“On the Ordination of Women as Rabbis” by Joel Roth

Reference: Jewish Theological Seminary

The question of the ordination of women can be analyzed halakhically either narrowly or broadly. A narrow analysis would confine itself to the issue of ordination per se, while a broad analysis would consider as well the ancillary issues which might be involved.

One who undertakes a broad analysis of the question must deal with two crucial ancillary issues: (1) the status of women vis-a-vis mitzvot from which they are legally exempt, and (2) the status of women as witnesses. These issues are crucial because they involve matters which are widely considered to be either necessary or common functions of the modern rabbinate. These two issues apply to all women, not only to those who might seek ordination.

This paper will be divided into four parts: (1) Women and mitzvot; (2) Women as witnesses; (3) Women and ordination per se; (4) Conclusions and recommendations to the Faculty of the Seminary.


There are many mitzvot from which women are halakhically (legally) exempt. Those mitzvot are generally categorized as “positive commandments which are time-bound” in that they have to be performed at a specific time of the day or on specific days of the year.1 This categorization is, however, imperfect.

There are positive time-bound commandments which women are obligated to observe,2 as well as positive non-time-bound commandments from which they are legally exempt. The gemara itself was aware of the problem, and resolved it by recourse to the dictum of Rabbi Yohanan, Ein lemeidin min hakelalot–general principles are not to be understood as definitive.4

However, the imperfection of the principle is legally insignificant.5 Even if one could demonstrate that the principle is totally insufficient to explain which mitzvot women must observe and from which they are exempt, each specific case, either for obligation or for exemption, has the clear weight of precedent to support it.

The gemara plausibly resolves the inconsistency between the stated principle and the actual law by pointing out that the literary style of the mishnah in which the principle appears dictates a phrasing which will be parallel to the other principles in that mishnah, which are accurate To reverse either specific rabbinic decision vis-a-vis certain mitzvot from which women are now exempt, or to abolish the principle in its entirety, requires a presentation in each case of the legal grounds and justification for overturning precedent. To do so solely on the basis of the imperfection of the principle would be totally insufficient, since the promulgators of the norms themselves recognized that the precedents they were setting were not absolutely consistent with the principle.

The affirmation that women are exempt from certain mitzvot necessitates analysis of four issues.

  1. May women perform those mitzvot from which they are exempt, and may they recite the appropriate blessings  (These are two distinction questions. However, most of the sources which will be quoted deal with both questions at the same time. The two will therefore be treated as one question.)
  2. If women may observe mitzvot from which they are exempt, is their observance of these mitzvot governed by the same rules as is the observance by men of those same mitzvot? Thus, men are permitted to violate some Sabbath prohibitions in order to observe certain mitzvot which are obligatory upon them but not upon women. Are women who observe such a mitzvah, though legally exempt from its observance, also entitled to violate that Sabbath prohibition?6
  3. Can the voluntary observance of a mitzvah ever become in some significant sense religiously obligatory?
  4. If it can, can that self-imposed obligation have the same legal status as the obligation of men which, legally speaking, is “other-imposed” either by the Torah or by rabbinic authority?

The most restrictive position regarding the right of women to observe mitzvot from which they are exempt is expressed by the Ravad (1125-1198).7 The Sifra records a disagreement between Rabi Yose and Rabbi Shimon, who allow women to lay their hands on the head of the burnt-offering,8 and an anonymous view which forbids women to do so. The Ravad attributes the anonymous view to Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda.9 He states:

In any case, the law is not according to Rabbi Yose. For Rabbi Meier and Rabbi Yehuda disagree with him, and the anonymous mishnah in Rosh Hashanah10 reflects the view of Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda. The mishnah in Rosh Hashanah states: “We do not prevent children from blowing the shofar.”11 This implies that we do prevent women from doing so–i.e., because to them the shevut of sound the horn applies.12 Therefore, we do not agree with Rabbi Yose. This opinion we also find in Erubin, chapter 10.13 The mishnah in Sukkah14 states: “A women may accept [the lulav] from her son or her husband [and put it in water].” On this passage the gemara comments:15 “Obviously! What might you have thought? [One might have thought that] since she is not obligated [to observe the mitzvah of pronouncing the blessing over the lulav], she should also be forbidden to carry it.”16 If we accepted the position of Rabbi Yose, she would be as entitled as men to use the lulav for its ritual function, and if she could be so entitled, there would be no grounds for the assumption that she should be forbidden to handle it….Therefore we may deduce [on the basis of these sources] that we accept the view of Rabbi Meier and Rabbi Yehuda [that a woman may not observe the mitzvot from which she is exempt]. As a result, it goes without saying that we would not permit women to wear a tallit the tzitzit [fringes] of which are made up of mixed species, even though men may, for this involves a biblically enjoined prohibition [Deutoronomy 22:11, Leviticus 19:19]. [Hence, women who wear such a tallit are violating a biblical commandment]. We also do not permit them [women] even to recite the benediction over the lulav. But sitting in the sukkah or holding the lulav are permitted to women since they involve neither chance of mishap [kikul] nor denigration of the mitzvah [zizul mitzvah].

The Ravad forbids women from performing any of the mitzvot from which they are exempt except those like sitting in the sukkah in which their physical presence itself is fulfillment of the mitzvah. The handling of the objects involved in the performance of the mitzvot is not included in the prohibition, so long as she does not handle them for the sake of performing the mitzvah. Thus, she may not recite the benediction over the lulavesrog, etc. while she holds them.

One step less stringent is the view codified by Maimonides. He wrote:17

Women, slaves, and minors are exempt by the law of the Torah from tzitzit….Women and slave who wish to enwrap themselves in tzitzit [i.e. in a tallit] may do so without reciting the blessing. And similarly, all other positive commandments from which women are exempt may be performed by them, without blessings–and they should not be prevented from doing them [ein memahin be-yadan].

Maimonides allows the actual performance of the actions which constitute the mitzvah, but those actions must remain free of any intimation that the act is performed qua mitzvah. Since the act could not be described as compliance with a commandment without the recitation of the requisite blessing, forbidding the recitation of the blessings clearly indicates that women are not actually fulfilling mitzvot,18 even though they may be performing acts which might otherwise be so interpreted.19

The passage which was quoted above from the tractate Sukkah is quoted, as well by the Or Zarua (1200-1270). He interprets exactly as does the Ravad, but adds the following appendix:20

Nonetheless, Rashi [1035-1104], consistent with his own view which forbids women to recite blessings, interprets this passage thus, as I have explained in Hilkhot Rosh Ha-shanah.21 But Rabbenu Tam [ca. 110-1171], who permits them to recite the blessings,22 explains that passage thus: [The gemara‘s hypothesis is] that a woman, who is not obligated to perform the mitzvah, might be considered forbidden to handle the lulav except for her own need.23 Therefore the mishnah informs us that since she is entitled to handle it and recite the blessing, the lulav acquires for her the legal status of a vessel.24 Nonetheless, the view of Rashi [which forbids women to recite the blessings] seems more plausible.

Two points raised by the Or Zarua are worthy of emphasis: (1) He affirms that the sugya in Sukkah provides no incontrovertible proof that women may not perform the mitzvot, even with blessings. Though he himself prefers the view of Rashi (which forbids women to recite the blessings), the sugya does not constitute a clear refutation of the view of Rabbenu Tam, who does permit them to recite the appropriate blessings. (2) He quotes Rashi as denying women the right to recite the blessings, thereby making Rashi’s view the same as the view of Maimonides.

However, the following passage25 indicates that the view that Rashi prohibited women from reciting blessings is not certain.26

Rabbi Yitzhak Ha-levi has rendered a decision that women are not to be prevented from reciting the blessing on sukkah and lulav. For the statement27 that women are exempt from all positive time-bound commandments is meant only to indicate that they are not obligated. But, if they wish to bring themselves under the yoke of the commandments, they are entitled to do so, and should not be prevented. For they are not to be more disadvantaged than “those who fulfill mitzvot even though they are not commanded.”28 And if they wish to observe the mitzvot, it is impossible to do so without the blessing.”29

Since the responsum includes no indication that Rashi disagreed with the decision of Rabbi Yitzhak Ha-levi, it would be fair to assume that he agreed. Thus, there are two attested, but contradictory, indications of Rashi’s view on the subject. Be that as it may, this responsum deduces the right of women to observe the time-bound mitzvot from the very principle which the mishnah uses to designate the general category of mitzvot from which they are exempt. The principles implies exemption, not proscription. Given the class of “those who observe though not commanded,” and the absence of any clear and explicit prohibition, there are no grounds fro asserting that women may not observe mitzvot qua mitzvot. Furthermore, since the blessings are integral to the mitzvot, there can be no justification for denying them the right to recite the appropriate blessings as they perform the mitzvot.

Thus, far, then, there are three positions: (1) Women are forbidden even to perform the time-bound mitzvot. (2) They are allowed to perform the mitzvot, but forbidden to recite the appropriate blessings. (3) They are allowed both the observance and the recitation of the blessings.

The dispute among posekim has persisted until modern times, with the division generally along Ashkenazi-Sephardi lines. The former usually adopted the third position, and the latter generally follow the second–the Maimonidean position. Thus, Caro (1488-1575) states in his code:30 “Although women are exempt, they may blow the shofar… but may not recite the blessing.” Isserles (1525-1572) added: “Our custom is for women to recite the blessings on positive time-bound commandments. In this case, too, then they may recite the blessing for themselves.”

A short responsum of the Rashba (ca. 1235-1310) epitomizes the view which seems most logical. He wrote:31

You already know of the dispute among the rishonim and their proofs. I agree with those who claim that women may observe and recite the blessings on all the positive commandments, based upon the precedent of Michal bat Shaul,32, who used to wear phylacteries, and the Sages did not stop her. Rather, she acted wit their approval. And obviously [ustama de-millata], if she put them on she recited the blessing.

That position has even “heavenly” approval. Rabbi Yaakov Ha-levi, in one of his Teshuvot Min Ha-shamayim (“Responsa from Heaven”),33 wrote

I asked concerning the women who recite the blessing over the lulav, and concerning those who recite the blessing over the sounding of the shofar for women, whether there is a transgression involved, and if it is a “purposeless benediction” since they are not obligated. And they answered… “Whatever Sarah says, obey her” [Genesis 21:12]. Go and say to them: “Return to your tents, and bless your Lord.”… If they wish to recite the blessing over the lulav and the shofar, they may.

There is, therefore, ample halakhic precedent to allow women to observe positive time-bound commandments, and to recite the appropriate blessings.

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