The Prohibition of Cross-Dressing
Deuteronomy contains the one verse in the Bible that prohibits cross-dressing:
דברים כב:ה לֹא יִהְיֶה כְלִי גֶבֶר עַל אִשָּׁה וְלֹא יִלְבַּשׁ גֶּבֶר שִׂמְלַת אִשָּׁה כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ כָּל עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה.
Deut 22:5 There shall be no man’s item on a woman, and a man shall not wear a woman’s garment, for anyone who does these things is abhorrent to YHWH your God.
Commentators agree that the overall intention of this verse is to prohibit men and women from wearing items associated with the other sex. Nevertheless, due to the ambiguous nature of some of the language and the absence of any clear explanation for the prohibition, ancient, medieval, and contemporary translations and interpretations differ as to exactly what is being prohibited and why.
Four main questions are raised by this verse:
1. Apparel: כְלִי (keli) and שִׂמְלָה (simlah)
What does כְלִי (keli, translated above as “item”), mentioned in the first part of the prohibition, mean in this context? Is it intended as the equivalent of שִׂמְלָה (simlah, translated above as “garment”) in the second part of the prohibition or does it refer to something else?
The noun שִׂמְלׇה denotes a piece of cloth used as a cover and can refer to items that cover a person or inanimate objects, like a bed (see, e.g., Gen. 9:23; Deut. 22:17). It is also used in the plural as a general term for clothing, including men’s clothing (Gen. 37:34; Exod. 19:10; Josh. 7:6). In this case, since it is used with the verb לבשׁ , “to wear, put on,” the term שִׂמְלׇה refers to a cloak, mantle, wrap, or other garment that a woman wears. And thus, the latter part of the verse is easy to understand: a man must not wear women’s clothing.
The former part of the verse is more difficult. In contrast to שִׂמְלׇה, the term כְלִי has a wide range of meanings, including, but not limited to: various types of containers, baggage, tools, weapons, armor, furnishings and other household objects, apparel, jewelry, ornamental objects, and general personal property.
Rabbinic literature provides various interpretations of this verse. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (ad loc.) interpreted the verse as referring to male ritual clothing, such as tefillin (phylacteries) and tzitzit (ritual blue fringes). The question of whether women may wear these ritual objects was debated in the rabbinic period, and this translation, which takes a strict stance, seems more connected to rabbinic polemics than an attempt to decode the simple meaning of the verse.
Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov (Sifre 226, b. Nazir 59a) understood the prohibition to be against women wearing armor (or bearing weapons) and going into war. כְלִי is often used to denote armor and various kinds of weaponry in the Bible, and it is paired here with גֶבֶר, a term often used to emphasize a distinction between male and female. Moreover, some biblical evidence suggests that traditional weapons and warfare were viewed as strictly the domain of men, and thus this interpretation has some merit. Nevertheless, nothing in the text of Deuteronomy suggests that a martial context in particular was intended.
The only way to determine the meaning intended in the verse is through context, but our verse doesn’t give us much to work with, nor does the overall context of the chapter (see discussion later). It could be that כְלִי is intended to mean the same thing as שִׂמְלׇה and the two terms are parallel.
In fact, the plural of כְלִי in Rabbinic Hebrew can denote garments (e.g., m.Shabbat 15:3, Yoma 7:5) in addition to its other usages (vessels, tools, weapons, etc.). Nevertheless, such usage is much rarer in the Bible, in which only 2 other appearances of כְלִי (Lev 13:49 ff. and Num. 21:20) out of 320 occurrences can possibly be understood as “garment,” and even these may both refer to household objects made of cloth or leather rather than apparel. Given how infrequently כְלִי is used in the Bible to denote a garment, why would the authors choose to use this term, rather than a more common term for apparel such as שִׂמְלׇה or מְעִיל , and thereby avoid ambiguity?
Moreover, if in this context כְלִי were intended to be understood as a garment and thus the equivalent of שִׂמְלׇה, wouldn’t the authors use the verb לבש with it? Instead, they employ the quite different and much broader phrasing לֹא־יִהְיֶה עַל (“there shall not be upon”) in the first part of the prohibition. Given this phrasing, it seems likely that a different meaning for כְלִי was intended, and that כְלִי and שִׂמְלׇה are not meant to be synonymous.
2. Man: אִישׁ (ish) and גֶּבֶר (gever)
Why is the term גֶּבֶר (gever) used (twice), rather than אִישׁ (ish)? Is this choice of terminology significant for how the verse is understood?
The term used most frequently for “man” in the Hebrew Bible is אִישׁ. Additionally, the most common pairing when contrasting the sexes in biblical texts is אִישׁ (ish) and אִשָּׁה (isha): “man” and “woman” or, depending on the context, “husband” and “wife” (see, e.g., Deut 22:13).
In fact, this is the only time the term גֶּבֶר is used in Deuteronomy (in contrast to אִישׁ, which appears frequently), so the choice to use גֶּבֶר instead of אִישׁ in this verse is probably deliberate and bears some significance. What, then, is the distinction between a גֶּבֶר and an אִישׁ?
The term גֶּבֶר derives from the stem ג.ב.ר, “to be strong, prevail,” and it has no female counterpart in biblical Hebrew. In contrast to אִישׁ, which can also be used in a gender-neutral sense to mean “human” or “person” (see, e.g., Exod. 35:21), much like אָדָם (adam) and אֱנוֺש (enosh), גֶּבֶר always denotes a man or male; it is never used in a gender-neutral sense of “person.” It is thus distinct from אִישׁ, אָדָם and אֱנוֺשׁ in this regard.
Moreover, גֶּבֶר often denotes a man who is considered manly, meaning an adult male who acts in ways that conform to cultural expectations of masculine behavior by displaying qualities such strength, courage, virility, and/or fortitude (see, e.g., Ps. 127:5; Job 38:3). Any man can be referred to as an אִישׁ, but not every man is referred to as a גֶּבֶר.
The term גֶּבֶר is also sometimes used in the same sense as זָכָר, “male” (the counterpart of which is נְקֵבָה, “female”), often when making a contrast between males and females or evoking a pair of male and female (see, e.g., Jer. 31:22). This could be the way that this term is being used here, if the author wishes to emphasize the difference between male and female and make a point about the expectations of each in terms of this particular aspect of their comportment.
Is the same action being prohibited for each sex, or is the prohibition for women different from the prohibition for men?
Based on the analysis of the verse’s terminology offered above, it seems most likely that the text is prohibiting two different things. The second part of the prohibition is clear: men cannot wear a woman’s (outer) garment.
In 4Q159, a compilation of various Torah ordinances found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the second part of the prohibition is slightly expanded to prohibit men from wearing a woman’s tunic (כתנת, a different kind of outer garment) in addition to a שִׂמְלׇה. Still, as Nili Sacher Fox observes, the law does not prohibit males from wearing any other female gendered objects.
Rabbinic sources also expand the prohibition. Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov (Sifre 226 and the b. Nazir 59a) understood it to extend to jewelry and other female adornments, while others extended it to grooming behaviors associated with women, such as wearing particular hairstyles, plucking out white hairs, or shaving or cutting hair from certain body parts (b. Shabbat94b; Makkot 20b; Nazir 59a).
Even though it is quite possible that such interpretations capture the spirit of the prohibition, namely, that men should look like men, not women, all of these extensions are reading more into the biblical text than is warranted by the terminology used. The biblical prohibition is against a man wearing a woman’s outer garment; the biblical prohibition for women, however, encompasses much more.
As we saw, the term כְלִי can denote any number of things that can be worn or borne. While it could be that כְלִי denotes clothing in this verse, it seems more likely that the broadness of “There shall be no man’s item on a woman” reflects a broad understanding of כְלִי on the author’s part, perhaps encompassing anything that is typically worn or borne by a man.
Consequently, the first part of the prohibition may be stating that women are not to have on them any item that is associated with men, which would include most or all weapons (as already suggested by R. Eleazar ben Yaakov, referenced above), and certain tools, as well any clothing items considered “manly.” Thus, while the two parts of this prohibition are related, they are not identical.
What is the reasoning behind this prohibition, and what about this particular behavior makes it “abhorrent to YHWH” (תוֹעֲבַת יְ-הוָה)?
Labeling such activity as תוֹעֲבַת יְ-הוָה doesn’t shed much light on the intent of the law, since תוֺעֵבָה is used in Deuteronomy in a wide range of contexts, some related to worship and religious practice, and some related to breaches of societal, ethical, and moral norms, and these contexts do not appear to have much in common. All we know is that everything labeled as תוֺעֵבָה is unacceptable to YHWH, and is not to be done amongst YHWH’s people.
Since the Torah itself does not state a clear reason for the prohibition, a wide variety of suggestions have been put forth over the millennia by Jewish sages and scholars.
The Talmud (b. Nazir 59a) suggests that the abhorrence is indirect:
הרי כבר נאמר תועבה היא, ואין כאן תועבה! אלא, שלא ילבש איש שמלת אשה וישב בין הנשים, ואשה שמלת איש ותשב בין האנשים
It says that this is an abhorrence, but there is no example of abhorrence here! Rather, a man should not put on a woman’s outfit and sit among women, and a woman should not put on a man’s outfit and sit among men.
In his commentary on the biblical passage, Rashi unpacks the implication of this Talmudic reading:
לא יהיה כלי גבר על אשה – שתהא דומה לאיש, כדי שתלך בין האנשים, שאין זו אלא לשום ניאוף.
“There shall be no man’s item on a woman” – so that she looks like a man, so that she can mingle among men, for this would only be for the purpose of fornication (or “adultery”).
כי תועבת י”י וגו’ – לא אסרה תורה אלא לבוש המביא לידי תועבה.
“For this is abhorrent to the Lord” – The Torah only forbade dressing in such a way as to bring about abhorrent behavior.
In short, according to this interpretation, the law was intended to prohibit dressing up as the opposite sex in order to intermingle with single sex groups for the purposes of illicit sexual activity. This is why halakhapermits cross-dressing for purposes that do not involve such deception, such as celebrating Purim (Shulhan Arukh, OH 696:8). This interpretation, however, goes beyond the evidence suggested in the biblical text itself.
Moses Maimonides argued that one reason this behavior was prohibited is because cross-dressing was associated with idolatry, and he even brings proof for this from books on idolatrous rituals that he read (Guide of the Perplexed, 3:37; Pines trans.):
You will find in the book of Tumtum the commandment that a man should put on a woman’s dyed garment when standing before [the planet] Venus and that a woman should put on a cuirass and arms when standing before Mars.
This understanding is also popular with several contemporary scholars, who contend that this is a prohibition against engaging in cultic practices associated with neighboring peoples.
While some evidence supports the contention that cross-dressing was part of Mesopotamian cultic practice (especially associated with the cult of Inanna/Ishtar), we know much less about the cultic practices of Israel’s immediate neighbors, and there is no evidence that the Israelites ever engaged in such practices themselves.
Moreover, biblical authors are often explicit when they condemn something because of its association with foreign cultic practices. Deuteronomy itself does this several times (see, e.g. Deut. 12:29-31; 13:13-19; and 17:2-7). Since no similar justification is given here, association with idolatrous cultic practices would be an unlikely reason for this prohibition.
Mixing Things that Should Be Separate
R. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167), in his book Yesod Mora’ (ch. 9) in which he explains the meaning behind the commandments, contended that the prohibition was based on the idea that wearing the garments or ornaments of the other sex would mix two things that God created as separate, and thus dressing like the other sex contradicts God’s work (הפך מעשה ה’).
The Law in Context
This view is supported by the context in which the verse appears. Deut. 22:5 is part of a group of eight laws (Deut. 22:1–12) that appears to be miscellaneous and unrelated. Topics covered, in addition to our verse, include:
- Respecting neighbors’ property (v. 1-4),
- The prohibition against cross-dressing (v. 5)
- Sparing a mother bird when taking her young from her nest, (v. 6-7),
- Putting parapets on homes (v. 8),
- Not mixing two kinds of seed on the same field (v. 9),
- Plowing with two different kinds of animals (an ox and a donkey) together (v. 10),
- Wearing clothing that combines two different materials (wool and linen) (v. 11),
- Putting tassels on garments (v. 12).
While the rationale for this group as a whole is unclear, several of the laws (Deut. 22: 5, 9-11) are concerned with mixing two things that the authors believe should not be mixed. This appears to reflect a concern with maintaining boundaries and distinctions between things that perhaps could be mixed, but for some reason must be kept separate, perhaps reflecting an effort to maintain order and stability in the world. 
Turning Order into Chaos?
Cornelis Houtman, the former chair of Old Testament Studies in Kampen Theological University in the Netherlands, contends that the reason for the prohibition is that mixing of these kinds, including the blurring of the distinction between male and female through outward appearance, endangers that order and stability.
The world was created by means of a series of separations, heaven from earth, light from darkness, water from land, and built into the creation is a distinction and a division of human from animal, and man from woman. Actions that blur the boundaries that uphold creation, that are the very foundation of God’s creation, threaten the integrity, order and stability of this creation, and introduce the threat of the cosmos falling into chaos.
While the idea of mixing things that should not be mixed makes sense in the larger context in which Deut. 22:5 is placed, it is not necessarily related to a concern that such actions will lead to an overturning of the order of creation and subsequent cosmic chaos, and the text itself does not give any indication that this is the reasoning behind the prohibition. This interpretation also hinges on the assumption that the Deuteronomist has the same conception of creation as the Priestly source that produced the very orderly creation narrative in Genesis 1, but this is a hard argument to make. In my view, another interpretation seems more likely.
“Manliness” and Social Stability: Philo’s On the Virtues
One of the earliest known interpretations of this law is found in the book On the Virtues by Philo, a Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria, Egypt (ca. 20 B.C.E.-40[or 50] C.E.). Philo alludes to Deut 22:5 in his discussion of courage or “manliness,” as per the Greek word andreias (ἀνδρέας), which is derived from the Greek term andros (ᾰ̓νδρός) for man. Philo explains how the (Mosaic) law encourages this virtue by laying down rules about the kind of garment one can wear, forbidding a man to wear a woman’s garb “so that no trace or even mere shadow of the female might be attributed to him.”
Philo contends that men and women have different physical forms and different roles within society (women belonging to the domestic sphere, and men to civic life). In keeping with this, the law is being judicious by prescribing rules concerning daily life and dress:
For it [the law] required the one who is truly a man to act like a man even in these particulars and especially in his clothes, which, since he always has them on both day and night, ought to have no indication of unmanliness. And of course in the same manner, by training the woman in appropriate adornments, it forbade her to assume a man’s dress, ultimately guarding against the manly woman as much as the womanly man. For it knew that, as in buildings, if one stone is taken away the others will not stay in the same place.
Philo sees an integral connection between the stability of a society and the necessity for men and women to dress appropriately for their gender. He seems to view those who blur the boundaries between male and female (manly women and womanly men) as posing a threat to its very foundation, and understands the prohibition in this light. I believe Philo’s interpretation has merit, as the verse does seem to reflect a concern with the mixing of gender roles.
Nili Sacher Fox, Professor of Bible at HUC-JIR, has argued that if we consider ancient Israel’s social system and how it defined gender roles and relations, we can begin to understand the reasoning behind this prohibition. We know that the social structure of biblical society was patriarchal, the economy was largely agrarian and at subsistence level, and that much of the population lived in small villages, with families often residing together in kin groups. She suggests that the delineation and strict enforcement of gender roles was seen as a necessity for survival, in that it was essential to maintaining social order and family integrity.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, masculinity tends to be depicted in contrast to femininity. It is evident from both the gender roles prescribed in the legal collections and the depictions of gendered behavior in other parts of the Bible, that upholding a binary gender system was of significant importance to biblical authors, who clearly delineated gender specific roles, spaces, behaviors, attire, tasks, and tools.
This emphasis on maintaining a distinction between the genders and their respective roles is reflected in the aversion to the blurring of gender boundaries that we see in Deuteronomy 22:5. Men should look and act like men and women should look and act like women. One’s public presentation of his or her gender should be clear, not subject to confusion.
It seems the larger concern reflected in this law is with women testing the gender boundary, since the prohibition aimed at women is much broader. The anxiety does not appear to be equal for both genders any more than the prohibition is equal. The prohibition against women wearing or bearing anything associated with males, presumably including clothing, traditional weapons, and tools associated with male trades and activities, might be an effort to protect (superior) male social status. Keeping the accoutrements of manhood away from women is a way to ensure that women stay in their “proper” social place.
At the same time, Philo seems correct that the authors of Deuteronomy are concerned that a man who has something feminine about his dress would not be considered manly, so the second part of the prohibition is also about protecting manhood and its accoutrements. The authors of this law, by prohibiting men from wearing apparel considered “womanly,” are attempting to prevent them from undermining their own masculinity through their appearance.
This law, then, is about much more than simply cross-dressing. It is about maintaining a strict distinction between gender roles and enforcing a firm boundary between masculinity and femininity.
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August 23, 2018
April 5, 2020
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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