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    Changing roles for women in Jewish ritual

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple first appeared as a chapter in Matnat Eliyahu: Essays for Eliyahu Honig, Mandelbaum Studies in Judaica No. 15, published by Mandelbaum Publishing in association with Australian Friends of the Hebrew University, 2011.

    Shabbat Shabbos candle lightingWomen’s empowerment has seen Jewish women assuming roles once regarded as a male preserve – in a sense, bringing down or crossing a virtual mechitzah (partition) that kept the sexes apart. Actually, the mechitzah was never total. Even in impeccably orthodox circles, men had always assumed “female” responsibilities when necessary, and women voluntarily undertook commandments originally unique to men. Though made like man in the Divine image (Gen. 1:27), woman had been assigned a less active role (Gen. 3:16) as “a helper meet for him” (Gen. 2: 18), a supportive facilitator in his more public responsibilities. There was a feeling that woman’s nature was less dynamic, less outgoing. The Bible, though it praises women for their beauty, piety and capability (Prov. 31), implies that their place is in the background, because “the glory of the king’s daughter is inward” (Psalm 45:14). Nonetheless, the Talmud – for all its occasional denigration of women – says they have more understanding than men (Nid. 45b).

    We cannot be certain how far women felt aggrieved at being excluded from the more public roles in Jewish life, but there are indicators of a degree of discontent. Leading ladies such as Deborah and Huldah certainly had minds of their own, though most women probably took it for granted that they should remain quiet. One of the few Talmudic women to possess both deep learning and a sharp tongue was Beruriah, the wife of Rabbi Me’ir. When a rabbi asked her a question she retorted, “Foolish Galilean, have you forgotten the rule (Mishnah Avot l:5), ‘Engage not in much conversation with a woman’?” (Kidd. 80b). The reference in Proverbs 31 to the (male) elders gathering at the city gate served as a precedent for community government by shivah tuvei ha’ir, “the seven good men of the city”. Even if women had wanted a more outgoing role, social mores ensured that few were able or educated enough to leave the domestic environment, though many did exercise influence behind the scenes and some – even before the modern era – were prominent and influential, such as Dona Gracia and Glueckel of Hamelin.

    From its inception the Jewish Reform movement advocated increased opportunities for women, and Abraham Geiger was considered “the first public champion of the religious emancipation of the Jewish woman”.[1] Males and females still sat separately at Reform services, the spiritual and lay leaders were male, and the decisions were made by men. These mores echoed the New Testament dictum about women not exercising headship (I Cor. 11:3). In various segments of western Christianity there eventually emerged a movement for a heightened role for women in religion. A Jewish equivalent took its time and emerged within Reform as the 19th century progressed. But allowing women a more independent role, including ordaining them as rabbis and cantors, meant moving away from halachah (Jewish law). In doing so, Reform insisted that it was not pandering to convenience but had its carefully reasoned principles, though it was reluctant to embody them in a binding code which might stifle future evolution. Solomon B Freehof led a scholarly group which investigated the halachic positions and precedents,[2] but the movement made up its own mind as to how much of the halachah to adopt.

    Maurice N Eisendrath said that Reform used halachah not for governance but for guidance.[3] In relation to women’s issues Freehof said that “in all the inherited literature… there is generally a deep respect for the wife and mother of the family. Yet her legal status was always an inferior one. Worst of all, while her husband could divorce her, she could never divorce her husband… Had Jewish law possessed a creative legislative power, a new law giving the wife an equal right to initiate a divorce could solve the matter at once. This, in effect, is what Liberal Judaism did”.[4] Reform (like Conservatism) is not monolithic, and congregations differ in their view of halachah. But not when it comes to egalitarianism; Reform has virtual unanimity on women’s matters.

    It should be noted that there is a semantic problem concerning Jewish movements. In some places Liberal meant Reform; in others, e.g. prewar Germany, it was closer to Conservatism. In some places Reform meant Liberal; elsewhere it was more or less Conservative. Reform calls itself Progressive Judaism, but the British Orthodox Chief Rabbi Joseph H Hertz said “Progressive Conservatism” was “the Anglo-Jewish position in theology,”[5] and Isidore Epstein, head of the Orthodox seminary, Jews’ College, spoke of “the conservatism which insists on the recognition of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish law) as the main authoritative guide of Jewish religious life and conduct”.[6] “Traditional” sometimes equates with strictly orthodox: in parts of the USA, it has a more limited meaning, denoting officially orthodox but allowing mixed seating and sometimes microphones on the Sabbath. Leo Jung suggested the term “Torah-true” instead of “Orthodox”,[7] but even within Orthodoxy there is a range of styles, Chassidic/non-Chassidic, charedi (ultra-orthodox)/Modern Orthodox, etc., though all accept the binding authority of the Shulchan Aruch. Joseph B Soloveitchik, “the Rav” – mentor of American modern Orthodoxy – wrote: “From the Torah standpoint, the gap between Reform and Orthodoxy is much greater than the distance that separated the Pharisees from the Sadducees in the times of the Second Temple, and the Karaites (Pentateuchal literalists) from traditional Jews in the days of the Ga’onim (medieval luminaries)”.[8]

    The Conservative movement differed profoundly from Reform. As its name suggests, it insisted on greater affinity to the past. Though it felt women needed greater status and a significant sector of its leaders approved female ordination, it claimed to work within halachah whilst preferring lenient interpretations. Even Orthodoxy, by definition fully committed to the eternal, binding nature of halachah, was able to find halachic precedents for greater religious participation by women. Its major breakthrough was in the spread of in-depth study for women, not in order to become rabbis but for the sake of knowledge. Since every group thus has an attitude to halachah, whether negative or positive, the present paper looks at changing roles in ritual in a halachic context.


    Mishnah Shabbat 2:6 lists three mitzvot (commandments) where women have priority: the laws of niddah (menstrual separation: Lev. l5:l9), challah (separating a piece of dough for the kohen (priest: Num. 15:19) and hadlakat ha-ner (kindling the Sabbath light, one of seven rabbinical mitzvot.[9]

    The niddah law, requiring immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath), involves women’s physical cycle, though there are occasions when pious men voluntarily choose to use a mikvah. In the absence of a woman or if she is ill, challah and hadlakat ha-ner are carried out by men (though outside the Orthodox community, only hadlakat ha-ner is widespread). It was always customary for men to help with domestic preparations, including getting the candles ready for lighting, for Sabbaths and festivals (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 250).

    Certain “women’s” customs are now sometimes adopted by men. For example, some grooms walk round the bride under the marriage canopy. Whether folkloristic or linked with the verse, “A woman shall go round a man” (Jer. 3l:2l), the original custom is for the bride to walk round the groom seven times; in some cases, the groom then walks round the bride.



    a. Birth

    More rituals mark the birth of a boy than a girl – the shalom zachar (“welcome to the son”, linked with zachor, “remember the Sabbath day”: Ex. 20:8) on the first Friday night, the b’rit milah (circumcision) on the eighth day, and the pidyon ha-ben (redemption of the first-born, obviated if either parent is the child of a kohen or levi). Traditionally the main rituals marking the birth of a girl are the father’s call to the Torah, the celebratory Kiddush, and the mother’s thanksgiving, which probably originated in medieval Germany. Particularly amongst Sephardim, there was a ritual to welcome the birth of a girl, which has expanded across the modern spectrum. Variously called zeved ha-bat (“Gift of a Daughter”), simchat ha-bat (“Celebration of a Daughter”) etc., it allows parents to be relatively creative in formulating their own readings and prayers.

    There is a halachic question as to a woman mohel (ritual circumciser) for a boy (no Jewish group endorses female “circumcision”). Most Jewish parents see b’rit milah as a religious requirement (the second commandment in the Torah: Gen. 17:10) and justify it medically since it reduces or eliminates penile cancer. While incumbent on the father, milah was carried out by the mother in the case of Moses’ two sons (Ex. 4:25). The Talmud (A.Z. 27 a) suggests that Moses’ wife asked a man to perform the circumcision or that she commenced the operation and Moses completed it. Tosafot (ad loc.) and others, ruling against a female circumciser, say the duty is incumbent on the father or his (male) delegate; others (e.g. Shulchan Aruch and Isserles’ gloss, Yoreh De’ah 264) rule that in theory a woman may carry out circumcision though this is not customary.

    Orthodox communities follow the strict view, insisting that the mohel be a male observant Jew. At times a Jewish doctor carries out the milah with the prayers recited by a rabbi. Non-Orthodox groups occasionally train and endorse female circumcisers.

    Some Orthodox congregations prefer a weekday for a mother’s prayers of thanksgiving (gomel) after giving birth. Some allow a woman to say her blessing in the men’s section of the synagogue (the non-Orthodox allow women on the bimah at all times); otherwise she recites it in the women’s section and the congregation respond Amen. There is also a custom allowing a woman to say the blessing in the presence of nine other females.

    b. Girls’ Education

    All groups now urge Jewish education for girls. Synagogues and schools celebrate the early stages of education, though few follow the old custom of a child licking the honey-covered Hebrew letters, or the teacher leaving a coin on the child’s desk as a reward for assiduous study.[10] There was – and in some circles remains – a view restricting formal Jewish education to boys, partly because the Talmud says (Kidd. 29b) that the rule in the Shema, “teach them thoroughly to your children” (Dent. 5:7, 11:19) means “to your sons and not your daughters”. The supposed ban on teaching girls arose from Rabbi Eliezer’s dictum in the Mishnah (Sot. 3:4), “Whoever teaches his daughter Torah is as if he taught her lewdness”. The context is the law of the sotah, the suspected adulteress (Num. 5:19-31); there was a fear that a girl who learnt this text might question the Biblically-ordained trial by bitter waters and engage in immoral conduct.[11] Yet when the king convened the people to hear the Torah (Deut. 21:l2), women and girls came along as well as men and boys (Chag. 3a), and parents were praised for teaching their daughters (Sot. 2lb). However, the boys engaged in analytical studies of rabbinic texts whilst girls learnt Bible, Midrash and practical subjects (Ned. 35b). But this was not the end of the story. Maimonides, for all his negativity towards the female sex, allowed intellectually-minded women to study more deeply (Hil’chot Talmud Torah 1:13, Yesodei HaTorah 4:13). Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik’s school in Boston taught Talmud to both boys and girls. Today, especially amongst the Orthodox, there are high-level women’s seminaries where girls and women study, master and teach Talmudic and halachic texts.

    c. Bar- and Bat-Mitzvah

    Though later history turned Bar- and Bat-Mitzvah into rites of passage, they originally denoted a status whereby a boy or girl were “legal persons” capable of assuming obligations and being responsible for any wrong-doing. “At 13,” states Pir’kei Avot, “(the age is reached) for the fulfilment of the commandments” (Avot 5:24). The Midrash says that puberty is usually the age when one is mature enough to make decisions: at 13 Esau opted for idolatry and Jacob for God (Gen. R. 63:14). By the 8th century CE, there was a ceremony at 13; the late Talmudic tractate Sof’rim (18:5) speaks of a boy coming to the elders for a blessing, and one version calls the boy a Bar-Mitzvah. 14th century Germany had a Bar-Mitzvah ritual. The codes assume that the boy is called to the Torah, with a festive meal, a discourse and gifts (O.CH 282; Magen Avraham ad loc.).

    Not until the middle of the 19th century was there an Orthodox ceremony for girls as an incentive for them to gain a Jewish education, especially with the weakening of observance after the Emancipation. Explaining its importance, Chief Rabbi JH Hertz said in 1925: “I have sanctioned this special consecration service for girls mainly because of the prescribed course of instruction (which) acquaints them with the teaching and story of Israel, and equips them for life’s duties with an understanding of the principles and practices of our holy faith”.[12] The emphasis was on women as wives and mothers, though the aim now is to make both sexes into knowledgeable, committed Jews. Girls’ ceremonies, often called “consecration of girls” though some followed Christian usage and called them “confirmation”, were introduced in Orthodox synagogues in Britain and Australia in the 1860s, at more or less the same time as Reform moved towards joint confirmation ceremonies for boys and girls, often on Shavu’ot.

    The Torah scroll was prominent in many Reform ceremonies (though for a time the scroll was relegated to the archives). The Orthodox version was usually on Sunday; the girl did not read the Torah or lead the statutory prayers, but did readings and recitations and was addressed by the rabbi. The first “solo” Bat-Mitzvah was held in the USA in 1922 for Judith, daughter of Mordecai M Kaplan. She presented part of the Torah reading and sang the haftarah, to the protests of the Orthodox, the doubts of the Conservatives, and the curiosity of the Reform. Later, all three movements endorsed individual Bat-Mitzvahs, though Orthodox groups are still dubious. “Solo” Bat-Mitzvahs are no problem for the Reform. Some even tried unsuccessfully to abolish Bar-Mitzvah in order to equate the boys and the girls.

    Conservative synagogues have individual Bat-Mitzvahs. Those Orthodox congregations which allow them (sometimes with the name Bat Chayil, “daughter of Worth”) hold them on Friday evening or at the end of the Sabbath morning service, allowing those who disapprove to finish their prayers and then leave. The girl is not called to the Torah or allowed to chant the haftarah. Some read the haftarah without the melody, even though the tropes (notes for chanting) do not offend against the rule of kol b’ishah ervah, “a woman’s singing voice is seductive” (Ber. 24a). The parents of a Bat-Mitzvah frequently offer a prayer (often written by them); few say the baruch shep’tarani (“Blessed be He who has heed me from legal responsibility for this child”) associated with Bar-Mitzvahs (Midrash to Gen. 25:27; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 61:8).

    In Israel, Bat-Mitzvahs are often held in a school, community hall or at home, not in the synagogue. The girl gives a D’var Torah (discourse), generally in the presence of her class-mates, and friends and family add their greetings. After a festive meal the men leave so that the women and girls can dance and sing. Often the girl takes on a special mitzvah such as lighting her own Sabbath candles. From the Orthodox Kibbutz Yavneh came a suggestion in the 1960s that the Bat-Mitzvah be called to the Torah reading, which technically is permitted according to Jewish law, but it was bitterly opposed. Some argue that Bar- and Bat-Mitzvah should be at 15 or 16 to enable the child to be more mature and to receive several extra years of Jewish education, but the ages of 13 and 12 are firmly entrenched and in any case mark the onset of puberty and the beginning of high school. Few synagogues retain their teenage students after Bar- and Bat-Mitzvah.

    c. Marriage and Divorce

    Heterosexual marriage has historically been the Jewish social norm (Gen. 2:24). The sources can hardly imagine anyone choosing to remain single, or a homosexual union where procreation is precluded (Lev. 18:22 etc.). Other than Reform, no Jewish religious group has rituals to bless a same-sex union, nor will it knowingly employ or sanction homosexual clergy. Celibacy is not encouraged by any segment of Judaism.

    Some groups permit an exchange of rings at a wedding. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled against the bride giving the groom a ring, since the Torah requires that it be the groom who gives the bride an object of value.[13] Some Orthodox rabbis allow a ring to be placed on the groom’s finger at the end of the ceremony with an introductory formula acknowledging that the act lacks halachic status. In Britain, Chief Rabbi JH Hertz also authorised a set of questions (now rarely used) to each partner: “Will you, A, take B to be your wedded wife‘?”, etc.[14]

    Orthodox marriages are conducted by males. Some suggest that a woman could be the mesadder kiddushin (main officiant) and/or recite the sheva berachot (seven marriage blessings), on the basis that it is not the rabbi but the couple who create the marriage, but this discussion does not seem to have had any practical outcome. Some Orthodox rabbis allow a women to give the address to the couple, read the ketubah (marriage contract) and give the final benediction, but this is also not encouraged.[15] The sheva berachot at the reception might theoretically be by a woman.[16] It is not usual for a bride to break the glass at the end of the ceremony (Ber. 30b).

    The ketubah may be written by a woman calligrapher. Outside Orthodoxy, major changes have been made in the text. To protect either party from being denied a gett (religious divorce), many Conservative and some Orthodox rabbis add a prenuptial agreement, though the Orthodox object to the Conservative version. Such agreements have not yet been tested in the civil courts. In some places the civil law requires a divorced person to remove barriers that prevent their ex-spouse from entering into a new marriage. Though Orthodoxy does not accept the Conservative gett, both traditionalist groups insist that a civil divorce is not enough to sever the marital bond. They deny that the principle, Dina d’malchuta dina – “The law of the land is the law” (B.B. 55a) overrides the Biblical law of divorce (Deut. 24:1-4). The rabbinical court (Beth Din) does not bring the divorce into being. The divorce is carried out by the act of the parties, with the Beth Din supervising the procedure. Technically it is the man who takes the lead in these procedures, though a medieval document in the Cambridge Genizah collection seems to empower a woman to add a clause to her ketubah giving her the right to a divorce.[17] A gett document may be written by a female scribe since both women and men are subject to the laws of divorce. By not requiring religious divorces, Reform solved the problem of agunot, “chained women” whose husbands are missing or deny them a gett. Conservative and Orthodox rabbis look for other ways of alleviating the woman’s plight.

    d. Bereavement

    Orthodox rituals surrounding death and bereavement are carried out by men, though preparing a woman’s body for burial is carried out by women, like the reading of psalms in the presence of the body. Moshe Feinstein permits a woman to give a eulogy if the sexes are separate. Memorial prayers are not rendered by women if this means being a cantor. Many authorities let a woman say Kaddish (the mourners’ praise of God) in the presence of a minyan (prayer quorum).[18] If there are no sons, a parent may request that a daughter say Kaddish. Both sexes observe Yahrzeit (death anniversary) and say Yizkor (“May God remember…”) on festivals. On the first Sabbath eve after a death, male mourners are formally greeted as they enter the synagogue; some Orthodox synagogues extend this to women as well. Reform and Conservative make no distinctions.


    In halachah, women are theoretically exempt from positive laws fulfilled at a set time (Mishnah Kidd. 117), e.g. putting on tefillin (Ex. 13:9, Deut. 6:8, ll:18), as they are deemed to be fully extended with other responsibilities. However, this rule was already being whittled away in Talmudic times,[19] especially when women were involved in the history that led to the commandment, e.g. reading the Megillah (the Book of Esther) on Purim, the events of which centred round a woman, Esther (Meg. 4a).

    Talmudic-age women are said to have undertaken a number of commandments from which they were at first exempt, e.g. hearing the shofar on Rosh HaShanah, which thereupon became obligatory for women.[20] Though this change is ascribed to Jewish women themselves, more research is needed in order to ascertain which and how many women were involved, who led the movement, and whether there was opposition from other women or indeed from men.

    Reform Judaism believes in “progressive revelation”, whereby Biblical texts, religious rules and halachic demands emanate from human as well as Divine sources. Some practices which were changed or abandoned in an earlier generation may be found meaningful at a later time. However, its egalitarianism is claimed to be irreversible and “no departure from the norm was adopted without reasoned argument”.[21] The Conservative movement neither rejects the traditional pattern of commandments nor automatically follows the Orthodox interpretations, though any untraditional approach, such as travelling to synagogue on the Sabbath, is claimed to rest on a line of thinking within the tradition. Orthodoxy, fearful of tampering with the halachah, allows only slow development within the system if endorsed by gedolim (rabbinic decisors).


    Though the criteria of Jewish status seem to have been accepted without debate in the halachic tradition, from the mid-20th century they have become a matter of dispute between the Orthodox and the Reform, with Conservatism holding a position close to Orthodoxy in relation to the two accepted criteria, Jewishness by birth and Jewishness by conversion. Jewishness by birth brings with it eligibility for inclusion in the people and the obligation to keep the commandments. Historically a child was Jewish if born to two Jewish parents or at least to a Jewish mother (Mishnah Kidd., end of 3:12). Reform accepts the child of a Jewish father as a Jew, arguing that Biblical society was patriarchal and the Bible lists children by the paternal line (e.g. Num. 1:2,18).[22] The traditionalist view, deriving from Deut. 7:3-5, was put thus by Lord Jakobovits: “The certainty of maternity must be set against the doubt of paternity, however small this doubt may be. Even in nature, the mother’s bond with her child is, in some respects, firmer than the father’s… She has the superior influence on the child’s religious development”.[23]

    Conversion in the modem sense was unknown in early Bible times, though later the conversion procedure was sourced to the story of Ruth (Ruth 1:16-17 as expounded by the rabbinic commentators). After the return from exile in Babylon, it entailed renouncing idols and accepting the Jewish God and people, proving one’s sincerity and knowledge, accepting the commandments; circumcision for a male, and immersion for both sexes. Originally there was also a sacrifice. Orthodoxy does not recognise non-Orthodox conversions. In Israel there have been many conversion controversies, with cases sometimes coming to the Supreme Court. The problem continues to surface. It is thus Jewish status as well as beliefs and practices, that separates the three groups.

    Since the Emancipation, questions have arisen as to whether one can be an ethnic Jew without being a religious believer.[24] Early Reform denied that Judaism was anything other than a religion. It argued that French Jews were Frenchmen of the Jewish persuasion. Conservatism and Orthodoxy saw Jewishness as fusing faith and peoplehood; Reform has now become more comfortable with peoplehood, is concerned for Israel and part of the world Zionist movement. Whether Jews are an ethnic group is, however, not entirely relevant to this paper, which, being concerned with ritual, accepts the view of Cynthia Ozick that “especially in the Diaspora, we cannot be Jewish just by being”.[25]

    4. THE TORAH

    a. The Torah Scroll

    In egalitarian services, the Torah scroll is touched, kissed, handled, carried and read by females. In Orthodoxy such changes are controversial. Despite a popular view to the contrary a woman may touch the scroll even when niddah (menstruating): “Words of Torah are not susceptible to tumah (ritual impurity)” (Ber. 22a). Maimonides rules, “All who are tameh (ritually impure) and even niddot may hold the scroll of the Torah and even read from it, because the words of the Torah are not susceptible to tumah. All this is permissible so long as one’s hands are clean” (Hilchot Sefer Torah 10:8). A woman may not write a Torah scroll (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De ‘ah 281:1), but Reform allows it.

    In his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch, Moses lsserles says that though some rule against a niddah touching the scroll, there is no objection on High Holydays (Orach Chayyim 88:1). Rashi and others state that not touching the scroll is a mere stringency. In some orthodox synagogues the scroll is taken through or past the women’s section, which was allowed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menahem Mendel Schneerson. Some point out that it is not the actual parchment which the women touch but the outer mantle or ornaments.

    b. Reading the Torah

    The Talmud allows women to be called to read the Torah (Meg. 23a) but says it is not customary because of k’vod ha-tzibbur, “the honour of the congregation”, which may be social impropriety, immodesty, or the feeling that men might be shamed by the women. Few people these days read their own portion and most only say the blessings, so putting men to shame may be irrelevant. Rabbi Me’ir of Rothenberg said (Responsa, no. 108) that in a congregation of kohanim (priests), a kohen should come up to the Torah first but women may follow. In 1956 Rabbi Izaak Rapaport, head of the Beth Din in Melbourne, Australia, called women to the Torah to donate to an Israel emergency appeal.[26] Chayyim Yosef David Azulai called a woman benefactor to the Torah. Professor Me’ir Friedmann of Vienna said in 1893, that women could be called to the Torah reading if they accessed the reading desk by a covered stairway from the women’s gallery. A few fringe Orthodox synagogues in Israel call women to the Torah. Whilst not opposed to women’s prayer services if held away from the synagogue, the British Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, in 1992 refused them the use of a Torah scroll.[27] Women’s groups in other places do use a scroll and the women learn how to chant the relevant portions, though the Torah blessings are generally omitted or replaced by an alternative formula, e.g. Josh. 1:8. In non-Orthodox congregations the Torah reading is egalitarian.


    a. Women Officiants

    In non-Orthodox synagogues women may conduct any service, though the Orthodox reject a woman as shali’ach tzibbur (prayer agent) since each sex has a different level of prayer obligation, and because of kol b’ishah ervah. A Conservative argument discounts this argument because everyone has a prayer book and can pray for themselves, even in the vernacular.[28] All groups recognise women’s innate spirituality. Examples are Sarah, who brought other women to belief in God; Miriam, who led the women in praise at the Red Sea; and the pious women who gathered at the entrance of the Tabernacle (Ex. 38:8).

    No Orthodox objections are raised to women leading prayers for other women, translating the liturgy or repeating the cantor’s words to allow women to say Amen. Some communities had a woman prayer-leader in the women’s section. Orthodox women’s prayer groups (not called a minyan) omit certain passages (devarim shebik’dushah) and do not claim to replace the official public service. Usually a female gabba’it (worship manager) allocates parts in the women’s service. Some Orthodox authorities oppose women’s prayer groups whilst others accept them. Moshe Feinstein, whilst not in favour, ruled that it depends on whether the women are genuinely pious or making a feminist statement (Igg ‘rot Moshe, vol. 4, Orach Chayyim, no. 49).

    b. Women’s or Mixed Choirs

    Women (even non-Jews) sing in non-Orthodox choirs. In Britain, many Orthodox synagogues once had mixed choirs, but the chief rabbinate increasingly disapproved and few such choirs survive.[29] The kol b’ishah ervah dictum applies to a woman singing, not merely reciting a blessing and being answered by Amen. A rabbinic source (Sot. 48a) asks about women joining in when men sing, but a case of the men joining in when the women commence is viewed more negatively. J Simcha Cohen notes a third scenario,[30] when a community sings together in unison and neither males nor females pay particular attention to the melodic tones of the others. He does not accept this as an argument for a mixed choir which is by definition structured to take note of the different voices.

    c. Women Rabbis

    Women Torah scholars, previously rare, are increasing in numbers, though Orthodoxy does not accord them a rabbinical title. The Aruch, a medieval dictionary, calls a female Torah scholar a rabbanit, though this and the Yiddish term rebbetzin usually denote a woman married to a rabbi. The title rabbi itself, though masculine, is now bestowed on women by the Reform, Reconstructionists and Conservatives. The first woman rabbi was Regina Jonas, who studied in Berlin in the 1930s and was ordained privately, though she was later recognised as a rabbi by Rabbi Leo Baeck. A century ago a woman named Ray Frank preached at and conducted American Reform and even Orthodox services. In Britain, the Hon. Lily Montagu was lay minister at a London Liberal congregation (though she had no formal ministerial or rabbinical qualifications) and headed the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Ray Frank, Henrietta Szold and, later, Helen Levinthal Lyons, attended rabbinic classes, but without receiving ordination. In 1972, Sally Preisand was the first woman ordained at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

    Reform allowed this despite some misgivings,[31] but in Conservatism there was more controversy. Gordis reports [32] that in 1983 the Jewish Theological Seminary of America voted to allow women rabbis against the opposition of Saul Lieberman, David Halivni-Weiss and other Talmudists. The Orthodox view is solidly against woman rabbis. It points out that women (e.g. Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, founder of the Hineni movement) can be influential guides without rabbinic titles or congregational office. Even many male rabbis held no office but were still widely revered. A few modern Orthodox synagogues employ women as educators and counsellors without a rabbinic title. Rabbi Avraham Weiss of New York recently introduced a form of women’s ordination using the title maharat.

    d. Kashrut Officials

    Mishnah Chullin begins the laws of shechitah (slaughter of animals for food) with the statement, “All may slaughter”, which allows a woman to be a shochetet (slaughterer). The Tosafot commentary at the beginning of Chullin sees women as too soft-hearted for this task, so shechitah remained a male profession. No interest has been shown in women practising shechitah, though individual women can often check a supposedly kosher chicken for defects. Women frequently act as mashgichot (supervisors) in kosher food establishments, logical because of their practical experience as homemakers. As most Reform Jews do not observe kashrut, it is unusual for their women to seek any appointment in relation to kosher food. American Reform still debates the “trefah (non-kosher) banquet” in Cincinnati in 1883, which led to Isaac Mayer Wise attacking kashrut though he personally observed it. These days some Reform institutions have a pro-kashrut policy.[33] Kashrut is more evident in Conservatism.

    e. Legal Roles

    In theory, women may not be judges or witnesses, to preserve their privacy or because once they had little experience of the world, but a woman may act as judge or witness if she is an expert on a subject or the litigants are prepared to accept her.[34] Israel has female rabbinical court pleaders and counsellors, many trained at Nishmat, headed by Rabbanit Chana Henkin.


    a. Sabbaths

    Sabbath preparation is generally a woman’s responsibility, but usually the males recite Kiddush (sanctification over wine) and motzi (blessing over bread). If no male is there, women perform both roles. There is debate as to whether women can make Kiddush and motzi in the presence of a male or on behalf of other people; the issue is whether men and women have the same legal obligation to observe Shabbat. Rava says, “Scripture says both ‘Remember the Sabbath’ (Ex. 20:8) and ‘Keep the Sabbath’ (Deut. 5:l2), implying that all who must keep the Sabbath must also remember the Sabbath” (Ber. 20b). According to the Shulchan Aruch, “Women are required to recite Kiddush. They may discharge the obligation of men since they, like men, are obligated by the Torah” (Orach Chayyim 271:2). Some authorities find this difficult because it reflects badly on the men.

    Motzi is said whenever bread is eaten. Though it is generally said by men on public or ceremonial occasions, there is no problem with women reciting it. At the end of a meal including bread, those present must say bir’kat ha-mazon (Grace After Meals). If there are three or more males aged 13 or over, one of them leads the company (zimmun or mezumman) and all present respond, including the females. Three or more females may make a zimmun. Some permit them to lead the men, even though women’s obligation to say the full Grace may be less than that of the men.

    At the end of Shabbat the havdalah (“separation”) ceremony is recited over wine, spices and a twisted candle. lt may be performed by a woman, though whether she may do so for men depends on her level of obligation.

    b. Festivals

    The pilgrim festivals, Pesach, Shavu’ot and Sukkot, were observed in Temple times by the men going to Jerusalem, leaving the women and children home. Attendance at the sanctuary was for kol zechur’cha, “all your males” (Ex. 23:l7), though wives sometimes came with their husbands (I Sam. 1). Men were duty-bound to enable their wives to celebrate the festival (Pes. l09a). Other members of the community had to look after women who had no husbands (Kidd. 34a).

    The idea of women not attending the Temple may have influenced the later custom of women not going to synagogue regularly. These days, women tend to outnumber the men at synagogue services, though not in strictly Orthodox circles. Orthodox women often limit their synagogue attendance to the High Holydays and the Sabbath before Rosh Chodesh (the new moon); Rosh Chodesh is seen as the women’s festival, partly because the moon’s phases recall a women’s monthly cycle. Another view is that when the twelve tribes of Israel sinned with the golden calf, the new moons were taken away from them and given to the women, who had not taken part in the sin (Tur, Orach Chayyim 417).

    Rejoicing on the festivals applies to all Jews, male or female: “You shall rejoice on your festival, you, your son and your daughter” (Deut. 16:l4). The home observances of the festivals were the woman’s responsibility, though the rituals were usually conducted by the men. Women sat at the Passover Seder, tired after their hard work but proud to see their husbands leading the Haggadah (“narration”). The Haggadah could be read in the vernacular so that all, including women, could follow (Isserles to Orach Chayyim 473:6).

    In modern times, parts of the Seder are frequently allocated amongst the company, including the women. As to whether the main officiant may be a woman, some families did not wait for an answer but suited themselves, especially when a woman was more knowledgeable than the men. Halachically, women had a Pesach obligation, including reading the Haggadah, albeit it was a mitzvah fulfilled at a set time, because “they were included in the miracle”. Some authorities, however (e.g. Ovadia Yosef), ruled that they should not conduct the Seder .[35]

    In regard to Sukkot, it was always customary that decorating the sukkah (harvest booth) and preparing the food was done by women. Most families (and congregations, in the case of synagogue sukkot) came to their own conclusions concerning whether women could or should take part in building the sukkah and whether they had an obligation to “dwell” there; to shake the lulav (palm branch, held with three other species of plants). Women do not usually take part in the lulav processions around the synagogue.

    Dwelling in the sukkah, a law dependent upon time, was technically not obligatory for women, even though it might be said that they were part of the miracle of “I made the Israelite people dwell in booths” (Lev. 23:43) (Tosafot to Pes. l08b). Nevertheless the mitzvah and its blessing became widespread amongst women (Mishnah B’rurah to Orach Chayyim 589:6), as did shaking the lulav with its blessing (ibid). Halachists have ruled against women joining the men’s lulav processions or forming their own separate lulav processions. A sukkah built by a woman is valid (Sukk. 8b).

    Simchat Torah is a major occasion on the agenda of women’s ritual. As women are not debarred from touching the Torah scroll, and handling the scroll is a source of spiritual pleasure, many Orthodox congregations have women’s Torah processions (hakkafot). Non-Orthodox congregations have men and women in the same processions. Whether women are called to the Torah reading on Simchat Torah depends on the ideology of the synagogue. As well as honouring male congregants as Chatan Torah (“Bridegroom of the Torah”) and Chatan Bereshit (“Bridegroom of Genesis”), many congregations honour females with titles such as Eshet Chayyil (“Woman of Worth”: Prov. 31). Some Orthodox synagogues are flexible in what they allow on Simchat Torah. It is said that Rabbi Soloveitchik would deliberately take no notice but sat reading a book.[36]

    On Rosh HaShanah the main halachic problem is the mitzvah of shofar (the ram’s horn trumpet). The mitzvah is not the blowing but the hearing of the shofar, and this is another mitzvah which, whilst not originally obligatory for women, became their custom, and they may say the blessing. A woman may blow the shofar for herself or other women (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 589:6), but not for men, because her obligation was not originally the same as theirs. Reform does not accept this restriction.

    Women must fast on Yom Kippur and observe the other innuyim (self-afflictions) of the day. Pregnant women, and women who have just had a baby, should take rabbinical and medical advice. Pregnant women and nursing mothers must fast on Tishah B’Av unless the rabbi and doctor rule otherwise, but they need not fast on minor fast-days.

    Purim brings the issue of women reading the megillah (the Book of Esther). Women are obligated to hear the book even though it is a duty performed at a set time, because they were included in the miracle (Arach. 3a). Whether women are obligated to read as well as hear the megillah is a matter of debate. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayyim 689) quotes both views but prefers a man to be the reader. Today there are megillah readings by women for women. In this regard, since the reading is for the purpose of publicizing the miracle, ten women make a minyan .[37] If a woman writes a megillah some do not accept it as valid unless there is no choice (Sedeh Chemed Hilchot Purim, no. 12; Sha’arei Teshuvah to Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 691). Some cite Esth. 9:29, “Queen Esther wrote”,[38] others think the queen asked a man to write (cf. AZ 27a).

    On Chanukah women as well as men should light the menorah (candelabrum), as they were included in the miracle (Shab. 23a). They may light on behalf of others including men (Mishnah B’rurah, Orach Chayyim 67 5:9).

    Tu BiSh’vat – the New Year for Trees – sees women as well as men taking part in tree-planting ceremonies and Sedarim, often with material from kabbalistic sources. American Reform has published liturgies linking the day with environmental concerns.

    7. PRAYERS

    a. The Women’s Blessing

    The traditional morning service has a blessing in which men thank God shello asani ishah – “Who has not made me a woman” and women praise Him she-asani kir’tzono – “Who made me according to His will”. It is said that this latter blessing was formulated by women themselves. Though the thought behind the men’s blessing was that men had more mitzvot than women, it echoed Greek ideas that to be male and free was better than to be a woman, slave or barbarian (Men. 43b). Some women find the blessing offensive despite Wolf Ya’avetz’s idea that men are grateful to be spared labour pains. In private prayer some men leave it out; in the synagogue some say it quietly. Some modern liturgists favour SD Luzzatto’s wording, she-asani Yisra’el vekiddashtani bamitzvot – “who made me a Jew and sanctified me with the commandments”. Others say, she-asani betzalmo – “Who made me in His image”.

    b. The Matriarchs

    A standard form of reference to God is Mi Sheberach avotenu Avraham, Yitzchak v’Ya’akov – “He who blessed our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. Many liturgies – even in Orthodoxy – add “and our mothers Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah”. The patriarchs are also named in the Amidah, the core of every service. Because this is a statutory prayer, traditionalists will not alter it. Reform adds a reference to the matriarchs.

    c. Grace After Meals

    In the Grace, the second paragraph speaks of b’rit’cha shechatamta biv’sarenu – “Your covenant which You sealed in our flesh”. Even though circumcision does not apply to females, the phrase is explained as applying to the Jewish people as a whole. Some editions substitute the phrase, b’rit’cha shechatamta belibbenu – “Your covenant which You sealed in our heart”, echoing Deut. 30:6 and other passages which speak of God “circumcising” human hearts, lips, etc.[39]

    Later in the Grace the mention of the patriarchs as blessing God bakkol mikkol kol – “with all and every good” has been added to in some versions with a play on the word tov, “good” – hetiv tovat tov tov, recalling that Sarah is hetiv in Gen. 12:16, Rebekah is tovat in Gen. 24:16, Leah is tov in Gen. 30:20 and Rachel is tov in Gen. 29:19.[40]

    d. Women’s Supplications

    Many communities produced techinnah – supplication – books for women, sometimes in Hebrew but often in Yiddish, Ladino or the vernacular. A number were translated into English in the 19th century, eg by Hester Rothschild. These supplications were more emotional and personal than the official prayer books and included petitions that God bless the woman, her husband and children, and save the Jewish people from persecution. Some such books even ask for Divine support in an unhappy marriage. Some versions are still in use, even in relatively sophisticated circles. In recent years a group of traditional Jewish women in New York wrote a techinnah that marks menstruation by expressing gratitude to God for endowing women with the powers of giving life.

    e. Gender Issues with God

    Biblical and liturgical references to God tend to be masculine (“Lord”, “King”, “Master”, “Father”), not because God is male but to suggest masculine-like power and dynamism. Kabbalah has a concept based on earlier sources that there is a feminine side to God, but would be aghast at suggestions to refer to God as “She” and to replace “Our Father our King” by “Our Mother our Queen”. Rabbi David J Goldberg of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London, called this one of “the dottier reaches of Women’s Lib”.[41] In some non-Orthodox circles the problem is avoided by deleting gender-specific terms, eg saying “Ruler”, not “King”, and “Eternal”, not “Lord”. However, this removes personness from the Almighty. The debate shows how hard it is to overcome the limitations of language. It may well also be irrelevant, since there does not seem to be any evidence that women are put off their quest for God by the mere fact that the traditional texts speak of Him in the masculine gender.


    a. Hair Covering

    The Mishnah deems it dat yehudit – “the Jewish rule” – for married women to cover their hair in the street (Ket. 7:6) as a mark of modesty (tz’ni’ut, required of both men and women: Mic. 6:8) and in order not to attract other men (cf. Num. 5:l8). Some women in Talmudic times covered their hair at all times, even at home (Yoma 47a, Ned. 30b). There is a rule that a man should not say the Shema in the presence of a woman whose hair is uncovered (Ber. 24a), though this seems to be widely disregarded. According to many views, when in the synagogue even unmarried women should wear headcovering (Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 2l:2). Strictly Orthodox women wear a headscarf, hat or wig at all times, though the wig was opposed by some rabbis (e.g. Moses Schreiber, the Chatam Sofer).[42] Many women wear a hat, shawl or headscarf or place a lace cover on their hair in the synagogue even if they go bareheaded elsewhere. In Conservative congregations and those Reform congregations where men wear headcovering, some female rabbis wear kippot (skull-caps), but the Orthodox view is that this is tokenism.

    b. Modes of Dress

    The Biblical law against men wearing women’s garments or vice-versa (Deut. 22:5) is regarded as a means of preventing immorality, though the rule was often relaxed during the play-acting on Purim (Moses Isserles to Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 696:8).[43] Rabbinic authorities oppose the wearing of shorts and trouser-suits by women.[44] Rabbi Ovadia Yosef allowed girls to wear trouser-suits rather than the much more revealing miniskirt. The modesty rules include not displaying much of the body (Ber. 24a, Yev. 63b). In the synagogue one should be scrupulous (whether male or female) and not wear shabby or casual clothing. Whilst this is the halachic standard wherever one is (the Torah says, “Make your camp holy”: Deut. 23:1 5), it applies particularly during prayer because of the verse, “I have set the Lord before me always” (Psalm 1638), which led the sages to say (in words often found above the synagogue Ark), “Know before Whom you stand” (Ber. 28b) and to warn that as a person would act properly in the presence of a human ruler, all the more should this be the case in the presence of God (beginning of Shulchan Aruch).

    c. Tallit

    Having fringes on four-cornered garments is commanded in the Shema (Num, 15:37-41; cf. Deut. 22:l2). This is fulfilled with the tallit katan, a fringed garment worn under the shirt during the day, and by the tallit worn for prayer. Halachically a woman may wear a tallit katan; the Talmud says that a rabbi placed fringes on the garments of all (including female) members of his household (Sukk. 11a). Moses Isserles rules (Orach Chayyim 17:2), “lf women wish they may wear a tallit and recite its blessing as with other time-dependent commandments. However, if it appears to be a sign of yohara – showing off – they should not do so”. In places where a woman with a tallit is rare or unknown, it might appear to be making a statement and not necessarily genuine piety.

    d. Tefillin

    Halachic decisors restrict phylacteries – tefillin (Deut. 6:8, 11:18) – to males. Though theoretically required all day, tefillin are usually worn only for morning prayers. Talmudic tradition regards them as male garments covered by Deut. 22:5 (Moshe Meiselman, Jewish Woman in Jewish Law, 1978, chs. 21-22). A few non-Orthodox women choose to wear tefillin, but most show no interest. A Jerusalem supplier of tefillin reports that he has a rabbinic ruling allowing him to sell tefillin to women.

    9. THE HOME

    Women, like men, are obligated to have mezuzot on the doors of the house. Getsel Ellinson says, “Since anyone who has a house is under constant obligation to have a mezuzah, it is a mitzvah governed by circumstances and not by time” (op. cit., vol. 1, p. 22).[45] Women may therefore affix a mezuzah and say the blessing.


    Jewish sayings about women are ambivalent – praise intermingled with cynicism and even criticism. Since most of the literature was by men it is clear that personal experience is often behind their comments. A pity that we lack a record of women’s view of men. The men wrote about Eve: did the women write about Adam? Or were the women denied the education that would have equipped them with literacy and literature? Whatever the answer, the loyalty of Jewish women to their faith and traditions was axiomatic. Recent decades gave them the opportunity to flex their intellectual muscles – and to engage in serious Jewish study and give form to their innate spirituality. The female quest for God could always be expressed in spontaneous prayer, but the modern-day yearning is to channel and ritualise it. Probably thanks to my wife, I was one of a few orthodox rabbis who devoted hours of study and years of effort to helping the process along. With the Sydney Women’s Tefillah Group I spent many a weekday evening or Sunday morning working on what needed to be done and how to do it. At the Great Synagogue I felt confident enough to do something practical about the task. Neither I nor anyone else can be certain of where the process will end up, but it is under way, and the essay you have just read (and I hope enjoyed) indicates some of the stages in that process.


    1. David Philipson, Centenary Papers, 1919, p. 143.
    2. Collections edited by Freehof include Recent Reform Responsa, 1963, and Current Reform Responsa, 1969; cf. Jacob D. Schwarz, ed., Responsa of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1954.
    3. “Whither Reform Judaism?”, Jewish Chronicle (JC), 12 May, 1961.
    4. Louis Caplan Lecture, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, 6 April, 1967.
    5. Sermons, Addresses and Studies, vol. 1, Sermons, 1938, p. 258.
    6. “The Rabbinic Tradition”, in Ephraim Levine, ed., The Jewish Heritage, 1955, p. 73.
    7. Jung often used this phrase; cf. “Orthodoxy: What it is and how the term originated”, in his Harvest: Sermons, Addresses, Studies, 1956, pp. 289-291.
    8. Letter, 19 Nov., 1954.
    9. Aaron Halevi, Sefer HaChinuch (many editions), appendix.
    10. Machzor Vitry, ed. S Hurwitz, 1923, pp. 508, 628.
    11. Isidore Epstein, ed., Soncino Talmud, Sotah, p. 101.
    12. In circulars addressed to British congregations under his authority in the 1920s.
    13. Responsa Igg’rot Moshe, Even Ha-Ezer no. 18.
    14. Authorised Daily Prayer Book with Commentary, one-vol. edition, 1946, p. 1010.
    15. Yehuda Henkin, Responsa on Contemporary Jewish Women’s Issues, 2003, ch. 11.
    16. Ibid.
    17. T-S 24.68, a 10th century (?) vellum document from Egypt or the land of Israel: “If this Malicha (the bride) hates this Sa’id, her husband, and desires to leave his home… she shall go out by the authorisation of the court and with the consent of our masters, the sages.”
    18. Yehuda Henkin, Equality Lost, 1999, chs. 5, 6.
    19. Getsel Ellinson, Women and the Mitzvot, vol. 1, 1986, chs. 2, 3.
    20. Ellinson, op. cit., ch. 4; Avraham Weiss, Women at Prayer, 1990, ch. 1.
    21. JB Segal, “Reason and Faith”, JC, 4 June, 1982.
    22. David J Goldberg, “Redefining who is a Jew”, JC, 27 Aug., 1982.
    23. Immanuel Jakobovits, Jewish Identity: Three Essays, 1971.
    24. Harry L Shapiro, The Jewish People: A Biological History, 1960.
    25. Presentation to Sisterhood Women of the United Synagogue of America, 1976.
    26. Gael Hammer, “Journeys in Prayer”, in Generation: A Journal of Australian Jewish Life, Thought and Community, vol. 6, nos. 1,2, 1996, cited by Sally Berkovic, Straight Talk: My Dilemma as a Modern Orthodox Jewish Woman, 1999, pp. 212-213.
    27. Sally Berkovic, op. cit., pp. 217-211.
    28. Robert Gordis, The Dynamics of Judaism: A Study in Jewish Law, 1990, pp. 181-182.
    29. Raymond Apple, “Mixed Choirs in Jewish Worship”, in Eshkolot: Essays in Memory of Rabbi Ronald Lubofsky, 2002, pp. 301-311.
    30. J Simcha Cohen, Intermarriage and Conversion: A Halachic Solution, 1987, chap. 19.
    31. Jacob Z Lauterbach, Studies in Jewish Law, Custom and Folklore, 1970.
    32. Op. cit., ch. 11.
    33. John J Appel, “The Trefa Banquet”, Commentary magazine, Feb., 1966.
    34. M Meiselman, Jewish Woman in Jewish Law, 1979.
    35. Ovadia Yosef, Chazon Ovadia on Seder procedures.
    36. A similar story is told about Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, in whose Dublin community men and women sat together at weddings whilst the rabbi’s eyes were glued on his book.
    37. Henkin, op. cit., ch. 7 and Responsa on Contemporary Jewish Women’s Issues, 2003, ch. 9.
    38. SJ Zevin, HaMo’adim baHalachah, vol. 2, p. 243.
    39. Mizmor Shir, published by Ktav.
    40. Ibid.; Harry Solomon in The Reconstructionist, March, 1988.
    41. Geoffrey Wigoder, Australian Jewish Times, 27 January, 1977.
    42. Lev HaIvri, 1873, pp. 129, 189.
    43. Israel Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, 1960 ed., p. 274.
    44. Getsel Ellinson, Women and the Mitzvot, vol. 2, 1992.
    45. Women and the Mitzvot, vol. 1, p. 22.

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