The rule that exempts women from rituals that need to be performed at specific times (so-called timebound, positive commandments) has served for centuries to stabilize Jewish gender. It has provided a rationale for women's centrality at home and their absence from the synagogue. Departing from dominant popular and scholarly views, Elizabeth Shanks Alexander argues that the rule was t conceived to structure women's religious lives, but rather became a tool for social engineering only after it underwent shifts in meaning during its transmission. Alexander narrates the rule's complicated history, establishing the purposes for which it was initially formulated and the shifts in interpretation that led to its being perceived as a key marker of Jewish gender. At the end of her study, Alexander points to women's exemption from particular rituals (Shema, tefillin and Torah study), which, she argues, are better places to look for insight into rabbinic gender.
Elizabeth Shanks Alexander is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies, teaching ancient Judaism, at the University of Virginia. She received her PhD from Yale University in 1998. She formerly taught at Smith and Haverford Colleges. Alexander received a Brandeis-Hadassah research grant for her work on this book, and is also the author of Transmitting Mishnah: The Shaping Influence of Oral Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2006).