Kiddushin 34

Exceptions to the exemption.

Our mishnah taught the following:

With regard to all positive, time-bound mitzvot, men are obligated to perform them and women are exempt.

Positive mitzvot are those that Jews are obligated to do (as opposed to things they are obligated not to do). Time-bound mitzvot are those that must be done at specific times. A beraita from the end of Kiddushin 33b lists examples of mitzvot that are both: residing in a sukkah, taking the lulav, blowing the shofar and donning tefillin.

The Gemara notices that this principle of exempting women from positive, time-bound mitzvot does not precisely match established practice:

But is this an established principle? There are the mitzvot of eating matzah, rejoicing on a festival, and assembly on Sukkot. Each of these is a positive, time-bound mitzvah, and yet women are obligated to perform them.

One need not look far to find examples of positive, time-bound mitzvot that women are, by established practice, obligated to participate in. So how can we understand the mishnah’s general rule?

Rabbi Yohanan says: One does not learn practical halakhot from general statements.

Just because we have a general rule, cautions Rabbi Yohanan, doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions. Women are generally exempt from positive, time-bound mitzvot, as the mishnah states, but there are exceptions — mitzvot in this category that women are obligated to fulfill. 

At this point, one might expect the Gemara to explore the scriptural basis for the exceptions to this rule about women’s exemption (e.g. eating matzah at the seder) or to question the source of Rabbi Yohanan’s (ironically) general statement that we don’t learn practical halakhah from general mishnaic statements. Surprisingly, it does neither. Instead, the rest of our daf offers a series of dialectical arguments that locate the source of the mishnah’s exemption for women in the Torah — a surprisingly difficult exercise. One example will suffice:

The Gemara asserts that we derive women’s general exemption from positive, time-bound mitzvot from their specific exemption from wearing tefillin. If you can’t recall that the Torah exempts women from tefillin, that is because no such exemption explicitly exists in the Torah.

The tefillin exemption is derived from the direct juxtaposition of the commandment to bind signs on one’s arm and forehead (the source for tefillin) with the obligation to teach one’s sons (and, the rabbis understand, not daughters) Torah — all of which is found in the first paragraph of the ShemaDeuteronomy 6:4–9. More simply put: Only men are obligated in Torah study, which means, by proximity, that only men are obligated in tefillin, which means, by extrapolation, that only men are obligated for positive, time-bound mitzvot in general. 

This sounds like a precarious logical construction. The Gemara indeed finds a flaw in it. In the Shema, tefillin are also juxtaposed with the commandment of placing a mezuzah on the doorposts of one’s home, a mitzvah for which women are obligated. Why not draw the opposite inference — that women are obligated in positive, time-bound mitzvot in general from this specific juxtaposition, instead of the original one? 

But the logical construction is not yet defeated, because the Gemara then rejects its own objection: Tefillin are directly juxtaposed with the rule about teaching one’s sons Torah in both Deuteronomy 6:4–9 and in Deuteronomy 11:13–21 (the second paragraph of the Shema). They are directly juxtaposed with the rule about mezuzah only in Deuteronomy 6. Thus, the strength of the interpretation for women’s exemption is greater than the strength of the interpretation for women’s obligation.

There are many logical and exegetical objections that can be raised to the Gemara’s arguments here. For instance, does the Hebrew word banekha, literally “your sons,” mean only male children, or is it a general charge to teach all children Torah? How is the Gemara able to derive an argument for or against women’s obligation in positive, time-bound mitzvot from juxtapositions with two mitzvot — mezuzah and Torah study — that aren’t time-bound themselves? I suggest that the substance of the Gemara’s arguments and objections is almost beside the point. What matters is the willingness to entertain the possibility that a rule about women’s exemptions (a source of no small amount of controversy in modern halakhic Judaism) isn’t immutable. Tomorrow, we’ll explore the origin of this rule in more detail.

Read all of Kiddushin 34 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 16th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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