by Natalie Bergner
Women of the Wall is a pluralistic group. Each Rosh Hodesh women from different denominations, and women who do not subscribe to a denomination, join us in prayer at the Western Wall. Many of these women have embraced the mitzvah of wearing a tallit when required while praying. Just as it is their practice to wear tallit every day while praying, it should be their legal right to practice this mitzvah at the Kotel. As a community, Women of the Wall has made it a goal to help these women gain the legal right to pray at the Western Wall wearing tallit.
This section will give an outline of the halakhic debates around whether or not women can wear tallitot. Arguments will be provided for and against this practice. Ultimately, according to certain halakhic interpretations, it is permissible for a woman to wear a tallit while praying.
To begin, what is the tradition of wearing a tallit? The Torah (Numbers 15:38-9) states: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: They shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments…And this shall be tzitzit for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of G-d, and perform them.” The fringe tassels that hang from the tallit are called tzitzit. Their strings and knots are a physical representation of the Torah’s 613 commandments.
In the Talmud there is a debate as to whether or not this commandment to wear tzitzit applies to both women and men:
Menachot 43a: “The rabbis taught: all are obligated in the laws of tzitzit: priests, Levites, and Israelites, converts, women, and slaves.” However, “Rabbi Shimon exempts women because it is a positive commandment limited by time and from all positive commandments limited by time, women are exempt.”
In general, women are exempt from time-bound positive commandments. These are commandments that the Torah has mandated must be done only at specific times; for example, blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Thus, Rabbi Shimon states that women are not obligated to wear tzitzit because it is a time-bound positive commandment. However, we see that the anonymous rabbis in this Talmudic passage state that women are obligated.
As proof that women can perform time-bound commandments, the Talmud (Eruvin 96a), states that even Michal, the daughter of Saul, wore tefillin. While tefillin is not the main focus, this passage proves that women can make a blessing on time-bound positive commandments:
“Michal the daughter of Saul would lay tefillin…And it is permissible for them to make a blessing on time-bound positive commandments even though they are not required to perform those mitzvoth….”
In the medieval period this issue is discussed in the major Jewish cultures of Spain, Egypt, southern France and northern Europe. In all areas, women are permitted to wear tallit, the only controversy is whether or not they can recite a bracha (blessing) while doing so.
Rambam (Maimonides), Egypt, Laws of Tzitzit 3:9:
“Women are exempt from the biblical law of tzitzit. Women who want to wear tzitzit, wrap themselves in it without a blessing…if they want to perform them without a blessing they are not prevented.”
However, in contrast to the Rambam’s ruling, Rabbeinu Tam, a French Toasafist and leading halakhic authority in his generation (1100-1171), states that women can recite the blessings over positive time-bound commandments such as wearing tzitzit: (Tosafot to Rosh Hashanah 33a):
“…And they may recite the blessings over a positive-time-bound commandment, even though they are exempt from that mitzvah.”
But, while the Rabbeinu Tam recognizes that it is permissible for women to don tallit and recite the blessing, the Rema (rav. Moshe Isserles, 16th c.) believed that a woman who decided to take on these extra obligations were guilty of yoharah, pride (Shulcah Arukh, OC17:2).
In modern codes of Jewish law, support for women wearing tallit continues :
Epstein, the Chayyei Adam of Rabbi Abraham Danzig (1748-1820) states:
“In any case, if they want to wear tzitzit and make the blessing, they may recite the blessing. That is the law with regard to all time-limited positive commandments, like lulav and sukka and others…”
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), a Lithuanian Orthodox rabbi, wrote (Iggerot Moshe, OH 4:49):
“In fact, according to the judgment of the Tosafists they [women] are authorized to make the appropriate blessing. As is our custom women observe the commandments of shofar and lulav…accordingly even tzitzit.”
In conclusion, while Women of the Wall understands that women may not be obligated to wear tallitot, they are certainly not forbidden to so. In 2012 alone, there were over 50 arrests of women at the Kotel for wearing tallit. As a result, the tallit has become a large symbol of Women of the Wall. Women from all around the world have purchased WOW tallitot in show of their support. This act exemplifies the global importance of our struggle for women. From outside of Israel and from within, women are expressing their desire for this practice to be accepted at the Western Wall. Wearing a tallit is a reminder of what we have been commanded to do as Jews and a reminder of our place, as women, within the Jewish community.