Dedicated in memory of Murray Golbey, Moshe Ben Mordecai v’Baila
by Anita Golbey and Lee Adlerstein
Questions and Answers
Sometimes a quick exchange communicates more effectively, and more personally, than an article. Sometimes, just seeing that others share our questions can make us feel more connected.
Our posted questions and answers are an opportunity to learn from each other.
Keep in mind that each questioner’s situation may be unique, in ways that affect the halacha. Even the tone of a question can affect the tone of an answer.
Unless otherwise noted, responses have been drafted by Site Director Laurie Novick, and reviewed by at least one member of our editorial team and by Halacha Editor-In-Chief Rav Ezra Bick.
Click here to ask a question of your own!
Has gender bias affected Halacha?
Torah law transcends human judgment and knowledge.
Since our sages’ teachings represent a received tradition of Torah She-be’al Peh, transmitted orally from generation to generation, the Torah’s credibility on these laws effectively becomes theirs.
Sometimes, however, interpretations of Jewish law offered by our sages may not seem to match up with the plain meaning of the Torah. At other times, sages have viewpoints that are in dispute. And sometimes these interpretations or disputed viewpoints take a perspective on gender that may not sit well with us.
Most people of the ancient and medieval worlds regarded women as men’s inferiors. Should we be concerned that gender bias has affected Halachic teachings from those times?
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein addresses the question of potential biases, conscious and unconscious, in his essay, “The Human and Social Factor in Halakha.”
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, 'The Human and Social Factor in Halakha'
Certainly, they [our sages] had predilections and attitudes. However, our faith in them inspires us with confidence that the halakhic process was governed by halakhic factors, that halakhic decisions rested on halakhic grounds. We have neither the right nor the desire to suggest that their judgment was diverted or warped by extraneous factors….We follow in their footsteps not only out of deference to the formal and technical authority of the ultimate arbiter but because we recognize and are overawed by their greatness. … Hence, their attitudes, no mere intrusive graft but an organic outgrowth of the gavra rabba in them, can indeed provide the proper infrastructure for certain halakhot. Hazal’s factual perceptions are, relatively speaking, more historically conditioned. Their reading of human nature, in its permanent metaphysical aspect, retains its full force; but observations of given sociological tendencies may be more relative and of lesser normative status. … Hence, in certain areas, cautious reappraisal may very well be in order. There is, however, nothing in this process to undermine the halakhic order or to challenge its architects….Even if one were to grant that some halakhot were grounded in attitudes, at least partially ascribed to various influences, and if one were to acknowledge license to confront the attitudes, it hardly follows that the halakhot in question can be dismissed cavalierly.
Rav Lichtenstein teaches that we must trust that our sages have no intent to interpret Torah in line with a particular agenda or bias foreign to Torah. Even when they are innovative, or when their transmission of tradition is unclear, our sages are first and foremost attempting to interpret and uphold the Torah and its values. Sometimes their “factual perceptions are, relatively speaking, more historically conditioned,” and that means that “in certain areas, cautious reappraisal may very well be in order.” That doesn’t suffice to undermine the halachic order or dismiss halachot that may trouble us.
Like us, our sages were human, living in specific places and times. Unlike us, our sages have a unique stature, coupled with a Divine mandate to establish Halacha.
When he describes our sages’ halachic role, Ramban explains how this mandate works:
רמב”ן דברים יז:יא
וענינו אפילו תחשוב בלבך שהם טועים והדבר פשוט בעיניך כאשר אתה יודע בין ימינך לשמאלך, תעשה כמצותם…כי על הדעת שלהם הוא נותן לנו התורה, אפילו יהיה בעיניך כמחליף הימין בשמאל, וכל שכן שיש לך לחשוב שהם אומרים על ימין שהוא ימין, כי רוח השם על משרתי מקדשו ולא יעזוב את חסידיו, לעולם נשמרו מן הטעות ומן המכשול.
Ramban on the Torah, Devarim 17:11
Even if you think in your heart that they [the sages of the Sanhedrin] are in error, and the matter is as clear to you as knowing your right hand from your left, do as they command… For according to their knowledge does He give us the Torah, even if it should be in your eyes as one who switches left for right. How much more so that you should think that they call right what is right, for the spirit of God is on the servants of His sanctuary and He does not abandon his followers. They are ever protected from mistake and from stumbling block.
Ramban anticipates that a person might sometimes think the Sanhedrin’s halachic rulings are mistaken. Still he assures us that we should assume that their right is right, and not only because God has given them authority. Why? “The spirit of God” guides them. The idea is that God watches over Halacha. Indeed, our greatest halachic authorities often distinguish themselves by helping us see how the spirit of God has guided halachic discussion.
Not all halachic positions become accepted as Halacha. When a halachic ruling that is considered authoritative seems difficult to us, we should humbly trust that, over time, we will come to recognize the Divine in the halacha, and that when “cautious reappraisal may very well be in order,” the authorities of our generation will undertake it as Halacha allows.
What can we do with our questions about women and mitzvot?
When our sages discuss the genders or when Halacha distinguishes between them, it can sometimes ring unconvincing or discordant to the modern ear.
What can we do about that? Seven things:
I. Ask Honestly We should honestly acknowledge these issues when they arise. We can say that something is challenging for us to hear or to identify with, without disparaging its source or undermining its validity.
II. Look Deeper We should explore them thoroughly and with an open mind, in faith that Halacha can stand up to scrutiny. Careful study can help us find interpretations that bring us closer to our sages’ perspectives or reach conclusions about how to think about these issues.
Too often, ignorance amplifies difficulties or even creates them. Knowledge can help us hone in on the real issues we need to address, and develop perspective on them. Many seemingly modern questions have actually been raised and addressed in the past, often in surprising ways.
III. Challenge Ourselves At the same time, we should recognize that we bring our own biases, conscious and unconscious, to our learning. Ways of thinking shift from generation to generation. Our perspective on gender and definitions of bias inevitably reflect the time we live in. Serious learning often pushes us to reconsider our initial assumptions or to pursue new trains of thought. Keeping that in mind can help our study maintain a respectful tone.
IV. Respect our Sages It is also important to remember that we lack the tradition and erudition of our sages. The earlier and more authoritative the source, the greater the humility with which we should approach it.
V. Classify the Discussion We should keep in mind that Jewish tradition is multi-vocal, so there is some freedom to prefer certain strands of thought in homiletics or theology to others. There is less freedom in Halacha, where we are often bound by precedent and where authority is more decisive, but rejected halachic opinions are not authoritative.
VI. Turn to Authorities Once we know a topic well, we can communicate effectively with halachic authorities. Study gives us a deeper understanding of what they say, and a greater ability to express our thoughts to them in halachic terms.
VII. Persist What if learning and discussion fail to resolve our questions or leave us with new ones? Sometimes, we have to live with tough questions because we are committed to Halacha. However, “She’elat chacham chatzi teshuva.” “The question of a wise person is [itself] half[way to] an answer.” If we persist, continuing to learn and discuss the issues, we can actively help new answers emerge.
How does this work in practice? Let’s take women’s learning Torah as an example.
In Learning Torah II, we saw Rabbi Eliezer’s statement that “Whoever teaches his daughter Torah is akin to teaching her nonsense.” How could Torah possibly lead someone astray? Why should this apply to women?
(I) We openly asked the question of why Rabbi Eliezer says this, acknowledging that it can be hard to fathom. (II) Further exploration of Rabbi Eliezer’s statement led us to suggest that it is more a reflection of his rigid and zealous stance on Torah transmission than of a particular attitude toward women. (III) We came to this idea by taking modern attitudes about women seriously as we explored our question, without assuming that they are infallible or superior to Rabbi Eliezer’s. (IV) We approached Rabbi Eliezer with respect and humility without denying the challenge his statement poses.
(V) In exploring the halacha of women’s learning Torah, one of the central points of discussion became whether Rabbi Eliezer’s statement is a binding halachic prohibition. By the end of Learning Torah IV, describing current halachic rulings and their connection to the past, we saw much evidence of God’s spirit guiding Halacha and (VI) were in position to ask any remaining questions from a point of appreciation and understanding. (VII) As part of our commitment to Halacha, we continue to ask and explore unresolved questions.
Can there be difference without discrimination?
We can define feminism as the theory of equality of the sexes. While the most recent trend is to question binary notions of gender altogether, earlier feminist discourse may prove useful to us for clarifying what it means to treat men and women similarly or differently.
In the late twentieth century, equality feminists sought gender parity by rejecting gender distinctions across the board, and by pushing for gender-neutral theories and policies. Difference feminists, in contrast, held that men and women have equal status, but that equality does not indicate sameness. They argued that equality could be expressed by men and women filling differing roles.
Equality feminism, in insisting on universal gender-neutral legislation, cannot be reconciled with Torah’s frequently gender-specific laws, though it can be reconciled with the many areas in which Torah does not differentiate between genders.4 Difference feminism, on the other hand, might be compatible with Halacha as a whole, harkening back to the double account of creation in which we are both equal and distinct.5
Late Israeli legal scholar and Supreme Court justice Menachem Elon put these issues in legal terms:6
פרופסור מנחם אלון, מעמד האישה, עמ’ 40.
לעניין מושג השוויון מן הראוי להזכיר, בפתיחתם של דברים, עיקרון גדול בתורת המשפט, שלפיו קיים הבדל מהותי בין “הפליה” שהיא פסולה לבין “הבחנה” שהיא מותרת, היינו שיש להתייחס ביחס שווה לכל אדם ואדם, אלא אם וכאשר קיימים ביניהם הבדלים של ממש, שהם הסדלים אמיתיים ורלוונטיים לנושא מסויים. אימתי ההבדלים בין גבר ואישה הם “אמיתיים” ורלוונטיים”, המצדיקים את ה”הפליה” ועושים אותה ל”הבחנה”?
Prof. Menachem Elon, The Status of Woman Translated by Shoshana Zolty
As far as equality is concerned, I would like to point out that there is a major principle in law which distinguishes “discrimination,” which is invalid, from “distinction,” which is valid, such that one must treat every person equally unless there are material differences between them which are real and relevant to the issue. The critical question is, of course: when are the differences between men and women “real” and “relevant” so as to justify “discrimination” and make it into “distinction”?”
Even today, we lack a definitive, overarching consensus on what constitutes ‘real and relevant’ difference between the genders. In the absence of one, we should assume that gender differences in Halacha belong to the realm of distinction, not discrimination.
Is a wife considered to be in her husband's domain?
This question arises, for example, when a married woman is released from some aspects of honoring parents and the reason given is that the married woman is in her husband’s domain. The assumption that a woman is in her husband’s domain in a way that could limit her activities may be uncomfortable for the modern reader. This construction of marriage is not merely sociological, however; it has a halachic basis.
For example, though the wife retains independent ownership of properties that were hers prior to marriage, from marriage onward, property is joint and largely controlled by the husband, by rabbinic decree.
The husband’s rights to the wife’s property are tied to his obligations to her. These include the Torah-level obligations to provide her food, clothes, and shelter, which the Rambam refers to as a type of subjugation of husband to wife.10 There are also halachically acceptable mechanisms by which a married couple may agree to administer their property differently, allowing the wife control.
Jewish marriage does place different types of obligations on each spouse. However, couples have the freedom to work within Halacha to define how their marriages function.
In practice, a married daughter often takes the lead among siblings in caring for elderly parents, sometimes at the expense of her own family and pursuits. This halacha, albeit working within a hierarchical view of marriage, also may protect a woman from becoming overextended. Sometimes hierarchy can achieve important halachic or social goals.
Why should women today be held responsible for Chava's sin? Are men responsible for Adam's?
The Torah presents Adam and Chava as archetypes. They establish norms for humanity and their actions reverberate through time. For example, after Chava’s creation, Adam recognizes her as “flesh of my flesh,” and the Torah tells us that this is the basis for the institution of marriage.6Additionally, God’s statements to Adam and Chava in the aftermath of their sins also apply to humanity as a whole. Man still toils for bread, and women still experience pain in childbirth.
Since Chava is an archetype for women, women have the opportunity to rectify her sin. What about Adam’s sin, and men? According to another midrash, God created Avraham Avinu after Adam so that Avraham can rectify Adam’s misdeeds.
בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת בראשית פרשה יד
א”ר לוי האדם הגדול בענקים, זה אברהם, למה קורא אותו גדול שהיה ראוי להבראות קודם לאדם הראשון, אלא אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא שמא יקלקל ואין מי שיבא לתקן תחתיו, אלא הרי אני בורא את האדם תחלה שאם יקלקל יבא אברהם ויתקן תחתיו,
Bereishit Rabba, Bereishit 14
Rabbi Levi said: “The man who is great among giants” – this refers to Avraham. Why does it call him “great”? Because he was worthy to be created before Adam, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: Perhaps [Adam] will sin and there will not be anyone to come and rectify [matters] in his place. Rather, behold, I am creating Adam first, so that if he sins, Avraham will come and rectify [matters] in his place.
The Zohar expands on this idea:
זוהר חדש כרך ב (מגילות) מגילת רות דף מ עמוד א
דאברהם תקן מה דעבד אדם. וכן יצחק ויעקב וצדיקייא.
Zohar Chadash II Rut 40a
For Avraham rectified what Adam did. So too [did] Yitzchak and Ya’akov and the righteous.
Not only Avraham, but all the Avot and the righteous rectify Adam’s deed.
For women, rectification comes through the three mitzvot. Do men have any comparable mitzva? Avraham is the first to receive the mitzva of berit mila, circumcision. Abarbanel links this command to Avraham’s role as a rectification for Adam:7
אברבנאל בראשית פרק יז
שצוה הקדוש ברוך הוא את אברהם במצות המילה כדי לתקן את אשר עוות אדם הראשון כי הוא באכלו מעץ הדעת נטה לתאות המשגל יותר מהראוי כמו שפירשתי שם ואברהם צווה במצוה כדי להרחיק אותה נטיה מותרית שעשה אדם אביו
Abarbanel Bereishit 17
For the Holy One commanded Avraham in the mitzva of mila in order to rectify that which Adam made wrong, for he in his eating of the tree of knowledge leaned toward sexual desire more than is fitting…Avraham was commanded in the mitzva in order to distance this excessive tendency that Adam his forefather acted on.
Much as women perform the three mitzvot to rectify Chana’s sin, perhaps men undergo berit mila to rectify Adam’s.
Much halachic discussion assumes that a woman is domestic. What if a woman does not want to be associated with the home?
Many of us (women and men) have conflicting feelings about this association between women and the home. How much of a role do social norms play in constructing women’s and men’s responsibility for the home? Is domesticity essentially feminine? Don’t many women flourish outside the home? Shouldn’t men take on increasing responsibility for home life?
In practice, Halacha leaves room for a wide variety of approaches to shaping home life. Even so, women’s priority in the three mitzvot recognizes the great influence women often wield at home. The mitzvot translate that influence into halachic terms of mitzva and merit, with broad spiritual implications.
Home, and the relationships that we have to each other and to God within it, dramatically affects our experience of Torah. In many realms in Halacha, men take center stage; in this central realm, women do.
POSITIVE TIME-BOUND MITZVOT
Why does the exemption from positive time-bound mitzvot loom so large?
Here are two thoughts:
I. Most of the positive non-time-bound mitzvot create the Jewish character and general approach to life, the Jewish gestalt. In contrast, positive time-bound mitzvot are rituals. Three of them are central mitzvot of major holidays.
Although positive non-time-bound mitzvot are more numerous and arguably more fundamental to Jewish life than many of the rituals, the latter (especially when connected to objects or holidays) draw our attention.
For example, viduy, confession of sin as part of the process of repentance, is a significant mitzva. Both men and women are required to perform viduy. But it is the shofar on Rosh Ha-shanah, from which women are exempt on a Torah level, that has come to symbolize teshuva.
When women’s exemptions fall largely in the area of ritual, they tend to stand out disproportionately because of their symbolic value and because of the significance we ascribe to the holidays.
II. Many of the positive time-bound rituals stand out in the context of prayer in the synagogue. When Jewish communities are decentralized and dislocated and the Judaism of the home and society takes second place to institutional Judaism, synagogues take on greater, perhaps outsized, importance.
The more a community’s Jewish life emphasizes synagogue and ritual over holistic Judaism based in the home and the Jewish street, the more time-bound positive commandments appear central and the more central commands, such as believing in God, move to the periphery of religious attention. Perhaps for this reason, there is less communal discussion of this exemption in Israel, where the social and national experience overshadow the synagogue.1
Of course positive time-bound commandments are important, and the exemption from them matters, but they are not the only cornerstones of Jewish religious life.
Are women more religiously enthusiastic than men?
There is no absolute way to prove or disprove essential gender difference in religious enthusiasm. A recent sociological study of American Jews did find disparity between the genders, with women and girls significantly more engaged, specifically among non-Orthodox denominations in America.9 The same study, however, attributes gender differences to American sociological norms, and not to innate religiosity.10
Sylvia Barack Fishman and Daniel Parmer, Matrilineal ASCENT/ Patrilineal DESCENT, p. 1, 69
…Today American Jewish boys and men have fewer connections to Jews and Judaism than girls and women in almost every venue and in every age…Gender makes less of a difference among Orthodox Jews: the social capital of men and women within Orthodoxy is equal…American males are less attached to Jewish life not because men are innately “less religious” than women in some essential psychological way, but because American culture and society value religious activities and behaviors for women but devalue them for men. Moreover, those aspects of religion that men are typically more attracted to—namely religious activities—are not regarded as religious by the Christian-shaped society that values religious belief over religious behavior.
The authors of the study dismiss the idea that men’s lesser religious enthusiasm suggests that they are “innately ‘less religious.'” Still, they acknowledge that “religious activities,” like observing positive time-bound mitzvot, are “aspects of religion that men are typically more attracted to,” and that the Orthodox communities that emphasize them for men have more gender balance overall. There is room to interpret this data in a way that supports Rav Hirsch’s position.
Anecdotally, many women are hesitant to lay claim to a religious advantage rooted in gender, but quick to embrace the idea that women’s spirituality and approach to religion take a different tone than men’s.
Do time-bound mitzvot really take up that much time?
Many positive time-bound commandments do not take much time to fulfill. If a woman can perform a time-bound mitzva quickly, why should it create tension in her home? For example, putting on tzitzit in the morning can be accomplished in seconds.
Abudarham might answer that some of these mitzvot, such as laying tefillin, do take up more time. Perhaps the rule relates to the whole class of mitzvot in order to prevent confusion. We make exceptions only when warranted by the nature of the mitzva, not based on how much time it takes.
Why should anyone question voluntary mitzva performance?
Mitzva literally means commandment. What does it mean to perform a command in which one is not commanded? To do God’s bidding unbidden?
The Ran raises the concern that when we perform a mitzva without being commanded, we risk missing the essential point of the mitzva.
דרשות הר”ן הדרוש השביעי
מי שאינו מצווה ועושה לא יגדל שכרו, כי אפשר שאין רצון השם יתברך בו ובמינו אחרי אשר לא צווה בו…אפשר כי יש במצות טעמים שנתיחדה מהם המצוה במי שמצווה ועושה. …שאפשר שלא תושלם כונת המצוה וסודה במי שאינו מצווה בה, כאשר תושלם במי שצוהו השם יתברך.
Derashot Ha-Ran 7
One who is not commanded and performs, his reward will not be great, for it is possible that God does not desire [performance of that mitzva by] him and his sort, since He did not command him… Mitzvot may have reasons whereby the mitzva is specifically intended for the one who is commanded and performs… for it is possible that the intention and inner nature of the mitzva will not be fulfilled through one who is not commanded and performs as it is fulfilled by one whom God commanded.
Ran points out that God determines the meaning of each mitzva, who is obligated in it, and who is exempt. A mitzva’s deeper significance may be linked to the class of people who are commanded in it. If God exempted me, that very exemption may indicate that my voluntary performance would not have the same religious meaning as a commanded performance.
The significance of voluntary performance of a mitzva might be fundamentally different from the meaning of the mitzva when performed by one who is obligated.
Why is it important to note that women are included in areivut?
First and foremost, there are practical implications of areivut. Most significant of these is the principle of yatza motzi. Second, areivut bears a deeper meaning, referring to belonging to the fabric of mutual Jewish responsibility for mitzva observance.
Rabbanit Rachelle Sprecher-Fraenkel articulates the religious significance of women’s inclusion in areivut:
רבנית רחלי שפרכא פרנקל, “ערבים זה בזה”
האפשרות שנשים לא תכללנה ביסוד הערבות שהוא יסוד כל כך מהותי לעם, יש בו בהכרח כאב ואכזבה….מבקש אדם (= אשה) ששיטה כזו תדחה – בלשון ההלכתית – ‘מצד הסברא’, ז”א [=זאת אומרת] מצד השכל הישר, האינטואיציה ההלכתית…. הגאון רבי עקיבא איגר חולק בחריפות [על הדעה שנשים אינן בכלל עריבות]…ופוסקים רבים הולכים בדרכו.
Rabbanit Rachelle Sprecher-Fraenkel, Areivim Zeh Ba-zeh
The possibility that women would not be included in the foundational idea of areivut, which is an idea so very essential to the nation, inherently involves pain and disappointment…A person (=woman) expects that such an approach will be rejected – in halachic language – “based on logic,” meaning from the perspective of common sense, halachic intuition…Rabbi Akiva Eiger rejects [the view that women are excluded] sharply…and many halachic authorities follow his path.
As we have seen, the view that women’s areivut might be limited is indeed rejected. Even if a woman’s level of obligation differs in a given mitzva or circumstance, as a rule women are fully considered part of “all of Israel” and do perform mitzvot bearing mutual responsibility.
How should we relate to 'shouldn't's when the halacha isn't 'no'?
For some readers, arguments rooted in tradition, that women should not discharge men’s obligations even when technically permissible, may resonate deeply. Certain patterns of Jewish life, such as having men responsible for public ritual roles and women’s religious roles being more domestic in orientation, have been customary for millennia. That precedent is not dismissed lightly.
A person accustomed to playing a certain role, whether as reciter or listener, may be attached to it and wish to keep it, especially if it echoes the traditional practice of parents and grandparents. Even a woman who sometimes wishes to, say, recite kiddush for her family might find herself balking should her husband request to light the Shabbat candles.
Rachel Sharansky Danziger writes that women seeking to venture into new modes of practice should neither too quickly or easily abandon the traditional paths of our mothers nor look condescendingly upon the practice of previous generations.
Rachel Sharansky Danziger, “Reclaiming Our Mothers’ Religion,” The Times of Israel, December 11, 2014
As we struggle to redefine our place in Judaism, regardless of our bid for greater communal involvement and new roles, let’s not neglect the powerful heritage of our mothers. Let’s not accept the devaluation of their religion. …. Let’s reclaim the body and the family as a powerful arena of growth.
For others, it has become increasingly difficult to identify with reasoning that restricts women in any way beyond what the letter of the law would dictate. Women have taken on more public roles in non-ritual areas of life and have gained scholarly Torah knowledge, and often a desire to take the lead in more forms of avodat Hashem accompanies such changes, from a positive place of connection to Torah and mitzvot.
In the case of discharging obligations when the level of obligation is the same, Chazal did not make a specific decree to deter women, and there is a range of views among early halachic authorities. That leaves room to respond affirmatively to these desires in some contexts.
What practice suits which context is a complex issue that by its nature can vary in different communities. Adressing it depends on the values that guide us and how much relative weight we assign them. We need to ask: Is there inherent spiritual value in a woman’s discharging a man’s obligation here? What is it, who stands to benefit, and in what cases does it most clearly apply?
Should we be doing this?
This being what we do here on this site, learning Torah, directly from sources, including the Talmud and halachic codes.
This question does not speak to some women, for whom Torah study holds little appeal or interest. These women may wonder instead why a woman would want to study Torah at all.
For others, probably most of you here, the question itself is problematic. It can be hard to imagine why anyone would limit a woman’s access to Torah study. After all, men do not have to entertain questions about the propriety or importance of their Torah learning. And nowadays women have access to education in all other fields.
But a closer look at many of our communities reveals ambivalence towards women’s learning.
Deep uncertainty about women’s learning appears in many guises: The father who learns every Shabbat with his sons, but not with his daughters. The school that teaches Mishna to boys and not to girls. The family friends who give the bar mitzva boy religious books and the bat mitzva girl jewelry. The parents who send their sons to learn in Israel, but keep their daughters close to home. The dating prospect who won’t go out with a ‘girl who learns.’ The Rabbi who declares certain seminaries are off limits because of their curricula. Communal initiatives for women to devote time to acts of chessed, loving-kindness, (or to less lofty pursuits,) but not to study. The couples who make great efforts so that the husband can learn daily, while the wife finds no time to learn Torah herself. The local batei midrash (houses of study) that women never enter and often are entirely closed to women.
משלי פרק ג:יח
עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ וְתֹמְכֶיהָ מְאֻשָּׁר
It is a tree of life to those who grasp it and its supporters are happy.
While it’s clear that Torah is “a tree of life,” it is less clear what role learning plays in a woman’s “holding fast to it.”
Can anyone grasp Torah without studying it? Do resistance, ambivalence, or indifference to women’s Torah learning have halachic roots? How is the recent growth of frameworks for women’s study rooted in Halacha?
To begin to address these questions, we need to trace the halachic roots of differing approaches to women’s Torah study from the beginning.
Does bitul Torah (not wasting time away from Torah) apply to women?
Halacha requires men to prioritize Torah study over frivolous pursuits, because men have an obligation in the mitzva of talmud Torah. A man should not casually waste time he could spend learning (i.e., engage in bitul Torah).
What about women? In the absence of the obligation of talmud Torah, is free time a free-for-all?
Rav Ya’akov Ariel, a National-Religious Israeli halachic authority, writes that bitul Torah does, in a sense, apply to women.
רב יעקב אריאל “גדר ביטול תורה גם לנשים”
יום של ביטול תורה הוא חור באישיותה של האישה, ויש להתייחס אליו במידה מסוימת כ”ביטול תורה,” אף שאינו “ביטול תורה” במשמעות המקורית של המושג. אין כאן ביטול בידע התורני, אך יש כאן ביטול באישיותה הרוחנית של האישה….
Rav Ya'akov Ariel, 'The Safeguard of Bitul Torah Applies also to Women'
A day of bitul Torah [wasting time one could spend learning] is a hole in the character of a woman, and one should relate to it, to some extent, like [the halachic category of] bitul Torah, even though it is not bitul Torah in its original sense. There is no bitul of [obligatory] Torah knowledge, but there is bitul regarding the spiritual character of the woman.
To Rav Ariel, a day without Torah is a blow to anyone’s character. Women, too, have “spiritual character” and should be wary of bitul Torah.
Women don’t have a free ticket to watch hours of television or mindlessly surf the internet. What does exemption from the mitzva of talmud Torah mean then? That women have more flexibility than men in deciding how to study Torah and how much Torah to study.
Why don't more women study Torah, especially Oral Torah?
Even in communities that view women’s study of Oral Torah as permissible, most women do not pursue it.
Why not? Here are some common contributing factors:
1. The wider community’s ambivalence to women’s Torah study, especially Talmud study, can undermine it. It can be difficult to make the effort to study without external validation.
2. Many women lack female role models who balance serious study with other religious commitments. Role models provide inspiration and a sense of what is possible.
3. Many communities do not offer attractive or accessible frameworks for women’s talmud Torah. Without opportunities, women won’t learn. Talmud study, in particular, demands a high level of training.
4. Many women (and men) are most attracted to Torah study that connects directly to matters of faith or to practical Halacha. Scholars who teach primary texts often focus on more arcane subjects or intricate styles of study. That may discourage some women, especially women with less background in Torah study, from learning at all.
Communities can surmount these challenges by supporting women’s talmud Torah, welcoming female teachers, offering frameworks for women’s study, and encouraging a range of study topics and styles.
Possibilities for encouraging women’s Torah study abound: Fathers can learn every Shabbat with their daughters; schools can expand their Torah curriculum for girls; family friends can give the bat mitzva girl religious books; parents can send their daughters to learn in Israel; dating prospects can agree to meet a ‘girl who learns;’ Rabbis can be more accepting of more institutions of learning; communal initiatives for women can incorporate study; couples can make an effort to set aside time for the woman to learn; and local batei midrash can open their doors to women.
(For more suggestions specific to Talmud study, see here.)
How does a woman's Torah study affect others?
When a woman engages in formal Torah study, it clearly benefits her. How does that affect the people around her?
The Talmud teaches that a woman’s merit for Torah study is indirect:
סוטה דף כא.
רבינא אמר: … באגרא דמקרין ומתניין בנייהו ונטרן להו לגברייהו עד דאתו מבי מדרשא מי לא פלגאן בהדייהו
Ravina said: …Through … reading [verses] and repeating [mishnayot to] their sons and watching out for their husbands until they come from the bet midrash, do they not share the reward [of learning Torah] with them?
Ravina lives before women study Torah texts formally. According to him, women receive reward for Torah study by helping husbands and sons to study. Shulchan Aruch agrees.
Rav Schneerson points out that, in our generation, women can also facilitate children’s and husbands’ study by teaching them.
רב מנחם מ. שניאורסון ,”שותפות בלימוד”
והבנים מספרים לאמותיהם על לימודים, הן במקרא והן במשנה, וגם בגמרא…והאמהות מוסיפות להסביר ולבאר להם את לימודם, ועל דרך זה בנוגע לבעליהן…שמביעות דעתן וסברתן וכו’.
Rav Menachem M. Schneerson, 'Partnership in Study'
The children tell their mothers about their studies, both in Scripture and in Mishnah, and also in Gemara…and the mothers contribute, explaining and clarifying for them what they have learned, and similarly regarding their husbands…that they express their opinions and reasoning, etc.
Here Rav Schneerson reinforces his idea that women’s talmud Torah is a net gain for everyone. A woman’s active involvement in discussing Torah with her family or friends enhances their learning and enriches their religious lives.
Women can share or teach Torah in broader contexts as well, and contribute to Torah and communal policy at a very high level.
Everyone stands to benefit when women learn Torah. Halacha recognizes this, too. For example, a woman can make a public siyum with the full status of a se’udat mitzva.
Women’s Torah study elevates the entire Jewish community.
Is becoming a scholar a purpose of women's Torah study?
Rosh Beit Midrash of Migdal Oz (and Rav Lichtenstein’s daughter) Esti Rosenberg, adviser to Deracheha, discusses an additional goal of study, becoming a scholar. She writes that midrashot confront the following question:
Rabbanit Esti Rosenberg, 'The World of Women's Torah Learning: Developments, Directives, and Objectives'
Is the dream and vision underlying women’s Torah learning to produce female Torah scholars who will be able to participate in scholarly Torah discussions at the highest level, or perhaps the primary goal is to raise ba’alei batiyot [laywomen] who are dedicated to and love the Torah?
As in the world of men’s Torah study, there is an inherent tension between fostering an elite cohort of scholars and meeting the religious needs of the general population. In line with most of the sources we have seen, most Torah institutions for women choose to prioritize developing love of Torah over high-level scholarship, while laying the groundwork for further study.
Some schools, Migdal Oz among them, also offer advanced learning opportunities for women. For these women, working to become scholars “at the highest level” is a form of avodat Hashem.
On prayer, how can there be so much divergence between halachic texts and common custom?
Halachic texts teach that women should pray Shemoneh Esrei at least twice a day, especially when child-rearing or other mitzvot do not interfere. And yet there is also a consensus that the custom of many women is to rely on limmud zechut to pray less—either only one Shemoneh Esrei a day or even a shorter personal prayer. How can that be?
Halacha is an interplay between textual tradition and custom. Some of us grew up with mothers who were careful to recite Shemoneh Esrei on a regular basis. Others grew up with mothers who were scrupulous in their religious observance, but did not open the prayerbook much. Some of these women might have lacked the literacy needed to open the books, or may have learned to pray from mothers who did not read Hebrew.
Women who have the ability to satisfy the simple meaning of the Mishna and Talmud and recite Shemoneh Esrei should absolutely do so. But many women who are committed to Torah observance also find other paths to prayer, especially if they are raising young children, and halachic authorities recognize this and seek to defend it.
At heart, prayer is an audience with God. Jewish women have always engaged in prayer, whether through a running conversation with God or though recitation of Tehillim or techinot, personal prayers. Sometimes prayer can be an experience that is less formal and more naturally intertwined with daily life, and this lived form of prayer is also deeply meaningful and valuable, even though it has not been formalized.
Should women rely on justifications for praying less?
Between Magen Avraham’s explanation of Rambam, later authorities’ lenient rulings, especially for mothers, and the tendency of women who do pray not to do so in a public setting most weekdays, it can be hard to get a handle on a woman’s obligation to pray.
Anecdotally, there are religiously committed women who never miss a Shemoneh Esrei and others who hardly ever recite it, all of whom can adduce halachic support for what they do.
The most important thing may be, as Rav Sternbuch suggests, for a woman to understand what is at stake, and to make sure that she is maintaining a constant connection to God, even if it is less based on formal prayer.
Rachel Weinstein, translator for Deracheha, writes in a similar vein:11
רחל וינשטיין, “בקטנה,” אשירה, 18.5.2016
לפני כמה שנים גיליתי שיש היתרים לאישה שעסוקה בגידול ילדיה לא להתפלל. זה לא הסתדר עם החינוך שקיבלתי מבית ומן אולפנא. אבל מעבר לסתירה ולמחלוקת ההלכתית רציתי להתקשר לרבנים המתירים ולשאול בדמע – אז אני לא חייבת להתפלל. עכשיו מה? איך אני מביאה את הקב”ה אל תוך חיי היומיום שלי?… אם שנים לא מדברים איתו – קשה לחדש את הקשר. אבל אם כל יום מוסרים ד”ש [דרישת שלום], מדברים איתו אפילו קצת, בקטנה, ואולי אפילו בלי המון כוונה, כשיום אחד נתפנה להתפלל באמת – הערוץ פתוח. יש קו. אם ננתק את הקו…
Rachel Weinstein, 'Biktana,' Ashira.co.il
A few years ago, I discovered that there is halachic permission for a woman busy with raising her children not to pray. This did not jibe with the education I received at home and at school. But beyond the contradiction and the halachic debate, I wanted to contact the rabbis who permit it and ask them, in tears, “So, I don’t have to pray? Now what? How will I bring God into my daily life?” …If for years we don’t speak with Him, it is hard to reconnect. But if every day we [at least] send Him our regards, speak to Him even a bit, on a small scale, even if it’s without a lot of concentration, then when one day we have the free time to really pray—the channel is open. There’s a connection.
If a woman can make time to pray, that is wonderful. When children are involved, they can learn as they grow from watching her pray that she, too, has a spiritual life and commitments that they must learn to respect. Even a woman who does not pray formally on a regular basis should, at minimum, take care to check in with God.
Child-rearing itself is avodat Hashem, as are other mitzva-related obligations, and we should not forget that. A woman who prays less because of family responsibilities can focus on how those responsibilities themselves are the way in which she is serving Hashem at that time. Every woman is different and different life circumstances can call for different responses.
We can encourage women to pursue prayer and to view it as a powerful tool that enables us to connect to our Creator, while at the same time respecting each individual woman’s ability to assess what will work for her at any given stage of life.
A woman who is not able to pray Shemoneh Esrei because of other mitzva obligations should still appreciate the value of establishing a relationship with God through prayer, and remains obligated to connect to Him daily through personal expressions that include praise, request and thanks.
Practically, when is someone supposed to fit in the prayers and berachot recited upon awakening?
Sometimes it can seem daunting to find time for any prayer whatsoever. When is a woman, especially if she is busy with children, supposed to fit in moda ani, handwashing, Asher Yatzar, Elokai Neshama, birchot ha-Torah, and birchot ha-shachar?
Moda ani, because it doesn’t include the name of God, really can—and should—be recited as soon as we first wake up. Netilat yadayim and Asher Yatzar can wait until a woman first makes it to the bathroom, but are easily said right afterwards. Washing hands before feeding children is especially desirable, because the Talmud suggests that a ru’ach ra’a on the hands is of particular concern prior to feeding children.15 (Though some say this ru’ach ra’a does not apply nowadays.16)
Finding time for Elokai Neshama, birchot ha-Torah and birchot ha-shachar can be trickier, especially if a woman has a limited amount of time for prayer.
The best idea is to learn them by heart (or to print all of them on a small card and keep it close to hand). Neither takes that long to say, and a woman can recite them in the middle of her morning routine whenever she has a few moments to spare. This is usually more practical than holding them off until she has time to really daven. For these purposes, she does not need to recite all three passages that normally follow birchot ha-Torah. She can just say birkat kohanim, or, if there’s no time and she’s not sure when exactly she’ll have the chance to pray, just the first verse of Shema.
If there are young children around, she can recite the berachot aloud. This way, the children can understand she is praying and also learn the prayers from her, and eventually they may start to recite them with her rather than interrupt.
Must women pray in male language?
In our discussion of modeh ani, we saw that women have the option of saying “moda” in feminine form. Here we see a debate as to whether women may recite “she-lo asani goya” and “she-lo asani eved.” In general, do women have to pray in masculine language?
With a prayer like “moda ani,” where only the vocalization changes, but not the letters or words, it is hard to imagine there being an issue. As we see in birchot ha-shachar, changing words from masculine to feminine forms when praying in the first person is a bit more contentious, though it should generally be permissible when the only shift in meaning is the grammatical gender shift.
Why, then, doesn’t this question come up more?
For most prayers, this issue is irrelevant, because the Talmud teaches us that prayer should be phrased in the plural, not the singular:
אמר אביי: לעולם לישתף איניש נפשיה בהדי צבורא
Abbaye said: A person should always include himself together with the community.
We pray as part of a “we,” not as solitary “I”s. We pray in the context of our community and our people. Beyond that, when we pray in the plural, looking out not only for ourselves, our prayer has a greater likelihood of being heard.
Hebrew grammar’s first person plural includes males and females in the same verb forms. Even in the first person singular, the forms differ only for adjectives and participles. For this reason, most of our prayers are not specifically male to start with.
Often, prayers that seem to be in singular are actually chapters of or quotations from Tehillim, as in Pesukei De-zimra. There, we specifically recite scriptural verses, on the assumption that David ha-Melech’s expression of prayer can speak for all of us and teach all of us about God, humanity, and prayer. Changing his words would be missing part of the point of quoting him.
The fact that Tehillim are sometimes in masculine singular has not gotten in the way of reciting Tehillim being a particularly popular custom among women, even outside the context of formal prayer. At the same time, women often frame recitation of Tehillim with supplicatory prayers, which may be in the feminine, and that combination can be satisfying.
What is the basis for the se'udat amen?
In recent years, it has become increasingly popular for groups of women to gather together for a se’udat amen, an amen feast. At these events, different foods are served in careful order so that each attendee can recite a maximum amount of berachot and so that everyone present can respond “amen” to each beracha. The minimum goal is often to reach one hundred “amen”s.
Where does this come from? There is the talmudic passage praising one who says “amen” more than the one who recites the beracha. There is also another passage that ascribes special power to saying “amen.”
אמר ריש לקיש כל העונה אמן בכל כחו פותחין לו שערי ג”ע [גן עדן] שנאמר פתחו שערים ויבא גוי צדיק שומר אמונים אל תיקרי שומר אמונים אלא שאומרים אמן.
Reish Lakish said: Whoever responds ‘amen’ with all his might, the gates of Gan Eden open for him, as it is said “Open the gates and the righteous nation will come who is shomer emunim [a keeper of the faith]. Don’t read shomer emunim, rather she’omerim amen [who say ‘amen’].
Among Sefardi Jews, it is a common practice to provide a range of foods at a shiva or other memorial events, over which people can recite berachot and “amen” in order to open the gates of Gan Eden for the deceased. Modern women have adapted this practice to seek other types of salvation from God through reciting ‘amen’ en masse.
Perhaps on a strict halachic level, it would be better for the attendees to pray ma’ariv, but these events can be very meaningful for the women involved, since they create the opportunity to share and pray as a group.
Based in the home, and not in the synagogue, and couched as a voluntary assembly, rather than a daily obligation, the se’udat amen translates the idea of me’a berachot to a more feminine context.
Why are the identity berachot phrased in the negative?
For many, the identity berachot would be more palatable if recited in the positive, for example, “Who made me a Jew” as opposed to “Who did not make me a non-Jew.” Even though we are grateful for the mitzva opportunities associated with our identities, speaking in the negative seems insulting to those who do not share those opportunities.
So why are the berachot phrased in the negative?
Of the various explanations given, two seem most compelling:
I. Perhaps using the negative was just a common way to express identity in the time of our sages.4 These negative descriptions may not always have carried the same connotations they do now. Our current cultural paradigm may exacerbate discomfort with openly negating identification with other groups.
II. Perhaps the context for the Talmud’s discussion of these three berachot gives a clue to their language. Shortly before the teaching about these three berachot, the Talmud records Rabbi Meir’s exhortation to make one hundred berachot per day.
היה רבי מאיר אומר חייב אדם לברך מאה ברכות בכל יום.
Rabbi Meir would say: A person must recite one hundred blessings every day.
Rabbi Meir’s project to maximize the berachot a person recites may influence the formulation of the three berachot in the negative. How? If a man were to praise God “for making me a Jew,” recited in masculine singular, that could render the berachot about being free and a man redundant.
Bach makes this argument:
ב”ח אורח חיים סימן מו
דאם היה מברך ‘שעשני ישראל’ שוב לא היה יכול לברך ‘שעשני בן חורין’ ו’שעשני איש’ דלשון ‘שעשני ישראל’ שכבר בירך משמעו בן חורין ומשמעו נמי איש ישראל ולא אשה דאשה נקראת ישראלית וא”כ [ואם כן] לא היה מברך שלש ברכות אלא ברכה אחת ואין זה כוונתינו לקצר אלא להאריך בהודאות ולברך על כל חסד וחסד ברכה בפני עצמה.
Bach OC 46
For if he were to bless ‘Who made me a Yisra’el [an Israelite],’ he would no longer be able to bless ‘Who made me a free person’ and ‘Who made me a man.’ For the language of ‘Who made me an Israelite’ that he already blessed connotes a free person and also connotes an Israelite man and not a woman. For a woman is called a Yisra’elit. If so, he would not recite three berachot but a single beracha. It is not our intention to shorten [the series of berachot] but to prolong thanksgiving and to recite a beracha independently on each and every kindness.
On this reading, the negative formulation is simply a way to make the beracha more specific and leave room for three, differentiated berachot that add praise to God and bring men closer to the goal of reciting a hundred blessings per day.
Nevertheless, the discomfort with the formulation of these berachot may seem stronger than the suggested rationales.
How can we address she-lo asani isha?
The explanations for this blessing and its negative language do not change the fact that many women still find it difficult to hear and many men find it difficult to recite.
We are committed to Halacha, which explains both why just dropping the beracha is not an option and why it is important to have this discussion.
We have seen that, barring a new halachic consensus, or at least the support of a few major halachic authorities, the beracha cannot be omitted or altered. Some have advocated reciting just this beracha in a whisper,18 but this approach is controversial because it may serve only to draw negative attention to it.19
Here are some other ideas:
I. In line with Rav Ha-levi, communities can redouble efforts to make the precise meaning of this beracha clear out of sensitivity to those of us who are troubled by it. Prayer books can add an explanatory note about the proper meaning of the beracha, as well as a note about how important we consider proper intentionality, much as they do for other select lines of prayer.
More than that, there is no halachic barrier to making a statement between the various berachot of birchot ha-shachar. Our communities and prayer books could make it a standard to recite a short line that adds clarification after reciting this beracha.
For example, men and women could say “petura kirtzono mi-mitzvot achadot,” meaning: “exempt, in accordance with His will, from some mitzvot.” If this, or something like it, became common practice, it might help assuage ill feeling.
II. A synagogue can choose to follow the practice of the many shuls where the recitation of communal prayers aloud begins at a later stage of the prayer service, after these blessings.20 This is common practice in Israel. In this way, we can naturally avoid public recitation of a beracha that can cause discomfort.
III. Men can use the recitation of this beracha as a daily opportunity to heighten awareness of the privileges they have in their lives, to thank God for the religious opportunities afforded to them while simultaneously committing themselves to be more sensitive to those who lack them.
IV. Men and women can remember that a quantitative advantage in mitzva observance is only one lens through which to view gender distinction in Judaism.
A beracha recited in recognition of the exemption from some mitzvot (or even advantages in social status) does not detract from men’s and women’s spiritual equality. Contemporary writer Devorah (Heshelis) Fastag makes this point in her book, The Moon’s Lost Light.21
Devorah (Heshelis) Fastag, The Moon’s Lost Light
Men say the blessing for not having been created a woman because this is the aspect of truth which is seen by people. The woman’s role, which entails exemption or exclusion from certain mitzvos,…is, therefore, from our human view, less desirable. Although this is true in terms of this world, it does not reflect objective heavenly truth, for it does not show a person’s true spiritual worth…But blessings are said on what is felt in this world, and not on objective Heavenly truth.
IV. Women and men can continue to communicate with halachic authorities about these blessings, in the hopes that new and productive ideas will arise.
How should we understand She-asani Kirtzono?
If a woman chooses to, she can keep in mind gender distinction in mitzva obligation when reciting “She-asani kirtzono.”
But if she so chooses, she can also see the beracha as a sort of rejoinder to the man’s, as if to say, ‘Mitzva obligation is just one part of the picture. My reality as a woman is broader than that. God’s vision is broader than that, and I am grateful for my role in it.’29
Or she can tune out the context and rejoice in the beracha as an independent affirmation of her knowledge that her being exactly who she is is a manifestation of God’s will, as Erica Brown does so powerfully.
Dr. Erica Brown, 'According to His Will: The View from a Pew'
And I happen to love reciting birkot ha-shachar daily and take particular comfort in the expression she-asani kirtzono. If there is a more beautiful blessing that embodies God’s love for the individual, then I do not know of it. I find the blessing stunning. And, for this reason, I feel sorry for men who do not recite it….It is an affirmation of what every single person is, a unique and special creation and manifestation of God’s will.
How can we understand women's exemption from a mitzva as fundamental as Shema?
It can be hard to fathom how women can be exempt from Keri’at Shema. Although it is a time-bound commandment, it is also an absolutely fundamental expression of our faith in God.
Bach’s explanation of the relevant Talmudic passage is attractive for precisely this reason—it leaves women obligated in reciting the verse “Shema Yisrael” in order to accept the kingdom of heaven, while exempting women from the time-bound extended mitzva of Keri’at Shema as it is commonly understood. But not everyone follows Bach here.
Perhaps Rambam’s position best explains the reasoning for those who uphold exemption despite the importance of accepting ol malchut shamayim. We saw that in Sefer Ha-mitzvot he counts kabbalat ol malchut shamayim as a separate mitzva from Keri’at Shema. On this logic, women are fully obligated in the mitzva of accepting ol malchut shamayim. Women are only exempted from the distinct mitzva to recite Shema, which begins with a formal act of acceptance.
There is no question that women must live lives animated by belief in God’s Kingship. Formal verbal repetition of that acceptance day and night is not the only way to accomplish this.
Does the Shechina only appear for groups of ten men?
God’s presence manifests itself in the places where we create sanctity. A minyan seems to be one such instance. Indeed, several Talmudic passages (Berachot 21a, Megilla 23b, discussed below) cite a verse about sanctity to demonstrate that a minyan is required for some elements of prayer:
ויקרא פרק כב
וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
And I will be sanctified within Benei Yisrael
In modern times, Rav Moshe Feinstein, among others, firmly maintained that women have no less sanctity than men.
אגרות משה או”ח חלק ד:מט
דלענין הקדושה שוות לאנשים …
Responsa Iggerot Moshe, OC IV:49
For with respect to sanctity, they [women] are equal to men …
So how do we end up interpreting the Talmudic statement about God’s presence dwelling where ten pray as applying exclusively to men?
The answer is that we don’t. Returning to the passage about the Shechina in prayer, we see that, in addition to the initial statement that suggests God is present in the synagogue regardless of who is there, the rest of the passage further erodes the uniqueness of the group of ten in meriting God’s presence:
אמר רבין בר רב אדא אמר רבי יצחק: מנין שהקדוש ברוך הוא מצוי בבית הכנסת – שנאמר: אלקים נצב בעדת א-ל; ומנין לעשרה שמתפללין ששכינה עמהם – שנאמר: אלקים נצב בעדת א-ל; ומנין לשלשה שיושבין בדין ששכינה עמהם … ומנין לשנים שיושבין ועוסקין בתורה ששכינה עמהם … ומנין שאפילו אחד שיושב ועוסק בתורה ששכינה עמו… וכי מאחר דאפילו חד – תרי מבעיא? – תרי מכתבן מלייהו בספר הזכרונות, חד לא מכתבן מליה בספר הזכרונות. … וכי מאחר דאפילו תלתא – עשרה מבעיא? – עשרה קדמה שכינה ואתיא, תלתא – עד דיתבי.
Ravin bar Rav Ada said Rabbi Yitzchak said: Whence do we know that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is found in the synagogue? For it is said, “God stands in the Lord’s assembly [eida].” Whence do we know that ten who pray have the Shechina with them? For it is said, “God stands in the Lord’s assembly [eida].”…Whence do we know that three who sit in judgment have the Shechina with them?…Whence do we know that two who sit and learn Torah have the Shechina with them?…Whence do we know that even one who sits and learns Torah has the Shechina with him? … And once it’s so even with one, do we need to mention two? With two, their matters are written in the book of remembrance, with one, his matters are not written in the book of remembrance…And once it’s so even with three, do we need to mention ten? For ten, the Shechina arrives before them. For three, not till they sit [in judgment].
In other words, the Shechina is present in a number of contexts in which we serve God, and at a range of numbers, starting with one person. It stands to reason, then, that the Shechina is present when ten women pray, too, much as It would be present when a woman learns Torah.
There is a limit to what we can know with any certainty about the Shechina. Based on this passage, it is possible that the Shechina is manifest in a unique way for the prayer quorum of ten men, and that can affect Halacha. That does not suggest, however, that other groups are cut off from the Shechina.
How can women feel included in the prayer community without counting for minyan?
Women’s not making up a minyan means that a woman who wishes to participate in communal prayer, including devarim she-bikdusha and Torah reading, needs to pray with men. Men’s participation in communal prayer, however, does not depend in any way on the attendance of women. This creates an imbalance that can lead to sensitive situations, as when a prayer space is not set up to accommodate women who wish to pray.
Even when there is a welcoming women’s section, men may come to synagogue late, leaving the group waiting for a minyan. At those moments, a woman who has made the effort to arrive on time is starkly confronted with the fact that her presence is not counted for minyan. The situation is often further complicated by statements like, “We need one more person to get started,” which may make a woman feel invisible or insignificant.
In response to the complexities of this dynamic, and in a bid to make men more aware that women can participate in communal prayer, some communities have resolved to hold off the beginning of tefilla until ten men and ten women are present. However, this practice can put a significant burden on a congregation, and is simply untenable in many communities. It is telling that most communities that have adopted this standard meet only on Shabbat and holidays.
One constructive step that could suit a wide swathe of communities would be to place greater emphasis on men coming on time for minyan, so that no one has to actively count the men who are present while excluding the women there. Sensitivity in this area could go a long way toward improving the atmosphere for women.
Women, too, have a role to play in making communal prayer more inviting for other women. As blogger Alexandra Dunietz suggests, communities can make an effort to ensure that at least one woman attends every prayer service, so that the ezrat nashim is always welcoming to women, regulars or not:22
Alexandra Dunietz, 'Two Women Make a Quorum'
It occurs to me that when men go to synagogue for minyan, their concern is whether the ninth and tenth man will arrive, and in large congregations, even that rarely poses a problem. Women, on the other hand, wonder about the second woman. In other words, will any other woman be there?…Perhaps we women have a public role in the synagogue today as well, at least for each other. As long as I show up, if a woman comes to the early minyan in my synagogue—whether to recite kaddish or attend a baby naming or hear the Torah reading or answer a compelling need to stand before God away from house or office–she will not be alone.
Even where gender imbalance is a given, as at minyan, the experience of it may vary. All members of a community can contribute to making women feel welcome at communal prayer.
Should we try to maximize women's leadership opportunities in the synagogue?
As opportunities and responsibilities for women and men – professionally, in the community, and in the family – continue to converge, the disparity between a woman’s roles outside the synagogue and within it may grow.
Divergence of the synagogue from the everyday can be a positive hallmark of holiness. Many people are happy with the status quo and would not wish to see it change, including many religious women who love to attend synagogue exactly the way it is, or who prefer to pray at home.
Some religious women and men, though, find the difference between women’s religious and secular roles discomfiting, and would appreciate enhanced opportunities for women’s communal avodat Hashem, particularly in the synagogue.
At the same time, many religious leaders and laity view any women’s ritual leadership in the synagogue as clearly beyond the pale. The opposition to such innovation holds even when devarim she-bikdusha (with the possible exception of mourner’s Kaddish) or formal service as shaliach tzibbur are off the table. Rav Hershel Schachter, for example, has argued that changes of this sort would violate classic conceptions of tzeniut as well as cast aspersions on our ancestors.
Concerns about change are not taken lightly. Many communities have rejected synagogue innovations wholesale, sometimes while embracing other frameworks such as women’s tehillim or tefilla groups.
Some communities have instituted a select few changes, such as having women make announcements or reciting the prayer for the State of Israel (which arguably has not been fully absorbed into a shaliach tzibbur’s role), in a limited fashion.
A few communities, often known as partnership minyanim, have adopted new practices quickly and widely, arguing that many concerns about innovation are not technically prohibitions of Halacha, and that the specific needs of their communities are not fully understood by the vast majority of halachic authorities.
Indeed, it is important to distinguish between Halacha and public policy. Still, public policy can be a halachic consideration, and Halacha is more than a string of technicalities.
These developments present a number of questions, without easy answers:
- How do we address women who feel alienated, unwelcomed, uninspired or even dishonored in synagogue? Or those women who seek a speaking or lead role in ritual within a halachic framework— who also may find their motivations questioned or judged?
- Is there a way to respond to these voices while maintaining adherence to Halacha and reverence for tradition? Or should respect for tradition lead us to call any calls for change into question?
- Should we seek new roles for women in synagogue to whatever extent Halacha might technically allow? Or should we foster other opportunities for communal avodat Hashem?
Even without resolving these questions, we might reach consensus on a few points:
- If there is to be change in the synagogue, it must be undertaken with utmost care and the highest level of halachic guidance.
- If there is to be no change in the synagogue, then other channels for communal avodat Hashem, complementary to the synagogue, should be developed for women who seek them.
- The way forward depends on genuine dialogue between laypeople and halachic authorities, taking into account the diversity of needs within modern communities, the preeminence of Halacha, and the weight of tradition.
What does it mean for a woman to participate in tefilla be-tzibbur?
In a searing piece on her year of reciting Kaddish, Miriam Schacter writes of the tensions inherent in a woman’s praying with a minyan.
Miriam Shacter, 'I Matter but I Don't Count,' Times of Israel, 9 December, 2019
I was so appreciative of the men who came to shul at 6:20 and 6:30 every weekday morning…I was reliant on them, but I could do nothing to help out…That my presence was recognized and had value, but that I didn’t possess the same halachic status as the men — I didn’t count — felt to me like contradictory realities. Choosing to daven in a space where I mattered but didn’t count shaped my daily shul experience. Identifying with conflicting principles is a reality for many of us in a variety of areas in our lives…Knowing that I was choosing to remain conflicted, deciding that I want to live and pray with a community that shares my personal halachic adherence to a variety of halachic norms and behaviors, while not being counted, made the experience tolerable….I want to impress on my community that when women are present, it is imperative that the women know they matter.
A woman who participates in daily tefilla be-tzibbur does more than answer to devarim she-bikdusha. She includes herself in day-to-day communal avodat Hashem. For many women, this is a new area of avodat Hashem, since traditional women’s worship has predominantly been more private (with some individual exceptions).
Schachter’s piece hones in on how important it can be for a community to convey to a woman who chooses to join tefilla be-tzibbur that her presence matters, that halachically she is a part of the prayer community, even if she is not formally counted. It is likewise important for the men of the minyan to recognize that her tefilla joins with theirs.
These issues became particularly pronounced during the Covid-19 pandemic, where some communities were quick to close off synagogues to women in order to maximize male attendees. Others made a conscious decision to include women in services as much as possible.
How can congregations recognize the significance of women’s participation when women do not count for minyan or pray in the same space as men?
In an effort to address this question, some minyanim have resolved to hold off the beginning of tefilla (or at least devarim she-bikdusha) until both ten men and ten women are present. In this way, the community may experience women’s presence as essential, even though Halacha does not maintain that it is. However, this type of practice is untenable in many communities, and can put a significant burden on a congregation. (Perhaps for this reason, few of these minyanim meet every week.) Additionally, it may create a pressure for women to attend synagogue, which can be limiting for women in its own way.
There are other possible steps, though, that could potentially make a significant difference at tefilla be-tzibbur:
- Ensuring that there is a women’s section, accessible to those with diabilities (and with a nearby restroom), and that it is set up, lit, clean, stocked with prayerbooks, open, heated or air-conditioned, and available to women for every tefilla, for the full duration of tefilla.
- Keeping the women’s section a women’s-only space throughout tefilla.
- Men avoiding having conversations near the mechitza.
- Maximizing a woman’s opportunity to see the Torah and to be close to it, in a way that fits the community—and its shul architecture.
- Acknowledging women who attend minyan before or after services, as appropriate.
- Involving women in logistical decisions and communicating changes in timing or location of services to all attendees in advance.
- Announcing the special occasion for which a man has received an aliya before the aliya, so that all in attendance can partake in the simcha.
- Facilitating communication so that, for example, a name of a sick person to daven for can be included in the congregation’s prayers or space can be made for birkat ha-gomel.
- Having the shali’ach tzibbur make sure that his voice is audible in the women’s section. The same goes for ba’al korei, divrei Torah, or announcements.
- Building awareness of the synagogue’s policy on women reciting mourner’s Kaddish, and helping make women feel comfortable following it.
All of these measures merit consideration. Practical implementation of any of them would depend on the nature of each community, its sensitivities and the resources at its disposal.
Why don't more women attend tefilla be-tzibbur? And what role do Rabbis and communities play?
Although some women come to synagogue frequently, many show little to no interest in attending, at least not beyond Shabbat and chagim. Of those who do attend regularly, many arrive late.
Why don’t more women come to synagogue?
I. Tradition Women of many communities do not traditionally attend services and are not encouraged to do so. In these communities, members may have the impression that women do not benefit from participating in tefilla be-tzibbur. When attendance is not customary in a given community, women who wish to attend might also hesitate because there is no women’s section, because the women’s section will be occupied by men, or because there are not likely to be other women present.
II. Other responsibilities Many women do not attend synagogue or arrive late because it conflicts with responsibilities with their own religious value, such as care-giving or child-rearing, in which women often take the lead. Regular synagogue attendance is more common among women who are not raising young children. College students, for example, find that minyan provides a religious structure and meeting point for peers involved and invested in religious life on campus. Older women sometimes make going to shul a regular part of the day around retirement age, when they have fewer professional responsibilities, or (for those with children) upon becoming empty-nesters.
III. Kavanna Women may find private prayer more conducive to kavvana than tefilla be-tzibbur. Free of obligation in tefilla be-tzibbur, a woman may choose private prayer as a preferred mode of avodat Hashem. Some women experience synagogue as a passive, spectator experience. This can contribute to lack of kavvana in synagogue.
A combination of educational and practical responses can address some of these issues. Women can learn more about the significance of participating in tefilla be-tzibbur as an active prayer experience. Communities can encourage attendance and provide childcare, or an early “hashkama” minyan so that couples with children can split up.
In a piece for Tradition Online, Deracheha Editor-At-Large Sarah Rudolph challenges rabbanim and women to work in tandem to maximize the option for women to attend tefilla be-tzibbur:
Sarah Davis Rudolph, ' A “Changing Self-Perception” of One’s Own' Tradition Online
What would happen if…all the shul rabbis announced that women are welcome, and made it so with spacious and pleasant women’s sections, would we attend in droves? If we started attending in droves, would the shuls notice and become more welcoming?…What we need, as communities and as individuals, is to figure out which opportunities are important to us, and why. We need more accessible and honest communication about the halakhic and practical issues surrounding those opportunities. And we need to figure out ways to maintain awareness and availability of those options we believe it is important that women have, even when few women take advantage of them.
Why don't more women attend keri'at ha-Torah?
At the hakhel ceremony at the end of each shemitta year, every member of the Jewish people participates in hearing the Torah, to strengthen faith and mitzva observance.
Initially, the Jewish people’s everyday language was Hebrew, enabling even those without formal education to understand the words of the Torah, at hakhel and otherwise.
But those who returned from Bavel with Ezra and Nechemya spoke Aramaic, so Ezra’s reading prioritized inclusivity. Ezra made sure that the people could see the Torah as well as hear it, and that the reading would be translated into the Aramaic vernacular. Given women’s exemption from the formal mitzva of Torah study, this simultaneous translation had particular import for making the reading accessible to women.
By Magen Avraham’s time, however, women in some communities customarily left synagogue at the time of the reading. Perhaps this was because there was no longer a translation or because it was otherwise difficult to follow the reading. Even today, though, when chumashim with translation are widely available, many women skip synagogue on Shabbat morning altogether, and those who attend often arrive only for mussaf, or make up shacharit during keri’at ha-Torah. While in many cases women’s not attending keri’at ha-Torah is a result of other responsibilities, such as childcare, this is not always the case.
Given that women’s hearing keri’at ha-Torah was initially a priority and remains an opportunity to fulfill a mitzva, what can we do to encourage greater attendance?
First, we can educate women about the mitzva opportunity involved in hearing it and also clarify that a woman’s making up prayers during keri’at ha-Torah is only a last-case resort limited to shemoneh esrei when she will otherwise miss the time for it.
Second, we could do more to make Torah reading accessible to women. Our synagogues could work on ensuring adequate acoustics and lighting, so that the reading can be heard and followed from the women’s section. The Torah can be passed near (or into) the women’s section. An effort can be made to ensure that women can see hagbah.
These are not new ideas. As we’ve seen, from its origins, public Torah reading has prioritized inclusivity in an effort to emulate standing at Sinai, when women were present. To this end, we can take inspiration from the Jews of Cochin, India, who created a structure to bring the reading closer to women at synagogue and mimic standing at Sinai:
Barbara C. Johnson, 'Cochin: Jewish Women's Music.' The Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, Jewish Women's Archive
Many Kerala Jewish girls were educated in Hebrew along with boys (sometimes in mixed schools, sometimes separately), learning from an early age to read the Hebrew prayers and the weekly Torah portion, together with the ta’amei mikra for chanting it. Women attended synagogue on Sabbaths and holidays, when the Torah was read from a second upper bimah (unique to Kerala synagogue architecture) on a balcony immediately in front of the women’s section, separated only by an open lattice screen, where they could see the Torah scroll as well as follow along carefully in the readings and prayers. Certain older women were noted for their proficiency in Hebrew and sometimes it was a grandmother or “aunty” who coached young boys as they prepared for the ritual of chanting their first haftarah and Torah portions in the synagogue.
Conducting the Torah reading in a way that maximizes women’s hearing and proximity sends a strong message. In the Cochin community, the second bima in front of the ezrat nashim both reflects and fosters a strong tradition of women’s engagement in Torah study.
TZITZIT AND TEFILLIN
Why should a woman's motivations to wear tzitzit be questioned? Don't we praise chumra?
In our current religious climate, assumption of chumra (halachic stringency) has become an increasingly mainstream path for seeking religious meaning. If anything, someone taking on chumrot often receives praise for it. Perhaps in consequence, our sensitivities to the dangers of yuhara, spiritual haughtiness (which is a halachic issue), whether in excess stringency or in disregard of traditional practice, have been dulled.
A woman looking to wear tzitzit may have difficulty relating to discussion of yuhara. She perceives her desire to wear tzitzit as a matter between herself and God, not other people. Especially if she normally wears shawls and scarfs to which she could affix tzitzit, she is not making an extra effort to put herself in a position in which she could voluntarily fulfil the mitzva.
However, an act that deviates from women’s prevailing practice for hundreds and hundreds of years may be defined as yuhara even if we do not question an individual woman’s motivation. It would likely take a large critical mass of women in supportive dialogue with rabbis for this to change.
How should we relate to association of women in tzitzit with political statements or with denominational politics?
As Rav Moshe Feinstein notes in a responsum, a woman’s wearing of tzitzit, especially a full tallit, has come to be associated with non-Orthodox denominations and with protest against Halacha. Indeed, it is not easy to dissociate women wearing tzitzit from recent denominational history. Most significantly, this association seems to be what allows for unbridled protest in many rabbinic quarters.
When a woman who may not observe Shabbat wears tzitzit, there is strong concern for yuhara, spiritual haughtiness, which is a halachic issue. Given that her overall religious practice is not in compliance with Halacha, it is more difficult to assume that she seeks to wear a garment with tzitzit without any intent to challenge traditional understandings of Halacha.
Making a statement through mitzva observance that seems to challenge the halachic order is unlikely to find rabbinic support.
On the other hand, if wearing tzitzit becomes more common among women who are Orthodox and careful to observe mitzvot in general, these associations could weaken over time.
Eshet Halacha Malka Puterkovsky has made a heartfelt plea to rabbis on this point:
מלכה פיטרקובסקי, מהלכת בדרכה, עמ’ 152
שבנות ונשים…תרגשנה ותדענה שמעצבי ההלכה בדורנו רואים אותן ואת צורכיהן הרוחניים כפי שהן, ללא דעות קודמות או ייחוס כוונות שאינן לשם שמים, ומתוך כך ישאפו לתת מענה הלכתי אמיתי.
Malka Puterkovsky, Mehalechet Be-darkah, p. 152
That girls and women…should feel and know that the shapers of Halacha in our generation see them and their spiritual needs as they are, without prejudice or imputing to them intentions not for the sake of Heaven…
Why is interest in fulfilling the mitzva of tzitzit comparatively rare among Orthodox women?
While some religiously-observant women may be interested in tzitzit, the majority are not. Why is this the case, especially when tzitzit is such a significant and beautiful mitzva?
The lack of interest most likely reflects deference to tradition, and to the mainstream halachic opinions discouraging women from wearing tzitzit.
Other factors might also be at play, though: An instinctive feeling that tzitzit is for men. Or that wearing tzitzit is a provocation. Or that it would add bulk to a woman’s look. Or that constructing a set of tzitzit for a woman would take a lot of know-how and effort. Or that tzitzit should be worn every day, and that would be daunting to take on.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe suggested that women fulfill positive time-bound mitzvot through their husbands. Indeed, many women have a strong relationship to tzitzit, through the men in the family: whether ducking under a father’s tallit as a child and playing with the strings, buying one for a fiancé and standing under it at the chuppa, or thrilling as a bar mitzva boy wraps himself in a tallit for the first time.
Though, depending on her life circumstances, a woman may find some of these experiences resonate less with her, they do come from a world of Jewish women past and present. Some exceptional women have worn tzitzit. Still, for many women, the relationship with the mitzva will remain powerful, positive, and indirect in the foreseeable future.
Now that learning Torah from texts is more open to women, should the exemption from tefillin remain in place?
Women’s exemption from laying tefillin is based on the exemption of women from the formal mitzva of learning Torah, but women learn more Torah texts nowadays than ever before. Some modern rabbinic voices even tell us that text learning has become an obligatory form of avodat Hashem for women. (See more here.) Does this have any effect on women’s relationship to the mitzva of tefillin?
Although there are many reasons why a woman may be obligated to learn Torah, women’s exemption from the formal mitzva of Talmud Torah remains in place. It is that formal exemption that leads to the exemption from the mitzva of tefillin. For example, women have always been obligated in learning practical Halacha, which can be described as a form of learning Torah. That did not change the original formulation of exemption from tefillin. So too, increased imperatives for women to learn Torah and the real halachic significance of women fulfilling the mitzva of learning Torah through text study do not change the exemption from tefillin.
That being said, we might expect communities in which women’s text study is seen as an imperative to encourage women to fulfill the mitzva of tefillin voluntarily. Why don’t they?
As compelling as the idea may be for a woman who learns Torah to bind it to her flesh, there are other halachic factors at stake that militate against voluntary performance of the mitzva of tefillin. If there were no other halachic impediment, we imagine that many women would take an interest in fulfilling the mitzva of tefillin and many more religious women throughout history would have done so, creating a more substantial precedent than the single example of Michal. But those halachic impediments make and have made a difference to the majority of women who are most devoted to learning Torah.
Why might a woman seek a practical ruling to lay tefillin?
For some women, especially young women who attend minyan regularly in camp or school, watching male peers lay tefillin can raise thoughts and feelings about what that experience is like and why women are excluded from it. A woman who takes care to recite Shema as part of prayer finds herself mentioning the significance of tefillin on a regular basis, and knows how significant voluntary mitzva performance can be. It is understandable, then, why a woman might have a sincere desire to wrap herself in tefillin as a physical expression of connection to God and Torah.
Although there are many women who do not feel this way and have no desire to lay tefillin, it is important to acknowledge with sensitivity and respect the women who have these feelings, and who may find the practical halachic rulings we discuss challenging.
May a woman rely on earlier opinions that permit women to lay tefillin?
In a letter explaining his decision to permit two of his female students to lay tefillin, high school principal Rav Tully Harcsztark wrote:22
Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Letter to Parents, January, 2014
“While our community has adopted as normative the view that women refrain from this act, I see the range of rishonim who allow women to don tefillin as support to give space to that practice within our community… I permitted our two female students to daven with tefillin because I believe that we should not be afraid of different forms of avodat Ha-shem when there is halakhic argument to support it.”
This statement shows great sensitivity to the students and to making room for different approaches to halachic issues in the community. At the same time, the letter lacks reference to major rabbinic figures and halachic rulings of the past five hundred years. It marshals halachic backing for the decision solely from rishonim (early halachic decisors) and from the theoretical ability to construct a halachic argument in support of it.
In her essay on women and tefillin, Rabbanit Malka Puterkovsky explains why making a ruling of this sort isn’t tenable:
רבנית מלכה פיוטרקובסקי, “דין הנשים בהנחת תפילין,” מהלכת בדרכה, עמ’ 151
שאף שבתקופת ה”ראשונים” נמצאו פוסקים רבים שהתירו לנשים לקיים מצוות תפילין…הרי שאם נוצרה אחדות דעים בתקופת האחרונים, שאין ראוי לאישה להניח תפילין, בשל כלל הפסיקה המחייב: “הלכתא כבתראי”- יש לקבל הכרעה זו כפשוטה, הלכה למעשה, אלא אם ישנם נימוקים מהותיים שבכוחם לשנותה בזמננו.
Rabbanit Malka Puterkovsky, “The Halacha of Women and Laying Tefillin,” Mehalechet Be-darkah, p. 151
Although in the era of the ”rishonim” there were many halachic authorities who permitted women to fulfill the mitzva of tefillin…if a consensus formed in the era of the acharonim [later authorities] that it is not fitting for a woman to lay tefillin, [then] because of the binding halachic principle that “halacha is in accordance with the later authorities,” one must accept this decision straightforwardly in halachic practice, unless there are qualitative rationales with the power to change it in our time
Overturning centuries of halachic rulings and tradition demands great halachic authority. Rav Herschel Schachter, a prominent halachic authority and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University, has taken up this theme:23
רב צבי שכטר “כל העדה כולם קדושים”
מאי קסברי המתירים בזה,…וכידוע לכל, ככה היתה ההנהגה המקובלת מדורי דורות, ומי הוא זה שיהין ויתחצף להורות נגד פסק המקובל של רבינו הרמ”…וביטוי זה שאומרים כמה מהמתירים “שע”פ [=שעל פי] הלכה” פעולה מסויימת מותרת, ושהמחמירים רק רוצים לאסרה “מטעמים פוליטיים”, איננו נכון, שגם ענין זה של שינוי המסורה מהווה חלק-עצמי מן ההלכה…
Rav Herschel Schachter, 'The Entire Assembly is Holy'
What is the rationale of those who permit? …as everyone knows, thus was the received practice from past generations, and who is he that gives the go ahead and is brazen to rule against a received ruling of our Rabbi the Rema……And the expression used by some who permit “that according to halacha” a certain action is permissible, and that those who are stringent want to forbid it only for “political reasons,” is incorrect. For this matter of changing tradition also constitutes an integral part of halacha…
Rav Schachter argues that halachic consensus going back centuries clearly prohibits women from laying tefillin – and that even constructing a convincing lenient argument based on the practice of earlier generations does not suffice to permit it.
Even were guf naki clearly understood and clearly obsolete, even were other halachic concerns addressed, Rav Schachter would be loath to permit women to lay tefillin, in light of tradition. In the case of tefillin, generations of practice and a charged history override potential arguments for leniency.
Why do tefillin not appeal to more women when they are so central to men's religious lives?
Tefillin are typically not of central interest to women. Here are some possible explanations for why this is the case:
The exemption from the mitzva and protest of voluntary fulfillment creates distance from the mitzva. Most women not only do not lay tefillin, but rarely see them. Outside of a co-ed school or camp setting, the vast majority of observant women do not attend daily morning prayer services with any regularity. Many women, especially mothers of young children, struggle even to make time to pray, and laying tefillin takes more time. Women are exempt from reciting the paragraphs of Shema that relate to the mitzva of tefillin, which is the time when men must lay them. Tefillin are inaccessible. There is no way to feminize them, which presents a halachic, sociological, and psychological bar to women’s laying them. They are also expensive, and wrapping them properly requires training.
Still, despite all the above, a woman may have her own sense of need that diverges from other women’s, and she may ascribe great meaning to laying tefillin. That feeling should be acknowledged, even as we recognize the consensus that other halachic considerations override it here.
MECHITZA AND GENDER SEPARATION
How does mechitza affect the experience of communal prayer?
Many of us live in a society in which men and women often mix, professionally and even socially. Gender separation in synagogues can sometimes seem odd or jarring, because it differs from life experience in other contexts.
This raises an important question: Should synagogue look and feel like daily life?
A core element of sanctity is being set apart from the mundane. Religious rituals in general create a sort of threshold through which participants enter into the sacred and leave behind the everyday. Rav Yosef Soloveitchik applies these concepts to the synagogue. He argues that gender separation in synagogue sets the stage effectively for prayer precisely because it is so clearly distinct from the social realm:
Rav Yosef B. Soloveitchik, 'On Seating and Sanctification.' In The Sanctity of the Synagogue, p.116
Prayer means communion with the Master of the World, and therefore withdrawal from all and everything….Clearly, the presence of women among men, or of men among women, which often evokes a certain frivolity in the group, either in spirit or in behavior, can contribute little to sanctification or to the deepening of religious feeling; nor can it help instill that mood in which a man must be immersed when he would communicate with the Almighty.
Rav Soloveitchik’s point may seem counter-intuitive. Communal prayer is, after all, fundamentally communal. His idea seems to be that we come together as a covenantal community in synagogue, but the existential state of praying is of the individual who stands before God.
In a powerful essay, Natalie Michelle Gorman expresses feelings about mechitza that echo Rav Soloveitchik’s formulation:
Natalie Gorman, 'My Forbidden (Mechitza) Love Story,' Lilith
….When I sat in a separate space, I found my own space for prayer, one whose contours had nothing to do with who did or didn’t come with me to synagogue. As a college student seeking to define her own religious identity, I came to see the mechitza as a symbol of my independence, and of my ability to define my own Jewish experience irrespective of my nuclear family. As a woman among women, what I felt was not kinship (although I was among friends), but rather, the liberating absence of family structure. Now, as an engaged woman, I still enjoy praying independently, without reference to my partner, my new family. The mechitza has allowed me to claim prayer as a private space, in which I can shed my various roles and simply be myself.
For all this emphasis on the individual, prayer in synagogue still does bring us together as a community. Because of the mechitza, though, communal prayer is first experienced as part of the community of men or women, and only second as part of the broader community. As a function of synagogue architecture that places men in the center, women are typically more conscious of this than men. Consequently, communal prayer becomes a place in which women connect to God as women.
Much as many men enjoy the feeling that communal prayer is a men’s activity, many women, like Joelle Keene, appreciate the sense of sisterhood that is created in the women’s section.
Joelle Keene, 'My Beloved Mechitza.' Chabad.org
Synagogue becomes one place where we can be with our own gender, something not without a pleasure all its own. So you can say the mechitzah exists to keep women out, that the genders are identical and all else is cultural conceit. For many of us, though, the mechitzah opens a door in, perhaps into a more concentrated experience of who we are and certainly into the presence of Gd where holiness and much direction lie.
Others may chafe at the sense that gender becomes so important in communal prayer, although women and men share an individual prayer obligation, and attending communal prayer is an opportunity to join the entire community.
Even women with great affection for the mechitza can sometimes feel frustrated by it:
Lucette Lagnado, 'Prayer Behind the Partition', Wall Street Journal, 23.3.07
As a little girl, I was both enamored of the women’s section at the back of my Orthodox synagogue and tormented by it. I lived for Saturday mornings, when my mother and I left our Brooklyn apartment and walked around the corner to sweet, friendly Young Magen David and the cozy partitioned area reserved for women only. It was its own world: intimate, charming, a place that encouraged friendship as well as prayer. Safe at last, I’d think, as I put the rough school week behind me. I’d take a seat next to my mother behind the wooden filigreed divider with clover-shaped holes. My immigrant congregation, made up of families who came from the Middle East, was so small that it was easy to follow the service from our area, and when the Torah scrolls were passed around you’d see women’s hands poking through the holes to touch the holy scrolls. Yet I also bristled at the divider and longed to escape to the men’s section. The men seemed to have such fun…
The minyan and prayer leader are centered in the men’s section, which can give rise to a feeling that that’s where the action is, out of reach to women, though in fact a woman’s prayer is significant and active.
At a later point in her essay, Natalie Gorman explains how she has dealt with her own reservations about the mechitza, emphasizing the choices available to communities in interpreting the meaning of mechitza:
Natalie Gorman, 'My Forbidden (Mechitza) Love Story,' Lilith
I don’t like the idea of women being sidelined in religious settings or anywhere else… That said, I knew that my male friends on the other side didn’t regard me as less intelligent or less able than they. We were separate for reasons of law and tradition in a religious setting, not because they were out to take away my rights or disrespect me as a human… That enabled me to be comfortable with the mechitza, and therefore with having it be a part of my experience of tefillah, even if I don’t love all aspects of it all the time.
Some women struggle with mechitza for other reasons, because they do not feel a particular affinity with other women or with the way womanhood is defined in their communities. Still others might question where they belong. In these cases, mechitza can create a sense of alienation and raise halachic questions beyond the scope of this piece. These feelings and related questions should be acknowledged and treated with sensitivity.
As a community, we need to seek ways to make both men and women’s sections maximally welcoming and well positioned for prayer, for as many people as possible.
Is there a halachic problem with men being aware of women's presence at synagogue?
A midrash touches on this issue:
ילקוט שמעוני תורה פרשת כי תצא רמז תתקלד
תנא דבי אליהו…לא יעמוד ברשות הרבים ויתפלל מפני דעת הבריות, ולא יעמוד בין הנשים ויתפלל מפני דעת הנשים.
Yalkut Shim'oni Ki Tetzei 934
It was taught in the beit midrash of Eliyahu: …One should not stand in the public domain and pray, because [one is likely to be distracted by] the thoughts of others. And one should not stand among women and pray, because [one is likely to be distracted by] the thoughts of women.
This midrash discourages a man from praying in public, where others are not praying, or among women, since concerns about what impression he makes on the general public or on women are likely to distract him from prayer.
The implication is that we all are disproportionately distracted in prayer by thoughts of the impression we make on others, and that men are disproportionately distracted by thoughts of the impression they make on women. The midrash does not explicitly consider the case of a woman praying among men, who, leading the service, inevitably make their presence felt, though similar concerns might apply.
This midrash seems to imply that at some point, awareness of women’s presence can interfere with a man’s ability to pray. The midrash does not suggest that the women disappear, though, just that the man not pray amidst them.
From Shirat Ha-yam to the repeated attempts at resolving kalut rosh at simchat beit ha-sho’eiva, the thrust of the sources we have seen has been to employ gender separation first and foremost as a tool to make room for everyone’s presence and participation in encounters with God.
Men’s awareness of women’s presence in synagogue can be important. It can remind the shali’ach tzibbur to pray loud enough to be heard by women in attendance, and it can help deter men from speaking next to the mechitza or from using the ezrat nashim during tefilla.
While awareness of others at prayer need not be problematic, Israeli educator Yael Unterman reminds us of its complexity. With or without immodest intent, we need to think about what it means to watch others at prayer, especially those in the other section of synagogue who may be unaware, even when it is fully permissible:
Yael Unterman, 'Of Intruding Eyes and Hidden Things.' Times of Israel
For those people in the synagogue for whom prayer…is a profound communing with God and the transcendent, a great disservice is done, in my opinion, by placing others in a position where they can easily observe them. It demonstrates a lack of spiritual sensitivity to ignore the magnificent intimacy that takes place when one is praying — an intimacy that should remain private, if the laws of modesty are fully understood…[Once], during the final verse of lecha dodi — the one beginning with bo’i kalah where all turn to face in the opposite direction — I found myself looking down from my front row seat right into the face of a man who was clearly filled with love and ecstasy and communing with God and the Sabbath queen at that moment. I felt truly embarrassed, like a voyeur. That moment was not for me to see; and yet the synagogue’s design had let me see it, seated in the front row as I was.
The question of when awareness of someone else at prayer is appropriate or even inspiring, and when it veers into voyeurism, is one that the mechitza cannot fully resolve.
Which is the best type of mechitza?
The setup of a women’s section sends a message to the community; ideally, its structure is informed by the needs and comfort of the women in the community, sending the message that the community is invested in meeting those needs. Some general standards each synagogue might strive toward include:
Ensuring that the women’s section is set up, lit, clean, stocked with prayerbooks, unlocked, heated or air-conditioned, and accessible to women for every tefilla, for the full duration of tefilla.
Maintaining the women’s section as a woman’s-only space throughout tefilla.
Maximizing a woman’s opportunity to see and hear the chazzan and the Torah reading, as suits the specific community.
Devorah Rubin explains why steps like these are so important, and why she is optimistic that much can be achieved in this area:7
Devorah Rubin, 'Davening in Dark Corners,' Jewish Action, Spring 1998.
On Shabbos, on Yom Tov, and especially during the Yamim Noraim, it enhances one’s kavanos to see the baal tefillah; to watch the Torah being read and raised; to see the shofar being blown; and to see the Hakafos on Hoshana Rabba. … At the present time, in many shuls, it requires imagination to feel that one is part of the congregation. It is also harder to follow the rabbi’s drashah when one cannot see his face. The solution adopted in some shuls of drawing back the curtains during the speech does not take into account that some of us are uncomfortable being suddenly put on display. Several major Orthodox shuls have had the good sense to try to remedy the situation. The technology certainly exists, for example: the one-way mirror; a combination of smoked glass and screen; adjustable wooden louvers; and of course, balconies, especially tiered balconies, afford a good view. Installing a kosher, women-friendly mechitzah need not be difficult or expensive; all it requires is good will and ingenuity.
Even with today’s many options, it can be challenging to balance halachic considerations with women’s preferences, and design the most women-friendly mechitza, especially since preferences can vary widely even within a single community.
For instance, Talmudic precedent describes a balcony and that is also Rav Moshe Feinstein’s preference; however, not all women can easily ascend to a balcony, and not all synagogue structures can accommodate one. Additionally, we’ve seen that women’s experience of mechitza carries its own halachic significance, and many women prefer other options.
The atmosphere most conducive to serious and focused prayer isn’t the same for everyone. Some people like singing; others prefer to pray quietly. Some singers might prefer a balcony to sing more freely; other singers might prefer to be closer to the men, to hear them better. Some find prayer in a large group of people to be a powerful experience; others find it distracting or overwhelming. Some women prefer the relative privacy of a balcony; others prefer a side-by-side configuration, to emphasize that everyone in the synagogue has an equal stake in prayer.
For example, contemporary educators Deborah Klapper and Racheli Weinstock have different approaches to mechitza.
Deborah Klapper feels passionately that a mechitza should be side by side:8
רחלי וינשטוק, “מחיצות של תקווה”, מקור ראשון 21.2.2020
Deborah Klapper, 'What do our Shuls Teach Us,' Times of Israel, April 28, 2017.
If the women’s section is behind the men’s section, rearrange as soon as is feasible… .When you convert your shul to side-by-side, you are sending a message of equal importance and also facilitating access for women to hear and see.
Racheli Weinstock prefers a closed, opaque space, to allow for ecstatic prayer.
רחלי וינשטוק, “מחיצות של תקווה”, מקור ראשון 21.2.2020
התיקון הגדול שנעשה במקדש, בהפרדה בין גברים לנשים, אפשר לי סביבה נטולת מתח מיני, שבה אני יכולה להביא את תשוקות הנשמה לבורא בשחרור של הקול והגוף עד לקצה, במקום מוגן ובטוח, שמאפשר לתפילה זכה וטהורה לפרוץ ללא חשש. המחיצה האטומה שדרכה אני לא רואה את הגברים, שמשאירה אותי בנוכחות חברותיי בלבד, מאפשרת לי לראות את הקולות ולחקוק אותם בליבי.
Racheli Weinstock, 'Mechitzot of Hope,' Mekor Rishon, February 21, 2020.
The rectification that was made in the Temple, separating men and women, affords me with an environment free of sexual tension, in which I can express the soul’s desires for the Creator with total freedom of voice and body, in a protected and safe space that allows for a pure prayer to break out without reservation. The impenetrable mechitza through which I do not see the men, which leaves me only in the presence of my fellow women, allows me to see the voices [of prayer] and to etch them in my heart.
In short, there is no single ideal mechitza model for everyone. Since structure follows our understanding of the mechitza’s purpose, the best type of mechitza is one that is chosen and implemented in line with a community’s halachic guidelines.
Further challenges stem from the fact that not all synagogue structures or budgets can accommodate all types of mechitzot. Even when they can, synagogues may be reluctant to allocate space or financial resources to women’s sections, when the men’s section tends to be reasonably full all week long, and the women’s section is not. Women, in turn, are less likely to attend weekly services when the women’s section is less welcoming.
One way to break this chicken-and-egg cycle, improving women’s experience and engagement in public prayer, might be to ensure the women of the community are involved in designing the mechitza and women’s section.
Why are men often found praying in or entering the women’s section during tefilla?
A woman who comes to her synagogue during the week to pray may be surprised to discover that there are some men in the women’s section. This phenomenon seems be prevalent in certain communities.
There is no one explanation for why it happens. Sometimes the men’s section is crowded and cramped, and the overflow of men allow themselves access to the women’s section when no women are there, on the assumption that none will come. Sometimes men arrive late to the minyan, and the women’s section is a space that allows them to participate or even just put on tefillin without everyone noticing their late arrival. Sometimes a man might just be looking for a more private and intimate prayer experience, while still being able to answer to the minyan.
Some men walk freely into the women’s section while women are praying there, to grab a sefer or make a phone call. They often assume that separation is only to keep women out of view of the men’s section, while men can enter a women’s section without any halachic concern. That perspective overlooks the halachic discussion of mingling during prayer, which mandates gender separation on both sides of the mechitza regardless of any concern of “looking” at members of the opposite sex.
When men enter a women’s section, no matter what the reason or situation, it can affect the atmosphere and leave a woman feeling that it is not truly her space. A woman who arrives to pray and finds men there might feel awkward and uncomfortable entering. A woman might even feel guilty, as though she has “chased out” the men or disrupted their prayer. This can result in women feeling discouraged from attending communal prayer, and can be especially problematic when a woman has specific reason to daven with a minyan.
In recent years, some congregations have hung up signs reminding men that the women’s section is a space that has been dedicated exclusively for women, and asking them not to enter even if no women are present at the time and even if they just want to quickly retrieve something. In this way a community sends a strong message to all of its members that women’s participation is valued and respected as part of the communal prayer experience, and we move toward a time when no signs will be necessary.
What is the virtue of separating women and men in society?
To what extent should a Jewish community’s everyday functioning reflect that of the cultures around it?
In our discussion of mechitza in prayer, we asked a related question: to what extent a community’s functioning at prayer should resemble its functioning at other times, especially since a hallmark of ritual is a distinction from the everyday.
As jarring as it can be for those of us who live in more mixed communities to enter into a prayer space organized differently from the rest of our lives, that very difference can be spiritually stimulating. Is there a role for separation to play in distinguishing Jewish community from surrounding culture outside of prayer as well?
For the most part, Western society is heavily mixed, or espouses gender mixing as a value. As Rav Ya’akov Ariel notes, traditional Jewish attitudes toward mixing are more circumspect:
רב יעקב אריאל, הלכה והידור בדיני צניעות בזמננו, ג: הפרדה
מצד אחד, המסורת של צניעות ביהדות לא רואה בעין יפה תערובת של נשים וגברים. מאידך אין ספק שההלכה לא דרשה הפרדה מוחלטת בכל מצב ומצב.
Rav Ya'akov Ariel, “Halacha and Hiddur in the laws of Tzeni'ut in Our Time,” 3: Separation
On the one hand, the tradition of tzeni’ut in Judaism does not view mingling of men and women favorably. On the other, there is no doubt that halacha did not demand absolute separation in every situation.
Often, separation between men and women is framed in terms of distancing ourselves from sexual transgression. In some contexts, men and women can get carried away mingling with each other, which may result in kalut rosh (frivolity—often of a sexual flavor), or even more serious transgression of laws related to giluy arayot (illicit relations). Some degree of separation, to avoid these transgressions, is a natural outgrowth of our aspiration to kedusha (sanctity).
However, in the above quotation, Rav Ariel points out that there is also a second reason to limit mingling, beyond fears of “what might happen,” Mingling itself may sometimes challenge the value of tzeniut, which dictates that we draw boundaries to limit certain types of exposure, including between men and women.
Though both sexual transgression and breaches of tzeniut are possible in single-gender environments, traditional sources see them as more prevalent, and therefore in greater need of preventive measures, in mixed settings.
There may also be additional benefits to separation between men and women. When implemented thoughtfully, it can help ensure open access to social and communal events in a way that honors both men and women. Separation can even foster the emergence of empowered, women-only spaces to complement existing men’s-only spaces.
On the other hand, gender separation can have significant drawbacks. Too often, its implementation excludes women from aspects of communal life commonly dominated by men and deprives our communities of the benefits of a wider range of perspectives. It also leaves little room for those who don’t fit easily into the gender binary, and can be complicated for those not exclusively attracted to those on the other side of the mechitza.
Additionally, when broadly applied, separation can send the damaging message that any meeting of men and women will always result in kalut rosh, or imply that men and women see each other exclusively in a sexual light.
Male-female interactions can be more than just appropriate or inappropriate; they can be valuable and important. For example, a person of any gender can learn a great deal from a talmid or talmidat chacham and can emulate the behavior of a tzadik or tzadeket.
Even as he advocates for tzeniut as an overarching value, Rav Kook acknowledges that its pursuit may come at the expense of other positive values, such as derech eretz (lit. the way of the world), meaning social norms or proper conduct:
רב קוק, מידות הראי”ה,צניעות
מדת הצניעות גורמת טובות רבות בעולם, ומתוך-כך היא זוכה לדחות מפניה דברים שהיו טובים מצד עצמם… מדת האהבה והידידות, בכל הסימנים והדבורים הנוחים, הי’ ראוי להיות שוה בין המינים, אבל מפני יקרת ערך הצניעות נדחית מדת דרך-ארץ ממקומה …
Rav Kook, Middot Ha-Re'iyah, Tzeni'ut
The attribute of tzeni’ut causes many benefits in the world, and because of this it deserves to override things that would have been good in their own right…The attribute of affection and friendship, with all its manifestations and pleasant speech, would have been fitting to be equal between genders, but because of the precious value of tzeni’ut, the attribute of derech eretz (the way of the world) is pushed aside…
A contemporary Israeli rabbi, Rav Yuval Cherlow, has argued the opposite, that derech eretz should take priority over calls for separation:
הרב יובל שרלו ורן חורי, חברה שלמה: חברה צנועה מעורבת לכתחילה, 21.
לא מצאנו מקורות העוסקים ישירות בחברה ברמה היומיומית. בהיעדר מקורות כאלה, ומתוך תפיסה רוחנית בדבר יחס התורה לחיים, פנינו אל דרך הארץ הבסיסית, אל אופיו של עולמנו בו מתנהלים גברים ונשים…
Rav Yuval Cherlow and Ran Huri, A Whole Society: A Modest Mixed Society as an Ideal, 21.
We have not found sources that deal directly with society on the day-to-day level. Given the lack of such sources, and from a spiritual perspective regarding the relation of Torah to life, we have turned to basic derech eretz (the way of the world), to the nature of our world in which men and women conduct themselves…
To fulfill the mandate to become a sacred nation, Jewish communal life needs to reflect and promote the totality of Jewish values, including but not limited to tzeniut. Some degree of gender separation outside of prayer can play a role in our quest for sanctity. Halachic authorities differ on what degree of separation is correct, and on how that relates to our conception of derech eretz.
Is it reasonable to claim that seriousness of purpose will head off impropriety?
In the #MeToo era, Rav Uziel’s assertion that serious business transactions do not require gender separation because they seldom involve breaches of modesty seems slightly naïve. We frequently hear of sexual harassment, and even assault, in what should be serious work or educational environments.
It is reasonable to require less-rigid gender separation in serious contexts than in festive ones, even though seriousness of purpose does not in and of itself eliminate all concerns. This is especially the case since separation does not guarantee protection against breaches of tzeniut, either, and since separation often disadvantages women.
We’ve tried to show that the answer to this question is itself subject to halachic debate, with a range of broad and narrow approaches, and that social trends affect the application of these approaches.
In the past few decades, the charedi world has increasingly embraced a broader approach to mandating separation and mechitza outside of prayer, treating mechitza in these contexts as a full-fledged halachic requirement and building mechitzot on the model of the synagogue mechitza.
This trend is complicated by the fact that women are deeply affected by mechitzot but often are not included in making decisions about them. How a mechitza is constructed can make a world of difference to the person beside or behind it.
In a passionate piece, Israeli charedi activist Estee Rieder-Indusrky describes the changes she has experienced over her lifetime, as well as their effects:
Estee Rieder-Indursky, 'You May Not See It, But Ultra-Orthodox Women Are Angry' Jan 31, 2020
The mehitza was always there: in big banquet halls and at the small-scale venues where Hasidic relatives held celebrations. We would go as a family, enter the hall together and then split up and meet again, standing on both sides of the mehitza. The mehitza was friendly there, too – not hermetic; you could move it and talk around it. Expanding when possible, narrowing when necessary. It’s hard for me to remember exactly when this happened, but suddenly there was a mehitza everywhere. It is a second kind of mehitza, one that is no longer friendly. It’s opaque. Sometimes it’s made of plywood; sometimes it’s an actual wall; sometimes it’s only virtual, but no less divisive than a wall….Suddenly, we no longer enter the hall together with the men – there’s a special entrance for women, an afterthought, by way of a dark and dank alleyway. There’s also separation on buses.
The increased separation in charedi society may be a response to a perception of increasing permissiveness in Western culture and even among other branches of Orthodoxy. While this reaction is understandable, increased separation sometimes departs from tradition, with real collateral damage to the community, especially its women.
Even those who understand Halacha as widely mandating separation have no halachic basis for situating women in inferior conditions. Chana Chava Perton makes this case:
Chana Chava Perton, In your place: An open letter to the front of the shul
[A] large segment of women have experienced: a slow, quiet shift of cultural norms that results in a two-tier, hierarchical society. Enough women (frum, content-with-our-roles-but-concerned-with-current-trends women) have since spoken up, and far too many to be dismissed as anomalies. Women who are perfectly content praying behind a mechitza are upset about the lack of air conditioning…space or grape juice to make kiddush. About the lack of dignity. They’ve shared stories of trying to speak up and repeatedly being shut down.
Those in more mixed communities face their own challenges. Integration into Western culture can make it difficult to retain sensitivity to the idea that some situations do call for separation, and that different approaches to this issue are viable. Adi Ben Yishai, an Israeli national religious activist, sees separation in public as an empowering religious right that others should accommodate:
עדי בן ישי, הפרדה אינה הדר, בשבע 8.22.29
הפרדה אינה הדרה. הפרדה בין גברים לנשים מאפשרת התנהלות חופשית במרחב הציבורי. כך בחוף הים, כך ברחבת הריקודים ולעתים גם במופע או בהרצאה. הפרדה היא לא גזירה, אלא בחירה של קהילה להתנהל במרחב שלה בדרכה שלה
Adi Ben Yishai, “Separation isn't Discrimination” Basheva 22.8.19
Separation isn’t discrimination. Separation between men and women enables free conduct in the public sphere. Thus it is at the beach, on the dance floor, and sometimes also at a show or lecture. Separation isn’t a decree, but a community’s choice to conduct itself in its sphere in its way.
At the same time, a community is made up of individuals, with individual sensitivities and needs. In a responsum, Rav Nahum Rabinovitch expresses the importance of being sensitive to and aware of what’s appropriate for our communities, while retaining ultimate responsibility for ourselves.
שו”ת שיח נחום קיב
רגישותם של בני אדם לדברים שונים, מושפעת מהאווירה, מהנהלים ומארחות החיים המקובלים בחברה, והם שיוצרים תגובות שונות לתופעות דומות. כלומר, לאותה תופעה ייתכנו השפעות ותגובות שונות לפי ארחות החיים המקובלות בכל חברה וחברה…..ואמנם היו ארחות חיים שונות במקומות שונים…למציאות החברתית יש השפעה על הקביעה הרצויה…..שהתנאים בחברה קובעים את סף הרגישות לגירויים שונים….וכמו שיש ניסיונות בחשיפה, כך ישנם כנגדם במקום שנקבעים גדרים וסייגים על ידי החברה….כל קהל צריך לדאוג לציבור שלו ולנסות שאותו הציבור ינהג לפי הכללים המתאימים לו. אולם, יש לדעת כי מה שלא יהיו הנהלים והכללים הציבוריים שייקבעו, אין בידם להבטיח מניעת כל כישלון, ובסופו של דבר כל אדם צריך להיות אחראי בעבור התנהגותו הוא.
Responsa Si'ach Nahum 112
Human sensitivity to different things is affected by the environment, and by the society’s accepted policies and ways of life, which engender different responses to similar phenomena. That is to say, the same phenomenon might lead to different effects and responses based on the accepted way of life of each and every society…Indeed there were distinct ways of life in different places…Social reality has an effect on the desirable standards…For the conditions of a society establish the level of sensitivity to different stimuli…Just as there are trials of exposure, so, too, there are corresponding ones in a place where fences and protections are established by the society…Every congregation needs to worry about its community and to endeavor that this community conduct itself in accordance with the laws appropriate for it. However, one should know that whatever public policies and rules may be established, they cannot guarantee to prevent all failure, and at the end of the day every person must be responsible for his own behavior.
Mechitza is one of many tools at our disposal for regulating ourselves. Its effectiveness depends in large part on how it is employed, and it sends a message that should be carefully calibrated. No mechitza can replace self-regulation. The mechitza doesn’t make the society. How we wield it and relate to it does.
How can we relate to halachic limitations on music?
With the exception of concerns about kol isha and specific periods of personal or national mourning, accepted practice seems to be to listen to music, singing, and playing instruments without any particular halachic constraints or feelings of discomfort.
Indeed, many of the halachic practices associated with mourning the churban have fallen out of practice, with some degree of halachic sanction. In recent years, the explosion of technologies for producing and distributing music have made listening to music more and more a part of the average person’s daily life.
Even so, treating kol isha as the only possible religious consideration involved in listening to music does a disservice to women and to Halacha. The halachot and customs that express reservations about music, especially music lacking tzeniut, raise broader questions that merit serious consideration.
How often does music in the background of our lives subtly affect our behavior, and in what ways? How many of us mindlessly stream or sing song lyrics we would never speak, because they come attached either to a catchy tune or to one that stirs our souls? Why do we act as though only women need to be thoughtful and modest about singing?
The religious imperative to be thoughtful about what music we listen to, why, and how goes well beyond the strictures of kol isha.
What are the broader effects of kol isha on women and on religious society?
For some women, singing is not a very important or significant part of life, and the topic of kol isha does not have a great personal implications. For other women, singing may be a central element of identity. This can be especially true if a woman is a particularly talented singer or if she finds singing to be a very meaningful and fulfilling form of expression or avodat Hashem. For such women, the halachot of kol isha can pose serious practical and theological questions.
On a practical level, given that the prohibition of kol isha technically falls on men, limiting what they can listen to, a woman is often left wondering when she can sing and how free she can feel singing when men are present.
On a theological level, a woman may wonder why God blessed her with an ability to sing if she is not welcome to fully develop or actualize her potential in this area. This argument is reminiscent of a Talmudic statement of Chana, but with a modern twist:
אמרה לפניו: רבונו של עולם, כל מה שבראת באשה לא בראת דבר אחד לבטלה, עינים לראות, ואזנים לשמוע, חוטם להריח, פה לדבר, ידים לעשות בהם מלאכה, רגלים להלך בהן, דדים להניק בהן. דדים הללו שנתת על לבי למה, לא להניק בהן?
She said before him: Master of the world: Of all that you created in a woman you did not create one thing for naught. Eyes to see, and ears to hear, a nose to smell, a mouth to speak, hands to do work with, legs to walk with, breasts to nurse with. Why did you give me these breasts on my chest if not to nurse?
Chana believes that her God-given physical faculties were meant to be used. Modern iterations of this question add the assumption that artistic talents occupy a similar place as gifts from God, and that some form of performance would be an essential use.
In an interview, Israeli singer Nina Tokayer articulates these questions:
Nina Tokayer, interviewed by Shira Lankin Schepps in 'Nina's Story: Making Music Together,' The Layers Project
…the question that had been nagging at me my whole life…was, ‘What am I supposed to do with this gift that I was given, this voice that has power to impact people- and something that is really a deep part of my existence- how can I reach people and still do that within the framework of halacha?’
Even without special talent or a yen to perform, a woman who is committed to Halacha may sometimes struggle to find the right balance between respecting Halacha and the men around her and finding her place as a member of a community committed to a spirited Hallel, Shabbat zemirot, or songs around a bonfire as forms of serving God.
Other issues arise on a communal level. A culture imbued with the halachot of kol isha might send the mistaken message that women do not and should not have a voice in the Jewish community or should be silenced in order to prevent men from having inappropriate sexual thoughts or reactions. These concerns gain legitimacy when some communities prevent women’s speaking voices from being heard in public or on the radio.
In the following blogpost, a young woman writes openly about how her brother’s observance of kol isha affects her.
Anonymous Blogger, 'Hilchos Siblings Kol Isha,' The Jewish Side Blog
Now I never felt restricted at all from not being able to sing or dance in public, since I don’t feel I’m good at either one. But there are times at home when you just feel like singing. Then comes the brother’s voice “shhhh!”. I would get this annoyed feeling, and I would feel frustrated. There are some emotions that get expressed through singing, and sometimes you just have a song in your head and feel like singing. My brother would assure me that it’s not meant as an insult, that if anything it shows that my singing may be nice. [Follow-up Comment by the blogger:] Actually this Shabbos, for the first time I stuck up for my little sister when she wanted to sing, and I told my little brother that he can’t tell her not to sing, but rather he should just go away if he doesn’t want to hear.
Regardless of one’s halachic positions on whether the brother is allowed to hear his sister or to quiet her, it is complex for both brother and sister to grow up with the understanding that his presence determines when she can sing.
It is important for discussions of kol isha to be sensitive to the individual desires of women to participate in and be inspired by experiences of communal singing, and to seek halachic ways for this to take place in line with a given community’s norms.
It is no less important for these conversations to happen in our communities in a way that does not overly sexualize women and the female voice or legitimize a general silencing of women.
May a religious woman pursue a career as a singer?
The halachot of kol isha are primarily addressed toward a man and what he is permitted to hear. Since Halacha does not clearly prohibit a woman from singing, a religious woman with a talent for singing might wonder whether it is permitted for her to sing publicly in front of men.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, was known in some cases to rule leniently on kol isha with regard to a man listening to women’s voices of the sort to which he is accustomed. But Rav Lichtenstein would add that that logic would not apply to a voice of a woman singing in front of people who paid money to hear her sing. That raises questions for a woman who is considering putting herself in this situation. Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein has expressed similar reservations.
Rav David Bigman, Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshivat Hesder in Ma’aleh Gilboa, believes that men can listen to women sing when it is “hakshava temima le-shira temima”-“innocent listening (with no intent to derive sexual pleasure) to innocent singing (when there is no intent to be sexually arousing).” Rav Bigman writes that he therefore sees no problem with a woman pursuing a career in singing, as long as her singing fits with a Torah culture and the content of the song, the style of singing and the dress and body language of the singer do not have a vulgar feel to them.
רב דוד ביגמן, לאיזה עניין נאמר קול באישה ערווה
על פי גישה זו אין בעיה לצנועות ולחסודות בבנותינו לפתח קריירה של זִמרה אפילו בתוך התרבות הכללית, אך ללא ויתור על היסודות העדינים של התרבות התורנית…
Rav David Bigman, “Regarding Which Matter Is Kol be-isha Erva Said”
According to this approach, there is no problem for the modest and pious among our daughters to develop careers as singers even within general culture, but without waiving the delicate fundamentals of Torah culture…
Based on Rav Bigman’s approach, there are religious women who sing professionally in front of men. Israeli singer Nina Tokayer is one example:
נינה טוקייר, יהודה שלזינגר מראיין “זוג יונים” ישראל היום 7.22.2016
בהתחלה באמת לא שרתי מול גברים, אבל בשנה האחרונה יצא לי להיחשף לדעה הלכתית שונה… יש לנו חברים טובים שלא באים לשמוע אותנו, כי העניין הזה נמצא במחלוקת, והם מקפידים יותר. זה בסדר גמור מבחינתנו. ..ולטעמי אני עושה יותר קידוש השם מחילול השם. מי שלא שומע שירת נשים לא ישמע אותי שרה, אבל מי שכן שומע – אז טוב שישמע מוסיקה יהודית.
Nina Tokayer, interviewed by Yehuda Schlesinger, 'Pair of Doves,' Yisrael Ha-yom 7.22.16
In the beginning I really didn’t sing before men, but in the past year I became aware of a different halachic opinion…We have good friends who do not come to hear us, because this matter is debated, and they are more particular. This is totally fine from our perspective…To my view, I make more of a kiddush Hashem than a chillul Hashem. Whoever does not listen to women’s singing won’t hear me sing. But whoever does listen, then it is better that he hear Jewish music…
Rav Baruch Gigi, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, agrees that there is room in some cases to allow for men to hear women’s singing. However, he writes that sensitivity to the broader Orthodox community and concern for a breaking down of the boundaries of tzeniut lead him to conclude that it would be inappropriate for a religious woman to pursue a career as a singer who performs to mixed audiences.
רב ברוך גיגי, תגובה לרב ביגמן בעניין קול באשה ערווה
נראה לי לעניין מעשה, שאם חפצי חיים אנחנו ומבקשים לידע את דרכה המאירה של תורה לעת הזאת, ומתוך שקילת שיקולים רחבים של המציאות ורגישות הציבור על כל חלקיו, והחשש מפריצה גמורה של גדרות הצניעות, בוודאי אין זה נאה ונכון לבת ישראל שאהבת ה’ והתורה בתוכה לפתח קריירה של זִמרה והופעות ציבוריות בפני ציבור מעורב. ולכל היותר יש לכוון לפיתוח קריירה להופעות בפני קהל נשים.
Rav Baruch Gigi, “Response to Rav Bigman Regarding Kol Be-isha Erva”
It seems to me in practice, that if we are desirous of life and seek to know the illuminating path of Torah for this time, and out of broad consideration of reality and the sensitivities of the community in all its components, and of the concern of a full breach of the boundaries of tzeniut, certainly it is not fitting and proper for a daughter of Israel imbued with love of God and Torah to develop a career of singing and public performance for a mixed-gender audience. At the most, one should direct her to develop of a career performing for female audiences.
For these reasons and others, there are many women who have chosen to restrict singing to all-women frameworks, and who find that these laws resonate with them. Toby Klein Greenwald, a pioneer in the field of women’s-only theater, explains that performing for all-women audiences is more than just a default technicality:
Toby Klein Greenwald, 'The Female Voice in Orthodox Biblical and Educational Performing Arts,' in Orthodox Forum: Developing a Jewish Perspective on Culture, ed., Yehuda Sarna (New York: Ktav, 2014), 347-348
…[T]his powerful phenomenon far surpasses the technical issue of women and girls finding venues and communities in which to express themselves artistically while performing halakhically….while female troupes may have begun by default, so that they could sing and dance freely, the core appeal in women’s performing groups is the vibrant environment—supportive, kind, courageous, hopeful, less competitive, believing, and with freedom of expression…Most women who perform in all-female troupes are not in need of male acknowledgment of their talents in song, dance, or acting in order to value themselves…Our audiences are our sisters, and they are coming in droves. We are grateful beyond words for the opportunity to communicate to them our art and our messages.
How can we balance women’s spiritual needs with the halachot of kol isha?
Many of us experience singing as a primary vehicle for religious inspiration and expression. Especially in a group or during prayer, singing arouses intense feelings of joy, thanksgiving sorrow, and yearning.
In a piece for an undergraduate YU publication, Sima Grossman describes the power of zemirot:
Sima Grossman, “The Magic of Zemirot,” Kol Hamevaser VII:1
The familiar tune starts off softly. There are still whispers of conversation ringing throughout the room. Some people become self-appointed shushers. Soon the whole room is singing. Some sing loudly, others softly. Some sing in tune, others sing horrendously off tune. There is even some harmony mixed in. The quality of the singing may not be able to win any talent competitions, yet it is hard not to get caught up in it. And as I look around the room, I start to notice some interesting things. The girl who I know would never be caught listening to Jewish music is singing with her eyes closed, pounding unconsciously on the table as she belts out the tune. The girl who is not the so called “mushy type,” and who rolls her eyes at the “fluff” she proclaims her teachers teach, is putting her arm around the girl who sits next to her as she gets caught up in the melody. Even the shy girl whose voice is rarely heard is sitting with her finger pointing to each word in her bentcher as she softly sings along. Soon some of the more outgoing people are standing up and proudly doing hand motions as they sing. They try to get others to join them. If the atmosphere is particularly intense, soon the whole room will be on its feet, completely caught up in the zemirot’s ancient words and tunes.
It is possible to pray with great intensity and fervor without singing. The Talmud Yerushalmi describes the Biblical Chana’s quiet prayer as a mark of her closeness to God:
תלמוד ירושלמי ברכות ט:א
שנאמר [שמואל א א יג] וחנה היא מדברת על לבה רק שפתיה נעות וקולה לא ישמע והאזין הקדוש ברוך הוא את תפילתה. וכן כל בריותיו שנאמר [תהילים קב א] תפילה לעני כי יעטף [לפני ה’ ישפוך שיחו] כאדם המשיח באוזן חבירו והוא שומע. וכי יש לך אלוה קרוב מזה שהוא קרוב לבריותיו כפה לאוזן?
Yerushalmi Berachot 9:1
For it is said “And Chana was speaking to herself, only her lips moved but her voice was not heard and God heard her prayer.” (Shemuel I 1:13) And so it is with all living creatures, as it is said “A prayer for the poor man when he wraps himself, [before God he pours out his conversation].” Like a person who speaks in his friend’s ear and he hears. Is there a God closer than this, that He is close to His creatures like a mouth to an ear?
God doesn’t need for our prayers to be loud, but we sometimes feel that it enhances our ability to connect to the words we are saying and to focus on them. Experiencing spiritual connection through song doesn’t necessarily demand that one sing audibly in public. But it can certainly feel that way sometimes.
The more central communal singing becomes to religious life, the more apt women are to feel left out of spiritual experiences, at least in communities in which men and women do not sing together. In an anonymous blog entry, a young woman describes some of her frustrations:
Kol Isha, Life after Stern College Blog
Starting zemirot at a shabbos table is one example of a situation where Kol Isha is difficult for me…..There are certain tunes in davening that I love, and instead of sitting there on the women’s side trying to send telepathic messages to the chazan of what tune I hope he’ll sing, I wish I could be the one choosing the melodies and putting my heart into every syllable…. Luckily most of the time Kol Isha is not a problem at all, and I find appropriate means to channel my love of singing.
On the whole, Halacha mandates that we balance a desire for religious ecstasy and connection with self-restraint. Often this places equal limitations on women and men. For example, the laws of Shabbat dictate that we refrain from using musical instruments during Shabbat prayers, even though they might enhance our prayer experience.
Kol isha, on the other hand, can result in an imbalance, with women exercising great restraint while men enjoy free expression. This can be particularly pronounced in religious contexts. Especially given that the prohibition of kol isha falls on men, some communities and halachic authorities have endeavored to maximize opportunities for women to sing within a halachic framework. Others have taken the opposite approach in mixed company, in an effort to head off any possible halachic violation.
How can women experience the spiritual power of religious song within a halachic framework? In some communities, mixed singing is possible; in others, groups of women and girls may sing together where men will not hear them.
For many women and girls, even (or especially) those most connected to prayer and spirituality, some frustration will be inevitable. In a halachic framework, this remains a challenge that can be ameliorated but not eliminated, and that demands continued sensitivity from all members of the community.
We began this series with Miryam leading the women in a song of praise to God after Keri’at Yam Suf:
שמות פרק טו:כ-כא
וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַתֹּף בְּיָדָהּ וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת: וַתַּעַן לָהֶם מִרְיָם שִׁירוּ לַה’ כִּי גָאֹה גָּאָה סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם:
And Miryam the prophet, sister of Aharon, took the timbrel in her hand and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing. And Miryam called out responsively to them: Sing to God for He has triumphed greatly, horse and his rider He has cast into the sea.
Why does the Torah devote extra verses to describe the women’s song specifically? Throughout the story of the Exodus women are presumed to be among Benei Yisrael, but seldom singled out for special mention.
Perhaps to emphasize that joyous musical praise is ideally separate, with Moshe leading the men and Miryam leading the women, allowing women to express thanksgiving freely in song and dance. This is relevant today as well; even in communities that are stringent with kol isha in mixed company, there are increasing opportunities for spiritual musical expression in women’s-only groups. Even in more open communities, women may feel less inhibited without a male audience.
Perhaps to emphasize that women possess a unique and powerful impulse to praise God in song, Rashi makes the following comment:
רש”י שמות טו:כ
בתפים ובמחלת – מובטחות היו צדקניות שבדור שהקדוש ברוך הוא עושה להם נסים והוציאו תופים ממצרים:
Rashi Shemot 15:20
“With timbrels and with dancing – the righteous women of the generation were certain that God would perform miracles for them, and took timbrels out of Egypt.”
Even before they left Egypt, the women were ready to sing in praise. In Tanach, women’s voices are heard in songs of celebration and mourning laments. Singing is an authentically feminine mode of avodat Hashem.
Deracheha’s own Ilana Sober Elzufon puts it this way: As women, we are sometimes in the mode of Miryam, singing joyously as a separate group. Sometimes, depending on our communities’ customs, we may be in the mode of Devora, singing together with Barak in a mixed group. And sometimes – not always voluntarily – we find ourselves in the mode of Chana, whose voice was not heard by Eli but expressed her fervent connection to her Creator. All members of our community, regardless of gender, should keep potential significance of each mode in mind when addressing questions of kol isha.
What about dressing for self expression?
While dressing for self-respect is well attested in classic sources, we are unaware of clear examples of dressing for self-expression in Tanach or rabbinic sources. Perhaps this is because people did not have a wide range of clothing to choose from in pre-industrial eras, which limited the possibility of dressing for self-expression.
We do find some support for the idea that clothing can help shape our sense of self. When Esther prepares to enter Achashverosh’s throne room uninvited, she “dresses in royalty.”
וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וַתִּלְבַּשׁ אֶסְתֵּר מַלְכוּת וַתַּעֲמֹד בַּחֲצַר בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ הַפְּנִימִית נֹכַח בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ
And it was on the third day and Esther dressed in royalty and she stood in the inner courtyard of the king’s house, across from the king’s house.
Certainly, Esther needs to appear at her most regal before the king and his court. Yet her attire also may influence her own inner world and self-perception, building self-confidence as she approaches this critical encounter.
Changing our clothing can affect our inner reality. Esther’s clothes help show her – as well as others – that she is a queen.
A central element of a tzanu’a approach to using clothes for personal ends is to put them in service of the soul. In an interview, Gila Manolson extends this idea to the current idiom of using clothes to express “who we really are.”
Gila Manolson, 'Does Tznius Mean Invisible?' Times of Israel, August, 2019
Tznius means getting beyond the superficiality that is all too pervasive in our world, and instead defining ourselves by who we truly are inside, at the essential level — our soul. It then means using our dress and behavior to project this “I am a soul” message outward, thereby encouraging others to relate to us for who we really are.
If Judaism is about working on our internal selves, why do we attribute so much meaning to clothing, which is external?
Although we strive to be spiritual beings, we do live in a physical world, where the first thing we notice about people is typically how they look.
How might dress shape our perceptions at first glance? When everyone in the room is dressed up for Shabbat or for a wedding, it feels like a special occasion. When soldier in uniform boards a bus in Israel, passengers might feel safer. If someone wears flip-flops to a meeting with the President at the White House, a flippant attitude comes through.
We no longer inhabit Gan Eden. There, the body was not a distraction from the soul. In our current reality, it can be. Our clothing gives others insight into who we are, the community we associate with, our tastes, the mood we are in, or the events we will participate in, even without having a direct interpersonal interaction.
By carefully choosing what to emphasize, we can use clothing to redirect social interactions away from externals.
Sarah Alevsky, quoted in 'Orthodox Jewish Women Find New Ways to be Fashionable in Crown Heights'
I use the analogy of a Tiffany lamp–you are muting the light because you are putting a stained glass shade on it and the light is being transmitted in many different colors. The same thing happens when you are tznius–you are ‘covering your light’ and there is not a naked glare of what’s there…there are other parts of you that get to express themselves as well.
When we dress, we should take our values into account, and carefully consider what messages we wish to send.
Do I have to dress frum? Is there a halachic problem with dressing in style?
Many of us can spot a frum Jew from a mile away. Sometimes, we might have mixed feelings about looking like one. It is natural to feel some tension between wanting to be part of the group and wanting to be an individual.
Dressing frum can be a positive opportunity, a way to signal to ourselves and to others at a glance that we are proud to count ourselves among the community of shomerei mitzvot.
There can be a distinction, though, between dressing in line with Halacha and looking frum. Sometimes clothes that are widely accepted in the frum community actually don’t seem as modest as other clothing. That should give us pause.
The halachic discussion of chukot ha-goyim does not seem to obligate us to look specifically Jewish. Wearing something stylish, as long as it is modest and dignified, is permissible. Rather, we should not adopt immodest clothing styles, nor should we follow senseless clothing trends just to fit in with non-Jews. It is one thing to be stylish, quite another to be a fashion victim.
For example, a cozy ‘Christmas sweater’ would not be a problem, as long as it does not have symbols directly associated with Christmas (e.g., snowmen are permissible).
Most important, we should ask ourselves how we choose whom to emulate, and be particularly wary of trends that emulate specific figures associated with immodesty (or, though less common today, idolatry). Members of our own community would ideally provide inspiration. Outside the Jewish community, the Duchess of Cambridge would be more the type to emulate than most pop singers. Dressing in styles from India could also be permissible, to a point, if they appeal to us. Here, concerns about chukot ha-akum and cultural appropriation probably converge.
Thanks to the wide variety of clothing styles available, we have room for balancing modest individualism with a sense of fundamentally belonging to the tribe.
Should our discussion of clothing go beyond the basics?
It would be tempting to stop our discussion of clothing with the basics, especially since classic halachic sources do not discuss women’s dress in great detail.
Rather, they seem to take for granted that Jewish women should dress to a certain standard, in accordance with tzeniut and dat Yehudit, so that no further explanations should be necessary.
Why, then, do we discuss the what and how of clothing here— especially when a focus on measurements can divert our attention from the broader ideals of tzeniut?
A few reasons:
Norms of modest dress, even in secular society, have changed radically over the past decades, making it more difficult to have a clear sense of what is acceptable and what is not.
A community does not always have a single, unified standard of clothing, so that a woman might feel unsure about the halachic validity of specific styles she sees around her. Or she might have a pressing, practical reason to adopt a style that diverges from what is typical in her community. Perhaps she wonders what the guidelines are for adapting a new look to halachic standards. Or she might seek halachic context for the formal and informal dress codes she encounters.
By clarifying what Halacha requires and where it leaves room for interpretation, we can enable women to make educated halachic decisions about clothing.
Is a focus on centimeters tzanu'a?
Not always. Part of the idea of tzeniut clothing is to respect the body and the person by removing the body from scrutiny.
The root tzadi.nun.ayin refers to the concealed. In Judaism, concealing something can be a sign of respect for it. The kodesh kodashim is both the most private and the most sacred area of Beit Ha-mikdash. The Sefer Torah is both clothed and kept in a secure place.
The Talmud teaches that blessings come upon that which is concealed from sight, and that concealment is in tension with overt measurement.
תלמוד בבלי תענית ח:
שאין הברכה מצויה לא בדבר השקול ולא בדבר המדוד ולא בדבר המנוי אלא בדבר הסמוי מן העין.
For a beracha is not found in a thing that is weighed and not in a thing that is measured and not in a thing that is counted, but in a thing that is concealed from the eye.
Even when measures have practical importance, we need to take care not to let them overtake our discussion, lest we dishonor that which tzeniut encourages us to respect.
What does it mean to follow community norms of clothing?
In cases in which the practice of dat Yehudit should determine details of clothing, it can be difficult to know how to define one’s religious community. Beyond the absolute minimums, there isn’t a single standard that all communities follow. Members of many religious communities, to the right and the left, reject the practices of other communities. Further complicating matters, modern communities are fluid. A person can pass through several communities in the course of a day,.
At Deracheha, we seek to help members of different communities respect each other’s practices by understanding their sources. In general, Halacha urges us to respect local customs, certainly in public. When spending time in a public area of another community, there is a value to dressing in a way that shows respect for local practice. At the same time, wherever we are, we should keep our own halachic and communal affiliations in mind, and dress in a way that respects them, as well.
By limiting absolute standards to a few key points, early halachic sources express trust in the Jewish people and its intuitions for applying tzeniut appropriately in different contexts.
Why should a woman's clothing be limited by how men might react to what they see? How does this affect different halachic expectations of women's and men's clothing?
We have discussed how clothing serves a range of personal and social functions. On a social level, Halacha has an interest in ensuring that men and women do not objectify each other based on their appearances. One side of this coin is limits on what we look at; the flip side is limits on what we display.
The halachic discussion tends to put the onus of not looking on the man and the onus of not displaying on the woman. We have seen, though, that there are limits on what women should look at and how, and there are also limits on what men should reveal.
This can be complicated ground to navigate, especially for women. While the primary obligation is for men and women to take responsibility for their own decisions and responses, being part of a community means that we consider the effects of our own decisions on others.
Rav Ovadya Yosef expresses a range of halachic objections to immodest clothing. One of his suggestions is that wearing revealing clothing is a potential violation of the Biblical prohibition of placing a stumbling block before the blind, lifnei iver, because revealing clothing could lead men to improper sexual thoughts.
שו”ת יחווה דעת חלק ג סימן סז
והדבר ברור שנשים שהולכות ברחוב בבגדי פריצות כאלה עוברות גם על איסור ולפני עור לא תתן מכשול, שהן גורמות לאנשים להסתכל בהן, ולבוא לידי הרהורי עבירה הקשים מעבירה.
Yechaveh Da'at III:67
The matter is clear that women who go in the street in immodest garments like these also transgress the prohibition of not placing a stumbling block before the blind, for they cause men to gaze at them and to have improper thoughts of transgression, which are more serious than [actual] transgression.
Note that, even according to Rav Yosef’s view, lifnei iver is not the sole reason for a woman to dress with care, and lifnei iver might be limited to clothing styles that are genuinely provocative.
Promoting lifnei iver as a reason to dress with tzeniut can leave a woman feeling guilty, as if somehow her very presence is a “stumbling block” for men. When taken to an extreme, this attitude can have unintended consequences, such as censoring all pictures of women, even those modestly dressed, or dictating very stringent standards of dress for a woman to completely obscure the shape of her body.
Furthermore, if we focus overmuch on women’s “covering up” for the sake of men, we risk implying that this is the primary reason to dress with tzeniut, when it is one among many.
At the same time, stricter constraints on what men are permitted to see, based on a halachic presumption that their reactions to visual stimuli tend to be stronger than women’s, do account for at least some of the asymmetry between halachic guidelines for men’s and women’s clothing. Additionally, natural interest in male attention may sometimes contribute to women’s struggles with the halachot of clothing.
Regardless, we should aspire to foster a healthy society, in which women and men take responsibility for presenting ourselves and seeing others appropriately and respectfully.
When we are conscious of tzeniut and work to promote positive and appropriate interactions, we create a community conducive to holiness.
Aren't pants sometimes more modest than skirts?
They can be.
In cases in which a woman will need to move in a way that will inevitably be more revealing with a skirt, she should wear pants under a skirt or tunic, or loose modest trousers, for as long as necessary. (It goes without saying that modest pants should be worn when they are required for reasons of safety.)
Given a choice is between a short skirt or pants, Rav Ovadya Yosef rules that pants are preferable:
שו”ת יביע אומר חלק ו – יורה דעה סימן יד
ומכל מקום מודה אני שאין להתיר כאן לכתחלה לבישת מכנסים אלה לבנות, כי בגדי שחץ הן, …ואין לבנות ישראל הכשרות ללכת בהן כלל. ובפרט במכנסים המהודקות ממש …ומכל מקום אם אין הבנות שומעות לקול הורים ומורים להמנע מלבישת חצאיות קצרות ביותר, והולכות בשוק וירך מגולות, שהיא פריצות יתירה, יש לבחור הרע במיעוטו, ולהורות להן כהוראת שעה ללבוש מכנסים.
Yabi'a Omer 6 YD 14
In any case, I agree that ideally one should not permit girls to wear these trousers, for they are haughty clothes…Kosher daughters of Israel should not go about in them at all. Especially in trousers that are really tight…But still, if the girls will not listen to the voices of parents and teachers to avoid wearing very short skirts, and they go in the marketplace with their thighs exposed, which is exceedingly immodest, one should choose the less bad option and instruct them as a temporary ruling to wear trousers.
Considerations of modesty are not always identical to those of “Jewish dress.” Women sometimes choose to wear skirts to demonstrate religious Jewish affiliation. In some contexts, even short skirts might convey a certain commitment to affiliating with a given community, though they don’t comply with Halacha.
Is it possible to dress completely modestly without following the precise details of Halacha?
One can be a modest person without following all the details of Halacha. Conversely, one can follow the details of Halacha without really being modest. Clothing trends popular even in observant communities often include styles that are provocative, even as most of the body is covered.
On the whole, halachic guidelines for dress do promote dressing with dignity. These laws are binding, and we have seen additional reasons for them besides modesty.
As with any mitzva, we should strive to fulfill both the letter and spirit of the law.
Birkat Ha-mazon and Zimmun
Why call women's connection to such basic concepts into question?
It can be hard to see why a woman could not freely express gratitude to God for berit and Torah if she recites a text which simply includes those words, though many women do feel awkward expressing personal gratitude for berit mila.
The central issue seems to be expressing gratitude for the gift of mitzvot from which one was personally exempted.
At the same time, as the gates of Torah study have been opened to women, there is less hesitation about a woman thanking God for “Toratecha she-limadtanu,” “Your Torah which You have taught us.”
Berit mila is different. Still, if we follow the view cited by Magen Avraham, women even have a direct connection to berit mila, by virtue of the Talmudic opinion that women, born without foreskins, are in a sense considered circumcised:
עבודה זרה כז.
דאשה כמאן דמהילא דמיא
Avoda Zara 27a
A woman is similar to one who is circumcised
The later authorities who justify women reciting the full text of birkat ha-mazon clearly maintain that women can indeed express genuine gratitude and connection to the concepts of berit mila and Torah.
With respect to berit, we might say that Rav’s suggestion, that making an expression of this type of gratitude obligatory is untenable, makes sense. A woman can choose to express gratitude to God for the centrality of berit mila and her relationship to it, but shouldn’t have to, given that there is a way in which she does not take full part in this mitzva. And, though no longer customary, this remains a legitimate option, according to Rema.
If a woman does choose to mention berit, her words and intentions inevitably are distinct from those of a man who underwent the ritual at eight days old. It is plausible that Halacha would reflect that difference.
Why isn't women's zimmun more commonplace?
Even if we do not follow the opinion that women’s zimmun is obligatory, it remains a halachic option, and we embrace women’ voluntary observances in many realms. However, from Tosafot to Aruch Ha-shulchan, it is clear that it was uncommon for many women of past generations to recite zimmun.
This likely had something to do with lack of education. In our time, women are blessed with much more widespread opportunities to receive a Jewish education. Why, then, haven’t more women practiced zimmun?
Perhaps because women don’t know that it is a valid halachic possibility and are concerned that it may have controversial overtones. Or perhaps because leading a ritual is considered to rest firmly in the province of males. Or maybe simply because the text printed in benchers usually uses exclusively male language.
Whatever the reason, the message gets across that zimmun is not for women. As a corrollary, as Dr. Meirav Tubul Cahana points out, women may be reluctant to recite zimmun for fear of being labeled as feminists:
מירב טובול כהנא, נשים בברכת הזימון, טללי אורות טו (תשס”ט)
בשנים האחרונות אנו עדים יותר ויותר לתופעה שנשים שאכלו יחד ונתחייבו בברכת המזון מזמנות לפני הברכה. יחד עם זאת לא מעט פעמים אני שומעת מתלמידותיי שאינן נוהגות כך בנימוק “איננו פמיניסטיות.” בירור הדין ההלכתי של שייכות נשים לברכת הזימון מוחמץ….
Meirav Tubul Cahana, “Women in Birkat Ha-Mazon,” Talelei Orot 15, 5769.
In recent years, we’ve born witness to a growing phenomenon of women who have eaten together and become obligated in birkat ha-mazon reciting [an all-women’s] zimmun before the beracha. At the same time, I occasionally hear from my students that they are not accustomed to doing this, based on the rationale that “we’re not feminist.” [The opportunity] to clarify the halacha of the relevance of birkat ha-zimmun to women gets missed…
Honoring customs and respecting people’s comfort is very important. These are good reasons not to compel women to recite zimmun. Not teaching or encouraging women to recite zimmun, however, at least when eating only among women, is more difficult to comprehend, especially since there may be an obligation.
As Dr. Tubul Cahana notes, zimmun has become more mainstream and even routine in an increasing number of settings, a trend bound to increase as more men and women learn more about it.
How should we relate to the flexibility of the introductory lines of zimmun?
Though “rabotai” can be a general polite term of address, the introductory lines for the Ashkenazi zimmun come across as very gendered. They are also fairly open to revision (whether in Hebrew, Yiddish or one’s language of choice), since the halachic aspect of zimmun really begins with “nevarech.”
What should women reciting zimmun, or men seeking to acknowledge women at the table, such as their mothers or the hostesses, do with this flexibility?
By keeping to a more traditional introductory formula, we can preserve and respect the style and intention that reflect established custom. At the same time, by tweaking the formula a bit, we can be more accurate and inclusive of women.
In practice, very few of us make independent liturgical choices, even in the relatively rare cases like this one where there is no halachically mandated text. Especially for a ritual that requires coordinating three or more people, we inevitably rely on what is printed in a siddur or birkon.
Deracheha Editor-at-Large, Sarah Rudolph, notes that Orthodox birkonim very rarely include the option of women’s zimmun at all, and that affects women’s readiness to recite zimmun:
Sarah Rudolph, 'Women, Bentching and the Role of Publishing'
When there happen to be three women, but fewer than three men, at my Shabbos table, I don’t want to have to spend the whole meal wondering how I’m going to broach the topic and ask my guests if they would like to join me in this optional mitzvah. I dream of the day when it won’t be awkward or uncomfortable, and my guests can simply answer “yes” or “no.” And one step in that direction would be to simply put it in the bentchers. To change our printing habits to more accurately reflect our halachic tradition….I dream that these elements will become standard in our books and in our announcements, impromptu or not. Because the alternative, allowing communal habits to continue eroding communal awareness of actual halachic options, leaves us no real choice at all.
Similarly, men’s not acknowledging their hostess or mother at a meal may contribute to a tendency not to be careful about women present participating in a men’s zimmun, though it is a halachic obligation.
As a resource, Deracheha is happy to offer this card, which reflects a range of liturgical possibilities for introducing a women’s zimmun while adhering as closely as possible to traditional practice, so that more women can feel more comfortable coming together to praise God in zimmun.
Why is the matter of women reciting tefillat mussaf often treated as a matter of doubt?
The question of women’s obligation in tefillat mussaf is a machloket, debate. Typically, when there is machloket as to whether someone is obligated in a mitzva, halachic authorities urge them to perform it, unless there is a clear reason not to. Yet here, many halachic authorities present the matter as an open question, without making a clear recommendation—as a doubt and not a debate. This leaves the impression that tefillat mussaf is not considered obligatory for women.
Why the hesitation to make a more decisive ruling?
One possible contributing factor is that many women over the ages were illiterate or did not recite formal prayers at all, so that this question was not practically relevant for them.
Of the women who were literate and regularly recited formal prayers, many did have the custom to recite tefillat mussaf, and did not question it.
In general, throughout our series on tefilla, we have seen that the custom of many devout women not to recite the full complement of prayers has led to a hesitation to issue rulings that would leave those women on the wrong side of Halacha.
Clarifying this halacha has practical consequences. Halachic obligation would mean that women would have full access to heavenly reward and punishment for reciting tefillat mussaf. It would also determine that tefillat mussaf be given priority over certain customs, such as reciting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, if time is short. A woman obligated in mussaf would make every effort not to miss reciting it.
Nowadays, when women are literate and many lack a clear custom in any direction, the desire not to pressure women can lead to the misimpression that Halacha has little to say on the matter or that there are no voices obligating women in mussaf. It is important for women to know that there are halachic authorities who maintain that women are obligated to recite it.
How can we relate to Rosh Chodesh today?
When a woman lacks a clear family tradition for observing Rosh Chodesh, Mishna Berura’s ruling becomes operative. A woman should choose at least one type of labor from which to refrain on Rosh Chodesh, as suits her lifestyle. This could be refraining from doing laundry. Or not mending or writing. Or it could be more flexible, acts that a woman personally experiences as a burden.
The idea is for a woman to give herself a little break on Rosh Chodesh. This is a way to remember that Rosh Chodesh is not a full workday for her, so that it retains a bit of a special character. And, per Bach, the idea is also for members of her household to support her in keeping her custom.
Going out for dinner or a special treat, at least for the females of the family, is one popular way to observe Rosh Chodesh today. Though it might relieve the pressure of making dinner, this is is more an observance of the custom to have a special meal on Rosh Chodesh than of the custom to refrain from performing labor. We discuss some other traditional customs too. Reciting Hallel and Tefillat Mussaf is also an important way to set the day apart. We can even suggest giving tzedaka to a worthy cause as a way to remember women’s readiness to contribute to the Mishkan, and not for the golden calf.
Beyond the specifics, we can connect to Rosh Chodesh as a time in which we look for the sacred within the mundane. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik develops this idea:
גרי”ד סולובייצ’יק, גלוי ונסתר, דברי הגות והערכה
ראש חודש, על אף חיצוניותו החילונית, שוקק קדושה נסתרה…היהדות מאמינה ביכולת החידוש וההתחדשות. לבנה שאורה החוויר והלך עד שנעלמה מעין רואים, חוזרת ומופיעה באופק…ראש חודש מסמל את האמונה בנחמה הקרובה לבוא, בהתחדשות מתוך ההתנוונות, בזריחת האור מתוך להבות שקיעה, בתחייה מתוך גוויעה.
Rav Yosef B. Soloveitchik, 'Revealed and Hidden'
Rosh Chodesh, notwithstanding its external secularity, teems with hidden sanctity…Judaism believes in the possibility of the new and renewal. The moon, whose light slowly dimmed until it disappeared from sight, returns and appears on the horizon…Rosh Chodesh symbolizes the faith in the comfort that is soon to come, in renewal even within degeneration, in the shining of light from within the flames of sunset, in revivification in the place of demise.
Rabbanit Ilana Fodiman Silverman connects Rav Soloveitchik’s insight that Rosh Chodesh has no external displays of sanctity to her own experience:
Ilana Fodiman Silverman, 'When the New Moon Falls on Black Friday'
Rosh Chodesh is the monthly opportunity to develop an experience of sanctity and celebration without material expressions. It is the day wherein the essence of the holiday is marked with the humble religious personality left to explore and develop, absent any physical trappings…[D]raped in simplicity, Rosh Chodesh presents a monthly retreat wherein we can experience a holiday in all of its glory without props.
Why is the husband responsible for his wife's simchat Yom Tov?
Simchat Yom Tov is a combination of an internal spiritual and emotional state with the external objects and actions that foster and reflect that state of joy. A husband or father’s mitzva of simchat Yom Tov includes responsibility for contributing to his household’s rejoicing.
In earlier generations, purchase of the new clothing or festive foods that would help spur a household to happiness depended in a practical sense on funds controlled by the male head of the household. Nowadays, as more and more women have financial independence, many women have the ability to contribute funds toward the household’s simcha, and should do so.
There might be a deeper message here, as well. Torah Temima argues that a husband’s rejoicing depends on his wife’s:
תורה תמימה הערות דברים פרק טז הערה סו
…והענין הוא ע”פ [=על פי] המבואר ביבמות ס”ב ב’ כל שאין לו אשה שרוי בלא שמחה דכתיב ושמחת אתה וביתך, א”כ [=אם כן] בשמחת החג דכתיב ג”כ [= גם כן] כזה א”א [=אי אפשר] לו לקיים לבדו מצוה זו, והסברא נוטה דאם היא אינה נוטלת חלק בשמחתו אין שמחתו שלמה ולכן חייבת גם היא בגללו…
Torah Temima Devarim 16:66
…The matter is according to what is explained in Yevamot 62b, “whoever does not have a wife dwells without joy, as it is written “you shall rejoice, you and your household.” if so, regarding rejoicing of the festival where it is also written like this, it is impossible for him [the husband] to fulfill this mitzva on his own. Logic tends to say that if she does not take part in his rejoicing, his rejoicing is incomplete, and therefore she is also obligated on his account…
Taken more broadly, simcha is mutually reinforcing. Whatever the household makeup, every household member, regardless of gender, contributes to every other member’s rejoicing.
Does the seder recognize the role women played in the miracle of the Exodus?
In general, the seder is much more about God and the Jewish people than about any specific person’s contributions to the process of redemption. Even Moshe Rabbeinu is hardly mentioned in the haggada.
Still, women do figure in the symbolism of the Seder through the mitzva of charoset, which is eaten with maror.
The Talmud suggests two reasons why charoset should be considered an independent mitzva, each with implications for its preparation:
מאי מצוה? רבי לוי אומר: זכר לתפוח. ורבי יוחנן אומר: זכר לטיט. אמר אביי: הלכך צריך לקהוייה וצריך לסמוכיה. לקהוייה- זכר לתפוח, וצריך לסמוכיה- זכר לטיט.
What is the mitzva [of charoset]? Rabbi Levi says: In remembrance of the apple tree. Rabbi Yochanan says: In remembrance of the mortar. Abbaye said: Therefore, it is necessary to make it sour and to make it thick. To make it sour – in remembrance of the [sour]-apple tree and it is necessary to make it thick – in remembrance of the mortar.
What does it mean to say in remembrance of the apple tree? This refers to the midrash about the righteous women in Egypt. The midrash tells us that, unbowed by crisis, the women persisted in persuading their husbands to cohabit and reproduce. The women then gave birth outdoors, under the apple tree:
דרש רב עוירא: בשכר נשים צדקניות שהיו באותו הדור – נגאלו ישראל ממצרים, בשעה שהולכות לשאוב מים, הקדוש ברוך הוא מזמן להם דגים קטנים בכדיהן ושואבות מחצה מים ומחצה דגים, ובאות ושופתות שתי קדירות אחת של חמין ואחת של דגים, ומוליכות אצל בעליהן לשדה, ומרחיצות אותן וסכות אותן ומאכילות אותן ומשקות אותן ונזקקות להן בין שפתים, שנאמר: אם תשכבון בין שפתים וגו’, בשכר תשכבון בין שפתים זכו ישראל לביזת מצרים, שנאמר: כנפי יונה נחפה בכסף ואברותיה בירקרק חרוץ [תהלים סח:יד], וכיון שמתעברות באות לבתיהם; וכיון שמגיע זמן מולדיהן, הולכות ויולדות בשדה תחת התפוח, שנאמר: תחת התפוח עוררתיך וגו’, …
Rav Avira expounded: In the merit of the righteous women of that generation Israel were redeemed from Egypt. When they would go to draw water, the Holy One, blessed be He, would provide them with little fish in their pitchers and they would draw half water and half fish, and they would come and cook two pots, one of hot water and one of fish, and bring them to their husbands to the field, and bathe them and anoint them and feed them and give them to drink and have relations with them between the banks, as it is said, “If you lie between the banks…” in the merit of lying between the banks, Israel merited to plunder Egypt, as it is said, “Doves’ wings coated with silver and its feathers with yellow gold” (Tehillim 68:14) and when they became pregnant, they would come home, and when the time to give birth would come, they would go and give birth in the field under the apple tree, as it is said: Under the apple tree I aroused you…”
Anyone who includes apples or a note of sourness in the charoset implicitly recognizes women’s contributions to the Exodus on the Seder plate.
Are all women today “important”? What does that mean for us?
Specific halachot, most notably reclining on leil ha-seder, depend on whether a person is considered important.
Early halachic authorities offer a variety of explanations for why a woman would be called important. These include that she has a non-servile relationship with her husband, that she may be head of her household, that she may be a woman of means, or that she has a particularly high religious standing.
In the thirteenth century, Mordechai wrote that “all our women are considered important.” What had changed?
Rav Moshe Feinstein rejects the idea that women of thirteenth century Ashkenaz had been suddenly transformed. Rather, men came to understand that they had nothing to lord over women, and women came to understand their importance to their husbands. A new depth of understanding about gender was reached at this stage.
שו”ת אגרות משה אורח חיים ה:כ
… שהכירו במשך הזמן שאין להאינשי במה להתגאות נגד נשותיהן, והנשי הכירו צורך הגדול שיש להאינשי בהן. והמיעוט חשובות שהיו בכל הזמנים היו נשי כאלו שהכירו צורך הבעל בהן, כמו שיש להו צורך בבעליהן, והכירו שגם בעליהן יודעין זה דהסיבה הא אין זה דבר חדש, אלא תיקנו דמעשה אכילתו ושתייתו שחייבה תורה להכיר החירות והגאולה, יהיה באופן שיותר יש בו היכר החירות.
Iggerot Moshe OC 5:20
…That they recognized over time that men have nothing to lord over their wives, and the women recognized the great need men have for them. And the minority of important women that existed in all eras were women like this, who recognized their husbands’ need for them, just as they need their husbands, and recognized that their husbands also know this. Reclining is not a new innovation, but [the sages] established that one’s act of eating and drinking ordained by the Torah to recognize freedom and redemption, should be in a manner that more clearly signifies freedom.
Our sages recognized that a woman could be considered important, free from the social disadvantages that many women faced. As women’s overall social standing improved, early halachic authorities were quick to recognize it, and its halachic implications.
How can someone balance home responsibilities with the mitzva of maggid?
It can be hard to be present for the entire mitzva of maggid while also laying out a meal or tending to young children or others who need care. Here are some ideas for making it work:
1. As much as possible, enlist others in advance to shoulder these responsibilities together with you.
2. Try to plan a menu that will not require you to do anything (or almost anything) between kiddush and eating. Also, it is helpful to have food available that can be offered to kids easily, with no preparation involved.
3. Arrange with someone to lead a discussion, activity, or song when you have to leave the table, so that you don’t miss essential parts of the Seder.
4. If breastfeeding, try to set up a place or way to nurse comfortably within earshot of the Seder. If there are young children to tend to, set up resting spots near the table where they can lie down and “rest” when tired without needing to be formally put to bed. If kids are preschool age or older, do everything you can to involve them in the Seder, which is, after all, a central element of the mitzva of maggid.
Putting the time and thought into troubleshooting in advance can make a big difference in creating a rhythm that will work for you even if you can’t sit or recline all night long.
Why are women sometimes discouraged from counting the omer?
It is striking that women are sometimes taught not to count the omer, and that active encouragement is not more widespread.
Some of the discouragement may arise from a tendency in some communities to privilege Mishna Berura over Aruch Ha-shulchan, even though Mishna Berura merely quotes the opinion against women counting without explicitly agreeing to it. Some of it may be in response to the kabbalistic discussions of masculine and feminine. Some of it may be because, before the era of cellphone reminders, women who did not recite ma’ariv might really have been prone to forget it. Some of it may be a matter of tradition. And some of it may be because a woman unsure whether she will complete the count may not realize that this should not get in the way of counting without a beracha.
Especially taking into consideration that Ramban reportedly maintains it is an obligation for women, that Magen Avraham reports that women took it upon themselves as an obligation, and that concerns about reciting the beracha should not affect the act of counting, we would expect more women to be encouraged to count the omer.
In the selection below, Rebbitzen Chana Bracha Siegelbaum of Bat Ayin, who has personally relinquished fulfilling this mitzva for kabbalistic reasons, expresses the power she sees in the count and in the omer period, even when not counting:13
Rebbitzen Chana Bracha Siegelbaum, The Controversy of Women and Counting the Omer
Counting the Omer teaches us the concept of the ascending pattern, where one day builds upon the next. In effect, the whole point of the ritual is to collect days. By using a simple and short act of consciousness, we prevent our days from blurring into each other. We can make every day count….Each day of counting the Omer, from Pesach to Shavuot, we have the opportunity to add a new layer of refinement to our character. Counting the Omer is an elevating ripening process that culminates on Shavuot in our ability to receive the Torah and become complete. This time-period reflects the process of the building and flowering of the surrounding nature, here in Israel where we, like the fruits, are gradually ripening to become the perfect crop, ready to be picked on Shavuot as Hashem’s holy bride…I believe that the feminine focus during the Omer season is to meditate on the daily Sefirah combinations and internalize their messages…
How can communities make room for more women's learning on leil Shavuot?
Especially at the early end of the evening, communities can gear Torah study toward shiurim open to women and men or to dedicated women’s shiurim. If there is parallel programming for younger children and teens, that can also widen the numbers of women who will be able to participate. Communities can also make sure that there are spaces in which women can sit and learn with each other over the course of the night, and even prepare source sheets to facilitate such learning.
Sometimes married women with children in particular experience Shavuot as difficult, because husbands may sleep in for most of the day, limiting family time together and putting a heavier load on their wives. On Shavuot day, parents of the community, and the community as a whole, stand to benefit if the community pools resources to provide children’s programming or groups over the course of the day to add to the children’s experience of the day and to help ensure that staying up late does not come at the children’s or caretaker’s expense, and everyone should plan the holiday carefully in advance so as to maximize its potential.
Aside from fasting, how else can we connect to the meaning of a fast?
Four of the fast days – Shiva Asar be-Tammuz, Tzom Gedalya, Asara Be-Tevet, and Ta’anit Esther – are ordinary workdays. They are also relatively lenient, which results in many people being exempt from fasting on them.
Especially if we aren’t fasting (sometimes, even if we are) it can be difficult to focus on the day’s significance, and the introspection and teshuva it should entail, as we go about our usual routine.
There is a tendency to think of an exemption from fasting on a fast day as an exemption from experiencing the day. In an article for Mishpacha, Faigy Peritzman reflects on what this is like:
Faigy Peritzman, “Fast Thinking,” Mishpacha June 19, 2019
On the last few fasts, I ended up with a migraine that lasted a few days. The rav said I could stop fasting. All I had to do was Tishah B’Av and Yom Kippur. And boy, was I relieved. At the same time, I felt there was something skewed in my approach. And I was suddenly reminded of a very different reaction I’d had several months before when I’d been forced to cancel an upcoming trip to the States for health reasons….I was frustrated and disappointed that I’d had to cancel, despite any inconveniences the trip entailed….When the fast day arrived, I secretly drank my water, ate my cereal, and even had my coffee….But instead of breathing a sigh of relief, I tried to focus on what I was missing. It’s awfully hard to tune into the nuances of a fast day when you’re not fasting. It’s hard to remember to be sad when you feel content and full. I realized I’m missing out a lot by not missing out on food that day.
A fast day is ultimately a day of repentance, regardless of whether we fast. How can we be a part of that?
There are two other classic modes of repenting aside from fasting: tefilla and tzedaka.
A person not fasting can make an extra effort to give tzedaka on a fast day.
Additionally, making time to say prayers traditionally recited on a fast can facilitate teshuva and heighten awareness of the day’s message. Such prayers include Selichot, Avinu Malkeinu, and special Torah and Haftara readings.
Selichot After Shemoneh Esrei, penitiential prayers (Selichot) are recited. It is permissible to recite Selichot without a minyan, either omitting the thirteen attributes of God or chanting them with Torah-reading cantillations.
שולחן ערוך אורח חיים תקסה: ה
אין היחיד רשאי לומר שלש עשרה מדות דרך תפלה ובקשת רחמים, דדבר שבקדושה הם; אבל אם בא לאומרם דרך קריאה בעלמא, אומרם.
Shulchan Aruch OC 565:5
An individual may not recite the thirteen attributes in the manner of prayer and asking for mercy, for they are a davar she-bikdusha, but if he says them in the manner of simply reading, he may say them.
Avinu Malkeinu Ashkenazim recite the prayer “Avinu Malkeinu” after Shacharit and Mincha, and may do so even when praying without a minyan.
Torah and Haftara Readings On these fast days, we read the Torah at Shacharit and again at Mincha (Shemot 32). Ashkenazim add a Haftara at Mincha (Yeshaya 55:6-56-8). Someone praying alone can feel free to read the relevant portions to themselves.
Reciting some or all of these prayers provides an opportunity to focus our avodat Hashem on the themes of teshuva and collective responsibility, regardless of our personal circumstances. Still, despite our best efforts, sometimes we are not in position to maximize a fast.
In that case, we can keep in mind a note of encouragement by educator Sara Wolkenfeld, that she shares in a blogpost about Tish’a Be-Av with young children:
Sara Wolkenfeld, “Finding myself as a parent on Tisha B’Av,” Times of Israel
Jewish sources provide a robust model for viewing long historical periods as anomalous blips… All of us…are in exile…[W]e look ahead to when we will return to Jerusalem, with gladness and rejoicing. This intermediate time in our history will pass. So, too, our years of raising young children need not be the sole defining factor of our religious selves. The ways in which our texts speak about exile give me faith that it is okay to hold on to a vision of myself as a human that is not always in concert with my place in life right now. At its best, I hope that the image I hold up to myself is one that I can also speak about to my children, so they understand how Eema sees herself, and what those aspirations might mean in their lives.
We do our best at a given time and aspire to do more when that time passes, confident that exemptions from fasting are part of the framework of Halacha, and that God embraces our best efforts to come close to him with repentance.
Is it reasonable to expect pregnant or nursing women to fast?
The ‘Yom Kippur effect’ of women in late stages of pregnancy being raced to the hospital on Yom Kippur can be frightening. This story from Mishpacha Magazine brings it to life:26
C.B. Gavant, 'Born on Yom Kippur,' Mishpacha, October 5, 2011.
Late on Yom Kippur afternoon Batsheva Freedman [a psuedonym] began to feel mild sporadic contractions….she sent one of her children to shul to ask her husband if she should break her fast. “The next thing I knew my husband burst in the door together with two Hatzolah guys” Batsheva relates. “‘Mrs. Freedman we’re taking you to the hospital immediately ’ ” they said.“ ‘But I’m not having strong contractions! All I wanted to know was whether I should break my fast’ I replied…. When the non-Jewish staff first saw her kittel- and sneaker-clad guardian angels entering the hospital someone commented “Weren’t you guys just here?” “Clear the beds” the men shouted back. “We’ll be coming in all night.”
The most striking aspects of this account are how quickly Batsheva’s husband moves to safeguard her health, how focused “Batsheva” remains on the question of whether she should fast amid the turmoil, and how commonplace the Hatzolah team finds her situation.
At the same time, the scientific evidence on the effects of a twenty-five hour fast on nursing or pregnancy remains inconclusive, so that it does not support widespread alarm.
The preoccupation with fasting or not remains prevalent. At the same time, over the last several years we also seem to have witnessed a sea change in women’s attitudes toward fasting. Increasing numbers of women have been questioning the need to fast at these vulnerable times of pregnancy and nursing.
Less than 200 years ago, Aruch Hashulchan writes that many women of his time would insist that they were well enough to fast, even right after childbirth.
ערוך השולחן תריז:ד
ובזמנינו ידוע שהן בעצמן יגידו תמיד שאינה צריכה, ואי אפשר לסמוך על זה. ולכן אם יש רופא – ישאלו אצל הרופא. ואם לאו – יגידו הנשים הבקיאות. ואם יש ספק – מאכילין אותה פחות פחות מכשיעור, דספק נפשות להקל
Aruch Ha-shulchan 617:4
In our time it is known that they themselves will always say that they don’t need [food], and it is not possible to rely on this. Therefore, if there is a physician— they should ask the physician. And if not—the expert women should say. If there is a doubt— we give her less than a shi’ur to eat at a time, for we are lenient in cases of possibly saving a life.
It is hard to imagine this happening in a widespread fashion now when women are more concerned about the medical effects of a fast. Instead, nowadays, celebrities like Mayim Bialik have taken to the internet in order to defend the idea of fasting when pregnant or nursing to the questioning public:27
Mayim Bialik 'Why I Fast on Yom Kippur'
Many people don’t like the concept of fasting, and many people don’t see any religious or spiritual value in fasting. I happen to be a person who likes the concept, and who sees and reaps a tremendous amount of religious and spiritual value from fasting. I also have fasted throughout two pregnancies and through nursing babies and toddlers on demand all day and all night. Am I better than you for fasting while nursing and pregnant? No. Do I work hard to accomplish this? Yes…My personal experience both as a nursing mom and a Certified Lactation Educator Counselor is that during the first three months of nursing, when milk supply is being established, you want to be very careful about supply, and babies will often want to nurse a lot the day AFTER a fast to pull up milk supply that may have dropped from a day of no water and no food. Fasting is so important to me that I put in my best effort to keep it going: I step up my fluids the day before I fast, and I take it super easy…
Why is this the case? Why have attitudes toward pregnant and nursing women fasting undergone such a shift?
Perhaps, as a community, we have lost sight of the significance of fasting. This is regrettable and we should work to change that. (Deracheha’s piece on the topic may help.)
And perhaps, as regrettably, there have been far too many women over the years who have taken risks in the name of fasting without knowing that Halacha does not call for them.
It is critically important for a woman to investigate whether it is medically safe for her to fast and how Halacha relates to that. She should work with a physician and halachic authority to ensure that she protects her body and her offspring and honors her commitment to Halacha.
What should I do to connect to the fast if I am exempt from fasting?
Often, a woman exempt from fasting on Tish’a Be-Av or Yom Kippur can fast at least overnight without harm to herself or offspring, in order to participate in part of the fast. Despite such efforts, not fasting can be as challenging as fasting.
When eating for health purposes on Tish’a Be-Av or on Yom Kippur, at any point over the course of the day, it can be helpful to have in mind beforehand that one is eating to fulfill the mitzva of “ve-chay ba-hem,” living by the mitzvot, and eating thoughtfully in a way that places an emphasis on nourishment and health.
The following prayer, popularized by the work Torat Ha-yoledet, can help those who must eat or drink to focus in on how that, too, is an act of serving God:
תפילה לחולה הצריך לאכול ביוה”כ [=ביום הכיפורים]
הנני מוכן ומזומן לקיים מצוות אכילה ושתיה ביום הכיפורים, כמו שכתבת בתורתך: “ושמרתם את חוקותי ואת משפטי אשר יעשה אותם האדם וחי בהם אני ה'” (ויק’ יח:ה). ובזכות קיום מצווה זו, תחתום אותי ואת כל חולי עמך ישראל לרפואה שלמה ואזכה ביום הכיפורים הבא לקיים שוב “ועניתם את נפשותיכם” כן יהי רצון, אמן.
Prayer for an Ill Person who must Eat on Yom Kippur
Here I am ready and prepared to fulfill the mitzva of eating and drinking on Yom Kippur, as You wrote in Your Torah “keep my ordinances and my laws that a person should do and live by them, I am the Lord” (Vayikra 18:5). By merit of fulfilling this mitzva, may You seal me and all the ill people of Your people Israel for complete healing and may I merit next Yom Kippur to fulfil again “And you should afflict your souls”. So may it be Your will, Amen.
Since fasting is not the only special aspect of a fast day, Rav Sternbuch writes that a pregnant woman who is not fasting should try to be a part of the community as much as possible. On Tish’a Be-Av this can mean limiting the type of foods she eats to one cooked dish at a time, as is done at the se’uda mafseket before Tish’a Be-Av:
שו”ת תשובות והנהגות ה: קסט
ומיהו אפילו נתיר היום למעוברת, מ”מ [=מכל מקום] היא חייבת להשתתף עם הציבור, ואף שאוכלת פירות ושותה בלי חשבון של שיעור, לא גרע מערב ת”ב [=תשעה באב] ולא תאכל שני תבשילין…
Responsa Teshuvot Ve-hanhagot V 169
Nevertheless, even if we permit [eating] during the daytime to a pregnant woman, she is still obligated to participate with the community, and even when she eats fruits and drinks without considerations of shi’urim, it is no less significant than the eve of Tish’a Be-Av and [as is the rule then for mourning] she should not eat two cooked items…
Deracheha’s Editor-At-Large Sarah Davis Rudolph talks about her experiences in this situation, and what she has learned from them:
Sarah Davis Rudolph, “How eating on Yom Kippur was, and wasn’t, everything I’d ever dreamed it could be”
Generally speaking, I not only require food, but I enjoy it. This Yom Kippur, though, I wasn’t eating to enjoy: it was purely for nutrition…I wasn’t eating anything for me; it was all about her. Every ten minutes, I made a decision – does she need another ounce of almond milk? An ounce of trail mix? Water this time?…Every bite had purpose – and to my mind, purposefulness is the very definition of holiness. So, eating on Yom Kippur was an exciting opportunity to live halacha a little differently, and to focus on physicality in a purposeful, holy way. But it was also sad….There is a great deal of power in personal prayer, but for me, the power of Neilah in particular comes from community. And I realized this year more than ever that it comes from having been through the day together, fasting however badly or well one fasts, crying out together and mumbling quietly to G-d together. Yom Kippur can be an overwhelming experience, and it is at its most powerful as a shared experience. I had hoped that eating on Yom Kippur would give me the strength to focus on my prayers better. But instead, I found that there is actually something positive about fasting.
When not able to fast, we can gain new appreciation of what fasting means while honoring the halachic imperative to preserve health. Finding a balance between the two, we can seek out moments of connection, holiness, and purpose.
THE 3 WEEKS and the 9 DAYS
Why do we mourn in stages?
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik draws a halachic and conceptual correspondence between the stages of mourning of before Tish’a Be-Av and the stages of mourning for a parent. The Three Weeks correspond to the twelve months of mourning (yud-bet chodesh), the Nine Days to the first month (shloshim), and the day of Tish’a Be-Av to shiv’a.
On a halachic level, Rav Soloveitchik applies customs of mourning for a parent to the Three Weeks, regardless of whether they were mentioned explicitly by earlier halachic authorities.
Conceptually, he explains that the laws and customs of mourning both respond to human emotions and redirect them.
Rav Yosef B. Soloveitchik, “Avelut Yeshanah and Avelut Hadashah: Historical and Individual Mourning”
Even though the mourning of an individual constitutes a kiyyum she-ba-lev, an inner, experiential fulfillment of the obligation to mourn, it must be translated into deeds, into technical observance….The Halakhah demanded that feeling be transposed into deed…that fleeting, amorphous moods be crystallized into real tangible symbols….Avelut yeshanah [mourning a past occurrence] does not establish itself at one bang; the process is generally slow. It…not only notes and gives heed to bygone days but also reexperiences, relives, restages and redramatizes remote events which seem to have forfeited their relevance long ago. The Halakhah could not decree observance of mourning at once. The reawakening takes time; it transpires gradually. It would be absurd, therefore, to start out with the practical observance of mourning before the experience has been reproduced and relived in all its tragic, frightening magnitude. The time between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and Rosh Hodesh Av is exclusively devoted to remembrance, to meditation, to reliving and reexperiencing. Only on Rosh Hodesh Av does the avelut she-ba-lev begin to be recorded on the register of objective mourning and the first signs of observance become visible.
The laws of mourning a parent reflect a person’s acute emotional distress and withdrawal from society after experiencing a major loss. They gradually decrease in intensity as the mourner reacclimates into society and regains emotional equilibrium.
The laws of mourning the Temples, considered a form of aveilut yeshana (lit. old mourning), are different. Here, we are not confronting to a new trauma, but attempting to mourn a historic one, albeit with lasting impact. We gradually increase the customs of mourning during the Three Weeks in order to evoke an emotional response to the loss and enter the proper mindset for Tish’a Be-Av.
Why should halacha differentiate between men and women regarding restrictions on grooming in the three weeks or nine days?
Some halachot are defined in light of common practice. Until recently, for example, many forms of grooming have been considered feminine behavior. Acts such as removing body hair have been prohibited to men in locales and time periods in which they were considered feminine practices.
שולחן ערוך יו”ד קפב:א
המעביר שער בית שחי ובית הערוה, אפילו במספרים כעין תער, היו מכין אותו מכת מרדות. בד”א [=במה דברים אמורים], במקום שאין מעבירין אותו אלא נשים, כדי שלא יתקן עצמו תיקון נשים. אבל במקום שמעבירין אותו גם האנשים, אם העביר אין מכין אותו. הגה: ואפילו לכתחלה שרי
Shulchan Aruch YD 182:1
[A man] who removes hair from the armpits or pubic area, even with scissors like a razor, they would give him lashes of rebelliousness. Where does this apply? In a place where only women remove it, in order that he not groom himself in a feminine manner. But in a place where men also remove it, if he removed it, he does not receive lashes. Rema: And it is even permissible le-chat’chila (in the first place).
Modern halachic q and a abound with men asking questions as to whether such actions are still prohibited today. The answer often depends on changing communal norms.
Additionally, many of the leniencies for women’s grooming specifically mention married women, especially newlyweds, or single women dating for marriage. Leniencies in this vein focus on grooming as it relates to physical attraction within relationships. This concept is often expressed from the point of view of the man, as when Rabbi Akiva insists that a woman in nidda be permitted to make herself up and dress nicely lest she become unattractive to her husband:
והדוה בנדתה, זקנים הראשונים אמרו: שלא תכחול ולא תפקוס ולא תתקשט בבגדי צבעונין, עד שבא רבי עקיבא ולימד: אם כן אתה מגנה על בעלה…
“The one who is unwell during her nidda” (Vayikra 15:33), the first elders said: she should not use eye makeup or blush or adorn herself with colorful clothing, until Rabbi Akiva came and taught: If so, you make her unattractive to her husband…
Although norms of how we talk about women’s bodies and the male gaze have changed, physical attraction remains an important element of intimate relationships. As grooming standards for men evolve and as more wives are particular about their husbands’ grooming, it is possible that we’ll see more halachic leniencies for men’s grooming during the three weeks.
What can take the place of shofar in Elul for those who cannot hear it?
Women customarily make great efforts to hear shofar on Rosh Ha-shana, even though the mitzva is time-bound and women are exempt. In Elul, the shofar calls people to search their ways and do teshuva. This fully applies to women and men alike, yet here many women do not seek out opportunities to hear the shofar throughout Elul.
We have seen that shofar in Elul is a communal custom, and therefore there is no halachic issue with women missing it. Still, the message of the shofar remains an integral part of the work we are supposed to be doing throughout the month of Elul. A person who does not regularly attend minyan might consider making an effort at least once over the month to hear shofar with a group, in order to connect to this experience.
Someone who cannot hear shofar should remember that the shofar in Elul is not an end in itself, but a means to an end: performing teshuva. A useful analogy is when Rosh Ha-shana falls out on Shabbat. In that case, we do not blow shofar on Rosh Hashana, but we do make mention of the blasts and what they mean, and that has value.
Whether or not we hear the shofar, we can redouble our efforts to increase introspection, focus on prayer, and intensify acts of charity and lovingkindness in preparation for the Day of Judgment, doing our own part to confuse the Satan. Chayei Adam expresses this beautifully:
חיי אדם הלכות ראש השנה
… וחייב כל אדם על-כל-פנים להכין את עצמו ליום שיכנס למשפט לפני ה’ בראש השנה שלושים יום קודם, בתשובה ותפילה. ויתן כל ליבו רק בעבודת ה’. ונתנו רמז לזה – “א ני ל דודי ו דודי ל י” (שיר השירים ו’, ג’), ראשי תיבות אלו”ל. ולכן ירבה בכל החודש בתשובה ותפילה וצדקה ….
Chayei Adam, Laws of Rosh Ha-shana
In any event, each person is obligated to prepare themselves with teshuva and prayer for thirty days prior to the day they enter into judgment before God on Rosh Hashana. And they should give their entire heart only to the service of God. And they alluded to this [with the verse] Ani le-dodi ve-dodi li, I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine (Shir Hashirim 6:3) which is an acronym for Elul. Therefore, one should increase one’s teshuva, prayer and charity throughout the month.
ד”ר חנה קטן, ” כמה טוב כעת, וכמה טוב עוד יהיה,” בשבע כ”ו אלול תשע”ח
כל אישה צריכה אלול משלה… שהתשובה חיונית להתפתחות האישית שלנו כעובדי ה’, ושהיא יעילה ומקדמת, היא מכפרת, מטהרת, ומשחיזה את הנשמה האלוקית…יש תשובה של היחיד. ושל האומה. ושל העולם כולו. והעיקר הוא להרגיש ולדעת שבטוב העולם נידון. ושאנחנו מתקדמים, והגאולה אצה לה בדילוגי ענק ואנחנו נסחפים אחריה.
Dr Chana Katan, 'How Good it is Now and How Good it Still will be,' Ba-sheva, 26 Elul 5778
Every woman needs her own Elul…for teshuva is vital to our personal development as servants of God. It is effective and advances us, it atones and purifies, and it sharpens the Divine soul [within us]. The essence is to feel and to know that the world is judged in goodness and that we are advancing. Redemption rushes forward with giant steps, and we are swept up behind her…
What is the connection between the terua of the shofar and Sisera’s mother?
The Talmud, in a seemingly technical inference, derives the meaning of terua as yevava, or cry, from the Targum’s description of Sisera’s mother. Later, Ha-aruch connects the 100 blasts that we sound in synagogue on Rosh Ha-Shana to the 100 cries of Sisera’s mother. This is surprising for two reasons.
First, Sisera’s mother is not a sympathetic figure. As Devora describes her, she seeks to assuage anxiety about her son’s fate by joining in her servants’ conjecture that he is merely busy dividing up the captured women and plunder.
Second, an independent midrashic tradition speaks of an archetypal birthing mother crying 100 cries:
ויקרא רבה פרשת אמור פרשה כז
ק’ פעיות שהאשה פועה בשעה שיושבת על המשבר תשעים ותשעה למיתה ואחת לחיים
Vayikra Rabba Emor 27
One hundred cries that the woman cries out when she sits on the birthing stool: ninety-nine for death, and one for life
Now, this idea seems to fit perfectly with the days’ themes of judgment for life and death. Motherhood is another major theme of Rosh Hshana, from the Torah readings about Hagar and Sarah, to the haftarot about Chana and Rachel crying for her children. Rosh Ha-shana is the birthday of the world in which we stand in judgment, appealing to God by evoking the ultimate human mercy, that of the mother for her child.
Rachel Weinstock offers a compelling perspective on the link between motherhood – especially childbirth – and the shofar blasts.
רחל וינשטוק, “יום הרת עולם” תקיעות השופר וצעקת היולדת, אשירה
צעקת השופר מבטאת את הכאב והשמחה כאחד. הכאב הזמני בו הנשמה אינה רוצה לפגוש בחומר, והשמחה הנצחית על כך שהיא משלימה את יעודה בעולם הזה. ב”יום הרת עולם”, בבואנו לשמוע קול שופר, אנו נזכרים בזעקות המהולות בשמחת לידה, בזעקה על עוונותינו המהולה בשמחת המלכת ד’, בחיבור שבין הרוחני לגשמי שלמענו הגענו לזה העולם. אַשְׁרֵי הָעָם יֹדְעֵי תְרוּעָה יְהֹוָה בְּאוֹר פָּנֶיךָ יהלכון”
Rachel Weinstock, Birthday of the world: Shofar Blowing and the Cires of the Child-Bearing Women Ashira
The cry of the shofar expresses pain and joy as one. The temporary pain in which the soul does not want to encounter materiality, and the eternal joy upon fulfilling its destiny in this world. On “the day the world was conceived,” when we come to hear the sound of the shofar, we recall the cries mixed with the joy of birth, the cry over our sins mixed with the joy of coronating God, the connection between spiritual and physical for the sake of which we have arrived in this world. “Fortunate is the nation who know terua, God, in the light of Your countenance may they walk.”
Of all the mothers in the world, why should we recall the cries of Sisera’s?
Perhaps our shofar blasts counter the wickedness in her cries, or her cries are meant to be a goad to us to cry out to God in a deeper way. Or perhaps the idea is even broader.
On Rosh HaShana, we celebrate God’s kingship over the entire world, Jews and non-Jews, righteous and wicked. As part of the universal message of Rosh Ha-shana, it may be appropriate to include all mothers, even a mother whose love is blended with cruelty – who worries about her own son while seeing other women as mere “wombs” for his exploitation. Even she, from her great distance from us, knows how to cry out for mercy in the face of human frailty, and even she is thus part of the greater religious narrative of Rosh Ha-shana.
Rav Yosef Soloveitchik shares a different explanation for why the cries of the mother of Sisera became so important to our shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana.
Rav Yosef Soloveitchik, Before Hashem You Shall Be Purified, p. 10
The required response to the shofar, which the Rambam refers to as awakening from sleep, is the abrupt, tragic realization that the false assumptions upon which we build our lives have come crashing before our eyes. We are jolted with the sudden awareness of the grievous extent to which our actions have alienated us from G-d. Amidst the panic of this experience, we have neither the intellectual nor the emotional fortitude to adequately express remorse, resolve, confession, or even prayer. We find ourselves alone, bereft of illusions, terrified and paralyzed before G-d… Why does the story of a pagan mother awaiting her barbaric son form the halachic basis for the required number of shofar sounds that are blown on Rosh Hashana? Because upon hearing the piercing tones of the shofar, we must experience a similar emotion [to hers]; as we awaken from spiritual complacency, we must witness our own illusions being relentlessly shattered.
Who has contact with a Torah?
While a Sefer Torah plays a central role in the synagogue, many women rarely come close to it.
Men have a range of opportunities for contact with the Sefer Torah: when it is taken out of and returned to the aron kodesh, when they read from the Torah or receive an aliya, when lifting the Torah for hagbaha, or when dressing it for gelila. Physical closeness to a Sefer Torah can be experienced as deeply meaningful.
In a eulogy for his father, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein shares a telling anecdote:
רב משה ליכטנשטיין, “בכל לבי דרשתיך.” אשרי אדם עוז לו בך, עורך חיים נבון,(תל אביב: ידיעות אחרונות, 2018), 93
אחד מתלמידיו הנאנמים סיפר לי שפעם שאל את אבא למה הוא מקפיד לנשק את ספר התורה. הוא ציפה לשמוע תשובה בסגנון ‘כי במסכת סופרים כתוב כך’, אך אבא ענה לו בפשטות: “כי יהודי רוצה לנשק ספר תורה”
Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein, 'With All my Heart I Seek You,' in Ashrei Adam Oz Lo Bach, ed. Chaim Navon (Tel Aviv: Yedi'ot Achronot, 2018), 93.
One of his [Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s] faithful students told me that once he asked Abba why he was meticulous about kissing the Sefer Torah. He expected to hear an answer along the lines of “because it’s written to do so in Masechet Soferim.” But Abba answered him simply: “Because a Jew wants to kiss a Sefer Torah.”
It’s natural for Jewish women to seek physical closeness to a Sefer Torah, out of love for Torah. Here, we explore the halachic discussion about doing so.
Why is dancing with a Sefer Torah such a big deal?
The symbolism of the Sefer Torah is at the heart of this issue. From the start, when Rambam extends rulings about thinking about Torah to the physical scroll, we learn that the Sefer Torah, beyond its own holiness, represents Torah itself.
For a woman to be close to a Sefer Torah can be meaningful to her because it symbolizes being close to Torah. Many women have little to no contact with a Sefer Torah over the course of the year and feel that distance most strongly on Simchat Torah.
For men to hand over a Sefer Torah to women during hakafot may feel like relinquishing something exceedingly precious. (We detail the halachic issues in our article.) When men don’t hand over a Sefer Torah so that women can rejoice over it, it can give rise to a sense among some women that men are controlling access to Torah. This can be particularly painful to women who engage in Torah study regularly, whose access to the words of Torah is deeply meaningful and who may long for access to the physical scroll as well. Other women, no less connected to Torah, may feel uncomfortable with the idea of holding a Sefer Torah.
Even if a Torah is not handed to the women in a shul, a synagogue community and its leadership should carefully consider how still to convey the message that they respect and value women’s portion in and engagement with Torah. To this end, they might consider designating a specific woman to hold the Torah or placing it on a table in the women’s section, as Rav Ya’akov Ariel suggested, to ensure kevod ha-Torah is maintained while providing an opportunity for women to rejoice with the scroll.
Deracheha Editor-at-large Sarah Rudolph presents her take on what it means for women to dance as an expression of women’s joy and portion in Torah, even without a scroll:
Sarah Rudolph, 'Simchat Torah Doesn't Have to be a Men's Holiday
…Holding the scroll, that, to my mind, is secondary. The real point is that we have an equal right to rejoice in our sacred heritage. Nobody is making us chat; ultimately, no one is stopping us from dancing. If it’s a men’s holiday, that is because we let it be….On Simchat Torah, I dance for the concept of Torah, not the object. I dance for myself and my love of Torah study. I dance for the joy of the completed cycle of reading, and I dance for the joy of beginning all over again. I dance because I will shortly have tears in my eyes, like I do every year, as I listen to the account of Moses’ death in the last few verses of the Torah. I dance because I will shortly be awed, as I am every year, when we begin again and read, “And it was evening, and it was morning, one day.” The very beginning of everything; something, where there had been nothing.
We need to engage in education and dialogue to bring us to a point where every Jewish woman can give expression to her love of Torah on Simchat Torah and where our communities make it clear that they celebrate women’s connection to Torah.
In what way were women essential to the Chanuka miracle?
Rashbam writes that the Chanuka miracle came about through Yehudit. But who was she?
Yehudit daughter of Merari is the heroine of the apocryphal Book of Judith, perhaps inspired by the Biblical Yael (Shofetim 5:25), for lulling the enemy general Holofernes to sleep with milk and then beheading him. However, the Book of Judith appears to be set in a much earlier era, which makes it difficult to attribute the Chanuka miracle to that recounting of the Yehudit story.
At the same time, traditional Jewish sources seem to tell a parallel story integrated into the Chanuka narrative. Kolbo, for example, calls the woman who took action “Yehudit the daughter of Yochanan,” a direct descendant of Matityahu, and provides context for what occurred:
ספר כלבו סימן מד
נשים חייבות בנ”ח [=בנר חנוכה] שאף הן היו באותו הנס, פירוש שהאויבים באו לאבד הכל אנשים ונשים וטף, ויש מפרשים שעל ידי אשה אירע להם הנס הגדול ההוא ושמה יהודית כמו שמפורש באגדה בת היתה ליוחנן כהן גדול והיתה יפת תואר מאד ואמר המלך יון שתשכב עמו והאכילתו תבשיל של גבינה כדי שיצמא וישתה לרוב וישתכר וישכב וירדם ויהי לה כן וישכב וירדם ותקח חרבו וחתכה ראשו ותביאהו לירושלים וכראות החיל כי מת גבורם וינוסו, ועל כן נהגו לעשות תבשיל של גבינה בחנוכה.
Women are obligated in the Chanuka candle for they, too, were part of that miracle. That means that the enemies came to destroy everyone, men, women and children. There are those who explain that the great miracle occurred by means of a woman, and her name was Yehudit, as is explained in the aggada. Yochanan, the High Priest, had a daughter who was very beautiful. The Seleucid Greek king ordered that she lie with him. She fed him a cheese dish so that he would grow thirsty and drink a lot and become drunk and lie down and fall asleep. So it was, and he lay down and slept, and she took his sword and cut off his head and brought it to Yerushalayim, When the army saw that their hero had died, they ran away. For this reason, it is customary to make cheese dishes on Chanuka.
Acording to Kolbo, Yehudit’s act of resistance was instrumental in defeating the enemy. Where Kolbo spells out the details of his story, Rashi’s comment on this matter is more cryptic:
רש”י שבת כג. ד”ה היו באותו הנס
שגזרו יוונים על כל בתולות הנשואות להיבעל לטפסר תחלה, ועל יד אשה נעשה הנס.
Rashi Shabbat 23a s.v. Hayu be-oto ha-nes
That the Seleucid Greeks decreed that all virgin brides be bedded first by the commander, and the miracle was performed through a woman.
Rashi gives us to understand that the Seleucid Greeks exercised droit du seigneur, sleeping with each bride on her wedding night, in a type of sexual warfare that undermined the very fabric of Jewish society, the sanctity of the family. Rashi notes that a woman changed the course of that practice, without spelling out how. One possibility, as Ran suggests, is that Rashi’s account can mesh with Kolbo’s:
ר”ן על הרי”ף שבת י.
שאף הן היו באותו הנס. שגזרו יונים על כל הבתולות הנישאות שיבעלו להגמון תחילה וע”י [=ועל ידי] אשה נעשה נס דאמרינן במדרש דבתו של יוחנן האכילה לראש האויבים גבינה לשכרותו וחתכה את ראשו וברחו כולם…
Ran on the Rif Shabbat 10a
For they too were in that miracle. For the Seleucid Greeks decreed that all virgin brides be bedded first by the general. Through a woman a miracle was performed, for we say in the midrash that the daughter of Yochanan fed the enemy chief cheese to get him drunk, and she cut off his head, and they all fled.
According to Ran, the daughter of Yochanan beheads the enemy the night he seeks to exercise his droit du seigneur.
There is also an early tradition from Megillat Ta’anit, recorded less than two hundred years after the Chashmonean revolt, in which Matityahu’s sons begin the revolt in order to protect their sister.
…ובת אחת היתה למתתיהו בן יוחנן הכהן הגדול וכשהגיע זמנה לינשא בא הקסטרין לטמאה ולא הניחו אותו וקנאו מתתיהו ובניו וגברה ידם על מלכות יון…
…Matityahu ben Yochanan the High Priest had one daughter. When her time came to marry, the [Seleucid Greek] officer came to defile here. But Matityahu and his sons did not allow it [droit du seigneur] and they were zealous and they defeated the Seleucid Greek empire…
Otzar ha-midrashim relates that the young bride shocked her brothers into revolt:
אוצר המדרשים (אייזנשטיין) חנוכה עמוד 190
והיו יונים מתעללות בבתולות ישראל, ונהגו בדבר הזה שלש שנים ושמונה חדשים, עד שבא מעשה של בת מתתיהו כהן גדול שנשאת לבן חשמונאי ואלעזר היה שמו, כיון שהגיע יום שמחתה הושיבוה באפריון, וכשהגיע זמן הסעודה נתקבצו כל גדולי ישראל לכבוד מתתיהו ובן חשמונאי שלא היו באותו הדור גדולים מהם, וכשישבו לסעוד עמדה חנה בת מתתיהו מעל אפריון וספקה כפיה זו על זו וקרעה פורפירון שלה ועמדה לפני כל ישראל כשהיא מגולה ולפני אביה ואמה וחותנה. כיון שראו אחיה כך נתביישו ונתנו פניהם בקרקע וקרעו בגדיהם, ועמדו עליה להרגה, אמרה להם שמעוני אחיי ודודיי, ומה אם בשביל שעמדתי לפני צדיקים ערומה בלי שום עבירה הרי אתם מתקנאים בי, ואין אתם מתקנאים למסרני ביד ערל להתעולל בי! הלא יש לכם ללמוד משמעון ולוי אחי דינה שלא היו אלא שנים וקנאו לאחותם והרגו כרך כשכם ומסרו נפשם על ייחוד של מקום ועזרם ה’ ולא הכלימם, ואתם חמשה אחים יהודה יוחנן יונתן שמעון ואלעזר, ופרחי כהונה יותר ממאתים בחור, שימו בטחונכם על המקום והוא יעזור אתכם שנאמר כי אין מעצור לה’ להושיע וגו’ (ש”א =שמואל א’= י”ד). ופתחה פיה בבכיה ואמרה רבש”ע [=ריבונו של עולם] אם לא תחוס עלינו חוס על קדושת שמך הגדול שנקרא עלינו ונקום היום נקמתנו. באותה שעה נתקנאו אחיה…
Otzar Ha-midrashim Chanuka, p. 190
The Seleucid Greeks would abuse the virgins of Israel, and they did this for three years and eight months until the deed of the daughter of Matityahu the High Priest, who was marrying a son of Chashmonai named Elazar. When her wedding day arrived, they seated her in her litter. When the time of the meal arrived, all the great ones of Israel gathered in honor of Matityahu and the son of Chashmonai, for there were none greater than they in that generation. When they sat down to feast, Chana daughter of Matityahu stood up atop her litter and clapped her hands together and ripped her royal cloak and stood before all of Israel exposed, and also before her father and her mother and her father-in-law. When her brothers saw this they were ashamed and their faces fell to the ground and they rent their garments and they stood over her to kill her. She said to them “Listen to me my brothers and my kinsmen: If when I stood before the righteous naked without any sin you would be zealous for me, why are you not zealous when it comes to handing me over to the uncircumcised to abuse me! Shouldn’t you learn from Shimon and Levi, the brothers of Dina, who were only two and were zealous for their sister and killed a large city like Shechem and gave themselves up for the Oneness of God, and God helped them and did not shame them. You are five brothers Yehuda, Yochanan, Yonatan, Shimon, and Elazar, and young Kohanim, more than two hundred young men. Put your trust in God and He will help you, as it is said “For nothing gets in the way of God’s salvation” (Shemuel I 14). She opened her mouth and wept and said “Master of the world, if You will not have mercy on us, have mercy on the sanctity of Your great Name which is called upon us and avenge us today. At that time, her brothers became zealous…
Here a daughter of Matityahu forfeits her own dignity to demonstrate to her brothers that they bear responsibility for allowing the sexual subjugation of Judean women to persist. She gives voice to the victims of sexual violence and places the imperative of justice for them and fighting the Seleucid practice in a Biblical framework that speaks to her brothers and her people. Her voice is heard.
On all of these readings, Jewish women suffered along with the men under Antiochus. On some of them, men found the courage to revolt and help bring about wondrous Divine intervention thanks to a woman who led the way.
How important is it to get to synagogue for Zachor?
As we’ve learned, many halachic authorities maintain that women are obligated in the mitzva of remembering Amalek. The best way to do that is to hear it read at synagogue. We list other solutions for when that can’t work, though, and women may rely on them.
That being said, there is another reason to make an effort to hear Parashat Zachor read at synagogue: zechira ba-lev, the remembering of the heart. The message of eradicating Amalek isn’t comfortable, and it’s one we might be tempted to forget if left to our own devices. It’s not easy to rally ourselves to hate. The idea that we are part of an eternal, national mission to eradicate evil is most compelling coming from an ancient scroll and heard alongside other members of our people.
To whom should we send Mishlo'ach Manot?
When choosing to whom to give mishlo’ach manot, we should be careful not to overlook those who are new to our community, the loners, neighbors we don’t know well, or even people we don’t get along with. Rav Moshe Harari articulates this nicely:
רב משה הררי, מקראי קודש פרק יא הערה ט
בס”ד נלע”ד [=בסייעתא דשמיא נראה לפי עניות דעתי] שיש ענין להרבות במשלוחי מנות במספר ובכמות לאותם אנשים שציערם במשך השנה או התקוטט עמם, וזאת כדי להרבות אהבה ביניהם ולהחזיר השלום. ועל ידי כך יהא פורים ככיפורים – שמכפר על העבירות שבין אדם לחבירו, ויהיו ישראל אגודה אחת ולא עם מפוזר ומפורד ח”ו.
Rav Moshe Harari, Mikra'ei Kodesh Chapter 11 note 9
In my humble opinion it is appropriate to increase the number and quantity of mishlo’ach manot for those people whom one has hurt or quarreled with in the past year, in order to increase love between them and restore peace. And through this, Purim can become like [Yom] Kippurim (the Day of Atonement) – atoning for sins between man and his fellow, and Israel will be one unit and not, Heaven forbid, [as Haman says in the megilla] a “nation scattered and dispersed.”
Women who wish to be careful to observe Rema’s ruling that a woman should not give to a man, can take special care to find women in the community who might particularly appreciate receiving mishlo’ach manot.
Why is Purim sometimes difficut for women, and how can we make it better?
While many people love Purim exactly as it is, its customs and mitzvot can be very labor intensive, and the bulk of the efforts, especially in a family setting, often fall disproportionately on women. Single adults and people without children face their own Purim challenges, whether it’s the emotional difficulty of connecting to a holiday that so often focuses on children and family, or more practical problems of finding a place to celebrate.
Crafting a Purim costume or mishlo’ach manot can take hours. Cooking a se’uda also demands time and energy. At megilla reading, it can be difficult to hear the words or focus on them from the women’s section, especially if there are children to watch over. Matanot la-evyonim can seem very remote, especially if money was sent via an agent in advance of Purim. The se’uda may feel anticlimactic, or worse, like a frat party. It’s not just during the se’uda , though, that we may struggle to direct the lively revelry of Purim to avodat Hashem.
What can we do with all this?
As with anything else, preparation really does build anticipation. Putting work into Purim helps create a sense of connection to it. So, too, managing our expectations can affect our experiences. When we decide how to invest in Purim, we should take into account our interests and priorities, which can vary from year to year, and also what is realistic.
Men and women are both obligated in the mitzvot of Purim, so a family’s plans should make sure to take the halachic and spiritual needs of everyone into account. The se’uda, for example, is for everyone, not just the men.
In the lead up to Purim and on Purim itself, it’s important first to figure out how each person will fulfill their basic obligations. People often get so caught up on how to make a mishlo’ach manot pinterest-worthy that they neglect the basic mitzva or stay up so late that they can’t concentrate on megilla the next morning. In the lead up to Purim and on Purim itself, it’s important to choose one or two aspects or mitzvot of the holiday to specialize in and focus energies on, to find ways to simplify the other aspects of the holiday, and to enlist any support necessary to bring this approach to Purim to fruition.
For example, if you love learning, make a plan in advance for a half hour over the course of the holiday, even better with a chevruta, to sit down with the megilla or Masechet Megilla or Netivot Shalom on Purim, and see if there’s something else you can let go of. If you love to cook and treat your friends, then focus your energies on real food mishlo’ach manot, and double up so that you can use at least two of those dishes for se’uda. If you really want to drink a bit and let loose, see if you can organize a mishteh nashim at night, or a women’s se’uda during the day. If megilla reading speaks to you, choose thoughtfully where to go and how you want to participate, even if it will mean cutting down on mishlo’ach manot. If matanot la-evyonim are what you feel matters most, see if you can spend part of the day volunteering with a tzedaka organization to deliver gifts to the poor, and perhaps have a shorter se’uda.
Because it entails so many customs and mitzvot, there are many paths to serving God on Purim. With some forethought there really can be something for everyone.
Ask a question about the Jewish year!
Could we read the basic sources on head-coveringin a way that would allow a woman not to cover her hair at all?
In recent history, predominantly under modern European influence, there have been entire communities of Torah-observant Jews in which the women have gone bareheaded. There are also many recent examples of pious, righteous women who have not covered their heads.
Building on the minority opinion that head-covering is not a Torah-level obligation, and on the complexity of the halachic sources regarding head-covering, some rabbis have responded to this situation by crafting a halachic justification for leaving the head-completely uncovered. Most prominent of these was Rav Yosef Messas, a Sefardi halachic authority of twentieth century Morocco and Israel.
In his responsum on the topic, Rav Messas explains that his position was designed to be melamed zechut, to create a favorable judgment, on the women of Morocco in the 1950’s, who did not cover their heads at all:
רב יוסף משאש אוצר המכתבים עמ’ ריא
איסור גלוי הראש לנשואות היה חמור אצלנו פה מחזק[ה], וכן בכל ערי המערב טרם בוא הצרפתים, ואך אחרי בואם במעט זמן, פרצו בנות ישראל גדר בזה…לא הועילה שום תוכחת…ועתה כל הנשים יוצאות בריש גלי פרועי שער…ובכן נתתי לבי ללמד עליהם זכות, כי אי אפשר להעלות על לב להחזיר הדבר כמאז…ובגשתי לחפש בדברי הפוסקי[ם] אשר לפני, מצאתי רק חומרא על חומרא ואסור על אסור…
Rav Yosef Messas, Collected Writings, p. 211
The prohibition of uncovering the head for married women was strict among us here from past practice, and thus in all cities of the Maghreb before the coming of the French, but within a short time of their coming, the daughters of Israel broke this boundary…no reproof was of use…and now all the women go out with head bare, hair uncovered…and therefore I put my mind to teaching about them favorably [le-lamed aleihen zechut], for it is impossible to conceive of returning the matter as it was…and in my approach to seek in the words of the halachic authorities that came before me, I found only stringency upon stringency and prohibition upon prohibition…
Rav Messas acknowledges that arguments to permit women not to cover their heads, his own included, go against the grain of all the major halachic authorities.
His main argument to justify the prevailing practice in his time is to understand head-covering as only a matter of custom. He then suggests that the custom is void once head-covering is dissociated from modesty, which is accomplished when all women in a particular region go with heads uncovered.
רב יוסף משאש אוצר המכתבים עמ’ ריא
אין האסור מצד עצם הדבר של גילוי שער, רק מצד מנהג בנות ישראל שנהגו לכסות ראשן, משום שחשבו בזמנם שיש בזה צניעות לאשה, והמגלה שערה נחשבת פורצת גדר הצניעות, ולזה הזהירה תורה לכל בת ישראל שלא תעשה הפך מנהג בנות ישראל בזה. וא”כ [=ואם כן] עתה שכל בנות ישראל הסכימה דעתן שאין להן בכסוי הראש שום צניעות…נעקר האסור מעיקרו ונעשה היתר.
Rav Yosef Messas, Collected Writings, p. 211
The prohibition is not from the uncovered hair itself, but rather from the custom of the daughters of Israel who were accustomed to cover their heads, because they thought at their time that this was modesty for a woman, and a woman who uncovered her hair was considered a breaker of the boundary of modesty, and for this reason the Torah warned all daughters of Israel not to do the opposite of the custom of the daughters of Israel in this. If so, now that all daughters of Israel agree that there is no modesty in covering the head…the prohibition has been fundamentally uprooted and has become permissible.
The idea that the obligation becomes moot as soon as common custom changes is highly debatable, especially if we view the obligation of head-covering as more than dat Yehudit. Modern halachic authorities overwhelmingly reject Rav Messas’s idea. Additionally, in many of our communities, at least some women still practice head- covering and do associate it with modesty, which undermines his argument.
A recent article (and upcoming book) by American Rabbi Michael Broyde similarly seeks to justify not covering one’s head. Rabbi Broyde cites rabbis who have made arguments parallel to Rav Messas’s, and suggests readings of other halachic authorities that might potentially line up with those arguments. Rabbi Broyde himself acknowledges that these arguments go against halachic consensus. [See more here.]
Rabbi Michael Broyde, 'Hair Covering and Jewish Law: A Response,' p. 91
The consensus of the Ahronim [late halachic authorities] for the last few centuries has surely been that there is an objective Torah obligation upon married women to cover their hair.
He adds that his article is meant to provide grounds to judge a woman who does not cover her head favorably, not to suggest that a woman should not cover her head.
In an article explaining why she does cover her head, Dr. Meirav Tubul Kahana writes that the weight of halachic consensus is actually the most important factor shaping her personal commitment:
הרבנית ד”ר מירב (טובול) כהנא, “ובסופו של דבר – הכנעה.” עולם קטן
ובסופם של דברים, אחרי כל הדיון והבירור בדבר עניינו של כיסוי הראש, ערכו וחשיבותו, צריך גם לומר בפשטות ובהכנעה שכך הורתה לנו תורה שבעל-פה שיסודו של כיסוי הראש הוא דאורייתא. כמה קשה לאמן את שריר ההכנעה בפני דברים שאינם מובנים וברורים לנו. לקיים בפשטות כי כך ציווה ריבונו של עולם. במיוחד בדור שלנו, חושב ומשכיל מצד אחד, מתחבר ומרגיש מהצד השני – מה שאינו מובן או שאיננו “מרגישים” אותו נשאר מחוץ לתחום. אכן, חובה עלינו להעמיק, לברר, לחקור ולהבין; חשיבות גדולה יש להתחברות למצוות ולקיומן בשמחה. אך ראש וסוף לכל קיומן של המצוות הוא בבחינת לעשות רצון קונו…
Rabbanit Dr. Meirav (Tubul) Kahana, 'At the End of the Day – Submission,' from Olam Katan, May 2019
At the end of the day, after all the discussion and clarification of the matter of head-covering, its value and significance, we also need to say simply and with submission that thus the Oral Torah taught us, that the basis of head-covering is a Torah-level obligation. It is so difficult to exercise the muscle of submission regarding matters that are not understood and clear to us. To simply fulfill them because so commanded the Creator of the world. Especially in our generation, thinking and enlightened on the one hand, connecting and feeling on the other — what isn’t understood or what we don’t “feel” remains out of bounds. Indeed, we must look deeply, clarify, investigate and understand; there is great importance in connecting with mitzvot and to fulfilling them in joy. But the beginning and end of all mitzva fulfilment is the aspect of doing the will of one’s Creator…
Why should we dwell on the significance of head-covering? Isn't Halacha enough?
The main and most significant reason for a married woman to cover her head is because Halacha requires it. When a woman covers her head after marriage, she is showing her willingness and readiness to submit to Halacha, even if she does not find additional meaning in this specific act.
Discussing possible rationales behind head-covering and its potential significance can be important, though, because many women find it difficult to observe this mitzva. A woman may feel that her head-covering is uncomfortable or that it makes her less attractive. A head-covering also may openly identify a woman as a religious Jew, making a public statement to others, a statement that the woman herself cannot fully control and with which she may not feel comfortable.
Even a woman committed to this mitzva may appreciate learning about what it means to others in ways that might enrich her own observance. Exploring these explanations shouldn’t take the place of learning the Halacha, but it can complement it.
The first part of this series establishes that there is a strong halachic basis for covering one’s head, a mitzva, regardless of what meanings one might assign to it. Changing conceptions of head-covering don’t undermine the mitzva. Rather, they challenge us to consider what elements of older ideas may retain relevance, and to seek out alternative ideas that can enhance observance.
How should we relate to perceptions about head-covering that no longer seem to apply?
Many modern societies no longer associate women’s head-covering with dignity or even modesty. Female dignitaries appear bareheaded at even the most formal events. In many circles, sheitels nearly indistinguishable from natural hair are often considered more dignified, or professional, than hats or scarves.
Why, then, should these Talmudic discussions resonate with us? If the Talmudic understanding of head-covering seems out of date, what does that say to us about the mitzva?
These are good, important questions. In general, even when the reason behind a mitzva seems no longer relevant, the mitzva remains in full force. In this case, though, while norms of head-covering have changed a great deal over the past century, they have not changed entirely. The Queen of England still arrives at affairs in hats, and the rest of the royal family often follows suit. Even outside Jewish circles, there is a residual sense that head-covering, like a particularly elegant hat, can sometimes add to or reflect a person’s dignity, whether or not it is essential to it. To this day, some people perceive women’s head-covering as something that dignifies the wearer.
The Talmudic discussions teach us both that respecting women’s dignity can be a primary frame of reference for how to relate to head-covering and that our sages’ approach to this Halacha reflected respect for women.
Why should head covering function as a sign of marital status?
Head-covering could be an effective way for a woman to remind herself and others that she is unavailable. This is especially the case given the severity of the halachic prohibition of a man and woman having relations when she is married to another.
The Zohar expresses these ideas in expounding upon the sota passage.
זוהר במדבר נשא קכה:
ר’ חזקיה פתח (תהלים קכח) אשתך כגפן פוריה וגו’ מה גפן לא מקבל עליה אלא מדידיה כך אתתא דישראל קיימא בהאי גוונא דלא מקבלא עלה אלא ההוא בר זוגה, …ועל דא כגפן פוריה בירכתי ביתך… פוק חמי כמה פגימו גרים ההוא שערא דאתתא …
Zohar III Naso p. 125b
Rabbi Chizkiya opened, “Your wife is like a fruitful grapevine…” (Tehillim 128:3). Just as a grapevine does not receive [grafts] other than its own, so a woman of Israel is like this, that she does not receive anyone but her spouse…. For [she is] “like a fruitful grapevine in the recesses of your house”…Go out and see how many injuries his hair of a woman [exposed to others] causes…
In the continuation of this passage, Rav Chizkiya enumerates the negative consequences of a married woman’s hair being seen by others.
This source supports the popular intuition that hair becomes a special part of the marriage relationship, which is honored through its covering.
Rabbanit Chana Henkin has suggested that the obligation to cover hair applies only upon marriage in order to counterbalance the uncovering and intimacy that occurs within marriage. This explanation may also help explain why modesty concerns with hair take effect only upon marriage:
רבנית חנה הנקין, “מועדון עובדות השם”
כאשר איש ואשה נישאים, נופלות מחיצות הצניעות שביניהם. זהו ביטוי לדבקותם יחד של בני הזוג בבחינת “והיו לבשר אחד”. מעתה, שני בני הזוג יעמדו יחד באותו צד של מחיצת הצניעות אשר תפריד ביניהם לבין שאר בני אדם. ובאותו זמן שההלכה מקדשת את הקשר הפיזי בין בני הזוג, היא יוצרת מחיצה מיוחדת סביב הזוג. אותה ההלכה שמרשה לאשה לגלות טפח מחייבת אותה לכסות טפח. אומרת ההלכה לאשה: הדברים שהיו אסורים, כעת הם מותרים, אך גילוי הראש ברבים– שהיה מותר – הופך לאיסור. בכך נוצר איזון ונשמרת הקדושה בסיטואציה החדשה והרגישה.
Rabbanit Chana Henkin, 'Mo'adon Ovdot Hashem,' Me'al U-me-ever
When a man and woman marry, the barriers of modesty between them fall. This is an expression of the bonding of the couple together as “they became one flesh.” From now on, the members of the couple will stand together on the same side of the barrier of modesty that separates them and other people. At the same time that Halacha sanctifies the physical connection between the couple, it creates a special barrier around the couple. The same halacha that allows the woman to reveal a handbreadth[to her husband], obligates her to cover a handbreadth [with regard to everyone else]. Halacha says to the woman: things that were forbidden are now permitted. But revealing the head in public – which was permitted – becomes forbidden. Thus a balance is created and holiness is preserved in this new and sensitive situation.
Why should a woman’s marital status affect whether her hair is considered erva?
Ra’avyah is the source of this distinction:
ראבי”ה חלק א – מסכת ברכות סימן עו
וכל הדברים [שהזכרנו למעלה] לערוה דווקא בדבר שאין רגילות להגלות, אבל בתולה הרגילה בגילוי שער לא חיישינן, דליכא הרהור
Ra'avyah I Berachot 76
All the matters [that we mentioned above] as erva refer to something they do not normally reveal. But we are not concerned about a virgin who normally reveals her hair, since there are no improper thoughts [from it].
A married woman’s hair was typically covered because of the obligation learned from the sota. Our sages extend the laws of erva to typically-covered part of the body when they are revealed.
According to Ra’avyah (and Rosh, Tur, and Shulchan Aruch who follow him),2 men are used to seeing the hair of unmarried women, which is typically uncovered. Because it is familiar, it does not arouse improper thoughts and is not considered erva.
To Ra’avyah, if a man sees a woman’s hair, and doesn’t know whether she is married, is it erva? No, unless it actively has an effect on him. Men often have some familiarity with the women they tend to see when reciting Keri’at Shema, and women with uncovered heads were presumed to be unmarried, so that their hair would not be considered typically-covered. Regardless, Ra’avyah’s distinction becomes a formal halachic definition, applied whether or not a specific man is aware of the marital status of the woman he sees.
Some types of erva are absolute, their status unchanging in any circumstance. Others are contingent on other factors. Ra’avyah and those who follow him view hair’s erva status as contingent on other factors: whether men are habituated to seeing it and the very obligation to cover it.
The question of which of these factors is dominant is central to a related halachic discussion. Halachic authorities disagree on whether married women’s hair retains its erva status in places where is common for married women to go bareheaded in public, in contravention of Halacha. Aruch Ha-shulchan says it is not considered erva, because the erva status of hair is contingent on its being typically-covered.3 Mishna Berura, on the other hand, says it is considered erva, because the obligation of head-covering makes the erva status of married women’s hair absolute.4
Are there any strictures on a single woman going with her head uncovered?
Magen Avraham suggests that there is a stricture on unmarried women’s hair, out of concern for modesty, though not a full requirement to keep it covered:
מגן אברהם סימן עה:ג
…שסותרות קליעות שערן והולכות בשוק דזה אסור אפי’ [=אפילו] בפנויה ע”כ [על כן] קרא לא איירי בפנויה רק שמדת צניעות היא לבתולות שלא לילך כן:
Magen Avraham 75:3
One can say that the uncovering of [a single woman’s head] that he [Shulchan Aruch] wrote of in Even ha-Ezer is that they undo the braids of their hair and go in the marketplace. For this is prohibited even for a single woman… The verse [about the sota] doesn’t deal with a single woman. It is only an attribute of modesty for virgins that they not go thus [with hair unfastened].
Magen Avraham resolves the apparent contradiction in the Shulchan Aruch in a unique fashion. He maintains that the Torah-level obligation to cover hair applies only to married women, which is why the Shulchan Aruch excludes unmarried women from the discussion of what men may see when reciting Shema. However, unmarried women are still included fully in the personal obligation to be modest. Magen Avraham believes that, due to modesty concerns, single women should wear their hair fastened, as in a braid. Upon marriage, the Torah-level obligation of head-covering takes effect, including additional modesty strictures.
Though Magen Avraham’s is a minority opinion, there are Chassidic communities in which unmarried girls and women wear their hair braided. Out of modesty, unmarried women in many communities take care not to wear hair long and loose, or in very teased, showy styles.
Why doesn't head-covering come off automatically when marriage is over?
When a woman is married, she is subject to a more demanding definition of modesty and dignity than prior to her marriage. Once her dignity has become associated with head-covering, the shift is not fully reversible. It is important to remember that, while head-covering can signal marital status, it is not the reason for the obligation in head-covering.
The end of a marriage, whether through death or divorce, is generally a time of emotional turmoil. After the initial transition to the new reality, a woman may go through a process of redefining, rediscovering, or reclaiming her identity. Because head-covering is so central to a woman’s self-presentation and is so closely linked with marriage, this will often include thoughts about how and whether she wishes to continue covering.
A woman in this situation may sincerely prefer to continue head-covering. She may enjoy covering her hair. She may feel that head-covering confers dignity or social status within the community. She may find that it offers continuity, helping her maintain a coherent identity as she transitions to post-married life. She may see head-covering as a high halachic ideal that she strives to meet.
In the words of Shaine Spolter:
A woman may have mixed feelings, but be more comfortable continuing to cover due to communal expectations – especially if she has children and other mothers in the community cover their heads.
Alternatively, a woman may find that continuing to cover is emotionally painful. She may never have enjoyed covering her hair. She may experience head-covering as a constant reminder of trauma experienced in the marriage, or when it ended. Or she may feel that head-covering no longer fits her sense of who she is.
Is it permissible to cover just with a headband, or a strip of scarf framing the front and back of the head?
Especially in Israel, the practice of wearing only a very narrow headband or thin strip of scarf encircling the head has become popular. A woman with this type of covering is relying on the minority opinion that covering is not obligatory beyond common custom, and is interpreting custom very leniently. This type of justification for this practice is sometimes attributed to Rav Rabinovitch, who has made oral remarks that this might become permissible if it were to become common practice.
However, as we have seen, the prevalent view among halachic authorities is that there is a Torah-level obligation in head-covering, as well as a dat Yehudit obligation. A lenient view of fulfilling just the Torah-level obligation is that at least the majority of the head should be covered. Anything less risks violating Torah law.
How, then, has the practice to cover less taken off? A woman may be unaware of the halachic significance of covering the majority of the head. She may have the misconception that there is nothing more to the obligation of head-covering than signifying that she is married, or may view head-covering through more of a social than religious lens, as a way to identify with the halachically observant community.
Indeed, although wearing only a headband does not satisfy the obligation of head-covering as widely understood, it is preferable to leaving the head fully uncovered, because it does accomplish those social goals. For many women, especially those new to observance, this type of gesture toward head-covering is itself a significant effort.
Why is it accepted for a woman to wear a wig that is nicer than her hair?
Modesty should be a consideration in choosing a head covering. That being said, different women and communities have different conceptions of modesty. When it comes to satisfying the technical obligation to cover the head, wigs are often very effective. In some communities, wigs have become the gold standard of head-covering for precisely this reason. How well wigs reflect a woman’s sense of modesty is a more subjective question. Rav Ovadya Yosef prohibits wigs due to concern in this area, while others do not find the average wig to be lacking in modesty.
Often when choosing a head-covering, and not only with wigs, a woman may experience tension between feeling positive about how she looks and the quality of coverage she thinks Halacha demands. The mitzva of head- covering, with its effects on self-image and self-expression, can be challenging. It is important to find ways to make it accessible to as many women as possible, and to respect the more lenient voices in different directions that enable a woman to keep Halacha while also feeling satisfied with how she presents herself. For many women, wigs present a halachically- acceptable opportunity to maintain modesty and dignity in a way that feels positive.
In general, the option to use a wig for head-covering is important in situations where an obvious head-covering could be problematic, as in certain professional settings. Today, with the rise of multiculturalism, many people proudly wear distinctive religious garb. In a society where our Muslim sisters do not hesitate to wear a hijab, perhaps Jewish women should feel more comfortable wearing an obvious hair-covering. On the other hand, there has also been a backlash against multiculturalism, even extending to physical attacks against clearly identifiable Jews and other minorities. In societies where this is a concern, some women might prefer to wear a wig.
How should a woman cover her head— and hair?
While some authorities consider it obligatory for a woman to cover all of her hair, and others consider it praiseworthy, there are still others who permit leaving some hair uncovered, even deliberately. Their opinions range from a few fly-away hairs, to hair at the temples or a fringe, to two etzba’ot, to a tefach. Other opinions permit uncovering even more.
Deciding how to cover one’s hair and how much to cover involves halachic, personal, and communal elements. A woman should seek to make a decision that both has halachic support and allows her to perform the mitzva in a way that is comfortable for her (or at least does not cause her resentment). The challenge is to find a way to fulfill the obligation in head-covering that is consistent with one’s overall approach to halachic decision-making, and at the same time feels right on the head.
Even after learning through the range of opinions in the sources and taking personal feelings into account, it is critical also to consider communal factors. Because each individual woman’s head-covering is part of her public presentation, it often becomes a statement of personal and religious commitments and communal affiliation. For better or worse, all head-covering choices come with associations in the observant community, and those affect personal decisions and halachic discussion.
Many women take pride in head-covering as an opportunity to make a statement about religious commitments and to demonstrate belonging to a given community. For precisely the same reason, though, many other women can find this mitzva especially difficult, especially when personal preference does not align with community norms.
Psychologist Khaya Eisenberg explains how challenging it can be for her to choose between a snood, which she prefers, and a wig, which is her community’s norm:
Khaya Eisenberg, 'Halachah, Society, and the Snood,” in Hide & Seek, ed. Lynne Schreiber (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2006), pp. 102-3
A snood may be less socially acceptable, but it is no less modest…. I am fulfilling the law….I find a shaitel bothersome to put on and wear, but it’s always a safe bet for fitting in in any situation…Perhaps pretenses and social conformity are valuable motivating forces for adhering to Halachah.
In making these decisions, it can be helpful to talk out concerns with a mentor. The decision-making process is itself of great importance. Over a lifetime, a woman may find that she revisits her decision, more than once.
A woman’s head-covering should make a statement that she feels honors Halacha, her community, and herself.
Does common practice matter to halachic discussion of head-covering?
In Talmudic times, it seems that Jewish women were widely compliant with Halacha, including the obligation to cover the head. Our sages understood, based in part on the common practice in their day for women to go bare-headed at home and in private courtyards, that this was permissible. Head-covering was clearly not required in private.
In this case, as often, Halacha is transmitted through an interplay of text and lived tradition. Naturally, we learn the details of the halachot of head-covering not just from texts, but also by seeing what pious women do. The term dat Yehudit itself reflects the halachic significance of the practice of modest women. As long as a woman covers her head in more public settings, there is room for differing interpretations of what is required in the privacy of one’s home or courtyard, where standards for dignified and modest dress are not the same as in public.
How might the public-private distinction in this halacha affect women?
Many women follow the cautions of the Zohar and aspire to emulate the model of Kimchit, making no distinction between the quantity of coverage in public and in private. Even these women may still wear a less formal head-covering at home.
Many other women appreciate the opportunity to remove head-covering at home, while connecting deeply to the mitzva and taking pride in observing it in public. In this context, we can revisit the words of Rabbanit Oriya Mevorach:
רבנית אוריה מבורך, “למה אני אוהבת את כיסוי הראש שלי?”
כיסוי השיער בכל יום מחדש יוצר אצלי הפרדה בריאה בין “בבית” לבין “בחוץ”, בין “פרטי” ל”ציבורי”, בין “שלי” לבין “של כולם”.
Rabbanit Oriya Mevorach, 'Why Do I Love my Head-Covering?'
Covering the head every day anew creates a healthy distinction for me between home and outside, between private and public, between mine and everyone’s.
For some women, though, head-covering is difficult or uncomfortable, and not worrying about it at home can be an important way to ease observance of this halacha.
In either case, removing the head-covering immediately upon reaching home might highlight and reinforce complex or even difficult feelings surrounding this mitzva. In response to this concern, it might help for a woman who uncovers at home to take her time after arriving home before removing her head-covering.
Each individual woman needs to find her own path with head-covering in more private settings. Because this mitzva is so personal and demanding, it is important that a woman observe it in a way that feels as good as possible to her while also respecting her commitment to Halacha.
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