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Shiur #01a: The Exemption of Women from Time-Bound Positive Commandments

  • Rav Chaim Navon

I. The Exemption and its Source


            The Mishna establishes that women are exempt from time-bound positive commandments. In other words, they are exempt from those positive commandments whose performance is limited to a specific time:


With regard to all time-bound positive commandments, men are liable and women are exempt. But all positive commandments not limited to a specific time are binding upon both men and women. (Kiddushin 1:7)


            It should be noted that this allowance relates exclusively to positive commandments. As for prohibitions, the Mishna explicitly states that women are liable in precisely the same way as are men. The Gemara derives this from the verse: “‘When a man or a woman shall commit any sin that men commit … [then that soul shall be guilty]’ (Bemidbar 5:6) – Scripture equalized woman and man with respect to all penalties [decreed] in the Torah” (Kiddushin 35a).


            The Gemara in Kiddushin (34a) clarifies that the exemption found in the Mishna regarding time-bound positive commandments is not absolute, as women are obligated in several time-bound positive commandments: eating matza on the night of Pesach, rejoicing on the festivals, the mitzva of hakhel and others. On the other hand, women are exempt from certain commandments that are not at all bound by time, such as Torah study and procreation. It is evident from this Gemara that, with respect to a woman's obligation, time-bound positive commandments cannot be considered absolutely distinct from other commandments, as there are exceptions in both directions.


            At the end of his count of positive commandments in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot, the Rambam lists sixty positive commandments that an ordinary person is obligated to fulfill in day-to-day life. Women are exempt from fourteen of those sixty commandments. Eight of those commandments are time-bound: 1) reciting the Shema; 2) wearing tefillin shel rosh; 3) wearing tefillin shel yad; 4) wearing tzitzit; 5) counting the omer; 6) dwelling in the sukka; 7) taking the lulav; 8) sounding the shofar. To these, the Rambam adds six more positive commandments from which women are exempt, even though they are not time-bound: 1) studying Torah; 2) writing a Torah scroll; 3) reciting the priestly blessing; 4) procreating; 5) performing a circumcision; 6) staying home with one's wife and not going out to war, which applies to a newly-wed husband during the first year of marriage.


            On the other hand, there are six time-bound positive commandments that are binding upon women: 1) reciting kiddush on Shabbat; 2) fasting on Yom Kippur; 3) eating matza on the night of Pesach; 4) rejoicing on the festivals; 5) gathering for hakhel; 6) offering the korban Pesach. To these, the Rambam adds positive rabbinic commandments that are time-bound, but nevertheless binding upon women: lighting Chanuka candles, reading the megilla, drinking the four cups of wine on the night of Pesach and reciting Hallel on the night of Pesach.


            We see, then, that the number of time-bound positive commandments that are binding upon women is almost equal to the number of such commandments from which women are exempt. This raises the question of whether indeed there exists an exemption principle that simply contains several exceptions, or perhaps there was a tradition that women are exempt from certain commandments, and only later it was observed that a large portion of those commandments have a certain common denominator, i.e., they are time-bound.


            The Gemara in Kiddushin (34a) asks how the Rabbis know that women are exempt by Torah law from time-bound positive commandments. The Gemara answers that the source for this general exemption is the exemption of women from Torah study. The Torah states: “And you shall teach them to your sons” (Devarim 11:19), implying that one’s daughters are not included in this injunction. Chazal extended this exemption to the mitzva of tefillin, and from there they inferred that the exemption applies to all time-bound positive commandments. It may be presumed that this derivation reinforces an ancient tradition that exempted women from these mitzvot (this tradition may have related to the concept of time-bound positive commandments or to the list of commandments from which women are exempt in actual practice).


II. The Reason for the Exemption


            Why are women exempt from time-bound positive commandments? The Abudraham suggests the following reason:


The reason women are exempt from time-bound positive commandments is that a woman is bound to her husband to fulfill his needs. Were she obligated in time-bound positive commandments, it would be possible that while she is performing a mitzva, her husband would order her to do his mitzva [i.e., his bidding]. If she would perform the mitzva of the Creator and leave aside the mitzvaof her husband, woe to her from her husband! If she does her husband's mitzva and leaves aside the Creator's mitzva, woe to her from her Maker! Therefore, the Creator exempted her from His mitzvot, so that she may have peace with her husband. (Abudraham, part III, Birkat Ha-mitzvot)


            The Abudraham'sformulation is grating to our ears. He speaks of a woman's subjugation to her husband, which is liable to clash with her obligation to fulfill a particular mitzva at a particular time. But even if it is true that in the time of the Abudraham women were to a certain degree subjugated to their husbands, this is not the Torah's position. And, in fact, we do not find in the words of Chazal a formulation similar to that of the Abudraham regarding the exemption of women from time-bound positive commandments.


            Some cite in this context the verse addressed to womankind: “Your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Bereishit 3:16). According to some, this verse implies that in the Torah's perspective, a man must rule over his wife. In reality, however, this is not a commandment, but a curse, similar to the curses, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” and “In sorrow you shall bring forth children.” In the wake of the sin involving the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Chava became subjected to these curses, and from that point on mankind has been attempting to overcome them. As we succeed in overcoming the pain of labor and the difficulty of earning a livelihood, we free ourselves from these curses and improve the world. The same applies to the verse, “He shall rule over you.” Abolishing the hierarchical relationship between a man and his wife is a repair of the curse pronounced upon Chava, and the Torah fully supports such a process.


            It is possible to put forward an argument similar to that of the Abudraham, but without mentioning a woman's subjugation to her husband. Women – in our time as well – are bound to child-rearing more than men. Women carry their offspring for nine months in their wombs, they give birth to them and they nurse them. Even in our day, it is rare to find men taking paternity leave to take care of their newborns. Caring for young children is an all-encompassing obligation, to which women dedicate themselves more than do men. On occasion, this commitment does not allow a woman to fulfill a time-bound positive commandment at the proper time. The Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, Rav Ben-Zion Uziel, formulated the matter as follows:


It seems to me that the reason that [women] are exempt is that by their nature and the essence of their role in life, they are subject to spending their time running their households and raising and dealing with their children, and their time is not theirs. (Responsa Mishpetei Uziel, IV, inyanim kelaliyim 4)


Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote in similar fashion:


And that which the Torah exempted women from time-bound positive commandments… for the majority of women in the world are not rich and they have the responsibility of raising the children, which is the most important work for the sake of God and the Torah.  Similarly, God implanted in the nature of all the species of animals that the females should raise their young, and even the human species is not excluded from this rule, for women are more naturally fit to raise children. So it was for this reason that the Torah was lenient in exempting them from the obligation of learning Torah and from time-bound positive commandments. (Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chayyim, IV, 49)


            According to Rav Uziel and Rav Feinstein, domestic responsibilities and child-rearing do not always allow a woman the spare time to fulfill a mitzva at its proper time. Many authorities have explained the exemption granted to women from performing time-bound commandments in this spirit.

            Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch proposes an entirely different approach. He opens by saying that it is clear that the exemption does not testify to a woman's inferiority, i.e., that she is not fit to perform these mitzvot, for woman are indeed obligated in many commandments, and even in some time-bound positive commandments. He continues:


It seems to us much more likely that the Torah did not impose these mitzvot on women because it did not consider them necessary to be demanded from women… The Torah takes it for granted that our women have greater fervor and more faithful enthusiasm for their religious calling, and that they are in less danger than men of falling prey to the temptations that they encounter in the course of their lives. Accordingly, it was not necessary for the Torah to give women these repeated reminders to remain true to their calling, and warnings against moments of weakness, in contrast to men. (Rav S. R. Hirsch, Vayikra 23:43)


            Rav Hirsch argues that women do not need the spiritual reminders that are expressed in time-bound positive commandments. He ascribes this to the nature and lifestyle of women, which involved (at least in his day) fewer spiritual tests and dangers. The apologetic tone of this rationalization is strikingly evident.[1]


            Apart from the two approaches presented above, it is perfectly legitimate to admit that we do not know why the Torah exempts women from certain commandments. This is not the only matter in the world of Halakha that remains beyond our understanding.


            Next week we shall discuss whether women may perform commandments from which they are exempt.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Some claim that an allusion to this approach can be found in the words of the midrash: “Why were women joined to children and slaves with regard to mitzvot? Because they have but one heart” (Yalkut Shimoni, I Shemuel, no. 75). Rav Ovadya Yosef writes that this is a statement on the spiritually safe lifestyle of women, similar to Rav Hirsch’s understanding above (Yabi'a Omer, Orach Chayyim I, no. 40). See, however, Zeit Ra'anan on this midrash, who has an entirely different interpretation.