05. Women and Torah Study on Shabbat

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There is a fundamental difference between men’s and women’s obligation to study Torah. Men, even after they have learned all of halakha and the fundamentals of faith, are still obligated to set aside time to study Torah and to review and deepen what they have learned. The directive, “Let not this Book of the Torah cease from your lips; study it day and night” (Yehoshua 1:8) is directed at them. Although all week when they are busy at work they fulfill their obligation to study Torah with one chapter of any Torah text studied during the day and another at night (Menaĥot 99b), on Shabbat men must fulfill the verse according to its straightforward meaning, as the Sages said: “You should dedicate Shabbat to Torah alone” (Tanna De-vei Eliyahu §1; above section 1).

Women are not obligated to set aside time for Torah study, but they are obligated to know what the Torah says about how to live life, so that Torah will illuminate and guide their paths in the realms of halakha as well as theology and morals. A woman who can accomplish this with a minimal amount of study need do no more, while one who needs to study a great deal in order to achieve this must do so. This depends on the woman’s disposition and also varies by era. There were times when a small amount of learning was sufficient for most women; but nowadays, when life is more complicated and general wisdom has proliferated, women must study more halakha, theology, and works of moral instruction (Peninei Halakha: Collected Essays I 1:16).

Since women are not obligated to set aside time to study Torah every day and every night, they are also not obligated to dedicate half of Shabbat to learning. However, since Torah makes both men and women happy, there is a mitzva for women to study Torah on Shabbat because it is included in spiritual oneg Shabbat. Additionally, women are obligated to study halakha and theology. As Shabbat is both a holy day and the day on which the Torah was given, it is a fitting time for Torah study and an appropriate time for women to set aside to study halakha and theology. Nevertheless, since according to the letter of the law they are not obligated to set aside time to study Torah, in the years when they are busy with childcare they do not have to set aside time to learn on Shabbat. However, women who are not busy taking care of children should study a great deal on Shabbat, in a joyful and relaxed manner. Even women who are busy around the house should try to set aside some time to study Torah on Shabbat. Participating in Torah classes is recommended, since women also need the Torah’s guidance. At the time of the Sages, there were women who attended the Shabbat drasha; sometimes the derashot were long and the women came home late.[2]

It is wonderful if a couple enjoys studying Torah together. Through their joint learning they merit the presence of the divine, and invite Torah to serve as their guide for life. But a couple who have trouble learning together should not feel bad about it, because sometimes the great love that they share may make it difficult for them to concentrate on learning together.


[2]. We derive this from the fact that women too are prohibited from studying Torah on Tisha Be-Av (SA 554:1), for women also feel happy when they learn. Consequently, it is considered oneg Shabbat. See Sha’agat Aryeh §69. We also know that women are obligated to study halakha and theology and therefore they recite Birkhot Ha-Torah (SA 47:14; Rema YD 246:6). Shabbat derashot are meant to be for women as well, as stated in Tanya Rabbati §18: “It is a mitzva to congregate in synagogues to deliver derashot to women about timely topics.” For we learned in a midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Vayak’hel §408) that the Shabbat discourse is modeled on the mitzva of Hak’hel, which is obligatory upon women as well. See section 15 below, where we derive the mitzva to visit one’s rabbi on Shabbat from the actions of the Shunamite woman. The story told in y. Sota 1:4 also makes clear that women attended Shabbat discourses. We read there that R. Meir was accustomed to preach on Friday nights at the synagogue of Ĥamat. Once he spoke at great length, and one of the women who always attended his discourses returned home late. By the time she arrived home, the Shabbat candles had already gone out, and her husband was angry. He locked her out and swore that she could not re-enter the house until she spat in the face of R. Meir who had spoken for too long. R. Meir became aware of the situation. He decided to act as though he had a disease in his eye. He claimed that the cure for his eye was to have an expert healer spit in it. The woman’s neighbors reported this to her, and advised her that this was her chance to spit at R. Meir and return home. She came before R. Meir. R. Meir asked her: “Do you know how to heal through spitting?” Taken aback, she admitted that she did not know how. R. Meir told her: “If you are not an expert, you must spit in my eye seven times to effect a cure.” After she did so, R. Meir said to her: “Go tell your husband, ‘You told me to spit once, and I spit seven times.’” Later, his students remonstrated: “Why didn’t you tell us what happened? We would have brought the husband here and beat him until he agreed to take back what he said, and to make peace with his wife.” R. Meir responded: “If God allowed His holy name to be erased in order to bring peace between a man and his wife, then certainly Meir can forgo his dignity.”
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