Shiur #04: Women and Prayer

  • Rav Chaim Navon

I. The Foundations of a Woman's Obligation to Pray


The Mishna in Berakhot establishes that a woman is fundamentally obligated in prayer: “Women, slaves and minors are exempt from reciting the Shema and from donning tefillin, but they are subject to the obligations of prayer, mezuza and Grace after Meals” (20a-b). The Gemara notes there that women are obligated in prayer because “it is [a supplication for] mercy.” The Gemara adds that one might have thought that women should be exempt from prayer, as there is an obligation to pray three times a day at fixed hours, and therefore it might have been possible to relate to prayer as a time-bound positive commandment, from which women are exempt. For this reason, the Mishna clarifies that women are indeed obligated in prayer.


It is not entirely clear from the Gemara why a woman’s exemption from time-bound positive commandments does not apply to prayer. Rashi explains that prayer is a rabbinic obligation, and the exemption is limited to Torah obligations. The Tosafot agree that prayer is a rabbinic commandment, but they disagree with Rashi's second assumption. According to the Tosafot, women are exempt not only from time-bound positive commandments from the Torah, but even from those that are rabbinic in origin. We can dispute Rashi's first assumption as well, for according to the Rambam, prayer is a Torah obligation. In any event, the Tosafot argue that a woman's obligation in prayer is not connected to its status as a rabbinic obligation, but rather to the fact that “it is [a supplication for] mercy.”


There are two ways to formulate the Gemara's conclusion: 1) Prayer is actually not a time-bound positive commandment; 2) Prayer is indeed a time-bound positive commandment, but nevertheless women are obligated in it. According to Rashi, the Gemara maintains that prayer is, in fact, a time-bound positive commandment. However, it is only mandated by rabbinic law, and therefore women are obligated in it. In contrast, the Rif writes that prayer is a positive commandment that is not time-bound (Berakhot 11b in Alfasi). He may have had a different version of our Gemara, which left out the rationale that prayer “is [a supplication for] mercy” altogether, as this rationale is not needed if we are dealing with a mitzva that is not time-bound.


How is it possible to define prayer as positive commandment that is not time-bound? Rabbeinu Yona explains the matter as follows:


Even though prayer has a fixed time, nevertheless, since the Sages said: “Would that a man should pray the entire day,” it is treated like a mitzvathat is not time-bound, and therefore women are obligated in it. Alternatively, because it is [a supplication for] mercy. (Rabbeinu Yona, Berakhot 11b in Alfasi)


Rabbeinu Yona offers two explanations: 1) The mitzvaof prayer is, in its essence, not bound by time. While it is true that the Sages established times for prayer, these are only minimal times, similar to the mitzvaof Torah study, which has a minimal measure – one halakhain the morning and one at night. Neither Torah study nor prayer is limited to these prescribed times, but rather, both mitzvot essentially apply at all times. If a person is unable to pray throughout the day, it suffices to recite a minimum of three prayers. However, this minimum certainly does not define the obligation as time-bound. 2) The mitzvaof prayer is, in fact, time-bound, but it is treated as if it were not because it is characterized by supplication for God's mercy. Rabbeinu Yona seems to be saying that the fact that prayer is defined as supplication for mercy negates its definition as a time-bound positive commandment. Mercy is needed at all times; even if for technical reasons the Sages limited prayer to three times a day, the mitzvain its essence is not bound by time.


It is also possible to interpret the Gemara differently and say that even though prayer is a time-bound positive commandment, women are nevertheless obligated in it, since it involves supplication for mercy. That is to say, it is difficult for the Gemara to accept that women should not seek God's mercy. This is what is implied by the Yerushalmi: “And they are subject to the obligation of prayer – so that each and every individual should seek mercy for himself” (Berakhot 3:3). The Yerushalmi suggests that according to the normative principles of halakha, women should indeed be exempt from prayer, as it is a time-bound positive commandment. Here, however, there is a special interest (of the Torah, or of the Sages) that every person seek mercy for his or her self. As stated, however, this is not the understanding of the Rif (nor does it seem to be the understanding of the Tosafot).


Let us summarize the various possible formulations of a woman's obligation to pray:


1)               Prayer is essentially a positive commandment that is not time-bound (Rif, Rabbeinu Yona in his first explanation).

2)               Prayer is a positive commandment that is not time-bound because it is a supplication for God's mercy (Rabbeinu Yona in his second explanation).

3)               Prayer is a rabbinically-ordained positive commandment, in which women are obligated, even if it is time-bound (Rashi).

4)               Prayer is a positive commandment that is time-bound, but nevertheless women are obligated in it because it is a supplication for God's mercy (implied by the Yerushalmi).

The Rambam's ruling follows the position of the Rif. Let us examine that ruling in full, as it is of great importance with respect to the issues that we will discuss later in this shiur:


It is a positive commandment to pray every day… as it is stated: “Serving Him with all your heart and soul” (Devarim 11:13), about which the Sages said: “What is the service of the heart? Prayer.” The number of prayers is not fixed in the Torah, nor is their format, and neither does the Torah prescribe a fixed time for prayer.

Women and slaves are therefore obligated to pray, since it is a positive commandment without a fixed time.

Rather, this commandment obligates each person to pray, supplicate and praise the Holy One, blessed be He, to the best of his ability every day; to then request and plead for what he needs; and after that praise and thank God for all that He showered on him. (Hilkhot Tefilla 1:1-2)


The Rambam explicitly writes that prayer is a positive commandment that is not time-bound, and therefore women are obligated in it.[1] The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayyim 106:1) rules accordingly. The Magen Avraham (no. 2) writes that is it is possible to infer from the Rambam that a woman is only obligated in the prayer that is mandated by Torah law. That is, she must pray once a day, using her own format. The rabbinic element of the obligation, however, which includes a fixed format that must be recited three times a day, is defined as a time-bound positive commandment, and therefore women are exempt from it. This is a critical point with respect to actual halakhic practice, for if we adopt the position of the Magen Avraham, it follows that women are not obligated to recite three prayers every day. They need only recite one prayer a day, without necessarily using a fixed format.


The Mishna Berura (Orach Chayyim 106, no. 4) notes that this distinction is relevant only according to the view of the Rambam that there is a level of prayer that is mandated by Torah law. According to the Rambam, it can be argued that the mishna that obligates women in prayer relates to that basic level of prayer. But according to those who maintain that the entire mitzva of prayer is only mandated by rabbinic decree, we are forced to say that the mishna obligates women to pray in the manner established by the Sages, using their fixed format, and that the halakhadoes not distinguish between different levels of the mitzva. The Mishna Berura notes that this is the position of most halakhic authorities, and therefore in practice women are obligated to recite the full Amida, and may not suffice with a personal prayer of their own design. The Mishna Berura adds that this applies to shacharit and mincha,the prayers for the morning and afternoon. As for arvit, the evening prayer, the Gemara states: “The evening prayer is optional” (Berakhot 27b). Even though men have since accepted arvit upon themselves as obligatory, women have not. There are other authorities who rule that women are obligated in arvit as well (Arukh Ha-shulchan, Orach Chayyim 106:7).


II. Women's Prayer – in Practice


The Shulchan Arukh rules that women are exempt from reciting the Shema, which is, according to all opinions, a time-bound positive commandment. He adds, however: “But it is proper to teach them to accept upon themselves the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven” (Orach Chayyim 70:1). The Rema adds: “And they should read at least the first verse [of the Shema].”


The Magen Avraham (Orach Chayyim 70, no. 1) writes that women are obligated to recite the Emet Ve-yatziv blessing in order to fulfill the obligation to remember the Exodus from Egypt, implying that women are included in the obligation of semikhat ge'ula le-tefilla, i.e., of joining the Emet Ve-yatziv blessing to the Amida prayer. The Mishna Berura (Orach Chayyim 70, no. 2) expresses doubt as to whether women are actually obligated in the mitzva to remember the Exodus, as that might be considered a time-bound positive commandment. This consideration depends on whether there is an obligation to remember the Exodus at night in addition to during the day. If we are commanded to remember the Exodus both day and night, it would be difficult to define the mitzvaas time-bound, as the obligation is constant. But even if the mitzva applies at night as well, we might argue that remembering during the day and remembering at night are two separate mitzvot, distinct from one another, so each mitzva might very well be considered time-bound. The Mishna Berura (106) writes that women are in fact exempt from reciting the Shema, but it is proper for them to recite at least the first verse and the Emet Ve-yatziv blessing.


What about the earlier portions of the prayer service? The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayyim 47:14) rules that women must recite birkot ha-Torah. The Mishna Berura (70) raises the question of whether women are obligated to recite birkot ha-shachar. He writes that the wording of the Shulchan Arukh (46) implies that they are obligated. The Mishna Berura writes further that, according to some authorities, pesukei de-zimra serve as a kind of introduction to the Amida, and therefore women who are obligated in prayer are obligated in pesukei de-zimra as well. The Mishna Berura does not reveal his own position in the matter.


To summarize: According to the Mishna Berura, the core of women's prayer is as follows: Birkot ha-Torah and birkot ha-shachar, the first verse of the Shema, the Emet Ve-yatziv blessing, and the Amida. Ideally, they should also recite pesukei de-zimra and the Shema and their blessings in their full form (or at least from the first verse until the end of the Amida).


In actual practice, however, as the Magen Avraham noted, most women do not pray at all during the week. The Magen Avraham writes that they rely on the position of the Rambam – that it suffices if they recite a personal prayer. However, we must be precise: Even according to the Rambam, reciting the Modeh Ani prayer would not suffice, for even the most basic prayer must have a fixed structure in order to fulfill the Torah obligation to pray. One must open with words of praise, continue with words of supplication, and then conclude with words of praise and thanksgiving. We find this structure in birkot ha-Torah and in the final blessing of birkot ha-shachar. It may be that women who do not recite the full Amida can still fulfill their obligation by reciting these blessings, according to the Magen Avraham'sunderstanding of the Rambam.


Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yabi'a Omer VI, Orach Chayyim, no. 17) accepts the Magen Avraham'sunderstanding of the Rambam, and asserts that by strict law it suffices for a woman to recite one personal prayer a day, provided that it follows the structure presented by the Rambam. In practice, however, he recommends that women should pray as follows: birkot ha-Torah, birkot ha-shachar, the first verse of the Shema and the Amida. He adds that there is no reason for them to refrain from praying three times a day. He adds that women who follow the rulings of the Shulchan Arukh should not recite the blessings of Barukh She-amar and Yishtabach, for according to Sephardic custom women do not recite blessings over time-bound positive commandments. What is more, according to Rav Ovadya, they may not recite the blessings of the Shema (Yabi'a Omer II, Orach Chayyim, no. 6).


Despite Rav Ovadya’s ruling, there are Sephardic halakhic authorities who disagree. The Kaf Ha-chayyim writes:

If they wish to recite the blessings of Shema and also the pesukei de-zimra with their blessings, they may do so. Therefore, women who know how to learn [the ritual] should recite the entire order of the prayer, as men do – nothing less – from the story of the Akeida to Aleinu Le-shabei'ach. (70, 1)


We see that the Kaf Ha-chayyim permits Sephardic women to recite the entire liturgy. We have already seen that there is a firmly grounded custom among Sephardic women to recite blessings over time-bound positive commandments. Regarding the blessings found in the Amida, the matter is even less problematic from a halakhic perspective, for according to some, the only reason a woman might refrain from reciting a blessing over a time-bound positive commandment is the problematic phrase “who has commanded us,” which does not appear anywhere in the Amida.


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] It should be noted that the Rambam himself writes in his commentary to the Mishna (Kiddushin 1:7) that prayer is a time-bound positive commandment. Apparently he later retracted this position.