Much discussion has arisen in the past few weeks about the permissibility of women donning tefillin. This brief essay will attempt to fill survey the halakhic material and providing clarification regarding the historical relationship between women and tefillin. While the essay will offer various halakhic approaches to this question, it is not intended to address the specific decision that engendered [...]

Women, Tefillin, and the Halakhic Process

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Women, Tefillin, and the Halakhic Process1

by Shlomo M. Brody

Rabbi Shlomo M. Brody teaches at Yeshivat HaKotel and directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars for Post-High School Students. A columnist for the Jerusalem Post, he is also a presidential graduate fellow at Bar Ilan University Law School and a junior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. His first book, Modern Jewish Law: A Guide to the Complex, is schedule to be published in 2014 (Maggid Books).

This article can be accessed in PDF format here: link

Preface: This is the third time in the last few years that I’ve written or co-authored an article in light of raging debate that followed controversial actions within the Orthodox community. The first, “Homosexuality and Halakha: Five Critical Points,” published in the Jewish Press, was written after a YU student panel on Orthodox and homosexuality. The second, “Orthodox Women Rabbis? Tentative Thoughts that Distinguish Between the Timely and the Timeless,” published in Hakirah, was written after the controversy over the ordination of the first Rabbah. In both cases, the goal was to set a proper halakhic framework for continued dialogue within the Orthodox community about controversial matters, with the belief that no serious conversation can take place unless it is rooted in halakha. This latest controversy, regarding the donning of tefillin by women, which has largely revolved around questions of gender and rabbinic authority, has only further convinced me of the necessity of rigorous halakhic discourse to begin all discussions. Yet it has also made me acutely aware of the fact that there is an additional need to respond to broader intellectual critiques and challenges (found even within the Orthodox community) regarding sexuality and gender within these contexts. Elsewhere I have respectfully deemed a different gender-based argument as “unproductive,” and my hope is that iy”h I will be able to expand this draft to properly address those types of concerns, in addition to more traditional halakhic questions. Yet I remain utterly convinced that the current conversation needs to be re-calibrated (or restarted) around halakhic discourse and must ultimately include something like the analysis offered below. As such, I hesitantly offer this initial draft with the hope that it will help reframe the discussion, noting my great fear that the tempo and tone of contemporary debates in the internet age does not allow for sufficient feedback, reflections, and corrections before publication. שגיאות מי יבין. At the very least, I hope to harness the new technology by welcoming feedback and suggestions toward the final draft at or [email protected]


Much discussion has arisen in the past few weeks about the permissibility of women donning tefillin. This brief essay will attempt to survey the halakhic material and providing clarification regarding the historical relationship between women and tefillin. While the essay will offer various halakhic approaches to this question, it is not intended to address the specific decision that engendered this controversy, of which I have no stated opinion.2 Instead, its main goal will focus on how to properly examine the historical development of this law and to elucidate proper procedure in contemplating potential changes within halakha.

When dealing with questions of contemporary law and gender (or any other halakhic dilemma), our approach should encompass case-by-case analysis of each halakha, exploring the law from the Talmud through rishonim and acharonim (medieval and modern commentators) until contemporary poskim (legal decisors). We may then see the nature of the law, explore the rationales and interpretations given to it over the eras, and ask whether an argument can be made to expand the ritual options for women, should the community desire such a change. It is this model which I propose in the following pages.

In this regard, the essay will present various models from different eras with rabbinic literature regarding women and tefillin. In an attempt to keep various rabbinic positions clear, I have used different numerology to enumerate halakhic positions for different eras. Arabic numerals 1-3 have been used for the rabbinic era, the letters a-c for medieval opinions (rishonim), and roman numerals i-vi for later authorities (achronim).

I. Women and Tefillin: 3 Primary Models in Talmudic Literature

Talmudic literature includes three primary models toward the possibility of women donning tefillin:

  1. Women are obligated to wear tefillin: This is the opinion attributed to two prominent tannaim, R. Meir and R. Yehuda, as cited in multiple Talmudic passages (see, for example, Kiddushin 35a and Eruvin 96a-b). According to the final construction of their rationale given in the Gemara, they believed tefillin are not positive time-bound commandments and therefore women are obligated in this commandment.
  2. Women are exempt from wearing tefillin because it is a positive time-bound commandment: This is the stated position of the mishna in Brakhot (20a-b) and elaborated upon by the Talmud in Masekhet Kiddushin (34a). According to this approach, tefillin fit into the general prescriptive rule regarding such commandments (like dwelling in a sukkah) that women are exempt.3
  3. Women are exempt from wearing tefillin because only people who are obligated in the mitzvah of learning Torah (Talmud Torah) are obligated in tefillin. This is the stated rationale in the Mekhilta and the Yerushalmi (Brakhot 3:2). A later compilation of Palestinian origins, the Pesikta Rabati, also quotes the Yerushalmi‘s account. (The analogy is also stated in the Bavli Kiddushin 34, but is a highly marginalized consideration in that passage).

According to approach #1, women are obligated to wear tefillin.

According to approach #2, they are exempt but may wear tefillin, as seen from their refusal to protest the actions of Michal the daughter of Shaul, who donned tefillin “and the rabbis did not reprove her” (Eruvin 96). This is in accordance with the Talmudic position, deemed normative within subsequent Jewish law, that there is no general objection to performing mitzvot when not commanded.

According to sources that cite approach #3, women are exempt but may be allowed to wear tefillin. The sources that use this model report conflicting traditions about the response of the Sages to Michal’s actions. The Mekhilta states that the Sages did not protest, while the Yerushalmi and the Pesikta record that position and then Amoraic rejections of it.

I stress the importance of this schematization because contrary to popular impression, the dominant position within the Talmudic literature – and particularly within the Babylonian Talmud, the accepted authoritative legal text of the halakhic community for well over a millennium – is that women can indeed don tefillin, either out of obligation (model #1) or out of choice (model #2). Even in model #3, the fact that both positions are recorded suggests that they were reached for reasons independent of the Talmud TorahTefillin connection.

II. Normative Halakha Assumes that Women are Exempt from Tefillin because it is a Positive Time-Bound Commandment

Yet ultimately, the normative position accepted within the halakha was model #2 – women are exempt because tefillin is a positive time-bound commandment. As such, this became the deciding rationale of the case, what legal thinkers call the ratio decidini. The other models remained academically interesting, but for legal purposes became the obiter dicta, arguments that were not essential to the decision and was not deemed to establish any logical precedent for future deliberations on this question. Law evolves, and while in theory those models might have become dominant, Jewish law went in a different direction.4 As such, at least with regard to the exemption of women from donning tefllin, the connection between Tefillin and Talmud Torah became largely sidelined in subsequent rabbinic literature.

Some legal theorists have called this process of determining the deciding rationale of a disputed ruling the “path-dependence” of the law: when certain precedents have been set, the path of subsequent legal discourse is determined by this logic. Later decisions thus rely on (and become restrained by) this earlier decision, and legal change becomes difficult except in limited time periods when new legal issues or crises arise. Subsequent legal discussion, therefore, revolved around the question of whether women could perform positive time-bound commandments in general and tefillin in particular.

III.  May Women Voluntarily Wear Tefillin? Three Medieval Approaches

Having established the Talmudic approach to this question, let us now turn to how medieval scholars dealt with the Talmudic legacy.

There are three major approaches to this question in medieval literature:

a)      Women may wear tefillin like all other positive time-bound commandments

b)      Women may not wear tefillin for ancillary reasons.

c)       Women may not wear tefillin for reasons relating to other requirements for donning tefillin.

a) As noted earlier, model #2 was seemingly the dominant position that emerged from the Bavli, and as such was adopted by the majority of medieval commentators. The vast majority of medieval figures believed that in general, women could legitimately choose to positive time-bound commandments. In fact, they cited the example of Michal as a strong precedent.5 Consequently, many scholars explicitly stated that women could indeed don tefillin – these include the Rashba (Shu”t Ha-Rashba 1:123), the Sefer Ha-Chinuch (Mitzvah 421), and R. Shimshon of Coucy (known as the Sar me-Coucy, cited in Haghot Maimoniyot Tzitzit 3:9), who asserted that the refusal of the rabbis in the Talmud to protest Michal’s actions indicated their approval of this pious act. There were rumblings within medieval literature6 that the Sages did not protest her action but also did not approve it (which is why the Talmud used the negative formulation – “they did not protest”). This strand of thought, however, gained little traction.

As my friend the historian Prof. Elisheva Baumgarten has noted in a forthcoming book,7 we have little explicit evidence of women actually donning tefillin. One notable exception is recorded by Rabbi Avigdor Ha-Tzarfati (13th century Vienna),8 who notes that a few pious women in his time period donned tefillin. Nonetheless, many decisors argued that women could indeed don tefillin, and this is the opinion which is implicitly recorded by Rabbi Yosef Karo in the Shulchan Aruch (OC 38:3).

b) A second strand emerged in medieval times which argued that women could not don tefillin for ancillary reasons, even though they agreed that women could generally choose to perform time-bound positive commandments. At least two rationales varied for this position, noted in the endnote.9 We will not focus on them because these positions received almost no attention historically.

c) A third position contends that women may not wear tefillin, even though they generally should be able to perform this positive time-bound commandment, because they do not meet a different unique requirement for this commandment. This position was initially contemplated by the famed Tosafist, R’ Yitzchak of Dampierre (Tosafot Eruvin 96a d.h. michal), as an explanation for the Pesikta, and was later adopted and expanded by R. Meir of Rottenburg (Maharam). R”I, trying to explain the opinion recorded in some Talmudic literature (like the Pesikta) that the Sages disapproved of Michal’s action, suggested that this was because women may not maintain a “guf naki” (body hygiene), classically understood to prohibit flatulence and other hygiene violations (according to Bavli Shabbat 49a, but see below). R”I did not definitely or unambiguously adopt this position. It was Maharam who explicitly adopted this ruling (but without explicit reference to the Pesikta) and expanded this concept, as we shall see. Maharam writes:

Women are exempt from tefillin and tzitzit because both are positive time-bound commandments. After all, tefillin are not donned on the Sabbath and tzitzit are not worn at night. However, one should not protest if [women] wrap themselves in tzitzit and recite the blessing for them (because [women] can take on obligations, as stated in BT Kiddushin [32a–b]). However, they should not put on tefillin because they don’t know to keep themselves pure (tahara).10

As such, according to Maharam, women may choose to wear clothing with tzitzit but cannot don tefillin. Although it is not entirely clear why he believes this to be the case, his language (referring to tahara) seems to indicate that the concern is for menstrual blood or other discharges. The term that is used when he is cited by the Kol Bo – “neki’ut” (cleanliness) – might indicate dirtiness that women might encounter from both menstruation and childcare (e.g. in an era without proper diapers).11 The nature of his ruling, moreover, is somewhat unclear: is he declaring this to be a bona fide normative law, or just a general directive based on contemporary observation? Does he have a source for this opinion? These questions will be asked repeatedly throughout the generations, as we shall see. In any case, the position of Maharam was adopted by a few late Ashkenazic figures and ultimately by R. Moshe Isserles, the Rama, in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch (OC 38:3).

Some may immediately wonder: If Maharam is so concerned with guf naki, then why do we allow boys or young men to wear tefillin? This, in fact, is a reasonable question, and the answer given by Maharam (Tshuvot Maharam 1:142) and those who followed him12 represented a deep departure from Talmudic law. We don’t allow minors (below the age of bar mitzvah) to wear tefillin, and restrict it from being worn until they are more mature. This is a remarkable conclusion, however, since the Talmud (Sukkah 42a – see also Sukkah 26b) seems to explicitly state that fathers must purchase tefillin for a katan (i.e., minor children below the age of Bar Mitzvah), as they similarly do for a tallit katan / tzitzit.13

As such, Rabbi Yosef Karo and other authorities rejected this ruling of Maharam because they believed that we should train young men to control their bodies and thoughts as a part of their education, and that exempting them from this commandment might cause them to entirely neglect it even at a later stage. In fact, R. Karo (OC 37:4) argues that we should continue to follow the Talmudic dictum which would allow minors to wear tefillin even below the age of Bar Mitzvah, on condition that they can maintain the guf naki requirements.14 This continues to be the practice in some Sephardic circles, who start a year or two before the boys become 13. The Rama, however, once again, followed the strict position of the Maharam and ruled that we only allow minors to wear tefillin once they reach their bar mitzvah day (but not beforehand) which, as the Bach explains, was a position that he adopted because of guf naki considerations. In short, the Rama adopted a position which asserted that we don’t allow members of these two groups (women and minors) who are not obligated in the mitzvah of tefillin to choose to put on tefillin because of guf naki concerns.

IV. Where Did Guf Naki Come From? The History of Tefillin Observance

The position of the Maharam regarding women was also challenged by some authorities, including Ashkenazic figures such as the Orchot Chaim (Hilchot Tefillin #3, 14th century Provence), who wondered why the Talmud itself did not mention the factor of guf naki regarding women. This, indeed, is a serious challenge, and led the Orchot Chaim to side with the Rashba and others that women may don tefillin.

In response, R. Yosef Karo suggested that perhaps he was adopting the position of the Pesikta, as was interpreted by the R”I. Yet if this was Maharam’s logic, this is a difficult jump – to rule like the Pesikta against the Bavli – and seemingly led R. Yosef Karo and others before him to reject this opinion in his Shulchan Aruch.15 As we shall see, many who followed the position of Maharam gave different answers to this question and were divided whether or not his position was based on the Pesikta (which, as we noted, was not actually mentioned by Maharam).

How did guf naki emerge as a reason to forbid women from donning tefillin? Interestingly, the notion of guf naki is mentioned in the Yerushalmi and Pesikta as an explanation for why some men do not or should not don tefillin. This is one of the many historical references, well-documented by Rabbi Prof. Ephraim Kanarfogel16 and others, to the fact that the mitzvah of tefillin was tragically neglected in many locations throughout the early medieval period and likely earlier. This problem went well beyond not following the Talmudic practice of wearing tefillin throughout the day, but included not wearing tefillin at all – during prayer or any other time of the day. The problem was so bad, in fact, that in some Geonic writings, it was discussed whether one may publicly don tefillin since it would be seen as act of religious hubris (yuhara).17 As Rabbi Menachem Kasher has documented,18 this deviation received many explanations: it was necessary to hide from persecutions, people believed that tefillin only applies to Torah scholars or exceptionally righteous people, that the commandment in the Torah was meant to be a metaphysical or metaphorical statement, that people were embarrassed to wear them publicly because of its appearance, and finally, that the Jewish people are lazy.

One of the more common explanations was that people (errantly) felt that if they feared maintaining the guf naki requirements, then they should not don tefillin at all.19 Focus on this factor was natural since as opposed to many of the other justifications or explanations, the requirement of guf naki to don tefillin was a normative mandate found in both the Yerushalmi and the Bavli. This term, however, received various interpretations. In some sources, like the Pesikta, it refers to a person’s spiritual piety, i.e. a person should not wear tefillin if they are not righteous because it appears that they are tricking people and it is an act of false piety. In other places, such as Shabbat 49a, the term clearly refers to bodily hygiene, avoiding flatulence, and cleanliness,20 and by the 13th century this explanation became the dominant potential justification for not wearing tefillin in many halakhic sources.

During this time of relative upheaval for the observance of tefillin, in which many neglected the mitzvah entirely, the scholarly consensus emerged that men must wear tefillin but only during a certain part of the day. The law then essentially asserted, “Men must wear tefillin daily only when we are confident they can maintain guf naki,” which became manifested with many wearing tefillin but only during the limited period of tefillah, when they could be expected to maintain proper decorum, in both mind and body. Guf Naki, therefore, became the dominant explanation for why men (errantly) didn’t wear tefillin at all and (correctly) don’t wear it all day, with the consequent solution to wear tefillin only during tefilla.21

Maharam was certainly one of the many rishonim who in this context was very sensitive to the guf naki factor. He extended this consideration to assert that A) Given their menstrual cycles (and perhaps their childcare duties, in the context of a lack of running water and advanced female hygiene products and diapers), women should not don tefillin out of concern for guf naki. B) Minors should not don tefillin since they do not maintain proper mental and physical decorum and therefore should not try until they reach the age of 13.

How do we explain this change in the law (according to these authorities) given that the Talmudic record (at least as recorded in the Bavli) seemingly asserts differently? Let us recall our explanation earlier of the “path-dependence” of the law, which asserted that certain precedents restrain change – unless new legal issues or crises emerge. Because of the historical neglect of the law, a new series of discussions were held on this statute, many of which focused on the concept of guf naki and led to the limitation of donning tefillin to prayer. According to Maharam and others, this focus also came (through ambiguous methods discussed below) to limit the donning of tefillin by women and minors.22

However one explains this phenomenon, the problem with these conclusions is that they went against the seemingly clear directives of the Talmud Bavli. With regard to minors, some asserted (Ba’al Ha-Ittur) that the Talmud in fact was only stating to give your bar-mitzvah age child to wear tefillin, an interpretation which many believed was forced since katan is the term always used for minors. With regard to women, R. Yosef Karo suggested that Maharam was following the Pesikta, but he himself ruled against the Maharam. As we shall see shortly, many authorities followed the ruling of the Maharam but gave a different explanation as to how we can reconcile this ruling with the Bavli.

V. Can We Abandon the Position of the Rama?

At this stage, some might argue that despite our full respect for the Maharam and the Rama, we can abandon this position in favor of the position held by Rashba, the Chinuch, Rabbi Shimshon of Coucy, the Orchot Chaim, Rabbi Yosef Karo and others who allowed women to don tefillin, just as Michal did. Indeed, this approach was taken by Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits z”l, who in his work Jewish Women in Time and Torah (p. 73) argued that women may reject the concerns for guf naki, which are anachronistic because of greater educational opportunities and hygiene advances, and simply follow the position of Rabbi Yosef Karo.23

The notion of abandoning the position of the Rama (model c above) to follow Rabbi Karo (model a above) is not unprecedented,24 especially in cases when prominent later figures rejected the Rama. Yet in this case, this seems to be a far-reaching position, because in the subsequent years following the debate between Rabbi Karo and the Rama, almost every known posek has ruled that the law follows the Rama and we protest if women desire to don tefillin. This includes not only Ashkenazic decisors, but also Sephardic scholars, some of whom agreed to Maharam’s argumentation (Birkey Yosef 38:1) and others who were influenced by later kabbalistic writings which rejected the notion of women donning tefillin for mystical reasons.25 Once again, the “path-dependence” model helps us to understand this phenomenon. In the 13th century, the Jewish map included scholars prohibiting women from wearing tefillin (Maharam), allowing women to don tefillin (Rashba), and even a few pious women actually donning tefillin (R. Avigdor Ha-Tzarati). By the 17th century, however, a major shift occurred, and in the subsequent centuries, all Jewish decisors (more or less, as seen below) ruled that women should not don tefillin.

Jewish law, as liberal Orthodox figures certainly contend, can and does evolve. In this case, it evolved to almost universally ban women from donning tefillin. In fact, the position was so universal that one prominent 19th century decisor, the Maharam Schick (Shu”t Maharam Schick OC 1:73), argued that women who don tefillin would violate the prohibition of mihzei ke-yuhara, acting in a manner that would be perceived as religious pretentiousness. Others, as documented below, further asserted that tefillin had become male-clothing, begged ish, and therefore women who donned tefillin would additionally violate the Biblical prohibition of cross-dressing. As such, even if one would believe that it would be positive to allow women to don tefillin, the notion of choosing to abandon 500 years of halakhic rulings seems somewhat far-reaching for those who respect the historical development of halakha. This might be especially true in cases where there is no widespread consensus that contemporary exigencies require a change in this law, as I will discuss later.

VI. Did All Later Authorities Absolutely Ban Women from Wearing Tefillin?

That said, it pays to closely examine the reason that different post-Rama decisors gave for prohibition women from donning tefillin. While they might have reached the same conclusion, the rationale which they give can lend itself to different implications. In particular, we should examine how these authorities resolved the tension that Maharam’s ruling raises with the conclusion of the Bavli that women may indeed wear tefillin, as exemplified by the fact that the Sages did not protest Michal’s actions.

I should stress, however, that my goal is to write for the sake of Torah Study (halakha ve-lo le-ma’aseh) and to clarify how halakhic change may theoretically occur, as opposed to the methods suggested earlier. As I will explain later, a very strong argument could be made that the halakha should not change in this case, and even if one thinks it should change and believes that a sound halakhic argument could be made, I would not do so without the approval and leadership of a bona fide posek. I am a firm believer that halakhic changes should occur under the guidance of major scholars, which I am certainly not. Nonetheless, it is important to explore, from a methodological perspective, the arguments that one might make both for and against halakhic change, given the various interpretations of the Maharam’s position in the post-Shulchan Aruch era.

There are 6 major positions in the post-Rama era regarding women wearing tefillin. It is at times difficult to interpret which decisor falls into which camp, as some of the texts are a bit cryptic. I will not elaborate on careful read of every major figure because this is not the forum and I hope that this will be elaborated upon in a follow up essay or by wiser, more distinguished scholars, who are also thinking deeply about these questions. Instead, I will try to delineate 6 representative positions,26 identify the implicit questions that bothered them, and then discuss the implications for pious women to don tefillin in our era.27

Model i: To understand the different interpretations of the Rama’s ruling, we begin with the claim of the only prominent commentator to the Shulchan Aruch who explicitly challenged the Rama: R. Shmuel ben Yosef of Cracow, the author of Olat Tamid (OC 38:4), a relatively early commentator to the Shulchan Aruch who wrote in the 17th century.28 The Olat Tamid interpreted the Rama as adopting the opinion of the Pesikta in light of the concern for guf naki (i.e. the interpretation of the Maharam suggested by the Bet Yosef). Yet he challenges the Rama since this concern was not raised in the Bavli, which only stated that women were merely exempt because tefillin is a positive time-bound commandment, and the Bavli further records that the Sages did not protest against Michal’s actions. He hesitantly answers that the guf naki rationale was not offered in the Talmud because that wouldn’t explain the exemption of slaves (who can maintain guf naki). Therefore the rationale of positive time-bound commandments was stated to cover both women and slaves, even though guf naki remains an additional issue for women. Yet the Bavli clearly asserts that this problem can be overcome, since the Sages did not reprove Michal.29 As such, he asserts that any woman who knows that she can maintain guf naki, such as someone who is post-menopause, or a slave,30 who does not have special guf naki concerns, could don tefillin. He makes similar statements regarding a deaf-mute (Olat Tamid 37:1) and minors under the age of 13 (37:4), all of whom he allows to don tefillin if they believe they can maintain a guf naki.

In short, the Olat Tamid rejects the Maharam/Rama because he believes, like Rabbi Yosef Karo, that we follow the Bavli over the Pesikta, as exemplified by their approval of Michal’s actions. As such, anyone who is normally exempt from tefillin – women, boys under 13, slaves, and deaf-mutes – may choose to don tefillin, but only if they are confident that they can maintain a guf naki.

Nearly all post-Talmudic commentators, however, rejected the position of the Olat Tamid, at least in part.31 Their rationales, however, were very different and have important implications.

Model ii: One novel answer was offered by the Vilna Gaon.32 He asserted that women are strictly forbidden from donning tefillin because the Bavli in fact agrees with the opinions in the Yerushalmi/Pesikta that we do protest women who don tefillin. He contended that the position cited in the Bavli that the rabbis did not protest Michal’s behavior was only according to the Talmudic opinion that stated women were obligated in tefillin (R. Meir and R. Yehuda, model #1). Thus according to the Gr”a, the prohibition of women donning tefillin is absolute.

Model iii: The Pri Megadim (Mishbetzot Zahav OC 38:2) and Ma’amar Mordechai (OC 38:3) asserted that we do not allow anyone who is not obligated in tefillin to wear them because of concerns of guf naki. As such, since women are exempt from tefillin, they are forbidden from choosing to perform this mitzvah, just as a minor under 13 is similarly forbidden.

Their logic is as follows: Many have guf naki concerns, which is a condition stated in the Bavli, but these concerns must be overcome for those who have a bona fide obligation to don tefillin. Women, however, do not have such an obligation, and that being the case, we do not allow them to don tefillin because a) there is no reason for those who are not obligated to take any chance (Ma’amar Mordechai)33 or b) those who are not obligated in this strict commandment do not fastidiously follow this requirement (Pri Megadim).34 According to this logic, there is no room for exception – no one who is exempt may don tefillin.

Consequently, in the Mishbetzot Zahav, the Pri Megadim explicitly rules that slaves may not don tefillin.35 Significantly, the Maharam and Rama had not discussed the possibility of slaves, yet based on their statements regarding women and minors, it is a reasonable interpretation to assume that they believed this should also apply to slaves, i.e. the other major category that the mishna states are not chayav to don tefillin.36 In other words, the Maharam/Rama declared a legal principle or an across-the-board ruling that we do not allow anyone who is exempt to don tefillin.

How did the Maharam and the Rama make such a declaration, if this goes against the Bavli‘s statement that the Sages did not reprove Michal? Interestingly, the Pri Megadim and the Ma’amer Mordechai do not explicitly address this question. There are two potential answers:

a)      They had a source: We rule like the Pesikta, based on the Bet Yosef‘s interpretation of the Maharam (which itself had possible precedent from the interpretation of the R”I).

The problem with this approach, however, is it does not explain the departure of the Maharam from the Talmud with regard to a minor under 13 (katan). Yet it could be that Maharam accepted the interpretation (noted earlier) of the Talmud’s reference to a katan as being someone who is 13 (or some similar alternative).

b) They didn’t have a source but they made a legal declaration: One might argue that figures like the Pri Megadim adopted a different explanation for Maharam that was independently offered (implicitly) by the Eliya Rabba (OC 38:2) and (explicitly) by Magen Giborim (comments to Bet Yosef 38:3).37 They assert that over the generations, some women were not able to adhere to the guf naki requirement and therefore a prohibition developed not to allow any women to don tefillin. As such, since some women can’t meet the standard, Maharam/Rama prohibited all women from risking to wearing tefillin. Thus today, we do not allow any women (even someone like Michal) to don tefillin because many women were not fastidious or able to observe guf naki, and therefore we banned all women from donning tefillin lest it lead to a halakhic mishap. While they do not explicitly state this regarding minors, one might argue the same process occurred: since many minors could not keep a guf naki, Maharam prohibited all from donning tefillin. This approach thus interprets the Rama as respecting the Bavli‘s historical ruling (which allowed Michal to don tefillin) yet asserting that by Maharam’s time we adopted a general prohibition in light of the difficulty in maintaining the Talmudic requirement of guf naki.

As a whole, this model is an attractive explanation because it explains the Maharam / Rama as creating a clear, principled legal approach toward the issue: all those who are exempt may not don tefillin.

Model iv: A fourth approach asserts that Maharam’s ruling was not based on legal principle, but was based on observations from reality: in practice, women and minors under 13 are not able to maintain a guf naki and therefore we do not allow them to don tefillin.

This approach has the immediate advantage because it allows the Maharam and Rama to follow the Bavli. In theory, women and minors can choose to don tefillin, but they (like men) have to maintain the Bavli‘s requirement of guf naki. Since in practice we find that they do not maintain a guf naki, we assert that they should not don tefillin.

Based on this logic, however, there is no blanket prohibition against all those who are exempt from donning tefillin. As such, one may theoretically argue that slaves (the category not discussed by Maharam/Rama) or deaf-mutes may don tefillin if one believes that, in practice, they can maintain guf naki. In other words, people generally exempt from tefillin who maintain a guf naki may choose to don tefillin, just like those who are obligated to don tefillin exert themselves to ensure that they maintain guf naki.

Moreover, since the Maharam’s ruling is a subjective assessment based on contemporary practice, other sages can disagree with their ruling and assert that the members of these exempted groups may in fact choose to don tefillin should they be able to maintain guf naki. As noted earlier, this was the claim made with regard to minors not only by the Bet Yosef and Olat Tamid, but also figures like the Bach and other later authorities who ruled that we allow some minors to don tefillin (see, for example Ba’er Hetev OC 37:4) if they are already engaged in Torah study (i.e. learn about keeping mitzvot) and know how to maintain their guf naki.38

Which rabbinic categories fall into the model of those who assert that the Rama’s ruling is based on practical evaluation? This appears to be the opinion of the Taz (OC 38:2), as interpreted (and rejected) by the Pri Megadim in Mishbetzot Zahav. The Taz does a very careful read of the relevant passage in the Shulchan Aruch.

שו”ע אורח חיים לח:ג

נשים ועבדים פטורים מתפילין מפני שהוא מצות עשה שהזמן גרמא:
הגה: ואם הנשים רוצין להחמיר על עצמן מוחים בידן (כל בו):

Rabbi Karo, as noted earlier, simply states that women and slaves are exempt because tefillin is a positive time-bound commandment. Rama then adds that if women want to be stringent and perform this commandment, we reprove them.

The Taz (implicitly) asks two basic questions: why do we reprove women and what is the law regarding slaves, who (by omission) the Rama seemingly states we would not reprove?

ט”ז אורח חיים סימן לח ס”ק ב מוחין בידם. – לפי שאינן זריזות להזהר

His 4-word answer is short but simple: women are not fastidious to be careful [about guf naki]. In other words, both women and slaves are exempt, but we reprove women who would want to be stringent since in practice they do not or cannot maintain guf naki. This is not a problem for male slaves since they do not menstruate, and therefore they may don tefillin.

The Mishbetzot Zahav criticizes this opinion since he believes that slaves, like women, cannot be trusted since we have an across-the-board legal rule: those who are not obligated in the commandments are not allowed to don tefillin since we fear that they will not be fastidious to maintain this guf naki requirement. As such, Mishbetzot Zahav rules that a slave, like a woman, cannot choose to don tefillin.

Yet the Taz believes that the Maharam’s rulings were empirical claims based on what occurs in practice: women (and minors) do not maintain guf naki, while slaves can. How did he explain the example of Michal? He doesn’t say, although we will see possible suggestions shortly. The larger point, however, is that the Taz felt that Maharam had asserted that based on observation, women, in practice, are not fastidious or able to maintain a guf naki for these purposes. In other words, beyond their general exemption from this commandment as a positive time-bound commandment, women do not have the option (as they normally do) to do this mitzvah because in practice they have difficulty fulfilling its requirements (i.e. guf naki). Slaves, however, who do not have special guf naki concerns from menstruation, may don tefillin, should they so desire, if they are confident that they can keep their body clean, just as other (Jewish) men do because they are obligated in the commandment.

To be clear, Taz rules that we protest against women who would don tefillin because in practice they do not maintain guf naki. The logic of his claim, however, could be construed to argue that in theory, if a woman could maintain a guf naki, she could don tefillin, just like slaves can.

While the Taz does not explicate this potential logical conclusion explicitly, this idea was explicated by the Aruch Ha-Shulchan (OC 38:6). He details the history of tefillin observance and how we generally have minimized the amount of time that people wear tefillin because of the practical concern for guf naki. Men, who are obligated, generally wear tefillin only when they pray, while we protest against women who want to don tefillin since there is no need for them to enter a risky situation if they are not obligated. That being the case, he asks, how do we explain the case of Michal, since the Bavli clearly asserted that Sages did not reprove her? She was different, he answers, because we do not protest against a righteous woman (i.e. who is meticulous about mitzvah observance) like Michal who asserts that she can maintain guf naki, just as we do not protest against slaves who choose to don tefillin.39 Slaves may don tefillin because they do not have extra guf naki concerns, while pious women like Michal may don tefillin if they are confident in maintaining guf naki, because the entire prohibition was only because of Maharam’s general empirical claim that women do not, in practice, maintain guf naki.

One might claim that perhaps the Aruch Ha-Shulchan believed that Michal was sui generis or somehow unique and therefore cannot provide any precedent for other pious women. This interpretation, however, seems incorrect because within this same passage (38:6), Aruch Ha-Shulchan asserted that the law for tefillin for women even during times of prayer is analogous to that of males donning tefillin during the rest of the day (as many did in Talmudic times). What is the Aruch Ha-Shulchan‘s position regarding the ability of men to choose to don tefillin outside the context of prayer? In Aruch Ha-Shulchan 37:3 (which he explicitly references in 38:6), he asserts – against the Magen Avraham – that we allow pious men to keep their tefillin on after prayer, and that a few exceptionally pious men still even have the practice of donning them throughout the day. As such, the law is the same: pious men who are fastidious in guf naki may choose to keep on their tefillin outside the context of prayer (37:3), just as pious women (as exemplified by Michal but going beyond her)40 may choose to don tefillin during the context of prayer.

This interpretation of the Aruch Ha-Shulchan is further proven by his statements (37:4) regarding a minor donning tefillin before the age of 13. He initially notes that the contemporary practice is to begin donning tefillin 1 month before the age of 13 (or minimally beforehand). Yet he then states that this practice – which follows the opinion of the Rama (which originated in the Ittur’s novel interpretation of the Gemara) – is against the clear Talmudic law, which clearly stated that a younger minor can don tefillin. This is the ikar ha-din, the initial and baseline rule, which was appropriate in Talmudic times when minors were fastidious. Today, however, the practice has changed, since we can’t trust any minors in guf naki, and even post bar-mitzvah teenagers can barely keep these laws after they are 13! In other words, the law changed in accordance with the perception of the contemporary reality.

Writing toward the very end of the 19th century in Novordhok, the Aruch Ha-Shulchan clearly ruled that we generally state that women should not don tefillin. Yet he also states that the prohibition is based on the general assessment of contemporary reality – the average woman does not maintain guf naki standards – not an across-the-board statement in theory or law. For this reason, he does not protest against slaves, pious men who don tefillin after prayer, or pious women like Michal who are fastidious in maintaining guf naki.41 For the same reason practical concerns, he does protest against minors donning tefillin.

If this interpretation is correct, then one might argue that because of the incredible advances in hygiene within recent eras (including constant access to running water and a multi-billion dollar female hygiene industry), women today may, in practice, more easily maintain a guf naki.42 If (and only if) they are pious and committed to being fastidious about these rules, then we should not protest against their choice, given the changes in contemporary resources.43 This, indeed, is the interpretation and (somewhat reluctant) conclusion of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, as discussed below.

Model v: Women may not don tefillin for different or additional reasons beyond guf naki:

This group includes: a) the Kaf Ha-Chaim 38:9 and others (for kabbalistic reasons)

b) the Beit Hillel (Yoreh De’ah 182:2) and the Levush (OC 17:2), who argue that tefillin have become men’s clothing and therefore violate the prohibition of cross-dressing, based on the Targum Yonatan Devarim 22:5. According to this position, we accept the law of the Rama – women may never don tefillin – but the rationale that is offered is supplemented or different.

It should be noted, however, that many scholars rejected the concern for cross-dressing, arguing that this prohibition only applies to articles of clothing worn for style or appearance, not for fulfilling a commandment.44 Moreover, kabbalistic arguments women and tefillin were not regularly quoted in many halakhic works, especially (but not only) by those who do not share that orientation.

Model vi: Women may don tefillin

While these opinions are not very well known, 2 later authorities, besides the Olat Tamid, disagreed, at least in theory, with the Maharam/Rama.

The first statement is found in a responsum written in 1610 by Rabbi Binyamin Salnik (Shu”t Masat Binyamin #62). It comes within the context of a responsum in which he defends the right for those who have become blind (including himself) to get called to the Torah for an aliyah even though they cannot read. This is a passionate essay in which he argues that this is justified under the letter of the law, and that moreover, it must be allowed in sensitivity to those who are not fully obligated in all mitzvot (like the blind). To support this claim, he cites the fact that the Sages did not reprove Michal for donning tefillin, even though women cannot properly maintain guf naki and therefore this act might be unbecoming and disgusting (mekhu’ar). Nonetheless, he asserts, the Sages did not protest her actions in sensitivity to her desire to take part in accepting the yoke of heaven (i.e. performing mitzvot) and to provide for her religious satisfaction (in accordance with same principle that allows women to perform optional commandments in general). While he does not state explicitly that he ruled, in practice, against the Rama (who was one of his teachers), it does appear that the he thinks the Sages and subsequent scholars should acquiesce to women who desire to don tefillin, in spite of the guf naki concerns. This stems from the logic of his argument: just as we are sensitive to women like Michal, so too we should be sensitive to blind men. This responsum, however, received little further attention, at least with regard to its implications for women and tefillin, most probably because he did not fully state practical applications, le-ma’aseh, for this question.

Another dissent to the Rama’s ruling was asserted by Rabbi David Ortenburg, Tehilla Le-David (OC 38:1), who noted that a guf naki is required as well to pray (OC 80:1), and yet women are obligated to do so despite that concern. If they can pray with a guf naki, he reasons, they can also don tefillin at the same time. He therefore speculates that Rama in fact only intended to ban women from donning tefillin throughout the day, but not during prayer, when they maintain a guf naki anyway to fulfill their obligation to pray. He notes, however, that the Pri Megadim Eshel Avraham45 had pondered and rejected this possibility. [One possible answer to his question is that the requirements and standards for guf naki during prayer, which is of medieval origins, are less stringent during prayer than they are for donning tefillin. See footnote.]46

As with the example of Rabbi Salnik, it is unclear if he in fact rules that women can actually follow this approach, halakha le-ma’aseh.

Obviously, more research and writing must be done to properly interpret the opinions of these and many other authorities, but I believe that these six categories fairly represent the basic schematization of post-Rama opinions regarding women and tefillin.

VII. What Are the Positions of Contemporary Poskim?

Before discussing the potential halakhic implications of these 6 positions, we should also note that the actual question (le-ma’aseh) of whether women may voluntarily don tefillin has been discussed in recent decades. I have found 3 approaches in contemporary poskim:

a) Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe OC 4:49) zt”l adamantly opposed any attempt to allow women to don tefillin. In a responsum written in 1975, he asserted that those who seek to introduce such reforms in the name of feminism are not only violating the strictures of the Rama and subsequent authorities, but are also challenging the value structure of the Torah. As such, they are the equivalent of heretics who must be adamantly opposed.

It is interesting to note that with regard to tzizzit, Rav Moshe was theoretically willing to contemplate a way in which one might allow women to wear them. Yet he doesn’t seem to think that this is a theoretical possibility in tefillin, and in any case, he is not interested in discussing the matter because of the alleged motivations of the women in question. It is impossible to know how Rabbi Feinstein would respond 40 years later, but similar statements have been made by many other decisors in recent years.47 In any case, it could very well be that even if he felt such women were as pious as Michal, he would not allow them to don tefillin, in accordance with the opinion of the Rama, Gr”a (model ii), Pri Megadim (model iii), Levush (model v) and the long-term normative ruling and practice.

b) Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin shlit”a (Shu”t Bnei Banim 2:3), who is certainly one of the prominent legal decisors most sympathetic to gender concerns within halakha, was asked by a woman if she may don tefillin or tzitzit for the sake of personal spiritual elevation. Rabbi Henkin allowed her to don tzitzit in private, but advised her not to wear tefillin in accordance with the position of the Rama. Instead, he suggested that she should seek other outlets for religious growth. Rabbi Henkin does not elaborate on his position, but I assume that he simply believed we should follow the practice established by almost every decisor in the post-Rama era (and certainly the well-known figures) who ruled that we should protest against women who don tefillin.

c) Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, shlit”a (Peninei Halakha (hyperlinked), Likutim I, p. 212-214) surveyed the relevant sources and ruled that generally speaking we should follow the position of the Rama. As such, if asked by a pious woman who genuinely sought religious growth, he advises telling her that she is not allowed. Yet if she is insistent, Rabbi Melamed argues, then one should not protest in accordance with those positions who rejected Maharam like the Orchot Chaim (model a) and Olat Tamid (model i), as well as the Aruch Ha-Shulchan (model iv), who would allow righteous women to don tefillin. He makes a further methodological point that when righteous women seek such avenues of growth, we should not protest when they have “what (i.e. proper halakhic argumentation) to rely upon.”48 He adds, however, that they should only do so when they are not menstruating and in private (to protect their privacy of when they are menstruating and to ensure that their intent is leshem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven).

Rabbi Melamed then continues to assert that in the case of women who are genuinely not strict about modest dress and other mitzvot, and only desire to don tefillin for a feminist agenda, we should protest this behavior since their actions are not “for the sake of heaven” and mitzvot observance should not be used as a weapon in social wars.

VIII. Can One Make a Halakhic Argument for Change?

As Rabbi Melamed claims, a legitimate halakhic argument can be made to allow woman to don tefillin.49 The argument would go as follows: Even though we rule like the Rama, the rationale accepted for his ruling by leading scholars (model iv) such as the Aruch Ha-Shulchan dictates that the concern for guf naki is based on empirical observation. As such, in our era, should righteous women – who care about meticulous mitzvot observance -assert that they can keep guf naki (because of their knowledge of their bodies and because of the contemporary resources for female hygiene), then we may allow them to do so, or at least should not protest this practice. This is especially since a couple of later scholars (model i and seemingly model vi) assert that this position is normative, in consonance with the many rishonim who felt this way as well (model a), based on the simple read of the Bavli (model 2) and the example of Michal, before the innovative approach taken by the Maharam and the Rama.

In my mind, this is a legitimate halakhic model because it takes into account the full history of the topic and bases its position on major groups of figures within Chazal, rishonim, and acharonim. It is modest in its claims – acknowledging the weight of figures and practice that go against this tradition – but argues that the halakhic process has produced a legitimate strand to allow for dispensations for pious women who maintain guf naki. Moreover, especially if done in private, this would allay fears of michzey ke-yuhara (religious pretentiousness) or that the intent is to make a public show for the sake of some social agenda.

The counter legal argument, however, might claim that a) many prominent scholars like the Vilna Gaon (model ii), Levush (model v), and others felt strongly that women should absolutely not wear tefillin; and b) many others felt that the Rama would uniformly ban even pious and fastidious women from donning tefillin either because we don’t allow the non-obligated to don tefillin or because we are afraid that their example will lead to mishaps with other women (model iii). This fear might be further elevated in our era when some might be tempted to don tefillin because it is revolutionary, and not for the sake of their service to God; c) even those whose opinions might logically allow for change (model iv) in the contemporary era still made clear rulings against women donning tefillin. Moreover, they seem to stress that women who don tefillin should portray exceptional piety, an application that would not apply to everyone; and d) the long-standing tradition goes against this practice, since nearly every posek, whatever there logic, ruled in practice over the last 500 years that women should not don tefillin, and we have little precedent from centuries beforehand of women actually donning tefillin, despite the fact that many rishonim allowed it.

IX. Even If One Can Make a Legitimate Halakhic Argument, Is This Change a Good Idea?

Beyond the legal argumentation, one must ask an additional question: Even if one should conclude that a change is halakhically feasible, should we actually make that change? One might argue that since breaking with the traditional practice is a serious matter, we should only contemplate change when a) women express interest in such change for their personal and religious development, and b) there is a perceived communal need for this change.

For example, there are many educated and talented women who want leadership roles in the community, and the community is in need of good leaders. There are many religious women who want to go to the Israeli army, and the army, because of demographic factors and expected needs in human resources, would like more female soldiers in their ranks. In both of these cases, moreover, there is no long-standing tradition within Jewish law with regard to learned / educated women or women soldiers, since these possibilities basically did not exist in previous eras. As such, in these cases, it is worthwhile to explore the halakhic possibilities within the halakhic tradition. This would be a dialogue under the leadership and ultimate authority of our poskim, in conversation with scholarly and lay figures (of both genders), that would produce open communal discourse about whether change is possible or wise.

Regarding tefillin, however, it is hard to argue that there is a broad demand by Orthodox women to wear tefillin, or that the broader community believes that this change is necessary for some given reason. Quite simply – for better or for worse – there is no overwhelming feeling that somehow women are missing out on an important religious experience, or that the inclusion of women in this ritual will somehow elevate the broader community. In such situations, one might argue that the contemporary practice should remain, and this is especially so since the basically universal halakhic tradition for over 500 years has ruled that women do not don tefillin.

One might counter this claim, however, by arguing that small demand for this change in fact allows for individual dispensations since the overall impact will be minimal, especially since tefillin, by its nature, is a ritual which most directly affects the person performing the mitzvah. Moreover, one might argue that even if there is no broad demand or perceived communal benefit, we should not protest the desires of the limited group of women who simply believe that this will bring them spiritual benefit. If accepted, however, this argument might lead to the suggestion of Rabbi Melamed: if you insist, don tefillin in private – and this is only if you are sincere and pious and will take the requirements seriously. Some might also add that in the absence of many women expressing such change or a perceived communal benefit, we should not issue individual dispensations when we fear these changes stem from (or will be perceived as) imitations of non-Orthodox movements, along the lines of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s argument and Rabbi Melamed’s caveat.

These arguments also raise the question of whether legal rulings (particularly those of great social sensitivity) can and should take into account individual situations, which may (or may not) impact a given ruling. Rabbi Melamed and Rabbi Henkin discuss one potential situation: where a generally pious woman insists that this would be beneficial for her religious growth and is willing to don tefillin in private. Other complex situations might include school or other educational environments, pluralistic institutions like Hillel Houses, potential kiruv opportunities or challenges,50 keeping someone from leaving Orthodoxy, and a host of other questions. One could argue that all psak (legal rulings to specific questions) must remain local and individualized, thereby preventing a given individual’s needs from being overlooked in the face of a larger legal and social battle (in which the individual may have no stake or interest). One might counter, however, that in our hyper-connected world, the notion of a fully individualized psak is not feasible, especially in sensitive areas of halakha. One must assume that any psak given to an individual will be (mis?)interpreted as a global statement or taken as a precedent for others. The brouhaha created in the current case points to the great difficulty of issuing individual rulings, particularly when tefillin are worn in a public context.

X. Concluding Thoughts

My goal is not to take a stand in one direction or another, but to give models of what a proper halakhic argument might look like, at least with regard to a general ruling, and what types of considerations should go into this process. I should stress, however, that I am very much not stating that this is simply a question of public policy. To the contrary, the halakhic argument here should be at the front and center, with policy considerations only entering at a later stage and in light of the halakhic discussion. The notion that “once any argument can be made in favor of change, the entire discussion is a matter of public policy” is an affront to legal thought and should be abhorred by those who revere Jewish law and take the halakhic process and its historical bearers seriously.

The Orthodox community continues to suffer from immense and emotional disagreements over matters of gender and halakha. That is very regrettable and dangerous. Clarifying proper halakhic procedure is essential to ensuring that our stances remain within the halakhic framework, which will in turn allow us to continue to have a shared language of rational and respectful discourse, le-shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven.

  1. Many thanks to Rabbi Michael Broyde, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, Rabbi David Brofsky, Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, Rabbi Prof. Aryeh Frimer, Rabbi Prof. Jeffrey Woolf, Rabbi Prof. Ephraim Kanarfogel, Prof. Elisheva Baumgarten, Prof. Yehuda Galinsky, Dr. Joel Wolowelsky, Aaron Shapiro, and Lea Taragin-Zeller for their feedback or comments on earlier drafts of this paper. 

  2. This is for two major reasons: 1) I have not spoken with either of the two heads of school, who are both very respected educators who I personally like and respect very much, and it would be entirely inappropriate for me to comment on anything without speaking to them. 2) School situations, as I will note toward the end of the paper, raise unique circumstances that require additional thoughts, and in any case I cannot pass judgment on a situation with which I am not familiar. 

  3. As the Gemara itself notes, there are many counter-examples to this rule, and women are indeed obligated in many positive time-bound positive commandments, a fact which I hope to discuss in the more comprehensive version of this article. 

  4. Some later authorities occasionally mention model #3 when they discuss the origins of women’s exemption from tefillin, but it does not play a role in their halakhic rulings whether women can in fact wear tefillin. The connection between tefillin and torah does play a role in other halakhic contexts, only further highlighting its irrelevance for the discussion regarding women, where it does not play a role. 

  5. They did debate whether they could also recite the complementary blessings. This is a major disagreement, with Rabbenu Tam being the most famous advocate for women to be permitted to recite the blessings, and Maimonides opposing him. This remains an ongoing dispute in contemporary times, with Ashkenazim following Rabbenu Tam, and Sephardim divided over the question. 

  6. Cited in Ramban Kiddushin 31a and Chidushei Ha-Ran Rosh Hashana 33b. 

  7. Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women and Everyday Religious Observance (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming fall 2014). See also the chapter on Maharam in Avraham Grossman, Ve-Hu Yimshol Bakh?, Merkaz Zalman Shazar, p. 318-319. He cites in full the statement of Rav Avigdor Ha-Tzarfati. 

  8. See his Perushim uPesakim, Parashat Emor, #213, p. 172. The myth that Rashi’s daughters donned tefillin is debunked in “What’s the Truth about Rashi’s Daughters?”, Jewish Action, Summer 2011. See his discussion about other historical reports. 

  9. Rabbi Isaiah of Trani II (the Riaz) offered an interesting explanation which asserted that the donning of tefillin by women would appear as if we were rejecting the authority of the Sages in their interpretations of the Torah (Shiltei Giborim Rosh Hashanah, 9b in Rif). Another contended that the contact of tefillin with women’s hair might be problematic since the normally covered hair is deemed as ervah in consistency with the position that women’s hair should be covered for modesty reasons (se’ar ishah ervah). In cases where the performance of an optional act might lead to any element of a transgression, we instruct women not to perform this mitzvah (Haghot Maimoniyot Hilchot Tzizzit 3:9). I should note that I have, to date, only found one statement of clear evidence the connects the prohibition of women donning tefillin and the medieval practice of women not entering a synagogue while they are a niddah, as discussed in Rama OC 88:1. It is, however, relatively late, found in Eshel Avraham Tanina to Rama OC 38:3. Medieval historians have told me that they have not found medieval sources connecting these issues. More thought and research is required on this question. 

  10. Translation from Elisheva Baumgarten’s forthcoming book. Maharam’s teaching is recorded in his Psakim #34 (volume 1 in Mossad Harav Kook edition) and is also recorded by his student Rabbi Shimshon ben Tzadok, Sefer Tashbetz, #270. (In a new edition, it is #13). 

  11. As Prof. Yehuda Galinsky emphasized to me, the attempt to interpret statements by Maharam is exceedingly difficult since his teachings were largely recorded by his students and, moreover, they frequently differ in their formulation of his position. 

  12. Kol Bo Siman 21 and the ruling of the Maharil, Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Moellin, Minahgim, Hilkhot Tefillin, #10. Maharil even discusses the idea that one should not wear tefillin until they are married, although it’s not clear from the context what age he thinks young men become betrothed. It is possible that he believes that this is true even after bar mitzvah age. 

  13. See Bet Yosef OC 37:3 and 38:4. 

  14. In fact, even in the 17th century, the Bach (OC 37:3) ruled that minors may begin wearing tefillin at an earlier age, with some even allowing it from the age of 10 (Be’er Hetev 37:4). This was on the condition, however, that they are mature enough to learn Torah and can understand the importance of giving respect to tefillin, including only wearing them while they are careful for guf naki. Many Sephardim continue with this practice today (Yabia Omer OC 6:3). Most Ashkenazim, however, only begin wearing a month or two before they become a bar mitzvah (Aruch Ha-Shulchan 37:4). 

  15. For purposes of clarity, we should stress that while the Bet Yosef invokes the Psikta, he does so only for the purposes of explaining the position that would state that women should not don tefillin, even though they may normally perform positive time-bound commandments, based on guf naki considerations. Neither he nor the R”I, however, are invoking the Pesikta to revive the tefillin-Talmud Torah model (model #3 above). 

  16. “Rabbinic Attitudes toward Observance and Non-Observance in the Medieval Period,” in Jewish Tradition and the Non-traditional Jews, ed. J. J. Schacter (Montvale, N. J., 1992), 3-35. 

  17. See, for example, Teshuvot Ha-Gaonim Ha-Hadashot (Ofek) #161 and the sources discussed in the articles by Rabbi Kasher and Prof. Kanarfogel. 

  18. Torah Shlemah Vol. 12 p.260-268. 

  19. Early opposition to this errant justification can already be found in the 8th century. See as well Tosafot Shabbat 49a. 

  20. See, for example, the requirements listed by Meiri Brakhot 14b d.h. mah

  21. You can see this notion in many 13th century Ashkenazic texts, such as the preacher Rabbi Moshe of Coucy’s Smag (Aseh #3), in which he exhorts his listeners to obey the mitzvah of tefillin. In that context, he assures them that the concern for guf naki can be overcome:

    עוד זאת דרשתי להם כי מה שאמרו רבותינו (שבת מט, א) תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים שלא ישן ושלא יפיח בהם, זהו באדם שמניחן כל היום כולו כמצותן פן ישכחם עליו ויעשה בהם דבר שאינו הגון, אבל בשעת תפילה אין לך רשע שלא יהא ראוי לתפילין, קל וחומר מספר תורה שהוא מקודש יותר שיש בו כל התורה כולה ובתפילין אין בו כי אם ארבע פרשיות שהם בתוך עור, והכל אוחזין בספר תורה בשעת תפילה שהכל יכולין להתנהג בטהרה בשעת תפילה:  

  22. As noted later, I am not surprised that the requirement for guf naki during prayer was first stated by the Rosh, a student of Maharam. See Tur 80:1. 

  23. It should be noted that in general, Rabbi Berkovits zt”l had little respect for the codification of the Shulchan Aruch when it contravened his view of Jewish ethics, as I hope to show in a forthcoming study of his legal philosophy. 

  24. It is certainly not the equivalent of abandoning the Bavli’s position (Model #2 above) to adopt the position of R. Meir and R. Yehuda (model #1), which would contravene the final decision of the Bavli, a text that has been canonized within Jewish law. 

  25. See Rabbi David Yosef’s Halakha Berura OC 38:1. 

  26. In the footnotes I will also add other initial thoughts regarding some significant scholars. Since this is only an initial draft, and I want to get feedback from other scholars, I have largely only cited passages that can be found in the most recent versions of the Shulchan Aruch, which include collations of less available commentaries. 

  27. The careful reader will notice that I do not elaborate upon the position of the Mishna Berura. In MB 38:13, he simply states the explanation that women are not fastidious, which is likely a quotation of the first words of the Magen Avraham. Yet it is interesting that he does not quote the continuation of the Magen Avraham, and the logic given is equivalent to the Taz (which might very well be the same). His actual rulings on tefillin regarding those who are generally exempt is a bit of a quagmire since there are numerous typographical errors in the few notes that he offered to this question. See MB 38:12-13, MB 37:12, and Bi’ur Halakha 39:3 d.h. kasher. In an early draft of a forthcoming article, Rabbi Michael J. Broyde notes that scholars missed the fact that the Mishna Berura was regularly citing, amongst others, the Olat Tamid (also known as Olat Shabbat) since a typographical error led to the writing of Tosafot Shabbat, as opposed to Olat Shabbat. (This has now been corrected, at least partially, in some of the newer editions of the Mishna Berura). I am thankful to Rabbi Broyde for sharing this draft with me. 

  28. Magen Avraham’s glosses to the Shulchan Aruch regularly critiqued and ultimately overshadowed Olat Tamid‘s position. Fortunately, the Olat Tamid has now been properly printed in one of the newest printings of the Shulchan Aruch, and one can more correctly understand the Magen Avraham (as in this case) once one has seen the statement of the Olat Tamid

  29. See Bi’ur Halakha 39:3 d.h. katav, who states that the Olat Tamid believed that Maharam’s ruling was a “chumra be-alma,” a general stringency, but not a definitive rule, and therefore women could take upon themselves to don tefillin if they are fastidious in maintaining a guf naki. (He goes on to state that even according to the Olat Tamid, a woman could not write a tefillin scroll because she is not fully obligated in the commandment.)  

  30. The discussion regarding slaves is this essay is obviously (and thankfully) theoretical as it is in many of these sources. The theoretical example nonetheless remains significant because it provides important statements about the ability of people to choose to fulfill this commandment. 

  31. The disagreement between the Olat Tamid and others might also have implications for whether women may put on tefillin to carry them out of a public domain on Shabbat to save them from ruin or disgrace, an issue which is originally discussed in Tosefta Eruvin 8:15, Eruvin 96b and Shabbat 62a. See the ruling of the Magen Avraham in OC 301:54 and the discussion of these implications in Shu”t Yad Eliyahu #9. See also the commentaries of the Or Sameach and Sha’ar Ha-Melekh to Mishneh Torah Hilchot Shabbat 19:23. But see as well Shut Rav Pe’alim OC 1:23 who argues that the rules regarding Shabbat are entirely dependent on contemporary practice (i.e. do women in practice don tefillin), as opposed to whether the law actually allows or does not allow a woman to don tefillin

  32. Be’urei Ha-Gra OC 38:4, as elaborated upon by his commentator Damasek Eliezer

  33. It is interesting to note that the Ma’amar Mordechai calls the whole concern for guf naki a “chashash be-alma.” 

  34. As opposed to those who are obligated and therefore are careful about guf naki, as stated by the Magen Avraham. 

  35. This has been reported to have been the position of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, who argued that a blanket prohibition was imposed across the board – minors under 13, women, and slaves (Me-Peninei Ha-Rav p. 22-23). 

  36. The Pri Megadim (in Mishbetzot Zahav) also asserts that slaves might also have additional concerns since a) they are not generally believed (ne’emanut) in regard to rituals, as opposed to women who are believed, as in the case of their nidda status and b) slaves who wear tefillin create potential confusion regarding their lineage and status. 

  37. Magen Giborim explicitly asserts that Maharam ruled like the Bavli and not like the Pesikta (against the Bet Yosef’s interpretation), which in any case, he believed, only recorded the Sages’ protest against women from reciting the blessings, but not from actually wearing the tefillin themselves. (That explanation of the Pesikta was also offered but ultimately rejected in Birkey Yosef 38:1.)  

  38. See Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shu”t Yabia Omer OC 6:3 where he cites scholars who asserted that the discrepancies in practice in different Jewish communities simply stem from the different assessments of the ability of minors to maintain guf naki

  39. This is also the interpretation of the Aruch Ha-Shulchan given by Rabbi Melamed, cited below. One might also plausibly claim that the Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomo Kiddushin 1:64) should be included within this group. He likewise rejected the use of the Pesikta as the basis for Maharam’s position (although even according to that interpretation, he feels that Maharam was simply being “choshesh” for that opinion). Instead, he argued that in accordance with the Bavli, and explains that the Sages did not reprove Michal since a) she was very righteous, i.e. she was meticulous in her mitzvah observance b) she was the daughter of the king, i.e. she had access to water and amenities to stay clean, and c) she did not have any children, which seemingly means that she was less likely to have discharges and/or she was less likely to become dirty from childcare. Maharshal, like others, emphatically declares that women should not don tefillin – yet his logic might imply that should other women have similar amenities and qualities as Michal, they too could don tefillin. (Alternatively, he might be merely asserting that Michal was entirely different and serves as no precedent, which is also a plausible read of the text). See also Ma’aseh Rokeach who asserts that we only protest lechatchila because we are afraid that women have not sufficiently habituated themselves to guard for guf naki. After the fact, however, we do not protest, since we recognize that some women can maintain guf naki – and this is exactly what happened in the case of Michal! 

  40. As such, when he states in 38:6 that we cannot learn from Michal, he means that we cannot state anything about Michal with regard to average women (who are the subject of this passage), but not to pious ones like herself. 

  41. Another example of Aruch Ha-Shulchan‘s position regards a cheresh, a deaf-mute, whom he states, in practice, cannot maintain proper sanctity to don tefillin. Yet others disagreed – see Be’er He-Tev OC 37:1 and Mishna Berura 37:13, who are citing the Olat Tamid – because they had a different assessment, which the Aruch Ha-Shulchan would respect in principle even he disagreed with their specific evaluation. (Today, many people classified as “deaf” or “hearing-impaired” do not fall into the classic cheresh category and are obligated in tefillin, as discussed in Nishmat Avraham OC 38:8). 

  42. For a list of poskim who have noted the impact of new female hygiene products in a somewhat related matter, see footnote #372 in Aryeh Frimer and Dov Frimer, “Women, Keri’at Ha-Torah, and Aliyot,” Tradition 46:4 (2013). It is interesting to note that advances in hygiene products now make it possible for men with catheters or bladder problems to still be able to don tefillin. See the sources cited in Pitchei Teshuvot 78:1. In Rabbi David Yosef’s Halakha Berurah OC 38, p. 208, he states that the general rule is that one’s outer garments should remain clean and that there should be no odor at all. See also his discussion to OC 78:1. With men, of course, these rulings allow those who are obligated to still be able to fulfill this mitzvah, a rationale which would not help women according to the models ii and iii, but it should help according to the logic of model iv. To understand what a world looks like (even in the 21st century) without proper female hygiene products, see Thomas Friedman, “Cellphones, Maxipads, and Other Life Changing Tools,” NY Times, April 6, 2007. To see a (somewhat crude) chart of how female hygiene products have advanced in the last 100 years, see here

  43. This logical deduction would be true unless one adds additional ancillary arguments specifically applied to women, as in category v below, that were not mentioned by Aruch Ha-Shulchan and many other decisors. 

  44. Shu”t Maharam Schick OC 173, Yesodei Yeshurun Vol. 1 p. 92, Yalkut Yosef OC 17 (p.229) and OC 38. 

  45. Yet this case is seemingly problematic for the Pri Megadim, since he is working within the Magen Avraham’s rationale who clearly stated that when people are chayav, then they are fastidious. Thus the Tehilla Le-David makes the following argument: If they are already being fastidious for the sake of prayer, then they are, by default, concurrently fastidious for tefillin as well. 

  46. This is made clear in the initial source of this requirement, a responsum of the Rosh (Klal #4:1), where it is noted that the guf naki requirement for tefillin stems from the Talmud. The origins and standards of guf naki for prayer are highly disputed and caused great disagreement regarding whether this medieval ruling might even come to prevent the recitation of Kri’at Shema, a Biblical commandment. See the commentaries to 80:1 and the discussion in R’ David Yosef’s Halakha Berura 80:1. As noted earlier, it is not surprising to me that the guf naki requirement for tefillah was first stated by a student of Maharam. 

  47. See, for example, Yalkut Yosef OC 17:6 p. 229. 

  48. With regard to tzizzit (p.184), Rav Melamed makes a similar argument, although there he asserts that we should not protest even if women don a tallit (and not just a tallit katan) in public, unless they do so for the sake of promoting their social agenda. I thank my friend Rabbi David Silverstein for suggesting that I look in Rav Melamed’s book. 

  49. It appears to me that my own teacher, Mori Ve-Rabbi Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, shlit”a, also believes that a halakhic argument could theoretically be made to allow women to don tefillin. See his remarks in “Hands Across the Ocean,” Jewish Action, Spring 2010. However, it is clear that he was making a general point about the halakhic process and critiquing his interlocutor’s strident objection to such a possibility, but not actually making an argument for change or making such a ruling in practice (le-ma’aseh). As he writes toward the end of his remarks, “For my part, I would submit that given the complexity– rather than the supposed simplicity– of the issue, we can readily and emphatically agree with Rabbi Feldman’s judgment, to the effect that traditional prevalent practice should be sustained. But let the basis of that position be clearly understood, and let us beware of passion infringing upon precision. Assuredly, we can emulate the model cited in the Gemara (Ketubot 83a-84b), and common in legal practice, of accepting juridic conclusion, but for different reasons.” 

  50. In the spring of 1996, I travelled to Poland with a large group of post-high school yeshiva and seminary students. Almost all of the represented institutions were Orthodox, with the exception of one group that included both Orthodox and non-Orthodox students. On the first morning in Poland, one of the female students from that group donned tefillin and tallit, raising the ire of several of the students (male and female) and their teachers. The trip organizer quickly turned to a distinguished rosh yeshiva and known political figure that happened to be accompanying us on our trip, who told him not to say anything to the student. I do not know his reasoning, but my guess is that he felt that her actions were far from horrifically non-halakhic and that protesting her behavior would cause great insult, thereby ruining the wonderful educational opportunity of spending a week in Poland with a group of hundreds of enthusiastic Orthodox students. I have no idea what he would say or what one should say if they know about this situation in advance. My point is only to give an example of the type of case that raises interesting questions. 

About Shlomo Brody

Rabbi Shlomo M. Brody directs the Tikvah Overseas Seminars, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, and is a junior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.


  1. Very well thought out and written. How do different worldviews fit into the halachic process? For instance R’ Moshe Feinstien’s psak is very influenced by the fact that he saw in feminism a secular movement which endangers the structure of Orthodox Judaism, but what if one understands the plight of women for equality from a religious Jewish perspective? Also, even if the influence of a patriarchal society isn’t explicit in the psak of many Rishonim, they did live in that society and historically women were very much marginalized in that society. Can one say that if the Rishonim were living in our society which is much more egalitarian that they would have held differently? All this is not to disregard the halachic process, but as shown in your writings that in areas where there is little to no halachic literature there is consideration of the role of modern women, so why should it be that since there happens to be halachic discourse about this specific subject we must be bound to it? If in the 1300s the Rishonim would have been asked about women rabbis or community leaders it is pretty clear what they would have held.

    It appears to be very clear that the position of women, in Talmudic times and until modern times, in halacha was an effect of societal norms and not caused by any inherent strictures in the halachik process. So why shouldn’t this affect how we decide halacha in this case?

    • I wish to expand Avraham’s question…

      This analysis only takes into account halachic process and which sort of changes are permitted within that system. And therefore R’ Brody only sees two possible reasons to prohibit change: formal halachic legislative process and communal policy.

      Avraham touches on another issue: which changes are valid for religious but not halachic reasons. The halachic decisor would not validate changes that lead people away from the ideals he sees in the Torah.

      Then there is also mimeticism, the need to preserve the halachic life as practiced. If we overly disrupt this continuity, we threaten the vehicle that carries the Torah — including halakhah — down the ages. And it is the mimetic tradition that inculcates within us those aforementioned values. We feel the holiness of Shabbos and the magesty of Kol Nidrei because of the nostalgia of childhood experiences and the atmosphere of the community.

      Third, there is also R’ Herschel Schachter’s issue… that as the halachic decisor is more and more immersed in the thought and flow of halakhah, the more he has a feel for how it changes in ways beyond what can be formally articulated. The Rambam’s “nir’eh li — it appears to me” that comes from the general gestalt that emerges from the halachic topic rather than any specific dinim. Or (to borrow Dr Moshe Koppel’s metaphor), the way a native speaker of a language could have a sense of what “sounds right” in ways that go beyond the formal rules of grammar we teach in English as a Second Language classes. The way in which we know what is valid poetic license and what’s just ungrammatical. This is why halachic decisors require shimush, apprenticeship, under a master of the art, rather than being able to gleen how to decide halakhah strictly from the texts.

      But in any case, because the summation in section X neglects these other factors, I don’t think it addresses the key points under contention.

  2. “In other places, such as Shabbat 49a, the term clearly refers to bodily hygiene, avoiding flatulence, and cleanliness, and by the 13th century this explanation became the dominant potential justification for not wearing tefillin in many halakhic sources.”

    An important point that you overlook and fail to consider is that the medieval conception of guf naki was rooted not so much in the concern for a clean body but for clean thoughts. This point can be seen in the Maharil that you quote who explicitly writes “והתפילין צריכין גוף נקי שלא להרהר בעודן עליו”. Once you consider this, the limmud zechut of the Rishonim that nobody has guf naki nowadays makes much more sense, at least in their own conception of yeridot hadorot (though historically the opposite is probably true, because in Roman times the bathhouse was a daily ritual but the general culture much more lewd). This is why they write a person is able to focus his mind for an hour of tefila but not the whole day. Consequently perhaps when they speak about women not having a guf naki maybe they are referring to this aspect. If they did and this was the intentions of Maharam then there would be no question from Michal because a pious person is not suspect of having lewd thoughts (cf Bava Batra 164b) . This understanding would also fit with Maharam’s use of טהור which is often used to refer to purity from sin. If this is the correct understanding of Mahram then it would be hard to argue that poskim’s conception of women should change in the modern age (though I suspect feminists would argue that going with this understanding of guf naki it is men who are no longer allowed to put of tefillin but only women ;<) ).

    I might mention that this conception of guf naki seems to be contradicted by a Gemara in Sukka 26b רבי יוסי אומר: הילדים לעולם חולצין ואינן מניחין, מפני שרגילין בטומאה and later in the Gemara it is the cohabitation which cannot be done in tefillin but the thoughts don't seem to be a factor. The same Gemara also says that one dirtied with keri is allowed to wear tefillin and I have a hard time seeing the difference between it and dam niddah.

    Once I mentioned the Maharil you quote in the footnote I will comment on the age he thought it appropriate to get married. Hilchot Nesuin 10 is famous for the reason Ashkenazim don't wear a tallit before they get married. This minhag is introduced with "the reason why in these lands even the older bochrim don't wear a talit" whereas in other lands they start when they are 13. In one manuscript it even says "bochrim the age of 20". Clearly when he suggested that unmarried men not wear tefillin he was speaking about those older than 13.

    I also take issue with your brash statement "the answer given by Maharam (Tshuvot Maharam 1:142) and those who followed him represented a deep departure from Talmudic law." As if the braita in Sukkah were the last word on when a kattan may put on tefillin. Actually it was the first word as Yitzhak Gilat has clearly written in פרקים בהשתלשלות ההלכה and in later Talmudic development this age got older and older.

  3. “As Rabbi Menachem Kasher has documented, this deviation received many explanations: . . . that the commandment in the Torah was meant to be a metaphysical or metaphorical statement . . . .”

    Rabbi Brody: Can this explanation be traced to Karaite apologetics? Notwithstanding the fact that even Rashbam interprets “totafot” in Deut. 6 metaphorically, the belief that Tefillin is not a literal mitzva is usually associated with the Karaites. Did such a belief make inroads into the Rabbanite Jewish community during the medieval period? If so, it would be an interesting case study regarding cross-pollination between Karaite and Rabbanite practices.

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