים נקראים כשמות מובהקים של גוים …1

[I am always struck by Rashdam’s use of the idiom “שעברו על ראשו המים הזדונים” to refer to baptism …]

And while we’re on the topic of the names of Yaakov’s children, I’ll take the opportunity to cite Hizkuni’s utterly charming interpretation2 of Leah’s declaration, upon the birth of her third child, that “הַפַּעַם יִלָּוֶה אִישִׁי אֵלַי כִּי יָלַדְתִּי לוֹ שְׁלֹשָׁה בָנִים”: a woman can manage two children with her two hands, but requires her husband’s help once her offspring number three!

עד עכשיו הייתי מנהלת שני בני בשתי ידי ועכשיו שנולד לו בן שלישי יצטרך אישי לסייע לי לנהלם:3

  1. שו”ת מהרשד”ם יו”ד סימן קצ”ט []
  2. Recently brought to my attention by my friend Y.Z. []
  3. חזקוני, בראשית כט:לד []

Fair Dealing and Fraud

My weekly lectures (available at the Internet Archive) and column for this past פרשת בהר discussed the laws of אונאה:

In parashas Behar, the Torah commands (25:14): “And if thou sell ought unto thy neighbour, or buyest ought of thy neighbour’s hand, ye shall not oppress [or ‘aggrieve’] one another.” The Talmud (Bava Metzia 51a, 58b) explains that this refers to onaas mamon, i.e., the mispricing of goods in a sale: a seller may not overcharge a buyer, and a buyer may not underpay a seller.

Onaah applies where the price paid is above or below the merchandise’s ‘correct’ price; it is not entirely clear, however, how to define this ‘correct’ price. The Talmud and early sources apparently take for granted that any particular merchandise has a well defined price, and it seems that there was typically little or no variation in price between vendors (but see Aruch Ha’Shulchan CM 227:7). In contemporary markets, however, merchandise is typically sold at a variety of different prices by different vendors; what, then, determines the maximum price at which it may be sold?

One possibility is that the maximum permissible price is simply the lowest one at which the merchandise is available. Since the buyer is able to purchase the merchandise for that price, any higher price is unfair to him and constitutes onaah (see Erech Shai CM beginning of #209). R. Chaim Kohn, however, rejects this as being both untenable (as according to this view, violations of onaah are ubiquitous) and illogical (why should the lowest price be the exclusively legitimate one?). He argues that any price established by the normal free market forces of supply and demand is legitimate, and onaah applies only to prices outside the range established by these forces (Kol Ha’Torah #49 [Tishrei 5761] pp. 286-87, and cf. Pischei Choshen Onaah Ch. 10 n. 1).

Others suggest that the ‘correct’ price is theoretically defined as the midpoint between the highest and lowest prices for which the merchandise is sold, but in practice, there are various reasons why the traditional laws of onaah will generally not apply to sales in the contemporary free market economy (Darkei Horaah pp. 121-24, and cf. Alon Ha’Mishpat #63 [Nisan 5774]).

The fundamental concept upon which the laws of אונאה are based is that of the merchandise’s “fair price”, which is defined as its local, current price. אונאה is generally committed when one buys or sells at a price that deviates from this price, regardless of the price the seller paid for the merchandise or other considerations. Of critical practical importance, therefore – and yet frustratingly difficult to properly address – is the question of how this fair price is determined in a marketplace where various vendors offer the merchandise for sale at different prices. The great nineteenth century חושן משפט authority Rav Shlomo Yehudah Tabak seems to maintain that the fair price is established by the lowest price available, since if the merchandise is sold above that price, the buyer is thereby injured:

ויש להם אונאה כתב הש”ך אפילו אותו דבר אין שער שלו ידוע נשאלתי אם איסור אונאה דוקא בדבר שיש שער קצוב שכל בעלי חנויות מוכרין בשוה אבל כשכל חנוני מוכר כפי מה שיכול להוציא מן הקונה אם מותר למכור ביוקר בדבר שיכול הקונה לקנות דבר זה אצל אחר בזול והשבתי הדבר מבואר בש”ך כאן … [באונאה] אין לחלק דכל שיודע דאפשר ליקחנו אצל אחר בפחות מאנהו ואסור.1

Several leading contemporary חושן משפט authorities, however, find this position completely untenable.

Rav Chaim Kohn:

ולדבריו [של הערך ש”י] יש לעיין כפי הנהוג בשוק החופשי כאשר המחיר וערך הסחורה נקבעין לפי גורמי ביקוש [ו]הצע האם שייכת אונאה באם אינו מוכר במחיר הזול ביותר שהסחורה נמכרת בה, ולפום ריהטא על זה דן הערך ש”י ולפי זה שייך אונאה גם בסחורה הנמכרת לפי גורמי ביקוש והצע והחנויות באותו השוק מוכרות אותה הסחורה במחירים שונים, וממילא המוכר הסחורה במחיר גבוה מהמחיר הזול ביותר יש בו אונאה. ומלבד דאם כן הוא לא שבקת חיי לכל בריה, עצם הסברא אינה מובנת וגם הראיה מהש”ך צ”ע, דהנה גדר אונאה הוא שהמחיר אינו כפי ערך הסחורה, וקביעת ערך הסחורה הוא כפי הגורמים הקובעים את ערכה בשוק, וממילא בשוק שהסחורה נמכרת לפי גורמי ביקוש והצע כל מחיר שהוא בכלל הגורמים הנ”ל הוא בכלל הערך, ואם כן למה נאמר שהמוכר במחיר הזול ביותר הוא זה שקובע את ערך הסחורה והמוכר ביותר ממחיר זה יש בו אונאה, הא גם המוכר במחיר יקר יותר יכול לומר שזהו ערך הסחורה אם המחיר בכלל גורמי הערך הנ”ל. …2

R. Kohn’s own position is that any price that is in accordance with the properly functioning forces of supply and demand (“גורמי ביקוש והצע”) is perforce legitimate. He develops his thesis at some length, but I do not fully understand his distinction between prices that are in accordance with the forces of supply and demand and those that are not.

Similarly, Rav Mendel Shafran argues that R. Tabak does not actually mean what his closing words seem to imply:

ויש שדייקו מהערך ש”י, שמחשבים את השווי של החפץ לענין אונאה על פי בעל החנות הזול ביותר, לפי מה שכתב בסוף דבריו שכל שיודע שאפשר לקנות חפץ כזה יותר בזול אינו רשאי למוכרו ביוקר. אך באמת אין הנידונים דומים, ולנידון זה אין ראיה מהש”ך, דמדברי הש”ך מוכח רק שיש אונאה גם בדבר שאינו קצוב, אך לא מבואר מדבריו כלל לפי איזה מחיר אומדים את האונאה.3

A mini-haburah I delivered a couple of years ago on the application of אונאה to contemporary markets is available at the Internet Archive.

  1. ערך ש”י חו”מ ריש סימן ר”ט []
  2. רב חיים קאהן, מחירים בשוק חפשי ואונאה בדבר שאין לו שער ידוע, קול התורה חוברת מ”ט תשרי ה’תשס”א עמוד רפב []
  3. עלון המשפט, גליון חודש ניסן ה’תשע”ד #63 עמוד 6, ועיין עוד פתחי חושן, הלכות גניבה ואונאה, פרק י’ הערה א’ מד”ה בהמשך פרק זה []