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The Status of Women in Commandments Linked to A Specific Time

Author: Rav Duvdevani of Bet Shemesh, Elul 5764/Sept 2004

At the invitation of a group of women, Rav Duvdevani of Bet Shemesh gave a short series of talks in Hebrew on the status of women in fulfilling the commandments of the Torah, beginning with mitzvot aseh she ha-zeman gerama (MAZG), commandments that are linked to a specific time.

Blowing the Shofar - tekyiat shofar.

There is a well known exemption that applies to women: they are exempt from positive commandments linked to a specific time. Rav Duvdevani examines this exemption (petor). Is it a technical exemption or a kind of prohibition? At first glance, it would seem difficult to understand any positive commandments - specifically commandments such as Shofar or Lulav - as prohibitions.

Source sheet in hand, the group first looked at the source of the MAZG exemption (Talmud Bavli. Kiddushin 29A), where the exemption is linked to the commandments of tefilin and talmud Torah - even though the study of Torah is not linked to time.  A controversy is raised between R. Yehuda  who says that women are prevented from blowing the Shofar and R.Yossi and R. Shimeon who hold that they may blow (Tractate Rosh HaShana33A).  Does the women's exemption mean that, if they blow the Shofar they are 'adding' to a commandment, which is how Rashi explains R.Yehuda's statement, or is that not the case, as the MaHaRSHA, commenting on the passage in Kiddushin, holds.  Is the women's exemption tantamount to 'it is not commanded' (R.Yehuda) or not (R. Yossi and R. Shimeon)?  Is it a technical exemption i.e. a question of ability? If a person is sick and cannot go to pray in a minyan, his exemption is technical; he is not 'not commanded'' he is exempt due to the circumstances.

What is the position of an action, however good that is 'not commanded'? Basically, it is accepted that doing a  deed that is commanded s preferable to doing something that is not actually commanded (Kiddushin 31A).

The next point raised is a possible difference between the practices of Ashkenazim and Sephardim.  Professor Grossman, writing about the status of women in the Middle Ages, refers to Ashkenazi women who had their own 'Weiberstub', place to pray with achazanit, a woman to lead the prayers.

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim) holds that blowing the Shofar is not halachically forbidden to women and states its concern for the appropriate focus on the fulfilment of a commandment - just blowing is not what is required.  This raises the question of saying the blessing attached to the commandment.  Rabbenu Tam (Tosaphot on Tractate Kiddushin 31A) holds that women are obligated to say the blessing.  There is no meaningful  mitzva, commandment without a beracha, blessing, according to Ashkenazi Rishonim authorities.

 It would then seem, at this point, that there is no such thing as a commandment that is 'not commanded' and that no one denies that women may blow the Shofar.  The question now is whether they ought to say the blessing.  And with the beracha comes the obligation (of the mitzva of Lulav). According to the 'Tzitz Eliezer' (5B), Ashkenazi and Sephardi authorities agree that the custom of women to fulfil commandments linked to time (MAZG) is to be encouraged, with the appropriate blessing; the text refers to Shofar, Lulav, Shema and Hallel.

Going back to the subject of the women's exemption being technical or fundamental, Rav Duvdevani gives the example of categories of people who are disqualified from testifying.  Among these are relatives, women and gamblers.  While relatives may not testify in cases where the parties are related, they can testify in other cases; gamblers never qualify.  The status of women, Rav Duvdevani explains, can be compared to that of relatives (a technical and occasional disqualification).  Indeed, women can take upon themselves, if they are able, the obligation to fulfil a mitzva and thereby change their status of petor, exempt, to one of chiuv, obligation, underlined by the relevant blessing. Women are exempt but not disqualified from the commandment of blowing the Shofar on Rosh HaShana,  a commandment linked to a specific time.  And, as the RaMBaM states (Hilchot Teshuva, ch.1)all Commandments of the Torah, positive and negative that are transgressed by men or women require vidui, formal confession and teshuva, the wholehearted commitment to the fulfilment of the divine ordinances.