Women, tefillin, and tzitzit: A myth-understanding

Women, tefillin, and tzitzit: A myth-understanding

Two Modern Orthodox day schools in New York – SAR Academy in Riverdale and Ramaz in Manhattan – are embroiled in controversy for allowing young women to don tallit and tefillin, if they so choose.

From a halachic standpoint, there should be no controversy. The Torah does not forbid women from wearing either. Just the opposite; it seems to require them to do so. Certainly, when it comes to wearing fringed garments, we have the word of the Babylonian Talmud tractate Menachot 43a that women are required to do so. As for tefillin, we have examples of women who did both, beginning in the Babylonian Talmud itself. In BT Eruvin 96a, for example, it is clear that women may wear tefillin if they wish to do so.

Men decided that women should be exempted – or prohibited outright – from wearing either tzitzit or tefillin, the Torah notwithstanding. There is no clear-cut explanation for why they did so, as can be seen in the just-cited Eruvin discussion and a longer one in the BT tractate Kiddushin.

The Eruvin example focused on King Saul’s daughter Michal. The gemara says that the sages did not object to her wearing tefillin. On the other hand, the Jerusalem Talmud says the sages did object to her doing so. Some rabbis seized upon this to prove that women are forbidden to wear tefillin (including Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in his commentary to Eruvin 96a). That, however, violates a rule established by the Babylonian authority Hai Gaon, who said that where a conflict exists between the two talmuds, we rely on Babylonian version (Teshuvot ha-Geonim No. 46 and elsewhere). Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (a/k/a the Rif) echoes this in his commentary to BT Eruvin 104b in another context, where he says “we rely [only] on our gemara…,” not on the Jerusalem Talmud.

The most common argument heard against women wearing tefillin is that the Mishnah exempts them from “all positive time-bound commandments….” (See BT Kiddushin 29a.)

The gemara that follows this, however, challenges the absolute nature of the principle, citing several examples of positive time-bound commandments women must observe.

Also challenged in that discussion is whether wearing tefillin is a time-bound commandment. Rabbi Meir, for one, did not seem to think so. If it is not, of course, then women clearly would be required to wear tefillin because the time-bound principle does not apply to it. That led some rabbis to flat-out prohibit women from doing so. As explained by Rabbi Abraham Gombiner (the Magen Avraham), this is “because [wearing tefillin] requires a clean body, and women are not assiduous enough” about keeping clean. (See his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 38:3.)

Yet this, too, contradicts an established rule. In BT Berachot 22a, a Land of Israel rabbi named Judah ben Bathyra declared that “words of Torah are not susceptible of uncleanness.” That rule is confirmed two centuries later in Babylonia, according to a discussion in BT Chullin 136b, which states that “the world has adopted… that [view] of Rabbi Judah ben Bathyra….”

(As an aside, the gemara at BT Megillah 32a says that women may even appear on the bimah and at the reader’s stand, for the same reason.)

The Kiddushin discussion also attempts to explain the tefillin exemption by equating the mitzvah of tefillin to Torah study, which it says women are also exempt from doing (which some insist amounts to an outright prohibition against women studying Torah).

The Torah, of course, seems to have a different view. Says Deuteronomy 31:11-12, all Israelites must learn the law, including women. “[Y]ou shall read this Torah before all Israel in their hearing…, men and women…, that they may hear, and that they may learn….”

The issue is muddled, however, by the time of the Mishnah. In one place (BT Nedarim 35b), it states bluntly, “[A father] teaches Scripture to his sons and daughters.” In another place, BT Sotah 20a, however, we begin to see divided opinions. “Ben Azzai [says], ‘a man is required to teach his daughter Torah…,’ [while] Rabbi Eliezer says, ‘whoever teaches his daughter Torah teaches her tiflot,'” a word that may be translated as lechery, lewdness, unseemliness, or frivolity, among other definitions.

How could anyone ban women from studying Torah if the Torah insists otherwise? Simple; just parse the sentence to fit the opinion. The verse in Deuteronomy says, “that they may hear and that they may learn.” According to Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah (BT Chagigah 3a), the Torah uses both “learn” and “hear” in the Deuteronomy verse to teach us that “the men came to learn, [but] the women came [only] to hear.”

All of this just touches the surface. Every argument that can be raised to prohibit women from wearing tefillin can be challenged effectively. Even more so does this apply to the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit, as BT Menachot 43a makes clear.

The two day schools should be commended for what they did, not condemned.

What is most disconcerting, however, is the invective being thrown by some on the Internet at the two SAR girls who asked permission to wear tefillin. They have been subjected to the vilest curses and calumnies. Such disgusting behavior violates God’s law, and in profound ways. Women wearing tzitzit and tefillin does not.