Wives, Work and Wages

Over the past couple of years, I gave several lectures, and published a couple of my weekly halachah columns, revolving around the right of a wife to make charitable donations without her husband’s consent:

Vayakhel: Wives, Work and Wages

In the course of its narration of the donations to the Tabernacle, the Torah relates (35:22): “The men came with the women; everyone whose heart motivated him brought bracelets, nose-rings, rings, body ornaments – all sorts of gold ornaments – every man who raised up an offering of gold to HASHEM.” The Sforno explains that the men needed to accompany the women in order for the officers to accept the latter’s donations, since the halachah prohibits accepting donations larger than a de minimis amount from (married) women (without verifying their husbands’ consent) (cf. Meshech Chochmah beginning of parashas Terumah and Or Ha’Chaim 25:2).

The Panim Yafos, on the other hand, while also understanding the Biblical text to imply the necessity of the husbands’ consent, nevertheless limits this to the donations of jewelry that are the subject of this verse, since a wife cannot sell her jewelry without her husband’s consent. When the Torah subsequently relates (35:25): “Every wise-hearted woman spun with her hands; and they brought the spun yarn of turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool, and the linen”, no mention is made of the husbands, since although a wife’s earnings belong to her husband, this is a rabbinic institution, and had not yet been established.

The Talmud explains that a husband is granted his wife’s earnings in exchange for the obligation to maintain her (Kesubos 47b). The halachah follows the view that this arrangement is for the wife’s benefit, and she therefore has the right to opt out and declare: “I decline to be supported [by my husband] and I will not work [for him]” (ibid. 58b). Some maintain that a wife who makes this declaration is merely exempt from the duty to earn money for her husband, but is still obligated in the housework duties enumerated in the halachah (such as cooking and laundering – see ibid. 59b), while others rule that she is exempt from all labor on behalf of her husband. Since the question remains unresolved, a wife who has declined support cannot be compelled to perform any work for her husband (see Rema EH 80:15; Chelkas Mechokek s.k. 27; Beis Shmuel s.k. 21; Piskei Din shel Batei Ha’Din Ha’Rabaniim Be’Yisrael, Vol. 2. p. 3).

Terumah: Charitable Contributions From Married Women

Parshas Terumah begins with Hashem instructing Moshe to accept donations “of every man that giveth it willingly with his heart”. The Meshech Chochmah explains that donations could only be accepted from men, but not from [married] women, as reflected in the Talmudic prohibition against accepting large charitable contributions from married women (Bava Kama 119a). Classic halachah assumes that husbands and wives retain individual ownership of their respective assets, so a wife may not on her own authority donate her husband’s assets to charity (nor, presumably, may a husband donate his wife’s). Nevertheless, some halachic authorities have argued that in contemporary times, donations may be accepted from married women, for a variety of reasons, including the following:

  • The Raavan (end of Bava Kama) declares that “contemporary” (twelfth century German) women have the status of “guardians” (apotroposos) over their husbands’ assets (i.e., they are generally so entrusted by their husbands, but cf. Yam Shel Shlomo ibid. Ch. 10 #59).
  • The standard text of the traditional engagement contract (tenaim) includes the phrase “[the spouses] shall rule over their assets coequally”. R. Yechiel Michel Hibner (Mishkenos Ha’Ro’im, Kuntres Eis Dodim p. 13) argues that this constitutes an explicit contractual stipulation that the spouses shall have equal control over all their assets. R. Shlomo Kluger (Shut. Tuv Ta’am Va’Da’as 3:181) strongly disagrees, arguing that the phrase in question is not legal language, but merely a blessing for marital harmony, to the extent that the spouses shall willingly share control over their assets.
  • R. Yehuda Leib Graubart (Shut. Chavalim Ba’Ne’imim 5:34) argues that since modern secular law treats wives as partners in their husbands’ assets, this becomes the prevailing custom, and husbands therefore tacitly accept this arrangement when marrying (but see the sharp dissent in Shut. Va’Yevarech David, Even Ha’Ezer #127, and cf. R. Chaim Jachter’s “Bittul Chametz and Contemporary Financial Arrangements”).

My lectures on this topic are available at the Internet Archive:

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