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.


  1. See the HAGAOT MAIMANIOT on Hil. Tefilin, where he explains that women do not do Mitzvot that could lead to Aveirot. Tefilin needing a Guf Naki and no Kaluth Rosh.

    So... Tzitzit would lead to issues about Shabbat and Shaatnez.

    1. The Peninei Halacha makes a similar point while talking about women and tefillin. He says the first answer to a woman wanting to wear tefillin should be to discourage her. But if she persists, she may do so, 'behatzneah' because she still has 'al mah lismoch'. One of the reasons why it should be 'behatzneah' is because of 'guf naki'.

  2. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt'l, was a posek who did not have an agenda, other than finding the truth in halacha as he saw it from his review of the sources. We need more like him (and Rav Shlomo Zalman and Rav Waldenberg).