The word בן means Son. It is related to the words בת [daughter], בנים [sons] and בנות [daughters]. These words are sometimes used in their literal sense to mean daughters and sons. They are also frequently used in compound words, such as in the term בן-אדם [literally the ’son of man’] that means a person. Or the term בן-תורה – literally the ‘son of Torah’ which means a rabbinic scholar.
Hebrew is a gendered language, which means that words are either masculine or feminine. There are no neutral terms. Although there is no way to talk about both males and females together, the convention is that if you want to include both, you use the masculine form of the word. That means that whenever a masculine word is applied to a whole group of people, it is never really clear whether one is addressing only the men or both the men and the women. This can be particularly confusing when it comes to Biblical commentary.
Let’s look at a classic example. It is well known that there are some religious rituals that require a quorum, known as a minyan, of at least 10 people. The question is – is the minyan made up of only men, or are women also counted in a minyan. This isn’t a simple question on the level of biblical verses.
The requirement for a minyan appears in the Talmud. According the R.Yochanan [Megillah 23b], the source of this requirement is in the Torah, in the verse:
ונקדשתי, בתוך בני ישראל
I shall be sanctified in the midst of Bnei Yisrael. [Lev 22:32]
The question is: what does the term Bnei Yisrael mean – does it mean the Sons of Israel (implying that only the men are counted) or the Children of Israel (implying that both men and women are included).
We would normally answer a question like that by looking for other sources in Rabbinic literature to see how the Rabbis interpreted this term. However, when we look for the term Bnei Yisrael we find that it is used both ways!
For example, the verse:
דבר אל בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם ועשו להם ציצת
Speak to Bnei Yisrael and instruct them to make fringes on the corners of their garments. [Num: 15,38]
The Midrash says:
בני ישראל: אף הנשים במשמע
‘Bnei Yisrael’ – this includes women. [Sifre Bamidbar 115]
On the other hand, there are places where the Talmud reaches the opposite conclusion: For example the beginning of the book of Leviticus introduces the sacrificial rite. It starts with the words:
דבר אל בני ישראל … וסמך
Speak to Bnei Yisrael and … and he shall lay his hand. [Lev: 1]
The Talmud concludes from this verse that
בני ישראל סומכים ואין בנות ישראל סומכות
The Sons of Israel lay their hands but not the Daughters of Israel. [Kiddushin 36a].
Ultimately, there is no straightforward answer to our question. The Rabbis used the bible as a source of inspiration and interpretation. The word בן allows both meanings. And it is for our creative tradition to find an appropriate interpretation and to follow it.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner
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