The "Saris" in Jewish Legal Context

Ending 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 Aylonit here.


Finally, we reach the last of the sexual categories in halacha, the Saris. The Saris is generally referred to as a form of eunuch and one can either be born a Saris (Saris Chammach) or become one later in life (Saris Adam).  

In many ways, the Saris Chammach is very similar to, yet the opposite of, the Aylonit.  The Saris Chammach is generally identified as male at birth, but fails to develop male secondary sexual characteristics, such as the presence of two pubic hairs by the age of 20.  Further, he has urine which does not ferment when it is left standing in a vessel, he has no beard or a sparse beard, has soft hair on his head, has soft skin, whose semen is watery or whose body does not steam after bathing in the winter (Yevamoth 80a-80b).  Like the Aylonit, he may have a voice that it is difficult to tell whether or not the person is a man or a woman (Yevamoth 80b).  Interestingly, if there is only a lack of pubic hairs and otherwise the other saris characteristics are not present, the individual continues to be considered a minor until age 36 while a saris with all other adult characteristics is considered an adult saris at 20.  If at the age of 36, he still has not developed pubic hairs, he is considered an adult Saris at that time.  This is also indicated by the Rashbam and R’ Chiya (Bava Basra 155b).  

Interestingly, another way one can be confirmed as a Saris Chammach involves simple damage to the penis in such a way as no arch is formed when one urinates while standing, the reason for the damage is blamed on the mother who is thought to have imbibed strong beer or baked at noon (Yevamoth 80a).  While it is difficult to explain why baking at noon would create a Saris, even when one considers Rashi’s suggestion of the heat of the oven combined with the heat of baking at noon combine to raise the body heat of the mother, genital abnormalities have occurred with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  Realistically, there are many conditions that can cause any of these issues including intersexed conditions.

The Saris Adam (man-made Saris) is somewhat different halachically than the Saris Chammach because at one point he was considered “fit” and only at a later stage in his life was he made infertile (Yevamoth 79b).  In some ways, these are different categories include as it relates to chalitzah and yibum, the Saris Adam submits to chalitzah and is arranged for his wife because he once was once considered fit and able to reproduce.  The Saris Chammach, however, does not submit to chalitzah and he is exempt from levirate marriage unless his condition is a case which can be cured by medical treatment (Yevamoth 79b, Yevamoth 80a).  As reasoned by the above, both forms of Saris may marry and have sex although they do not produce children.  The infertility is a characteristic of a Saris.

While the Talmud does not state explicit what mitzvot are required of a Saris, given when a TumTum is operated on to determine sex it can either be determined to be female or a Saris Chammach and the Talmud continues to use male pronouns in reference to the Saris, it might be fair to assume that the Saris would be bound by most male mitzvot with a few exceptions as it pertains to the status of fertility (Yevamoth 83b).  He also has some restrictions such as he may not serve as a judge on the Sanhedrin as one of the requirements is to have children prior to serving, which could be possible in the case of a Saris Adam, although the Saris Chammach may be allowed to judge monetary cases in another beit din (Sanhedrin 36b).  However, those seem to be the few restrictions.

Just a reminder that the terms from the Talmud regarding sex and gender, are simply ancient terms for these four sexual categories and care must be given to not make assumptions about what they mean in modern times.