Should women wear tefillin?
Rabbi Professor David Golinkin is president and professor of Jewish law at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. For 20 years he served as chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly, which writes responsa and gives halachic guidance to the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at the Schechter Institute, whose goal is to publish a library of halachic literature for the Conservative and Masorti movements. He is also the director of the Center for Women in Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute, whose goal is to find halachic solutions for agunot or “chained women” who are unable to obtain a get from their husbands.
This is the first part of my exchange with Golinkin about his new book, “The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Responsa,” we talk with him about the talmudic attitude toward women wearing tefillin. For more, visit jewishjournal.com/Rosnersdomain.
Dear Rabbi Professor Golinkin,
On Rosh Chodesh Tamuz (the beginning of the Jewish month of Tamuz), I spent several hours at the Kotel watching and talking to the protesters against Women of the Wall, most of them Charedi youngsters. As I reported following this event, it was quite interesting to see these Charedis fiercely debating among themselves the question of women putting on tefillin. As I’m sure you know, the fact that one of the women of this group wears tefillin was the cause for much protestation and at times ridicule, but the Charedi youngsters did know that the Talmud doesn’t exactly forbid women from putting on tefillin (those studying the Daf Yomi met this short Talmud discussion just a couple of days ago).
Your book has a long and detailed discussion of this issue, which begins with the Talmud but then moves to present some interesting facts about women wearing tefillin in later generations. Your conclusion might not surprise our readers — women can put on tefillin — but the way you reach this conclusion is interesting, and while we can’t repeat all the details here, I’d like you to give us a taste of the core reason leading you to reach such a conclusion. If possible, can you also tell us what you consider as the best argument that leads to the opposite conclusion?
As we shall see in a moment, the Babylonian Talmud does not forbid women from wearing tefillin at all. Indeed, some rabbis of the Mishnah thought that women are obligated to wear tefillin (Eruvin 96b). Most, however, felt that women are exempt from wearing tefillin every day (Mishnah Berakhot 3:3) because it is a positive time-bound commandment (Kidushin 35a) or for other reasons.
The Babylonian Talmud mentions (Eruvin 96a) that Michal, the daughter of King Saul, used to wear tefillin “and the Sages did not protest.” Rabbi Abbahu, however, reported in the Palestinian Talmud (Berakhot, Chapter 2, fol. 4c) that Michal wore tefillin and “the Sages did protest.” Thus, on the basis of the talmudic sources alone, our ruling would be that women are permitted to wear tefillin, since when the two Talmuds contradict each other, we follow the Babylonian Talmud.
The Rishonim, or medieval authorities, can be divided into two major camps: Rashi, Maimonides and others rule that women may perform positive time-bound commandments such as tefillin without a blessing. Rabbeinu Tam, the Rashba and many others rule that women may perform positive time-bound commandments with a blessing. Thus, all of them would allow women to wear tefillin; they would only differ as to whether they may recite the blessings.
Almost all opposition to women wearing tefillin stems from one sentence attributed to Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (d. 1293) which says that women should not wear tefillin “because they do not know how to keep themselves clean” or, according to another version, because “they do not know how to keep themselves in purity.” This lone opinion was later codified by Rabbi Moshe Isserles in his Ashkenazic glosses to the Shulchan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 38:3), but it contradicts the Babylonian Talmud and almost all Rishonim, as explained above. Furthermore, if Rabbi Meir said “in purity,” this contradicts another talmudic passage that says that “words of Torah are not susceptible to impurity” (Berakhot 22a); and if he said “clean,” no known halachic definition would exclude women.
Therefore, according to the Babylonian Talmud and almost all of the Rishonim, it is perfectly permissible for women to wear tefillin if they choose to do so.
Finally, there are actual precedents of women wearing tefillin in 13th century France, 16th century Italy and among Chasidic female rebbes.
The Charedim at the Kotel are probably familiar with the negative ruling of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, as quoted by Rabbi Moshe Isserles, but the thorough investigation in my book summarized above reveals that this is a minority opinion that is opposed to the Babylonian Talmud and almost all of the Rishonim.
Rabbi David Golinkin