02. The Mitzva of Torah Study for Women

There is a fundamental difference between the mitzva of Torah study for men and for women. The men’s mitzva is to study Torah, whereas the mitzva for women is to know the mitzvot of the Torah so that they can life accordingly. In other words, a woman who knows all of practical halakha, as well as all the fundamentals of faith and ethics on the level and with the profundity necessary to guide her through life, has no further mitzva to continue studying. However, a man who already learned the entire Torah, even if he were to know it by heart, is still required to continue studying and delve deeper into the Torah.

Hence, there are two parts of Torah study. The first is to understand the Torah’s instructions, in halakha and faith, in order to live a full life. Men and women are equally obligated in this aspect. The second part inclines toward in-depth scrutiny, analysis, and abstraction. Men are obligated in this, but not women. Men and women therefore have different curricula. The most important part of the women’s syllabus is to know all the fundamentals of faith, ethics, and halakha, whereas, the men’s syllabus, in addition to the study of halakha, faith, and ethics, should emphasize learning Gemara and its commentaries. Nevertheless, women who wish to delve into the Torah for God’s sake may study Gemara in-depth as well, on condition that they first learn thoroughly the fundamentals of faith, morality, and the laws that they must know. In particular, intellectually sophisticated women must study extensively and internalize the fundamentals of faith and halakha before delving into the Gemara, so that their reverence for God precedes their wisdom.

For women who do not possess an especially strong desire to delve deeply into the Torah, the Sages’s general guideline is: do not engage in theoretical debates about differing opinions; rather, study a clear, practical summary of the halakhot and their reasons, and delve deeply into the principles of faith and ethics.

There were eras in which it was sufficient for women to learn the laws relating to the household and family on a rudimentary level and then hear a bit of moral admonishment. This was enough to instill an identity within them and generate the proper dedication to fulfilling the Torah and leading a Jewish life. However, in recent generations, with the increase in leisure time, the development of general education, and professional specialization in various fields, it is obvious that women must learn much more than they had in the past. Indeed, under the guidance of prominent rabbinic leaders of recent generations, educational and religious institutions for girls and women have been founded. One prominent example is the “Bais Yaakov” movement, established in Poland by Mrs. Sarah Schenirer, with the encouragement and support of eminent Polish rabbis.

These modern changes do not negate the fundamental halakhic difference between men, who are commanded to study Torah as a theoretical and intellectual endeavor, and women, who are not obligated to do so. Rav Kook explains that it is precisely this distinction between men and women that allows for the emergence of a state of harmony between analytic intellectualism and the vibrant and natural emotion that unites and establishes the words of Torah in real life (Ein Ayah, Berakhot 7:46). 1

  1. In Sota 20a, according to Ben Azai, a father must teach his daughter Torah, whereas according to R. Eliezer, he may not do so, for one who teaches his daughter Torah is as if he has taught her frivolity (“tiflut”). That is also the opinion of R. Yehoshua. Y. Sota 3:4 explains that according to R. Elazar b. Azaria, women are commanded to hear the Torah but not to study it in depth. Rambam (MT, Laws of Torah Study 1:13) rules in accordance with R. Eliezer that one should not teach his daughter Torah, because most women’s minds are not geared for that, and if they are taught the Oral Torah it is as if they are taught frivolity. All this is said in reference to the Oral Torah, but teaching one’s daughter the Written Torah (Scripture) is not considered teaching her frivolity (Tur and SA, YD 246:6, even though Rambam says that a father should not reach his daughter Scripture either), since hak’hel includes a commandment to make the Written Torah heard to all of Israel, including women. Therefore, it is impossible to say that one who teaches his daughter the Written Torah is considered to have taught her frivolity.

    However, a woman who wants to learn on her own, not because her parents or institutional context obligates her, may do so. It is even a credit to her, as Rambam says (ad loc.): “A woman who learned Torah receives rewards, but not the same as a man’s reward, as she was not commanded, and whoever performs an action that he is not commanded to perform is not rewarded like one who was commanded. Rather it is less.” It seems, therefore, that the entire prohibition is for a father to initiate Torah study with his daughter; but if she herself is interested in doing so for heaven’s sake, there is no prohibition; on the contrary, she is rewarded. Likewise, Rambam explains  (MT, Laws of Torah Principles 4:14) every single person has a mitzva to love God and fear Him. The way one achieves total love and fear for God is through Torah study, initially by studying talmudic debates and knowing what is permitted and what prohibited, and later through the study of the esoteric “work of creation” (“ma’aseh bereishit”) and “work of the chariot” (“ma’aseh merkava”). Concerning this, Rambam writes: “These are the greatest good that God bestowed on the civilized world so that it may inherit the World to Come; and it is possible that everyone understands them – adult and minor, man and woman, one whose mind is expansive as well as one with limited knowledge…” (R. Rabinovitch writes this as well in his commentary on MT, Yad Peshuta). It seems, therefore, that the future ideal of a world filled with the knowledge of God where is one where all women study Torah of their own volition and with complete understanding, thereby arriving at the love and fear of God in its totality. As we know, in the past there were women prophets and sages. However, it seems that even in the ideal there is a difference between the character of men’s and women’s learning.

    In summary, a woman whose heart is set on in-depth Torah study may engage in it, and it is to her credit. Still, good and righteous women who have no desire for this type of study should not be taught, and if one does teach them, it is as if he has taught them frivolity. It seems that the reason for this is twofold. One aspect pertains to the feminine nature, which makes it appropriate that she delve into Torah study out of her own desire and freedom. The second reason is that for most women, during the time that the domestic yoke is great and there is very little leisure time, theoretical Torah study cannot be undertaken properly. This makes it like frivolity, and the damage caused by this learning is greater than the benefit gained.

    All of this applies solely to theoretical study. Women are obligated to study Torah in order to perform mitzvot (Rema YD 246:6, based on Agur and Smak). Therefore, SA 47:14 rules that women must recite Birkhot Ha-Torah, since women must learn what is necessary for them to live a life of Torah. Today, it is apparent that women need to learn halakha and its reasons, along with the fundamentals of faith, for without this learning, their religious lives would certainly not be on the appropriate level. Therefore, it is an obligation to teach girls however much is necessary in order for them to uphold the Torah and become settled in their faith.

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