01. Women’s Connection to Torah

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The Torah belongs to all of Israel, men and women alike. When we recite “Who has chosen us from among all the nations” in Birkat Ha-Torah, we mean that God chose all of Israel, men and women, and consequently “gave us His Torah.” There is an accepted tradition: If even one Jewish maidservant would have been absent at the time of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the giving would have been delayed. Likewise, the mitzva of hak’hel (the assembly at the Temple at the end of the Shemita year, at which the king would read part of the Torah to all Israel) applies to men, women, and children (Devarim 31:12). 

Nevertheless, women are exempt from the mitzva to study Torah, as it is written: “You shall teach them to your sons, to speak them [– words of Torah]” (Devarim 11:19). The Sages extrapolate: “Your sons and not your daughters” (Kiddushin 29b).

However, when it comes to the general connection to the Torah, we find that women precede men. For example, when the Torah was given Moshe was instructed to address the women first. It is written: “Thus you shall say (tomar) to the house of Yaakov and tell (tageid) the sons of Israel” (Shemot 19:3). The Sages teach, “The house of Yaakov” (“Beit Yaakov”) refers to the women, who he must address in a gentle voice. “The sons of Israel” refers to the men, to whom he must speak more harshly, telling them of punishments and particular details. The word “tageid” alludes to the body’s tough sinews (“gidin”), connoting harshness. Further, the Sages derive from the introductory phrase “Thus you shall say” that God instructed Moshe to be meticulous about this sequence, namely, first the women and then the men (Mekhilta, cited in Rashi).

Moreover, we learn about proper respect for the Torah and respect for Torah scholars from the Shunamite woman, who would visit the prophet on Shabbat and Rosh Ĥodesh (2 Melakhim 4:23; RH 16b). It is no coincidence that respect for the Torah is learned from the example of a woman, because women have more of a connection to the sublime general aspect of the Torah (Siĥot Ha-Ritzya, Shemot pp. 178-181).

That is, there are two ways to connect to the Torah. One is intellectual: the mitzva for men to study Torah. The second is a general attachment, which pertains more to women. In daily life, the mitzva for men to study Torah is clearly more prominent; however, over the long-term, the holistic manner with which women relate to faith and to the Torah has a greater impact. This is the meaning of the Sages’ dictum: “Greater is the promise that God made to women than to men.” The Sages explain that women received an extra guarantee by virtue of the fact that they send their sons to study Torah and encourage their husbands to study in the beit midrash, waiting happily for them to conclude their studies without pressuring them to come home soon (based on Berakhot 17a).

It is the very exemption of women from the scrupulous study of the Torah’s details that allows them to absorb the general, morals-oriented aspects of the Torah, thereby better enabling them to encourage their husbands and sons to study Torah and thus perpetuate the Torah among Israel. There is no doubt that men also have a profound connection to the holistic aspect of the Torah, for all the details and particular nuances stem from the Torah as a whole. By the same token, women, too, must know the parameters of the fundamentals of faith as well as practical halakha, as will be clarified in the next section. However, as a rule, men more easily connect to the Torah’s precise definitions, whereas women connect to the general expression of the Torah in life. Through men and women together, the Torah is expressed in its entirety.

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