Chapter 21: Some Laws Concerning the Synagogue, Tzitzit, and Tefilin

01. The Mitzva to Build a Synagogue

Wherever ten Jews live, they have a mitzva to designate a place for their prayers. It becomes a small sanctuary (mikdash meat) and is called a beit knesset (synagogue) (MT, Laws of Prayer 11:1).

It is important to note that a synagogue is not just a place that facilitates prayer with a minyan; rather, it has independent value as a place designated for devarim she-bikdusha, a place where the Shekhina dwells. It is a great mitzva to build a synagogue, as the Torah states: “They shall make Me a sanctuary and I will live among them” (Shemot 25:8). Although this verse primarily comes to teach us about the building of the Temple, an offshoot of that mitzva is the mitzva to build a synagogue (see Peninei Halakha: Collected Essays I, ch. 1 n. 1). This is what the prophet Yeĥezkel meant by “I have been for them a small sanctuary” (Yeĥezkel 11:16), as R. Yitzĥak interpreted, “These are the synagogues and batei midrash (study halls)” (Megilla 29a).

Especially after the destruction of our Temple and our exile from our land – and the exile of the Shekhina along with us – as a result of which we are unable to ascend and appear before the Lord, our God, the synagogues and study halls serve as places in which we can preserve the memory of the Shekhina’s manifestation at the Temple. Likewise, the prayers recited in the synagogue were instituted to correspond to the sacrificial offerings brought at the Temple. Hence, synagogues are constructed for two purposes: to facilitate organized prayer, and to serve as a miniature Temple, a commemoration and extension of the Temple’s sanctity (see Peninei Halakha: Collected Essays I, ch. 6 concerning the laws of the synagogue; here we outline the laws that pertain to women).

Since the idea of the synagogue is so important, all members of the community must participate in the funding of its construction. If there are Jews who are not interested in participating in payments for building the synagogue, the leaders of the community may compel them to contribute its funding (SA 150:1, which states that it was customary to divide the payment according to wealth, though some divided the burden on a per capita basis).

It seems to me that the mitzva to build a synagogue applies to women as well, and it is good that she share in the payments for its construction. Even though women need not pray in the synagogue, they are nevertheless considered members of the community, and thus the mitzva to build a “small sanctuary” for the community applies to them as well. Additionally, it is worth noting that the Israelite women donated their jewelry to the Mishkan. Furthermore, women do come to pray in the synagogue sometimes; as we learned (above, 20:2), there is merit and value in a woman praying in a synagogue. Nonetheless, if a woman does not want to help financially support the building of the synagogue, it seems that she cannot be compelled to do so, since she is not obligated to pray in it.

02. Choosing a Synagogue

It is a mitzva to designate a fixed place for prayer. It is even a mitzva for a woman who only comes to the synagogue on Shabbat and festivals to choose a regular synagogue. If possible, she should have a fixed place in the synagogue (see Peninei Halakha: Prayer 3:2).

When one has several synagogues to choose from, she should choose one in accordance with the guidelines provided by the Sages. A beit midrash (study hall) is holier than a synagogue (SA 90:18). Similarly, a synagogue that offers more Torah classes is considered preferable to one with fewer classes. In addition, it is better to join the congregation that places greater emphasis on Torah study.

If there are two synagogues which offer an equal number of Torah classes, the one with a greater number of congregants is preferable, for “Be-rov am hadrat Melekh” (“In a multitude of people is a King’s glory”; MB 90:55). However, if it is difficult to hear the ĥazan clearly in the larger synagogue, it is better to choose a synagogue in which one can properly hear the ĥazan (MB 90:20). Therefore, as a general rule, it is best that synagogues be as big as possible, for this increases God’s glory. Still, there is a limit; more than a few hundred congregants makes it impossible to hear the ĥazan clearly.

If in one synagogue people regularly chatter during prayer and in another they do not, one should opt for the synagogue that shows more respect for prayer, for he will be able to concentrate better there (Sefer Ĥasidim §770).

Most importantly, the essence of prayer is kavana. Therefore, above all other rules established by the Sages, the place in which one personally concentrates better is the appropriate place to choose (see Radbaz 3:472).

Similarly, one should preferably pick a synagogue that uses the liturgical rite of her ancestors. However, if she knows for certain that she will have more kavana in a different synagogue, she should prefer that synagogue (see below, 24:5).

If a man prefers one synagogue and his wife prefers another, and each synagogue prays at a different time, the wife should follow her husband, for he is more regularly in the synagogue, since he is commanded to pray there. Moreover, in all matters concerning customs and halakhot, the wife follows her husband, as explained below (24:4).

With every step a woman takes in her walk to the synagogue, she is rewarded. Therefore, even if the preferred synagogue is farther away from her house, she should not be deterred by the effort of walking, for she is credited for each step. This matter was in fact taught to us by a woman, as we have learned (above, 20:2; Sota 22a).

03. The Sanctity of the Synagogue

It is a mitzva to act with reverence in a synagogue, for the Torah says: “Revere My  temple” (Vayikra 19:30), and the sanctity of the synagogue is a reflection of the sanctity of the Temple.

Whoever uses the synagogue for non-holy everyday purposes dishonors its holiness, since the synagogue was designated solely for sacred matters: Torah, prayer, and strengthening other mitzvot. Therefore, one should not discuss business and finances there, and certainly one should not joke or gossip there. However, it is permitted to hold assemblies for the sake of a mitzva, such as to collect charity for the poor or to raise funds for yeshivot.

It is a mitzva to honor the synagogue and maintain its cleanliness at all times. One who has mud on his shoes must remove it before entering the synagogue (SA 151:6-9).

One must not enter a synagogue unless it is for Torah or prayer. Even when it is raining outside, one may not take shelter in a synagogue. Likewise, one may not enter a synagogue in the summer to take refuge from the heat. However, if one intends to learn or pray in the synagogue while taking shelter, she may enter.

One who must enter the synagogue to get his friend’s attention regarding an urgent matter may do so; however, before doing so, he should sit a bit and recite a verse, so as not to enter solely for personal needs (Megilla 28a; SA 151:1).

In a synagogue that does not normally accommodate se’udot mitzva (festive meals celebrating the fulfillment of a mitzva), it is preferable le-khatĥila to follow the stringent opinion of Magen Avraham and not hold large se’udot mitzva at which wine is served, like those of a brit mila, pidyon ha-ben, bar-mitzva, or sheva berakhot. However, serving light refreshments there at the celebration of a joyous occasion, such as a siyum (celebration of the completion of a talmudic tractate) and the like, is permissible. If it was customary to hold se’udot mitzva in the synagogue from its inception, then all agree that it is permissible to do so. This, of course, is all on condition that the congregants are extremely careful to preserve the sanctity of the synagogue, that they refrain from all idle talk and frivolity, and that they make certain not to become intoxicated. They must also ensure that women and men do not mingle in the synagogue. Those who wish to follow the lenient position may conduct se’udot mitzva even in a synagogue that did not initially host such events, for that is the opinion of many poskim (see Peninei Halakha: Collected Essays I, 6:8; for further study, read that entire chapter).

04. One May Not Bring to Synagogue Children Who Are Likely to Disrupt

It is forbidden for one praying to seat a baby in front of her, as there is concern that the baby will disturb her kavana (MB 96:4). Certainly during prayer times one may not bring babies and small children who do not know how to pray, since they are likely to distract the people praying.

If one brings a child to prayer services and the child begins to disrupt the congregation’s prayers, he must take the child out of the synagogue, even if it means he must interrupt his Amida, and continue praying outside. This applies to women in the women’s section as well (see above, 14:2).

Although there is a pious custom to bring babies to the synagogue so that they can absorb its holy atmosphere, the custom applies specifically to times when prayer services are not being held. In order to emphasize the importance of this matter, I will cite Shlah, which states in the name of Orĥot Ĥayim:

Children’s chatter in synagogue is a severe prohibition. Nowadays young children come to the synagogue to bring punishment upon those who bring them there, for they come to desecrate the sanctity of our God’s house and to laugh in it as they do in city streets. They get up to play with one another; this one plays with that one and that one hits the other. One rejoices, another cries. One talks, another shouts. One runs here, the other, there. One relieves himself in the synagogue and everyone screams, ‘Water, water!’ Another one is given a book by his father, which he throws on the floor or tears it into twelve pieces. Ultimately, the noise of their shenanigans destroys the kavana of the worshippers and causes the desecration of God’s name. One who brings children to synagogue in this way should not expect reward, but punishment. The worst thing is that these children will be raised on this bad custom and foreign habit. As they grow older, they will increase their contempt for the synagogue and its sanctity and they will show no respect for the Torah, since once one becomes habituated to a sin, it becomes permitted to him, and even as he ages, he will not abandon it. In conclusion, it is proper for one not to bring very small children to synagogue, because he will [only] lose from it and not gain. However, when the child reaches the age of education, on the contrary; the father should bring the child to synagogue, teach him to sit in awe and reverence, not let him move from his seat, and encourage him to answer “amen” and respond to Kaddish and Kedusha (Shlah, Masekhet Tamid Ner Mitzva, brought by MB 98:3).

05. Women and Tzitzit

Women are exempt from the mitzva of tzitzit, a time-bound positive mitzva that applies only during the day, not at night (Menaĥot 43a; SA 17:2; above, 2:7). Women who want to wrap themselves in a talit may do so privately. According to Ashkenazic practice, they would recite a berakha, and according to Sephardic practice, they would not. 1

  1. The law follows R. Shimon, who maintains that the mitzva of tzitzit is time-bound and that women are therefore exempt (Menaĥot 43a; Rif and Rosh ad loc.). Simply understood, however, if women wish to fulfill this mitzva they may, as is the case with other time-bound mitzvot. The only question is whether or not they would recite a berakha. Rambam (MT, Laws of Tzitzit 3:9) states: “Women and slaves who wish to wrap themselves in tzitzit do so without a berakha.” So states Sefer Ha-ĥinukh §386. In contrast, Rabbeinu Tam and Ran maintain that women who wish to wrap themselves in tzitzit may recite the berakha. They similarly disagree about whether women may recite a berakha on blowing the shofar or taking the lulav. The practice of most Sephardic women is not to recite the berakha, while the practice of Ashkenazic women is to recite the berakha, as clarified in SA 589:6 (see above, 2:8).

    However, Maharil (New Responsa §7) says that women should not wrap themselves in a talit, mentioning several reasons, such as that we are concerned about forbidden fabric mixtures (sha’atnez), carrying on Shabbat, presumptuous customs, and arrogance. He also mentions an esoteric reason. In Minhagei Maharil (Tzitzit 4), he writes that there were women who wrapped themselves in tzitzit, including the wife of Mahari Brin. Even though he was not pleased with this practice, he did not object. See also Agur, Laws of Tzitzit 27, which mentions this practice. Targum Yonatan of Devarim 22:5 implies that it is forbidden for women to wear tzitzit because it is forbidden for women to wear men’s clothes. However, none of the Rishonim who dealt with the issue mentioned this concern, even though some Aĥaronim (including Ben Ish Ĥai, Year 1, Lekh Lekha 13) did mention it.

    SA 17:1 rules:

    Women and slaves are exempt, because it is a time-bound positive mitzva. Rema: Nevertheless, if they wish to wrap themselves in it and recite the berakha, they may do so, just like other time-bound positive mitzvot (Tosafot, Rosh, and Ran on the second chapter of Rosh Hashana and the first chapter of Kiddushin). Yet it appears arrogant, and therefore they should not wear tzitzit since it is not an obligation that devolves upon the individual (Agur §27), that is, one is not required to purchase a garment in order to become obligated in tzitzit.

    Thus, there is no concern for any halakhic violation, whether out of concern for sha’atnez or wearing men’s clothing. Rema wrote that women should not wrap themselves in tzitzit only because it appears arrogant.

    R. Moshe Feinstein addresses this issue thoroughly and writes that if a woman’s purpose in wrapping herself in tzitzit is for God’s sake, she may do so and it is a credit to her. She should use a garment that looks different from a man’s talit (such as by using other colors). According to Ashkenazic custom, she may recite the berakha. However, if she wishes to wrap herself in tzitzit because of external influence, and her purpose is to fight for the cause of feminism, and she wishes to join the fray out of resentment and in order to change the laws of the Torah, it constitutes a denial of the Torah, and she forfeits her share in the next world (Igrot Moshe OĤ 4:49).

    Therefore, in my opinion, a woman who wants to wrap herself in tzitzit for God’s sake may do so in private. There is no concern for arrogance, and it is not an expression of resentment against halakha and the tradition. If many women do so for God’s sake and in private, then over time even if they wear tzitzit in non-private setting it will not be considered arrogance or an offense against the traditions of the Torah. Nevertheless, in my opinion, even today one should not object to a woman whose intentions are for God’s sake and who wraps herself publicly in tzitzit, for she has authorities upon whom to rely. However, one should object to women who are not meticulous about many mitzvot but who specifically wear a talit publicly in order to express their opposition to halakhic tradition.

06. Women and Tefilin

Women are exempt from the mitzva of tefilin, as it is a time-bound positive mitzva that applies only on weekdays, not on Shabbat or festivals, when it is forbidden (above, 2:7).

When it comes to other time-bound positive mitzvot, like lulav and shofar, many women indeed fulfill them, since the law is that women are credited with the mitzva if they voluntarily fulfill them despite their exemption. Nevertheless, when it comes to tefilin, the common practice is that they do not wear them. The reason for this is that Jewish custom is very concerned for the honor of the tefilin. Even though technically men should wear tefilin all day, they only wear them in the morning, and only to fulfill their obligation, because there is concern that they will have lapses in concentration while wearing tefilin (which is forbidden) and thereby disrespect the tefilin. Similarly, women, who are not obligated to wear tefilin at all, should not put themselves in a situation that would raise concerns for disrespecting the tefilin. For this reason, the custom is that women do not put on tefilin (MA, AHS).

Therefore, a woman who wants to elevate herself through mitzvot and asks whether she should wear tefilin should be instructed not to do so. If she nevertheless yearns to wear them in private, even though numerous authorities wrote that this is objectionable, one should not object, because there are opinions upon which she may rely. In general, whenever a practice has an authority on which to rely, one should not object to it.

There are women who are not meticulous about the laws of tzni’ut and many other mitzvot, but they wish to boast by wearing talit and tefilin. One should object to their agenda of turning the Torah and mitzvot into a site of social conflicts, as mitzvot should be performed for God’s sake, not as a tool to advance interests of one sort or another. 1.” It is also said of several righteous women from early and later generations – including the wife of R. Ĥayim ibn Atar – that they wore tefilin.

The practical ruling is that a woman should not wear tefilin, and many authorities – including Rema, Kaf Ha-ĥayim, MB, and many others – state that objections should be raised against women who wish to wear tefilin. Nevertheless, a woman who wishes to wear tefilin has authorities to rely upon – Orĥot Ĥayim and Olat Tamid – and AHS also concludes that one should not object to one who is renowned as a righteous woman. Therefore, in practice, one should not object to this practice. However, a woman who wear tefilin should take care not to wear them while menstruating (though she may wear tefilin while counting her clean days) and should make sure to wear them in private, so that it is clear that she is wearing them for God’s sake and so that she does not advertise when she is menstruating.]

 

  1. The mishna on Berakhot 20a states that women are exempt from tefilin but does not clarify whether women who want to wear tefilin may do so just as they may perform other positive time-bound mitzvot like lulav and shofar. Eruvin 96a cites a beraita that states that Michal, the daughter of King Shaul, wore tefilin and that the Sages did not object. Tosafot (ad loc.) state in the name of Pesikta that the Sages indeed objected. Similarly, y. Berakhot 2:3 first cites an anonymous opinion that the Sages did not object and then cites R. Ĥizkiya to the effect that the Sages did, in fact, object. Tosafot state that according to the opinion that the Sages objected even though they did not object to women performing other time-bound positive mitzvot, it is because “tefilin require a clean body, and women are not zealously careful.” (It seems that the concern is that they may not wear tefilin while menstruating – see Rema 88:1 – and since they do not normally study laws that do not pertain to their obligations, they will not be careful about this. Perhaps there is also concern that they will handle a soiled diaper or another filthy household item.) Kol Bo also states in the name of Maharam that one should object to women who wish to wear tefilin because “they do not know how to keep themselves clean.” Beit Yosef cites this, and SA 38:3 rules: “Women and slaves are exempt from tefilin as it is a time-bound positive mitzva. Rema: If women wish to be stringent upon themselves, we object (Kol Bo).”

    MA explains that if women had been obligated by the Torah to wear tefilin, the rationale that they are not careful about cleanliness would not exempt them from the mitzva. However, since they are exempt and there is a concern about cleanliness, their wearing tefilin is objectionable. Along these lines, AHS states that really men have the same problem; tefilin require a clean body. However, since men are obligated, they wear tefilin for Shema and prayers while being as careful as possible. Women, though, are exempt, and should not subject themselves to this serious concern. For them, the time of prayer and reciting Shema are the equivalent of the rest of the day for men. We therefore do not allow them to wear tefilin. Even though Michal wore tefilin and the Sages did not object, this case is not instructive. Presumably, they knew that she was completely righteous and knew how to take the proper precautions. Similarly, Kaf Ha-ĥayim 38:9 states in the name of Birkei Yosef and other Aĥaronim that one should object to women wearing tefilin and cites esoteric reasons for this as well.

    Yet there are Rishonim who say that one should not object. Indeed, Orĥot Ĥayim challenges Maharam’s strict ruling (cited in Kol Bo) based on the opinion that the Sages did not object to Michal wearing tefilin. This is cited in Beit Yosef, which answers that Kol Bo relied on the view that the Sages indeed object to Michal. Olat Tamid (an early commentary on Shulĥan Arukh) 38:3 rejects Maharam’s view: if the prohibition on women wearing tefilin is based on cleanliness, why does Berakhot 20a state that they are exempt because it is a time-bound positive mitzva? Moreover, Michal wore tefilin and the Sages did not object. Therefore, Olat Tamid concludes: “We do not object to an old woman who we know is capable of guarding herself, and it is sort of case that they are discussing there [ in reference to Michal