WOMEN WEARING A TALIT
In some of our congregations it is the custom that whoever comes up to the pulpit to participate in the service puts on a talit. In young people’s services for our high schools, boys and girls participate and often the girl puts on the talit at that occasion. According to Jewish law and tradition, is it proper for a girl to wear a talit at service? (Asked by Rabbi Harry J. Stern, Montreal, Canada.)
THE COMMANDMENT to wear a talit with fringes is based upon Numbers 15:37-41. Upon the basis of this commandment the anonymous baraita in Menachot 43a says that women, too, are in duty bound to wear the garment with fringes. However, Rabbi Simon there says they are free from that obligation. He bases his opinion upon the fact that Scripture, in the passage in Numbers, uses the phrase, “Ye shall see them and remember,” etc. Since Scripture says, “Ye shall see them,” that proves that the proper time for talit and tsitsit is the daytime and not the nighttime. This conclusion puts the commandment to wear fringes into the special class of positive commandments “limited by time” (sheh hazman gerama) and it is a general rule that women are free from the obligation to fulfill such positive commandments as are dependent upon time. Of course, being free from the obligation to fulfill the commandment of fringes does not mean that they are forbidden to wear them. It means only that they are not in duty bound to wear them.
When the law is discussed in the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 17:2, Joseph Caro says, following Rabbi Simon in the Talmud (quoted above) that women and slaves are free from putting on the fringes, since it is a commandment based upon time; but Isserles adds: “At all events, if they wish to put on the fringed garment and even recite the blessing over it, they are free to do so, as is the case with all time-limited positive commandments” (that is, they are not compelled to obey, but they are permitted to do so if they wish). However, he adds, if they do put them on, it would appear to be a show of extra pride of piety ( yohorah). But if they are not to put it on because it would look like a show of extra pride of piety on their part, then it becomes necessary to explain the fact that women observe the commandment of the lulav and recite blessings over it. Is not the lulav also a positive commandment limited by time? The explanation of this difference is given by the Magen David that the lulav is a stricter commandment than the fringes because if a person does not have a square garment (the fringes must be on the corners of a fourcornered garment ) he need not put fringes on at all. It is true that it is now our custom to wear always a talit katan with four corners and fringes. Nevertheless, according to law, it is only if a man has a fourcornered garment that he must put fringes on. In other words, the obligation depends on the garment. But with regard to the lulau, a man must get a lulav and say the blessings. In this case the obligation is incumbent upon the man himself (chovat gavra) not on whether he has the object or not; he must get it if he lacks it.
One of the later decisors, Jechiel Epstein, in his Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chayim 17, says that we should not allow women to put on the fringed talit. But then Epstein has the problem of explaining why women bless the lulav and formally eat the matzah at the Seder, which are positive commandments limited by time. He explains by saying that these positive time limited commandments come only once a year, but the talit should be worn every day.
However, all the great (and earlier) authorities permit it. The only question that seems to divide the earlier authorities (none of whom doubt the right of women to put on the talit) is the question as to whether when a woman puts on the talit, she may make the regular blessing or not. There is a full discussion of this problem in the Tosfot to Rosh Hashanah 33a, s.v., “Ha.” This Tosfot is mainly the opinion of Rabbenu Tarn. The discussion is on the general principle of whether anyone (such as women and the blind) who is free from the obligation to fulfill “positive commandments limited by time” should (when he fulfills such commandments voluntarily) pronounce the blessing over them or not. The Tosfot is based mainly on the discussion in Baba Kama 87a, where Rabbi Joseph, who was blind, had voluntarily fulfilled such commandments as he was not obligated to fulfill. See, also, the Tosfot in Erubin 96a, s.v., “Michal,” where the Tosfot discusses the statement in the Talmud that Michal, the daughter of Kushi (or the daughter of King Saul) used to put on tefilin, and the wife of Jonah used to make the festival pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Both of these were “positive commandments limited by time.” Rabbenu Tarn holds the opinion that women may pronounce the blessing over the fringed talit. But Maimonides in Yad Hilchot Tsitsit, III, 9, says that women may put on the fringes if they wish, yet may not say the blessing, and he adds, “So with all the other positive commandments that women are free from, if they wish to fulfill them without reciting the blessings, we do not prevent them.” The Hagahot Maimoni at that passage in the Yad says in the name of Rashi that he, too, was opposed to their reciting the blessing.
So the law is clear enough: One authority believes that a woman is actually in duty bound to wear the fringes. All agree that she may wear them if she wishes to, except for the limitation that it might look like the pride of extra piety. This solitary objection can hardly apply to the young women if we put a talk upon them. They would simply consider it part of the ceremony. Besides, in our Reform movement where special emphasis is placed upon the religious equality of men and women, there can be no real objection in young women putting on the talit when they participate in the service.