This is the long-overdue post on women and mitzvot for Naomi over at Baraita.
Big fat public thanks to my teacher and friend Haviva Ner-David for all of the learning that’s enabled me to be so facile with these sources. To anyone out there for whom this issue is interesting, I highly reccomend you click on Haviva’s name and buy her book–it’s beautifully written, well-argued and discusses a lot of this stuff at length.

So. Okay. Where to begin? The Mishnah, probably. (I’m going to use some terms that are part of a basic knowledge of Jewish texts. If you don’t know ’em, go here for background info, or just pick up the gist from context.

Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7 says, “All positive time-bound commandments (מצות עשה שהזמן גרמא) men are obligated in and women are exempt from, and all positive non-time bound commandments both men and women are obligated in.”

What’s a positive time-bound mitzvah? (PTBM from here on in.) The sources discuss, in different places. The Tosefta (Kiddushin 1:10) cites sukkah, lulav, and tefillin, and describes non PTBMs (to which women ARE obligated) as returning a lost object, sending away a mother bird before taking eggs, and tzitzit. R. Shimon says that tzitzit are PTBM, and this is the minority opinion which winds up sticking.

The Mishnah in Brachot 3:3 tells us that women (and slaves, and minors) are excempt from the Shema and tefillin and are obligated in prayer (“tefillah”), mezuzah, and Grace After Meals. It does not use the language of PTBM, but later sources use this language to describe these acts. Other things that are included in other sources include hearing the shofar, for example, as definitievely PTBM.

One of the things that all these PTBMs have in common is not just that they need to be done in a certain time, but that they’re connected to calender time, not personal time–Sukkot comes irrespective of the individual, and the time to say the Shema in the morning comes every day, etc. (Tefillin are connected to the Shema, which must be said by a certain time, and the argument for tzitzit that comes in later, after R. Shimon’s minority view is accepted, is that they are worn for mitzvah only during the day, not at night.) So one could argue potentially that Grace After Meals (which is certainly time-bound in that it must be said a certain amt of time after the meal finishes) is not in this category, nor is niddah (the laws of menstruation, which are on an individual’s body clock) or mezuzah (which one must put up within 30 days of moving, but it’s an individual move.)

Before I get into explanations for the exemption, I want to point out the number of PTBM that fall into this category to which women are obligated:

Making challah for Shabbat and separating out a piece of the dough
Lighting Shabbat candles (which really must be done by a certain time!!!!)
Eating matzoh
Clearing out hametz
Keeping Shabbat–it is both a postitive and a negative commandment
Rosh Chodesh
Rejoicing on Sukkot (yes, it’s a PTBM)
Coming together to hear the reading of the Torah
Tefillah, which is interpreted by the Rambam, Mishnah Brurah and others to mean saying the Amidah 3x/day

There are others, this is just off the top of my head.

In addition, women are exempt from a few things that are not PTBM, like Talmud Torah, procreation, and redeeming the firstborn. Are they relevant in any way to the category? Or are they just random? Not clear.

In other words, even before we get going it’s clear that PTBM is a pretty unstable category. I have heard from someone who’s studied this stuff in depth that there are actually more exceptions to the rule than there are things that fall comfortably under the rule.

This, alone, I think, is enough to unseat the category as a whole for me. If women are exempt based on this rule, but the rule doesn’t hold, really, why do we need the rule?

Well, we have a few theories:

One is that women’s primary job is to serve her husband and nothing must get in the way of this.

The Tosefta in Kiddushin 1:11 tells us that a man is required to perform certain duties for his father (providing food, shelter, washing hands and feet, etc.) and that, though a woman is obligated in this as well, she is not available to perform them “since she is under the authority of others.” This doesn’t deal specifically with PTBM, but it does tell us something about gender roles and mitzvot in a more general context.

R. Yaakov Antoli (13th c. France) says that women are exempt from PTBM because “if she is needed to perform a mitzvah at a certain time, the husband would be without a helper at those times.”

Sefer Avurdraham (14th c. Spain) spells this idea out even more: “The reason women are exempt from PTBM is that a woman is bound to her husband to fulfill his needs. Were she obligated… it could happen that while she is performing a mitzvah, her husband would order her to do his commandment” and then she’d have to choose between God and her husband. Therefore “the Creator has exempted her from His commandments, so that she may have peace with her husband.”

If this is the reason for the exemption, we certainly don’t need it now. Gender roles have shifted, and few of us in the modern world believe that a woman should drop anything she’s doing–particularly if that thing is service of the Divine–in order to serve her husband. And additionally, this reason only addresses married women. Those who are not yet married, or divorced, or widowed (or, I don’t know, not heterosexual?) should, by this logic, be exempt until they are in this particular state of patriarchal lockdown. (That is to say, married to the kind of guy who expects her to do his bidding at all times.)

The Yerushalmi Kiddushin 61A makes this point when it says, “The same goes for a man, the same goes for a woman. A man has means at his disposal, but a woman does not have means at her disposal, because she is under the aegis of others. If she is widowed or divorced, she becomes like one who has the means.”

Lastly, if this were the reason for the exemption–that a woman must be available to her husband at all times–why is she obligated to Grace After Meals and Mincha, for pete’s sake–both of which are much more time-bound in the real world (even though Grace After Meals is not technically PTBM) and make one much more dependent on the clock and much more unavailable on a regular basis– and exempted from shofar, which her husband is presumably also going to hear? Or sitting in a sukkah? Being happy on Sukkot??

It does not add up.

Another–and this is the popular explanation these days–is that women need to be available to take care of small children. Of the sources that I have (and I’m sure he got this from somewhere, but I don’t know where) the only one who says this is the 20th c. posek R. Moshe Feinstein. This reason is even more illogical than the spousal one if we’re assuming that our woman is still obligated to the other stuff–she’s exempt from shofar because of demanding children but has to perform Grace After Meals and/or Mincha on time? But more to the point, most women are not currently the primary caretakers of small children–perhaps they do not now or will not ever have children, perhaps their children are grown, perhaps their children are at gan (kindergarten), perhaps a lot of things. Why would this small population be the standard-bearer for all women’s behavior? Why has “new mother” been so utterly conflated with “woman”? And what might we do in today’s world, when a man might be the caretaker of young children? Should he be exempt from PTBM? I know a few tired fathers who might appreciate it, frankly–but the notion is hardly one many people would accept. Why is that?

It’s also worth noting that R. Feinstein also said that it’s fine for women to take on PTBM if they’re doing so for the sake of the mitzvah (as opposed to for poltical reasons). So there you go, right there. And given how easy it is to just walk away from Judiasm and to step into the secular world, couldn’t it be argued that any reason a woman wants to take on a mitzvah is at least in large part for the sake of the mitzvah itself?

R. Norman Lamm says that women are exempt because–this is also a popular one these days–that women are just soooooo much more spiritual than men, and they don’t need these big, clunky mitzvot to get them to a high level–they can have babies, isn’t that enough? Samuel Raphael Hirsch combines this and the above by talking about women’s “special role” in serviing God, ie through mothering.

I could write pages about the “women are more spiritual” argument. I don’t believe that my gender a more crucial part of my spiritual life than is my Judaism. That it trumps everything else in brain. Or my heart. Suffice to say, if women are really soooo spiritual that they don’t need PTBM, why has my life changed so profoundly for the better by wearing tzitzit, laying tefillin, sitting in a sukkah, etc? If we don’t actually need them, why do they seem to work so well? It’s getting towards bedtime and I don’t have time to address this problematic assertion in more detail, but am happy to dialogue about it in the comments section if people want.

I haven’t even begun to address the question of women actually taking on these mitzvot. Suffice to say, there’s tons of room in the halakha for women to do every single one of the PTBM that I’ve listed. Some (shofar, sukkah) are considered normative now even in quite religiously conservative communities. Some (tefillin, tzitzit, lulav, etc) are taken on by a smaller group of people but the sources are in places quite encouraging of them doing so. It’s also gotta be stated for the record that the language of the Mishnah and everybody since is “פטור” and NOT “אסור”–exempt, not forbidden. In some more contemporary sources, it’s even considered praiseworthy to do so. And there’s what to be said about women being able to bless on them–plenty of evidence to support the use of women and brachot re: PTBM. Check the Rambam and the Rema, those of you who are interested. It’s also worth noting that in Mishnaic and Talmudic literature, there is a multiplicity of voices trying to define what these mitzvot are, and it’s only later (cf R. Shimon vs. everybody else on tzitzit in that one Tosefta) that the lists get sorted out. If God shared the Mishnah with Moshe at Sinai (not my theology, but let’s pretend), God was not very specific on this particular matter.

The Tosafot in Brachot 14A makes it clear that women can “obligate themselves” to PTBM–implying that one who is exempt but who does the mitzvah is in fact obligated, “חייב”. There are other sources who agree. In fact, the way that the Conservative movement solved a different halakhic issue regarding the ordination of women (that is, can a woman discharge the obligation of a man?) is by stating that all female rabbinical students must take on all PTBM for themselves. And by obligating themselves… well that’s a whole different argument. I have neither the time, space, nor energy to go there now.

There’s so much to say that I haven’t even touched upon…..

But anyway, here are a few words on why I believe that the category of PTBM–or at least women’s exemption from them–is unstable, outdated, problematic, and inconsistient. It exists, it’s in our literature, but there’s also a lot of room viz, how we understand it and what we think the implications are re: contemporary practice.

Naomi, that answer your question? If not, lemme know!

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