When Fulfilling a Mitzvah Necessitates a Leniency

EnglishIn the following article of mine, which was published by the YU Lamdan, I explore the question of whether more is always better in religion. I do so through the lense of the halakhic literature on the voluntary fulfilment by women of those mitzvot of which they are exempt, namely a subset of the time bound positive commandments. In the process, I document the high regard halakhic sources have for such piety by women, and also explore some of the key sources of the disagreements regarding whether women ought to recite blessings upon voluntarily fulfilling commandments of which they are exempt. As is well known, Ashkenazim encourage the recitation of those blessings, while Sefardim mostly do not, but I do document a whole slew of Sefardi authorities who sided with the Ashkenazi practice on this issue. Back to the general question, I conclude that more is not always better, and that being stricter or seemingly act more piously is therefore not necessarily better. Instead, we need to weigh in a multidimensional manner the halakhic advantages and disadvantages of any voluntary stricture.

Every year, in synagogues throughout the world, Jews of all walks of life, men and women, adults and children, even the infirm, pack into synagogues to hear the sounding of the shofar. This mitzvah exerts a particular draw on people, and even when people find themselves in situations where they are not halakhically obligated to go out of their way to hear the shofar, or may be subject to a halakhic dispensation, they insist on it.

Hearing the sounding of the shofar is a positive commandment, a mitzvat asseh, and since it is only contingent upon us on Rosh haShanah, it is time bound, hazeman geramah, and hence women are dispensed from this obligation. Nonetheless, since times immemorial, women chose to fulfill this mitzvah and other mitzvot assei she-ha-zeman geraman. “A majority of contemporary women have accepted stricture upon themselves, and are careful and eager to fulfill most mitzvot ‘assei she-ha.zeman geraman, such as shofar, sukkah and lulav … and that has the status of kibbelu ‘alaihu (basically, a vow –AF),” writes Rabbi Akiva Eiger.1

More is necessarily better, right? So choosing to fulfill another mitzvah should purely confer advantages and be saluted by halakhah, right? Well, the solid consensus of poskim is that it is not only meritorious for women to adopt this mitzvah – for which they will be rewarded – but that women may also blow the shofar themselves (for themselves or for other women), and that men may blow for women, too, even after they have already fulfilled their own obligation. Nonetheless, the matter was not always obvious, and as late as the 18th century, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Ginzburg2 (Shaagat Aryeh) posited that this was subject to an in his opinion unresolved machloket, and that in deference to those who prohibit, women should seek to fulfill the mitzvah by listening to a man blowing the shofar and not blow themselves.

Already in the days of Rabbi Ginzburg, the matter had actually been considered settled halakhah and women hearing the shofar – even blowing or having someone blow especially for them – was considered uncontroversial. Nonetheless, the discussions on this issue allow us to consider an interesting idea, namely that it isn’t automatically better to do more; we need to consider the halakhic “cost,” so to speak, before welcoming a chumrah.

At its core, two questions animate Rabbi Ginzburg. First, one may not gratuitously blow a shofar on Shabbat or Yom Tov. Though sounding a shofar is not a melakhah, it is classified as a chokhmah, an action requiring particular skills, which is rabbinically prohibited on holy days.3 Secondly, Rabbi Ginzburg wasn’t convinced that there is real value in women adopting such mitzvot that they are exempt from. Basing himself on the combination of both arguments, Rabbi Ginzburg posits that the rabbinic prohibition on sounding a shofar on holy days might only be lifted for men, as they have no other way to fulfill their obligation, but not for women. Hence, argues Rabbi Ginzburg, it would be better for women not to blow the shofar on their own, but to insist on a man – who on Rosh haShanah is dispensed from the prohibition of performing that chokhmah – so as to respect all the disparate views on this matter.

As mentioned above, the solid consensus of poskim disagrees with Rabbi Ginzburg on both points.4 How did such a solid consensus come to be formulated?

Rabbi Ginzburg’s point of departure is a comment by Rabbenu Asher ben Yechiel, in which he reports on a foundational disagreement in the matter, and decides in favor of one view. Rabbi Ginzburg worries about the other view and claims that several other Rishonim agree with that other view; most poskim didn’t read the Rif or the Rambam like Rabbi Ginzburgh, and hence did not see enough support for the “other” view to worry about it.

The foundational disagreement begins in the Talmud. The Mishna (Rosh haShanah 32b) gives license to children to practice blowing the shofar:אין מעכבין את התנוקות מלתקוע, אבל מתעסקין עמהן עד שילמדו. Subsequently the Talmud remarks that women are glaringly absent from the Mishnah:

CHILDREN NEED NOT BE STOPPED FROM BLOWING. This would imply that women are stopped. [But how can this be], seeing that it has been taught: ‘Neither children nor women need be stopped from blowing the shofar on the Festival’? — Abaye replied: There is no discrepancy; the one statement follows R. Yehudah, the other R. Yosi and R. Shim’on, as it has been taught: ‘Speak unto the Benei of Israel: [this indicates that] the “sons” of Israel lay on hands but not the “daughters” of Israel. So R. Yehudah, R. Yosi and R. Shim’on say that women also have the option of laying on hands’. (ibid. 33a)

The Talmud draws an equivalency between two sugyot, and in one of the two, we have a Stam Mishnah. The $64000 question is whether the Talmud implies we rule like the anonymized „stam“ – and thus usually ratified – Mishnah and thus like Rabbi Yehudah that women are not allowed to lay their hands on sacrificial animals they bring to the Beit haMikdash, or whether we rule like Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Shim‘on that women are permitted to lay their hands on sacrifices, and thus like the Baraita that women may blow the shofar.

The disagreement between Rabbi Yehudah on the one hand and Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Shim‘on on the other may be restated as follows: is there value in women voluntarily performing such commandments of which they are exempt, or not? Readers will know the final answer already, as there is an almost unanimous consensus that the performance by women of most mitzvot of which they are exempt, is meritorious. But how did we get there?

The first Rishon to explicitly tackle this question is Rabbenu Tam, who writes:

Although the Stam Mishnah follows Rabbi Yehudah, the halakhah follows Rabbi Yosi, because his reasoning supports his cause, and because of the story in [the chapter] Hamotzi Tefillin (TB Eruvin 96a) … and the story in the chapter Ein Dorshin (TB Chagiga 16b) [both presuppose that we rule like Rabbi Yosi]. (Tosafot ibid. s.v. Ha Rabbi Yehudah)

Rabbenu Asher ben Yechiel first rules like Tosafot, explains that Rabbi Yitzchak Gayatz (1030-1089) had already ruled – like Rabbenu Tam – in favor of Rabbi Yosi, and then records a subsequent disagreement in this regard:

The Ba’al ha’Ittur wrote that presumably, while women may blow the shofar for themselves, someone else (i.e. a man –AF) may not do so for them, and that it was the custom in Germany that men would go blow the shofar for women who recently gave birth, before the shofar was blown in the synagogue, so that the shofar blower would [at once] fulfill his own oblogation [and thus not blow specifically for the woman, for whom according to the Ba’al ha’Ittur he should not be allowed to blow –AF).
Raaviya,5 however, wrote that since women may lay hands [on sacrifices], … even though it resembles working with sacrificial animals (which is generally prohibited –AF), so, too, regarding blowing the shofar, which is a (usually merely rabbinically proscribed –AF) chokhmah and not a (severely proscribed –AF) act of work, it is permissible to blow the shofar for them, even for one who has already fulfilled his obligation. It is likewise permissible to carry the shofar in the public domain to the synagogue in order to blow for them.
And that [adds Rabbenu Asher] is what seems to me [correct], … all the more so for the woman, as they intend to fulfill a mitzvah… (Rosh, Rosh haShanah, IV:7)

Rabbenu Tam in the above cited Tosafot proceeds to state his conviction that when women voluntarily fulfill time bound positive mitzvot, they do recite the blessing formula asher kiddeshanu bemizvotav vetzivanu. That women may recite these blessings is first and foremost his own conviction (“umutarot levarech”). He subsequently brings three proofs from the Talmud that imply strongly that women may or ought to be allowed to make such blessings, but proceeds to reject every single one of those proofs. Thus, based on the above cited Tosafot, the Ashkenazi consensus allowing women to make such blessings would hinge on the mere conviction of Rabbenu Tam, a highly unusual manner to arrive at halakhic consensus. However, in another recension of Rabbenu Tam’s treatment of the subject matter6, he begins with another proof, which is not refuted: The Talmud (Eiruvin 96a) records a disagreement regarding whether the Sages of her day protested King Shaul’s daughter Michal donning tefillin or not. For Rabbenu Tam, a possible vocal opposition to Michal’s practice would only make sense if she also recited the blessings for donning the tefillin.7

Rabbenu Asher also cited this point of Rabbenu Tam’s approvingly, and similarly endorsed the practice of women reciting the blessings for their voluntary fulfillment of positive time bound mitzvot, and that is the halakhic consensus among Ashkenazim. Sefardim also see value in women performing positive time bound mitzvot, but generally do not allow for such a blessing to be recited by women when they are not obligated to do so. Most Sefardim’s reluctance to allow women to recite blessings on the voluntary fulfillment of positive time bound mitzvot stems from seeing in more severe terms the prohibition to needlessly pronounce G”d’s name, and presumably also because Rabbenu Tam ended up rejecting most of his proofs.

Rabbenu Asher’s ruling concurring with Rabbenu Tam and Raaviyah is subsequently cited by his son Rabbi Ya’akov, author of the Tur:

Although women and minors are exempt [from the obligation to hear the shofar], they may blow the shofar and make the blessings and we do not protest, and there is here neither a transgression of blowing the shofar on a holy day nor of making a blessing in vain. (Tur Orach Chaim 589)

Rabbi Yosef Karo (Shulchan Arukh ibid.) ruled in accordance with Tur, Rosh and Rabbenu Tam that women may blow the shofar or have the shofar blown for them by others; he merely disagrees regarding the permissibility of women reciting the blessings for positive time bound mitzvot performed voluntarily, and indeed Sefardi practice accords with Rabbi Yosef Karo.

Rabbi Moshe Isserles comments ad loc. that Ashkenazi practice is that women do recite those blessings; it is merely proscribed for a woman to farm out the recitation of those blessings to a man who has already fulfilled his own obligation. For Magen Avraham (ibid. 589:4), who relates to the ruling approvingly, the reason for the old German custom cited by Ba’al ha’Ittur for a man to come before services to blow for women who won’t be able to come to synagogue is apparently not because of any prohibition for a man to blow the shofar specifically for women, but rather so that the man may make the blessing in case a bedridden woman does not feel up to it; there is otherwise neither a prohibition for a man or a woman to blow the shofar on Rosh haShanah, nor for a woman to recite the blessings.

The ruling is similarly cited approvingly by a host of other authorities, like Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (Bayit Chadash on Tur ibid.) and Mishnah Verurah (on Shulchan Arukh ibid.). Though the above mentioned responsum by Shaagat Aryeh (Rabbi Ginzburg) is cited by Sha’arei Teshuva (on Shulchan Arukh ibid.), poskim seemed not to feel it warranted consideration. Nonetheless, the responsum demonstrates that one needs to consider whether the performance of a stricture, of an additional obligation, is wholly positive, or comes at the expense of disregarding another injunction. Only once we agree that there is no significant downside, not even the transgression of a Rabbinic prohibition, only then may a stricture be considered salutory. And it is only because poskim throughout the ages disagreed with Shaagat Aryeh and considered that there is no transgression of hilkhot yom tov in blowing the shofar for a woman, that the practice may be encouraged in all its halakhically sanctioned forms. And that in turn stems from the near universal agreement that there is value in women fulfilling positive time bound mitzvot. As Rabbi Sirkis writes (Bayit Chadash ibid.): “whoever is not commanded and yet fulfills [the positive time bound mitzvot] earns reward.”

We mentioned earlier that the dominant opinion among Sefardi poskim is to encourage women fulfilling positive time bound mitzvot, but to disallow the recitation of the accompanying blessings. One interesting exception is Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida),8 who testifies that his opinion has shifted since seeing a responsum in Sheelot uTeshuvot min haShamayim from the Tosafist Rabbenu Yaakov of Marvege (died 1243), in which it was confirmed from heaven that the halakhah accords with the view that women do make a blessing upon fulfilling a positive time bound mitzvah. Chida posits that Rabbi Yosef Karo had not seen the work of Rabbenu Yaakov of Marvege, for had he seen it, he would surely be swayed. Rabbi Azulai reports that such was in fact the custom of Sefardim in Jerusalem, and this author was told that such is also the tradition of the Gruzinim (Georgian Jews). In his wake, Rabbi Chaim Hezekiah Medini,9 Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer of Bagdad,10 Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel11 and Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg12 all agreed that Sefardi women may make the birkat hamitzvah on a time bound positive mitzvah.

Nonetheless, Chida did not sway the Sefardi consensus on this matter – most famously, Rabbi Ovadya Yosef strongly disagreed,13 but practically all do agree with Rabbenu Tam’s other point that the halakhah accords with Rabbi Yosi who sees great value in women’s voluntary performance of mitzvot they are exempt from. As Chida cites from Rabbenu Yaakov of Marvege, “women are included in zekhirah (Divine remembrance), that their remembrance should rise up to before the Holy One, blessed be He.”


1Responsa Rabbi Akiva Eiger, vol. I, addendum to §1

2Responsa Shaagat Aryeh, yeshanot, §104 and §106

3Rabbi Moshe Isserles, glosses to Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 596:1

4On three points, in fact. Rabbi Ginzburg also posits that during the entire Rosh haShanah holiday there is no prohibition in needlessly blowing the shofar – for men –, while the consensus is that the prohibition is only lifted for fulfilling the obligation to blow in accordance with the established minhaggim and shittot. Thus, for Ginzburg, it is conceivable that men may be permitted to blow the shofar for women even if women are not obligated, while the same action would be prohibited to women if they are indeed not obligated. Rabbi Ginzburg‘s solution is not acceptable to the halakhic consensus whereby a man blowing for a woman would only be permissible if there is value in women voluntarily obligating themselves to hear the shofar. As we shall see, there is a near universal consensus that it is meritorious for women to fulfill even mitzvot they are not obligated in.

5Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel of Mainz (1140-1220), author of Avi ha‘Ezri

6Recorded by Rosh, Kiddushin I:49

7One may wonder whether the question is not anachronistic, since blessing formullae may have been an innovation by the Men of the Great Assembly in the early Second Temple era, but such historical ruminations are out of place when a story‘s role is enabling the subsequent halakhic argument rather than the historical clarification. It may be that the story is entirely historical, and it may be that some aspects of the story are later elaborations, but one can neither force a particular historical interpretation based on the later Talmudic discussion, nor may one question the halakhic import of that discussion based on one‘s doubt regarding the precision with which a particular story was transmitted through the ages. In order to abstain from discussing what actually happened historically, let‘s just note that the Sages were wont to ascribe to Michal a profound piety that included donning tefillin, and that when that story was told, for generations, some would tell the story while stressing the Sages did not condemn her for donning tefillin, while other stressed while recounting that the Sages indeed condemned her for it.

8Yosef Ometz §82. I am indebted to Rabbi Gil Student for this reference. See likewise his work Birkei Yosef, Orach Chaim 654:2. I later found a discussion of this and the following five sources in Rabbi Getsel Ellinson, Woman & the Mitzvot, Vol. I, pgs. 90-94.

9Sdei Chemed 40:136

10Kaf haChayim 589:23

11Responsa Mishpetei Uziel, Choshen Mishpat §4

12Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 9:2

13Responsa Yabia Omer, Vol. I, Orach Chaim §40 & §42; Vol. V. Orach Chaim §43

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