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.
 
The gemara applies this mahloket to three other mitzvot and assumes that the same disagreement would apply. In the tractate of Rosh Hashana 33a, the gemara states that R. Yehuda would not allow a woman to blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah whereas R. Yose and R. Shimon would. Eruvin 96a-96b applies this mahloket to the issue of permitting women to wear tefillin and perform aliyah la-regel (ascent to Jerusalem to bring sacrifices on Pesah, Shavuot, and Sukkot). This gemara posits that the rabbis didn't prevent King Saul's daughter Mikhal from wearing tefillin or the wife of Jonah from performing aliya la-regel, therefore the rabbis clearly agreed with R. Yose and R. Shimon against R. Yehuda.

What is the conceptual difference between the two sides of this mahloket? Rashi (Rosh HaShana 33a) suggests that R. Yehuda thinks that performing a mitzvah from which one is exempt is a violation of "bal tosif," the prohibition against adding mitzvot to the Torah. Most opinions reject this suggestion since "bal tosif" is understood as a prohibition against adding a 614th mitzvah or adding detail to an existing mitzvah (such as a fifth species to be taken on Sukkot), and not against one's fulfillment of an existing mitzvah despite a Biblical exemption. The Talmudic commentaries known as the Tosfot (Eruvin 96a) offer a different conceptual basis for the mahloket. They suggest that R. Yehuda specifically forbids women from fulfilling semikha, shofar, tefillin and aliyah la-regel, because their fulfillment of each of these mitzvot would violate a rabbinic prohibition, and a woman who is not obligated cannot be allowed to violate the rabbinic prohibition in order to perform the mitzvah.

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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.