Jewish Women

QUESTION #4: Are Jewish Women Equal or Sequel?

By Rabbi Tully Bryks

Here are a few examples of some of the gender differences in Judaism that skeptics point out as examples of chauvinism:

  1.  Jewish women are exempt from time-bound commandments[1] – commandments that must be performed at a specific time (this does not apply to prohibitions which are equally binding on both genders).
  2. Women “don’t count” towards the 10 men required for a Minyan (Quorum for Prayer – See Source 36 below).
  3. Girls become women and obligated in commandments at age 12,[2] while men achieve their adult status at age 13.[3]

Ironically, it is precisely because Judaism holds women in such a high esteem that they are exempt from many of the commandments.[4] Keep in mind that an exemption from time-bound commandments does not mean that women are prohibited from performing them.[5] Rather, it just means that they are not obligated to do so. But should women choose to perform these optional commandments, they are even rewarded for them.[6] It is sort of like a teacher who announces that students who already have a B+ average are exempt from the final, but they may still take the exam if they choose, and raise their score even higher. Girls start off with a B+. Boys, on the other hand, start off life with a circumcision, showing that they have a longer way to go to achieve that “A”. Another example of a girl’s head start is that she is ready to become a woman and accept the associated responsibilities at age 12, while a boy is not ready until age 13.

Even though the exemption from time-bound commandments is a benefit, perhaps relating to a woman’s bina yeseira (added ability to understand things like other people’s feelings and how best to manage her time),[7] there are some technical results that could lead one to misconstrue this benefit as a shortcoming. Here are some of the most common examples/questions:

  • Tefilin (Phylacrites) – Women are exempt from the commandment to wear tefilin.[8] Theoretically, they should be able to volunteer to do so, like with most other time-bound commandments. Historically, there were even some prestigious and righteous women who volunteered to wear tefilin, including Michal, the daughter of King Shaul (Saul).[9] However, there has been a radical adjustment to the observance of the Mitzvah of tefilin. Although the obligation for men is to wear tefilin every day, the original custom was to wear them for the entire day (which may have also been a Biblical requirement).[10] Just like with tzitzis (Fringes), the longer one wears them, the more spiritual benefit one obtains.[11] The one catch is that a person is not allowed to have any impure thoughts or unclean body while wearing tefilin.[12] There is a general concept that with the passing of each generation, there is usually a spiritual decline.[13] The decline reached a point whereby we no longer trusted ourselves to wear tefilin all day without the risk of impure thoughts.[14] As such, with the exception of uniquely pious individuals, we no longer wear tefilin all day. But due to the male obligation, men are still required to wear tefilin once a day, despite the risk, since it is a Biblical commandment for men. To minimize the risk of impure thoughts, men customarily wear tefilin during shacharis (morning Prayer service), in the hopes of enabling them to keep their thoughts proper.[15] But those that do not have an obligation to wear tefilin (like women), should not volunteer to do a Mitzvah that carries such risks.[16]
  • Talmud Study – Men are obligated to study all aspects of the written and Oral Torah,[17] even those parts which are not relevant to every-day life. Women are exempt from studying those aspects of the Oral Torah that do not have a practical application for life.[18] One of the quotes that has sometimes caused confusion is, “If a father teaches his daughter those aspects of the Oral Torah that do not have a practical benefit, it is as if he taught her foolishness.”[19] This quote is especially strange because the same paragraph also states, “If she does study these aspects of the Oral Torah, she is rewarded for it.”[20] We are left with an apparent contradiction. men studying Talmud 400 X 300The 1st quote seems to imply that having her study the non-practical parts of the Oral Torah would be an exercise in futility and foolishness. On the other hand, the 2nd quote seems to imply that she is commended for optionally studying such texts, to the point that she is even rewarded? A careful reading of the quotes reveals that there is no contradiction. The 1st quote refers to the actions of her father. If he demands that she study those non-practical sections of the Oral Torah, he would be considered foolish and immoral. After all, she is exempt from studying those texts and he should focus on teaching her topics she is obligated to study. The 2nd quote is refers to actions she does of her own accord. If she, on her own, determines that she would like to study these optional texts, she is rewarded. This reward policy is the same for all other optional commandments she chooses to follow[21] (unless there is technical drawback, as with Tefilin).
  • Counting for a minyan – One of the many beautiful aspects of Judaism is that we are considered like one family. As such, we have a responsibility to love and care for one another.[22] One of the benefits of this “familiar” relationship is that we may fulfill many mitzvos (commandments) for one another. The only catch is that both parties must have the same obligation in order for this to work.[23] For example, the Torah obligates both men and women to recite kiddush Friday night.[24] As such, a man can make kiddush on behalf of a woman and a woman can make kiddush on behalf of a man.[25] When she recites the Kiddush and he answers Amen, it is considered as if he himself has made the Kiddush. Children (boys under 13 and girls under 12) who are capable of understanding the basic concept of kiddush have a lower level rabbinic obligation to recite Kiddush. Therefore, a child may not recite kiddush on behalf of his mother, since the child only has a rabbinic obligation, while his mother has a biblical obligation.[26] Other examples of similar obligations, whereby a woman can perform an obligation on behalf of a man, include searching for chametz (unleavened bread),[27] lighting the Shabbos candles[28] (a man is equally obligated in lighting the Shabbos candles[29]), eruv tavshilin (a mechanism for preparing food on Yom Tov for Shabbos),[30] lighting the Chanukah candles[31] and the like. However, if someone is exempt from a commandment, they would not be able to perform that commandment on behalf of someone who is obligated.[32] Men are required to pray with a minyan.[33] Women are exempt from the requirement of praying with a minyan,[34] although they are still required to pray.[35] As such, they can choose if they would prefer to pray in the Synagogue, or if it is more convenient sometimes, to pray at home or work (men are not given this choice). Since she is exempt from the Minyan requirement, she cannot fulfill the man’s obligation to form a minyan,[36] and that is why 10 men are required for a Minyan to be established.

The bottom line is that unlike most other cultures and philosophies throughout history, which really denigrated women, Judaism has maintained that women have certain unique benefits and abilities. For example, unlike most societies prior to the 20th century, Judaism has allowed women to buy and sell property, make contracts, demand several marital rights,[40] serve as community leaders,[41] etc. The Torah even recounts multiple cases of a woman’s superiority to men. Some examples include:

  • When Sarah recognized that Yishmael (Ishmael) needed to be excommunicated and Avraham (Abraham) disagreed, G-d testifies to Sarah’s superior prophetic abilities over those of Avraham.[42]
  • When the Jews were slaves in Egypt, and the decree was enacted to kill all Jewish males, the Jewish male leadership decided to refrain from having children in order to avoid the bloodshed. It was Miriam who corrected them, pointing out that their decree was even worse than the Egyptians because now there would be no Jewish children at all – neither males nor females.[43]
  • The Exodus from Egypt, which ultimately allowed us to become a nation, receive the Torah and acquire a homeland, only took place due to the higher moral level of the Jewish women in Egypt.[44]
  • When G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish people, He addressed the women before the men, because they are more meticulous in the performance of the commandments.[45]
  • When Moshe (Moses) ascended Mount Sinai for 40 days to accept the Torah on behalf of the Jewish people, they miscalculated the time and thought that 40 days had already elapsed and something must have happened to Moshe.[46] In an effort to install a new intermediary to replace Moshe, they built a golden calf.[47] The Torah recounts that the women refused to participate in this idolatrous worship and that the men had to forcibly remove their wives Jewelry in order to assemble the golden calf.[48]
  • In the case of intermarriage, the woman’s role is considered so critical to the next generation that the religion of the baby is determined exclusively by the religion of the mother and not by that of the father![49]

Ultimately, while women do have several advantages over men, a few of which are listed above, Judaism is not anti-men either. We believe in the concept of different but equal, both created in the image of G-d.[50] Men are different than women and a kohen (priest) is different than a levi (Levite). Since men and women are different in so many ways – physically, emotionally, psychologically and intellectually – even our brains are different[51] – it makes sense that an all-knowing G-d would enact laws to reflect those differences. But our innate abilities or differences do not determine who is a greater person. Rather, it is how we exercise our free will to utilize our unique abilities and potential that ultimately defines us as human beings.

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[1] Talmud Kiddushin, 29A and 34A

[2] Talmud Niddah, 45A-B; Maharil, 51; Ben Ish Chai on Devarim, Re ‘eh, par. 17; Kol Mevasser 2:44; Rabbi Yitzchak Nissim in Noam volume 7, pages 3-4; Sridei Esh, volume 3:93; Yabia Omer, Orach Chaim, end of section 29

[3] Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers), 5:21; Talmud Kiddushin, 16:2; Rashi and Rabbeynu Yonah on Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers), 5:21; Yam shel Shlomo on Bava Kamma, 7:37

[4] Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch on Vayikra (Leviticus), 23:43

[5] Tosafos, Eruvin, 96A; Rosh, Kiddushin, 1:49; Ran, Rosh Hashanah, 955

[6] Ran, Rosh Hoshanah, 955; Rambam (Maimonides), Mishna Torah, Hilchos Talmud Torah (Laws of Torah Study), 1:13

[7] Talmud Niddah, 45B; Breishis Rabbah, 18:1

[8] Mechilta, masechta d’Pischa, 17; Talmud Kiddushin, 34A

[9] Talmud Eruvin, 96A

[10] Biur Halachah, 37:2

[11] Piskei Teshuvos, Orach Chaim, 24:3:21 and 24:4:38-39

[12] Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), Orach Chaim, 37:2

[13] Talmud Shabbos, 112B; Bereishis Rabbah, 45:7; Rashi on Koheles (Ecclesiastes), 7:10; Biography of the Chofetz Chaim, by Rav Moshe Yosher

[14] Biur Halachah, 37:2

[15] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 37:2; Biur Halachah, 37:2

[16] Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chaim, 38:6

[17] Devarim (Deuteronomy), 6:6-7; Talmud Kiddushin, 30A; Tosafos, Kiddushin, 30A

[18] Talmud Kiddushin, 29B; Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), Yoreh Deah, 246:6;

[19] Talmud Sotah, 21B; Rambam, Mishna Torah, Hilchos Talmud Torah (Laws of Torah Study), 1:13

[20] Rambam, Mishna Torah, Hilchos Talmud Torah (Laws of Torah Study), 1:13; Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), Yoreh Deah, 246:6

[21] Torah Temima, Devarim (Deuteronomy), 11:19:48; Mishna Berurah, 589:8

[22] Talmud Sanhedrin, 27B; Talmud Sotah, 37B; There is disagreement on how to interpret the Rosh on Brachos, 20B – see Dagul Mervava versus Rabbi Akiva Eiger

[23] Talmud Rosh Hashanah, 29A; Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), Orach Chaim, 589:1 and 186:1

[24] Talmud Brachos, 20B; Talmud, Shavuos, 32A; Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), Orach Chaim, 271:2

[25] Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), Orach Chaim, 271:2; Mishna Brurah, 271:4; Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chaim, 271:5

[26] Talmud Sukkah, 38A; Mishna Brurah, 271:3

[27] Tur, Orach Chaim, 437; Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chaim, 437:7

[28] Kaf Hachaim, 22

[29] Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), Orach Chaim, 263:2

[30] Shoel U’Meishiv, 2:55

[31] Mishna Brurah, 675:9

[32] Talmud Rosh Hashanah, 29A; Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), Orach Chaim, 589:1 and 186:1

[33] Mishna Brurah, 90:28; Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim, 2:27

[34] Shvus Yaakov, Orach Chaim, 3:54; Teshuvah Me’ahavah, 2:229; Halichos Shlomo, I, 61, notes 4 and 10

[35] Talmud Brachos, 20B; Mishna Berurah, 106:4

[36] Talmud Rosh Hoshanah, 29A; Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), Orach Chaim,55:1

[37] Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), Orach Chaim, 55:1

[38] Yechave Da’as, 4:23

[39] Talmud Rosh Hashanah, 48B; Talmud Megila, 23A; SMA’G, Divrei Sofrim 4, Hilchos Megillah

[40] Talmud, Kesubos, 47A

[41] The list even includes 7 female prophets (Talmud Megillah, 14A), Sarah, Miraim, Devorah, Channa, Avigayil, Huldah and Esther

[42] Bereishis (Genesis), 21:12; Rashi on Bereishis, 21:12;

[43] Talmud Sotah, 12A; Rashi, Shemos, 2:1

[44] Talmud Sotah, 11B

[45] Shemos Rabbah, 28:2

[46] Rashi, Shemos (Exodus), 32:1

[47] Shemos (Exodus), 32:1-4 and Ramban (Nachmonides) there; Maharsha, Sanhedrin, 63A

[48] Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 45; Rashi, Shemos (Exodus), 32:2

[49] Devarim (Deuteronomy), 7:4 and Rashi there; Talmud Kiddushin, 68B

[50] Bereishis (Genesis), 1:27; Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers), 3:24

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