Olympic Judaism

February 23, 2014

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

I know we’ve moved on to Pikudei, but I hope you enjoy my Drasha from this past Shabbat.

A bit of Olympic history for you:

When the modern olympic games were founded in 1894, only amateurs were allowed to compete. It was forbidden to play for any monetary gain. In fact, the 1912 Olympic decathlon champion Jim Thorpe was stripped of his medals when it was discovered that he had played semi-professional baseball before the Olympics.

Over the course of the 20th century, this idea slowly eroded, on mostly practical grounds. Athletes obviously needed to be funded in order to spend the time practicing and competing. They would avoid breaking the rules by having money deposited into trust funds rather than being paid directly. But slowly through the 1970s and 80s the rules were relaxed. In 1988, professional athletes were formally permitted.

It’s hard to imagine a world without baseball players on million-dollar salaries, or your favorite hockey player being paid to appear on a box of cereal. But in the beginning, there was a sense that the ideal athlete was an amateur, not a professional.

Why this fixation with the amateur player?

The word athlete comes from the ancient greek for “one who competes for a prize”. Ancient Greek athletes did, in fact, play for prize money. The word amateur, however, comes from Latin “amator”, or love. An amateur is someone who does it for the love of the game.

Our culture values the idea of the amateur, the person who acts out of love or commitment. Even when someone does something nice for me, I don’t feel as appreciative it if I think they did it out of a sense of obligation. We prefer good deeds that are done by choice. We consider it more noble to do the right thing because you WANT to, not because you feel you HAVE to.

It’s this tension between “have to” and “want to” that emerges from within our parsha.

We read about the beautiful and luxurious materials that were donated for the building of the Mishkan.

קְחוּ מֵאִתְּכֶם תְּרוּמָה, לַיהוָה, כֹּל נְדִיב לִבּוֹ, יְבִיאֶהָ אֵת תְּרוּמַת יְהוָה:  זָהָב וָכֶסֶף, וּנְחֹשֶׁת.

“Take from yourselves an offering for the Lord; every generous hearted person shall bring it, [namely] the Lord’s offering: gold, silver, and copper.”

The verses refer over and over to nediv libam – the people gave whatever they saw fit, out of the generosity of their heart; there was no prescribed amount. And in fact, they were so moved to give that Moshe had to do something that has never happened in any Jewish fundraising campaign ever since. Moshe had to ask them to stop donating! They had given too MUCH. (Devarim 36:6)

Rashi, however, reminds us that not all these materials were voluntary donations. Here, he refers back to a comment he made in Parshat Terumah, when we are first commanded with regards to the building of the Mishkan:

“[The materials]  were all given voluntarily; each person [gave] what his heart inspired him to give, except [for] the silver, which they gave equally, a half-shekel for each individual.”  (24:3)

The only material that came through obligatory collection was the silver. A tax of one half-shekel coin was levied from each person, and these coins provided the silver for the Mishkan.

What does Judaism more greatly value – a voluntary act of commitment, or one that is done out of a sense of obligation?

Our Sages assert Gadol hametzuveh v’oseh m’asher eino metzuveh v’oseh – It is greater to be commanded to perform mitzvot and to do them, rather than to do mitzvah out of choice or religious fervor.

This concept famously plays a central role when discussing the many mitzvot from which women are exempted. A woman is not obligated in a host of mitzvot – sitting in the sukkah, hearing the shofar, and wearing tzitzit to name a few. But a woman may choose to do these out of her own volition, and we know that Jewish women en masse have taken upon themselves some of these very central mitzvot – hearing the shofar is the most widespread example. And, of course, there is a very interesting discussion happening right now in the Orthodox community with regards to women who might choose to don tefillin. (Another conversation for another time; find me at Kiddush – or on a future blog post…)

We do admire people who go the extra mile, who do a mitzvah out of nedivut generosity of spirit. My husband Avi and I named our second daughter Nedivah as a nod to this concept – Nedivah means generous, or giving. Avi and I deeply value this characteristic of nedivut, and we wanted to impart it to our daughter.

But ultimately, Judaism places a greater value on the idea of obligation, commandedness – Metzuveh v’oseh. This is symbolized by the fact that although most of the Mishkan was built using materials that were given from a deep and overwhelming sense of zeal and generosity, it also contained in it the machatzit ha’shekel, the obligatory donation that each person was required to give.

The voluntary donations clearly provided all the materials needed, even more than enough. Why was it important to also utilize the half-shekel coins in the building of the Mishkan?

For this, we return to our Olympic athletes.

We may admire amateurs. Their sheer love and passion is what drives them. But ultimately, that is not sustainable en masse. The Olympics had to recognize the need for the professional athlete.

A pro athlete may feel exhilarated during his time on the rink, or on the ski slopes. But if he wakes up one day and doesn’t feel like getting on the ice, he still has to do it. He has committed himself to this, and he must rise to meet that commitment.

Ideally, we should all be amateur Jews. We should live the values of the Torah out of sheer joy and love for it. We hope that our fire of religious fervor is lit constantly.

But we also recognize that sometimes we may lose our motivation, or the challenges of a Jewish life may be too great. We may not always be internally motivated to make the decision to do what is moral and right. It is then that we might become “professional” Jews. We might recognize that we each have a responsibility to contribute that half-shekel to the world. We are obligated to uphold Jewish values and to participate in Jewish life, even when our internal drive is not as strong.

It is that sense of obligation that is gadol – that is greatness. Metzuveh v’oseh, it is our commandedness that keeps us active and committed, that keeps our community going.

Ideally, even when we act out of a sense of obligation, this will lead us to rekindle the fire, so that we can become Jewish amateurs, and do it simply because we love it.

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Guest Post by R. Ysoscher Katz: Translation of a Letter to Rav H. Schachter shlita

February 21, 2014

In response to numerous requests for a translation of my response to Rav H. Schachter’s letter on Partnership Minyanim, I am posting a translation

When translating from one language to another one runs the risk of losing some of the specifics; the nuance of an argument, and the intricacies of a line of thought oftentimes get lost. Therefore, if at all possible, I urge you to read the original Hebrew version.

כבוד הרה״ג ר׳ צבי שכטר שליט״א, ר”מ בישיבת יצחק אלחנן

אחדשה״ט כראוי לכבוד תורתו.

I read your Teshuvah on partnership minyanim and with your permission I would like to respond to some of your arguments.

Kevodo [your honor] wrote, “In my opinion not all who have learned in yeshiva, in kollel, or even those who have been ordained with the title Rav are permitted to give legal rulings.  To be considered a “sage who has attainted the ability to give rulings” one needs not only to have knowledge of the entire corpus of Torah, but also to be a person who is level in his learning.”

Clearly, one who is not trained to adjudicate cannot give halakhic instruction. Chazal (Sotah 22a) have already warned about the damage that can result from this in their reading of the verse Ki rabim halalaim hapilah/for she has felled many victims (Proverbs 7:26), which refers to a student who has not achieved the ability to give halakhic instruction. However, it is important to remember that by the same measure they also warned against the opposite, a student who has been ordained to give halakhic instruction, but doesn’t rule.  Regarding such a situation, the sages interpreted the second half of the above verse: Ve’atzumim kol harugaha/the number of her slain is great – “this refers to a student who has achieved the ability to give halakhic instruction but doesn’t.”

It is interesting to note that the Maharsha in his commentary Chidushei Agadot, explains that the word atzumim is from the language of greatness and importance.  It would seem, at first glance, that he agrees with Kevod HaRav’s [your] position, that a judge is permitted to issue rulings only if, in addition to being ordained, he is also “great and important.”  However, Rashi disagrees with the Maharsha.  Rashi explains that atzumim is from the language of “shuts his eyes” (otzem ainav, Isaiah 33), that they close their mouths and do not give halakhic instruction to those in need of such instruction.  It is clear that Rashi does not agree with the Maharsha and that according to this opinion one who “has knowledge of the entire corpus of Torah”, even if he is not “great and important”, is allowed, and even obligated, to give halakhic instruction.

The halakha codified in the Shulchan Arukh follows Rashi’s opinion, not the Maharsha’s. The Mechaber writes (Yoreh Deah 242:14) “Any scholar who has achieved the ability to give instruction but does not, stands in the way of Torah and places stumbling blocks before the masses. And of such a person it is said, the number of her slain is great (Prov 7:26).” It is important to pay attention to the fact that the Beit Yosef (the author of the Shulchan Arukh) is careful in his language and writes “any”, which appears to exclude from his view the opinion of the Maharsha who teaches that only the elite few are permitted to issue rulings.  So too, the Pitchei Teshuva writes (ibid seif katan 8): ” ‘Any scholar’ – Refer to the Maharsha in the Chiddushei Agadot of the third chapter on Sotah who writes that in our generation those who give halakhic rulings straight from the Shulchan Arukh, without knowing the reasons behind the issue – if they have not first looked into the sources of the Talmud – err in their rulings and are considered amongst those who destroy the world and therefore it is proper to ridicule them.  It is possible that this was true at the time of the Maharsha, when there wasn’t a single commentary on the Shulchan Arukh, but today, after the Taz, Shach, Magen Avraham, and other commentaries have been written, and every halakha’s reasons and sources have been discussed, it is perfectly fine to issue a ruling from the Shulchan Arukh and later commentaries.”

The great sage the Maharsham elaborated on this topic in the introduction to his book Mishpat Shalom on Choshen Mishpat.  According to his opinion, not only is it prohibited for a rabbi to restrain himself from issuing a ruling, but he is also obligated to respond to halakhic questions as quickly as he can, and to do otherwise would be considered “delaying justice.” (See Mishna Avot 5:11.) He even tries to claim that it might be forbidden for the rabbi to take an afternoon nap out of a fear of causing an unnecessary “delay of judgement.”

In Sefer Chassidim 530 (Margaliot edition) Rabbi Yehuda HaChasid writes, “Anyone to whom God has revealed something, but who refuses to write it down even though he is capable of writing it, steals from He Who Has Revealed it to him, because He revealed it only to be written as it says:  God’s secret is with those who fear Him and His covenant to inform them (Psalms 25:14). And it says, Your springs will spread outwards(Proverbs 5:16).” Rabbi Chayyim Palagi, in his book Chikekei Lev (Yoreh Deah Siman 42), writes that a scholar cannot refrain from issuing a psak, for doing so is tantamount to one who suppresses prophecy whose punishment is death (Rabbi Ovadia Yosef zt”l quotes his words in responsa Yechave Daat 1:13). And according to the Gemara in Gittin (56a) the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because of a judge who didn’t have the courage to speak his mind.

(Tangentially, perhaps it is important to point out the disagreement between the Rama and Rabbi Chayyim Loew, the brother of the Maharal, in his book Mayyim Chayyim.  The brother of the Maharal strongly disagrees with the Rama’s position supporting a centralized judiciary.  In the introduction to his book, he fiercely refutes the Rama using as a support the concept that “a judge rules only according what his eyes perceive” (Sanhedrin 6b) and is therefore opposed to the notion of a centralized authority which decides from a distance what should be prohibited and what should be permitted, what is correct and what is incorrect)

Kevodo continues: “Compare what Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik z”l wrote in the year 5720 (in his book Divrei Hashkafah, p 243) “From the yeshivot emerged students who were punctilious in Mitzvah observance down to the very edge of the yod of the tradition…Bnei Torah who slept in the depths of halacha…  I am troubled by three negative phenomena… We have yet to educate great Torah giants of whom we can be proud of.  We have people who are immersed in Torah and even Torah scholars, but no men of great Torah stature. The buds can be seen in the land, but the vine has not flowered in all its glory… On the one hand, American youth tend to veer towards an extremism that is shocking in its braziness.  On the other hand, often they will tilt in the oppisite direction and agree to compromises, choosing the paths of least resisitence.  In a word, they are confused in the paths of yidiskheit and this confusion is the consquence of a flimsy word view.”

The alert reader will notice that Rav Soloveitchik z”l complains as much about those who are too strict as he does about those who are too lenient.  When I was a student of Rav Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitchik Shlit”a in Yeshivat Brisk in Jerusalem, I would often hear him quote Rav Baruch Baer Leibowitz z”l who would say in the name of Reb Chayyim zt”l (basing himself on the verse in Proverbs 17:15) that to condemn a righteous person is no less an abomination than to exonerate an evil person.

Teshuvat Meimonit (Kedusha 15) quotes the Yerushalmi (at the end of the fifth chapter of Terumot) that just as it is prohibited to permit that which is prohibited, so too it is prohibited to forbid that which is permitted.  And this is how the Shach rules in his Guide To Pesika (Yoreh Deah 242:9). Similarly, it says in the Yerushalmi (Nedaraim 9 halakha 1), “Is what the Torah itself prohibited not sufficient for you?!”

In particular, in our generation, one should be cautious not to be excessively strict, when any stringency can become “a stringency which leads to a leniency,” since needles stringencies can cause many to leave a life of Torah and Mitzvot.  And these are the words of Rav Kook zt”l (Orach Mishpat, O”C 112) “I understand clearly the character of our generation, that only by virtue of seeing that we permit all that can be permitted according to the depths of the law will they come to understand that that which we don’t permit must be because it is the truth of the law.  We will find that as a result of this approach, many will attach themselves to Torah and will listen to the voices of legal instructors.  This will not be true if it were discovered that there are matters that, according to the rule of the law, should be permitted, but by not being sensitive to the struggles and pain of Israel, rabbis allow these things to remain prohibited.  And through this, God forbid, God’s name will be defiled, and more people will say regarding certain areas of Torah that if only the rabbis wanted to they could permit.  And through this, a corrupt judgment will emerge.” Although the Chatam Sofer famously wrote to the Maharatz Chayut that “we need to elevate the prohibited,” this is a singular opinion. Throughout hundreds of years of halakhic rulings, not a single decisor advanced such an idea, and after the Chatam Sofer, nearly no other decisor supported this approach.

Kevodo continues: “It is known that during the period of the vaad of Arba Arzot there was a decree not to publish any halakhic books without the approbation of Torah sages.”

Kevodo is correct, the sages of Hungary, who followed in the footsteps of the Chatam Sofer, were careful not to publish any books without an approbation.  However, a cursory glance will reveal that the the same was not true of the sages of Lithuania and many of the sages of Poland.  Many of them printed their collections of responsa without approbations. (For example: the Achiezer, Iggerot Moshe, the Seridei Aish, and many others) It is clear that, in their opinion, the ordination and permission to issue halakhic rulings that they received from their teachers or rabbis is sufficient enough approbation.

Kevodo: continues “One who wishes to demonstrate his love for their parents or wife does things for their benefit even if unasked; this is also the case with God.  In Song of Songs it is written, “your beloved is better than wine”.  Commenting on this, the Gemara states that the words of the scribes are better than the wine of Torah, with scribes refering to the rabbinic commandments, and these are all under the category of “your beloved”.  This is to say, in order to demonstrate our love of God, we perform acts that we were not commanded, acts that we understand, on our own, to be pleasing to God, as it were.”

I was surprised since these words buttress, rather than undermine, the very claim that Kevodo is criticizing. If I understand correctly, this is precisely Kevodo’s analogy: If one who loves someone does more than is requested by the beloved out of their own will, does it not follow from here that those who are not obligated in a particular Mitzvah should find ways to perform it nevertheless?

Related to this: I was surprised that Kavodo Shlit”a derides those who seek additional ways to express their yearning for connection to God, when our Sages praise them. Chazal say (Makkot 10a): R. Simlai gave the following exposition: What is the meaning of the verse, one who loves silver shall not be satisfied with silver, nor one who delights in multitude, with increase?  One who loves silver shall not be satisfied with silver- this refers to Moses, who, while knowing that the three cities beyond the Jordan would not harbor refugees so long as the other three in the land of Canaan had not been selected, nevertheless said: The charge having come within my reach, I shall give [partial] effect to it, now.” One who loves silver shall not be satisfied with silver- this refers to Moses. Rabenu Chananel (ad loc) writes: “Moses loved Mitzvot and, therefore, felt that the ones he was obligated with were not enough, he wanted more of them. “

The Mordechei, in Bava Metzia, went even further. In his opinion, there are cases where one is obligated to act beyond the letter of the law, and the requirement to do so has the full status of the law, so much so that, at times, according to his opinion, it is possible that we can even coerce someone to act beyond the letter of the law. In my opinion, the two stories that are found at the end of the chapter “Hasocher et Ha’omanin” (Bava Metzia 83a) clearly support this opinion (see the Ritva ad loc)

We also find in the achronim a positive approach to those who seek extra-halackic opportunities to serve God. One opinion that particularly stands out is the Chatam Sofer. In his famous responsa to the Matesdorf community (O”C 191 and in other places) he writes that the “Matesdorf Purim” that the citizens of the town added according to their own opinion to commemorate the miracle that they experienced has the status of a biblical law. (His ingenious opinion is based on the Gemara in megillah 14a that Israel sang praise when going from slavery to freedom, all the more so when going from death to life).

(With your permission, I will say that I know from personal experience that Kevodo’s appraisal of those “innovators” is not correct.  Many of my friends and acquaintances pray in these minyanim and nearly all of them are completely God-fearing; their intention is to dwell in the house of God, to behold His graciousness, and to visit His sanctuary.  Their goal is to increase commitment to God’s Torah and to worshiping Him in a way that decreases the dissonance between what happens inside the synagogue and how they experience life outside of it.

Additionally, as a general principle, it is impossible to judge the intentions of another, for, “Man looks into their eyes, while God peers into their hearts” (Samuel 1:17) The Mishna is Avot (2:4) is well known: “Do not judge your friend until you’ve stood in his place.”  The Gurer Chassidim quote a saying in the name of the Chiddushei Ha’Rim who adds on to the mishna: And you will never reach their place, therefore never judge. Insightful words)

Kevod HaRav continues: It is known that this claim was the claim of the Sadducees against the Sages in the time of the Tanaim: that the Torah discriminates against the rights of women regarding issues of inheritance.  Therefore the Sadducees claimed that a daughter is to inherit with the daughter of the son (Bava Kama 115b).  And the Tanaim had strong words for them.”

With apologies to Kevod HaRav, the Sadducees were not the first to complain about discrimination against women in issues of inheritance; they were preceded by hundreds of years by the daughters of Zelaphchad who complained (Num 27:4) “Why should the name of our father be lost among his family because he had no son?  Give us a possession among the brothers of our father.” And in the language of the Sifre “Their eyes saw that which Moses’ eyes did not see” (that is that there are times when women can see something that even someone as great as Moses, who spoke with the Shechina “mouth to mouth,” did not see.) And God consented to their words unequivocally: “Correctly have the daughters of Zelaphchad spoken.”  God listened to their claim (“God conceded the truth!” Avot D’Rebbe Natan Ch. 37) and changed the laws of inheritance to make them more egalitarian (relatively, as should be understood)

Further on Kevodo describes the excessive responsiveness towards women as a reason for the downfall of Christianity.  Kevod HaRav writes: “It is stated in the Gemara Shabbat (117b) that the first Christians would make legal decisions counter to Torah Law (that a son and daughter would inherit as one, which has already been discussed (the connection of the Sadducees to the Heretics and first Christians) by the author of the Tzafnat Paneach (in his responsa 313), that the Christians inherited their approach from the Sadducees. And this type of motivation, to create new practices, is certainly prohibited, as is known to us from history.  Go and see just what the end was for the Sadducees and the early Christians.”

I was surprised by these words, since the Sages say exactly the opposite. The Gemara at the end of Gitin (90a) says: “It has been taught: R. Meir used to say: As men differ in their treatment of their food, so too do they differ in their treatment of their wives. Some men, if a fly falls into their cup, will put it aside and not drink it. This corresponds to the way of Papus b. Judah who, when he went out, used to lock his wife indoors. Another man, if a fly falls into his cup, will throw away the fly and then drink the cup. This corresponds to the way of most men who do not mind their wives talking with their brothers and relatives. Another man, again, if a fly falls into his soup, will squash it and eat it. This corresponds to the way of a bad man who sees his wife go out with her hair unfastened and spin cloth in the street with her armpits uncovered and bathe with the men. Bathe with the men, you say? — It should be, bathe in the same place as the men. Such a one it is a religious duty to divorce.”

According to this Gemara, Papus Ben Yehuda is the negative example of what happens to one who behaves in an extreme manner with his wife.  Rashi, as printed in Chisronot HaShas writes that Papus Ben Yehuda is Miriam Magdalin’s husband, the father of Jesus. What emerges from this is that, according to the Sages, Miriam, Jesus’ mother, became pregnant because of the extremism of her husband.

In my humble opinion, the message of this Gemara is exactly the opposite of what Kevod HaRav writes. The Sages are claiming that Christianity came into the word as a result of extremism and discrimination against women and they warn us about the detrimental consequences of such an extreme attitude towards women- heresy (Christianity) was born from this behavior.

Kevodo continues: “Even according to the achronim who think that the consent of the community helps permit publicly reading from the Torah, here, regarding women reading from the Torah, the essential concern begins from the woman’s perspective – that she shouldn’t have to compromise her modesty, from which it follows that it isn’t proper for her to serve as a Shaliacha Tzibur for Pesukei D’Zimra or Kabbalat Shabbat or to read the Ketuba under the Chuppah.”

The Torah, Prophets and Chazal all write the opposite, that, at times, it is permitted to give into the desire to do God’s will, even if this leads, in a specific manner, to the breaching of bounds of modesty.  Two examples of many that stand out are the story of David when he returns the Ark of the Covenant (Shmuel II 6) and the incident of the mirrors of the women who had set up the legions that were used in the Tabernacle.

When David returns the Ark of the Covenant, he becomes so enthusiastic, to the extent that he forgets the bounds of modesty.  He wife, Michal, criticizes him saying: How did the king of Israel get himself honor today, who uncovered himself today in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as one of the vain fellows shamelessly uncovers himself”.  David ignores the criticism and justifies his immodest behavior by saying that he acted this way to serve God (ibid ver. 21).  As is known, this story serves as the Rambam’s source (The final halakha in the laws of Lulav) that there is an “additional” obligation to rejoice during the performance of a mitzvah (as Rabbi Yerucham Fishel Perlow expounds in his book on the Sefer HaMitzvhot of Rav Sa’adya Gaon).

We find a similar idea in the story of the mirrors (Ex 38:8) And this is how Rashi explains its importance.  “From the mirrors of the women who had set up the legions” – Israelite women owned mirrors, which they would look into when they adorned themselves. Even these [mirrors] they did not hold back from bringing as a contribution toward the Tabernacle, but Moses rejected them because they were made for temptation [i.e., to inspire lustful thoughts]. The Holy One, blessed is He, said to him, “Accept [them], for these are more precious to Me than anything because through them the women set up many legions [i.e., through the children they gave birth to] in Egypt.” When their husbands were weary from back-breaking labor, they [the women] would go and bring them food and drink and give them to eat. Then they [the women] would take the mirrors and each one would see herself with her husband in the mirror, and she would seduce him with words, saying, “I am more beautiful than you.” And in this way they aroused their husbands desire and would sleep with them, conceiving and giving birth there, as it is said: Under the apple tree I aroused you (Song 8:5). This is [the meaning of] the mirrors of those who set up legions]. From these [the mirrors], the washstand was made.”

These women merited for their mirrors to be fixed in the Tabernacle precisely because of their immodesty, since their actions all along were done to fulfill God’s will.

Kavod Toratoh HaRamah concludes:  In addition to all the above it also appropriate to recall what I wrote an article Tzei lach in Ikvei HaTzon (11) in the name of the Rav “That anything that becomes a symbol of destroying religion, even if, in truth, according to halakha it doesn’t inherently violate any prohibitions, since it has become a symbol of breaching the bounds and of destroying religion, this causes it to become prohibited [and this has already been written about in the book Nefesh HaRav (page 233)].  And it is well known that the Reform and Conservative Jews breached the bounds in including women in a minyan, and counting women as rabbis, and calling women to the Torah.  It is clear, then, that it is forbidden to imitate the heretics (See the Mishna in Chulin 41a)

Astounding! What is the difference between this and Modernity and Zionism? Modernity and Zionism are also, at their core, impure. The intention of their founders was “to destroy religion” (modernity: the Maskilim and Reformers; Zionism: Herzl, Gordon and the like).  Nevertheless, they were purified through Rav Kook z”l (Zionism) and Rav Shimshon Refael Hirch z”l and Rav Soloveitchik z”l (modernity) (See Bechorot 6b: “an unclean animal born from a clean animal is not Unclean, but clean.”)

In conclusion, in my humble opinion, all of the above arguments are secondary to Kevodo’s innovative twofold claim: 1) That what Kevodo calls the spirit of the law has halakhic standing equal to that of what you call the letter of the law. 2) That adjudication of the spirit of the law can be done only “with the agreement of giants of Torah who have knowledge of the entire corpus of Torah, and who can understand what is the spirit of the law”.  Kevodo bases his claim on the verse in Isaiah (59:21)

It is clear to me that this verse was brought as eisegetical support.  Certainly, Kevod HaRav has solid proofs for such broad claims.  As one who still struggles with the concept of partnership minyanim and who attempts to present a position that fits with what I understand to be the correct “spirit” and “letter” of halakha on these matters, I want to ask if Kevodo could graciously elaborate on the topic.  Personally, I would also like to hear more specifics about the criteria for successfully deciphering the true “spirit”: who, how, and what establish what is the correct “spirit” in any event?  What are the parameters that we need to establish for ourselves in our search for the “spirit” of halakha generally and specifically, when we come to adjudicate a topic as difficult and complicated as ours, one that has far reaching ramifications for our future?  If the “spirit” is essential to judgment, it is important that both sides of the argument strive to articulate their approach to “the spirit” of the topic “clearly and with meaning” (Nehemiah 8:8).

May it be His will that the Shechina rests in the deeds of our hands and that God’s name shall be sanctified by our work.

11 Adar 1, 5774

Sincerely,

הצב”י יששכר כ”ץ


Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 2: Women Wearing Tefillin – by Rabbi Zev Farber

January 31, 2014

See: Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 1: Elisha’s Wings

Women are Exempt from Wearing Tefillin

According to the Mishna (Berakhot 3:3), women are exempt from wearing tefillin.

Women, slaves and minors are exempt from reciting the Shema or wearing tefillin, but they are obligated in prayer, mezuzah and reciting the grace after meals.[1]

Why are women exempt from wearing tefillin? Rashi (ad loc.) suggests that it is because tefillin are a positive commandment tied to a particular time (a category of mitzvot that women are generally exempt from performing), since tefillin are not worn at nights or on Shabbat and holidays. The discussion in the Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 96a), which assumes that this is the reason for the exemption, supports Rashi’s position.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot 2:3), however, offers a different reason.

From where do we know that women [are exempt]? ‘Teach them to your sons’ (Deut. 11:19) – not your daughters. Whoever is obligated in learning Torah is obligated in tefillin; women who are exempt from learning Torah are exempt from wearing tefillin.[2]

According to this source, women are exempt from wearing tefillin because they are exempt from studying Torah.

The Mekhilta of R. Ishmael (Pasḥa 17) offers the same reason.[3]

‘So that the Torah of the Lord be in your mouth’ (Exod. 13:9). Why was this said? Because it says (ibid): ‘This should be a sign [upon your arm].’ I would have assumed that women are included, and this would make sense since mezuzah is a positive commandment and tefillin is a positive commandment, if we assume that women part of the mitzvah of mezuzah shouldn’t we assume that women are also part of the mitzvah of tefillin? Thus the verse comes to teach us, ‘so that the Torah of the Lord be in your mouth,’ I am only referring to someone who is obligated in learning Torah. From here they said: “All are obligated in tefillin except for women and slaves.”[4]

Rambam codifies this reason in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvot (Positive Commandments, 13), referencing the Mekhilta.[5]

The Michal bat Kushi Story

May a woman wear tefillin voluntarily? The Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 96a) records a story about this.

Michal daughter of Kushi used to wear tefillin and the Sages didn’t object. Jonah’s wife used to come [to Jerusalem] for the holidays and the Sages didn’t object.[6]

According to this source, it would seem that women may wear tefillin if they wish.

The Mekhilta records the same story.

Michal daughter of Kushi would wear tefillin. The wife of Jonah would come [to Jerusalem] for the festivals. Tabi, Rabban Gamliel’s slave would wear tefillin.[7]

According to this account, which is the same as that recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, it appears that women may wear tefillin if they wish.

There is an alternative version of this story, however, which appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot 2:3) and is included in the Pesiqta Rabbati (22). The passage follows the previously quoted the lines of the Jerusalem Talmud, where it was established that women are exempt from wearing tefillin.

A contradiction was offered: ‘But Michal daughter of Kushi would wear tefillin and the wife of Jonah would [come to Jerusalem] for the holidays, and the Sages didn’t stop her.’ R. Hezekiah in the name of R. Abahu: “The Sages sent Jonah’s wife back and objected to Michal bat Kushi.”[8]

The first version of the story included here assumes that Michal wore tefillin without any objection from the Sages. Moreover, the Jerusalem Talmud assumes that if she wore tefillin, she must have been obligated. (The Babylonian Talmud makes a similar assumption, suggesting that maybe she followed the opinion that tefillin should be worn at night and on Shabbat.) Hezekiah in the name of R. Abahu, to solve this problem, offers an alternative version of the story. The Sages did, in fact, object to what she was doing.

Tosafot and Women’s Fitness for Tefillin

The Tosafot (Eruvin 96a), having seen the source in Pesiqta Rabbati, wonder why the Sages would have objected. Since the Tosafot follows the position of Ri (=Rabbi Isaac of Dampierre) that women are permitted, even encouraged, to take on positive mitzvot for which they are not obligated, they cannot answer that doing that which one is exempt from doing is bad.[9] Thus, in order to answer the question, they turn to the position of Rabbi Yannai analyzed in part one.

It would seem that the explanation for the position that women are not permitted [to wear tefillin] is because tefillin require a guf naqi and women are not zealous enough to be careful about this.[10]

The Tosafot claim that the reason women may not wear tefillin, according to Hezekiah quoting Rabbi Abahu, is because they will not be careful about the cleanliness of their bodies. Since according to the Babylonian Talmud, being careful about “guf naqi” means avoiding flatulence or falling asleep, the Tosafot are saying that women will not be zealous enough about their tefillin to avoid flatulence while wearing them.

Why would the Tosafot say such a thing? Here is where modern readers, I believe, have difficulty accepting attitudes about women that reflect a pre-modern mentality that men are better or more spiritual or more serious about Torah than women. Yet this was a common, even normative belief in the pre-modern era.

In fact, this is the very reason that some sages believed that it is forbidden and a waste of time to teach women Torah.  This attitude was articulated most clearly by Rambam Mishneh Torah (Talmud Torah 1:13)

A woman who learns Torah receives a reward, but it is not like the man’s reward, since she was not commanded [to do so], and anyone who does something [good] which he was not commanded to do receives less reward than one who fulfills a command. Even though there is reward, the Sages commanded a person not to teach his daughter Torah, since most women’s minds are not designed for learning and they will turn the words of Torah into foolishness due to their weak intellect. The Sages said: “Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah it is as if he taught her licentiousness/nonsense.” To what does this statement apply, to Oral Torah, but insofar as the Written Torah, de jure a person should not teach her this, but if he did, it is not like teaching her licentiousness/nonsense.”[11]

Rambam believes that women, because of their weak intellects, would make nonsense out of Torah study, specifically study of Talmud, which is very intricate.

Although it is possible that the Tosafot did not hold as extreme a view as Rambam about women, nevertheless, it is hardly surprising that in the Middle Ages, some rabbis would believe that women could not be trusted to take tefillin seriously enough to hold in flatulence or quickly remove their tefillin if they felt it coming on. Even though the Rishonim state explicitly that any person can hold in their flatulence during the short period of the morning prayers, they were thinking about men, whom they believed would take the mitzvah seriously; they were not (necessarily) picturing women doing this.

A number of other Rishonim expressed the Tosafot’s explanation of the alternative Michal story in even starker terms. For example, in the Kol Bo 21 (the source upon which Rama’s opinion in the Shulḥan Arukh is based), Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg is quoted as being against women wearing tefillin (he may have been the first to codify this position as halakha):

Rabbi Meir [of Rothenberg] wrote: “Women are exempt from tefillin because they are a positive commandment tied to a specific time, for we do not wear them on Shabbat and festivals. If women wish to wear them we don’t listen to them, because they do not know how to keep themselves clean.”[12]

Although R. Meir of Rothenberg may mean the same thing as the Tosafot, that women will not be careful about flatulence, it is possible that he has even more in mind than this. R. Meir may be envisioning the realities that come with women menstruating. Before the advent of feminine projects, it would have been quite difficult for women to keep clean during their cycles. Although such a concern does not appear in the Talmud, perhaps R. Meir is making an a fortiori – if flatulence is forbidden certainly menstrual bleeding should be forbidden—but this is just speculation on my part.

An even clearer expression of how women will not be careful can be found in Ritva’s commentary to Qiddushin 31a. In that text, he is discussing the question of whether women should make a blessing on mitzvot they perform but in which they are not obligated. As part of this discussion, he suggests a possible reason that the Sages objected (according to the source in the Jerusalem Talmud and Pesiqta Rabbati).

…because tefillin require a guf naqi like Elisha with the wings, and women are not clean, they are not clean of body and they are not clean of mind.[13]

Ritva uses an extreme expression in order to get across the point that women, in his view, are not capable of being clean enough or serious enough to wear tefillin.

Although Ritva’s statement is extreme, the majority of the commentaries that follow the position of Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, forbidding women to wear tefillin, repeat Tosafot’s interpretation verbatim (see, for example, TazMagen Avraham, and Mishna Berurah on the Shulḥan Arukh Oraḥ Ḥaim 38:3), i.e., “they are not zealous enough to be careful.”

Conclusion

In modern times, our attitude towards the intelligence and religiosity of women has changed dramatically. No longer do we claim that women are either not smart enough or not serious enough to learn Talmud. Instead, women’s Talmud programs are flourishing in our times. To my mind, the same must be said about women wearing tefillin.

Although in the past it may have been believable to claim that women should not be trusted with tefillin because they would not take the mitzvah seriously, and they may end up sinning by not avoiding flatulence while wearing them, such a claim must be discarded in our days. It is a relic of a time where attitudes towards women was very different.

In part one, we looked at the unanimous opinion of the Rishonim that any man at all, unless he is ill, can be trusted to treat tefillin properly if worn during prayer. In our day, this assessment applies to any woman as well. To put it starkly, if, as R. Moshe of Coucy said, “there isn’t a person wicked enough that he can’t be trusted with tefillin,” this dictum certainly applies to women as well. In short, the prohibition against women wearing tefillin must go the way of the prohibition against women learning Torah; we must consign it to history.

Addendum: The Arukh Ha-Shulḥan

Rabbi Yeḥiel Epstein, in his Arukh Ha-Shulan (Oraḥ Ḥaim 38:6), offers a novel formulation of the halakha.[14]

Women and slaves are exempt from tefillin because they (tefillin) are a positive time-bound commandment, since we are exempt from tefillin on Shabbat and festivals. If they wish to be strict upon themselves and wear them, we stop them. This is not similar to sukkah and lulav where they are exempt but they may say a blessing even so, since tefillin requires extra caution with guf naqi, as we said in Shabbat, “Tefillin require a guf naqi like Elisha with the wings.” In the Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot, it says: “They say over there that anyone who is not like Elisha with the wings should not wear tefillin.” Nevertheless, men are obligated so they will necessarily be careful with them during Shema and prayer. For this reason, however, they don’t wear them all day, as I stated in the previous paragraph. Thus, women, who are exempt, why should they put themselves into a situation with such grave concerns? For them, [wearing tefillin] during Shema and prayer is like men wearing them all day. Even though it says in Eruvin that Michal daughter of Saul wore tefillin and the Sages did not object, we cannot learn from that since they probably know that she was a totally righteous woman and that she knew how to be careful. All this applies to slaves as well.[15]

With the greatest respect for Rabbi Epstein, his reading of the Talmudic passages seems to me to be impossible. To return to the analysis in part one: If we interpret the Elisha passage to mean, “immaculately clean and superhumanly careful,” then, as the Geonim said, we don’t follow that position. For this reason, most Rishonim follow the plain meaning of the Talmud’s interpretation, that it means that it is forbidden to be flatulent while wearing tefillin and, therefore, unless one is like Elisha, one should not wear them all day.

Nevertheless, it was unanimous that wearing tefillin only for prayer poses no problem for anyone because it is easy to be careful during that short space of time. The reason this consensus was not applied to women (according to those who forbid them to wear tefillin), is because these rabbis believed that women could not be trusted to take the rule about flatulence seriously or to keep their minds on their tefillin, even for a very short time.

I suspect—and I am just speculating—that what motivates this unusual reading is the fact that Rabbi Epstein was living in a modern world and could not imagine that R. Moshe Isserles thought that women could not avoid flatulence, and that they were less spiritual or serious about Torah than men. In other words, it is possible that R. Epstein is trying to square the circle apologetically, to maintain the prohibition against women wearing tefillin which appears in the Shulḥan Arukh, but to make the reason for the prohibition less offensive and more believable to modern people. Whether or not this was the case, Rabbi Epstein’s interpretation contradicts the simple reading of the Talmud and the Rishonim and should be rejected le-halakha. Certainly, it should not be used in a last ditch effort to maintain a prohibition that is based on obscure sources and Ashkenazi custom, flies in the face of the Talmud, has no applicability or believability in the modern world, and offends the sensibilities of many Jewish women.

See: Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 1: Elisha’s Wings 


[1]  נשים ועבדים וקטנים פטורין מקריאת שמע ומן התפילין וחייבין בתפלה ובמזוזה ובברכת המזון:

[2]  נשים מניין? ‘ולמדתם אותם את בניכם’ ולא את בנותיכם, את שהוא חייב בת”ת חייב בתפילין נשים שאינן חייבות בת”ת אינן חייבין בתפילין.

[3] In his excellent article on women and tefillin“Gender and Tefillin: Possibilities and Consequences,” Rabbi Ethan Tucker explores the full implications of this Mekhilta text.

[4]  למען תהיה תורת ה’ בפיך למה נאמר לפי שנאמר והיה לך לאות שומע אני אף הנשים במשמע והדין נותן הואיל ומזוזה מצות עשה ותפילין מצות עשה אם למדת על מזוזה שהיא נוהגת בנשים כבאנשים יכול אף תפילין ינהגו בנשים כבאנשים ת”ל למען תהיה תורת ה’ בפיך, לא אמרתי אלא במי שהוא חייב בתלמוד תורה, מכאן אמרו הכל חייבין בתפילין חוץ מנשים ועבדים.

[5]  הנה כבר התבאר לך קראם לתפלין שלראש ושליד שתי מצות. ושתי מצות אלו אין הנשים חייבות בהן לאמרו יתעלה (ס”פ בא) בטעם חיובם למען תהיה תורת י”י בפיך ונשים אינן חייבות בתלמוד תורה. וכן בארו במכילתא.

[6]  מיכל בת כושי היתה מנחת תפילין ולא מיחו בה חכמים. ואשתו של יונה היתה עולה לרגל ולא מיחו בה חכמים.

[7]  מיכל בת כושי היתה מנחת תפילין, אשתו של יונה היתה עולה לרגלים, טבי עבדו של רבן גמליאל היה מניח תפילין:

[8]  התיבון הרי מיכל בת כושי היתה לובשת תפילין ואשתו של יונה היתה עולה לרגלים ולא מיחו בידיה חכמים ר’ חזקיה בשם ר’ אבהו אשתו של יונה הושבה מיכל בת כושי מיחו בידיה חכמים.

[9] See the addendum in R. Ethan Tucker’s (above referenced) article for a discussion of this point.

[10]  ונראה לפרש דטעמא למ”ד דלא הוי רשות משום דתפילין צריכין גוף נקי ונשים אין זריזות ליזהר.

[11]  אשה שלמדה תורה יש לה שכר אבל אינו כשכר האיש, מפני שלא נצטוית, וכל העושה דבר שאינו מצווה עליו לעשותו אין שכרו כשכר המצווה שעשה אלא פחות ממנו, ואף על פי שיש לה שכר צוו חכמים שלא ילמד אדם את בתו תורה, מפני שרוב הנשים אין דעתם מכוונת להתלמד אלא הן מוציאות דברי תורה לדברי הבאי לפי עניות דעתן, אמרו חכמים כל המלמד את בתו תורה כאילו למדה תפלות, במה דברים אמורים בתורה שבעל פה אבל תורה שבכתב לא ילמד אותה לכתחלה ואם למדה אינו כמלמדה תפלות.

[12]  כתב הר”ם נשים פטורות מתפילין מפני שהוא מצות עשה שהזמן גרמה שהרי אין מניחין אותן בשבת ויום טוב ואם רצו להניח אין שומעין להן מפני שאינן יודעות לשמור עצמן בנקיות ע”כ,

[13]  …משום דתפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים ונשים אינם נקיות לא נקיות גוף ולא נקיות דעת.

[14] He is inspired by the retort of R. Avraham Gombiner (the Magen Avraham) to Rabbi Meir Perels (the Olat Tamid), who asks that if women should not wear tefillin because they don’t have to be careful, why should the explanation of women being exempt because tefillin are a positive time-bound commandment ever have been offered. Just say that people who cannot be careful may not wear tefillin and that should include a subset of men and all women? R. Gombiner responds by saying that since men are obligated the force themselves to be careful, and if women were obligated they would also have to force themselves to be careful, but since they are not obligated they are not permitted to take that chance. This retort seems to be the jumping off point for Rabbi Epstein, who references Magen Avraham and states that his analysis makes this position work.

[15]  נשים ועבדים פטורים מתפילין מפני שהיא מצות עשה שהזמן גרמא דשבת ויו”ט פטור מתפילין ואם רוצין להחמיר על עצמן מוחין בידן ולא דמי לסוכה ולולב שפטורות ועכ”ז מברכות עליהן דכיון דתפילין צריך זהירות יתירה מגוף נקי כדאמרינן בשבת [מ”ט.] תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים ובירושלמי ברכות שם אמרו תמן אמרין כל שאינו כאלישע בעל כנפים אל יניח תפילין אך אנשים שמחויבים בהכרח שיזהרו בהם בשעת ק”ש ותפלה ולכן אין מניחין כל היום כמ”ש בסי’ הקודם וא”כ נשים שפטורות למה יכניסו עצמן בחשש גדול כזה ואצלן בשעת ק”ש ותפלה כלאנשים כל היום לפיכך אין מניחין אותן להניח תפילין ואף על גב דתניא בעירובין [צ”ו.] דמיכל בת שאול היתה מנחת תפילין ולא מיחו בה חכמים אין למידין מזה דמסתמא ידעו שהיא צדקת גמורה וידעה להזהר וכן עבדים כה”ג [עמג”א סק”ג וב”י ולפמ”ש א”ש]:


Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 1: Elisha’s Wings – by Rabbi Zev Farber

January 31, 2014

See: Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 2: Women Wearing Tefillin

Preface

The debate about women wearing tefillin rages. The issue has many moving parts, some are halakhic, most are sociological. In this piece, I want to touch upon only one aspect of the debate, the concept of guf naqi (clean body) and its application to the question of whether women should wear tefillin.

Part 1 – Elisha’s Wings

The idea that tefillin require a guf naqi comes from a passage in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 49a):

Rabbi Yannai said: “Tefillin require a guf naqi (clean body) like Elisha, with the wings.”[1]

This statement is enigmatic, both because it is unclear what it means by “clean” and because of the reference to this strange person, Elisha with the wings. More importantly, what the halakhic consequences of such a statement are meant to be. Assuming Elisha with the wings was an extraordinary person, does that mean that most people should not wear tefillin? As will be seen, there is more than one way to understand the import of the statement about Elisha.

Model 1 – Persecution and the Pure Spirit

The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 49a) relates Elisha’s story:

Why do they call him, “the man with wings”? Once the wicked Roman government made a decree against the Jews that anyone who wore tefillin would have his head pierced. Elisha, however, put on his tefillin and went out in public. An official saw him. [Elisha] ran away and the man chased him. When he was about to catch up, [Elisha] removed them from his head and held them in his hand. The man said: “What is that in your hand?” [Elisha] replied: “Dove’s wings.” He opened his had and there were dove’s wings. Therefore, he is called, “Elisha with the wings.”[2]

According to this story, Elisha’s righteousness was that he risked his life to fulfill the mitzvah of wearing tefillin. Not only that, he wore them in public, a bold if risky move.

Following this story, a number of commentators assume that the meaning of Rabbi Yannai’s dictum is that one should not wear tefillin during a time of persecution unless one is as righteous as Elisha. Rav Hai Gaon, for instance, in a responsum dedicated to convincing men that they should wear tefillin and should not worry about the cleanness of their bodies, writes (Sha’arei Teshuvah 153):

If one were to argue that tefillin requires a guf naqi like Elisha with the wings, the Sages explained it thus: In what context was this stated? During a time of persecution, where they made a decree that anyone who wore tefillin would have his head punctured. The Sages said: ‘Anyone who knows that he is as righteous as Elisha with the wings, for whom a miracle was done during the persecution when he risked his life, should wear tefillin. Otherwise, do not put yourself at risk.” For if you do not interpret it this way (but assume that one should not wear tefillin unless one is immaculately clean), a Torah scroll, which is bigger and holier and has many parshiyot and is complete – we open this and read from it all the time, certainly we can wear tefillin! Rather, learn from this that when the Sages said that tefillin needs a guf naqi, this refers to during a persecution and to no other time.[3]

In other words, in Rav Hai Gaon’s interpretation, guf naqi means something like “a pure spirit” and the halakha refers only to wearing tefillin at the risk of one’s life. It has nothing to do with physical cleanliness at all.

Clarifying this position, R. Shmuel bar Meshullam Yerundi (Sefer Ohel Moed, Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Tzitzit 1:1) translates the term guf naqi as “free from sin (כלומר נקי מעבירות).” This is R. Tam’s position as well (Sefer Ha-Yashar, Novelae, 675):

Tefillin requires a guf naqi like Elisha with the wings – meaning, if one wishes for a miracle to be performed on one’s behalf as was done for Elisha, he must have a pure being like that of Elisha with the wings.[4]

For R. Tam, the import of R. Yannai’s position is only about hoping for a miracle. In other words, R. Yannai is discouraging men from endangering their lives in order to wear tefillin.[5]

Model 2 – Immaculate Bodies but not Halakha Le-Ma’aseh

Another interpretive tradition assumes that the statement was meant to limit tefillin wearing to very select individuals. The Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot 2:3) makes this point clearly:

Over there (Babylon) they say that anyone who is not like Elisha with the wings should not wear tefillin.[6]

Although this statement mentions nothing about Elisha’s “clean body”, it states that if a person is not like Elisha, in whatever way he was special, he should not wear tefillin. Significantly, the Jerusalem Talmud attributes this position to “them,” which implies that it does not accept the statement as authoritative.

The Jerusalem Talmud is not the only one to distance itself from this position. Rabbi Menachem ben Shimon (Midrash Sekhel Tov, Exod. 13) writes:

It is forbidden to sleep in tefillin, whether just nodding off or really sleeping, lest one flatulate while wearing them, however, we are not worried about ejaculation [during sleep] as semen would not forbid a person from wearing tefillin, as we stated earlier. However, we do not follow the position of the person who said that tefillin require a clean body like Elisha with the wings, since the Torah was not given to the ministering angels, as it says (2 Sam. 7:19): “this is the Torah of man.”[7]

This is the understanding of R. Hananel as well (Shabbat 130):

The Halakha does not follow… Rabbi Yannai, who said that tefillin require a guf naqi like Elisha with the wings. The Rabbis, however, interpreted R. Yannai and said that he was only referring to the time of persecution, and they support this with the account of [Elisha] running away and a miracle occurring on his behalf.[8]

According to R. Hananel, we simply do not follow R. Yannai’s position, although he is open to accepting the reinterpreted R. Yannai as described in the previous model.

Model 3 – Flatulence

The Babylonian Talmud offers its own clarification of the concept of guf naqi in the lines immediately following the quote from R. Yannai:

What does this mean? Abaye said: “Not to flatulate with them on.” Rava said: “Not to sleep with them on.”[9]

Assuming one were to accept both answers, i.e. that it is forbidden to flatulate with tefillin on or to sleep with them on, this does not seem like an impossible task. Is Elisha with the wings really the only person who was able to accomplish this? The answer that the vast majority of authorities who follow this model give is “no.” In other words, everyone should wear tefillin; it is only a warning to be careful while wearing them.

Many Rishonim further claim that R. Yannai was speaking about people who wear their tefillin all day, but, certainly, for people who wear them only during prayer there should be nothing at all to worry about.

Below are some examples of Rishonim who make this point.[10]

R. Moshe of Coucy (Sefer Mitzvot ha-Gadol, Positive Commandments, 3)

This refers to a person who wears tefillin all day, as is the mitzvah, lest he forget he is wearing them and he act inappropriately. During prayer, however, there isn’t a person wicked enough that he can’t be trusted with tefillin.[11]

Rashba (Glosses on Tractate Shabbat 49a)

The term ‘they require a guf naqi’ refers to someone who knows how to avoid flatulence while wearing them, meaning that he knows to remove them when he feels the need to flatulate – that is Rashi’s explanation, and it is Tosafot’s as well.[12]

Rosh (Hilkhot Qetanot, Tefillin)

This does not mean that he must be like Elisha with the wings, but rather that he can avoid flatulence and falling asleep like him. For since a miracle occurred for him because of his tefillin, it seems reasonable to assume that he guarded their purity. Nowadays, since we only wear them during prayer, it is easy for a person to be careful during that space of time.[13]

R. Joshua ibn Shuib (Derashot, Va-etḥanan)

There are those who are lenient with this mitzvah because of what R. Yannai said, that tefillin require a guf naqi like Elisha with the wings. They say: “Who could be pure like him?” But this is not correct, because [the Talmud] explicitly asks what is the reason or what is the halakhic import of this statement, and it answers, to avoid flatulating or sleeping while wearing them. So any man who can avoid sleep or flatulence should wear them. This was also Rashi’s interpretation. It was back in the period when they would wear them all day that they said that tefillin requires a guf naqi like Elisha of the wings, but just while reciting the Shema, every person can be careful to avoid sleep and flatulence![14]

R. Avraham Zakut (Sefer ha-Yukhsin, Seder Amoraim, “Elisha”)

The Geonim wrote that the halakha does not follow [R. Yannai], since the Torah was not given to the ministering angels. However, later authorities wrote that it is halakha, and that a person can remain under control during prayer.[15] 

Halakhic Summary

In short, if R. Yannai’s statement was meant to warn regular Jews not to risk their lives by wearing tefillin, it is irrelevant to the question of cleanliness. If it was meant to limit tefillin only to exceedingly pious individuals, like Elisha, the Geonim already decided that his is not the halakha and we do not follow this position. If all it means is that people wearing tefillin need to be careful not to flatulate or sleep while wearing it, that is considered halakha, but is also considered easy to follow unless one has a stomach ailment.

The only people who might have trouble with it are people who wear them all day. For this reason R. Yannai suggests that only very pious people should wear them all day, but everyone should wear them during prayer, since there is nothing to worry about for the average person. This is the halakha as we have inherited it.[16]

See: Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 2: Women Wearing Tefillin


[1]  אמר רבי ינאי: “תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים.”

[2]  ואמאי קרי ליה בעל כנפים? שפעם אחת גזרה מלכות רומי הרשעה גזירה על ישראל, שכל המניח תפילין ינקרו את מוחו. והיה אלישע מניחם ויוצא לשוק. ראהו קסדור אחד – רץ מפניו, ורץ אחריו. וכיון שהגיע אצלו נטלן מראשו ואחזן בידו, אמר לו: מה זה בידך? אמר לו: כנפי יונה. פשט את ידו ונמצאו כנפי יונה. לפיכך קורין אותו אלישע בעל כנפים.

[3]  ואם בא אדם לומר תפלין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים כך פירשו חז”ל במה דב”א בשעת השמד שגוזרים כל המניח תפלין ינקרו את מוחו אמרו חכמים כל היודע עצמו שהוא צדיק גמור כאלישע בעל כנפים שעשו לו נס בשעת השמד ומסר עצמו למיתה יניח תפלין ואם לאו אל יביא עצמו לידי סכנה שאם אתה אומר כן ס”ת גדול ומקודש שיש בו כמה פרשיות והוא שלם ואתה פותח בו וקורא בו בכל זמן וק”ו תפלין מכאן אתה למד שלא שנו חכמים תפלין צריכין גוף נקי אלא בשעת השמד ולא בזמן אחר.

[4]  תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים. כלומ’ אי בעי דאיתרחיש לי’ ניסא כמו שנעשה לאלישע צריך להיות גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים.

[5] R. Tam’s position is brought down as authoritative by R. Avraham bar Natan Even ha-Yarḥi in Sefer ha-Manhig (Tefillin) as well.

[6]  תמן אמרין כל שאינו כאלישע בעל כנפים לא ילבש תפילין.

[7]  ואסור לישן בהן לא שינת עראי ולא שינת קבע, גזירה שמא יפיח בהם, אבל משום קרי לא מיתסרי לאנוחי, כמא דפסקינן לעיל, ולא קיי”ל כמאן דאמר תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים, שלא ניתנה תורה למלאכי השרת, שנא’ וזאת תורת האדם (ש”ב ז יט):

[8]  ואין הלכה… כרבי ינאי שאמר תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים ומפרשי רבנן כי לא אמר רבי ינאי אלא בשעת הגזרה וסמיך דהוא עריק ועבדי ליה נס.

[9]  מאי היא? אביי אמר: “שלא יפיח בהן.” רבא אמר: “שלא יישן בהן.”

[10] See also the treatment of R. Baḥya ben Asher (Kad ha-Qemaḥ, “Tefillin”), who surveys more than one model for understanding R. Yannai.

וכיון שביד האדם לקיים מצוה זו אין לאחד מישראל שימנע מזה על המחשבה שהזכרתי למעלה, כי כל אדם ראוי להניח תפילין כל זמן שהוא בריא וגופו טהור מן החולי והמדוה, ואין צריך עכ”פ שיהיה לו גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים, הוא שטועין בו הרבה בני אדם מהמון ישראל גם קצת מן היודעים שחושבין שאין כל אדם ראוי למצות תפילין אלא א”כ הגיע למדרגת אלישע בעל כנפים שנעשה לו נס ושיהיה לו גוף נקי כמוהו. וזו היא הסבה שהמצוה הזאת מרופה בידם ולא יחזיקו בה, ולא ידעו ולא יבינו כי אין המאמר הזה אמור אלא בשעת השמד שאם המניח תפילין הוא כדאי ובטוח על עצמו שיעשה לו נס כאלישע בעל כנפים יש לו להניח תפילין בשעת שמד ואם לאו אין לו להניחם מפני הסכנה, אבל שאר כל המון ישראל שלא בשעת הסכנה חייבים להניח, וכל ישראל ראוים לכך כי כל העדה כלם קדושים, או יהיה ביאור המאמר לענין הנחתן כל היום כלו וזהו לשון גוף נקי שאם יש לו גוף נקי כאלישע ונזהר בהם הזהירות הראוי חייב להניח’ כל היו’ כלו כמו שהי’ עושה אלישע, אבל אם אין לו גוף נקי כמוהו די לו להניחן בשעות ידועות, ואין צריך לומר הגדולים שהם חייבין במצות תפילין ושהיא מצוה מוטלת עליהם, כי גם הקטנים צריכין להניחן כדי לחנכן במצות. וכן אמרו במסכת סוכה (פ”ג דף מ) קטן היודע לשמור תפילין אביו לוקח לו תפילין:

[11]  זהו באדם שמניחן כל היום כולו כמצותן פן ישכחם עליו ויעשה בהם דבר שאינו הגון, אבל בשעת תפילה אין לך רשע שלא יהא ראוי לתפילין,

[12]  פירוש צריכין גוף נקי היודע ליזהר שלא יפיח בהן כלומר שיזהר לסלקם בשעה שצריך להפיח, וכן פירש רש”י ז”ל, וכן פירשו גם בתוספות.

[13]  לומר לא שיהא צריך כאלישע בעל כנפים אלא שיכול ליזהר משינה ומהפחה כמוהו. דכיון דאירע לו נס בתפילין מסתמא היה שומרן בטהרה. והאידנא שאין רגילין להניחן אלא בשעת תפלה בקל יכול אדם ליזהר באותה שעה.

[14]  ויש מקילין במצוה זאת משום ההיא דרבי ינאי דאמר תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים, ואומרים [כי] מי הוא נקי [גוף] כמוהו. וזה אינו [כן] כי בפירוש אמרו מאי טעמא או למאי הלכתא, ואמרו שלא יפיח בהם ושלא יישן בהם, ואם הוא יכול ליזהר מן השינה וההפחה כל אדם ראוי להם. וכן פירש רש”י זכרונו לברכה ובאותן הזמנים שהיו מניחין אותן כל היום היו אומרין (זה) שצריך גוף נקי כאלישע לכל היום, אבל בזמן קריאת שמע כל אדם יכול ליזהר משינה והפחה.

[15]  והגאונים ז”ל כתבו שאינו הלכה כי לא ניתנה תורה למלאכי השרת, אבל האחרונים כתבו שהוא הלכה ויכול אדם בשעת תפילה להעמיד עצמו,

[16] See, for example, Shulḥan Arukh, Oraḥ Ḥaim 38:1, where R. Joseph Karo says that people with stomach ailments should not wear tefillin. Presumably, the average person without such an ailment can avoid flatulence during prayer.

 


A Recent Episode As Seen From Three Perspectives by David Wolkenfeld

January 22, 2014

Rabbi Avi Weiss and the Israeli Rabbinate: An Episode Seen from Three Perspectives

I.

Rabbi Avi Weiss announced last October that his letters attesting to the Jewish status of members of his community who had moved to Israel were no longer acceptable to the rabbanut, the Israeli rabbinate. When pressed to justify their rejection, a spokesman for the rabbinate explained last month that controversial positions that Rabbi Weiss had taken over the years, as reported to them by anonymous American rabbis, rendered Rabbi Weiss suspect in their eyes and insufficiently Orthodox even to vouch for the personal status of members of his community.

Since Rabbi Weiss broke this story, he has been able to mobilize an impressive list of colleagues, students, and other allies, both in Israel and in the diaspora, to advocate on his behalf.  Late last week, the rabbanut announced that they would, once again, accept Rabbi Weiss’ letters regarding personal status when members of his community move to Israel.  Just last Thursday, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) announced a larger agreement with the rabbanut, wherein they would take responsibility for verifying the Jewish status of the congregants of any of its member-rabbis and that the rabbanut would, as a matter of course, accept the status-determinations made here in America.

Like a Mandelbrot fractal image, no matter how narrowly or how broadly one examines this episode, the shape is the same and raises fundamental questions.  Broadly speaking, there are three levels to this episode and three important contexts for the ensuing conversation.

II.

The first level is the question of “who is Orthodox?”  For those of us love rabbinic politics (or love to hate rabbinic politics), and for those who have some personal connection to the question – this is an important and compelling question. But for most Jews, whether or not Orthodoxy has boundaries and where those boundaries lie, is, at most, a passing thought. Furthermore, within the context of the decades long battle over the place of Liberal Orthodoxy within the broader Orthodox community, there are no surprises. Anyone who has read the polemics surrounding Liberal Orthodoxy, or about Rabbi Weiss himself, that have been published in the past fifteen years already knows that there are segments of the Orthodox world who no longer consider Rabbi Weiss, and inter-alia, his students, to be Orthodox.  Secretly encouraging the rabbanut to reject Rabbi Weiss letters was, perhaps, a new low, and a worrisome escalation, but it was not a move that should have been surprising.

That being said, there are two new elements of this stage of the story that should be noted, condemned, and responded to. First, several of the most consistent and fiercest critics of Liberal Orthodoxy published essays or blog-posts in the past two weeks that disagreed with the decision to disqualify Rabbi Weiss’ letters. Those conflicted critics, and those who agree with them, should experience this episode as a wake-up call. The sensationalist attacks on Rabbi Weiss could have no other long-term effect among those who believe them, other than the total inability of Rabbi Weiss to function as part of the Orthodox rabbinate. That self-destructive path would lead Orthodoxy to a place of less trust, less collegiality, less sharing of Torah ideas, and less respect for Torah and Torah scholarship among a jaded community who witness Torah scholars attack and vilify each other.

Second, the RCA has a need to investigate and identify (at least as part of an internal review) the anonymous source(s) that the rabbanut relied upon to initially disqualify Rabbi Weiss. The ability of the elected leadership and professional staff of the RCA to direct the organization for the benefit of its membership and for the benefit of Torah, necessitates the ability to adopt policies and implement them. Rogue rabbis who speak in the name of the organization without authorization render all of that collective action impossible. Having been burned once, the rabbanut, one hopes, will be more discriminating regarding from whom it accepts information. In turn, the RCA needs to restore its ability to devise and implement policies.

III.

Ironically, the public and private defenses of Rabbi Weiss, from organizations that he is affiliated with and from his colleagues, students, and allies, all affirmed his faithfulness to Orthodox beliefs and practices, and argued that he should be entitled to all of the legal privileges of Orthodox rabbis. This, however, only begged the question of why Orthodox rabbis alone should have this legal status in the State of Israel. More than a few non-Orthodox Jews, and other astute observers, have publicly condemned the resolution of this latest episode as being insignificant for their aims of bringing religious diversity to Israel. The struggle for religious pluralism in Israel is the second context within which to examine this episode. Both those who condemn and those who embrace religious pluralism should recognize that the past two weeks have been insignificant to that broader cause.

IV.

But the rabbanut, the state rabbinate, is not an independent variable. The role and function of the rabbanut is dependent on the tasks that the state asks it to perform and that is connected to a much broader question. What does it mean to be a “Jewish State?” The State of Israel currently defines itself as a Jewish state – at least in part – in an ethnic-religious way. This means that those who can prove a Jewish ethnic background, or who were converted by the right sort of rabbis, are entitled by law to a certain legal status. And, as long as that remains the case, there will be a need for a centralized government agency that can keep track of who is Jewish and who is not.

This broader context, to me, is the most interesting perspective from which to contemplate the latest episode between Rabbi Weiss and the rabbinate.  So long as the conversation remains, “is Rabbi Weiss sufficiently Orthodox for the purposes of a certain government agency” or even if the question is expanded to include, “what kind of diaspora rabbi will have the ability to affect the legal status of Israeli citizens?” then the conversation is one that is beyond the conventions of democratic public discourse. “Rabbi Weiss is indeed an Orthodox rabbi” is not a liberal cry. Nor is, “every rabbi should be able to perform conversions recognized by the State of Israel,” at least not as liberalism has been understood for centuries.

The State of Israel was established because the Zionist visionaries understood that nation-states can uniquely protect their citizens from the threat of violence and that the Jewish people needed our own nation-state to protect our lives in a dangerous and threatening world. Nation states can also sponsor, protect, and encourage a national culture in various guises. But nation-states, at least in the democratic world, are ill-equip to answer questions like, “who is a rabbi?” or “what are the boundaries of acceptable halakhic behavior?” Those sorts of questions, however, are asked and answered every day by kehilot, by communities, and by the religious leadership of those communities.  And because we don’t depend on each other for our physical survival, it’s OK for our kehilot, our shuls, and our religious movements and denominations, to answer those questions in different, or even contradictory, ways.

Think of what you love about living in Israel or visiting there. Think about what the State of Israel means for world Jewry and its significance in the grand sweep of Jewish history. Does any of that depend on a government office collecting lists of Jewish and gentile citizens?

A kehillah is capable of organizing around a common religious vision and a common purpose. That sort of unity, ish echad b’lev echad, as Rashi taught us last week in Parashat Yitro, is a preface to receiving Torah.  But a nation-state cannot easily impose that degree of unity.  Contrary to Kobi Oz’s creative lyrics, the State of Israel is not a giant shul.  Let’s learn to unite where we should, and to foster diversity where that is needed.  We in the diaspora should celebrate all that Israel represents for us, and do what we can to ensure Israel’s safety and flourishing. But we should not look to Israel to resolve questions of Jewish identity that we can more properly answer at home.


No Agunah Left Behind: A Proposal to Solve the Agunah Crisis – by Rabbi Zev Farber

October 11, 2013

At the recent agunah summit, I submitted an outline for a solution to the agunah/mesurevet gett problem. Having sent this to a number of rabbis and agunah activists, I post here a revised version of that proposal. I will begin with an annotated outline and move on to some final observations and a summary.

Annotated Outline

1. Create a network of rabbis and communities who are intent on solving the problem.

I suggest a motto of sorts for this community, styled after the famous pledge of the rangers: “No agunah left behind.” As I wrote about in a different venue, solving the agunah crisis is the job of the rabbis, wielding their halakhic knowledge and authority.[1]

2. Become self-sufficient when it comes to divorce.

One of the political difficulties emergency-style solutions—like the Rackman beit din—come up against is the fact that they only exist as emergency problem solvers. In other words, the vast majority of gittin, where there is no agunah issue, are done through the auspices of people or groups who may not subscribe to the “no agunah left behind” philosophy. This fact leaves the more left-wing Orthodox community open to the claim that when things are easy we go to the “real batei din and mesadrei gittin,” but when we don’t like what they say we create our own “fake batei din.”

3. Agree to use only batei din and mesadrei gittin who see themselves as part of the network.

I suggest this not only for agunah cases, but for any case of divorce whatsoever. I imagine that this will mean a radical shift in the divorce process in our communities.

4. Rabbis who perform life-cycle events should be trained as mesadrei gittin.

There is far too much emphasis on how complicated and technical siddur gett is, which I believe functions to obfuscate the process and place it into the hands of a select few. We should create a network of soferim and a core of people with training and experience who can show rabbis how to do the ceremony. After a while each rabbi in our network will be self-sufficient in presiding over the divorces in his own community with a direct connection to the soferim. If and when an agunah case arises, the rabbi will be the woman’s chief advocate.

5. Ensure that our system is professional, transparent and user-friendly.

Part of doing this means that the power in the vaad cannot only be the mesadrei gittin themselves but there must be oversight from community leaders as well.

6. In cases where an agunah situation does arise, the problem will be solved.

When the solution is unclear to the rabbi requested to do the gett, there will be a central body of rabbis, posqim, scholars, and lay-leaders (including and especially women) who will be the advisory committee for that rabbi on how to solve the problem in each case. This body will help the rabbi and the woman explore the halakhic options, whether it be qiddushei taut (declaring the marriage invalid), hafqa’at qiddushin (annulment), or some other mechanism.[2]

7. When necessary, the vaad must be willing to bypass the husband entirely in finding a solution.

With the gett hanging over the head of the woman, there are simply too many instances of abuse, where withholding of the gett is threatened or implied so that women give up many of their rights, whether financial or custody, in order to ensure receiving the gett. Additionally, a recalcitrant husband can cause delays and other unpleasantness. For this reason it must be made clear to all parties that the vaad/beit din will resort to solutions that totally bypass the husband if need be. He holds no power over her in our court.

8. The group is a vaad with an attached beit din because it must include lay members, pulpit rabbis, and community leaders of both genders.

This is for two reasons. First, it is never safe to have only one interest group hold all the power. Even ignoring the possibilities of bias or corruption, every group sees matters through the lens of its own experiences. Having more than one type of person in the vaad/think-tank will facilitate a robust and honest process. Second, freeing agunot has accidentally slipped into magical thinking—as if some special rabbis have the “power” to free these women. Declaring a marriage invalid (I refer here to qiddushei ta’ut, not hafqa’at qiddushin) is not a ma’aseh beit din (rabbinic act)—the rabbi simply clarifies the fact that the marriage was invalid. This can and should be done by the woman’s rabbi, not by a third party beit din or poseq, even if said party is needed for a consultation. Additionally, although annulling a marriage (hafqa’at qiddushin) is a ma’aseh beit din—and the advisory committee should have members who can also form the beit din—there is no reason why the pulpit rabbi himself should not be part of this beit din, especially when the woman in question lives in his community and the decision effects his community.

9. All rabbis in this network must agree to only perform marriages with prenuptial agreements—specifically the Tripartite Prenuptial Agreement.

Although one may choose to use the RCA prenuptial—or some other version of this type of prenuptial—in addition to the Tripartite, nevertheless, all weddings should include this agreement as it creates the possibility of totally bypassing the husband if he is recalcitrant. The RCA prenuptial, in contrast, makes use of penalty clauses which require enforcement by secular authorities and the cooperation of the husband.

10. The community at large should pressure their rabbis and their synagogues to be part of this network.

Furthermore, the community should pressure their synagogues to make having a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement a membership requirement for married couples, and to hire only rabbis who are part of the “no agunah left behind” network.

11. The goal is to create a system that works and is accepted by a large community, despite the strong probability that many on the right will reject the solution.

The best is the enemy of the good here, and total consensus is impossible in the current climate. Nevertheless, our goal is to create a large enough network such that any agunah/mesurevet gett will have a place to turn. We must commit to these women that we will have them freed from their dead marriages, that we will perform their future marriage(s), and that we will defend their children from the pernicious claim of mamzerut.[3]

The Logic of the Proposal

Imagine the world of Jewish marriage and divorce as a pyramid. If we start from a firm base we can build something vast. If we start from the pointy top and try and build backwards it will not work. To illustrate: There are many marriages in the Jewish world, there are less, but still many divorces, of those marriages that end there are some agunot/mesuravot gett. We cannot focus only on mesuravot gett to solve what is a systemic problem (rabbinic paralysis, and the weak position of women in the process.)

Similarly, there are many cases of mesuravot gett. Some can be handled by invoking a prenuptial (if there is one) or with a strong phone call from the man’s rabbi. In cases where this does not work, many can be solved by a robust use of qiddushei ta’ut. Of those that cannot be solved by persuasion or qiddushei ta’ut, the rest can (must?) be solved by hafqa’at qiddushin (dissolving the marriage). However, for this chain of events to have practical effect, there must be “buy-in” from the beginning; the rabbinic and community participants must sign on to a marriage-divorce system that buys into this approach before matters come to a head.

Therefore, we must begin with a campaign of rabbis/congregations/lay leaders/agunah activists who are willing to say that we are solving this problem. Period. No agunah left behind. The benefit here is that by signing on in advance, the rabbis have skin in the game and the communities have skin in the game. With a large base, hopefully, this pesaq will quickly become minhag yisrael in the Open Orthodox world.

Brief Summary

1. Every member of the group agrees to use the Tripartite Prenuptial Agreement.

2. Rabbis in this group agree to learn siddur gett. This will contribute to ending the mystification of the divorce process at the expense of the average rabbi and his congregants.

3. The rabbi agrees to use qiddushei ta’ut when it works, and will consult with this group’s vaad to learn how to pasqen these questions.

4. If there is no other way, the rabbi will join with members of the vaad to form a beit din to do hafqa’at qiddushin – as a last resort.

Conclusion

I hope that the larger Open Orthodox and even Modern Orthodox community will take this proposal seriously, and with that may we end this blight on our community and this desecration of God’s name for all time. We must do what is right and, in the end, our community will be stronger for it and our Torah will again be a Torah of life. Hopefully our system will be a “light to the right” as well, and, speedily in our days, the problem will be solved for all Jewish women from any community.

Zev Farber


[1] To be clear, I do not consider sending thugs to beat up on recalcitrant husbands as a legitimate solution or as an example of wielding halakhic authority.

[2] I will explain more about this and other halakhic mechanisms in future postings.

[3] Here is a schematic look at the outline:

  1. Create a network of rabbis and communities who are intent on solving the problem.
  2. Become self-sufficient when it comes to divorce.
  3. Agree to use only batei din and mesadrei gittin who see themselves as part of the network.
  4. Rabbis who perform life-cycle events should be trained as mesadrei gittin.
  5. Ensure that our system is professional, transparent and user-friendly.
  6. In cases where an agunah situation does arise, the problem will be solved.
  7. When necessary, the vaad must be willing to bypass the husband entirely in finding a solution.
  8. The group is a vaad with an attached beit din, not just a beit din, because it must include lay members, pulpit rabbis, and community leaders of both genders
  9. All rabbis in this network must agree to only perform marriages with prenuptial agreements—specifically (but not limited to) the Tripartite Prenuptial Agreement.
  10. The community at large should pressure their rabbis and their synagogues to be part of this network.
  11. The goal is to create a system that works and is accepted by a large community, despite the strong probability that many on the right will reject the solution.

Alternative Berakhot for Women’s Torah Reading – by Rabbi Zev Farber

September 24, 2013

Many Orthodox synagogues have women’s prayer groups, with one of the main features being the reading of the Torah. The halakhic issues with regard to this practice have been discussed and debated at length and I do not wish to rehash them here.[1] However, since Simḥat Torah is coming up, I wanted to offer a suggested solution to one sticky point that remains.

Since a group of ten or more women is generally not considered a minyan (halakhically recognized prayer quorum) in Orthodox communities, what is to be done with the blessings over the Torah reading? These blessings are considered devarim she-be-qedushah, prayers that are only to be recited in a minyan.[2] Although some have suggested that the women skip their own recitation of the blessing over the Torah in the morning, and recite it when called up to the Torah, I am not personally comfortable with that solution. There is a hint of something almost misleading about affecting to do one thing (recite the public Torah blessing) while actually doing something else (reciting the personal Torah blessing).[3]

Years ago, when my oldest daughter was being bat-mitzvahed, and we decided to do a minḥah bat mitzvah with Torah reading at our home, we were faced with this problem. Although a number of women’s prayer groups simply skip the berakhah entirely, we did not want to do this. Instead, I wrote an alternative set of blessings. (Others, like Rachel Levmore, have done this as well.) These were designed to approximate the form of the berakhot as they appear in the standard Torah reading service, but without actually being technical berakhot in the narrow halakhic sense.

None of the words in the berakhot are mine; they were all taken from biblical verses. I tried to find verses that were relevant to the theme of blessing God or thanking God for the Torah. Furthermore, I made use of some verses that were recited by women in the biblical texts, in this case Deborah and Hannah. The main part of the opening berakhah was taken from an alternative form of birkat ha-Torah found in a genizah fragment and no longer in use.

Finally, the “ḥatimot” (endings) of each blessing make use of the two verses in Tanakh which begin with barukh atta a-donai, which allows for the form of the berakhah to approximate standard berakhot, but without bringing up any halakhic problems of berakha she-einu tzerikha (unnecessary blessings) or berakhah le-vatala (blessings recited in vain).[4]

Over the years, people have written me on occasion asking for a copy, so I decided that this year I would post them and make them publicly available. They are posted below with a translation and some annotation.

Ḥag Sameaḥ to all,

Rabbi Zev Farber

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

Opening Berakhah over the Torah

Leader:

לִבִּי לְחוֹקְקֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַמִּתְנַדְּבִים בָּעָם בָּרְכוּ יְ-הֹוָה.[5]

My heart is with the leaders of Israel, with the dedicated of the people – Bless the Lord!

Congregation responds:

בָּרוּךְ יְ-הֹוָה לְעוֹלָם אָמֵן וְאָמֵן.[6]

Barukh A-donai le-olam amen ve-amen.
Blessed be the Lord eternally, amen and amen!

Leader continues:

גֶּפֶן מִמִּצְרַיִם הֶעֱלָה אֶ-לֹהֵינוּ, וַיִטָּעֶיהַ.[7] מַיִם מִסִּינָי הִשְׁקָה אוֹתָה, וְנוֹזְלִים מֵחוֹרֵב.[8] בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֳ-דֹנָי, לַמְּדֵנִי חֻקֶּיךָ.[9]

Our God brought a vine up from Egypt, and planted it. He nourished it with water from Sinai and liquids from Horeb. Blessed are you Lord, teach me your laws.

Closing Berakhah

Leader:

אֵין קָדוֹשׁ כַּי-הֹוָה כִּי אֵין בִּלְתֶּךָ, וְאֵין צוּר כֵּֽא-לֹהֵינוּ.[10] בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְ-הֹוָה אֱ-לֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אָבִינוּ מֵעוֹלָם וְעַד עוֹלָם.[11]

There is no one holy like the Lord, for there is none like You, and there is no rock like our God. Blessed are you Lord, God of our father Israel, from eternity to eternity.

[1] For more on the topic, see: Avraham Weiss, Women at Prayer: A Halakhic Analysis of Women’s Prayer Groups (revised edition; Ktav, 2001).

[2] This is not the place to discuss Rav Shlomo Goren’s responsum, which claims that women can make their own quorum, nor is this the place to discuss the possibility that a quorum for Torah reading may be something different than a quorum for other prayers—both worthy topics but beyond the scope of this short post.

[3] Some have gone so far as to call this “ziyuf ha-Torah” (falsifying the Torah) but I think that is going too far.

[4] In fact, the Rabbis suggest that if one has begun a blessing and realizes that it will be in vain, he or she should switch the blessing into a recitation of one of these verses to avoid inadvertently sinning.

[5] From the Song of Deborah; Judges 5:9

[6] Psalms 89:53

[7] Adapted from Psalms 80:9

[8] This was originally an alternative version of the Ahava Rabbah/Ahavat Olam prayer mentioned in a genizah fragment. It ended with the standard “Ohev (amo) Yisrael”.

[9] Psalms 119:12

[10] From the song of Channah; 1 Samuel 2:2

[11] 1 Chronicles 29:10