Rav Moshe Feinstein on Women and Tallits

11th Jan 2014

Though the issue of women wearing a tallit has evolved over time, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s remarks on the topic reverberate to this day. In the 1970's feminist Orthodox Jewish women consulted with him to inquire whether a woman can wear a tallit. The following is an excerpt from his responsum to them, dated 19 Elul 5736 (1976).

"First, it must be clear that one of the fundamentals of our pure faith is that the entire Torah, both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, were given by HaKadosh Baruch Hu Himself on Mt. Sinai through Moshe Rabbenu a”h and not even the slightest change can be introduced, whether the intention is to be more lenient or more stringent. However, we were commanded that when a need arises to establish limitations and boundaries, the Sanhedrin and the leading Torah scholars had an obligation to establish regulations, creating certain prohibitions and requirements, while clearly stating it is a Rabbinical regulation or limitation…

"That the Torah exempted [women] from positive, time-bound mitzvahs is itself a Torah law, and the Sages did not add on a requirement because they saw no need to obligate women. In fact, it seems there is a need to exempt them for the very reasons the Torah exempted them.

"In addition to the Torah’s reasons – which are not known to the average person and not even to the greatest Torah scholars, and we have an obligation to believe that HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Giver of the Torah, has profound reasons – there are also openly revealed reasons. For instance, most women are not wealthy and therefore the task of raising boys and girls – which is the most important type of work to Hashem Yisbarach and to the Torah – is incumbent on them. Furthermore, Hashem Yisbarach created all species such that the females raise the offspring. Humans are no exception, for women are more capable of raising children, and as such He lightened their load, not obligating them in Torah study and positive, time-bound mitzvahs.

"Therefore, even if the human condition evolves – even for all women, and for wealthy women in times past and present – and the task of childrearing can be passed onto others, as we see in the U.S., Torah law does not change, not even Rabbinical law. It does not matter that a battle is being waged, for there is no power to make any changes – even were there to be a worldwide consensus. Those women who insist on trying to wage a campaign to introduce change are considered deniers of Torah (Rambam, Hil. Teshuva, Chap. 3, Hal. 8). According to the Rambam there are three types of deniers of Torah: one who says that Moshe introduced even a single letter on his own, one who denies the interpretation, which is the Oral Law, and one who says a certain [mitzvah] has now changed. Each of these three denies the Torah and they have no portion in the World to Come…Although the Rambam writes that [the third type] refers to one who said the Creator changed a certain mitzvah, he stated it in a more inclusive manner, i.e. even one who says the Creator changed a given mitzvah, for this applies even more in the case of one who says people have the authority to make a change, for in making such a statement one in effect says the Torah is not forever, which rejects various verses that show that the Torah is forever, as the Kesef Mishneh writes.

"Every woman is indeed allowed to fulfill even those mitzvahs which the Torah does not command them to do, and they earn reward for performing these mitzvahs; in fact, according to the Tosefos, they can even recite a blessing over the mitzvah, and [the Ashkenazi] custom is for them to perform the mitzvah of shofar and lulav [i.e. the Four Species], and they recite a blessing on them.

"Therefore on the mitzvah of tzitzit is would also seem to apply if a woman wants to wear a four-cornered garment – though it should differ from typical men’s clothing – and tie tzitzit to it and carry out this mitzvah. Only in the case of tefillin did the Tosefos write (Eruvin 96a) that they should be prevented from doing so…But this is clearly if she has a heartfelt urge to keep mitzvahs, even when not commanded. However, since [in the present case] this is not the intention, but rather resentment toward Hashem Yisbarach and His Torah, this is not an act of performing a mitzvah at all, but the very opposite: a prohibited act, the prohibition of heresy, for she thinks Torah laws can be replaced."

Before concluding, Rav Moshe notes that none of this implies that women are on a lower level of santity than men. He explains that all the places in the Torah where the Jews are exhorted to be holy are addressed to both men and women alike. Therefore, he writes, women recite blassings that contain the words, “Who sanctified us and commanded us,” even regarding mitzvahs from which they are exempt, "for this exemption is merely a leniency granted to them, as noted above, not an indication of any sort of inferiority, G-d forbid.”

Finally, Rav Moshe points out that a husband’s obligation to honor his wife is identical to a wife’s obligation to honor her husband. In closing, he writes that these obstinate women should not be countenanced “and the holy Jewish custom should not be altered in any manner.”

- Excerpted from Iggros Moshe, O.C. 4, 49