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TITLE: Qeri’at ha-Torah by Women: Where We Stand Today
Author: Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin
Qeri'at Ha-Torah by Women: Where We Stand Today Qeri'at Ha-Torah by Women: Where We Stand Today
Yehuda Herzl Henkin

I agree with much of Rabbi Mendel Shapiro’s comprehensive and thoughtful article. I had the opportunity to read and comment on an earlier draft, and the author follows the exposition in my responsa, Benei Banim(1) on a number of issues. That notwithstanding, I have reservations about parts of his discussion, particularly in sections III, “The Primary Sources: Baraita, Tosefta and Yerushalmi,” and IV, “The Poseqim.”

“Everyone can be counted towards the seven [who are called to the Torah on Shabbat], even a child and even a woman, but the Sages said, a woman should not read in the Torah because of the dignity of the congregation (kevod ha-tsibbur).” This baraita in Megillah 23a is the point of departure for all discussion of women’s aliyyot, as the author notes. It is paralleled by the Tosefta in chapter 3, paragraph 5: “Everyone can be counted towards the seven, even a woman and even a child. [We] do not bring a woman to read in (or: to the) public.” According to the author (section III A), the Tosefta leaves open the possibility that there may be circumstances where a woman might read, while the baraita is more sweeping in its prohibition. It is difficult to see the basis for this assertion. The baraita and Tosefta may be saying the same thing, the baraita simply explaining that the reason we do not bring a woman to read in public is kevod ha-tsibbur. Moreover, even if they do differ, we could just as well say that the Tosefta is the more sweeping in its prohibition; it flatly prohibits women from reading to the public, while the baraita links the prohibition to kevod ha-tsibbur, leaving open the possibility that where this does not apply women can indeed read to the public.

In paragraph 6, the Tosefta rules: “In a synagogue where they have no one [who knows how] to read other than one [man], he stands and reads and sits down, and stands and reads and sits down, even seven times.” The author comments that according to Or Zaru`a and Tosafot ha-Rid who cite both statements of the Tosefta, the statement in paragraph 5 that “we do not bring a woman to read to the public” must be understood in light of the passage in paragraph 6 that follows it; he explains that the Tosefta speaks to a situation where a reader must be brought to a congregation that is without any Torah reader at all, and that only in such an event the Tosefta rules that the congregation may not bring a woman to read for the public, because qeri’at ha-Torah cannot take place where a woman is the sole reader. However, where there are also male readers, the Tosefta would permit a woman or women to be included among the seven who read. The author thus sees the Tosefta as a source for leniency in women’s aliyyot.

There indeed exists an opinion that as long as one man is included among the seven the rest could be women (if not for kevod ha-tsibbur): this is the first view brought in the Meiri in Megillah 23a. But this makes no sense in the Tosefta, for if so, why should the solitary male reader read all seven aliyyot himself, to the evident exclusion of women? “We do not bring a woman to read to the public,” followed by “In a synagogue where they have no one [who knows how] to read other than one [man]…” would rather seem to indicate that a woman may not read the Torah in public so long as even one man knows how to read in her place, even though she would be sharing the reading with him and would not be the sole reader. The reason the Tosefta mentions a case when there is only one reader is for emphasis: even when there is only one reader, he should read everything himself if he is capable of doing so rather than have a woman read even part, and all the more so when there are a number of men reading. Only when the men are incapable of reading the whole parashah by themselves might they be able to be supplemented by a woman or women, although this is not explicit in the Tosefta; it is the hiddush of R. Jacob Emden in his glosses to Megillah 23a with, however, a major difference: the implication in R. Emden, who does not cite the Tosefta, is that when there are not seven men capable of reading the seven aliyyot, we can call up a capable woman or women to complete the roster of seven without preferentially resorting to men having multiple aliyyot. I explained the reasons for this in Benei Banim, I, no. 4. The Tosefta, by contrast, seems to permit women to read only as a last resort, and would thus be a source of stringency rather than leniency.

Contiguity of paragraphs in the Tosefta, however, is not proof that they are essentially interrelated, as it is characteristic of the Tosefta to list disparate laws dealing with the same general topic. In this case Or Zaru`a simply quotes the Tosefta without any discussion or amplification, while Tosafot ha-Rid refers to paragraph 6 in the Tosefta as being the “conclusion (siyyuma) of the baraita”—which suggests that the Tosefta and the baraita in the gemara are saying the same thing rather than disagreeing. It is therefore difficult to adduce anything “according to” Or Zaru`a and Tosafot ha-Rid simply from their citations of the Tosefta. But in this case the arbitrariness of interpretation is not the author’s. His exposition here is taken from Tosefta ki-Peshutah of R. Saul Lieberman who argues (unconvincingly, in my opinion) for disagreement between the baraita and Tosefta, for the intentions of Or Zaru`a and Tosafot ha-Rid, and for the significance of the contiguity of the paragraphs in the Tosefta. Footnote 115, “see also Lieberman, p. 1176, who follows Or Zaru`a and Tosafot ha-Rid” is misleading: Lieberman does not “follow” what Or Zaru`a and Tosafot ha-Rid say, but rather interprets them as saying it.

Nevertheless, the Tosefta is central to our discussion, and there are three aspects of it which deserve special comment. The first is the wording in paragraph 5, “We do not bring a woman to read in public.” What is implied by use of the verb? Hasdei David, as the author notes (section III A), explains it as limiting the prohibition to cases ab initio: we may not call a woman up to read the Torah, but if she came by herself she need not step down. Lieberman considers Hasdei David’s interpretation to be “very forced”; this may or may not be so, and see Benei Banim, I, no. 4 for some substantive arguments.

The wording, however, may have bearing on a singular view among the rishonim which is very much germane to our topic. Sefer ha-Batim, in Sha`arei Qeri’at ha-Torah 2:6, writes in the name of an unidentified “one of the great [scholars]” that the prohibition against a woman reading in the Torah because of kevod ha-tsibbur refers to Torah readings specifically in the synagogue, but not to a group gathered in a private home. The wording “we do not bring a woman to read in public” fits this interpretation nicely, since it implies bringing her to a place where she is normally not present, i. e. the men’s gallery of the synagogue. It does not fit well with a Torah-reading in a private home where the woman may have been living all along.

This possible support from the Tosefta does not counter-balance the fact that Sefer ha-Batim’s is very much a unique opinion among the rishonim. The author is, I think, wrong in suggesting that Rambam may be the source for Sefer ha-Batim (section IV D). The opposite is true: regarding reading from scrolls of the individual books of the Torah (humashim), Rambam writes in Hilkhot Tefillah 12:23, following the language in Gittin 60a, “[We] do not read from humashim in the synagogue, because of kevod tsibbur.” By contrast, regarding women’s reading the Torah he writes, in 12:17: “A woman may not read in public (be-tsibbur) because of kevod tsibbur,” and does not mention a synagogue. In other places where Rambam mentions kevod ha-tsibbur, he also does not mention a synagogue. The import is unmistakable: the factor of kevod ha-tsibbur is contingent on a synagogue only in the case of reading from humashim, but not in the case of women’s aliyyot. I suggested the difference between them in Benei Banim, II, no. 11.

Nor are the handful of rishonim who do distinguish between some aspect of prayers in a synagogue and those in a private home, of much practical support for Sefer ha-Batim. The author (section IV D) cites Mahzor Vitry who frees ten individuals praying outside a synagogue from the obligation of saying Hallel on Rosh Hodesh, as does Teshuvot Rashi (no. 347) and Sefer Rokeach (no. 317). This, probably, is also Sefer ha-Ittur’s reason (Hilkhot Megillah 1) for permitting reading outside the synagogue from a Megillah written as part of the Writings rather than as a separate scroll. If the opinion brought by Sefer ha-Batim is related to these opinions, then in the same way that we do not rule according to Mahzor Vitry, etc., so, too, we would not rule like Sefer ha-Batim; as Tur Orah Hayyim 691 declared, “Every [minyan of ten men] is considered a tsibbur for all purposes, whether in a synagogue or not.” Better to explain Sefer ha-Batim’s as being sui generis and unrelated to the above opinions, to give it the status of a view which, if not seconded by other rishonim, is at least not explicitly controverted by them. I have suggested the following explanation: A woman is prohibited from reading the Torah because of kevod ha-tsibbur, which can be waived; however, such a waiver requires the unanimous consent of the community. Such unanimity cannot be demonstrated or assumed on the part of a synagogue congregation; however, in the case of a minyan in a private home, if anyone objected to a woman’s reading the Torah he would not pray there but rather with the main congregation, and so a waiver of kevod ha-tsibbur can be established. This hinges on the assumption that the hazal-decreed factor of kevod ha-tsibbur can be waived and that such a waiver requires unanimous consent rather than a simple majority; substantiation of this latter point is needed, although there is a parallel to it in Mishnah Pe’ah 4:1-2.

As to the meaning of kevod ha-tsibbur as it relates to women reading the Torah, Petah ha-Devir 282:9 explains it as the need to avoid creating the impression that there were not enough men literate enough to read from the Torah themselves and that women had to be brought in to supplement them. I demonstrated this to be the view of Ritva in Megillah 4a, which the author discusses (section III C), but also of R. Avraham Min ha-Har in Megillah 19b who is even more explicit: “Certainly, le-kha-tehillah she should not fulfill men’s responsibility [by reading the Megillah for them], as is stated in [Berakhot], ‘let there come me’eirah [a curse] upon a man whose wife and children bless on his behalf.’ And it is stated in [Megillah] ‘Everyone is counted towards the quota of people who read the Torah, even a woman or a minor, but the Sages said that a woman may not read the Torah because of kevod ha-tsibbur.’ ”

Since two prominent rishonim clearly share this explanation and other rishonim do not dispute them, it is strange to read (section III C) the author’s claim that it represents an attempt to develop a “refurbished…kinder, more benign” explanation of kevod ha-tsibbur in place of inadequate “traditional” (?) ones. It is even odder to read that “it is difficult to accept it [Ritva’s explanation] as the plain meaning of the term kevod ha-tsibbur. Anyone who attends synagogue understands full well that aliyyot are not awarded based on a person’s ability to read the Torah. This has been true for centuries, since the introduction of the ba`al qeri’ah…” But we are discussing the Talmudic concept of kevod ha-tsibbur, which long preceded the introduction of the ba`al qeri’ah, and the explanations given by rishonim who also preceded general use of the ba`al qeri’ah!

The author seems strangely disinclined to accept Ritva’s understanding of kevod ha-tsibbur, which he himself describes as being to some degree “plausible… and is even welcome….” What seems to be at work here is the propping up of a straw man in the form of an alternative and unpalatable interpretation of kevod ha-tsibbur, the easier to knock the whole concept down. But I think there is no justification for having recourse to explanations such as that kevod ha-tsibbur means that women’s participation is intrinsically degrading and denigrating to the Torah, rather than that of R. Avraham Min ha-Har and Ritva. To be explicit: besides its plausibility, their explanation of kevod ha-tsibbur as tied to male literacy is the only one clearly elaborated in the rishonim, and as such takes precedence over alternative explanations suggested by some aharonim. This is even more the case when the alternative explanation is explicitly rejected by rishonim, as in the case of the recent attempt to link kevod ha-tsibbur to possible sexual distraction on the part of men should a woman read the Torah, which is denied by Sefer ha-Meorot in Berakhot 45b and Sefer ha-Menuhah in Hilkhot Berakhot 5:7, and see Benei Banim, II, no. 10 and my article in Tradition, Fall 2000 (34:3) pp. 40-49. The fact that the explanation of R. Avraham Min ha-Har and Ritva fits in nicely with my noting, below, that the baraita proscribes a woman’s reading and not her going up to the reading desk or reciting the blessings, is an added attraction.

The second aspect of the Tosefta relates again to paragraph 6: “In a synagogue where they have no one [who knows how] to read other than one [man], he stands and reads and sits down, and stands and reads and sits down, even seven times.” My grandfather* z”l wrote that today’s custom of the ba`al qeri’ah reading all the aliyyot is based on this Tosefta: there is, in effect, only one person reading the entire portion, and the original enactment of seven individual readers has been superceded. The poseqim comment that the blessings recited by the olim demarcate between the aliyyot, making it unnecessary for the reader to physically sit down and stand up each time.

I added that according to this, considerations of kevod ha-tsibbur are put in abeyance as well: the baraita stipulates that “a woman should not read in the Torah,” while today the ba`al qeri’ah reads and not the woman herself. The author quotes this (n. 186) in the Hebrew. He apparently considers the distinction to be self-evident, as he casually reads it into the Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 282:2 (n.168). In this he overstates his case, it seems to me. In the time of the Talmud, being called up to the Torah always involved reading from it, and the phrase “to read in the Torah” was interchangeable with receiving an aliyyah. Therefore, the conclusion I drew from the language of the baraita that if reading is not involved there is no issue of kevod tsibbur, although highly plausible, is not in itself proven. Conceivably, other factors might be involved. And while starting from sometime during the period of the rishonim when use of a ba`al qeri’ah became widespread, a distinction could have been made between a woman’s reading the Torah and her having an aliyyah, this is nowhere spelled out. Apparently, this distinction was suggested only recently, when women’s Torah readings became an issue.

To read into the Shulhan Arukh a conscious intention that “women may be included, they just may not read” as the author does, is anachronistic, and to suggest that the Shulhan Arukh and its commentators would imply such an innovation in practical halachah without openly calling attention to it, lacks credibility. The author’s attempt to show that such is indeed the opinion of the Shulhan Arukh, Rema, and others is unconvincing. Nothing special can be adduced from the language of the Shulhan Arukh, which was copied precisely from the Tur and not from Rambam (other than the reference to the intellect of the minor, which stems from Rambam but does not use his wording). I have already disputed the suggestion that Rambam distinguishes between women reading the Torah in a synagogue and in a private minyan, and consequently he cannot be a source for what the author claims the Shulhan Arukh means.

The author’s central argument in this regard (section IV B 4) concerns the statement by R. Yehoshua Falk in Perishah, “…I have presented all of this to justify our custom of why a minor and a woman do not receive aliyyot.” If women in his time were in any case prohibited by kevod ha-tsibbur from receiving aliyyot, why did Perishah exert himself to find new reasons? A good point, but not enough to prove the author’s interpretation of the Shulhan Arukh. First, Perishah is a commentary on the Tur and not on the Shulhan Aruh. Prof. Elon’s comment that R. Falk’s work contributed greatly to making the Shulhan Arukh an authoritative source of codified Jewish law, cited in note 190, presumably refers to R. Falk’s Sefer Me’irat Einayim which is a commentary on Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat. Second, Perishah may be explaining why women in his time never received an aliyyah in spite of circumstances that might occasionally permit it, such as those I mentioned above or “in a city composed wholly of kohanim.” Finally, it is not uncommon in Rabbinic writings for matters that are usually mentioned together, such as “a woman and a minor” (ishah ve-qatan), to be paired even when the immediate context pertains to only one of them.

The third aspect of the Tosefta that bears our attention pertains to the initial halakhah in paragraph 5: “On a festival [there are] five [readers]; on Yom Kippur, six; on Shabbat, seven; and if they wished to add [readers] they may add.” This is followed by “Everyone can be counted towards the seven, even a woman and even a child. [We] do not bring a woman to read in public.” The halakhah about adding readers is also found in Mishnah Megillah 3:1, but only the Tosefta juxtaposes it with the prohibition of women’s aliyyot. Even without this contiguity, however, the question fairly begs to be asked: a woman may not read from the Torah as part of the mandatory seven. But what about the optional aliyyot that come in addition to the seven: is a woman prohibited from reading in them as well?

If kevod ha-tsibbur means not fostering the impression that there are insufficient men who know how to read, then in the case of additional aliyyot that are wholly voluntary, no misapprehension as to men’s qualifications can result from a woman’s taking one of these aliyyot. It may still be objected, however, that if she reads part of the portion the tsibbur is required to read, kevod ha-tsibbur would apply regardless of how many aliyyot there are. Only if her aliyyah is superfluous from the standpoint both of its ordinal number and its contents would kevod ha-tsibbur not apply. In practice, this hinges on a controversy between Shulhan Arukh and Rema in Orah Hayyim 282:2; the former permits additional readers to repeat sections of the Torah portion that were already read and this is the practice in Sephardic congregations, while the latter writes that the practice in Ashkenazic communities is to forbid doing so, other than on Simhat Torah. Certainly on Simhat Torah, when the custom today is for every male to be called to the Torah serially, there is no possibility that if women are also called up anyone might think this casts doubt on the men’s capabilities.

The remainder of my brief remarks concerns the author’s concluding chapter, which offers a typology of minhag. This is a vast topic, partially because in casual usage minhag can refer to almost any repeated activity or lack of same. Our concern, however, is rather with that type of minhag that carries some degree of obligation with it, which can be properly termed a “halakhic” minhag. Not every activity is subject to classification as such a minhag. Eating apples dipped in honey on Rosh Ha-Shanah has religious significance and is a minhag, but eating hamantaschen on Purim is not. Even some practices pertaining to prayer and the synagogue do not become binding minhagim; see the recently published Arukh ha-Shulhan on Hilkhot Nedarim, Yoreh De`ah 214:22-23. Magen Avraham in Orah Hayyim 282:6, who wrote “and here the custom is (kan nahagu) for women to leave [the synagogue for qeri’at ha-Torah]” (n. 235), is not suggesting that a woman who remains and listens to qeri’at ha-Torah is violating a minhag; a more accurate translation of his words is “and here women usually go outside [for qeri’at haTorah].”

The author writes that “the notion of a minhag as binding all of kelal Yisrael …seems almost a contradiction in terms.” It is not clear why. The difference between binding minhag and other halakhah is that the former has its origins in community practice rather than rabbinic decision, but the results can be identical. In any case, the author is mistaken: there are many minhagim that are universally accepted. Rambam alone mentions nine cases of nahagu kol Yisrael or minhag kol Yisrael, Beit Yosef cites at least twelve that he accepts, and Shulhan Arukh, another three; among these are praying Ma`ariv, fasting on Ta`anit Ester, not eating meat during the weekdays preceding Tish`ah be-Av, and having separate knives for meat and milk.

The author is correct in rejecting the claim that “women’s participation in qeri’at ha-Torah conflicts with some universally [binding] minhag above and beyond kevod ha-tsibbur; the reason, however, is not that such a minhag could not exist but that there is insufficient proof that it does. Minhag is halakhically and etymologically a noun connoting activity, best translated as “practice” rather than “custom.” It is typically established by repetition of an action a number of times over a period of time. To derive what may not be done from what has not been done, on the other hand, it must first be determined that there had been a real option that was not exercised. Where women were illiterate in Hebrew, for example, it cannot be claimed that there was a minhag for them not to read the Purim Megillah for other women, since the possibility did not exist.

Minhag, however, is also not identical with mere habit or inertia. There needs to have been a presumptive volitional choice of one form of activity or lack of activity, over other possibilities. Following the above example, the continued absence of cases of women reading the Megillah for other women for a period of time even after they became schooled, or of women saying their own zimmun, does not yet prove that these options were considered and rejected, particularly as there are no valid grounds for prohibiting them; on reading the Megillah see my Equality Lost, chapter 7. So, too, with women’s aliyyot: if kevod ha-tsibbur and other considerations can be shown to no longer apply, such aliyyot cannot be automatically seen as violating a hypothetical minhag. Nevertheless, the absence of evidence that women ever had aliyyot in practice justifies caution in advocating what would at the very least be an innovation, and see Shah in Hoshen Mishpat 37, sub-paragraph 38, and Sefer Urim ve-Tumim there.

Where does all this leave us? Regardless of the arguments that can be proffered to permit women’s aliyyot today—that kevod ha-tsibbur can be waived, that it does not apply today when everyone is literate, that it does not apply when the olim rely on the (male) ba`al qeri’ah and do not themselves read—women’s aliyyot remain outside the consensus, and a congregation that institutes them is not Orthodox in name and will not long remain Orthodox in practice. In my judgement, this is an accurate statement now and for the foreseeable future, and I see no point in arguing about it.

That leaves us with the possible exceptions. I have already writtten in Benei Banim that if done without fanfare, an occasional aliyyah by a woman in a private minyan of men held on Shabbat in a home and not in a synagogue sanctuary or hall can perhaps be countenanced or at least overlooked, and compare Benei Banim, III, no. 27 concerning sheva berakhot.

What I suggested above about Simhat Torah I have not seen discussed. Simhat Torah is already marked by unusual leniencies, and what goes on then does not necessarily affect the rest of the year. In many synagogues a number of readings take place simultaneously inside and outside the main sanctuary, and another could be added largely for women. This would obviate the need for women go up to the bimah in the men’s section. Also, according to a number of shitot and depending on its structure, women in the ezrat nashim may be halakhically considered to be in the presence of the minyan in the men’s section in spite of the mehitsah, see Benei Banim, II, no. 7; since writing it I found that a key argument had already been put forward by Resp. Avnei Neizer, Orah Hayyim, no. 35, paragraph 15. If so, it might be possible for women to have aliyyot even in the ezrat nashim without ten men being on the women’s side.

Such an innovation should only be considered where women strongly desire to participate in the central activity of Simhat Torah, and its implementation should be subject to the decisions of a local halakhic authority.


(1)Volumes I-III (Jerusalem 5741-5758)

*R. Yosef Eliyahu Henkin (1881-1973) was born in Byelorussia and immigrated to the United States in 1924. A major poseq, for many years the preeminent halakhic authority in America, he was also widely revered as a tzaddiq, in part because of decades of devotion to the Ezras Torah charity he headed. The reference here is to his Eidut le-Yisrael, no. 87. For a biography, see my Equality Lost: Essays in Torah Commentary, Halacha, and Jewish Thought (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 1999), chap. 16.

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