Shiur 22: Women And Shofar Blowing

  • Rav Chaim Navon

I. Who Blows?

 

            We saw in the opening shiur that the Tanna’im disagree about whether or not women are permitted to fulfill time-bound positive commandments. On this point, the law was decided in accordance with the opinion of R. Yose that there is no prohibition. The Rishonim, however, disagree about whether or not women are permitted to recite a blessing over time-bound positive commandments. As we have seen, the Shulchan Arukh and the Rema disagree about how to rule on this matter.

 

            The Posekim raise an additional question in this context. Even if we accept the position of the Tosafot (and the Rema) that a woman may recite a blessing when she fulfills a time-bound positive commandment, a question still remains regarding shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana. In general, the congregation fulfills its obligation with the blowing of an expert shofar blower. After he has blown the shofar in the course of the prayer service, is he permitted to blow once again on behalf of a woman?

 

            We have already mentioned that the Rishonim disagree about this matter, and we explained at length the respective opinions. Here we shall suffice with a brief summary. On Shabbat and Yom Tov (other than Rosh Hashana), blowing a shofar is forbidden by Rabbinic decree. The Hagahot Maimoniyot (Hilkhot Shofar 2:1) concludes that since women are exempt from shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana, it should be prohibited for them to blow a shofar, just as it is prohibited on any other Yom Tov. The Sages granted women an allowance to blow, despite the Rabbinic prohibition, only "to give satisfaction to women." If so, he argues, the allowance applies only to women themselves. A man, however, is only permitted to blow for a woman if he himself has not yet fulfilled the mitzva and it is with this blowing that he fulfills his own obligation. If not, we do not allow him to transgress the Rabbinic prohibition. We allow women to blow for themselves in order to give themselves satisfaction, but we do not allow men to blow for this reason.

 

            The Rosh (Rosh Hashana 4:7), however, writes in the name of the Ravya that even a man who has already fulfilled his obligation can blow shofar for a woman. He apparently maintains that even without the factor of "giving satisfaction to women," there would be no prohibition on women blowing shofar on Rosh Hashana. It may be suggested that in his view, while women are not obligated in the mitzva of shofar blowing, if they choose to blow (or to hear) the shofar, it is not merely the noise of a trumpet, as they fulfill the mitzva of shofar blowing. In some cases, if a person is exempt from a mitzva, his performance of the mitzva has no meaning (e.g., redemption of a child who is not a first-born). In other cases, even if a person is exempt from a mitzva, if he chooses to observe it, it counts for him as a mitzva (e.g., eating matza on Pesach after the night of the seder, according to the Vilna Gaon). According to the Rosh, it is possible that a woman who fulfills a time-bound positive commandment is credited with a mitzva. If so, there is no prohibition here of blowing a shofar on Yom Tov, for any shofar blowing with which one performs a mitzva is not included in the prohibition.

 

            In practice, the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayyim 589:6) rules in accordance with the opinion of the Rosh – even a man who has already fulfilled his obligation can blow shofar for a woman. Common practice follows this ruling.

 

II. Who Recites the Blessing?

 

            Who is to recite the blessing when a man blows shofar for a woman after he has already fulfilled his own obligation – the man who blows or the woman who hears the blowing? The Rema (Orach Chayyim 589:6) rules that if the blower has already fulfilled his obligation, the woman who hears the blowing should recite the blessing. In his commentary to the Tur, the Darkhei Moshe (Orach Chayyim, no. 2), he explains his ruling as follows: The halakha is that a person can recite a blessing on behalf of his fellow based on the law of areivut, "mutual responsibility." Every Jew is to a certain degree responsible for every other Jew, and he must strive to see to it that the other Jew observes the mitzvot to which he is bound. For this reason, he can recite a blessing for every other Jew. Women, however, are not obligated in the mitzva of shofar blowing, and reciting a blessing on behalf of a woman because of the law of mutual responsibility is therefore not relevant. The shofar blower is not responsible to see to it that the woman will observe the mitzva, as she is not at all duty bound to do so, and without the law of mutual responsibility, one Jew cannot recite a blessing for another Jew. The Darkhei Moshe adds the factor that the very recitation of a blessing by a woman over a time-bound positive commandment is subject to a controversy.

 

Therefore, one who blows shofar on behalf of women can only recite a blessing if he has not yet fulfilled his own obligation. Since this is a rare situation, as in general a person blowing shofar for women after the prayer service has already fulfilled his obligation with the blasts sounded during the service, one of the women hearing the shofar blowing should recite the blessing on behalf of all the women.

 

            It should be added that even if one blows shofar after the prayer service for a man who has not yet fulfilled his obligation, it is preferable that the person hearing the shofar blasts recite the blessing, and not the shofar blower who has already fulfilled his obligation (Piskei Teshuvot 585:7).

 

III. The Customary Practice of Women

 

R. Akiva Eiger writes:

 

Most of our women are stringent upon themselves and are vigilant and zealous to fulfill most of the time-bound positive commandments, such as shofar, sukka, and lulav, and so too kiddush on Yom Tov, and it is as if they accepted them [as obligations]. (Responsa Rabbi Akiva Eiger, 1st series, no. 1)

 

According to R. Akiva Eiger, the custom of women to keep these mitzvot obligates all women. In fact, we know that even many generations earlier, women were particularly careful about the mitzva of shofar, and the halakhic authorities saw this as a kind of obligation that was cast upon them:

 

Mahari Segel expounded: All are obligated in shofar, both minors and adults. Women, however, are exempt, as it is a time-bound positive commandment, but they have obligated themselves. And since they have obligated themselves, they must hasten to tend to their affairs, their dressing, and their cooking, so that they should be free to go to synagogue and hear there the shofar blasts. They should not weary the congregation and make them wait for them. He said that in Austria, the women used to cook on the day before Rosh Hashana so that on Rosh Hashana they should be free to go to synagogue, and after they left synagogue they heated up the food. They should all prepare themselves to be in synagogue, both the women and the maidens, to hear the prayer and the shofar blasts from beginning to end, and this is the practice today.

Since women have obligated themselves in the mitzva of shofar blowing, it is proper if at all possible to leave their babies at home, so that they not interfere with their hearing the shofar blasts… And if a woman is unable to leave her child at home, it is better to keep him with her in the women's section of the synagogue, as they are not as obligated in the mitzva as men. But one who leaves her child at home is praiseworthy, as she has obligated herself, and we also recite a blessing over the shofar blowing for them. (Sefer Maharil, Hilkhot Shofar)

 

Several points emerge from the words of the Maharil. First of all, women were accustomed to hear shofar blowing. Second, the Maharil viewed this as a quasi-halakhic obligation: "Since women have obligated themselves in the mitzva of shofar blowing." In his time, it was customary to prepare a Yom Tov meal on the day of Yom Tov, but he testifies that on Rosh Hashana, the women in Austria would cook already the day before, so that on Rosh Hashana itself they should be able to pray at leisure in the synagogue.

 

The Maharil concludes by saying that if they are already bringing their crying babies to the synagogue – something which he opposes – it is preferable that they remain in the women's section, because "they are not as obligated in the mitzva as men." This is an astounding formulation, because on the face of it, women are not obligated in the mitzva at all, yet the Maharil says merely that they are “not as obligated” in the mitzva as men. At the end of his remarks, he emphasizes that women have obligated themselves, apparently by way of their customary practice. He adds that women also recite a blessing over time-bound positive commandments (in the case of shofar blowing, the custom was that the shofar blower recites the blessing for them). From here it may be understood, as we have explained, that when they fulfill the mitzva, it counts for them as a mitzva. The Maharil saw this as the foundation upon which an obligation at some level can be built.

 

Nowadays, women in both the Ashkenazi and the Sefardi communities are accustomed to come to synagogue to hear the blowing of the shofar. It would appear that even those who are not accustomed to keep other time-bound positive commandments, such as lulav, are usually careful about hearing the blowing of the shofar.

 

What is the law governing a woman who wishes in a particular year not to go to synagogue for the sounding of the shofar? Must she undergo hatarat nedarim to annul the customary practice, which has the force of a vow? R. Ovadia Yosef discusses this issue at length (Responsa Yabia Omer, vol. 2, Orach Chayyim, no. 30). He cites the Maharil, who implies that the customary practice of women on this issue has halakhic force. The Ben Ish Chai (Parashat Nitzavim, no. 17) rules explicitly that since most women are accustomed to hear shofar blowing, a woman who knows that she will not be able to hear shofar blowing in a particular year must undergo hatarat nedarim to annul the good custom that she had accepted upon herself. R. Ovadia Yosef argues that the customary practice of women relates only to a healthy woman, for it was never the practice of a sick woman to come to synagogue to hear the shofar. If so, when a woman stays home because she is not feeling well, her conduct does not contradict the custom, as the custom never applied to this situation. He rules that such a woman can be lenient and stay home, even without hatarat nedarim, although "it is proper that her husband should have her in mind during the hatarat nedarim ceremony performed on the day before Rosh Hashana."

 

In the course of his discussion, R. Ovadia Yosef attempts to offer a more precise definition of the view of those authorities who argue that the customary practice of women has created an obligation for women to hear shofar blowing. He raises two possibilities: The obligation might be grounded on Torah law, based on a vow. If a person performs a good practice three times without saying "without a vow," it is as if he accepted the practice upon himself with a vow. The same applies to a woman who was accustomed to hear shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana. According to this, it is an individual matter: Any woman who has heard shofar blowing three times is regarded as if she had accepted this good practice upon herself with a vow. Perhaps there is room for an even more novel position, namely, that the customary practice of women in general imposes an obligation even upon a woman who has never kept the custom.

 

Another possibility is that we are dealing with a rabbinic obligation, like that governing people who have accepted upon themselves a certain stringency that is not required by law - "things that are permitted but others have treated as prohibited." From this perspective, we are clearly dealing with a public matter: The custom of Jewish women in general obligates each individual woman, not as a vow, but only as a stringency the force of which is by rabbinic decree. R. Ovadya Yosef is inclined to accept the second understanding, and therefore, according to him, there is no vow here at all. In any event, his words indicate that he recognizes that it is the customary practice of women to hear shofar blowing, and that he agrees that the practice has a certain halakhic force.

 

 

(Translated by David Strauss)