What did our sages have to say about women wearing tefillin?
The mitzva (commandment) of tefillin is mentioned four times in the Torah, including in the Shema: “And you shall bind them for a sign upon your arm and they shall be totafot between your eyes” (Deut. 6:8). Tefillin symbolize tying our physical and mental capacities to the service of God. We say when we wrap the tefillin on our hands: “I bind myself to you forever, I bind myself to you in Righteousness, in Justice, in Kindness and in Mercy; I bind myself to you forever, and in that way I come to Know You.” When we wear tefillin we bind ourselves to ideals through which we can come to know God.
Despite the Torah’s generic language, it was understood that women are exempt from this mitzva. The Mishna (the second-century CE law compendium) records: “Women, slaves and minors are exempt from the recitation of Shema and from tefillin, but are obligated for the Amida Prayer, mezuza, and Grace after meals” (Berakhot 3:3).
Although exempt, may women voluntarily perform this mitzva? The Talmud states, “Mikhal the daughter of King Saul used to wear tefillin, and the sages did not protest” (Eruvin 96a). During the period of the Rishonim (1000 to 1500 CE), some sages, including posqim such as Rashi and Rambam, say that women may perform mitzvot from which they are exempt but do so without reciting a berakha (blessing), since the berakha‘s phrase “who has commanded us” would not apply. Rambam writes: “Women, slaves, and minors are exempt from tzitzit from the Torah…Women and slaves who want to wrap themselves in tzitzit may do so without a berakha. And so too with other such mitzvot from which women are exempt: if they want to perform them without a berakha, one does not protest” (Hilkhot Tsitsit 3:9).
The largest group of sages of this period rule that women may perform such mitzvot and recite the berakha as do men. These sages include Rabbenu Tam (1100-1171) and Rabbi Zerahia haLevi (12th c. Provence) among many others. The Rashba (1235-1310 Spain) states in a teshuva (responsum): “I agree with those who say that if they desire they can do all such mitzvot and recite the blessings, on the basis of Mikhal bat Shaul who used to wear tefillin and they did not protest; indeed she did so with the approval of the sages (kirtzon hakhamim) and by the nature of the matter since she puts on tefillin she blesses” (Teshuva 123).
In addition to the endorsement of many great sages, there is some precedent for prominent women wearing tefillin. Besides Mikhal the daughter of King Saul, stories persist of Rashi’s daughters wearing tefillin. Likewise, Fazonia, the first wife of Rabbi Haim ben Attar, wore tallit and tefillin, as did Rabbi Haim’s second wife. The Maid of Ludomir (Hanna Rachel Werbermacher) in the 19th century also wore tefillin. These are prominent cases; little is known of less prominent women.
Although Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg (d. 1293 Germany) and his followers opposed women wearing tefillin, it is safe to say that the vast majority of sages in the past two thousand years allowed specifically or in principle the wearing of tefillin by women.
It is essential for each Conservative Jew to be aware that the approval of our Rabbis today for women to wear tefillin is based on a fulfillment of our tradition. While one may legitimately question whether it is advisable for women to wear tefillin (and I encourage men and women alike to wear them), and while a religious leader of a community has it within his or her legitimate rabbinic discretion to endorse or censure the practice, it is sheer ignorance to claim that women wearing tefillin has not been permitted by our sages or could not be consistent with Jewish law. At the same time, the ruling of one’s own rabbi on this and most other issues is definitive for their own community.
Our Conservative Movement has gained 2,000,000 nominal adherents in 100 years. During our years of rapid growth, some observers mistakenly saw the Conservative endorsement of mixed seating, women reading Torah, and women wearing tefillin as an abandonment of Jewish law. But by understanding the history of Jewish law, we see that exactly the opposite is true, for these practices are natural developments within Jewish law and society.
When you converse with participants in other movements and schools of thought within the Jewish community, I hope you will feel that as an observant Conservative Jew you are fulfilling the mitzvot and following the teachings of our sages in a most traditional way, for development itself is part of our tradition.
If you would like to read a scholarly work on the subject of the legal history of women wearing tefillin, see Rabbi David Golinkin’s “May Women Wear Tefillin?” Conservative Judaism, Fall 1997, pp. 3-18.
© Jon-Jay Tilsen