Women and the Fulfillment of Positive Time-Bound Commandments

Can women take on commandments from which they are exempt?

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Reprinted with permission from JOFA, The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

The mishnah in the Talmudic tractate of Kiddushin, page 29a, states “…and all positive, time-bound commandments (mitzvot aseh shehazeman gerama), men are obligated [in] and women are exempt [from].” The gemara acknowledges that there are exceptions to this rule when the Torah (either explicitly or through the interpretation of the Oral Law) states that women are obligated. However, the gemara accepts the halakhah of the mishna as biblical in origin, and–in the absence of a statement obligating women in specific positive time-bound commandments–women are considered exempt from the majority of such mitzvot.

Defining Time-Bound Commandments

A positive time-bound commandment is defined as one that could be physically fulfilled at any time, but that the Torah has mandated is to be done only at specific times: if not fulfilled at that specific time, there is no way to “make up” the mitzvah. This category includes all holiday related mitzvot (shofar, sukkah, and lulav, etc.), as well as mitzvot that need to be fulfilled during certain parts of the day or week (such as tzitzit, k’riat Shema, and tefillin). Matzah on Pesah and kiddush on Shabbat are exceptions in which the Torah tzitzitspecifically obligates women. May a woman choose to fulfill a mitzvah from which she is biblically exempted? If so, what is halakha’s attitude toward that fulfillment?

May she say the berakhah that accompanies the act of the mitzvah? The first question is explicitly addressed in a comprehensive mahloket (disagreement) in the gemara between R. Yehuda, who forbids women from fulfilling certain mitzvot from which they are exempt, and R. Yose and R. Shimon, who allow it. This mahloket originates in the tractate of Hagiga 16b where the gemara discusses whether a woman may perform semikha on a korban (the placing of one’s weight on one’s sacrificial animal before it is sacrificed), a mitzvah in which the Torah only obligates men. R. Yehuda does not allow women to practice semikha whereas R. Yose and R. Shimon do.

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Noa Jeselsohn lives in Israel and teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum, Midreshet Emunah V'Omanut and the Women's Beit Midrash in Efrat. She also answers questions for the Nishmat Halachic Hotline.

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