Talmud Study by Women
ב"ה, י"ד מרחשון תשנ"ב
לתלמידות של מדרשה אחת
The Lubavitcher Rebbe z"l wrote that women should prepare for the imminent rebuilding of the Temple by studying even Kodeshim and Taharot; R. Yosef Dov Soloveichik z"l recommended teaching them sections that pertain to everyday life, such as parts of Mo'ed; while many others, including R. Moshe Feinstein z"l, prohibited the teaching of Talmud to women at all, as was the norm for many generations.
Underlying the controversy is Tehillim 119:126, "eit la'asot laShem, it is a time to act for haShem, h-f-r-u Toratecha." The Mishnah in Berachot 54a understands h-f-r-u in two ways. Read in the past tense, heiferu, "they have violated," the verse means that it is time to act on behalf of haShem and punish those who have violated His Torah. But read as an imperative, hafeiru, "violate!" it means the opposite: there is a time to violate His Torah, as it were, and introduce needed changes in order to save it. The Talmud employs this second sense in a number of instances: in Berachot 54a to permit using haShem's name in everyday greetings, even though that might seem to be irreverent; in Yoma 69a to permit wearing priestly garments outside the Temple, in order to save the community from danger; in Gitin 60a to permit writing selections from the Prophets, even though normally only complete books of the Bible may be written; and in Temurah 14a to permit transcription of the Oral Law, which had previously been forbidden. This has no direct application to our time, however, as the Sages of the Talmud had the authority to legislate changes, while we do not. No rabbi or group of rabbis today, however well meaning, is authorized to introduce permanent changes in Halachah.
Nevertheless, the second sense of eit la'asot laShem teaches us to make every effort to find a basis in Halachah for steps needed to preserve Torah observance. For that reason, seventy years ago, a number of gedolim permitted what was then the novelty of teaching girls Tanach, ethics and laws (although not Talmud) in classrooms in an organized fashion, even though the Jewish education of girls had traditionally been in the home. See Likutei Halachot to Sotah 21 and Resp. Moznayim Lamishpat, vol. 1, no. 45.
Often there is no unanimity on such steps, for what is necessary in one community may be superfluous or even harmful in another. On a given issue, one community will expound eit la'asot laShem, hafeiru Toratecha in order to introduce changes, while another community will expound heiferu Toratecha? eit la'asot laShem to block innovation.
Rambam wrote in his Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:13:
A woman who learned Torah is rewarded, although not as much as a man. The reason is that she was not commanded to do so, and one who does something when not commanded to is not rewarded as much as one who was commanded and carried it out, but is rewarded less. Although she is rewarded, the Sages commanded (tzivu) that a man not teach his daughter Torah, because most women are not oriented to learn and instead transform Torah discussions into trivia due to the poverty of their intellects. The Sages said, "anyone who teaches his daughter Torah is as if he has taught her tiflut [frivolity]." What does this apply to? The Oral Torah. But regarding the Written Torah, he should not teach it to her lechat'chilah, but if he taught her it is not as if he taught her tiflut.
This was copied in abbreviated form in Semag, Mitzvot Aseh 12 and in Tur and Shulchan Aruch in Yoreh De'ah 246:6.
First, note that the prohibition is on teaching her but she is not forbidden to learn, just as one may not teach Torah to a slave but he may learn by himself, as the Jerusalem Talmud states in Ketuvot 2:10. Women may teach other women and learn together in chevruta, without restriction. It also follows that a woman is permitted to listen to men learning among themselves; for instance, a man giving a sheur to men need not stop if a woman is present. Support for this comes from the Jerusalem Talmud in Sukkah 2:1, where no one objected to R. Gamliel's slave, Tavi, sitting underneath a table in the sukkah in order to listen to the Sages' discussions.
A further inference from Rambam is that the prohibition is specifically against teaching one's own daughter. He began, "A woman who learned Torah is rewarded …" but continued, "the Sages commanded that a man not teach his daughter Torah…. The Sages said, 'anyone who teaches his daughter Torah.' " He both paraphrased and quoted the Mishnah, and since even in his paraphrase he mentioned a father teaching his daughter rather than stating that it is forbidden to teach women, it is clear that he was being exact. Otherwise, he would have written, "The Sages commanded not to teach a woman Torah…. The Sages said, 'anyone who teaches his daughter Torah …' "
This may also be the view of Ma'ayan Ganim, printed in 5313 (1553), which Torah Temimah quoted in Devarim 11:19:
What was said in Sotah 20a, "anyone who teaches his daughter Torah is as if he has taught her tiflut," perhaps applied when the father taught her when she was a child…. However, women whose hearts prompt them to approach the labor of haShem through conscious choice of the good—it is incumbent on the scholars of their generation to praise and cherish them, to organize and strengthen them.
That is to say, the scholars of the generation must teach them, as opposed to the fathers, who may not teach their daughters. Torah Temimah questioned only the distinction drawn by Ma'ayan Ganim between a father teaching his daughter as a child and teaching her as an adult, for if that were the case, Rambam should have written that most "girls" are not oriented to learn, and not most "women."
If the prohibition is only against teaching one's daughter—perhaps because the father might not be rigorous enough in teaching her—this would explain the instances of women who were proficient in Talmud; others must have taught them, for it is improbable that they could have learned completely on their own. See the list of scholarly women in Mekor Baruch by the author of Torah Temimah, and at greater length in Alei Tamar on the Jerusalem Talmud in Sotah 3:4. As related in Pesachim 62b, Bruriah recounted three hundred Halachic teachings from three hundred rabbis. Birkei Yosef to Choshen Mishpat 7:12 wrote that a learned woman may issue Halachic rulings, and Minchat Chinuch wrote at the end of mitzvah 78:
If the scholars of a generation disagree on any law in issur veheter, excluding laws for which a formal beit din is needed … there is no distinction. Even child scholars join [in determining the majority view] … and learned women as well, such as Devorah…. There is no distinction; anyone who is a scholar has his opinion considered, whoever he is.
These inferences from Rambam are as opposed to Sefer Chasidim, no. 313, which states that "the profundities of the Talmud, the reasons for the mitzvot, and the secrets of Torah—these one does not teach to a woman or a child." On the one hand, according to Sefer Chasidim there is no difference between teaching one's daughter and other women; on the other, a man may teach Talmud to women up to whatever level of study boys can achieve by their bar mitzvah, which is considerable. If a talented woman is taught that much, it is likely she will be able to continue learning on her own. But Rambam did not distinguish between different levels of Talmud study, and accordingly a distinction must be made between teaching one's daughter and teaching others.
It is unclear what was Rambam's source for the view that lechat'chilah one should not teach one's daughter even the Written Torah. In the Jerusalem Talmud in Sotah, a wealthy lady asked R. Eliezer, "Why do we find three different types of deaths [as punishment] for the one sin of the Golden Calf?" He responded, "A woman's wisdom is only in her spindle." He did not answer her question, although he later answered it privately to his students. He remarked to his son, "Torah discussions are better burned than given over to women." Why didn't he answer her? In the Mishnah R. Eliezer cited tiflut, but he did not mention tiflut here. Moreover, the woman's question dealt with understanding Scripture and constituted study of the Written Torah; this is clear according to the Taz in Yoreh De'ah 246:4 as opposed to Birkei Yosef in 246:8, and see Nedarim 36b. Teaching her the Written Torah apparently did not involve tiflut, yet R. Eliezer still did not want to answer her. This could be the source for Rambam's ruling that lechat'chilah a man should not teach his daughter even the Written Torah.
The difficulty is that the wealthy lady was not R. Eliezer's daughter. Why, then, did R. Eliezer not answer her? Meiri wrote in Yoma 66b that R. Eliezer did not answer because he felt that people should not show off by seeking out great rabbis to ask them simple questions. This is consistent with Meiri's own explanation in Sotah, that tiflut in a woman means that "she prides herself on the few things she knows, and rings like a bell to show her wisdom." A bell is empty but makes a lot of noise. Accordingly, it was indeed because of tiflut that R. Eliezer did not want to teach her the Written Torah. But this does not accord with Rambam's definition of tiflut.
Another solution is R. Sherira Gaon's explanation that R. Eliezer did not answer the woman because it was his custom not to teach anything he had not heard from his teachers. R. Tzvi Hirsh Chayot in his hagahot to Yoma 66b objected that according to the Jerusalem Talmud R. Eliezer did answer the woman's question to his own students. But I think this poses no difficulty, because the answer attributed in the Yerushalmi to R. Eliezer is attributed in the Babylonian Talmud to Rav and Levi instead. According to the Bavli, then, R. Eliezer did not answer the woman's question, and that is R. Sherira Gaon's view.
With all this, I have not found a clear source for Rambam's view that lechat'chilah one should not teach his daughter even the Written Torah. Bi'ur haGra in Yoreh De'ah 246:25 does not cite any. Rambam may have had some source in Chazal that is unknown to us, as R. Kapach wrote in his commentary to Hilchot Talmud Torah.
Bach and Taz, on the other hand, wrote in section 246 that the source for not teaching women the Written Torah is Hakhel, the septennial reading of the Torah in the Temple, regarding which R. Elazar b. Azariah said in Chagigah 3a that "the men came to learn and women came [only] to hear." Since there was only one Torah reading for everyone, the reason the women only came to "hear," rather than to learn as the men did, could be that women were prohibited lechat'chilah from learning even the Written Torah. But this is not the sense of Rambam, nor did Tosafot explain it this way; see Tosafot in Sotah 20a beginning "Ben Azai." Also, the distinction advanced by Taz between simple things in the Torah that women may learn without restriction, and ingenious or closely reasoned explanations that men are forbidden to teach them lechat'chilah, is not supported by Rambam's categorical statement that "regarding the Written Torah, he should not teach her lechat'chilah."
The basis for this entire discussion is the Mishnah in Sotah 20a:
If she has independent merit, it postpones [the punishment]…. Ben Azai said, "From this [we learn that] a man must teach his daughter Torah, so that if [a guilty sotah] drinks [the bitter waters] and nothing happens, [the daughter] will know that merit postpones [the punishment]." R. Eliezer said, "Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah is as if he has taught her tiflut." Rabbi Yehoshua said, "A woman prefers one measure [of material goods] accompanied by tiflut, more than nine measures accompanied by perishut [abstinence]."
Ben Azai's reasoning seems obscure. What does a daughter's knowing that merit postpones a sotah's punishment have to do with teaching her Torah? Teach her that one fact, and nothing else! A similar difficulty arises from the statement in the Jerusalem Talmud that R. Elazar b. Azariah and Ben Azai disagreed on the question of teaching women Torah, in that the former taught that women come to Hakhel only to listen and not to learn. Yet Hakhel had nothing to do with sotah: the king read publicly only from the book of Devarim, while the laws of sotah are in Bamidbar. I find this problematic in Tosafot's discussion there.
Rather, Ben Azai's opinion was that in general women should be taught Torah, and he cited the Halachah in Sotah only as an example of the benefits that would ensue. "From this, Ben Azai said (mikan amar)" is only an illustration; it does not mean that his view was based on it. Compare it with the same language, "mikan amru," in Avot 1:5, and see Nega'im 14:6.
R. Eliezer disagreed with Ben Azai; in R. Eliezer's opinion, teaching women Torah was like teaching them tiflut, and the loss outweighed the gain. The Jerusalem Talmud concludes that R. Elazar b. Azariah also disagreed with Ben Azai, because at Hakhel the king read to the men and women together; R. Elazar b. Azariah expounded that men come to learn but women come only to listen. Why not also to learn, as the men did? One explanation would be that women lack the intellect or the orientation to do so, and this conforms to R. Eliezer's argument of tiflut. But I think a better explanation is that if there was an obligation to teach women Torah, there would be no difference between the responses of the men and the woman at Hakhel. From R. Elazar b. Azariah's exposition that the men come to learn while the women come only to listen, therefore, it is clear that women need not receive an education that will enable them to learn along with the men. This runs counter to Ben Azai's position that fathers are obligated to teach their daughters the same as they teach their sons.
The two explanations are very different. According to the first, R. Elazar b. Azariah agreed with R. Eliezer in objecting to teaching women Torah. According to the second, however, although R. Eliezer b. Azariah held that there is no obligation to teach women, there is no indication that he ruled that there was any prohibition against doing so. The wording of the Yerushalmi supports this: "[The view of] Ben Azai is not that of R. Elazar b. Azariah," i. e., R. Elazar b. Azariah disagreed with Ben Azai, but he did not necessarily agree with R. Eliezer.
Furthermore, Rambam wrote that "the Sages commanded (tzivu chachamim) that a man not teach his daughter Torah." Everywhere in Rambam's Mishneh Torah the phrase "the Sages commanded" signifies proper and desirable behavior but not an enforceable issur veheter. Thus, in Hilchot De'ot 2:3, "The Sages commanded to be extremely meek…and they also commanded to distance oneself from anger," and in 3:1, "The Sages commanded that a person not refrain from anything but what the Torah prohibited"; and see 2:4, 3:3, 5:10 and 6:2. In Hilchot Talmud Torah 2:5: "The Sages commanded, limit your business and occupy yourself with Torah." In Hilchot Ishut 14:4: "Therefore the Sages commanded that a person never marry more than four wives," and see 15:18–19, 20:1 and Aruch haShulchan in Even haEzer 58:3. In Hilchot Matnot Ani'im 10:17: "The Sages commanded that poor people and orphans should be part of his household," and see also 10:18. In Hilchot Malveh v'Loveh 1:3: "The Sages commanded, your friend's property should be as dear to you as your own." And in Hilchot Nachalot 7:13: "The Sages commanded that during his lifetime a man should never display preference for some of his children over others."
With a possible exception concerning multiple wives, all of these statements are hortatory and are not formal halachot. In the same way, Rambam's statement "The Sages commanded that a man not teach his daughter Torah, because most women are not oriented to learn" is not a categorical decree but a general recommendation. Its source is R. Eliezer's statement "anyone who teaches his daughter Torah," which is also not in the form of a Halachic decree; R. Eliezer did not say, "It is forbidden to teach one's daughter Torah." It therefore comes as no surprise that there have been exceptions, and that some scholars taught Talmud directly to their daughters.
Why, then, was R. Eliezer's opinion that teaching women involves tiflut accepted by the poskim, even though he was a shamuti and other rulings of his were rejected? Rashi, Tosafot Ivra, and Bartenura explained that R. Yehoshua in the Mishnah agreed with him, making them a majority of two to one against Ben Azai. But R. Yehoshua's "a woman wants one kav together with tiflut" is a generalization. There can be exceptions, as Resp. Ramah wrote in no. 304, although the example there was lechumra. In exceptional cases R. Yehoshua would agree that there is no tiflut, and in those cases Halachah would not be in accordance with R. Eliezer.
Similarly, Prishah in 246:15 wrote that if the daughter has shown herself to be an exception to the majority, there is no tiflut involved in teaching her. The catch is that "her father is forbidden to teach her, because he does not know what is in her heart," i.e., he does not know what she will be like when she grows up and whether she will be frivolous or not. But this does not apply to teaching a grown woman, whose behavior and character can be evaluated. Rambam's statement that most "women" rather than most "girls" are not oriented to learning comes only to explain why a father should not teach his daughters when they are children, lest when they grow up they turn out to belong to the majority of women who do not take the intricacies of Torah seriously. But in the case of a serious woman who wishes to learn Talmud, even her father would be permitted to teach her. This resolves the difficulty raised by Torah Temimah against Ma'ayan Ganim that I mentioned above.
A source for permitting the teaching of Scripture to women would seem to be the Mishnah in Nedarim 35b, "One whose vow prohibits him from receiving benefit from another, [the other] should not teach him Scripture, but teaches his [minor] sons (banav) and daughters (bnotav) Scripture." There is a variant reading that omits the words "and daughters," but Tosafot and Rosh in 36b wrote that even so, banav in the plural means all his children, including daughters. This is also the opinion of Ran and the pseudo-Rashi commentary to Nedarim, and of Ri"tz as quoted in Shitah Mekubetzet.
However, Rambam in Hilchot Nedarim 6:7 wrote that "he teaches his son (bno)" in the singular; bno usually means only a son and not a daughter, and bno and not banav, presumably, was in Rambam's text of the Mishnah. This is also the version of Rif, Semag in Lo Ta'aseh 242, and Tur in Yoreh De'ah 221. Gra explained that daughters are not mentioned because lechat'chilah one should not teach them even the Written Law, following Rambam's ruling in Hilchot Talmud Torah. Yet in the case in Nedarim the teacher is neither the daughters' father nor is he acting on the father's behalf; see Resp. haRashba, vol. 1, no. 645. Nevertheless, Rambam does not allow for teaching the girls the Written Torah. Doesn't this disprove our understanding of Rambam that the prohibition is only against a father teaching his daughters?
Not necessarily. The Mishnah in Nedarim specifies teaching Scripture (mikra), which Nimukei Yosef explains as referring to all twenty-four books of the Bible. A teacher is allowed to teach the children in spite of their father's vow, because a mitzvah does not produce any volitional benefit (mitzvot lav leihanot nitnu), as Tosafot explained. Since learning Torah is a mitzvah, teaching it does not technically violate the father's vow. But what mitzvah is there to teach a girl Tanach? See Resp. Maharil, no. 199, who wrote, "What do they need [the book of] Chronicles for? … [What they need is] only the Torah, which contains the mitzvot." And although women are rewarded for Torah study even though they are not commanded to study, reward is irrelevant in the case of minors. Rambam permitted teaching Scripture to the sons and not to the daughters, then, for in the absence of a mitzvah to do so, teaching the latter would violate their father's vow. But this says nothing about teaching them when there is no vow.
I am hesitant to rely on the above alone or on Rambam's distinction between teaching one's daughter and women in general, since Tosafot, Sefer Chasidim and Resp. Maharil do not distinguish between daughters and other women. However, the distinction between most women and exceptional women can be relied upon.
I will add something new in this regard. Rashi explained tiflut as meaning that "through [study] she understands how to be crafty, and is able to sin without [it] being revealed," and Aruch also interpreted tiflut as "sin." This would account for the difference between teaching a woman Scripture and teaching her Talmud, for only the latter could equip her with the casuistic skills and the knowledge she would need in order to dissemble successfully. As the Mishnah in Avot 1:9 warned, "Be careful with your words, lest others learn from them how to lie." However, Rambam did not mention sin in his commentary in Sotah, but instead wrote that tiflut means "vanities and parables." In Hilchot Talmud Torah he wrote that women "transform Torah discussions to trivia, due to the poverty of their intellect." Why should this concern apply only to the Oral and not to the Written Torah?
I think the answer is based on what was said in Beitzah 30a concerning "mutav sheyihiyu shogegin ve'al yehiyu meizidin, it is better that they sin out of ignorance rather than willfully," regarding women who continued to eat and drink up to the last minute before Yom Kippur:
Does not this [injunction not to admonish unintentional violators] apply only to rabbinical matters, but not to Torah matters? This is not so, for whether [the violation is] of Torah or rabbinical origin, we do not say anything to them. The extension (tosefet) of Yom Kippur is of Torah origin, and [nevertheless] they eat and drink until dusk [and we do not admonish them].
Sefer ha'Itur explained that mutav sheyihiyu shogegin applies only to prohibitions not explicitly written in the Torah, similar to the tosefet of Yom Kippur; but where a prohibition is clearly spelled out, we admonish and restrain even unintentional violators until they desist. Such is also the opinion of Rashba, Rosh, Ran, Magid Mishneh in Hilchot Shevitat Asor 1:7 and other rishonim. Sefer haMeorot in Beitzah and Resp. Tashbatz, vol. 2, no. 47, explained that the unintentional violator would accept the rebuke when shown that the prohibition is explicit in the Torah; and see my discussion in Bnei Banim, vol. 2, no. 27.
This distinction accounts for the difference between teaching women the Written and the Oral Torah. Women accepted what was shown to them in black-and-white, but not what was transmitted orally. They were liable to view the expositions of the Oral Torah as "parables" and to "transform Torah discussions into trivia." But today it is permitted to teach Talmud to women, because when the Talmud became fixed in writing it acquired the status of Written Law.
Support for this can be brought from Rosh's ruling on the commandment to write a Sefer Torah, in his Hilchot Sefer Torah, chap. 1:
Today, when we write Sifrei Torah and deposit them in synagogues … it is a positive commandment [incumbent] on every man in Israel who can afford to, to write [a copy of] the Pentateuch, Mishnah, Gemara, and Rashi's commentary, so that he and his children can study them. For the commandment to write the Torah is in order to use it to learn from, as is written (Devarim 31:19), "Teach it to the children of Israel, put it in their mouths." Through [studying] the Gemara and Rashi's commentary he will have a clear grasp of the reasons for the commandments and the laws: therefore, they are the very books that a man is commanded to write.
His ruling is cited by Tur and Shulchan Aruch in Yoreh De'ah 270:2. The achronim disagree as to whether according to Rosh there is no longer a commandment to write a Torah Scroll, which is the view of Prishah and Shach, or whether the original commandment is still in force but today there is an additional mitzvah to copy the other books, which is the opinion of Beit Yosef and Taz. All agree, however, that Rosh ruled that there is a positive commandment to write copies of the other books. The difficulty is that when the Torah was given at Sinai it was forbidden to transcribe the Oral Torah, as stated in Gittin 60b, "you are not permitted to write things that were spoken." How could there be a commandment to write what was forbidden to be written at the time the commandment was given? The answer must be that once written, the Oral Torah acquired the status of Written Torah.
The same applies to teaching women: now that the Talmud is in writing, tiflut no longer applies because women take the written word seriously. Those who teach women excerpts from the Mishnah and Talmud orally and make a point of not using regular printed texts, thus do the exact opposite of what is required. And while Rambam did not explicate any of this, it certainly deserves to be used as a supporting argument to remove women's Talmud study today from the category of tiflut.
The more that women today can be seen as different from women of past generations, the more they can be taught the Oral Torah. Women who seek to learn and are not studying Torah for the sake of an academic degree, and all the more so when they are no longer supported by their parents, are not part of the historical majority of women and may be taught Gemara. It is certainly better to draw them to study in a women's beit midrash than have them study Talmud in a secular framework.
All this, in a generation that needs it. Rashi explained tiflut as meaning that a woman might use her learning to help her sin without being caught, and Resp. Maharil wrote that even were there a mitzvah to teach women, it would be necessary to abrogate it because of eit la'asot laShem. In their time, everyone was outwardly religious, and hidden deviations were the concern. That is not the case today, when anyone who wants to becomes openly nonobservant.
Women who are highly educated in secular subjects but lacking in Torah, contrast the shallowness of their Jewish knowledge with the depth and interest they find in other fields. In the opposite of the situation described by Rambam, the poverty of their Torah education leads them to imagine that the Torah is trivial. "Eit la'asot laShem" today calls for the expansion and deepening of women's Torah studies, and there are Halachic grounds for doing so as I have shown. To prevent all women from learning Talmud as in earlier generations is an example of foolish piety and causes souls to be lost, God forbid. But even without this consideration, to the extent that they are exceptions to what was once the majority, it is permitted to teach women Talmud.
יהודה הרצל הנקין