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]:

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