Sunday 23 August 2015

058) Please Don't Hide My Judaism From Me

One of the reasons why I love the study of Halacha so much is because it takes me to places I would not ordinarily have dreamed of going to. A case in point is women and tzitzit. Everyone knows that women do not wear a talit or tzitzit, yet the sources do have some counterintuitive - and what many may consider to be rather controversial - things to day about that.



The Talmud[1] starts by asking; “How do we know that non-Jews do not have an obligation to make tzitzit?  It answers by quoting the verse; “Speak to Bnei Yisrael (i.e. the Jews) and let them make tzitzit.” From this we learn that only Jews have the obligation to make tzitzit, and not non-Jews.
The commentator Tosefot is quick to point out that by implication, since Jewish women are also part of Bnei Yisrael, they too may be included the commandment of tziztit,[2] and therefore may be permitted to make their own[3].


In another section of the Talmud[4], although not specifically speaking about tzitzit, there is a discussion as to who may write the parchment scrolls of a Sefer Torah, tefillin and mezuzah. The gemora concludes that only individuals who have an obligation to wear tefillin (i.e. men), may be permitted to write the scrolls that go into them. This is deduced from the close occurrence of the terms ‘ukeshartem’(bind them) , and ‘uketavtam’(write them), implying that only those who ‘bind’ may ‘write’. By extension the same would apply to Torah and mezuzah scrolls, which may similarly only be written by men.[5]

Rabbenu Tam uses this gemora as his proof source, and even though it does not refer specifically to tzitzit, he extrapolates that women may not tie them, because in his view they have no obligation to wear tzitzit. For the same reason, women would be excluded from tying a lulav, as they similarly have no obligation to fulfil that mitzvah.

Thus Rabbenu Tam derives the principal that only those who are obligated in the actual mitzvah itself, can do the preparation for the same mitzvah[6].

Tosefot, however, rejects Rabbenu Tam on the simple grounds that his proof text only talks about Torah, tefillin ,and mezuzah, but NOT tzitzit. Hence, in his view, there is no justification for his extrapolation, and women may indeed tie and wear tzitzit


The Rambam is surprisingly silent on the issue of women tying tzitzit. It is only in the Hagaot Maimaniot, that women are expressly precluded from making tzitzit, based on his view that women are not included in the technical term Bnei Yisrael, (i.e. the sons of Israel). He does exhibit some magnanimity however, in that he refers to some contrary views, which do permit women to participate in the mitzvah:

The Ri and Rabbenu Yehudah said that women may wear tzitzit (as only non-Jews were excluded from the mitzvah.
Also, apparently, Rabbenu Yehudah taught his wife how to tie tzitzit.
And in the Troyes there was a case where a woman professionally tied tzizit (but Rabbenu Tam, as per his abovementioned view, declared them to be invalid).


The Shulchan Aruch is very clear on this issue; “A woman may tie the knots on the tzitzit.”[7] (It holds that the contentious term ‘Bnei Yisrael’ excludes only non-Jews but not women from this mitzvah.)


Commenting on the Shulchan Aruch, the Ramo is quick to add a precaution, ‘ve yesh machmirin’, that ‘some are strict’ and do not afford women this opportunity. It’s interesting to see that he does not ban women from tzitzit completely, he just strongly advises against them participating in the mitzvah.  He further suggests that this should be the practice ‘lechatchilah’, in the first instance, but would agree that post facto the tzitzit made by a woman would be permitted.


Reiterating the Ramo, the Mishna Berurah says that in the first instance we should discourage women from making tzitzit, but that post facto the tzitzit would be acceptable.



According to the gemora; “All are obligated in the mitzvah of tzizit, including ...women”.[8] Rabbi Shimon challenges this liberal view, and precludes women from wearing tzitzit because of the general principle that restricts women from any positive time-bound commandments.
Amazingly though, a view does exist in a primary Talmudic text, not just permitting but obligating women to wear tzizit.

Another gemora says; “Michal, the daughter of Saul, wore tefillin, and even though women may technically be excluded from positive time-bound mitzvot, they may nevertheless say a blessing over their (voluntary) performance of such commandments.”[9]
This text is significant because it introduces to us the concept of women choosing to perform certain mitzvot which usually are the exclusive domain of men.


The Rambam writes that; “Women are exempt (note, not prohibited) from tzitzit. And if they do wear tzitzit, they wrap themselves in it without reciting a bracha.”[10]
Amazingly, no less an authority than the Rambam, says that while in his view there is no legal obligation for women to wear tzitzit, should they choose to do so they may, except that no blessing is recited.


Tosefot says; “Women may say a bracha over positive time-bound mitzvot, such as tzitzit.”[11] This view comes as no surprise as we saw earlier on that he maintains that women can tie the knots on the tzitzit as well.


The Chayei Adam writes; “If women want to wear tzitzit and recite a blessing over it, they may (as they do for lulav and sukkah, which are also positive time-bound mitzvot).


Rabbi Feinstein writes that; “According to the ruling of Tosefot, women may say a bracha for tzitzit as they do for lulav and shofar.”[12]
Significantly, notwithstanding all the legal to and fro, it is both refreshing and surprising to see that in keeping with halachik integrity, a modern day authority rules that women may wear tzitzit and even recite a blessing there over.


During Medieval times, the Jewish women of Spain, Egypt and Southern France had a custom to wear talleisim, and apparently the only issue was as to whether or not they should recite a blessing over it.

In more recent times, Rebbetzin Chava, the first wife of the Satmar Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum, apparently wore tzitzit. This is recorded by the Chevra Kadisha who buried her, and the story appeared in the Satmar Yiddish newspaper, Der Blatt, under the headline: ‘Tzitzis ...bei Noshim’ (Women and ...Tzitzit).

While I hold no brief for women around the world to adorn themselves with prayer shawls, and while I do not believe the issue should be used as a public demonstration to further ideological agendas - I firmly do believe that halachik Judaism has an amazing spectrum of multi-facetedness.

Personally, I find the concept of women wearing a talit rather foreign and I certainly would not feel comfortable were this practice to become widespread. But I am amazed to see the openness of thought in our traditional and contemporary sources and I’m glad they are there.

As an unabashed religious centrist, at a time when influences from the extreme right are painting a singular carefully choreographed picture only, and when the extreme left appear to have crossed the line entirely, I passionately believe that now more than ever before, we need creative rabbinical leadership to honestly hone and practice their craft.

The extreme right wing has been described as being the ‘largest and fastest growing segment of observant Jewry in Israel’[13]. With time, numbers and the cunning use of censorship[14], they will have succeeded in pulling the wool over the eyes of many, into believing that their approach is, not just the only way, but the way Judaism always has been. They may win the numbers game, but in so doing will have excluded so many others who, historically, have always had a place in, and even were architects of, the halachik process. 

The extreme left wing is fighting what they too consider to be a noble battle, but you cannot fight the right by stepping out of the ring. By so doing they have inadvertently created an ideological vacuum within the halachik world.

For these reasons, I hope we are able to preserve what always has been an inclusive and honest halachik response, making full use of generations of wisdom, precedent and empathy.  

This post is just one example highlighting how textual integrity exposes us to the historical debate and reminds us of the unimaginable room for varying views amongst our halachik practitioners. 

Long may this continue...and please don’t hide my Judaism from me.

[1] Menachot 42a.
[2] Tosfot says; “Mashma, ha isha kesheira.”
[3] While, other commentators, however, understand the expression ‘Bnei Yisrael’ (lit. Sons of Israel) to refer only to the men folk, the view of Tosefot is nevertheless significant.
[4] Gittin 45b.
[5] See Kotzk Blog 51, Women Tefillin and Cars.
[6] “Aino belevisha, aino beasiya.”
[7] Orach Chaim 14,1; “Isha kesheira la’asotan”.
[8] Menachot 43a.
[9] Eruvin 76a.
[10] Hilchot Tzitzit 3,9.
[11] Tosefot to Rosh HaShana 33a.
[12] Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 4,49.
[13] See Rabbi Harry Maryless in “The Conversion Mess”, Emes V-Emunah.
[14] See Kotzk Blog 49 and 53.

Thursday 6 August 2015

057) So You Don't Care What Non-Jews Think?


Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz[1] is quite outspoken regarding what he calls the ‘new custom’ of donning a talis while walking to and from shul on shabbos.

He begins by drawing our attention to the Shulchan Aruch which says that (during a weekday) one should only put on the talis when arriving at shul. The Ramo seems to disagree, by saying that since the current practice is to put on the talis before the tefillin, one may therefore walk to shul while wearing a talis. The Magen Avraham, however, points out that the Ramo is actually not arguing with the Shulchan Aruch, because “in a place where gentiles frequent the streets all (including the Ramo) agree, that the talis should only be put on when reaching the courtyard of the shul[2].”

He reminds us that both the Ramo and the Magen Avraham were living in Poland which generally has a cold climate, and suggests that in hotter counties the practice of wearing a talis in the street would certainly cause us to look ‘foolish’. And as the Seforno says “one should not engage in activity that might cause the gentiles to regard us as fools, for this too is a chillul HaShem.[3]


He quotes the Chidah[4], who upon witnessing a rather wild Purim celebration in Amsterdam, rebuked his fellow Jews for behaving “as if the city belonged to them” and for “taking too many liberties as if they were the rulers of the land”[5].

Rabbi Schwarz goes on to say that “We in the city of Brooklyn show a similar disregard, by parading through the streets wrapped in woollen talis, or by dancing in the streets all night...or by any other behaviour of this nature.”[6] There have even been instances where non-Jews have been forced to sell their houses and to move out of certain neighbourhoods because of the behaviour of some Jews.

After firsthand experience of the Holocaust and the brutality Eastern European anti-Semitism, he passionately pleads for us Jews to obey the laws of the counties in which we peacefully reside, even calling for us to show solidarity with the general community by displaying the national flag on patriotic holidays. He urges us to be upstanding citizens maintaining civil respect, and never behaving conceitedly, nor with disdain to our neighbours.


I have come across a number of rather harsh criticisms of Rabbi Schwarz for his views about the public wearing of a talis and other such issues.

Some suggest that Jewish shabbos dress is equally incongruous in a modern city anyway, so what difference does a woollen talis make? Without nailing my colours to the pole, the first response to this criticism would have to be that the issue has nothing to do with him. He merely agreed with the Shulchan Aruch, Ramo, Magen Avraham, Seforno and Chida. Furthermore, as one of my Rosh Yeshivas[7] once explained, we have no imperative to make a public display out of something not absolutely mandated by our law.

Others suggest that he is being cowardly by trying to keep Jews hidden from society. And anyway, Jews need to be proud. The response to this would have to be that he clearly never suggested that we cower away.  There is a profound difference between being proud, and being loud and proud. Every culture on earth should be afforded the opportunity to be proud. But loud and proud smacks of arrogance and superiority, traits not usually appreciated by others belonging to a different group. One needs to remember that a society is a composite of numerous peoples. Each has an equal right for self expression. But when one’s rights impinge on another’s, a line has been crossed.


In a similar vein, Rabbi Hershel Schachter[8] has this to say about people who daven on an airplane in such a way as to disturb those around them:

“...regarding davening with a is highly improper for the chazzan of a minyan to shout at the top of his lungs to enable the other(s) hear him over the airplane noise, and wake up all the passengers around him...When Orthodox Jews disturb non-observant Jewish passengers with their daverning, the non-observant passengers still remain non-observant and now just have another point about which to be upset with the Orthodox. The practice of the Orthodox passengers under such circumstances appears simply as an act of harassment.”[9]

Chareidim protesting against sitting next to women on a plane.
Davening Shacharit with permission in the galley

According to halacha, a traveller is even permitted to recite the amidah while being seated. And according to many leading rabbis[10] we certainly should not be disturbing other passengers on a flight.


I don’t believe this issue is necessarily only about a talis and praying on a plane. It’s symptomatic of a far greater existential question. We Jews have a mitzvah of kiddush HaShem, plus an injunction not to allow others to views us as being abnormal. We are supposed to be able to keep our traditions while simultaneously function within normative society.  And certainly we should never be derisive towards non-Jews.

In one of the most powerful and daring pieces of writing I have ever come across by a Halachist, Rabbi Schwarz urges us not to minimise the moral gentile. He bravely writes:

“Consider the following:  A large city like New York, whose population includes members of almost every nationality on earth – people of different faiths, different views, and even different appearances – has nevertheless managed through its own wisdom to institute order and unity among all its inhabitants, with equal rights for each individual, a single school system for all its children, and a single court system that is accepted by all. Yet we...are incapable of setting up one Beis Din (religious court) for the entire community, and one cheder for all the children, and are as divided as if we were a nation of seventy nationalities.”

He writes about the progress and development the non-Jewish world has seen, as it moved from slavery to modern day civil rights, and says: “The gentiles of today certainly have no reason to be ashamed when their conduct is compared to that of their parents and grandparents. ..The (gentiles) have destroyed the ghettos, while we are erecting new ghettos. Each group and faction builds a ghetto for itself that completely isolates its members from other observant Jews who inhabit a different ghetto.[11]

Rabbi Schwarz poignantly points out that gentiles don’t care if we buy a beautiful etrog, or if we have high quality tefillin, but they do notice when we are not truthful in our business dealings and when we behave contrary to societal norms which they seem quite able to generally abide by. Never mind gentiles, but even immoral people are still able to walk in a street normally and sit respectfully in a plane. He says “Therefore it is important that we take notice of any desirable qualities or conduct amongst the gentiles, and take them to heart.”

And if someone says that they don’t care what gentiles think, they have to be reminded that the mitzvah of kidush HaShem is specifically dependent upon both, what non-religious Jews, and upon what gentiles think. This mitzvah has to do with their perception, not ours! All we do is create their impression.


The truth is that there is a way to wear a talis in the street, there is a way to daven on a plane, and there is a way to dance all night on Purim. But it has to be respectful of those others who don’t care to join us. If it involves dancing in the street, it has to be legal and endorsed by the authorities. If it involves a minyan on a plane, it has to be with permission from the cabin crew, and in an area that does not disturb other passengers.

So many of us manage to wear talleisim and daven every single day of our lives, no matter where we are, without ever having to inconvenience any other human being.

Why is it, then, that so many others never seem to give a moment’s thought as to how others perceive them? 

[1] See previous post, Kotzk Blog 55.
[2] Orach Chaim 554,17.
[3] Seforno to Devarim 4,6.
[4] Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806).
[5] See Ma’agal Tov.
[6] Eyes To See, published by Urim, p 288.
[7] Rabbi Azriel Goldfein ztl.
[8] Rosh Yeshiva, Yeshiva University.
[9] See – davening on a plane.
[10] Rabbi Shlomo Wahrman, She’erit Yosef vol7, siman 3.
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Halichot Shlomo, p75.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim vol 4, siman 20.
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and Rabbi Shmuel Wosner.
[11] Eyes To See, by Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz, published by Urim 2004, p249-261.