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Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld on Women and Tallit

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

To Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency of the State of Israel

Dear Chairman Sharansky,

I was pleased to see that Prime Minister Netanyahu asked you to look into the matter of Women at the Wall being allowed to pray with dignity and freedom at the Western Wall. This is an issue I feel strongly about. A government that takes away religious freedom is a government that is perilously close to losing its legitimacy. But wait, who am I to tell you these things. You are the master teacher who taught me and so many other people this fundamental lesson. It was you who taught the world that the powerful Soviet Union could not defeat your simple request for religious freedom. The Israeli government is now confiscating the tallitot of women who wish to pray with a tallit at the Kotel. I know that if the Soviet Union had confiscated their tallitot thousands of Jews would have raised a moral voice of conscience around the world!

May God give you the wisdom to see clearly this issue for what it is and what it represents: the right of women to worship freely at Israel’s sacred site. Through your courage, you have taught me that religious freedom is the most basic and fundamental of all human rights. A ruling that takes away a woman’s rights at the Wall because it is offensive to others will also lay the ideological groundwork for forcing women to sit in the back of public buses in Israel and denying their right to have a full and fair participation in the public square.

A couple of years ago I devoted a Shabbat Devar Torah to the topic of women wearing a tallit at the Kotel. I have copied the Devar Torah for you to read below.

Sincerely,

Shmuel Herzfeld

Rabbi, OHEV SHOLOM-THE NATIONAL SYNAGOGUE

Washington, DC

Women and Tallit

by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

of Congregation Ohev Shalom (Loving Peace) in Washington, D.C.

In Parshat Mattot, the tribes of Reuven and Gad (later they are joined by a part of Menashe) approach Moshe and ask him (32:1) if they can remain on the “other side of the Jordan River.” They do not desire to live in the land of Canaan, as the other side of the Jordan is more favorable for their cattle.

Moshe responds angrily and accuses them abandoning their brothers in battle. They therefore agree to fight as the vanguard for the Jewish people and lead them into battle and only then would they return to their cattle on the other side of the Jordan.

This teaches us theextreme importance of Jewish unity. Moshe was not willing to allow for the fracturing of our nation. Reuven and Gad took upon themselves to lead the fight for a land that they would end up not living in. Such is the importance of Jewish unity.

Unfortunately our people are today heading down the opposite path. Today we are seeking more and more to isolate and marginalize those with whom we disagree. This is a tragedy.

It is often the case that those we have isolated for their “radical” positions might have different positions that are also well grounded in Jewish law. For the sake of unity our community needs to make room for conflicting positions.

In this context let us analyze a horrible situation in Israel that I fear is only getting worse.

Recently, a woman was arrested for the crime of wearing a tallit – a prayer shawl—at the Western Wall. Can you even imagine? Let’s repeat that sentence: A woman is arrested for wearing a tallit at the kotel!

The Western Wall is considered holy because it is directly adjacent to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Temple Mount is considered to be the holiest spot in Judaism.

Before delving into the issue of whether or not a woman may wear a tallit according to Halakhah, we must take note of the fact that there is another issue here aswell. That is the question of whether or not Israeli police should enforce Jewish law at the Wall. Should the Wall be a specifically sacred place in strict accordance with Jewish law or should it be a place where people can worship and act as they please?

We are not focusing on that issue here.

Here we are discussing how women were denied the right by the Israeli government to practice Jewish law in a manner which is permissible by many great traditional rabbinic authorities. In essence the Jewish State denied them their right to practice Judaism.

The reason the government and the police felt the imprimatur to arrest this woman is partly because of recent remarks attributed to an elderly revered Torah scholar named Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. Rav Yosef is reported to have called this practice “deviant,” thus implying that it is prohibited.

If Rav Ovadiah Yosef really said that, and if his remarks were not taken out of context, then I think his remarks are very unfortunate.

Let us delve deeper into the nitty-gritty of this law.

The topic of women wearing a tallit was discussed by Rabbi Avi Weiss in his book Women at Prayer and it was also discussed by Aviva Cayam in an article published in Jewish Legal Writings by Women. And we will draw upon their writings in our study of the topic.

The mitzvah to wear a tallit is found in the Torah. In the third paragraph of Shema, we are commanded: “Daber el benei yisrael…ve-asu lahem tzitzit, speak to the children of Israel and command them to make fringes—also known as tzitzit–on the corner of their garments.”

In the Talmud, a debate is recorded as to whether or not this law applies to men and women or just to men.

According to Menachot 43a:

The rabbis taught: all are obligated in the laws of tzitzit: priests, Levites, and Israelites, converts, women, and slaves. Rabbi Shimon exempts women because it is a positive commandment limited by time and from all positive commandments limited by time, women are exempt. What is the reasoning of Rabbi Shimon? It has been taught “and when you see it”, this excludes clothing worn at night.

In general women are exempt from time bound positive commandments. According to Rabbi Shimon, the obligation to wear tzitzit is a time bound positive commandment and thus women are exempt.

So whether or not women are obligated to wear tzitzit is a debate in the Talmud between Rabbi Shimon and the anonymous position of the text.

In Talmudic times we learn of two different sages who attached tzitzit to the garments of the women of their houses. We are told that both Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Amram the Pious would attach tzitzit to the aprons of the women of their household.

Even though Rabbi Shimon does not obligate women to wear tzitzit, does he allow them to participate in this mitzvah if they so desire? And if they voluntarily want to participate in this mitzvah may they recite a blessing?

After all, it is a great mitzvah to wear tzitzit. The Talmud teaches that the mitzvah of tzitzit is equal to all the other commandments of the Torah. The tzitzit are also symbolic of the holiness of the Jewish people. The very word tzitzit reminds us of the High Priest’s tzitz, which says upon it Kodesh la-Hashem.

This issue is taken up in the three major halakhic cultures of the medieval period. The three major cultures are Spain/Egypt; Southern France, and Northern Europe.

In all three places the ruling is very clear that woman may absolutely wear the tallit. The only dispute is whether or not she may recite a blessing when she wears this tallit.

In Egypt we see that the great Rambam (Maimonides) ruled (Laws of Tzitzit 3:9):

Women are exempt from the biblical law of tzitzit. Women who want to wear tzitzit, wrap themselves in it without a blessing. And this is the case from other positive commandments from which women are exempt. If they want to perform them without a blessing they are not prevented.

Rambam had a fierce and brilliant critic whose name is Rabad of Posquierre. He wasleading authority of Provencal halakhic literature. In response to Rambam’s teaching, he wrote:

There are those who disagree and say that these laws can be done even with a blessing and they say that even the voluntary recitation of a blessing is possible.

So too, we see that the leading rabbis of Northern Europe allowed women to wear a tallit and recite a blessing when doing so.

Here is what Tosafot writes:

We rule like Rabbi Yose [that even though women are not obligated to blow the shofar they are not prevented from doing so.] And Michal the daughter of Saul would lay tefillin, and the wife of Jonah the prophet went up to the Tempe for the pilgrimage festivals where she was brought into the courtyard of the Temple and permitted to lay her hands on the animal in order to give women spiritual strength (nachat ruach). And it is permissible for them to make a blessing on time bound positive commandments even though they are not required to perform those mitzvoth….and if we would not let them make a bracha they would lose out on the mitzvah of tzitzit, lulav, tefillin, megillah, Chanukah lights, succah, havdalah, Kiddush, and the blessings of Shema. And we learn that anyone who wants to be pious should recite all the blessings!

Tosafot compare themitzvah of tallit with other time-bound positive commandments and rules that just like women can recite the blessing on other mitzvoth—like shaking a lulav and sitting in a sukkah—so too, can she recite the blessing on a tallit.

To this day the ashkenazic community follows this ruling of Tosafot. We thus rule that when a woman sits in a sukkah or shakes a lulav she should recite the blessing.

Regardless of whether or not a woman recites a blessing, it is clear that these three giants of medieval Jewry all rule that a woman may wear a tallit.

There is only one cause for hesitation. This is the comment of Targum Yonatan, which is an Aramaic commentary on the Torah, which states that wearing a tallit is a man’s garment with the implication that a woman should not do it. But these medieval authorities all came after Targum Yonatan and none of them cited Targum Yonatan as a reason for a woman not to wear a tallit.

In the early modernperiod we see more cause for concern. We see the idea introduced by some that if a woman wears a tallit she is considered arrogant. This is because hardly any women are doing it, and if she does it, then she is standing outfrom the crowd with her piety. This concept is called yoharah, and it is the idea that one should not act in a way that appears excessively pious.

Thus one respected scholar, Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe writes in the 16th century: (Levush, Hilchot Tzitzit 17:2)

[It is legally permitted for women to wear tzitzit] but it is still foolish and arrogant to do so. Despite the fact that with other time bound positive commandments women have been accustomed to observing them and reciting the blessing, what they are used to doing, they do; what they are not used to doing, they do not do. And with tzitzit, we do not find it, except for one in a thousand, like Michal the daughter of Saul and others; therefore, the should not wear tzitzit.

Modern codes of Jewish law debate whether or not a woman can wear a tallit. All agree that technically she can wear a tallit; the only question is whether or not it is arrogant for her to do so.

Thus, one great work known as the Arukh haShulchan of Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (published from 1884-1893) states:

Yet in reality we have not heard of this and we do not permit her to wear a tallit, even more so to say the blessing. This is not like sukkah and lulav which happen once a year and is a precept for that moment. But the law of tzitzit lasts all year and it is not nice for women…This is the meaning of what Rema meant when he wrote, “in any case, if women want…it appears arrogant and therefore women should not wear tzitzit since it is not an obligation of the person”.

Another classic work, the Chayyei Adam of Rabbi Avraham Danzig (1748-1820), takes the opposite position:

In any case, if they want to wear tzitzit and make the blessing, they may recite the blessing. That is the law with regard to all time-limited positive commandments, like lulav and sukka and others….

This issue was also directly addressed by one of the great contemporary authorities, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.

In 1976 he was asked the question of whether or not a woman can wear a tallit. From the language of his responsum we see that he was right in the middle of the feminist battles of the time. And he felt that the motivation to wear a tallit was not stemming from a desire to come closer to Hashem, but to score another notch in the battle for feminist equality:

Thus he ruled as follows:

It is clear that every woman has the right to perform those commandments that the Torah did not obligate her in and they are fulfilling a mitzvah and receiving a reward for doing it. According to the opinion of Tosafot, they are permitted to recite the blessing, and it is our custom that women observe the law of shofar and lulav and also say the blessing. Therefore, even tzitzit are allowed for a woman who wants to wear a garment which is distinguishable from men’s clothing, yet has four corners on which she is able to attach fringes and fulfill thecommandment…However clearly this only applies when the woman desires to observe the law although she was not commanded; yet when it is not due to this intention, but rather stems from her resentment toward God and his Torah, then it is not a precept. On the contrary, it is a forbidden act of denial when she thinks that there will be any change in the laws of Torah that she took on.

Rav Moshe was responding to a certain situation; a situation where he saw the world of feminism trying to destroy the walls of Orthodoxy.

Today we are living in a different world. It is a world where most women who desire to wear a tallit come from more liberal streams of Judaism and are very much accustomed to wearing a tallit. They have grown up wearing a tallit and it entirely natural and spiritual for them. We should not see a woman wearing a tallit as part of a larger attempt to destroy Orthodox tenets.

Moreover, we must be exceedingly careful against impugning someone’s motives. We can not know what a woman or a man is thinking when they come to pray. We must give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that a woman who wears a tallit is doing so because she wants to take a mitzvah upon herself which will allow her to feel closer to Hashem. We must assume that she wants to wear a tallit for the same reason she wants to sit in the sukkah and hear the sounds of the shofar.

Finally, we see from this whole discussion that there is clearly a mainstream Halakhic position permitting women to wear a tallit and recite a blessing upon it. This woman who wore a tallit woke up that morning at 4:30 for the purpose of praying at the Wall. In the manner in which she prayed she was following the teachings of Rambam, Rabad, Tosafot, and the Chayyei Adam, and for doing so she was arrested. This is a colossal disgrace. And the government of Israel owes her an apology.

The legacy of Reuven and Gad reminds us that we must seek unity for our people. Even if want to end up living in different parts of the land, we all must work together on the core issues. Otherwise there may be a permanent disruption to the Jewish people and that would be the greatest tragedy of all.

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