Shiur #01B: The Exemption of Women From Time-Bound Positive Commandments

  • Rav Chaim Navon

III. Are Women Permitted to Fulfill Time-Bound Positive Commandments?

 

            Thus far we have seen that women are not obligated to fulfill time-bound positive commandments. To our great surprise, there are those who argue that women are forbidden to fulfill such mitzvot. In this section we will analyze the discussion of this issue, which is perhaps the most complicated (and most important) one that we will address in this series of shiurim.The reader who has difficulty following the discussion can skip it and rejoin us for the next shiur.

 

            The Gemara in Rosh Ha-shana (33a) discusses the question of whether women are permitted to sound the shofaron Rosh Ha-shana. The Gemara hangs this issue on the disagreement between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon on whether women are permitted to perform semikha, i.e., tolay their hands on the heads of the animals that they bring as offerings. Women are exempt from this obligation, and Chazal disagree on whether they are permitted to do so nonetheless. The Gemara sees this as a fundamental disagreement that applies not only to the mitzvot of shofarand semikha, butto other mitzvot from which women are exempt as well.

 

            First, we must deal with a troubling question: What is the problem with women performing semikha or sounding the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana? They may be exempt from these mitzvot, but why should they be forbidden to do these things? Before we look for answers to this question, let us examine the discussion concerning semikha in its source:

 

[It is written]: “Speak unto the sons of Israel… and he shall lay his hands.” The sons of Israel lay their hands but the daughters of Israel do not lay their hands.

Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Shimon say: The daughters of Israel lay their hands optionally.

Rabbi Yose said: Abba Elazar told me: Once we had a calf that was a peace-offering, and we brought it to the Women's Court, and women laid their hands on it—not that women are required to lay their hands, but in order to give satisfaction to the women. (Chagiga 16b)

 

            In the continuation of the passage it is noted that even those who permit women to perform semikha concede that a certain halakhic problem is liable to rise here. One is forbidden to perform work with or even lean against a consecrated animal that has been designated to be brought as a sacrifice. When a man performs semikha, he is clearly permitted to lay his hands on the animal, as he is obligated to do so as part of the sacrificial process. But a woman is not obligated to perform semikha, and therefore if she chooses to do so, this would seem to involve a forbidden use of a consecrated animal.

 

            The Gemara proposes two possible solutions to this difficulty. 1) The mitzvaof semikha is performed without leaning forcefully on the animal, thereby allowing the woman to avoid the forbidden use of a consecrated animal. 2) Ordinarily semikha is performed with force, but women – who are not obligated in the mitzva – are instructed that if they wish to perform semikha, they should do so gently, so as to avoid fulfilling the mitzva in the proper manner.

 

            This complicates the entire discussion, for it would seem to follow from here that even Rabbi Yose, who permits women to perform semikha, relies on the argument of “giving satisfaction to the women.” In theory, Rabbi Yose could simply say that since women are not forbidden to fulfill the mitzva, they are therefore permitted to do so. Instead, he seeks a reason to allow women to act in this manner. This sharpens the question: Why is an allowance necessary? Nowhere does it say that women are forbidden to fulfill time-bound positive commandments!

 

            Rashi (Rosh Ha-shana 33a, s.v. ha nashim) argues that the problem here is that of bal tosif, the Torah prohibition to add to the mitzvot that are explicitly mentioned. When a woman performs a mitzva from which she is exempt, it is as if she has legislated for herself a new mitzva. According to Rashi, we can suggest that Rabbi Yehuda forbids a woman to perform semikha because of the prohibition of bal tosif or because of a rabbinic decree similar to bal tosif, and Rabbi Yose permits this in order to give satisfaction to the women.

 

            A difficult question arises here: Why at all should the prohibition of bal tosif apply in this case? As the Maharshapoints out: “Bal tosif only applies when one performs a mitzva and adds to it.” To understand this question, let us examine the prohibition of bal tosif. Two verses in the book of Devarim warn us not to add to the Torah's commandments: “You shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish from it” (4:2) and “Every matter which I command you, observe to do it; you shall not add to it, nor diminish from it” (13:1). Rashi, following the Sifrei (Sifrei Devarim 82), mentions in his commentary on these verses four cases of bal tosif: placing five species in a lulav (instead of four); five sections of the Torah in tefillin (instead of four); five fringes on a garment (instead of four); and four blessings in the priestly blessing (instead of three). All of the examples that Rashi mentions relate to an expansion of the mitzva, where the first three examples relate to a specific object, and the final example relates to a blessing.

 

            The Ramban adds another category:

 

In my opinion, even if someone devised an independent commandment [rather than altering an existing one], such as establishing a festival in a month which he had devised of his own accord, as Jeroboam did (I Melakhim 12:33), he transgresses the negative commandment. (Ramban, Devarim 4:2)

 

            The Ramban argues that the prohibition of bal tosif applies not only to a person who expands an existing mitzva, but also to a person who devises a wholly new mitzva. Why does Rashi disagree with the Ramban? It is possible that he does not disagree, but merely suffices with mentioning some of the possible cases of bal tosif. But it is also possible that according to Rashi, one who devises a new mitzvadoes not transgress the prohibition of bal tosif, because this prohibition focuses precisely on one who alters an existing mitzva. When, on the other hand, a person decides that there is a mitzva to perform three push-ups every morning, this is a meaningless act that is totally ignored by Halakha.

 

            In our case, with respect to a woman who performs a mitzva from which she is exempt, we are dealing with a different kind of bal tosif – adding to the people who are obligated in the mitzva. It would seem that the law in this case should be even more lenient than in the case where someone devises a new mitzva, because here the woman does not claim to be performing a mitzva in which she is obligated. She is merely fulfilling the mitzva in voluntary fashion. Therefore, the Maharsha finds it difficult to accept Rashi’s conclusion that this act constitutes bal tosif.

 

            The Ri (Rabbeinu Yitzchak, a great-grandson of Rashi and one of the Tosafists), proposes an entirely different approach to this question. According to him, fulfillment of a mitzva by one who is not obligated does not inherently constitute bal tosif. Rather, the Gemara assumes that women are prohibited from performing mitzvot from which they are exempt because of specific problems that can arise with each mitzva that comes up for discussion in this context (Tosafot, Eiruvin 96a, s.v. Mikhal). Regarding the mitzva of pilgrimage offerings, since women are not obligated to bring these offerings, if they bring them, it appears as if they are bringing non-consecrated animals to the Temple. Regarding the mitzva of sounding the shofaron Rosh Ha-shana, this involves an activity that, if not for our obligation in the mitzva, would be forbidden on Shabbat and Yom Tov by rabbinic decree. Because of this, the prohibition may remain in effect for someone who is not obligated. Regarding the mitzva of semikha, even if women lay their hands on the animal gently, it appears as if they are performing work with consecrated animals.

 

            According to the Ri, Rabbi Yehuda considers each mitzva in its own right, and in each case he reaches the conclusion – for a different reason in each case – that women are forbidden to perform that mitzva. There is no general principle that systemically prohibits a woman from performing a mitzva from which she is exempt. Rather, in each of these cases there is a different problem. It is certainly possible that a case exists in which there is no problem even according to Rabbi Yehuda, and that he too would permit a woman to perform a mitzvafrom which she is exempt. The Ri argues that this is precisely the situation regarding the mitzvaof dwelling in a sukka, namely, that even Rabbi Yehuda would agree that women are permitted to fulfill the mitzva. According to the Ri, Rabbi Yehuda forbids women to perform some of the mitzvot from which they are exempt because the fulfillment of these mitzvot by women involves a separate halakhic problem, and in each of these cases Rabbi Yose permits women to perform the mitzva, in order “to give satisfaction to the women.”

 

            It follows from the Gemara in Chagiga that even Rabbi Yose agrees that a woman may not perform the mitzva in a situation that involves the violation of a Torah prohibition. The consideration of “giving satisfaction to women” does not override such a serious prohibition. But he apparently understands that in the case of a rabbinic decree, there is room to be lenient in order “to give satisfaction to the women.”

 

            Thus far we have assumed that Rabbi Yose is lenient only because of the consideration of “giving satisfaction to women.” There may, however, be room to understand the Gemara differently. The consideration of “giving satisfaction to women” is only mentioned once – in the case of semikha – and even there it is mentioned only incidentally. Perhaps Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yose disagree about a different, more fundamental point, and only with respect to semikha must Rabbi Yose invoke the consideration of “giving satisfaction to women.”

 

            Within Rashi’s interpretation, we can suggest as follows: According to Rabbi Yose, there is no problem at all of bal tosif when women perform time-bound positive commandments. If a woman recites the Shema at its proper time, even though she is not obligated to do so, she fulfills a mitzvaon a biblical level. If so, it is obvious that there is no issue of bal tosif, for even though the Torah did not obligate a woman to fulfill these mitzvot, when she does perform them she fulfills the mitzvain a complete manner after the fact. This is similar to the case of eating matza during the entirety of Pesach. The Vilna Gaon maintains that while there is no obligation to eat matzaafter the seder night, one who eats matza on the rest of the days of Pesach of his own free will fulfills the mitzva of eating matza. Certainly, no one would ever suggest that this eating of matza involves a violation of bal tosif. It is possible that this is the position of Rabbi Yose regarding women who fulfill mitzvot from which they are exempt. However, in the specific case of semikha, there is a separate concern that it may appear as if she is doing work with consecrated animals, so it was necessary for Rabbi Yose to add the consideration of “giving satisfaction to women” in order to rule leniently.

 

            Within the interpretation of the Ri we can suggest that Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yose disagree about the following question: What happens from a halakhic perspective when a woman performs a time-bound positive commandment? According to Rabbi Yehuda, her action is meaningless. According to Rabbi Yose, however, if a woman fulfills a time-bound positive commandment – her action is considered the fulfillment of a mitzva. Since her action is considered a mitzva, we are not concerned about all the rabbinic decrees mentioned by the Ri, just as we are not concerned about these decrees in the case of a man.[1]

            This is what is implied by the Ritva:

 

We maintain that it is optional for women to perform semikha. And even though semikha involves the use of consecrated animals – it is not considered a prohibited act that is performed not in the course of a mitzva. For even though they are not obligated, they perform a mitzva and receive reward. (Ritva, Rosh Hashana 29b)

 

            The final halakha follows the opinion of Rabbi Yose, that women who so desire may sound the shofaron Rosh Ha-shana (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim 589:6).

 

            To summarize, we proposed two approaches to understand why women are allowed to perform mitzvot from which they are exempt. According to one approach, the consideration of “giving satisfaction to women” serves to neutralize possible rabbinic decrees (a decree based on bal tosif, or a set of local decrees). According to the second approach, the consideration of “giving satisfaction to women” is a local consideration relating specifically to the mitzva of semikha; Rabbi Yose permits women to fulfill time-bound positive commandments even without this consideration.

 

            There is a fundamental difference between the two approaches. According to the first approach, rabbinic prohibitions are permitted in order to give satisfaction to women, whereas according to the second approach they are not. According to the second approach, this consideration is only needed to resolve a specific problem that arises in connection with semikha, even when it is performed gently: “That it appears like work with and belittlement of consecrated animals” (Terumat Ha-deshen, Pesakim U-ketavim, no. 132).

 

            This disagreement also has a halakhic ramification:

 

If women wish to sound [the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana], we do not object… But one who already sounded the shofar should not blow it for them, as we do not tell a person to sin [by blowing the shofar on Yom Tov] in order to give satisfaction to women, since he already fulfilled his obligation, and she is not obligated in the matter, and one who blows for them desecrates the festival. And even Rabbi Yose only granted an allowance [for women to blow for themselves]… But the Tur writes in the name of Avi Ha-ezri that even one who fulfilled his obligation can blow for them… And my father, z"l, agreed with this. (Hagahot Maimoniyot, Hilkhot Shofar 2, no. 1)

 

            The Hagahot Maimoniyot understands that blowing the shofar involves a violation of a rabbinic prohibition that is permitted only “to give satisfaction to the women.” He argues that since this is the case, the allowance is granted only for the women to blow for themselves. A man, on the other hand, is only permitted to blow the shofarfor a woman if he has not yet fulfilled his own obligation, and with these blasts he fulfills this obligation. Otherwise, we would not allow him to violate a rabbinic prohibition and blow additional blasts on Yom Tov. Women are permitted to blow the shofar in order to give them satisfaction, but we do not permit a man to blow for this reason.

 

            The Rosh (Rosh Ha-shana 4:7), on the other hand, writes in the name of the Ra’avya that even a man who has already fulfilled his obligation can blow the shofarfor women. His position seems to be based on an understanding of Rabbi Yose’s position that even without the consideration of “giving satisfaction to women,” blowing the shofarfor women on Rosh Ha-shana does not involve the violation of any prohibition. This is similar to the second approach that we proposed, that “giving satisfaction to women” is a local consideration that applies only to semikha, but all the other objections are overcome even without this consideration.

 

The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayyim 589:6) rules in accordance with the opinion of the Rosh, that even a man who has already fulfilled his obligation can blow the shofarfor women, and this is the common practice. From here we may infer that rabbinic prohibitions are not set aside by the consideration of “giving satisfaction to women.” The allowance granted to women to fulfill time-bound positive commandments appears to rest on an entirely different consideration: If a woman performs one of these deeds, she is regarded as having fulfilled a mitzva, and thus there is no room to be stringent and forbid her to do so.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 



[1] This understanding of Rabbi Yose’s position is problematic, according to both Rashi and the Ri. If, according to Rabbi Yose, a woman fulfills a mitzva when she performs semikha, we should conclude that she does not violate the prohibition to work with consecrated animals in doing so (even if she lays her hands on the animal with force), as there is no prohibition to use consecrated animals when one fulfills the mitzva of semikha. The act of semikha that was commanded by God cannot be defined as working with consecrated animals.

Perhaps it may be argued that our formulation is incorrect: Even semikha is considered working with consecrated animals, but working with consecrated animals is permitted whenever the Torah obligates this. It is not sufficient that after the fact the woman's action is considered a fulfillment of the mitzva of semikha, because the act of semikha is still considered working with consecrated animals, and it is fundamentally prohibited even when it is mandated. When the Torah requires us to perform semikha, it provides a special allowance to work with consecrated animals. Women, who are not obligated in semikha, do not benefit from this allowance.

According to this understanding, the consideration of “giving satisfaction to women” is needed specifically in the case of semikha, where there is concern about an additional rabbinic prohibition, one that is perhaps similar to mar'it ayin (appearance of sin): “Semikha, even when performed gently, appears like work with consecrated animals” (Tosafot); “It appears like work with and belittlement of consecrated animals” (Terumat Ha-deshen, Pesakim U-ketavim, no. 132). This concern can be neutralized by the consideration of “giving satisfaction to women.”

According to Rashi, the course of the Gemara's discussion is clear. There is a general Tannaitic disagreement connected to the law of bal tosif. The Gemara raises an objection to Rabbi Yose, that unconnected to the issue of bal tosif, it is prohibited to work with consecrated animals. To resolve this problem we must answer in one of two ways: Either that semikha is always performed gently, or that ordinarily semikha is performed with force, but women must do so gently. In any event, there is still concern of a rabbinic prohibition, that the semikha of a woman appears like working with consecrated animals, but this concern is neutralized by the factor of “giving satisfaction to women.”

According to the Ri, another point must be added. According to him, the Gemara deals with a series of mitzvot from which women are exempt, and in each case there are rabbinic concerns when women fulfill the mitzva. Rabbi Yose rejects these concerns with the argument that since the women are credited with a mitzvaafter the fact, there is no need for any concern. If so, the same should be true in the case of semikha: The very fact that a woman is credited with a mitzva after the fact should overcome the rabbinic concern that “it appears like working with consecrated animals.” Why then does Rabbi Yose need the argument of “giving satisfaction to women?”

It may be suggested that according to the Ri, we are especially stringent with respect to consecrated animals, and because of this we are concerned about mar'it ayin even though women are credited with the mitzvaafter the fact. For this reason it is specifically in the case of semikha that we need the consideration of “giving satisfaction to women” in order to be lenient. But it is possible to propose a more sophisticated answer. According to one opinion in the Gemara, semikha is generally performed with all one's force, but women do so gently, so as not to violate the prohibition of working with consecrated animals. A woman who follows this practice does not violate a Torah prohibition, but does not fulfill a Torah commandment either – certainly not the mitzva of semikha in its complete form. Therefore, only in this case does the rabbinic concern arise that “it appears like working with consecrated animals” (which does not exist when there is a forcible semikha and the mitzvais consequently fulfilled in a complete manner).