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Women and Tefillin

02/03/2014 02:16:24 PM


Women and Tefillin: Halachic Theory and Practice

This Shiur was presented on Shabbat, February 1, 2014

Laying tefillin is a ‘mitzvat aseh shehazman grama’, a positive, time bound commandment, and as such women are exempt. The question is whether women may perform this mitzvah, even though they are not commanded to do so.  The general consensus of Rishonim is that women may perform mitzvot in which they are not commanded,  such as Sukkah and Lulav. Ashkenazi women make a blessing before doing the mitzvah. Are tefillin an exception to this rule? Many Rishonim who discuss women’s performance of what for them are optional mitzvot do not single out tefillin as a separate category.

The Talmud, Eruvin (96a) says that Michal, the daughter of King Saul, wore tefillin and the Sages did not disapprove, and on this basis the Rambam writes (Laws of Tzitzit 3:9):

וכן שאר מצות עשה שהנשים פטורות מהן אם רצו לעשות אותן בלא מ ברכה אין ממחין ביד

And so to other mitzvot that women are exempt from, if they wish to perform them, we do not stop them

Sefer HaChinuch (positive mitzvah 421) writes explicitly that women may lay tefillin:

The mitzvah [of tefillin] is applicable in all locations and all time periods, to men, but not to women, for it is a positive mitzvah which is time related. Nevertheless, if they wish to lay tefillin, we do not object, and they receive reward. But not like the reward of a man, for the reward of one who is commanded and performs [that mitzvah] cannot be compared to the reward of one who is not commanded and performs [that mitzvah anyway.] And in Tractate Eruvin...the Sages of Blessed Memory said that Michal the daughter of Kushi would lay tefillin, and the Sages did not object. And there they said that the wife of Jonah would go up to Jerusalem [wearing tefillin] and the Sages did not object.

On the other hand, a number of Rishonim write that women should not perform this Mitzvah. Tosafot (Eruvin 96a) quotes an alternative tradition that the sages did indeed rebuke Michal for wearing Tefillin, and write that the reason is because:

ונראה לפרש דטעמא למ"ד דלא הוי רשות משום דתפילין צריכין גוף נקי ונשים אין זריזות ליזהר

Tefillin require ‘guf naki’ a ‘clean body’ – something not defined here by Tosafot. I don’t think the assumption is that women have less personal hygiene than men – perhaps it refers to menstruation, or to the argument that since women are not commanded to wear tefillin, they are not accustomed to being as aware of this issue as men might be.

Other reasons have been suggested as the basis of a prohibition for women to wear Tefillin – one is that they are ‘beged ish’ - male garments – although this reason does not seem to be found in the Rishonim. Another argument is about the force of tradition. The Levush writes, regarding tzitzit:

[It is legally permitted for women to wear tzitzit] but it is still foolish and arrogant to do so.  Despite the fact that with other time bound positive commandments women have been accustomed to observing them and reciting the blessing, what they are used to doing, they do; what they are not used to doing, they do not do.  And with tzitzit, we do not find it, except for one in a thousand, like Michal the daughter of Saul and others; therefore, the should not wear tzitzit. 

Similarly the Shiltei Giborim writes:

... אסור לנשים להניח תפלין אפי' בלא ברכה, מפני שנראה כדרך החיצונים שעוברים על דברי חכמים, ואינן רוצים לדרוש המקראות כמות

It is forbidden for women to don tefillin, even without making a blessing, because it looks like the manner of the sects who disregarded the words of the Sages and disputed their traditions.

Therefore, while many authorities implicitly or explicitly allow women to wear tefillin, others did not allow it.

In terms of practical halacha, the Shulchan Aruch (OH 38:3) notes that women are exempt from the Mitzvah, but does not mention if they may perform the mitzvah if they wish to. The Rema however decides according to the view of Tosafot, and Rabbi Meir of Rotenberg, that:

ואם הנשים רוצין להחמיר על עצמן מוחין בידן

If women want to be strict [and put on tefillin], we object 

It has become the accepted practice that women do not put on tefillin. I don’t believe the halacha is something that needs overturned or reformed. When women have come to Lincoln Square and worn tefillin, neither the Rabbi or any congregant has said anything negative to them or asked them to desist. On one occasion a woman called me and asked if she may wear tefillin at LSS. I answered her that I could guarantee that nobody would do or say anything to make her in the slightest bit uncomfortable, but the minhag in our shul follows the Rema, and I would prefer that she didn’t wear tefillin. However, although I believe that the normative halacha follows the Rema, and that women should not wear tefillin, I also believe that SAR, Ramaz and other schools that permit girls to wear tefillin may be doing the right thing in their situation, and I want to mention two approaches that I believe address the question.

  1. 1. Room for Diversity?

One is the approach of the very well respected Israeli Rav and posek Rav Eliezer Melamed who writes that if a women strongly desires to wear tefillin, since there are many views in the halachic literature that it is permitted, we should not prevent her from doing so.

למעשה, ההוראה שלא תניח, ורבים כתבו שיש למחות ביד הרוצות להניח, וכ"כ הרמ"א ומ"ב לח, יג, וכה"ח לח, ט, ועוד רבים. אלא שכפי שכתבתי, לרוצה להניח יש על מה לסמוך, שכך דעת האורחות חיים ועולת תמיד, ואף מסיום דברי ערוה"ש מבואר שאין למחות במי שמפורסמת כצדקת. ולכן למעשה אין למחות בידה. ובתנאי שתקפיד שלא תניח בשעת וסתה. וכן תקפיד להניח בצנעה, כי רק כך יהיה ברור שהנחתה לשם שמיים, ועוד שצריך להצניע את זמני הטהרה והטומאה.

He advises the women in question to wear tefillin in private not public. This is because he understands the requirement of guf naki to be connected with menstruation, and it would be forbidden for a women to wear tefillin during her monthly period. Wearing them in public for most of the month and then discontinuing the practice on certain days would draw undue attention to this.

It seems to me that one of the questions raised by the SAR issue is how much room there is for flexibility within the halachic framework in our schools. Halacha is not monolithic. Every student of halacha knows that sometimes lenient or minority opinions may be relied upon.  The question is not necessarily ‘should all women should wear tefillin” but how do we treat individual women who strongly desire to wear tefillin? Rav Melamed permitted them to do so.  Over the centuries, a small number of women have worn tefillin.

The question that every institution has to deal with is, do we give space for people who wish to deviate from what is considered the norm. Teenage years are obviously a time of experimentation and change. Do schools ensure maximum compliance with the norms of the community or give space to people for whom those norms are difficult? There is not one size fits all answer to that question, but from this perspective SAR’s decision to allow girls to wear tefillin in an all-girls setting is not unreasonable.

    1. 2. Kiruv/Outreach Model

In a discussion of the laws of tefillin on a Charedi kiruv (outreach) website, the following is stated:

As with any time-bound positive mitzvah, women are exempt from the obligation to wear tefillin. This exemption, though, is not a prohibition and does not preempt the performance of this mitzvah by women, should they so choose to do so. The question is whether such a practice is to be encouraged or not.

Such a liberal sounding approach is typically only found in an outreach setting. Most contemporary rabbis would state that women should not wear tefillin. However, in the context of outreach it makes sense.  A kiruv rabbi confronted with a family ready and willing to grow towards Jewish observance, but in which the wife is saying, if my husband is going to wear tefillin, I want to wear them as well, would be ill advised to refuse the woman’s request. There are plenty of views to rely on to permit this, and those expert in Jewish outreach understand how and when to use particular leniencies. Saying ‘no’ would very likely drive them away from Orthodoxy.

As uncomfortable as it is to say this or hear it, I feel that we in Modern Orthodoxy have to look at ourselves as badly needing Kiruv. Despite our exorbitantly expensive day school education, the results are mixed, at the very best.  In many ways, all of our teenagers are religiously ‘at risk’. Perhaps we need to face up to that, and acknowledge that, as uncomfortable as it may be for some to countenance girls wearing tefillin, the alternatives may be worse. From a purely pragmatic point of view, forbidding girls to wear tefillin is likely to create greater long term negativity than permitting it.  I am not commenting on the individuals involved as I have no idea who they are, but the approach of the Kiruv world, which is to be as open and encouraging as possible and to avoid negative experiences may be the one that our community needs at this particular place and time. Again, this is in the context of a really terrible situation within Modern Orthodoxy, which has to be addressed, (‘b’deved and not l’chatchila) but it may be there is far more to be lost by saying no in such situations than saying yes.

  1. Conclusion

I hope and pray that as much attention be urgently devoted to the question of ‘why do yeshiva high school graduates so often not wear tefillin’ as has been devoted to the question of ‘may high school girls wear tefillin’. We at Lincoln Square Synagogue are at least attempting to address these issues. We have a Rabbi whose job is to work with our teens, and our on-going meetings and programming  for parents of teenagers to discuss and be educated on the challenges around observance and teenagers, is critical. The shul, through the discretionary fund, is a proud supporter of JLIC on campus, the OU program that provides Orthodox Rabbis and educators on secular campuses. 

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