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Peninei Halakha > Women's Prayer > Chapter 03: The Reasons behind Women's Mitzvot

Chapter 03: The Reasons behind Women’s Mitzvot

01. Men and Women – Mutually Complementary

As a rule, there is equality between the sexes. Men and women are all created in the divine image, and the uniqueness of the Jewish people inheres in Jewish women and men alike. The Torah was given to all Israel, men and women alike (see below, 7:1). The Sages derive from the verse “These are the laws that you must set before them” (Shemot 21:1) that “The Torah equated woman to man concerning all the laws in the Torah” (Kiddushin 35a).

Nonetheless, it is impossible to ignore the specific differences between men and women, whether innate physical and emotional differences or halakhic differences like those regarding positive time-bound mitzvot. These dissimilarities enable man and woman to complement each other.

In order to unveil the divine ideal in this world, revelation must occur through two complementary facets. Every individual creature is limited, and therefore cannot grasp divine perfection, but the people of Israel as a collective allows divine perfection to be manifest in the world. This indicates the tremendous importance of a unified Israel, because only the Jewish people, in all its components, can receive the Torah and with it rectify the world. Just as there is a difference between souls, so do the words of the Torah have multiple meanings, as it is written: “God said one thing from which I have heard two” (Tehilim 62:12) and: “Indeed, My word is like fire, like a hammer shattering rock” (Yirmiyahu 23:29). The Sages extrapolate, “Just as this hammer fragments into sparks, so too each and every statement that came from God’s mouth refracts into seventy languages” (Shabbat 88b). “Just as this hammer is divided into many fragments, so one verse of scripture generates many meanings (Sanhedrin 34a). Likewise, it is said about the disagreements between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai, and all other rabbinic disputes, “These and those are the words of the living God” (Eruvin 13b).

The most significant human reciprocal completion is the one between male and female, for with it human beings can reveal the divine image within them and achieve perfection. Not only concerning humanity, but in all of creation, from the sublime realms down to this earth, there is a division into male and female; neither sex can exist and endure independently, without the completion of the other. This fundamental principle is clarified at length in the wisdom of the Kabbala. That is what R. Elazar meant when he said: “Every man without a woman is not a [complete] person, as it is written: ‘Male and female He created them, and He blessed them and called them man’ (Bereishit 5:2)” (Yevamot 63a). Likewise, the Sages teach us: “Every man without a woman is inundated by unhappiness, without blessing, without goodness…without Torah, without fortification” (Yevamot 62b).

Just as the dissimilarity between men and women enables them to marry and have children, so too the spiritual and emotional difference between them allows them to unite so that they may complete and enrich one another spiritually.

Based on this, it is possible to grasp to some extent the basic reason for the halakhic differences between the mitzvot given to men and those given to women.

02. Why Women Are Exempt from Positive Time-Bound Mitzvot

The simple and conventional reason why women are exempt from positive time-bound mitzvot is so that they can fulfill their destiny of building the family home. An enormous responsibility is placed upon women: to create and sustain the family, upon which our personal and national future is founded. This responsibility stems from their innate constitution as child-bearers and nursing mothers, as well as from their feminine and maternal character, which possesses unique qualities suitable for building and nurturing a family. The responsibility of managing the house and raising and educating the children often demands a devotion that extends to all hours of the day and night. Were women to be given the responsibility of fulfilling the positive time-bound mitzvot, which require one to cease all regular activity, they would be unable to tend to their family’s needs properly (based on Abudraham and Sefer Ĥasidim §1011).

This view can also explain why women are exempt from the mitzva of Torah study. Torah study demands a great deal of dedication, both in adolescence, when acquiring the tools for Torah study, and subsequently throughout one’s entire life, when devoting hours every day to Torah study. If women were to be commanded to study Torah, they would not be able to devote themselves to building a family. Although women undoubtedly must learn Torah in order to live by its guidance, they are not obligated to study Torah for the sake of inquiry, theoretical profundity, and comprehensive knowledge. Thus, women are relieved of the constant pressure that accompanies men, who are commanded to commit themselves to continuous advancement in their knowledge of Torah.

This illustrates the cardinal value of family. In order to foster the family, the Torah exempted women from the mitzva of Torah study and the positive time-bound mitzvot.

It must be added that the very law that women are exempt from the mitzva of Torah study and time-bound positive mitzvot suggests that women, by nature, have less of a need for those mitzvot and that they can achieve personal completion without them (as will be explained below in section 5; see also Yalkut Shimoni, Shmuel §78). Based on this, we can learn that even a woman who does not bear the burden of family is exempt from these mitzvot.

03. Intellect and Emotion

My teacher, R. Zvi Yehuda Kook, regularly emphasized the principle that men and women are equal. However, after positing that key precept, he would occasionally dwell on the differences between man and woman: “The element of intellect is more discernible in men. By contrast, human emotion is more prominent in women” (Siĥot Ha-Ritzya, Bamidbar p. 413). Of course, men also have feelings and women are also intelligent, but in general men incline more toward the intellect and women toward emotion. This approach has recently been reinforced by various research studies on the brain and mind, from which it emerges that there are two types of intelligence, intellectual (IQ) and emotional (EQ).

As a result of this distinction, in certain areas the man is more active, whereas the woman is more passive. After the intellect arrives at conclusions, it produces and constructs, whereas emotion is characterized by perceiving impressions from surrounding events; it does not initiate them, rather is impacted by them. Thus, we find that the Torah sages of earlier generations described men as being more inclined to influence and women as being more apt to receive.

These two complementary traits allow us to connect wholly to the Divine ideal, grow stronger in faith, live a Torah existence, and rectify the world under the Almighty’s sovereignty.

Through the analytical and discerning intellect, we establish the principles with which we govern our lives, and via spontaneous, raw emotion we are able to better absorb the faith and vitality of the Torah.

In the following paragraphs I will attempt to further refine this concept based on the words of Rav Kook and his son, R. Zvi Yehuda. 1

  1. For more, see Siĥot Ha-Ritzyah, Bereishit pp. 77-78; Bamidbar pp. 411-416; discourse 9 – man and woman; Olat Re’iyah vol. 1, pp. 71-72; Ein Ayah, Berakhot 7:46. See also Shabbat 33b; Tanĥuma Vayera §22; BM 59a; Nida 45b.

04. The Virtue of Men and Intellect

Intelligence is what separates human beings from all other living creatures. It enables man to investigate, reach conclusions, plan action, and make significant changes in the world. It allows people to cooperate, organize themselves as a community, and achieve tremendous accomplishments. Thus, it governs humanity and society. With it, the core principles and fundamental beliefs upon which human life rests are established. From this perspective, intelligence is collective. Emotion, however, is individual, consistent with one’s personal impressions and not in keeping with what general rules and principles dictate. Intellect allots every notion an established universal definition, and when those ideas are perceived emotionally, they indeed refract into innumerable hues, according to each person’s individual character. Even within the same person, ideas are perceived in varying ways, based on shifting moods.

Based on this, we can understand the virtue of the mitzva of Torah study, which is performed by the intellect. Through meticulous and methodical study, an intellectual Torah worldview, with which it is possible to lead the world and rectify it, takes shape. This is also the purpose of the positive time-bound mitzvot: they champion, in a focused manner, important ideas that guide the people of Israel with their light. The recitation of Shema, for example, reminds us of the fundamentals of Torah and faith; tzitzit remind us of all the mitzvot and make us wary of the evil inclination; thus, all the time-bound mitzvot highlight Torah values that must govern our lives.

Within this framework, we can also understand why leadership tends to be placed in the hands of men – kings, rabbinical court judges, judges, enforcers, and military men. As the Sages say: “There is no more kosher (upright) a woman among women, than a woman who does the will of her husband” (Eliya Rabba §10; Yalkut Shimoni, Melakhim 42).

05. The Superiority of Women and Emotion

By contrast, emotion, which receives and is impressed upon, is able to grasp faith more naturally and spontaneously. From this standpoint, women are closer to the Divine ideal and are more universal. It is through the manifestation of the divine universal, which sustains the world, that all of the fundamental parameters that the intellect discerns and delineates is drawn. This virtue of women is embedded in the material from which she was created. Whereas man was created from dust, woman was created from a more refined substance – man’s rib. Since the substance from which the woman was created is of higher quality, she is more capable of naturally perceiving the divine ideal. Feminine intuition is closer to faith, and therefore even without the intervention of intellectual Torah analysis, and without the mediation of specific time-bound mitzvot, women can connect profoundly to the Torah and its purpose. In contrast, men require the study of Torah and the time-bound mitzvot in order to firmly establish their connection to faith and Torah.

Likewise, we find that in all the great events which occurred to the Jewish people, the great virtue of women was manifested, for they preceded men in choosing the path of faith. It seems, then, that masculine intellectual analysis is sufficient under normal circumstances; however, where additional spirituality and more faith are required, it is specifically the feminine attributes which are necessary. “R. Akiva preached, ‘In the merit of righteous women, the people of Israel left Egypt’” (Yalkut Shimoni, Tehilim 795, and see Rashi on Shemot 38:8). At the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the women were addressed first (Rashi on Shemot 19:3, based on a midrash). Similarly, we learn how to honor the Torah from women (below, 7:1). Men even learn Torah in the merit of women’s profound insight (see Berakhot 17a and below, 7:1). Additionally, women did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer §45) or the sin of the Spies (Tanĥuma Pinĥas §7). Concerning the future, the Sages say “Generations are only redeemed in the merit of its righteous women” (Midrash Zuta, Ruth 4:11). 1

The virtue of woman also finds expression in the holy language of Hebrew. Many universal ideas are expressed in the feminine form: ĥadashot (news), nifla’ot (wonders), netzurot (secrets), and nisgavot (sublime ideas). Also, emuna (faith), Torah, mitzva (commandment), tefila (prayer), segula (uniqueness), Yahadut (Judaism), kehuna (priesthood), and melukha (royalty), are in the feminine form. As noted, this is because the feminine nature is closer to divinity (Siĥot Ha-Ritzya, Bereishit p. 77). 2

This same trait that enables women to integrate and accept the divine idea also allows them to accept masculine principles and apply them to life. Men are more able to define the ideas, but women are better able to apply them in life. The conception of a fetus originates with the man, but it is the woman who actually develops it in her womb, gives birth to it, nurses it, and raises it. Therefore, women constitute the essence of the home and it is they who merit managing the grand ideal of constructing the family.

  1. It seems that from the standpoint of the human intellectual virtue, men are more universal, whereas from the standpoint of the perception of the divine idea and faith, as expressed via intuitive vitality, women are more universal. Therefore, women grasp momentous historical divine processes to a greater degree.
  2. Perhaps, therefore, when discussing the principle of Jewish tradition, it is said (Mishlei 1:8), “Do not forsake the Torah of your mother,” for the primary building block of education is the construction of the natural universal connection with God and his Torah, a quality more prominent in women. In contrast, the father’s guidance centers on detailed and prescriptive guidelines, and since sometimes it is difficult for one to completely identify with those limiting and restricting teachings, it comes with an aspect of reproof – “Listen, my son, to the rebuke of your father” (ibid.).

06. A Hierarchy of Virtues

First there must be an acknowledgment of the value of the Torah and its study and an awareness of the virtue of the time-bound mitzvot, which illuminate every-day life. It is man’s job to be responsible for the preservation of the universal values expressed through these mitzvot, and to declare them publicly at the established times, as the Torah commands. By recognizing the value of the male role, women can transmit the light within these mitzvot to all strata of life.

At first glance, it seems that the status of men is higher than that of women; men rule and influence while women receive and are acted upon. However, in the longer term, feminine influence becomes stronger. The Sages teach (Bereishit Rabba 17:7), “There is a tale of a ĥasid (pious man) who was married to a certain ĥasida (righteous woman), and they did not have any children together. They said: ‘We are not helping God at all.’ So they got divorced. The man went and married an evil woman who, in turn, made him evil. The woman went and married an evil man and she made him righteous. We thus learn that everything stems from the woman.”

Man’s human aspects are more pronounced; intellect is indeed the pinnacle of humanity. Woman’s ability to receive divinity is more pronounced. Therefore, even though it is the husband who is commanded to learn Torah and establish the values, the general attitude toward those values is more affected by woman; her righteousness or wickedness radiates onto her husband. In the long term, the broader approach to faith is more influential. Therefore, if the woman is righteous and she and her husband have a good relationship, it follows that her husband will also eventually become a righteous person, and if she is evil, her husband will presumably also be wicked.

There are allusions to this idea within the mystical tradition: Initially the man’s advantage is more apparent, but in the future, the advantage of women will be more apparent, as alluded in the verse (Yirmiyahu 31:21), “ For God has created something new on earth: A woman courts a man.” In this world, our gaze is external, and therefore the advantages of man, the one who learns and leads, are greater than those of woman. However, in the future we will gain a more profound vision and then the virtue of faith and intuitive perception will be revealed, such that the status of men and women will become equal. In the World to Come, the virtue of faith and the Divine perception will be so evident that the status of woman will be greater than that of man. Even then, there will be a place and a need for learning as well as for rigorous definitions, yet the feminine emotional aspect will take primacy.

It can be said that after Adam’s original sin and the introduction of the evil inclination into human beings, it is more difficult to rely upon one’s intuition and natural emotions; hence, the primary struggle with the evil inclination is guided by one’s intellect, which must control and direct emotion. However, as the world becomes rectified and faith and morals become a common legacy, the concern that natural emotion will erupt in a misguided and destructive manner lessens. As a result, impediments to emotional expression will be removed, its merit revealed, and with it, the virtue of women.

We should not say that the World to Come is so remote from us that it has no influence on our lives at all, because even today it is buried deeply inside of us. The external soul corresponds to this world, the internal spirit corresponds to the future, and the innermost soul corresponds to the World to Come. Therefore, even today, the deeper we delve, the more we find women’s influence. However, the arrangement is such that woman’s humility in accepting man’s virtue and influence allows her to express more and more of her own virtue.

It is possible to expand upon this topic, but this is not the place. We shall only briefly allude to the fact that the relationship between the sun which radiates and the moon which receives resembles the male/female relationship. Initially, they were both equal, but as a result of the moon’s arrogance, it was diminished. However, in truth, at the heart of the matter, its virtue is great, for it receives the light here in this world. To a certain extent, this is also the relationship between the heavens and the earth; at first glance, the skies are more exalted, but upon second glance, the purpose of creation was for the earth and the final outcome was conceived at the outset. This is also the relationship between the tribe of Yehuda and the tribe of Yosef. On one hand, Yehuda reigned; however, the most cherished and beloved son was Yosef, who was beautiful like a woman, and who was capable of revealing all the highest ideals within this world, in beauty and splendor.

07. Love and Partnership

On its own, every attribute is deficient. The discerning, studying intellect is liable to lose the vitality that stems from its connection to the divine. Likewise, due to its constant involvement in principles and rules, it is liable to lose touch with real life. In contrast, emotional intuition, when it comes to organize life in the world, is likely to get carried away and err, straying from the precise law.

Consequently, the task of setting rules and principles was given to men, who are commanded to occupy themselves in Torah and to fulfill positive time-bound mitzvot, thereby laying the foundations of Jewish life. Women, on the other hand, express the general connection to faith and the tangible life of Torah, by virtue of which men connect to natural faith and better comprehend the value of the analytic principles.

On the surface, it seems that the task of men is more important; on account of these virtues, they are worthy of the mitzva of Torah study as well as the positive time-bound mitzvot, and consequently, men are given leadership and authority. After all, one who is occupied with Torah principles must lead and guide others. However, looking deeper, we see that the value of women is actually greater. Although it is true that men are more engaged with principles and leadership, the building of a family, which is the most significant element in life, was placed in the hands of women. Moreover, the purpose of creation is to receive divine illumination within actual life and to experience it with the utmost intensity. Women are more attuned to this.

Specifically because of women’s quality of humility, she is able to receive the divine and absorb the illumination that stems from Torah study and from positive time bound mitzvot. This, in turn, enables her to express her great virtues. It is thus no coincidence that man’s virtues are more noticeable, while women’s are internal and concealed. “The king’s daughter is all glorious within” (Psalms 45:14). This also allows us to understand the meaning of the berakha of She’asani Ki-rtzono (as explained below, 6:2).

When the uniqueness of each sex is blurred or subjected to struggle and hostility, man and woman are unable to make each other more productive. Young couples have difficulty building their families, and existing family structures deteriorate and collapse.

On the other hand, when we understand the value of each sex, thereby allowing for a greater connection and love, the divine Presence dwells with the couple (Sota 17a), faith and joy increase in the world, and the intellectual and emotional elements develop and integrate. The people of Israel, with all its families, thus continues to grow, speaking God’s praise in the world.

08. Prayer: Communal and Personal Elements

Based on what we have learned, it is possible to better comprehend the significance of women’s prayer. Two elements come into play in prayer, one personal and one collective. The personal is the individual’s appeal to the source of life, to her God, to petition Him for mercy. The collective element gives expression to the permanent connection between God and the Jewish people, thereby sanctifying His name in the world and drawing blessings down upon His creation. The collective element of prayer is the perpetuation of the sacrificial rites in the Temple, and therefore the prayers were instituted to correspond to the daily Tamid offerings.

Sometimes there is some tension between the personal and collective aspects of prayer. From the individual perspective, prayer should theoretically be poured out from the heart with no limitations, without any fixed formulas or set times, so that it can spontaneously and emotionally express one’s yearning and longing to be close to God. That is how people prayed during First Temple era. However, the Men of the Great Assembly, in their enactments, emphasized the collective element, for they understood that without a fixed prayer rite, most people would become stuck in their routines and would not recite even a personal prayer. Moreover, personal feelings are often flawed and deficient. However, when one prays with a community, his prayers are complemented and perfected by virtue of the collective. Therefore they instituted the recital of prayers at set times, corresponding to the bringing of the Tamid offering in the Temple. They established a fixed formula for prayer, including in it all the values important to the people of Israel as a whole. They composed the prayers in the plural and instituted communal prayer – in a synagogue with a minyan – for the essence of Israel’s greatness is that they can express sanctity publicly, thus revealing God’s name in the world and bringing it closer to perfection.

As a result of the emphasis on the collective and fixed aspects of prayer, the personal component, with its intense and fervent passion, is liable to be pushed aside. This is the meaning of R. Shimon’s warning: “Do not make your prayer fixed, but [make it] a plea for mercy and supplication before God”(Avot 2:13). Rabbi Eliezer similarly said: “If one renders his prayer fixed, his prayer is not supplication” (Berakhot 28b).

Nevertheless, the Sages emphasized the collective component in their enactment, thereby instituting the fundamentals of faith within life. From this standpoint, prayer is a continuation of the Temple service, and just as the korbanot expressed the connection that the Jewish people and the entire world have with God, so too the prayers give public expression to this connection in every Jewish community. Even in the Temple Mount precincts, there was a synagogue for prayer in the time of the Second Temple. Although this emphasis is likely to result in the sidelining of personal feeling, the general impact of fixed public prayer on the entire world as well as each individual is tremendous. Therefore, the Sages preferred to set a defined framework for prayer (see 1:8 above). 1

  1. In recent generations, the greatest Ĥasidic leaders tried to find ways to reintroduce long-neglected personal feelings and kavana into prayer, even sacrificing halakhic details to this end. Some introduced melodies into prayer, which is not halachically problematic whatsoever. Others repeated words over and over until they felt that they had enough kavana, a practice which poses a halachic problem. Some would shout their prayers, which also goes against the Sages’ guidance. Some delayed the time of prayers until they felt that they were sufficiently prepared to concentrate properly; if in the interim the deadline for prayer passes, this goes completely against halakha. Still others would pray alone so as to arouse kavana (on the value of minyan, see Peninei Halakha: Prayer 2:1,2, and 5). Consequently, opposition to their practices arose. However, they insisted that individual kavana is so important that they warrant ignoring halakhic details. In actuality, after a few generations, most Ĥasidim returned to observance of halakhic rules in accordance with Jewish tradition.

09. Women’s Prayer

In contradistinction to the aforementioned, in women’s prayer, the personal element is more pronounced. Because women are exempt from time-bound positive mitzvot, they do not need to recite Pesukei De-zimra, the Shema and the berakhot associated with it, or the other passages that men recite in their prayers. Although women must use the text of Shemoneh Esrei instituted by the Men of the Great Assembly, since their prayer rite is shorter, there is less concern that routine will erode their kavana. In practice, even with regard to Shemoneh Esrei, women may decide whether to recite it twice daily in accordance with the stringent view, or once daily in accordance with the lenient opinion (see above, 2:5).

Moreover, since a woman need not pray in a synagogue and with a minyan, she may pray when she feels she will be able have more kavana. Likewise, the pace of her prayer is not dictated by that of the communal prayer. It thus emerges that the personal, petitionary element is more prominent in a woman’s prayer. Furthermore, the Sages instituted that men who do not know how to pray may come to synagogue and fulfill their obligation by hearing the ĥazan‘s repetition of the Amida (Ĥazarat Ha-shatz), whereas women who do not know how to pray need not hear Ĥazarat Ha-shatz. The simple explanation for this is that it is impossible to burden women with this, but perhaps in women’s prayer, kavana is more prominent and halakhic details less so. Thus, a woman who does not know how to recite the fixed liturgy may pray in her own words as best as she can, for the essence of women’s prayer is to ask God for mercy. 1

  1. According to Ramban, women must pray daily to request mercy on behalf of themselves. Some say, based on a different version of the Gemara, that Rambam agrees. However, the general, public element, corresponding to the Tamid offerings and the sanctity of the Temple (of which the synagogue is a miniature version) is more prominent in the Sages’ enactments for men. Additionally, men must recite the Shema and its berakhot. In contrast, for women, the first principle of prayer – praise, petition, and thanksgiving – remain. We also saw (2:4 above) that women who are preoccupied with raising their children are exempt from prayer, as they cannot have the proper kavana, though for men in the same situation, the poskim are not lenient. Again we find that regarding women there is more of an emphasis on kavana and the request for mercy, whereas concerning men, preservation of the framework for expression of the divine Presence in prayer is preserved.

    This is consistent with what we explained in n. 2, namely, that from an intellectual standpoint, women are more private, but from the aspect of accepting faith, she is more general. The institution of prayer services with a minyan corresponding to the korbanot offers greater expression to the intellectual aspect, imparting the fundamentals of faith in the world, to which men are more suited. In contrast, kavana is more prominent among women and expressed more in personal prayer. This is the mitzva of prayer for women, in which the voluntary element is more prominent. For this reason, many basic principles of prayer were learned from the prayer of Ĥana. For further study see Peninei Halakha: Prayer 2:2, 5 as well as below, ch. 15 n. 1, which notes that women are exempt from reciting the Tamid passage because the obligation of women to pray stems from the need to request mercy, not as a replacement of the Tamid. Mabit (Beit Elokim, Sha’ar He-yesodot ch. 39) explains that until the destruction of the Temple, the divine Presence was revealed through the Temple service, and the individual’s prayer was also heard. After the destruction of the First Temple, the Men of the Great Assembly instituted prayer with a minyan so that the divine Presence would dwell among them, thereby allowing their prayer to be accepted.

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