The "Aylonit" in Jewish Legal Context

Continuing our series on the Six Genders in Classical Judaism, blog contributor Melvin Marsh  takes a look at the halachic (legal) proscriptions surrounding the category known as Aylonit. See the previous post on TumTum here.


The Aylonit is the third category of interest for those studying alternative sexual classification in the Talmud.  However, of these categories, this is the least developed in the Talmud.

The Aylonit is someone who is assigned female at birth, but is man-like and cannot bear children (Kethuboth, 11a).  She does not show any signs of puberty, such as having breast development or pubic hair, by the age of 20 although may have them past this date (Niddah, 47b).  Her voice tends to be deep enough that it may be difficult to tell whether the person is a man or a woman.  Further, she suffers pain during sex and her lower abdomen is unlike other women (Yevamoth 80b).  

While Sarah Imanu was identified as a TumTum in Tractate Yevamoth, other portions in the Talmud suggest she was a possible Aylonit as she may not have even had a womb (Yevamoth 64b). This is an interesting thought as this would explain why it took so long to conceive Yitzchak Avinu, but given the criteria of an Aylonit of being infertile, can Sarah Imanu really be considered an Aylonit?

This is an interesting halachic category and one which can be easy to misinterpret.  The defining characteristics of the Aylonit come down to delayed or absent puberty, or puberty that makes male characteristics appear, as well as the inability to bear children.   While we can only imagine what the rabbis in the Talmud were thinking and we must be careful to not make any assumptions, there are medical conditions, such as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which can cause delayed puberty, pain during intercourse, infertility, and in the case of partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome some male characteristics may appear.  The Talmud however primarily focuses this person as a barren woman as it does with the Akarah, which is a barren woman with otherwise normal development.

Most of the discussions concerning the Aylonit are in reference to her lack of ability to reproduce.  However, given the importance of children to the Jewish family, her inability to reproduce can cause other difficulties, such as who she may marry.  There is a discussion as to whether or not an Aylonit may marry an ordinary Kohan (or really any Jewish male at all) given her inability to reproduce, as she would be unable to help fulfill the commandment to “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).  Some rabbis state this renders her a Zonah and forbidden to Kohanim, while others allow it if the ordinary Kohan in question already had children by a previous woman (Yevamoth, 61a).  

If the Aylonit’s husband does not know his wife is barren prior to marrying her, this could be considered grounds for divorce as the husband is still obliged to fulfill the mitzvah of procreating (Yevamoth 64a).  Additionally, if proven to be barren, she cannot claim her ketubah, alimony, or any part of her dowry back unless it was clear that the husband knew about her status prior causing it to be a valid marriage, otherwise it is a marriage made in error (Baba Mezi'a 67a, Ketubot 101b).  While it would seem that the Aylonit would at least receive her dowry back, Rashi indicates that as she gave it to the man who she thought was her husband and she entered into the ketubah willingly, it is similar to having given her “husband” a gift even though the marriage was not valid (Bava Mezi'a 67a).  On a positive note for her, the Aylonit is exempt from levirate marriage and is available to marry any Jew on the death of her husband (Yevamoth 79b, Niddah 47b).

It seems that for all practical purposes, the mitzvot that apply to an Aylonit are primarily those that other women are to perform provided she is otherwise qualified to so do.  For example, if she does not menstruate, she likely would not need to go to the mikvah monthly.