Berakhot 20

Nothing is superfluous.

Today we are going to take careful look at a typical pattern in rabbinic legal reasoning that will give us more insight into the rabbinic mindset as well as an opportunity to start building a little Aramaic vocabulary. We start with the mishnah under discussion in the Gemara:

Women, slaves, and minors are exempt from the recitation of the Shema and from tefillin, but they are obligated in the commandments of praying the Amidah, hanging a mezuzah, and reciting the Grace after Meals.

The rabbis are puzzled by this mishnah, found at the bottom of side A on today’s daf, not because they are two thousand years ahead of their time on issues of gender equality (they’re not), but because there’s already an established principle in Jewish law that should have made this mishnah unnecessary.

The principle is that women are exempt from time-bound positive commandments (Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7). Positive commandments are things one must do (as opposed to negative commandments or prohibitions that one must not do). Time-bound commandments are those that must be done at a specific time. According to a general principle in rabbinic law, women are exempt from commandments that are both positive and time-bound: things that must be done at a specific time.

Given this well-known principle, the Gemara objects, the statement of this mishnah is p’sheetuh — obvious. After all, Shema and tefillin are both positive commandments done at specific times (meaning women are exempt), while hanging a mezuzah and Grace after Meals are not time-bound (meaning women are obligated). (We’ll set aside the Amidah issue for the moment, though there’s a question about that one too.) So why do we need this mishnah? What does it teach us that we didn’t already know?

The Gemara offers an answer introduced by the Aramaic expression mah-hoo d’taymah: “I might have thought.” For one reason or another, in this particular instance one might have had reason to believe that Shema or tefillin or Grace after Meals or mezuzah were exceptions to the general rule about which commandments are obligatory for women.

In the case of Grace after meals, for example, one might have thought women were exempt because Exodus 16:8 says God “shall give you meat to eat in the evening and bread in the morning.” The language of “evening” and “morning” in this verse might have made one think that meals are at fixed times, and therefore the Grace after Meals could be considered a time-bound obligation — and therefore something from which women are exempt. But, the Gemara reasons, kah mashmah lan — “we see from here [meaning the mishnah]” that this is faulty reasoning. Women are indeed obligated to recite Grace after Meals.

This logical procedure is invoked regularly in the Talmud, and points to an underlying assumption: There is nothing superfluous, either in the Torah itself or in the legal codes. If a passage seems unnecessary, there must have been a reason for it and the rabbis are intent on figuring out what it might be.

As to the rabbinic dictum that women are exempt from time-bound positive commandments — that has been a particularly hot topic of conversation in traditional Jewish circles influenced by the feminist movement. We added some links at the bottom of this email for those who wish to read more about it.

Read all of Berakhot 20 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 23, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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