The fact that the impossible happened—I found a friend who wants to wear tzitzit—and the fact that we’ve made an appointment with the Reform rabbi to help us tie them, has led me to write this post: Why Tzitzit? Why Now? The Final Showdown.
I’m going to do it in two parts: The legal why and the personal why. OK, so it was really awkward having my first taste of Judaism be the sometimes upsetting role of women, and that the way I got my first look at Talmud was by writing my Honors paper on women’s exemptions; but now I’m glad I got that out of the way because now I have a better basis for arguing my side.
The Legal Why
Well-natured comments extremely welcome.
There are a couple of reasons why women don’t wear tzitzit:
1.) It’s a “man’s garment”.
2.) It’s a “man’s mitzvah”.
3.) Women are prohibited because it would be a sign of haughtiness. (Rema OH 17:2)
4.) It’s “time-based”. (Men. 43a)
#1 would prohibit women, but I throw it out immediately because tzitzit isn’t a garment; it’s attached to a garment. I think that’s pretty simple. A tallit need not be a man’s garment—how do you get over this? You wear one that is made for a woman. This is the solution of Moshe Feinstein, who goes even further to remind us to “remember that we are exempt” as we wear this ladies’ shiny sparkly tallit. I also think that this reason is no good because in the days when this commandment was given, men and women wore four-cornered garments, so you can’t very well say that the Torah forbids it on those grounds.
#2 would exempt women, though I don’t really buy this reason either. The idea that this is a “man’s mitzvah”, of course, stems from the idea that there are necessarily separate mitzvot for men and women (that aren’t biological) and that women’s mitzvot are “Shabbat candles, challah, and mikveh”, and men’s mitzvot are tallit, tefillin, and fixed prayer. This argument starts from any axiom from the kabbalistic “Women are more spiritual” to the more psychological “Men have the communal mitzvot, because they need to be around others”. This doesn’t make sense because these mitzvot aren’t given to each sex by the Torah—further, the Mishnah (Berachot 3:3) only exempts women from tefillin out of those latter three; and women are expressly obligated in tefillah (fixed prayer).
How do I know tefillah means fixed prayer? Because my version says 3:3: “Women and slaves and minors are exempt from reciting the Shema and from wearing phylacteries, but they are not exempt from saying the Tefillah, from the law of the Mezuzah or from saying the Benediction after meals.” 3:5: “If he was standing during the Tefillah and then remembered…” 4:1 “The morning Tefillah [may be said at any time] until midday.” and so on and so forth. It’s obvious that Tefillah refers to the same Tefillah in each instance.
Next, tzitzit isn’t a “man’s mitzvah” because it isn’t a communal mitzvah, nor could someone reasonably say that women are “so spiritual” that they don’t need this reminder to remember the commandments (and consequently, remember not to sin). Think twice before you put all women on that gigantic pedestal.
Also, the plain old fact remains that the Zohar isn’t my posek, so no matter how many times you tell me “women are more spiritual because Chava’s name is numerically closer to Hashem’s name”, I’m not giving that argument any legal weight.
#3 requires some preliminary explanation. There are two views on the tallit.
Rambam’s view (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tzitzit) is that the mitzvah is incumbent on the person himself, not in the garment. So, since we don’t normally wear four-cornered garments anymore, we are all exempt. It’s not right, he elaborates, to exempt yourself from this mitzvah—even though technically we don’t have to go buy a tallit just to have one. Also, if you have a four-cornered garment in the closet but you’re not wearing it, you don’t need to attach tzitzit, because you aren’t wearing it.
The Shulchan Aruch differs in that the mitzvah is in the garment. So if you have four corners, you have to attach tzitzit. I suppose in this instance you wouldn’t have to go buy a tallit, but since there’s no exemption here, it’s not especially necessary to attempt to do the mitzvah, since the mitzvah isn’t incumbent on you.
Now then. Remember that Rema is a gloss on Shulchan Aruch, and when he writes that “Women may [wear a tallit] if they wish to do so, but it will appear as a sign of haughtiness or excessive pride, since the mitzvah is incumbent on the garment, not the wearer,” we can only conclude that it is a sign of excessive pride in women if we first agree that the mitzvah is incumbent only on the garment.
I happen to believe we are following Rambam here, otherwise there wouldn’t be much of an emphasis on the tallit at all—for men or women, because it’s not a mitzvah inherent in the person. That is, we’re not “missing out on a mitzvah” by not doing it, according to Shulchan Aruch. Since we say a blessing each time we put on a garment with tzitzit, and since we are calling it time-based on the basis of when we wear it rather than when we attach the tzitzit to the garment, I am assuming we are following Rambam in that the mitzvah is incumbent on us, and it is “not fitting for someone to exempt himself”.
I also suspect that it would be a sign of excessive pride for a man to wear a tallit if the mitzvah is incumbent on the garment too, though.
#4 is the most basic of the basic arguments. Here’s the interesting thing. I tend to side with Shulchan Aruch, just because I’ve read Numbers and the commandment to “attach fringes to your garments” does sound like it is something incumbent on the garment, as in: “Attach fringes”, not “Wear fringes”. Of course, this isn’t the way history turned out, but in my world the mitzvah would be attaching the tzitzit, not actually wearing it. And if this were the case, tzitzit wouldn’t be time-based at all.
If the mitzvah is incumbent on the garment—if the mitzvah is that the garment have tzitzit and not that we are wearing tzitzit—how could it be time-based?
So, true, it might appear “haughty” to try to do a mitzvah that isn’t really a mitzvah, but if that rests on the assumption that women are “doubly” exempt with its being time-based, it’s a false assumption!
So here I reveal that I don’t think tzitzit is actually time-based (R. Judah agrees. R. Shimon doesn’t. Naturally, men want tzitzit for themselves, and decided to follow R. Shimon). Even if the mitzvah is wearing the tzitzit (which I could also accept), the phrase “that you may look upon it” doesn’t make it time-based. This doesn’t mean we must look upon it by day; it only means that we can’t wear it at night. You can wear tzitzit during the day (we’re all exempt, remember), but if you wear it at night, you don’t say a blessing. Further, you can wear it into the night anyway, and the Mishnah Berurah actually recommends that you wear a tallit katan to sleep at night!
It’s not time-based; and if it is, it’s an extremely weak correlation. And that’s if you believe that “look upon it” means “during the light of the sun”, in which case what if we lived in a windowless prison? What about the people who keep their tzitzit tucked in all day long? What about someone who only wears a tallit for Shahait, but does it in the minyan room in the basement, which would also be artificially lit?
The reasons for removing women from time-based mitzvot aren’t convincing to me, since we’re talking about this, because no one’s really come up with a reason that covers all the exemptions and provides explanations for all the time-based obligations. Remember too that the Mishnah only originally exempt women from TWO things, and I suspect that later on did the rabbis decide that these things were time-based, and then worked from there.
There are just more questions than answers there. For example, why are women obligated in Shabbat candles? That’s very time-based. Why mikveh at night? That’s time-based too. Even for the exemption of the Shema, the Talmud explains that women actually are obligated, because of the acceptance of the yoke of heaven is required of women. Then Michal bat Shaul wore tefillin and the “rabbis didn’t protest”, leading to the conclusion that that must not be time-based either, because if it were, she’d be “adding to the Torah”, but she wasn’t.
Oh no, there goes ALL the so-called “time-based” mitzvot from the Mishnah.