Last night one of the local rabbinical figures made some rabbinical remarks about shavuos. It wasn't bad, as far as these things go, which is to say I was only partially bored. His theme, or topic, was this "How do you handle the age-old [sic] problem [sic] of preparing meat and dairy when you have only one oven." I suppose this is a serious concern, at shavuos time, for those who bake their own cheese cake, but the ins and outs of the discussion didn't hold my attention.
Then he said this: "If you want, you can satisfy the mitzvha deoyraysa (biblical obligation) to give your wife a holiday gift, and buy her a new oven."
Now, I'm sure the Rabbi didn't expect us all to stop at Sears on the way home. I'm sure he was just being funny. But the comment raised a question in my mind, and over time the question gradually morphed into a challenge.
The idea that we men are supposed to present our wives with holiday gifts is enshrined in biblical law, a law that dates to a time when you could made certain reliable presumptions about men and women and marriages. In 9999 out of 10,000 marriages, the man was Mister Outside, responsible for finding food, earning money, genuflecting before the local tough guys, etc. The woman was Mrs. Inside. Her job included baking bread, and brewing beer, and raising children. (and, let's face it, serving as an outlet for the man's sexual energy.) She never had any of her own money to spend, and because holiday time meant feasting, it also meant a lot of extra work for her. So the guy who wanted to demonstrate his appreciation, and to ensure that she would continue to serve as said outlet brought home a present. The gift was a "tribute" just as surely as the goat he presented his local chieftain was a tribute, a way of making sure he stayed on the other person's good side.
[It may have originally been as simple as that, though later the rabbis offered another set of assumptions. They reasoned like this: We are all supposed to be happy at holiday time. Men are made happy with meat and wine, so we hereby decree that men must eat meat and wine on the holiday. Women are made happy with shiny baubles, so we hereby decree that women be presented with sparkly toys. The fallacy of this reasoning is addressed over here] [Note to crybabies: On the original post I misspelled the name of the Shaagas Aryeh. All of you caught it, and some of you made noble attempts to make me feel bad about it, attempts that ultimately failed. The original misspelling remains intact, so those of you who think whining about spelling is productive use of your time are free to pick up where you left off.]
But how many of those old assumptions about the roles of men and women still adhere? Today women work, earn their own money, and are perfectly capable of marching into the local jewelry store and making a purchase. Men nowadays have more "inside" responsibilities. They cook, and clean, and have become excruciatingly aware that women have plenty of sexual urgings of their own, thank you very much. So doesn't the idea of a holiday gift as tribute seem more than a bit outdated?
Yet it remains enshrined in biblical law... though the presumptions that, thousands of years ago, made it a sensible idea no longer adhere... and... here we are again....