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Shiur #03: Women and Torah Study

  • Rav Chaim Navon

I. The Prohibition to Teach Women Torah and its Reason


The Gemara in Kiddushin 29b derives that women are exempt from the mitzvaof Torah study from certain biblical verses. The starting point in that passage is the source of the mitzva: “And you shall teach them to your sons” (Devarim 11:19). From here the Gemara infers that a father is commanded to teach his son Torah, but not his daughter. In addition, it derives that a mother is not commanded to teach her son Torah, and also that she herself is not obligated in Torah study.


The Mishna in Sota records the view of Ben Azzai that a man is obligated to teach his daughter Torah (though for a technical reason that is somewhat astonishing). Rabbi Eliezer, however, strongly disagrees. According to him, not only is a man not obligated to teach his daughter Torah, but he is forbidden to do so: “Rabbi Eliezer says: ‘Whoever teaches his daughter Torah, it is as if he taught her tiflut [see below]’” (Sota 3:4). The Yerushalmi reports in the name of Rabbi Eliezer: “Let the words of the Torah be burnt, rather than be handed over to women” (Yerushalmi Sota 3:4).


The Rambam in his commentary to the Mishna explains that the term tiflut refers to “vain and worthless words.” Rashi and Tosafot (Sota 21b) imply that the word tiflut carries a sexual connotation, in which case Rabbi Eliezer's dictum is all the more severe.


Rabbi Eliezer's harsh judgment has been understood in different ways. Why is a person who taught his daughter Torah regarded as if he taught her tiflut? The answer, of course, depends on how we understand the word tiflut. Rashi explains: “Because from it [Torah study] she will gain cunning, and pursue [immoral] matters covertly” (Rashi, Sota 21b, s.v. ke-ilu). Rashi, who understands tiflut in the sense of fornication, explains that Torah study is liable to open before a woman new horizons of sophistication and cunning, which she might come to exploit for the purpose of licentious behavior, thinking that she can avoid detection.


The Rambam, who understands tiflut in the sense of vanity, explains the matter in a more moderate manner:


The Sages directed that a man shall not teach his daughter Torah, as the majority of women have not a mind adequate for its study, but, because of their limitations, will turn the words of the Torah into trivialities. (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:13)


According to the Rambam, the concern is that women will treat Torah study lightly, and not with the appropriate sanctity and necessary seriousness.


As for the halakha, most authorities rule in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer, that not only is a woman exempt from Torah study, but rather she is forbidden to study Torah. Standing out among those authorities is the Rambam, whose ruling on the matter was exceedingly influential, as we shall see below. We shall first examine various interpretations of this issue and limitations placed upon Rabbi Eliezer’s ruling, and then we shall explore a number of opinions on whether this ruling is still relevant today.


II. The Written Law and the Oral Law


As stated above, the Rambam rules in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer, but he adds a qualification that does not appear in the Mishna:


The Sages said: “Whoever teaches his daughter Torah, it is as if he taught her vanity.” This stricture refers only to instruction in the Oral Law. With regard to the Written Law, he ought not to teach it to her; but if he has done so, it is not regarded as teaching her vanity. (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:13)


It is not clear from where the Rambam derived this distinction between the Oral Law and the Written Law. The commentators have proposed various suggestions based on different Talmudic passages. Rav Yosef Kapach, a noted expert on the Rambam and his works, argues: “It is clearly evident that our master had a source that is no longer in our hands today” (“Chinukh Ha-bat Lilmod Torah, Le-musar U-le’ezra La-zulat,” in Ha-isha Ve-chinukha, 32). In any event, the Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De'a 246:6) cites the wording of the Rambam.


III. Mitzvot Relevantto Women


Sefer Chasidim rules that a man is obligated to teach his daughters the practical mitzvot that are binding upon them, “e.g., practical halakhic rulings.” He justifies this ruling as follows: “For if she does not know the laws of Shabbat, how will she observe Shabbat? And so too regarding all the mitzvot, in order to ensure that she is vigilant about the mitzvot” (Sefer Chasidim, ed. Margaliot, sec. 313)


The Maharil rejects this argument, arguing that women can come to know how to observe the mitzvot that apply to them by way of traditional practice, without any theoretical study; in situations of uncertainty they can ask a competent authority (Responsa Maharil, no. 199). The Rema, however, rules on this point against the Maharil: “In any event, a woman is obligated to learn the laws that are relevant to a woman” (Rema, Yoreh De'a 246:6).


The Beit Ha-Levi (Responsa Beit Ha-Levi, I, no. 6) makes a critical distinction. According to him, a woman’s obligation to study the mitzvot that are relevant to her is not based on the mitzvaof Torah study; it is merely a response to a practical need: If she does not know what to do, she cannot fulfill the mitzva.This is the sole objective of a woman's obligation to study Torah. The Avnei Nezer proposes a similar idea: Women are obligated to study the mitzvot that are relevant to them, not because of the mitzvato study Torah, but because of the specific mitzvain which they are obligated. For example, a woman is obligated to study the laws of Shabbat, not as part of the mitzvaof Torah study, but rather as a precursor to her observance of the mitzva of Shabbat (Avnei Nezer, Yoreh De'a, no. 352).


Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch expanded the scope of the type of study that falls into the category of “mitzvot pertaining to women”:

The fact is that while women are not to be exposed to specialized Torah study or theoretical knowledge of the Law, which are reserved for the Jewish man, such understanding of our sacred literature as can teach the fear of the Lord and the conscientious fulfillment of our duty, and all such knowledge as is essential to the adequate execution of our tasks should indeed form part of the mental and spiritual training not only of our sons, but of our daughters as well. (The Hirsch Siddur, 122)


Rav Hirsch appears to rely here on the classical allowance regarding matters that are relevant to women, but he argues that this category includes all “understanding of our sacred literature as can teach the fear of the Lord and the conscientious fulfillment of our duty.” That is to say, the study that is required of women is not limited to the acquisition of information needed for the observance of the mitzvot, but rather it is intended also to create the motivation that is needed for that purpose. This is a very significant expansion of the allowance found in Sefer Chasidim.


It is in this vein that we should understand the following words of Rav Moshe Feinstein:


The Sages commanded that one not teach [women] the mishnayot that contain the Oral Law, and it is as if he taught them wantonness. And therefore one must prevent them from doing so. One should only teach them Pirkei Avot, which deals with ethical matters and goodly practices, in order to arouse them to the love of Torah and good character traits, but not the other tractates. (Responsa Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh De'a III, no. 87)


The Iggerot Moshe reconfirms the prohibition with respect to women's Torah study. However, he also mentions the need to teach women Pirkei Avot, as it “deals with ethical matters and goodly practices.” Rav Feinstein does not broaden the range of study to the same extent as does Rav Hirsch, but even he expands the minimum that is necessary to teach women, so that it includes study that “arouses them to the love of Torah and good character traits.”


IV. Self-study


The Perisha writes that halakha's limitation regarding women's Torah study forbids others to teach women Torah, but does not forbid a woman to study Torah on her own (Perisha, Yoreh De'a 246, no. 15). He derives his position from three expressions used by the Rambam in this context. First, the Rambam notes that if a woman studies Torah, she is eligible for reward. Second, according to the Rambam, the Sages directed that a man shall not teach his daughter Torah (following Rabbi Eliezer’s formulation), but they said nothing about her right to study Torah on her own. Finally, the Rambam writes that “the majority of women have not a mind adequate for its study,” which implies that some women do indeed have the intellectual capacity for Torah study, and that they do not turn the words of the Torah into trivialities.


Based on all this, the Perisha concludes as follows: A man is forbidden to teach his daughter Torah, because of the concern that perhaps she will turn the words of the Torah into trivialities, “as he does not know what is in her heart.” But with regard to a woman who wishes to study on her own, her very motivation already testifies that she is not included among those that turn the Torah's words into trivialities. Therefore, not only is she permitted to study Torah, but she is also eligible for reward for her study.


V. A Wise Woman


Rav Shmuel Archivolti (Italy, 16th century) rules that the prohibition against teaching Torah to women applies in the case of a young girl, whose intellectual capacity is in question. But there is no prohibition to teach Torah to an adult woman, who has proven her wisdom and pure intentions:


However, women whose hearts have stirred them to draw near to the royal work, the work of God, based on their choosing of the good… They will ascend the mountain of God and dwell in His holy place, as they are women of distinction, and it behooves the Sages of their generation to honor them and to strengthen their hands. (Responsa Ma'ayan Ganim, letter 10)


A similar idea is found in the words of the Chida (Tov Ayin, sec. 4).


VI. Changing Times


The Chafetz Chayyim writes that in our generation girls must be educated differently from how they had been educated in earlier generations:


It seems that all this applied only in earlier times, when everyone lived in the place of his forefathers, and the tradition received from one's forefathers had a very strong hold on each and every individual, so that he would conduct himself as did his forefathers, as Scripture says: “Ask your father, and he will tell you.” In such a situation we could say that a woman should not study Torah, as she should rely in her conduct on her righteous forefathers.

But now, owing to our many sins, when the tradition received from one's forefathers has become very weak, and it is also common that a person does not live at all in the place of his forefathers, and especially among those who have learned the script and language of the nations, it is certainly a great mitzvato teach them Chumash and also the Prophets and the Writings and the ethical teachings of the Sages, such as Avot and Sefer Menorat Ha-ma'or and the like, so that our holy faith should become fortified among them. For if not, they are liable to stray completely away from the path of God, and transgress, God forbid, all of the foundations of the religion.[1] (Likkutei HalakhotSota 3, 21-22)


            The Chafetz Chayyim recognized that a dramatic change had transpired with respect to people's readiness to follow the pious example of their forbearers. Interestingly, he focuses also on one of the fundamental characteristics of modern life – geographical mobility. In this modern reality, a person often does not live in the same place as do or did his ancestors, and because of this, he is liable to stray from the ways in which they conducted their lives. As a result, we can no longer rely on tradition, and we must replace it with structured study.


We saw earlier that according to the Maharil, women will know the laws pertinent to them by way of an oral tradition, without structured study. The Chafetz Chayyim understood that this mechanism is no longer effective. He emphasizes, however, that the objective of women's study is not knowledge of the halakhic minutiae, but rather the motivation to live a Jewish life.


            It should be noted that the Chafetz Chayyim supported women's Torah study only as a last resort, so that women would not “stray completely from the path of God.” Accordingly, he limited the study material to what he regarded as the necessary minimum – Tanakh and the ethical teachings of the Sages.


            Rav Aharon Lichtenstein greatly expanded the range of material that women should study in our generation:


To my mind it is desirable and necessary, not only possible, to provide intensive education for women even from Torah she-be’al peh sources, whether resorting to the argument that since women are engaged in all professions, why should they be specifically limited regarding Torah, or because of the words of the Chafetz Chayyim (when Beis Ya’akov was founded), that if the Rambam can say that it is necessary to teach a convert the essentials of Judaism, an individual who grows up in a Jewish context should all the more so be afforded such an education… Women today receive a broad general education and many attend universities, and there – as well as within society in general – they come into contact with diverse worldviews and philosophies, to the point that the knowledge and values of Torah are urgently required by women.

I completely accept the position of the Beit Ha-Levi that a woman needs to study Torah so that, pragmatically, she will know what to do… In my opinion, what is necessary in order for women to be adequately prepared from a Torah perspective for practical living is far more than what she is being taught today. Torah education for women must be strengthened, both quantitatively as well as qualitatively, including the teaching of all aspects of Torah. Even so we will not be violating the framework that was outlined above…

I am not opposed to teaching women Talmud… I am also not convinced that it is desirable to press women to study Talmud in such an intensive form. After all, halakha does differentiate between men and women in this matter, and their respective life roles are also different. But when one speaks about the ability to study a page of Talmud, to understand it and enjoy it, I see no reason to deny these teachings to women. And it is even necessary to establish this as an integral part of the school curriculum, an actual shiur. This is the way I teach my daughters and so was my wife educated.[2] This seems to me to be the recommended approach regarding the women of our generation. (“Fundamental Problems Regarding the Education of the Woman,” in Ha-isha Ve-chinukha, 158-159)


            It should be noted that fundamentally Rav Lichtenstein combines the two principles mentioned above. He relates to the altered circumstances of our generation, in which the raising of a God-fearing and Torah-observant woman necessitates that she be given a deep and extensive Torah education. The Chafetz Chayyim, however, had presented this factor as an allowance that is justified only because of the pressing circumstances. In contrast, Rav Lichtenstein implies that this consideration fits in with what we have already seen in the name of the Beit Ha-Levi and other authorities – that women are obligated in Torah study so that they may observe the mitzvot, even if they are not obligated in Torah study as an independent duty. Rav Lichtenstein implies that the women of our generation cannot prepare themselves for Jewish life without extensive study, and therefore this itself necessitates that we greatly expand the Torah education provided to them. That is to say, according to Rav Lichtenstein, today's reality does not demand that we veer from the accepted norm regarding women's Torah study, but merely that we redefine that norm. In our generation, in order for a woman to reach the level mentioned by Sefer Chasidim – “that she is vigilant about the mitzvot” – she must study Torah in a broad and deep manner. He adds that the role of women as the educators of the next generation also demands a broad range of knowledge.


            On the practical level, Rav Lichtenstein arrives at far-reaching conclusions. He too recognizes that fundamentally halakha does not direct a woman to a life dedicated to a profound and intensive theoretical study of Gemara. But he calls for women to be given the opportunity to take part in high-level Gemara study. His position may be compared to that of Rav Avraham Shapira, who permits teaching women mishnayot that deal with the laws that are relevant to them, but nevertheless emphasizes: “It is permitted to teach them [mishnayot] without the casuistry and argumentation… And when they learn these mishnayot, he must conclude, as is written by the Rambam and the Bartenura: ‘The halakha is in accordance with so-and-so’” (“Yesodei Dinim Ha-noge’im Le-banot,” in Ha-isha Ve-chinukha,43). Rav Shapira adheres to the words of the halakhic authorities who restrict their allowance regarding women's Torah study to laws that are relevant to women. Even though he expands this allowance to include the study of Mishna, he emphasizes that this study must be orientated towards the practical halakhic ruling, and not to theoretical analysis.


            Addressing this issue, Rav Chayyim David Halevi adopted a position that is very similar to that of Responsa Ma'ayan Ganim, that the prohibition is limited to young girls, about whom it may be said that “nobody knows their intentions and the stability of their minds.” There is, however, no prohibition to teach older girls, who yearn to study Torah “out of a genuine desire truly to learn Torah” (Aseh Lekha Rav II, no. 52). But afterwards he adds another foundation for the allowance, which is connected to the notion of changing times:


It seems that in earlier times, when a woman was merely a homemaker, and girls did not learn anything at all, there was concern that Torah study, which is entirely wisdom… might cause damage to those women who are far-removed from any other wisdom… But in our time, when they learn general studies with all the appropriate seriousness, why should the words of the Torah be treated in inferior manner?


            It should be noted that while Rav Halevi invokes the consideration of changing times, his approach is different from that of the Chafetz Chayyim or Rav Lichtenstein. The Chafetz Chayyim spoke of changing times as grounds for allowance in pressing circumstances. Rav Lichtenstein mentioned changing times as grounds for expanding the allowance of “in order to ensure that she is vigilant about the mitzvot.” Rav Halevi argues that owing to the changed circumstances of our time, the grounds for the prohibitive ordinance introduced by Rabbi Eliezer have disappeared. According to this, in our generation there is no reason to prohibit Torah study for women, and the ordinance was never intended to apply in such a situation.


VII. Prohibition or Advice?


            As we have seen, many of our generation's authorities have reached the conclusion that in our day there are grounds to permit Torah study for women. Their views reflect different levels of acceptance of this situation, ranging from seeing our present situation as a time of pressing needs, to the argument that the women of our generation were never included in Rabbi Eliezer's prohibition.


            I wish to emphasize a point that I believe is critical. While it is true that the Ri’az and Rav Tzadok Ha-Kohen ruled against Rabbi Eliezer, most halakhic authorities decided in his favor. But what is the force of the prohibition established by Rabbi Eliezer? Did Rabbi Eliezer truly establish an absolute and unequivocal prohibition?


            Rav Chayyim David Halevi argues that it may be understood from the wording of Rabbi Eliezer's position in Sota that Torah study for women was never subject to an absolute prohibition, but only that the Sages frowned upon it. He notes, however, that this is not the way Rabbi Eliezer's position was understood by the major halakhic arbiters, including, first and foremost, the Rambam (Aseh Lekha Rav, II, no. 52). Dr. Aviad Hacohen, however, analyzed the wording of the Rambam, who opens with the formulation: “The Sages have directed that a man shall not teach his daughter Torah” (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:13). Hacohen demonstrated that whenever the Rambam uses the expression, “the Sages directed,” he is describing not a binding halakhic ruling, but rather an ethical teaching, “an obligation given over to the heart.” Compare, for example: “Our Sages directed: Hold oneself very, very lowly” (Hilkhot De'ot 2:3) (see “Tzivu Chakhamim – Perek Bi-leshonot Ha-Rambam Be-sefer Mishneh Torah,” in Shenaton Ha-mishpat Ha-ivri 14-15, 113-120). This point was also noted by Prof. Yehuda Levi, who argues: “The words of Rabbi Eliezer are but words of advice” (“Da’at Ha-Rambam Al Talmud Torah Le-nashim,” in Ha-ma’ayan 34[1], 10).[3]


Attention should also be paid to the wording of Rabbi Eliezer's dictum: “Rabbi Eliezer says: ‘Whoever teaches his daughter Torah, it is as if he taught her wantonness’” (Sota 3:4); and “Let the words of the Torah be burnt, rather than be handed over to women” (Yerushalmi Sota 3:4). These two statements are not formulated as halakhic rulings. Regarding the words of the Yerushalmi, the Meiri declares: “And in the Talmud of the West [the Yerushalmi] they said by way of hyperbole” (Sota 19b). Are not the words of the mishna also hyperbole (at least according to Rashi's understanding that tiflut has a sexual connotation)? This hyperbolic formulation alludes to a prohibition that pertains to the realm of character development rather than to pure halakha, whose rulings are generally presented in precise legal terms.


The special nature of the prohibition of Torah study for women follows also from an examination of the positions of the later authorities regarding the scope of the prohibition. The Responsa Ma'ayan Ganim understood that the prohibition does not apply to a wise woman who has demonstrated her wisdom and the purity of her motivation for study. Rav Chayyim David Halevi understood that the prohibition does not apply to women who are accustomed to engagement in other intellectual pursuits. Other authorities restricted Rabbi Eliezer's prohibition in other ways. These limitations differ from the qualifications that are introduced routinely by the halakhic authorities in the course of their analysis of a particular halakha. In our context, all of the limitations are of a similar nature: They qualify Rabbi Eliezer's prohibition in such a way that the scope of the law matches the rationale of the law – the desire to avoid the negative effects of women's Torah study.


When we are dealing with a halakha of a formal nature, we accept as self-evident that there may be a gap between the rationale of the law and its actual formulation. Even a person who finds fasting supremely delightful is obligated to fast on Tish'a be-Av. The rationale of the law is not fulfilled in such a person, but this does not concern us. When different Sages insist repeatedly on matching the practical application of a particular law to its rationale, it suggests that we are not dealing with a halakhic prohibition of a formal nature, but rather with a general guideline that depends on time, place and context. It is not an immutable prohibition, but one that attempts to teach us educational policy. That educational guideline was appropriate for the women living in the time of Rabbi Eliezer, but not necessarily for the women of our day.[4]



(Translated by David Strauss)




[1] The Chafetz Chayyim presents a similar idea in a letter relating to the founding of the Beis Ya'akov movement: “It is a great and necessary matter in our time, when unfortunately a heretical stream prevails in full force… And as for all the concerns and doubts regarding the prohibition to teach one's daughter Torah, there is no place for this concern in our time… For our generation is not like the early generations, for in previous generations the entire house of Israel had a tradition from their fathers and their mothers to walk in the path of the Torah and religion and to read the book Tzena U-re'ena every Shabbat. Owing to our sins, this is not case in our generation” (cited by A. Greenbaum, “Ha-chinukh Ha-dati Li-benot Yisrael,” in Shevilei Ha-chinukh, p. 35.

[2] Rabbanit Dr. Tova Lichtenstein is the daughter of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik.

[3] See also A.B. Halivni, Bein Ha-ish La-isha, Jerusalem 5767, p. 10.

[4] Ed note: See also R. Baruch Gigi, “Halakha, Reality, and the Relationship between Them,” VBM Halakha 5772 (here).