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Friday, 14 February 2014

Women and Tefillin

Sukkah 11

Recently, two Orthodox Jewish day-schools, SAR in Riverdale and RaMaZ in Manhattan have begun to allow girls to wear tefillin for the daily shacharit service.   Are Orthodox girls permitted to wear tefillin?  Can we still call them Orthodox?  Can we still consider the school Orthodox? 

Rabbi Amram the Pious was once making tzitzis for his wife’s tallis.  Instead of looping the four strings through the hole, he took one long string and doubled it over back and forth, intending to cut off the ends.  But he went ahead and made the tzitzis, forgetting to cut the strings.   He went to Rabbi Chiya bar Ashi and asked him what to do.  The elder rabbi replied: No problem.  According to Rav, you can just cut off the ends and that makes the tzitzis kosher.  You have fulfilled the requirement of “and they shall make them.”

Why was he making his wife a tallis?  Since when do Orthodox women wear a tallis?  

Tosfos explains that Rabbi Shimon maintains that since the verse states “and you shall see it,” one is only obligated to wear tzitzis during the day, when they are clearly visible.  Since we are not obligated to wear tzitzis at night, it falls into the category of “positive time-bound” mitzvos, from which women are exempt.  

The other rabbis aver, however, that “and you shall see it” absolves blind people from the mitzvah, and there is no difference between day and night.  Thus, if the mitzvah of tzitzis is binding all hours of the day and night, then it is not a time-bound mitzvah and ergo, women are obligated to wear a tallis!

Today, the halacha accords with Rabbi Shimon.   But notwithstanding the current accepted practice, clearly in the days of the Talmud before the High Court made its final decision, it was normal for women to wear tzitzis.  When Rabbi Amram comes to Rabbi Chiya, he doesn’t say, “Why are you making a tallis for your wife?”  He encourages him to complete the mitzvah for her!

Did Rabbi Chiya’s wife wear a tallis?  Probably not.  But he respected Rabbi and Rebbetzin Amram’s choice.  This scene depicts one of the most beautiful features of the Talmudic era.  Throughout the Talmud, our Sages are constantly debating the halacha and undoubtedly each one practices according to the way he understood the law.  Did he say, “I’m not talking to you unless you share my opinion?”  Absolutely not.  Did he say, “You’re not Orthodox if your wife wears a tallis?”  Resoundingly au contraire. 

May a woman today wear a tallis?  Yes, she could.  Although women are exempt from time-bound positive commandments, they may still choose to perform any mitzvah and of course, receive spiritual reward.   Women do many such mitzvos, including shofar, lulav, and megillah.  Nevertheless, since women generally did not take the mitzvah of tzitzis upon themselves, our Sages instructed that a woman who wishes to wear a tallis should do so privately, so as not to seem that she is acting holier than every other woman.

How about tefillin?  Tefillin a little more legally complicated and in fact, for various reasons, our Sages actively discourage women from wearing tefillin.  What if a woman chose to wear tefillin, could she still be Orthodox?  What if a school allowed girls to put on tefillin, instead of forcing them to have to look elsewhere to fulfil their spiritual yearnings, is the school still Orthodox?

There are a number of wise rabbis today, including Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who permit girls and women to wear tefillin if that’s what their heart and soul is telling them to do.  Is it widely accepted in the Orthodox community?  No, it isn’t.  But, instead of castigating these girls, women, schools and rabbis, let’s ask ourselves, ‘how would the rabbis of the Talmud have dealt with differing practices?’  Would they have excluded these well-intentioned souls who are doing a mitzvah that is merely contemporarily discouraged?  Would they have said, “You’re not Orthodox”?  I highly doubt it.   The rabbis of the Talmud were very comfortable with a large tent of Orthodoxy where different customs and practices were tolerated and encouraged.

Before we jump to write major segments of our community out of Orthodoxy, let us stop and think how our Sages felt about various approaches to halachic practice.  Certainly, if someone is suggesting the sanctioning of behaviour that is beyond the pale of halacha, that is unacceptable.  But if there is room in the halachic tent, if a certain practice is not forbidden, even if it is in fact a ‘discouraged’ practice, we must be tolerant of and defend vigorously each rabbi’s and principal’s responsibility to make the right halachic decision for his shul and school community. 


Let us strive to do our very best to encourage people to be part of a tolerant, vibrant Orthodox Judaism, even if we don’t agree with every halachic position every rabbi may take.