The commandment of Torah study is a positive Biblical precept. This commandment is defined as one of the most important of the mitzvot, as is written in the Babylonian Talmud (BT): “And the study of Torah is equivalent to them all” (Shabbat 127a). Its importance stems not only from its halakhic definition but from the one who performs it, studying the Torah and becoming a partner in the nation’s cultural heritage, according to the Talmudic expression: “He becomes a partner in bringing the Divine Presence among the People of Israel” (BT Sanhedrin 99b).
According to the general halakhic rule that women are exempt from positive time-bound commandments, there was room to assume that women might be obligated in Torah study, which is not time-dependent. But halakhah did not rule this way, determining instead that the mitzvah of Torah study did not apply to women. The Oral Law excludes women from three kinds of mitzvot: the father’s obligation to teach his son—and not the mother’s; a man’s duty to study himself and not women’s comparable duty; and a man’s duty to teach his sons, and not his daughters (Sifrei Devarim 46).
It is possible to explain the existence of these laws—even though they do not accord with the general rule regarding women’s exemption from mitzvot—as an expression of the cultural view that prevailed in all cultures until the nineteenth century (when the first schools for girls were founded in Europe), which maintained that learning was for men and not for women. Though Jewish law granted a relatively higher status to women than did other cultures (such as classical Greek culture), for example regarding women’s place in home and family life, their obligations, and so on, it accorded them no partnership in learning or creative life.
Women’s removal from the realm of obligation meant their exclusion from the most important activity in Jewish culture. Throughout the generations, from the destruction of the Temple, Jewish creative and spiritual life revolved around Torah study. All forms of literary expression and spiritual creativity came from Torah study and their purpose was to enrich and deepen it. Jewish history throughout all those generations found expression in spiritual creativity, not in any other form (such as politics). From this we can deduce that women’s exclusion from Torah study removed them from the heart of existence, and they were not considered important in passing on the heritage and tradition to future generations. Women had no part in the bet midrash, the center of spiritual creativity, or in the religious courts, the seat of the Jewish community’s autonomy, because a rabbinic judge must have comprehensive Torah knowledge. Women did not serve in community positions because these roles were identified with knowledge of Torah. This exclusion affected their public image and we may assume that their self-image suffered similarly.
The following survey will focus on two aspects of the topic:
The earliest mention of Torah study by women occurs in Sifrei, above: “And you shall teach your sons and not your daughters.”
The Mishnah (Sotah 3:4) mentions a prohibition that reflects the various paradigms. The Tanna Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (end of the first to the beginning of the second century c. e.) expressed an extremely harsh opposition to women’s Torah study: “Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah teaches her tiflut” (BT Sotah 21b) The word tiflut is defined in two ways: 1) sexual license or lewdness. It is feared that the woman will learn how to outwit her husband and sin in secret; 2) The learning itself is considered blemished, an unnecessary thing (Rambam on the Mishnah: Vanity and nonsense) (Mishnah Sotah 3:4).
The Jerusalem Talmud (JT) notes the opinion of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, the Tanna mentioned above: “Women’s wisdom is solely in the spindle.” He added, “The words of the Torah should be burned rather than entrusted to women” (JT Sotah 3:4, 19a). The same mishnaic verse includes another opinion, that of Ben Azzai (early second century c. e.): “One must teach his daughter Torah so that if she must drink [the water that tests her fidelity if she is a sotah—a suspected adulteress], she will know that the merit postpones her punishment.” Ben Azzai’s paradigm is that women should understand the commandments and their meanings. There is no opinion that women should be taught in order to develop their knowledge and love of Torah and mitzvot, but only so that they will not disregard the power of the bitter waters—the essence of judgment, or, in another interpretation, so that the merit of Torah study will protect them if they are indeed guilty of adultery.
Another opinion is that of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah (first-second century c. e.): “‘Gather the men, women and children’—since the men come to learn Torah and the women come to hear, why do the children come?” (JT Sotah 3:4, 19a). This means that women are part of the community on that occasion—the occasion of mass Torah study, as listeners. We could interpret this opinion to be like that of R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, and therefore he emphasizes: to listen, not to study. Or he could be speaking of women who study Torah, but in a different manner.
Talmudic literature also contains expressions of appreciation for women’s erudition. For example, the age of reason of girls is the same as that of boys regarding the taking of vows, with maturity defined as one’s ability to say “We know in Whose name we have vowed and in Whose name we have dedicated something” (Mishnah Niddah 5:6). The Talmud (BT Niddah 45b) says this teaches us that “God gave more understanding to women than to men.”
Similarly, the Talmud tells of the generation of King Hezekiah (BT Sanhedrin 94b): “They did not find a single girl or boy, man or woman, who was not expert in the laws of ritual impurity and purity.” The source does not hesitate to describe a reality where people have attained deep knowledge irrespective of gender.
The Mishnah (Nedarim 4:3) says that although person A vows not to derive benefit from person B, Person B may still “teach Scripture to the sons and daughters” of person A.
But despite the various opinions cited, Rabbi Eliezer’s extreme opinion was accepted and has influenced all subsequent generations. In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Abbahu (c. 300) explains: “What did Rabbi Eliezer mean? It is written: ‘I, Wisdom, live with Prudence’ (Proverbs 8:12), since when wisdom enters a human being, so does shrewdness” (BT Sotah 21a). Thus, Torah study for women will increase their deviousness and they will exploit it to conceal their transgressions from their husbands. Rabbi Eliezer’s more extreme opinion, “Let the words of the Torah be burned,” was not accepted. The explanation given in the Babylonian Talmud granted a certain loophole for Torah study for those women of whom it is believed that they will not use their Torah study in underhand ways.
Two questions are posed in halakhic discussions throughout halakhic literature, perhaps because of this loophole or because of the reality in which women were learning.
Most sages of the medieval period, including many who accepted Rabbi Eliezer’s statements on principle, tried to reduce the scope of the prohibition:
- The prohibition applied only to the Oral Torah, while the Written Torah was not considered as leading to tiflut. Such learning was permissible, though it should accord with women’s mental ability.
- The quality of study: the prohibition applied only to theoretical study, but because women had to perform those commandments that pertained to them, they could learn practical laws and philosophic principles (mostly of the later sages).
- The manner of study: one was not permitted to teach women, but they could study on their own. Some halakhic decisors ruled that if women proved themselves, the generation’s sages must aid their study.
Two reasons for the prohibition on women’s Torah study appear in halakhic literature:
Following is a survey of the trends in halakhic rulings by decisors up to the modern era.
Rabbi Nissim ben Jacob ben Nissim of Kairouan (c. 990–1062), in Hibbur Yafeh me-ha-Yeshu’ah (Ferrara, 1557), combines the prohibition of Torah study by women with accusations of sorcery. Like many other rabbis, he accepts the opinions of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Abbahu as “the opinions of the sages,” not as those of individuals.
Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon, 1138–1204), in Mishneh Torah (MT) Torah Study 1:13, assumes a reality of “a woman who has learned Torah” and does not prohibit her learning, but only expresses reservations: “She earns a reward, but not that of a man,” since she is not commanded. He adds, “And even though she earns a reward, the sages (meaning that for him, the individual opinion of Rabbi Eliezer constitutes “the majority opinion”!) have commanded that a man shall not teach his daughter Torah because most women are not intellectually capable of study, but render words of Torah nonsense because of their ignorance.” He assumes that most women do not possess sufficient intellectual ability for Torah study. In addition, the Rambam restricts the prohibition to the Oral Torah only.
Nevertheless, regarding whether a person may attain to learning the inner secrets of Torah (the Ma’aseh Merkavah, the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel), the Rambam says that every person has a duty to study both Talmud and halakhic rulings deeply as preparation for studying the Ma’aseh Merkavah, and “anyone may learn [Talmud and halakhic rulings]—great and small, man and woman, broad-minded and narrow-minded” (MT Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 4:13).
Rabbi Joseph ben Ephraim Caro (1488–1575, in Shulhan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 246:4) understands the Rambam’s position as defining every woman as “unworthy,” and thus Torah may not be taught to an unworthy person until the person is proven otherwise. Then the woman may study, and she earns a reward.
David ben Samuel ha-Levi (1586–1667) author of Turei Zahav, a commentary on the Shulhan Arukh, justifies the distinction made between Oral and Written Torah according to the section Hakhel (Deuteronomy 31:10–13), in which the king also teaches the women who come to listen. He teaches them only simple things that they are permitted to learn, while the way to intellectual sophistication and understanding is forbidden to them from the outset.
Joshua ben Alexander ha-Kohen Falk (c.1555–1614) explains this opinion in Perishah, a section of his work Me’irat Einayim. He maintains that most women are not intellectually suited for learning, but if they learn on their own, they have distinguished themselves from the majority and therefore earn reward, for if they have studied on their own, they certainly are not turning the words of Torah into nonsense.
Moses ben Israel Isserles (the Rema, 1525 or 1530–1572) glosses this passage of the Shulhan Arukh as follows: “In any case, a woman is obligated to learn those laws which apply to women.”
The ruling of Rabbi Isaiah ben Elijah di Trani (d. c. 1280) is more lenient. “Even though women are not commanded to engage in Torah study, as it is written: ‘You shall teach them to your sons’ and not your daughters, whoever wishes to study may do so” (cited by R. Isaiah’s grandson, in David Sassoon, Me’at Devash. Oxford: 1928, 22).
Rabbi Isaac ben Moses Arama (c. 1420–1494) ruled that it is permitted to teach women Torah if they are “quiet and righteous” (Akedat Yizhak, 4:178). In the ninth chapter of his section on the Torah portion of Genesis, he speaks of two aspects of women’s lives: motherhood, expressed by the name Havvah (Eve), and “woman, since she was taken from man,” and therefore able to learn and understand teachings of wisdom and piety.
The hasidim of Ashkenaz (Sefer Hasidim 1035) differed, maintaining that a man must teach his daughters all the commandments and halakhic rulings so that she be able to observe them carefully. They felt that Rabbi Eliezer’s statement about tiflut applied only to “the depths of the Talmud and the reasons for the mitzvot and the secrets of the Torah.” Moses spoke “to all of Israel” (Deuteronomy 1:1 and following), even to women and children, and his statements are accepted by everyone, unlike complicated study meant for serious scholars. The restriction is: “He should not allow his daughters to grow up and study in front of young men lest he sin thereby, but he should teach them himself” (Sefer Hasidim 1301:362).
In the introduction to his work Sefer Mitzvot Katan, Rabbi Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil (d. 1280) writes: “He also wrote, saying there are mitzvot which relate to women and the reading and grammar of which would be useful for them, just as Talmud study is useful for men. …” He concludes from this that women are in fact obligated to Torah study and therefore must recite the appropriate blessings when engaging in it.
Rabbi Jacob ben Moses Moellin (the Maharil, ?1360–1427), wrote: “How shall women recite the blessings over Torah study when a man who teaches his daughter is as one who teaches her tiflut? Answer: She is like one who learns tiflut if she studies the Oral Torah, but not the written Torah. And this applies to the teacher, but if she has learned by herself, she earns the reward of one who performs a commandment though he has not been commanded, since her intentions are good, and she must recite the blessing over study” (the Maharil’s new responsa, 45:53). Later on, he limits the areas of study, fearing to teach women “argument and reasoning” so as not to aid them in becoming underhanded and transgressing “in hidden, modest ways.” Yet they may learn the roots and general rules in order to pass on the tradition, and when they have accomplished their learning they should ask the teacher, “when we see in our generation that they are very well-versed” (Responsa 193, question 7 and answer 199).
Rabbi Samuel ben Elhanan Jacob Archivolti of Padua (1515–1611) felt that women with suitable intellectual gifts were not only permitted to study Torah but were even obligated to do so. The prohibition only applied to little girls. “When a woman is ready to receive an abundance of wisdom, neglect will harm her, and there is no fear of ‘Anyone who …’ because we can differ, saying that the sages of blessed memory spoke only of a father teaching his daughter in her childhood. … There one might fear because most women’s minds are consumed with nonsense.” He adds, “But women whose hearts urge them to God’s service of their own will shall ascend God’s mountain and live in His holy place for they are outstanding women, and the sages of the generation must glorify, exalt and sustain them, encourage and strengthen them … and Torah shall go forth from their mouths” (Ma’yan Gannim, Venice: 1553, letter 10; quoted in Torah Temimah on Deuteronomy 11, “And you shall teach them to your children”).
To sum up the halakhic rulings till the modern age: Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion in the Mishnah was the accepted one. The halakhic opinions throughout history show a change that does not accept the complete exclusion of women from Torah study, but tries to mitigate it by rendering it either inapplicable to all content or inapplicable to all women, or both.
However, the accepted paradigm is that most women, apart from exceptional ones, are incapable of study. Yet even the exceptional ones will not learn the full range of the world of Torah but only appropriate, relevant parts. We can find an expression of this general opinion in the Torah Temimah by Rabbi Baruch ha-Levi Epstein (1860–1942), which justifies the prohibition by explaining the differences between da’at (knowledge)—“Women’s minds are unsettled” (Menahot 110a)—and binah (understanding)—“God gave more understanding to women than to men” (Niddah 45b). This means that women do not have the intellectual capability (da’at) necessary for theoretical matters, but only understanding (binah), and therefore it is dangerous to teach them because they will hasten to understand that which they cannot truly grasp intellectually.
- The Emancipation and the Haskalah, beginning in the late eighteenth century, with the spread of educational systems in general and in Jewish society. Women studied and increased their knowledge of languages, literature and so on. This created a gap between women’s level of education in non-Jewish subjects and their lack of learning in Jewish matters. In addition, a process of leaving religion and assimilation followed the Emancipation and the Haskalah. The religious sages felt that the way to stem these two processes was Torah study. Therefore, they saw an urgent need to include women and strengthen their allegiance to their ancestral tradition. At the beginning of the twentieth century this reasoning was behind the establishment of the Bais Ya’akov schools, where women studied Torah, though with clear restrictions on scope and content. In this, the religious sages did not take the lead. They were reacting to maskilim, reformers, and women like Sarah Schenirer, the initiator of Bais Ya’acov, and Puah Rakovsky. It is important to note the nature of the change in this context, since the social reality and the need for measures to cope with it, rather than traditional halakhic opinion, proved the guiding force.
- At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth (mostly in the Orthodox community in Germany, which espoused the ideal of “Torah im derekh erez” [Torah together with the conduct of life] or communities influenced by it), the idea of women’s equality led to more openness to including women in areas of religious life, mainly Torah study. In the later decades of the twentieth century, the influence of the idea of equality and the feminist movement on the Orthodox community combined with the example set by both the Reform and the Conservative movements to open Torah study to their Orthodox peers.
The halakhic ruling of Rabbi Israel Meir ha-Kohen (the Hafez Hayyim, 1838–1933) (Halakhot on Sotah, 20, in a collection of his writings. Jerusalem: 1990), reads: Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion that “Everyone who teaches his daughter …” was relevant in different times. At a time when religion was weakening, women should be taught in order to strengthen their faith. Otherwise, they would leave the way of God. If the Rambam said that one must teach religious principles to a convert, then how much more does this apply to one who grew up within Jewish tradition. Hence the broadening of the concept of “practical mitzvot” to include learning the Written and Oral Torah in an organized fashion and becoming conversant with the principles of faith. Instruction by women was deemed preferable and assumed that they were learned enough to teach others.
We can find an expression of this opinion in our own time in the statements of Rabbi Zalman ben Ben-Zion Sorotzkin (1881–1966) in his work Moznayim la-Mishpat (1955) 1:45. In ancient times, Jewish homes were run according to the Shulhan Arukh and since one could learn Torah from experience, there was no need to teach daughters from books. Today, daughters must be taught so they will learn proper behavior. Not only is it permitted to establish schools for girls, but there is an outright obligation to do so. The only limitation is the study of the Oral Torah, as well as dialectics and theoretical study, for only about that was it said: “All who teach …” Rabbi Sorotzkin’s opinion resembled that of the Hafez Hayyim: the demands of reality required the change. However, such learning was not a spiritual need for women, nor was its goal to enrich women’s inner world, but only to ensure their proper socialization. (Similar opinions, which also mention the need to create a pool of religious women teachers to protect children’s education, are to be found in many responsa, such as Zion by Rabbi Ben Zion Firer (vol. 3, p. 131, 1956) and Rabbi M. Malka, Responsa Afikei Mayim (Chapter 3, 10:21, 1995).
The opinion that most minimizes women’s required Torah study is that of Rabbi Joel Moses Teitelbaum (1888–1979) of Satmar (Satu Mare). In his work Va-Yoel Moshe, in the chapter on the Holy Language (New York: 1961, 353 and following), he writes: “In our lowly generation, when it is impossible to estimate how much of the Torah has been forgotten, fathers and even more so mothers need the same thing, some kind of education. If so, then daughters need some kind of education as well.” This refers to learning texts adapted from stories in the Torah, not even from a Pentateuch.
A totally different opinion arising from the same reality is that of Rabbi Samson (ben) Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888), in Horeb, Chapter 75: Jewish women must study the Written Torah and the laws they have to follow, since Jewish women saved the spirit of Israel on many occasions. An understanding of Jewish literature and knowledge that would lead to true allegiance to Torah and to reverence are essential to the education of the minds and hearts of women, just as of men. Rabbi Hirsch refers to women’s spiritual needs even as he limits the areas of study.
In Modern Orthodoxy we can find two opinions. The first is that of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who wrote in Iggerot ha-Re’ayah: “The prohibition on Torah study for women applies only to teaching her, but she is not forbidden to learn on her own by listening.”
The second opinion is that of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, which is shared by most representatives of moderate Orthodoxy in Israel, such as the members of the Religious Kibbutz Movement and those who established co-educational schools; it is also the position of Rabbi Shlomo Mashash (b. 1909). They believe that women’s Torah study is permitted from the outset because they deserve equal status in knowledge and spiritual development. This opinion does not differentiate between the content of study for boys and girls of school age, though there was no concern for developing women’s continued studies at a higher level to obtain knowledge comparable to that of religious scholars, halakhic decisors and rabbinic judges. However, such studies were permitted in teacher-training establishments and in academic institutions, and because of the character of these institutions all fields of learning were open to women, including religious texts. As a result, a few women received advanced academic degrees in Talmud, Bible, rabbinic literature, Jewish philosophy and so on. However, this was not enough to put them on an equal footing as rabbis and halakhic decisors.
Discussion of women’s Torah study increased in the 1980s because the demand to broaden their study came from the Orthodox women themselves, who wanted the full range of Torah learning to be available to them, as it already was to women in other streams of Judaism. As a result, institutions of Torah study for Orthodox women, comparable to yeshivot, were established. These institutions, called midrashot in Israel, embody two distinct opinions:
- The prohibition on Torah study and its halakhic expression limits their educational goal, which is to strengthen the difference between women’s learning and men’s. They cite the same reasons: women’s different learning capabilities, different needs and so on.
- Midrashot in which the full range of Torah learning is open to women exactly as it is to men. The prohibition is neither discussed nor implemented. On the contrary, women’s Torah study is seen as a halakhic obligation, resulting from the inclusion of women in the mitzvah of Torah study.
Does such a prohibition really exist?
Talmudic literature mentions a few women who were recognized for their knowledge of Torah, such as Beruryah, the daughter of Rabbi Haninah ben Teradyon (Tosefta Kelim), who in other stories is referred to as the wife of Rabbi Meir, and the wife of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus himself, Imma Shalom. Researchers have varying opinions on how the sages regarded this phenomenon.
During the Middle Ages, as a rule, women’s scholarship was not a goal. On the contrary, emphasis was placed on their traditional roles, with the religious requirement directed toward prayer, observing the mitzvot in which they were obligated, and good works.
There are few accounts of women who were learned in Torah. In the east: Rabbi Abraham ibn Daoud tells of the daughter of Rabbi Nissim ben Jacob ben Nissim ibn Shahin of Kirouan, who was “a Torah scholar and God-fearing” (Sefer ha-Kabbalah 57), and the wife of Dunash ben Labrat (mid-tenth century). Likewise Kasmonah, the daughter of Samuel ha-Naggid (993–1055 or 1056), was a Torah scholar, as was the wife of Rabbi Joseph, who was the daughter of the above-mentioned Rabbi Nissim. Learned women were also to be found among the upper classes in Muslim countries.
The daughter of the Gaon Rabbi Samuel ben Ali of Baghdad, who lived in the 1270s, taught Bible in her father’s famous yeshivah.
Sources from the Cairo Genizah and responsa from the Rambam indicate that there were learned women in Mediterranean society who were literate and studied Torah, even if they did not reach the high levels mentioned above. Some served as teachers.
Asnat Barazani served as a rosh yeshivah in Kurdistan in the seventeenth century.
In Ashkenaz, women mentioned as possessing Torah knowledge were all members of renowned scholarly families. Bellette (Bella), the daughter of Rabbi Menahem and the sister of Rabbi Elijah the Elder of Le Mans (second half of the eleventh century), was an authority and taught women Jewish laws pertaining to them. The wife of Rabbi Elazar ben Judah of Worms (Rokeah, c. 1165–c. 1230) who was martyred in 1196, taught women, was expert in halakhah and attended the synagogue on the Sabbath to listen to her husband’s sermons (Maislish [ibid.], Shirat ha-Rokeah, 228–229).
The Ba’alei ha-Tosafot mention learned women who possessed authority, “the daughters of the great ones of the generation.” The Sages relied upon their deeds and their testimony regarding the customs of their fathers and husbands, and their statements constituted binding precedent (Maimonidean responsa, Laws of Forbidden Foods 5).
The daughter of Rabbi Israel ben Pethahiah Isserlein (1390–1460) studied with a sage, strictly obeying all the requirements of modesty. Others, too, did not study only on their own.
Women copied Hebrew books, and it can often be proved that they did so as experts on the text.
In later times, learned women included the wife of Rabbi Solomon of Modena, Fioretta (Batsheva), who possessed great knowledge of the Torah, Mishnah and Talmud, halakhic decisions and Kabbalah. Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (the Vilna Gaon, 1720–1797) wrote instructing his mother and wife to occupy themselves with ethical texts. Moses Sofer (the Hatam Sofer, 1762–1839) studied with his daughters, and Rabbi Joseph Hayyim ben Abraham Solomon Sonnenfeld (1849–1932), the ultra-Orthodox rabbi of Jerusalem, studied Orah Hayyim daily with his wife. Rayna Batya Berlin, also a member of a distinguished family of rabbis, was well-versed in Jewish texts and spent her days in learning, yet bemoaned the restrictions imposed on women’s study.