A Woman Who Seizes a Man’s Testicles During a Fight, Her Hand Is Cut Off
The case addressed in Deuteronomy 25:11–12 stands out in the Torah, because of both the nature of the offense and the punishment prescribed:
דברים כה:יא כִּי יִנָּצוּ אֲנָשִׁים יַחְדָּו אִישׁ וְאָחִיו וְקָרְבָה אֵשֶׁת הָאֶחָד לְהַצִּיל אֶת אִישָׁהּ מִיַּד מַכֵּהוּ וְשָׁלְחָה יָדָהּ וְהֶחֱזִיקָה בִּמְבֻשָׁיו. כה:יב וְקַצֹּתָה אֶת כַּפָּהּ לֹא תָחוֹס עֵינֶךָ.
Deut 25:11 If men are fighting one another and the wife of one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of the one striking him, and she reaches out and grabs hold of his private parts, 25:12 you shall cut off her hand. Show no pity.
The term מבשים (mevushim) is a hapax legomenon likely derived from the stem ב.ו.שׁ (to feel shame, be ashamed), thus denoting “shameful things/parts” or “that which brings shame,” here used as a euphemism for the male genitalia. Thus, the woman is trying to stop the man from hurting her husband by squeezing his testicles.
The verb form of ק.צ.צ used in the punishment is unusual. While in its more frequent piel form the verb usually means to cut, and is used to describe dismemberment, the qal form used here only occurs three other times in the Hebrew Bible—all in Jeremiah (Jer 9:25; 25:23; and 49:32)—where it refers to foreigners having hair that is cut or trimmed (likely at the temples). Nevertheless, context, plus cognate usage in Akkadian (kaṣaṣu) and Aramaic (קצץ), point to the likelihood that קצץ in the qal can also have the meaning “to cut off.”
The term כף (kaph) comes from the stem כפף, which means “to bend, bow, or be bent, bowed.” It is used most commonly in reference to hands, often referring specifically to the palm (that is, the curved part) of the hand, and is also commonly used as a synonym of יד (yad) to refer to the whole hand (Exod 33:22, 23; and Isa 59:6). The reason for the use of כף here as opposed to יד may be to avoid repetition, to clarify that hand is meant and not arm, or perhaps, bring to mind the woman’s grabbing a “handful” of the man’s testicles, highlighting the reason for the sentence.
An Ancient Near Eastern Parallel
The Middle Assyrian Laws A8, lines 78-87, addresses a case that has several similarities to Deuteronomy 25:11–12:
If a woman should crush a man’s testicle during a quarrel, they shall cut off one of her fingers. And even if the physician should bandage it, but the second testicle then becomes infected (?) along with it and becomes..., or if she should crush the second testicle during the quarrel—they shall cut off both her [...]-s.
The two laws have several things in common: a woman getting involved in a fight, the strategy of grabbing a man’s testicles, and a punishment involving dismemberment. There are also some noteworthy differences:
Woman’s Identity—In the biblical law, the woman is specifically the wife of one of the men fighting who intervenes to save her husband. In the Assyrian law, no information is given about the woman’s identity, but she appears to be one of the people involved in the fight, not a bystander who intervenes to save someone.
Damage—In the biblical law, no damage to the testicles is specified. In the Assyrian law, it is stated explicitly that the woman has crushed one of the man’s testicles, and there is the possibility that both testicles are damaged.
Mutilation—While both punishments involve mutilation, the form it takes is somewhat different.
The similarities are probably not substantial enough to indicate a direct correlation between the two laws; rather, both were part of a larger common ancient Near Eastern legal tradition, in which case the potential damage to the man’s testicles might have been a consideration for the authors of the biblical law. This sort of incident likely happened often enough and was considered serious enough that both law collections felt it needed to be addressed.
Rabbinic Interpretation: Monetary Compensation
The plain sense of the biblical text is that the woman’s hand should actually be cut off, and this is reflected in the Greek and Aramaic translations as well. Rabbinic literature, however, interprets the phrase as a reference to monetary compensation (b. Baba Qamma 28a):
וקצתה את כפה—ממון.
“You shall cut off her hand”—financially.
This is in keeping with the rabbinic interpretation of the lex talionis,
תניא א"ר יהודה בן דוסתאי: עין תחת עין ממון.
It was taught: R. Judah ben Dostai said: “‘An eye for an eye’—financially.”
While the rhetoric of “show no pity” strongly implies that the punishment is physical, the midrash uses this very phrase to “prove” that the punishment is monetary, by drawing a literary bridge to the talion law in Deuteronomy (Sifrei Deuteronomy 293):
רבי יהודה אומר: נאמר כאן לא תחס עינך ונאמר להלן לא תחס עינך, מה לא תחס עינך האמור להלן ממון אף לא תחס עינך האמור כאן ממון.
Rabbi Judah says: “It says here ‘Show no pity,’ and it says there (Deut 19:21) ‘show no pity.’ Just as there it refers to monetary compensation, so too here it refers to monetary compensation.”
Monetary compensation is also how Rashi and ibn Ezra understand the passage, though the latter seems to leave the physical option open as well:
וקצתה את כפה—כמו: עין תחת עין, אם לא תפדה כפה. לא תחוס עינך—אם היתה ענייה.
“Cut off her hand”—This is like “eye for an eye,” if she doesn’t redeem her hand. “Show no pity”—If she is poor.
Admittedly, precedent exists in the Bible for financial compensation in return for bodily harm, such as when a man causes a miscarriage by striking a pregnant woman. The Bible also hints that some physical punishments were avoidable by paying a fine. Nevertheless, as noted above, this interpretation is unlikely: It goes against the plain sense of the text and would leave unexplained the special admonition not to show pity, which makes sense in the context of bodily harm, but not monetary compensation.
What Is the Relationship Between the Punishment and the Crime?
Scholars throughout the ages have offered a variety of explanations for the special punishment meted out in this law.
To Save the Man’s Life (Rabbinic Interpretation)
One approach, suggested by the 11th century peshat exegete R. Judah ibn Balaam, is that cutting off her hand is not a punishment at all, but something that is supposed to be done on the spot to the woman to protect the man:
והחזיקה במבושיו – ר"ל מקום שמגיע לו ממנו קלון ובושה, ואם היה מהמקומות המסוכנים, ולא תפתח את ידה, נחתכת בהנצלו ממנה.
And she grabs his mebhoshim—Meaning a place on his body that will cause him humiliation and embarrassment (Heb. būshah), and if the place she grabs causes him danger, and she won’t let go, [her hand] should be cut off to free him from her.
Judah ibn Balaam’s reading changes the law extensively, first by saying that it isn’t connected to testicles per se but to endangering the man’s life, and second by saying that cutting off the hand isn’t a punishment but is how they save the man’s testicles from being destroyed. This is also how Gersonides (Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, Ralbag 1288–1344) understands the law.
והחזיקה במבושיו – הוא מקום שיש סכנת נפשות והוא הדין לשאר המקומות שיש בהם סכנת נפשות ולזה יצילהו מידה בעת החזקתה במבושיו בקציצת כפה אם לא יוכלו להצילו בזולת זה.
“She grabs hold of his testicles”—This is a spot which can endanger his life, and the same rule applies to other spots which could pose a danger to his life. For this reason, he is saved from her hand when she is grabbing hold of his testicles by cutting off her hand if they can’t save him without doing this.
This interpretation is even codified by Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah (Book of Damages, “Laws of Murderers and Protection of Life,” 1.8):
אחד מבושיו, ואחד כל דבר שיש בו סכנת נפשות, אחד האיש שאחז את האשה, ענין הכתוב שכל החושב להכות חבירו הכייה הממיתה אותו מצילין את הנרדף בכפו של רודף, ואם אינן יכולין מצילין אותו אף בנפשו, שנ' לא תחוס עינך.
It is the same whether it be “his private parts” or anything that endangers a person’s life. This applies to a man or a woman, and the import of the scriptural passage is that whenever anyone intends to smite his neighbor a mortal blow, one should rescue the person attacked at the cost of the attacker's hand, and if that is not possible one should rescue at the cost of his life. As it is said: “Show no pity.” 
While this is a creative read, and serves to the make the law sound reasonable, it is not what the text says. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine the woman still refusing to release her grip once she sees men approaching with a blade to cut off her hand.
The simple meaning of the text is that cutting off the hand is a punishment. How, then, does the punishment relate to the offense? The only other place in the Torah which discusses dismemberment as a possible punishment is the lex talionis (an eye for an eye, etc.) in which the punishment is intended to be the equivalent of the damage done to the victim.
Consequently, the British Assyriologist Sandra Jacobs suggests that this is a case of instrumental talion, “retaliation by means of injury to the body part responsible for initiating, or carrying out, the original assault.” While we see only a few other cases in biblical law where the punishment reflects the principle of instrumental talion, it is well attested in biblical narrative and poetry (often in the form of “poetic justice”) as well as in ancient Near Eastern law.
Why Isn’t the Wife’s Intent a Mitigating Factor?
If the wife is trying to save her husband, why then is she punished? The problem bothered the rabbis so much that they reinterpreted the punishment as relevant only in a case in which the wife did not need to do what she did (b. Baba Qamma 28a):
מאי לאו בשאינה יכולה להציל על ידי דבר אחר? לא בשיכולה להציל על ידי דבר אחר אבל אינה יכולה להציל מאי פטורה.
What is the case [in which she is punished]? Is it not even when she could have saved [her husband] in some other way? No, it is when she could have saved him in some other way. If she could not have, then what? She is exempt from punishment.
This is the general assumption of the rabbinic commentators, such as Gersonides, who states:
להציל את אישה מיד מכהו – ולא מיד מכהו נפש כי אז הותר לה להציל בעלה אפילו בנפשו של מכה אותו....
“To rescue her husband from the hand of the one striking him”—but not “smiting him,” since in such case, it would be permitted for her to save her husband even by killing the other man...
This distinction, however, is not found in the text, which prescribes the punishment in all cases. Perhaps the admonition “show no pity” was added specifically to warn the Israelites not to take her intent into account.
What Was the Woman’s Actual Offense?
The warning to show no pity is used sparingly in Deuteronomy, and each of the other cases in which it appears (Deut 13:9; 19:13; and 19:21) involves a situation in which people might be inclined to feel pity and be hesitant to carry out the punishment:
- Idolatry—Deuteronomy 13:7–12 states that if a close family member or friend tries to entice someone to worship other gods, the sentence is stoning, with the person who was approached—who may wish to spare their close friend or relative such a terrible fate—casting the first stone.
- Murder—Deuteronomy 19:11–13 concerns someone who committed premeditated murder and then flees to a city of refuge. The elders of his town, who might wish to spare a person who succeeded in making it to their refuge city, must arrange to have him brought back and handed over to the blood avenger, who will put him to death.
- False Testimony—Deuteronomy 19:21 sentences a person found guilty of giving false testimony in a criminal case to undergo whatever the sentence would have been, had the defendant been found guilty (using the talionic formula), despite no harm necessarily having come to the victim.
In each scenario there is also an additional explanation as to why the sentence must be carried out, which, in all three cases, relates to the welfare of the community: in the first case, to prevent idolatry from spreading throughout the whole community; in the second, because if they don’t act, the whole community will have bloodguilt upon them; and in the third, because the community cannot be just and righteous if such perniciousness is allowed to exist in its midst.
Given the severity of the other cases in which this admonition appears, the woman's action must have been seen as a grave offence, but what exactly is the nature of it? Several theories have been put forward to explain this:
The woman, through her actions, damaged the man’s testicles (squeezing so hard that she crushed them) or posed the threat of damaging the man’s testicles.
The concern about the potential consequences of such damage to the man’s testicles is twofold. First, it could hinder his ability to father children. Second, permanent damage to his testicles might prohibit him from participating in the Assembly of YHWH (קהל י־הוה), since according to Deuteronomy 23:2, no one with crushed testicles can be admitted into the Assembly.
This would make the biblical law an exact parallel to the Middle Assyrian Law quoted earlier. Nevertheless, the text never says that the testicles were damaged, and this is not a necessary connotation of the verb חזק in the hiphʿil. Perhaps the potential threat of damage to his testicles is being addressed.
The woman humiliated and shamed the man publicly. Given that the man’s testicles in verse 11 are referred to as מבשים, “shameful things/parts” or “that which brings shame,” a euphemism that appears only here (even though the Bible elsewhere uses many other euphemisms), shame does seem to be a likely factor. Rashi (ad loc.) identifies this as the central issue:
וקצותה את כפה – ממון דמי בושתו, הכל לפי המבייש והמתבייש.
“You shall cut off her hand”—Rather, you shall make her pay for embarrassing him, all according to who is being shamed and who is doing the shaming.
We have ample evidence that ancient Israel was a culture in which honor and shame were of great concern, tied up with one’s reputation and one’s family’s reputation, and that exposure of the genitalia was considered deeply shaming. Thus, the woman’s act of not only touching, but grabbing a man’s genitals in public, likely in front of a crowd who had gathered to watch the tussle, was probably deeply humiliating for the man she attacked.
Daring to touch the genitalia of a man other than her husband is an unacceptable act of female boldness and assertiveness, a breach of modesty. The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo (c. 20 B.C.E.–c. 50 C.E.), who in The Special Laws addresses how important it is for women to stay in their spaces and, when they do go out, to behave modestly, alludes to this passage in his discussion of shameless and immodest behavior:
If indeed a woman learning that her husband is being outraged is overcome by the wifely feeling inspired by her love for him and forced by the stress of the emotion to hasten to his assistance, she must not unsex herself by a boldness beyond what nature permits but limit herself to the ways in which a woman can help. For it would be an awful catastrophe if any woman in her wish to rescue her husband from outrage should outrage herself by befouling her own life with the disgrace and heavy reproaches which boldness carried to an extreme entails...
And while all else might be tolerable, it is a shocking thing, if a woman is so lost to a sense of modesty, as to catch hold of the genital parts of her opponent. The fact that she does so with the evident intention of helping her husband must not absolve her. To restrain her over-boldness, she must pay a penalty which will incapacitate herself, if she wishes to repeat the offense, and frighten the more reckless members of her sex into proper behaviour. And the penalty shall be this—that the hand shall be cut off which has touched what decency forbids it to touch.
Similarly, ibn Ezra describes the act as brazen (עזות מצח), which appears to reflect the same concern.
The Law in Context: Multidetermined
The options presented are not mutually exclusive, and in fact it is likely that several of them played a role in determining what was so troubling about the woman’s action. If we consider this law within the context of the surrounding laws and within the book of Deuteronomy as a whole, it sheds light on what the central concerns of the authors are and what their intent is behind the law.
The Levirate Marriage Law: Damage and Humiliation
The preceding law (Deut 25:5–10) deals with levirate marriage, i.e., the requirement for a brother to marry his late brother’s widow, if they had no children:
דברים כה:ו וְהָיָה הַבְּכוֹר אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵד יָקוּם עַל שֵׁם אָחִיו הַמֵּת וְלֹא יִמָּחֶה שְׁמוֹ מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 25:6 The first son that she bears shall be accounted to the dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out in Israel.
The concern for perpetuating a man’s progeny here connects with the fear in the next law that the woman grabbing the assailant’s testicles may destroy his ability to have sons to carry on his name and preserve his memory, the most important part of a man’s legacy, and thus would have been of utmost concern.
Another connection between the levirate law and the grabbing-testicle law has to do with the ḥalitza ritual, performed by a woman rejected by her levir, in which she publicly humiliates him:
דברים כה:ט וְנִגְּשָׁה יְבִמְתּוֹ אֵלָיו לְעֵינֵי הַזְּקֵנִים וְחָלְצָה נַעֲלוֹ מֵעַל רַגְלוֹ וְיָרְקָה בְּפָנָיו וְעָנְתָה וְאָמְרָה כָּכָה יֵעָשֶׂה לָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִבְנֶה אֶת בֵּית אָחִיו. כה:י וְנִקְרָא שְׁמוֹ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל בֵּית חֲלוּץ הַנָּעַל.
Deut 25:9 His brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull the sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and make this declaration: Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house! 25:10 And he shall go in Israel by the name of “the family of the unsandaled one.”
A woman grabbing the testicles of a man assaulting her husband is publicly shaming him, while also bringing shame upon herself and her husband.
In the Context of Deuteronomy: Immodesty
The connection to the levirate law supports the theories that suggest that the unusual punishment reflects damage and humiliation, while looking at these laws in the context of Deuteronomy as a whole supports the immodesty theory as well. Deuteronomy emphasizes the importance of maintaining control over women and their behavior, especially as it relates to sexuality (see, e.g., Deut 22:13–29). Thus, the woman’s actions are likely considered unacceptable and deserving of harsh censure since a man’s wife under no circumstances—even to defend her own husband!— should be handling the genitalia of another man.
Trespassing in YHWH’s Domain
A fourth, subtler theological concern may also be involved. As the British Bible scholar Steffan Mathias observes, in Deuteronomy, fertility and procreation are intertwined with the people’s relationship with YHWH. In fact, they are entirely dependent upon YHWH.
In the blessings and curses, if the people are faithful to YHWH and follow the (Deuteronomic) Torah, they will be blessed with prosperity, fertility and abundance (see, e.g., Deut 28:4, 11, 12). Infidelity to YHWH and failure to adhere to the Torah results in not only the loss of prosperity, fertility, and abundance, but also in the loss of and destruction of progeny (see, e.g., Deut 28:18; 32; 41; and especially 53-57).
Because Deuteronomy understands fertility as the province of YHWH, it is part of the realm of the sacred. The woman’s crime in grabbing the man’s testicles, and thus posing a possible threat to his fertility, is trespass not only against the boundary between male and female, but also against the boundary between divine and human. The only entity in the universe that should be granting or taking away procreative ability is YHWH.
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Dr. Hilary Lipka is an instructor in the Religious Studies Program at the University of New Mexico, main campus. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. from the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. She is the author of Sexual Transgression in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Phoenix Press) and co-editor (with F. Rachel Magdalene and Bruce Wells) of the forthcoming Sexuality and Law in the Torah (Bloomsbury T & T Clark).
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