Eruvin 96

More mitzvot?

Today’s daf discusses whether one can add mitzvot to those commanded in the Torah. This includes performing a mitzvah on an extra day (sleeping in a sukkah on the eighth day of Sukkot when one is not commanded to do so, for instance) or doubling up on a mitzvah (such as wearing two pairs of tefillin). It also includes taking on a mitzvah which you and your social category (women, enslaved persons, children, etc.) are not specifically commanded to perform.

For example:

It was taught: Michal, daughter of Kushi (King Saul) would don tefillin, and the sages did not protest against her behavior, as she was permitted to do so. 

And similarly, Jonah’s wife would undertake the Sukkot pilgrimage and the sages did not protest against her practice.

The Talmud’s two examples of people performing additional mitzvot are women precisely because — according to the rabbis — women are not obligated to perform positive time bound mitzvot, mitzvot that require one to do a specific action at a specific time.

According to 1 Samuel, Michal is one of the daughters of King Saul son of Kish. The Torah gives us numerous details about her actions and her relationships with her father and with her eventual husband, King David. But it doesn’t tell us anything about whether she wore tefillin. The case of Jonah’s wife is even stranger — the book of Jonah doesn’t even mention that the prophet is married! So where do these traditions come from?

The earliest version of this tradition is found in an earlier midrashic text, the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael (13:9:6). That text reads, quite simply: All are commanded to put on tefillin except women and enslaved men. Michal the daughter of Kush would wear tefillin. Jonah’s wife would go up (to Jerusalem) for Sukkot.

This early teaching is then picked up and interpreted by both Talmuds — the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud — with key differences. The original teaching presents these two statements as fact, without comment: Michal wore tefillin, Jonah’s wife made the Sukkot pilgrimage. But with regard to each of these women, the Babylonian Talmud comments: the sages did not protest against her behavior. It green lights the women’s mitzvot.

In contrast, the Jerusalem Talmud (Eruvin 10:1, 59a) presents this teaching but offers the opposite comment, a quote from Rabbi Hizkiyah in the name of Rabbi Abbahu that the rabbis did protest Michal’s wearing of tefillin.

So what’s going on? Apparently, an early tradition emerged which shared stories of these two women performing mitzvot that they were not commanded to perform. These stories were originally presented neutrally, with no commentary as to whether their actions were correct. But we see evidence that a debate eventually emerged between at least some rabbis in the land of Israel and Babylonia; one group felt that these actions were inappropriate, and the other felt that they were indeed appropriate (or, at least, they did not object).  

The Babylonian Talmud was ultimately the more popular of the two Talmuds, and had the greater impact on the development of Jewish intellectual and ritual life. It’s the one that we are studying together. And according to this text, at least in these cases, at least certain women taking on additional mitzvot that they are not rabbinically commanded to perform is met with no objection. In the medieval period, many rabbis became interested in limiting women’s voluntary performance of mitzvot like tefillin, but that’s a story for another day.

Read all of Eruvin 96 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 13th, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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