Why Tzitzit? Why Now?: The Final Showdown Part I

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.

Part II: The Personal Why

Thanks to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg—your famous blog posts found me when I was just about beaten down.

5 thoughts on “Why Tzitzit? Why Now?: The Final Showdown Part I

  1. “This is the solution of Moshe Feinstein”

    I didn’t recall that he had ruled on this. Do you have the citation? Thanks!

    “and men’s mitzvot are tallit, tefillin, and fixed prayer”

    And as you then point out, tallit is not a mitzvah at all, in the same sense as the other two.

    You didn’t happen to catch this shiur that R’ Shalom Rosner gave on topic #4 recently, did you? Link below:


    As he went through the sources, I kept thinking about your arguments against tzitzit being zman grama, and how basically this whole shiur supports your view (note that he doesn’t specifically discuss tzitzit at all, IIRC).

  2. “This is the solution of Moshe Feinstein”

    I didn’t recall that he had ruled on this. Do you have the citation? Thanks!

    Citation: My sources tell me it’s from Igrot Moshe,OC 4:39.

    And as you then point out, tallit is not a mitzvah at all, in the same sense as the other two.

    Yeah, I really think that the evidence supposedly supporting categorizing the mitzvot in this way all backfires against itself…

    I’m getting lost in this yeshivish, but I think I get his point. Actually he does mention tzitzit somewhere around 28:35, but only to imply that tzitzit is still zman grama even when brit milah isn’t.

    He makes a lot of claims about what zman grama is, which is useful to have, but I don’t know exactly where he gets them all from because if this was all common knowledge, I think you could overturn the whole system with this.

    1.) zman grama is when: a direct time is given in Torah (tell me please how tefillin can be time-based, then)
    2.) something you could theoretically do at any time but is only a mitzvah at a certain time (This might make tzitzit time-based, but this really is the only point besides maybe #4 that would do that; you’re right)
    3.) requires a beginning and ending time (which would include sukkah and lulav, so that one makes sense)
    4.) dependent on time, not conditions
    5.) only covers mitzvot incumbent on the person himself (aha! there goes Rema)
    6.) refers to a date, not an event (so sefirat omer wouldn’t be zman grama)
    7.) “zman grama is when the night ruins it and you can’t do it the next day” (Tur Even ha-Ezer? I didn’t quite get that one) This would SO make Shabbat candles time-based and SO make tzitzit not time-based.
    8.) I also heard that it has to be objective time, which is why mikveh allegedly isn’t time-based, because it’s dependent on the lady…which would correspond with #6.

    I feel like this guy might say something like “That was only a theory!” if you confronted him about how his list makes almost nothing zman grama..

  3. I stumbled across your site while doing research. I’m converting to orthodox Judaism and I’m really having trouble making sense of some things. I can’t protest too much since it’s me approaching, not the other way ’round, but I do have to ask questions.

    I’d read something at Chabad recently,concerning women being exempt from tzitzit. This is something I don’t see the logic behind the interpretation. It seems fairly clear that this was something given to all Israel and is a necessary reminder to the wearer. Since we, as long as we’re awake, are prone to straying, it seems logical to assume that they’re meant to be worn all day by the people who need to remember mitzvot, which is all Yisrael.

    Women are certainly held accountable for breaking mitzvot, so why would the decision be made to bar half the population from this important reminder? How would that benefit Yisrael? All the while, orthodox women are told we must cover our hair (after marriage), something not even found as a mitzvah in the writtenTorah I’m big on logic and reason so something seems amiss about this to me, but…perhaps it’s my lack of Jewish education. Here is the public answer to the public question I posed in the comment section @ Chabad:

    “…The only way we know what the Tzitzit even look like, and how they are a reminder of our obligation to keep the Mitzvot, is by the teachings of our sages. It is the same sages, using the same authority given to them by Hashem to interpret the Torah, who said that women are not obligated to perform certain Mitzvot.

    The fact that someone today DOES require a reminder, doesn’t change the rule. It only means that this particular individual may need some additional self examination to see where things can be repaired.:…”

    Here is my question….where does the Mishnah itself, in particular, say that women are barred from wearing tzitzit?
    Chanukah Sameach…

  4. thanks for commenting and visiting!

    First of all, I don’t recommend Chabad, particularly for halacha. I have friends who like to read some of their articles for inspiration, but I for one (and I bet you too) could only handle so much of their justifications, as it were.

    I agree with you—tzitzit are good for remembering the mitzvot, and how dare someone say women “don’t need to” or are too “spiritually superior” to do that? The problem is that tzitzit are considered “time-based,” and women are considered exempt from time-based mitzvot. (That’s in Mishnah I think; not sure where.) But women are not—I repeat, not!—prohibited, according to the prevailing opinion. Women don’t do it, I think, because no one wants to be the first. And people in Orthodox communities don’t really love women to do it because it makes them appear “haughty” or “doing it for the wrong reasons,” which I wholly disagree with. And whether tzitzit are actually time-based, if you ask me, is a pretty controversial question.

    But anyway, it’s basically a social thing. I wore them for a couple of months, but it got a little incongruous considering I live in a town with a population of 13,000. And it’s probably best to keep these things under wraps until after you convert, you know?


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