Shiur #02: May a Woman Recite a Blessing Over A Time-bound Positive Commandment?

  • Rav Chaim Navon

In our opening shiur, we saw that while women are exempt from time-bound positive commandments, they are permitted to fulfill them. The Tosafot argue that a woman who chooses to fulfill a time-bound positive commandment can also recite a blessing over it (Tosafot, Rosh Ha-shana 33a, s.v. ha Rabbi Yehuda).

 

            The Tosafot adduce several proofs in support of their position. First, the Gemara in Eiruvin (96a) relates that Mikhal, the daughter of Shaul, would don tefillin. The Tosafot there (s.v. dilma) argue that “presumably she also recited the blessing.” This is obviously not a valid proof, for this presumption is precisely the matter in question.

 

            The main proof of the Tosafot relates to the law governing a blind person. According to one opinion among Chazal, a blind person is exempt from all the mitzvot. The Tosafot try to prove that even according to this position a blind person is permitted to fulfill the mitzvot and even to recite a blessing over them. They attempt to prove that a woman is governed by a similar law, namely, that she too is permitted to recite a blessing over those mitzvot from which she is exempt.

 

            This, however, is a weak proof, for it is not at all clear that the authority who exempts a blind person from all the mitzvot would indeed permit him to recite a blessing when he does perform them. Furthermore, the halakha follows the opinion that a blind person is not exempt from the mitzvot, and it is unclear if we may still learn fundamental rules from the dissenting position, which was rejected. The Tosafot do not mention these reservations, but they do mention a different reservation. Even according to the opinion that a blind person is exempt from all the mitzvot by Torah law, they are still obligated in the mitzvot by rabbinic decree. It may therefore be argued that it is only because of this rabbinic obligation that a blind person is permitted to recite a blessing over the mitzvot that he performs. This does not apply to a woman, for she is exempt from time-bound positive commandments even by rabbinic law.

 

            The Tosafot bring a third proof from a passage that asserts that according to strict law, a woman may be called up to the Torah for an aliya (Megilla 23a). A woman is not obligated in Torah study, but nevertheless she may recite the blessings over the Torah reading. If so, there should be nothing stopping a woman from reciting a blessing over a mitzva from which she is exempt. But the Tosafot reject this proof: First, the blessings recited over the Torah reading are not connected to the basic obligation in Torah study, from which women are exempt. Second, during the days of Chazal, only the first and the last person called up to the Torah would recite a blessing, and it is possible that a woman is supposed to be called up in the middle, in which case no blessing is recited.

 

            To summarize, the proofs that the Tosafot bring in support of permitting women to recite a blessing over time-bound positive commandments are not entirely convincing. In practice, however, they rule that women are permitted to recite a blessing over such mitzvot.

 

            The Rambam disagrees with the Tosafot on this point. He writes:

 

Women, servants, and children are not required by the Torah to wear tzitzit… Women and servants who wish to wrap themselves in tzitzit may do so without reciting a blessing. Similarly, regarding the other positive commandments that women are not required to fulfill, if they desire to fulfill them without reciting a blessing, they should not be prevented from doing so. (Hilkhot Tzitzit 3:9)

 

It follows from the words of the Rambam that women are permitted to fulfill time-bound positive commandments, and that this does not involve a violation of the prohibition of bal tosif (adding to the mitzvot) or any other halakhic infraction. But they may not recite a blessing over such mitzvot, apparently because such a blessing would be considered a berakha le-vatala (a blessing uttered in vain).

 

The Hagahot Maimoniyot writes that Rashi agrees with the position of the Rambam that a woman must not recite a blessing over a time-bound positive commandment. He explains: “For how can she say: ‘Who has commanded us in His commandments, and commanded us…,’ regarding a matter that she is not obligated [to do] either by Torah law or by rabbinic decree?” According to this, the problem with a woman reciting a blessing is the wording of the blessing, as the person reciting it declares that he is obligated in the mitzva: “Who has commanded us in His commandments, and commanded us…”

 

The Ran counters this argument: “Since men are commanded, and they too [i.e., women] receive reward [if they choose to fulfill the mitzva], they can say ‘And He commanded us’” (Rosh Ha-shana, 18b in Alfasi). The term “And He commanded us” can be interpreted as a general declaration of the people of Israel, and not necessarily as the personal declaration of the person reciting the blessing.

 

            It seems, however, that the focus of the dispute between the Tosafot and the Rambam is not the formulation “And He commanded us.” It may be that they disagree about a more fundamental matter, one that was already mentioned in our opening shiur: When a woman performs a time-bound positive commandment, does she actually fulfill a mitzva?[1]According to the Tosafot, even if a woman is not obligated in the mitzva, she still fulfills a mitzva upon its performance, and therefore she may recite a blessing. In contrast, the Rambam understands that the woman does not fulfill a mitzva, and therefore she cannot recite a blessing. The Rambam apparently maintains that when a woman takes a lulav, she does not actually fulfill a mitzva, but merely waves an assortment of plants. Since this activity is meaningless, a blessing cannot be recited.[2]

 

            An exceptional opinion is found in Shibolei Ha-leket (Rosh Ha-shana, no. 295), in the name of Rabbeinu Yeshaya. According to this opinion, women are permitted to fulfill time-bound positive commandments, but without reciting a blessing. In this, he agrees with the Rambam. But to the simple rationale – the concern about uttering a blessing in vain – he adds another, surprising rationale: Were the woman to recite a blessing, this would indicate that she intends to fulfill an obligation, and in that case her performance of the mitzvawould involve a violation of bal tosif. Conduct that implies obligation when none actually exists is considered bal tosif because it blurs the line between obligation and exemption. This is a novel position – that the prohibition of bal tosif is connected to the blessing that is recited over the mitzva.

 

            The Rambam writes (Hilkhot Mamrim 2:9) that Chazal transgress the prohibition of bal tosif if they issue a decree and declare that it has the authority of a Torah law. That is to say, the law of bal tosif depends on the intention to blur the line between the Torah's commandments and rabbinic decrees. Rabbeinu Yeshaya follows in this direction, but applies the principle in a slightly different manner. According to him, the law of bal tosif depends on the intention to blur the line between voluntary performance and obligation. As long as a woman fulfills a time-bound positive commandment as a fully voluntary act, and she makes it clear that this is not part of her normative life, there is no problem. But once she recites a blessing, the line between voluntary act and obligation becomes blurred, and the prohibition of bal tosif arises. The Beit Yosef, however, rejects this position.

 

            The Shulchan Arukh rules stringently, in accordance with the Rambam, that a woman must not recite a blessing over a mitzvafrom which she is exempt (Orach Chayyim 589:6). In contrast, the Rema rules in accordance with the Tosafot, that a woman is permitted to recite a blessing over such mitzvot. The customary practice is that in Ashkenazic communities, which follow the Rema, women recite a blessing when they fulfill a time-bound positive commandment, while in Sephardic communities, which follow the Shulchan Arukh, many women refrain from doing so.

 

            However, even among Sephardic communities, which generally follow the Shulchan Arukh, there are certain women who are accustomed to recite a blessing over time-bound positive commandments, or at least over some of them. The Chida testifies that “some women in Eretz Yisrael are accustomed to recite a blessing over the lulav” (Birkei Yosef, Orach Chayyim 654, no. 2). At first, the Chida was inclined to prohibit the practice, but with the passage of time he recognized it as a custom with solid grounding and ruled that it could be maintained.[3]

 

            Rav Ovadya Yosef's position on this issue is quite different. He absolutely forbids Sephardic women to recite a blessing over time-bound positive commandments. Asked whether women may recite the blessings over the Shema, he argued that it is doubtful whether even Ashenazic women are permitted to recite them. According to him, the Rema permitted a woman to recite a blessing in the case of a mitzva that involves a certain action that is accompanied by a blessing. But when no action is performed, and the entire mitzva is to recite the blessing, perhaps even the Rema agrees that this is forbidden. It should be noted that Rav Yechezkel Landau proposed the opposite argument. According to him, in a case where the entire mitzva consists of reciting a blessing, even the Shulchan Arukh would agree that women are permitted to recite the blessing (Tzelach, Berakhot 26a).

 

            In practice, Rav Ovadya concedes that Ashkenazic women are permitted to recite the blessings over the Shema. But he resolutely forbids Sephardic women from doing so:

 

It seems that in practice Ashkenazic women are permitted to recite the blessings over the Shema… However, Sephardic women must not veer from the ruling of our master z"l [the Shulchan Arukh], whose rulings we have accepted. And he ruled that women must not recite a blessing over time-bound positive commandments. As for that which some think that the practice has already spread not in accordance with our master, we have already explained in Responsa Yabi'a Omer (no. 40) that there is no custom here contrary to the words of our master, but only the custom of a few women who unknowingly acted in this manner. (Responsa Yabi'a Omer, II, Orach Chayyim, no. 6)

 

            Rav Ovadya Yosef absolutely rejects the practice that became prevalent among a portion of Sephardic women to recite a blessing over time-bound positive commandments. Even if we accept this stringent ruling, we may still argue that women are permitted to recite the blessings over the Shema, as well as the blessings of Barukh she-amar and Yishtabach, because these are blessings of praise, and not blessings over mitzvot. Moreover, none of these blessings contain the language of “Who commanded us.” If the entire concern is the formulation “Who commanded us,” as some authorities contend, this concern does not apply to these blessings. Rav Ovadya Yosef, however, is stringent even regarding these blessings. But as we have seen, there is disagreement about the matter even among the Sephardic authorities, and there are those who confirm the practice of some Sephardic women to recite a blessing over time-bound positive commandments.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 

 



[1] This is implicit in the words of the Ritva: “Since there is an aspect of mitzva, and they receive reward, the correct position seems to be in accordance with the position that if they wish to recite a blessing, they may do so” (Rosh Ha-shana 29b).

[2] Some infer from the Rambam's wording in Hilkhot Talmud Torah that women who perform a mitzva in which they are not obligated do fulfill a mitzva: “A woman who studies Torah will receive reward. However, that reward will not be [as great] as a man's, since she was not commanded [in this mitzva]. Whoever performs a deed which he is not commanded to do does not receive as great a reward as one who performs a mitzva that he is commanded to do” (1:13). However, the assertion that such a woman will receive reward is not necessarily identical to the assertion that she has performed a mitzva. The matter requires further study.

[3] See also Responsa Yosef Ometz, no. 82.