Tumtum (Judaism)

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Abraham and Sarah visited by Three Angels, painted between 1581 and 1642 CE. According to the Talmud, both Abraham and Sarah were born tumtum.[1]

Tumtum (Hebrew: טומטום‎, "hidden") is a term that appears in Jewish Rabbinic literature. It usually refers to a person whose sex is unknown because their genitalia are covered or "hidden" or otherwise unrecognizable.[2] Although they are often grouped together, the tumtum has some halachic ramifications distinct from those of the androgynos (אנדרוגינוס), who has both male and female genitalia.[3] Although tumtum does not appear in the Scripture, it does in other literature.[4] Rabbi Elliot Kukla writes, "The tumtum appears 17 times in the Mishna; 23 times in the Tosefta; 119 times in the Babylonian Talmud; 22 times in the Jerusalem Talmud and hundreds of times in midrash, commentaries, and halacha."[5]

In the Talmud, Yevamot 64a, Rabbi Ammi says that the Biblical figures Abraham and Sarah were said to have been born tumtum and infertile, and then miraculously turned into a fertile husband and wife in their old age. Rabbi Ammi points to Isaiah 51:1–2, saying that the references to "the rock from where you were hewn, and to the hole of the pit from where you were dug" symbolize their genitals being uncovered and remade.[1]


The eleventh century dictionary, the Aruch, says the word tumtum came from atum (אטום) "sealed."[1]

Physical characteristics[edit]

The classical description of the physical characteristic of tumtum says they have a flap of skin or a membrane hiding ordinary female or male genitals. One form of a tumtum has exposed testicles and an unexposed penis.[3][4] As long as the skin covers their genitals, they are considered doubtful men and women. As long as the skin is present, they are not able to be circumcised or have sex. Their status as tumtum can be changed by surgery, though they will still always have different rights and duties than those of other men and women. In the Talmud, one adult tumtum from the town of Bairi had surgery to cut away this skin, so he was able to be re-categorized as a man. He later fathered seven children. Rabbis differ in whether tumtum are legally obligated to have that surgery.[4]

This description does not exactly match any intersex condition known today.[1] Today, tumtum can be interpreted as a category for other situations in which a person's sex organs are hidden or undeveloped.[6] The classical description of tumtum having surgery to reveal their true sex can also be interpreted as the transition of a transgender person.[5]

Gender role[edit]

Scholars today differ in whether they see tumtum as a distinct gender. According to Rabbi Elliot Kukla, tumtum is one of six genders in classical Judaism, along with male, female, androgynos, ay'lonit (a person who was assigned female at birth, but is barren and perhaps masculinized), and saris (a eunuch by birth either through human intervention, or a person who was assigned male at birth but later became feminized).[7][8] This is an example of how the Western gender binary is not universal to all cultures, and is not scientifically based.[7] The gender binary only appears widespread from the perspective of the modern world due to Western colonialism, and the erasure of intersex and gender-variant people. Rabbi Kukla points out that the binary that is familiar to us today came from Victorian-era efforts to find supposedly scientific evidence of intrinsic superiority and inferiority in binaries of sexes, races, and classes, in order to defend systems of oppression against emancipation movements.[5] Other scholars say that tumtum is not defined as a separate gender, but rather a state of doubt: a tumtum must be either male or female, but we do not know which one.[9]

Although the definition of tumtum is based on physical characteristics, this is used as a basis for social roles, duties, and prohibitions. This can be considered effectively a gender role. The strictest gender-dependent obligations or prohibitions apply to tumtum, because if the tumtum might really be a man or woman, laws for neither men nor women should be broken. Positive commandments from which women are exempted are considered binding on a tumtum.[9] The Mishnah (Zavim, 2, 1) says that tumtum and androgynos have both men's and women's khumrot, meaning that where the law is stricter towards men than women, they are treated as men, but where the law is stricter towards women, they are treated as women.[10]


Some people today choose to call themselves tumtum as an identity. In the 2019 Worldwide Gender Census, 5 of the respondents called themselves tumtum.[11][failed verification]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Arachin 4b ~ The Tumtum, the Androgyne, and the Fluidity of Gender." Talmudology. June 20, 2019. https://www.talmudology.com/jeremybrownmdgmailcom/2019/6/17/arachin-4b-the-tumtum-the-androgyne-and-the-invention-of-gender?rq=tumtum
  2. ^ Fonrobert, Charlotte Elisheva. "Gender Identity In Halakhic Discourse". Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved April 25, 2020.
  3. ^ a b Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Hagigah, 4a.
  4. ^ a b c Avraham Steinberg. Fred Rosner, translator. "Ambiguous genitalia (tumtum)." Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics. Jerusalem, Israel: Feldheim Publishers, 2003. Page 50-53. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Encyclopedia_of_Jewish_Medical_Ethics/aaklGZAID08C?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=%22tumtum%22%20jewish&pg=PA51&printsec=frontcover&bsq=%22tumtum%22%20jewish
  5. ^ a b c Rabbi Elliot Kukla. "A Created Being of Its Own: Toward a Jewish Liberation Theology for Men, Women and Everyone Else." 2006. TransTorah. http://transtorah.org/PDFs/How_I_Met_the_Tumtum.pdf
  6. ^ Elliot N. Dorff. "Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice." Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2018. https://books.google.com/books?id=vi9ZDwAAQBAJ&pg=PT237&dq=%22tumtum%22+jewish+nonbinary&hl=en&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjU1fXhtp7sAhUQCKwKHa_nDSMQ6AEwAXoECAcQAg#v=onepage&q=%22tumtum%22%20jewish%20nonbinary&f=false
  7. ^ a b Rabbi Elliot Kukla, "For centuries, Jewish tradition has recognized trans people." Forward. October 26, 2018. https://forward.com/opinion/412749/for-centuries-jewish-tradition-has-recognized-trans-people/
  8. ^ Robbie Medwed. "More Than Just Male and Female: The Six Genders in Classical Judaism." Sojourn (blog). June 01, 2015. Retrieved July 14, 2015. https://web.archive.org/web/20150714011440/http://www.sojourngsd.org/blog/sixgenders
  9. ^ a b "Avodat Kochavim – Chapter Twelve". Chabad.org. Retrieved April 25, 2020.
  10. ^ Kulp, Dr. Joshua. "Zavim, Chapter 2, Mishnah 1". Retrieved April 25, 2020.
  11. ^ "Gender Census 2019: Worldwide Summary" Gender Census. March 31, 2019. Retrieved November 12, 2020. https://gendercensus.com/results/2019-worldwide-summary/ Archive: https://web.archive.org/web/20200118084451/https://gendercensus.com/post/183843963445/gender-census-2019-the-worldwide-tldr

Further reading[edit]

  • Rabbi Elliot Kukla. "A Created Being of Its Own: Toward a Jewish Liberation Theology for Men, Women and Everyone Else." 2006. TransTorah. [1]