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 Commentaries On Deuteronomy 22.5

What hit me most is the unanimity of disagreement concerning this verse! This after we did our own translation. I will again remind you that you can not remove a verse from its historical, cultural and linguistic context and have it still be true

Deuteronomy 22:5

A woman should not put on the apparel of a man; nor should a man wear the clothing of a woman—for whoever does these things—it is a to'evah [completely off-limits behavior] to the Eternal your God.

This verse is surrounded by verses that deal with ethical mitzvot—the sacred obligations between us and our neighbors. In the verses immediately preceding this verse we learn that we are obligated to return lost objects, and help lift up our neighbor's ox if it has fallen in the road (Deuteronomy 22:4). In the verses following our text on cross-dressing, we are taught to rescue a mother bird from her nest, and to build houses with guardrails on the roof to protect the safety of our guests (Deuteronomy 22:6-7).

All of the mitzvot that are nestled around our verse point to a world of compassion, where we are careful not to damage relations between beings. This biblical context was doubtlessly known by our commentators when they interpreted this verse. All of the primary early commentators on this verse offer non-literal interpretations. Their readings of the text all reflect the verse's context: embedded amongst ethical mitzvot. In the Talmud this verse prohibits transgressing someone else's space. According to Rashi this verse prohibits sexual betrayal, while for Rambam this verse prohibits idolatry. All of these readings understand the prohibition to be not about cross-dressing per se, but about damaging relationships between us, our neighbors, loved ones or God.

This is the only verse that addresses the issue of cross-dressing yet there are a wide variety of interpretations as to what it is trying to tell us. The four most common views are:

*       It is based on some form of connection to Pagan religious ceremonies

*       It prohibits certain deviant sexual practices that were rampant in Canaan at the time

*       In some way it was intended to maintain the proper distinction between the sexes.

*       It is a prohibition against women assuming the role of a warrior.

Here are summaries of each author:

Deut 22:5

1. Adam Clarke [The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man] Kªliy (OT:3627) geber (OT:1397), the instruments or arms of a man. Since the word geber is here used, which properly signifies a strong man or man of war, it is very probable that armour is here intended; especially as we know that in the worship of Venus, to which that of Astarte or Ashtaroth among the Canaanites bore a striking resemblance, the women were accustomed to appear in armour before her. It certainly cannot mean a simple change in dress, whereby the men might pass for women, and vice versa. This would have been impossible in those countries where the dress of the sexes had but little to distinguish it, and where every man wore a long beard. It is, however a very good general precept understood literally, and applies particularly to those countries where the dress alone distinguishes between the male and the female. The close-shaved gentleman may at any time appear like a woman in the female dress, and the woman appear as a man in the male's attire. Were this to be tolerated in society, it would produce the greatest confusion. Clodius, who dressed himself like a woman that he might mingle with the Roman ladies in the feast of the Bona Dea, was universally execrated.

2. Barnes' Notes "The distinction between the sexes is natural and divinely established, and cannot be neglected without indecorum and consequent danger to purity."

 3. Brown, Raymond "there are two likely reasons for the uncompromising prohibition. First, there was probably a serious moral issue at stake here. Sexual promiscuity was rife in Canaan, and transvestite practices were part of the corrupt and immoral context of the land... This prohibition is a warning to the Hebrew people not to identify with the degrading sexual...practices of the Canaanites. ...Secondly, it is also likely that there were religious reasons for this regulation. Some pagan religions ...demanded that men and women exchange their clothing as part of their fertility rites."

4. Bruce, F.F. "Within living memory, this verse has been cited against the wearing of trousers by women; yet there has been no corresponding refusal to wear rayon/cotton or terylene/worsted mixtures. The practice referred to may have been thought to have magical effects. There is certainly evidence of transvestism and simulated sexual inversion being associated in the ancient world with sexual license -- and in a religious context."

 5. Clarke, Adam "It certainly cannot mean a simple change in dress, whereby men might pass for women, and vice versa. This would have been impossible in those countries where the dress of the sexes had but little to distinguish it, and where every man wore a long beard."

6. Daily Bible Commentary "Verse 5 arises out of the scriptural concern to guard the built-in distinctions of God's creation. It does not specify particular forms of dress for the two sexes; these will legitimately vary with time and place. What is condemned is the perverted misuse of current custom; and since this is 'an abomination to the Lord' we are to regard this law as permanent, and respect its wisdom."

7. Elwell "Transvestism is prohibited because of its association with homosexual practices or the cults of certain deities, or in other cases possibly because of its use in magical practices to cure infertility."

8. Expositor's Bible Commentary "The prohibition against a woman wearing the habiliments of a man and of a man wearing the clothing of a woman can scarcely refer to transvestism. Though evidence for religious transvestism in ancient Canaanite religion is not conclusive, the inclusion of this rule under the proscription of the things the Lord detests suggests a serious problem, one that involves alienation from the Lord because of the adoption of the proscribed religious practices. Most probably illicit sexual practices...are included in this prohibition."

9. Freeman, James M.  Explains that pagan religions frequently worshipped idols depicting the features of one sex and the clothing of the opposite sex. Worshippers often cross-dressed to participate in religious rituals. So, one interpretation is to avoid cross-dressing because it was part of idol worship....

10. Gray, James M. Doesn't mention the verse, but he does caution against concentrating on small portions of the Bible to draw conclusions. He encourages serious students to study multiple chapters in order to obtain a comprehensive knowledge, and to place individual verses in their proper perspective.

11. Hamilton, Victor P. "There are three possibilities here. One possibility is to view verses 1-12 as a collection of heterogeneous laws. A second approach is to attempt to relate some of the laws at least to each other by a common word or theme... A that [it] deals with procedures of wartime."

12. Henry, Matthew "The distinction of sexes by the apparel is to be maintained, for the preservation of our own and our neighbor's chastity. Some think it refers to the idolatrous custom of the Gentiles: in the worship of Venus, women appeared in armor, and men in women's clothes. It forbids the confusing of the dispositions and affairs of the sexes. Probably this exchange of garments had been used to gain opportunity of committing uncleanness, and is therefore forbidden."

13. Interpreter's Bible "A law appearing only here and usually interpreted as directed against the simulated changes of sex in Canaanite religion... It may be that the motivation comes from the Israelite abhorrence of all that is unnatural, though in point of fact we have no certainty as to what lay behind it."

14. Jamieson, Fausset, Brown "Though disguises were assumed at certain times in heathen temples, it is probable that a reference was made to unbecoming levities practiced in common life. They were properly forbidden; for the adoption of the habiliments of the one sex by the other is an outrage on decency, obliterates the distinctions of nature by fostering softness and effeminacy in the man, impudence and boldness in the woman as well as levity and hypocrisy in both; and, in short, it opens the door to an influx of so many evils that all who wear the dress of another sex are pronounced, 'an abomination unto the Lord.'"

 15. Kaufman offers the suggestion that the theme of separation...finds parallel in the separation between a mother bird and its young in the next law. Inasmuch as the latter at least indirectly touches on the subject of death...the law of transvestism may also do so by association."

16. Keil & Delitzsch  As the property of a neighbour was to be sacred in the estimation of an Israelite, so also the divine distinction of the sexes, which was kept sacred in civil life by the clothing peculiar to each sex, was to be not less but even more sacredly observed. "There shall not be man's things upon a woman, and a man shall not put on a woman's clothes." kªliy (OT:3627) does not signify clothing merely, nor arms only, but includes every kind of domestic and other utensils (as in Exodus 22:6; [7 Heb.] Lev 11:32; 13:49). The immediate design of this prohibition was not to prevent licentiousness, or to oppose idolatrous practices (the proofs which Spencer has adduced of the existence of such usages among heathen nations are very far-fetched); but to maintain the sanctity of that distinction of the sexes which was established by the creation of man and woman, and in relation to which Israel was not to sin. Every violation or wiping out of this distinction-such even, for example, as the emancipation of a woman-was unnatural, and therefore an abomination in the sight of God.

17. Lamsa, George M. Points out that in the Eastern culture, women were generally respected, and not searched or molested. They were allowed to travel relatively freely. Men dressed as women might be able to smuggle contraband or spy on their enemies.

 18. MacArthur Study Bible "Found only here in the Pentateuch, this statute prohibited a man from wearing any item of feminine clothing or ornamentation, or a woman from wearing any item of masculine clothing or ornamentation.... This instance specifically outlawed transvestism. The creation ordered distinctions between male and female were to be maintained without exception."

19. Matthew Henry's Commentary Some think it refers to the idolatrous custom of the Gentiles: in the worship of Venus, women appeared in armour, and men in women's clothes; this, as other such superstitious usages, is here said to be an abomination to the Lord.

It forbids the confounding of the dispositions and affairs of the sexes: men must not be effeminate, nor do the women's work in the house, nor must women be viragos, pretend to teach, or usurp authority, 1 Tim 2:11-12. Probably this confounding of garments had been used to gain opportunity of committing uncleanness, and is therefore forbidden; for those that would be kept from sin must keep themselves from all occasions of it and approaches to it.

20.  Maxwell "One explanation is that this practice was associated with the religion of Canaan... Apparently women appeared in male garments and men in women's clothes when they worshipped pagan deities. Yahweh wanted His people to be unique and do nothing that was in any way connected with foreign religions. Another theory is that this verse could refer to war. A woman was not to put on the trappings of a soldier or dress like a man in order to gain admission into the army..." Another that it obscured the distinction between the sexes and therefore violated an essential part of the created order of life... During the days of Moses, garments worn by men and women were very similar so this command was designed to keep a woman from appearing as a man for purposes of licentiousness... This passage teaches against the wearing of any item specifically intended for the opposite sex... Still another...refers to the practice of transvestism, a deviant form of sexual behavior which is often characterized by cross-dressing...and in the ancient world its practice was associated with the cults of certain deities."

 21. McGee, J. Vernon "Someone will say this does not apply to us today because we are not under the Law. That is true. However, all these laws which we are studying do lay down certain principles which we do well to notice. I may be out of step with the times, but I believe it is still true today that a woman looks better dressed as a woman, and a man looks better dressed as a man."

22.  Merrill "a regulation that seems most intrusive in the overall passage.

23.  Payne "There is good reason to suppose that the law of verse 5 is not concerned with the mild sexual aberration known as transvestism, but is a repudiation of certain pagan religious practices of that era; so this law is no more a fashion guide for today than is the law about tassels in verse 12."   

24. Peake "5 is one of a series continuing in 9-11 whereby mixture of garments, seed, animals and materials are prohibited. They are obviously ancient laws, the neglect of which brought religious risk of some kind, for a mixed crop became holy or forfeited to the sanctuary."

25. Plaut "The Torah forbids the wearing of apparel customary for the opposite sex. From this rule, tradition concluded that men's apparel included implements of war, and...a woman was not supposed to wield a man's weapon... This also meant that women were precluded from joining the army...the rule further implied that women were forbidden the wearing of talit and tefillin (prayer shawl and phylacteries).... priests of Hercules dressed as women; while, in Rome, men who participated in the vernal mysteries of that god did likewise. So too in the cult of Dionysus, males often adopted feminine costume, just as at the annual festival of Oschophoris... The same practice is attested also in connection with the cult of Leukipposin Crete... According to some scholars, it is a method of assimilating the worshiper to the person of the others, it is a form of disguise, designed to foil demons and other noxious spirits. Probably...there was no single origin for all the examples of this practice... It has also been suggested that, in cases where men wear women's clothes in the performance of magical rites, this reflects the widespread belief that magic (especially when it aims at promoting fertility) is primarily the province of the female."

26. Richards, Lawrence O. Doesn't mention the verse.

 27. Schocken Bible "This prohibition touches on a frequent theme in Leviticus: the improper mixing of categories."

 28. Schultz  Doesn't mention the verse.

29.  Thompson (J.A.) "this law in its original setting has no direct implication for modern life."

30.  Tilsen, Rabbi "The Torah's concern in this verse, then, is not with creating or reinforcing gender differences per se, but in preventing gender associations of clothing or possibly body hair from being used to deceive others for purposes leading to sexual immorality. The key here seems to be deception for illicit purposes. Indeed this law appears in Deuteronomy in the context of laws against deceit...While the legal interpretations of this verse from Deuteronomy have been diverse, most of Jewish legal discussion has not taken the verse to suggest a blanket ban or condemnation of what today we call cross-dressing."

 31. Walvoord, Zuck "The adoption of clothing of the opposite sex was forbidden because it obscured the distinction of the sexes and thus violated an essential part of the created order of life. It was also perhaps associated with or promoted homosexuality... Also some evidence exists that transvestism may have been connected with the worship of pagan deities."

32. Wenham, Motyer, Carson, France "The point here is not simply about fashion, but about certain deviant sexual practices, signified by the wearing of the clothes of the opposite sex... It is possible too that some rituals of non-Israelite religions involved transvestism, and that practice is condemned for this reason."

33. Wesley, John "This is forbidden, both for decency sake, that men might not confound those sexes which God has distinguished; that all appearances of evil might be avoided, such change of garments carrying or manifest sign of effeminence in the man, of arrogance in the woman, of lightness and petulance in both; and to cut off all suspicions and occasions of evil, which this practice opens a wide door to."

 34. Zondervan "The prohibition against a woman wearing men's clothing and vice versa can scarcely refer to transvestism. Most probably illicit sexual practices..."

35. Babylonian Talmud Nazir 59a (2nd - 4th C CE)Cross-dressing is prohibited when used as a disguise to invade someone else's space.

"A woman should not put on the apparel of a man." (Deuteronomy 22:5) What does the Torah mean by this verse? You might think that it simply means that a man may not wear a woman's garment and a woman may not wear a man's garment. But behold, it has already been said [by previous commentators in reference to this verse] that it is completely off-limits! But there is no to'evah here [it is not a completely off-limits behavior]! [Therefore], the verse must mean that a man may not wear women's clothes in order to sit amongst women, and a woman must not wear men's clothes and sit amongst men.

36. Babylonian Talmud, Nazir 59a, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov (2nd - 4th C CE)

The prohibition on wearing men's accessories is intended to keep women from going to war.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov says: "From what biblical source do we learn that a woman may not go out bearing weapons of war? We learn it from the verse: 'A woman should not put on the apparel of a man' [And the rest of the verse? How should we understand it?] 'Nor should a man wear the clothing of a woman,' [means that] a man should not adorn himself with women's accessories."

37. Rashi on Deuteronomy 22:5 (c. 11th century) This verse prohibits adultery.

"A woman should not put on the apparel of a man. . ." that she will resemble a man and go out amongst men for the purpose of adultery. "Nor should a man wear the clothing of a woman…" [Deuteronomy 22:5] in order to sit amongst the women. As we learned [in the Babylonian Talmud Nazir 59a]. "It is completely off-limits behavior…" [Therefore] the Torah is forbidding garments that lead to such off-limits behavior.

38. Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Lo Ta'aseh 39 (12th C CE)

This verse is actually about prohibiting idolatry.

This commandment also forbids us to follow the customs of the heretics, in regard to women wearing the clothing of men, or their adornments. As [God] said [in the Torah]: "A woman should not put on the apparel of a man." Any woman, who adorns herself in a way that is publicly known to be men's accessories in the city where she lives, becomes liable to whipping.

This commandment also forbids men to adorn themselves with women's accessories. As God said [in the Torah]: "Nor should a man wear the clothing of a woman. . ." Any man, who adorns himself in a way that is publicly known to be women's accessories in the place where he lives, becomes liable to whipping.

You must know that this act—women adorning themselves with men's accessories and men adorning themselves with women's accessories—is sometimes done for the sake of arousing desire. This is common amongst alien nations and is sometimes for the purpose of idol worship, as is described in books devoted to this topic. It is also common to stipulate, in the making of certain talismans, that if the maker is a man he should wear woman's apparel and adorn himself with gold, pearls and things like that. If the maker is a woman she should wear armor and weapons. This is well known to people who are experts on this topic.

39. Tur, Yoreh De'ah, Chapter 182 (14th century) Prohibitions on cross-dressing are defined by local fashion.

A woman should not wear garments that are especially for a man, according to minhag hamakom [the local fashion]; and a woman should not cut her hair as a man does. A man should not wear the garments of a woman.

40. Rabbi Moses Isserles' commentary to the Shulchan Aruch (16th century), Orach Chaim 696:8 Cross-dressing is permitted for the purpose of joy.

In the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayyim 696:8) we read:
"It is permitted [for a man] to dress as a woman on Purim."

Rabbi Isserles comments on this text:

". . .so too the practice of dressing up in masks on Purim, a man wearing the attire of a woman, and a woman wearing the accessories of a man—there is no prohibition of this, since what they are intending is merely joy, and furthermore the [prohibition of] wearing adornments is d'rabanan (a rabbinic prohibition) [and is therefore of a lesser level of concern]."

The Shulchan Aruch explains that the custom of men dressing as women on Purim—a common custom to this day—is permitted under Jewish law. Isserles, in his supplementary comments, explains why: that this is done in order to increase the joy of those who are celebrating the holiday. For Isserles, promoting happiness and rejoicing is a worthy goal, and cross-dressing in order to increase happiness is considered perfectly acceptable.

This commentary provides an interesting balance to the commentaries of Isserles' predecessors, including the Babylonian Talmud, Rashi, and Rambam. These commentaries offer us scenarios when cross-dressing is done for unacceptable purposes: when it is for purposes of violating a relationship with people or with God. Isserles offers us an example of cross-dressing being done for a good purpose: the promotion of happiness.

This can be understood as a significant teaching in the context of transgender and cross-dressing communities. If we choose to wear clothing that is traditionally designated for a different gender than the one in which we were raised, according to this text, this is acceptable if we are doing it because it makes us happy. For many people in trans and gender nonconforming communities, "cross-dressing" affirms and reveals one's full identity, increases comfort, and promotes living with joy.

It is important to note like many other major commentators Issereles takes for granted that cross-dressing is not a Torah based prohibition, but rather a rabbinic restriction. Therefore, he explains, even if cross-dressing were not for a good purpose such as increasing happiness, it still would not be as serious a concern as other issues such as eating non-kosher foods or kindling fires on Shabbat.

41. Sefer haHinuch, section 542, 13th Century. This verse is meant to maintain strict distinctions between men and women.

The root of this mitzvah is to keep our holy nation from sexual sin. . .and there is no doubt that if men and women's clothing were equal, they would become intermingled with each other constantly "and the earth would become filled with licentiousness." (Leviticus 19:29)

42. Rabbi Lisa Edwards (21st century) This verse prohibits hiding your true self.

I have long been fascinated by this verse (Deuteronomy 22:5) . . .Perhaps because, ever since I was a little kid, my mom let me, even helped me, dress most of the time "like a boy," and keep my hair short even in an era when every other little girl had long hair. I dressed, as I said, "like a boy," but that's a phrase really that other people would use, not me, and not my mother, who would sometimes counter their remarks with something like, "no, she dresses like herself". . .

Sermon by Rabbi Lisa Edwards

. . .I want to draw our attention not only to this verse, but also to the seemingly unrelated verses that immediately precede it, four verses that contain commandments about returning things—animals and clothes—that your neighbor has lost and you have found; plus helping lift up any animal of your neighbor that has fallen in the road. The translation of these verses that we are most used to say: "If you see your fellow's ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow." A bit later it says about returning any lost thing to your fellow: "you must not remain indifferent." And finally it says "if you see your fellow's donkey or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him lift it up." [Deuteronomy 22:1-4]

Do not ignore it; you must not remain indifferent; do not ignore it, says our familiar translation, but both Everett Fox and Richard Friedman point out in their wonderful, more literal, translations that rather than saying "ignore" or "remain indifferent," the Hebrew actually says hitalamtah and l'hitaleim—not "ignore" or "be indifferent," but rather a literal translation is, "do not hide yourself."

"Ignore" and "be indifferent" are nice interpretations, but they are not translations. Hiding yourself is different from ignoring something or being indifferent to someone else's plight, don't you think? Hiding yourself is not only about shirking responsibility—it's about closeting yourself. It's about hoping no one will notice you, maybe it's about hoping you won't notice yourself—won't notice who you really are. . . Perhaps this verse [when read in its fullest context] is about: not hiding yourself behind clothes that do not belong to you that do not show who you are, that do not allow you to feel like yourself when you are wearing them.



Last modified: 12/24/13