Why Are Women Obligated in Some Time-Bound Positive Commandments and Exempt from Others? A New Theory

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Michael J. Broyde

Women are exempt from many mitzvot for a variety of reasons according to Jewish Law; the Mishnah[1] explicitly notes their exemption from positive time-bound commandments. The literature of the last many centuries is full of moral, philosophical, and ethical interpretations for these exemptions, including—among other explanations—that women are better than men, women are worse than men, women are typically more private than men, or that women are typically more housebound than men. While the Mishnah suggests that women are exempt from all time-bound positive commandments, Jewish Law provides many exceptions to this rule, specifically in the context of familiar mitzvot related to Shabbat and the Jewish holidays.

Why should women be obligated to observe certain time-bound positive commandments (“TBPCs”) while being exempt from others? While the question has certainly drawn some scholarly attention,[2] this article suggests a novel approach to this issue: Women are exempted from Torah-mandated TBPCs that require the assistance of a Heftza Shel Mitzvah [hereinafter: heftza]—a holy prop or a ritual text used to perform the commandment—while they remain obligated in TBPCs that they can perform unassisted. In other words, the heftza theory suggests that the Torah exempted women from those mitzvot that must be performed through possession, ownership, or access to a precise physical object, such as a sukkah, lulav, shofar, or exact prayer text like the Shema.[3] In ages past, these holy props were objects women could not easily acquire, and, therefore, the heftza theory intuits, the Torah exempted women from ritual acts whose performance would have depended on their reliance or dependence on others. These exemptions might have been motivated by Jewish Law’s imperative to protect the weak and vulnerable, a principle which is echoed throughout Jewish Law.[4] Historically, obligating women to perform prop-based mitzvot would have required dependence on others to provide the ritual object, thereby rendering women vulnerable. Therefore, the Torah exempted them.[5]

This article is divided into four sections. Section I explores the contours of the exemption of women from biblical mitzvot in Talmud and Rishonim. Section II surveys the explanations for these exemptions found in early and modern writing. Section III explains and elaborates on the theory proposed by this article while Section IV notes and responds to possible criticisms. The article concludes with thoughts about further implications of this theory.

Section I. A Review: Which Mitzvot Are Women Exempt From?
The Mishnah and Talmud at the end of the first chapter of Kiddushin[6] is the central rabbinic text discussing the exemptions the Torah grants women as a matter of Jewish law. The Mishnah categorically states: “All positive, time-bound commandments (mitzvot aseh she-hazman grama), men are obligated in and women are exempt from.” While one might conclude from the Mishnah alone that women are exempt from all time-bound positive commandments, other sections of the Talmud explain further that women are obligated in some TBPCs and exempt from others.[7]

In fact, there is a broader context to the story of which mitzvot do and do not apply to women. At the end of Rambam’s Sefer ha-Mitzvot he presents a list of the positive mitzvot that are relevant in post-Temple times. Rambam explains that, in the absence of the Temple, 60 of the 248 positive obligations actively obligate men, and only 46 actively obligate women. Thus, there are 14 positive commandments[8] from which the Torah exempted women.[9] Of these 14 exemptions, eight are exemptions from time-bound mitzvot, and six are exemptions from non-time-bound mitzvot. Furthermore, women are obligated in at least six time-bound mitzvot (as Rambam notes, and listed below). This “double deviation” from the categorical “rule” suggested in the Mishnah defeats the idea that women are obligated in all non-time-bound mitzvot and exempted from all time-bound positive mitzvot. Indeed, with but one disagreement, later codifiers adopt Rambam’s enumeration. Thus, formally, women are obligated in either six or seven TBPCs and exempt from seven or eight.  They are also exempt from many non TBPC.

The eight TBPCs that Rambam highlights are not required of women are as follows:
(1) reading the Shema,[10]
(2) binding tefillin on the head,[11]
(3) binding tefillin on the arm,[12]
(4) wearing tzitzit,[13]
(5) counting the omer,[14]
(6) dwelling in the sukkah,[15]
(7) taking the arba’ah minim,[16]and
(8) hearing the shofar.[17]

The six additional positive mitzvot from which women are exempt, even though they are not time-bound in nature, are:
(1) the study of Torah,[18]
(2) the obligation to write a Torah,[19]
(3) the obligation of the kohanim to bless the people,[20]
(4) procreation,[21]
(5) the obligation of the groom to celebrate with his new wife for a full year, and
(6) the circumcision of one’s sons.[22]

Women are, however, obligated in many time-bound commandments, including:
(1) sanctifying the entry into the Sabbath (kiddush),[23]
(2) the obligation to actively abstain from five pleasurable activities on Yom Kippur,[24]
(3) eating matzah on the seder night,[25]
(4) rejoicing on the festivals,[26]
(5) assembling once every seven years,[27] and
(6) maggid, the obligation to commemorate the Egyptian exodus yearly at Passover.[28]

The reasons for these exemptions are diverse and each noted in the Talmud respectively. In Rambam’s list of the 60 positive commandments applicable without a Temple, there are many commandments that are time-bound in some form and yet women are obligated to observe them.[29] Other than the counting of the omer, which some Rishonim,[30] disagreeing with Rambam, find women to be obligated in, it is fair to say that normative Jewish Law follows the contours of Rambam in the scope of women’s obligation in, and exemption from, mitzvot, both time-bound and otherwise.

Section II. A Review of the Literature: Why Are Women Exempt from Time-Bound Positive Commandments?
Women’s exemption from TBPCs is a widely discussed issue. However, other than Rabbi Saul Berman’s insightful and foundational article in Tradition discussed below, the explanations of the exemptions do not really address the full question: why are women exempt from certain TBPCs and not others? Different theories have sought to describe why women are exempt from all positive time-bound mitzvot, and only exempt from these mitzvot, when, in fact, neither of these is the case. Women are not exempt from all TBPCs, nor are they exempt only from TBPCs.[31]

There have been three general schools of thought[32] on the issue of women’s exemption from TBPCs. The first school of thought has reasoned that women are exempt because they are spiritually superior to men and do not require as many mitzvot in order to address their spiritual shortcomings. Given their innate feminine superiority, it would have been superfluous for the Torah to encumber women with these commandments. The Maharal of Prague is the most prominent classical authority to advocate for this view.[33]

A second school of thought suggests just the opposite: that women are exempt from TBPCs because they are intrinsically spiritually inferior to men.[34] The most notable proponent of this view, Ralbag, goes even further, proposing that the Torah excused women from TBPCs—the “hard” ones— because they are simply too difficult for them. [35]

A third approach links these exemptions to the special homebound role the Torah carved out for women. Being obligated in the performance of time-bound mitzvot would have interfered with women’s homemaking duties. As the work of Avudraham discusses:

The reason women are exempt from positive, time-bound commandments is because a woman is obligated to fulfill the needs of her husband. Were she mandated to perform the positive commandments fixed by time, it is possible that while performing these mitzvot, her husband would insist that she instead fulfill the mitzvah of listening to him… Therefore God relieved her of the necessity of performing these mitzvot, in order that she would be at peace with her husband.[36]

Rabbi Saul Berman[37] has a different approach, which although similar in some ways to Avudraham’s, identifies the correct problem: Why are women exempt from some TBPCs and not others? Rabbi Berman observes that the Torah did not exempt women from all time-bound positive mitzvot, but rather only from those particular ones that he found to be contingent upon public performance. According to Rabbi Berman, women were exempted from public, ritualistic acts because public acts would have necessitated a wife’s departure from home and hearth, something which was inconsistent with the women’s homebound role envisaged in the Torah. Rabbi Berman explains that when the Torah exempted women from mitzvot, it was “to assure that no legal obligation interfere[d] with … [their] role which was centered almost exclusively in the home.” Berman details that “the wife-mother-homemaker role is not mandated [by Judaism] … [but] it is clearly the preferred and therefore protected role.”[38] 

The primary critique of the first two theories is obvious. Proponents of these theories have based their assumptions on the Mishnah’s far-reaching suggestion that women are exempt from all TBPC, when in fact this is not the case. Any theory that accounts for women’s exemptions in Judaism needs to be able to explain both why women are exempt from some TBPC and why they are obligated in other TBPCs (as well as, perhaps, why women are exempt from other mitzvot generally). Women’s innate superiority or inferiority explains neither. In other words, theories that simply address women’s “exemption from time-bound mitzvot” leave much of the data unaccounted for.

A comparison of the obligatory duties of Pesah with Sukkot makes this issue clear. Women are exempt from the two unique mitzvot of Sukkot—lulav and sukkah—yet are obligated in the two unique mitzvot at Pesah—matzah and maggid. All four of these commemorate the Exodus from Egypt; both men and women lived in booths in the desert; and both men and women ate unleavened bread upon leaving Egypt. Furthermore, all four of these are reasonably easy to perform—holding a lulav is not any more burdensome than participating in the seder—and all can be done in or very close to the home. [39]

 In fact, a wife’s exemption from the mitzvah of sukkah actually makes her husband’s fulfillment of his sukkah obligation more complex. He could be hesitant to sleep away from her, and she need not sleep in the sukkah. For centuries, husbands’ have used their wives’ exemption to void their own obligation as well. Consider, for example the remarks of the Taz:

So too, one who is married to a woman is obligated to rejoice with her on the Festivals and women are exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah. Thus, one who does not wish to separate from his wife [by sleeping in the sukkah without her] is called performing a mitzvah and thus exempt from sleeping in the sukkah.[40]

In contrast to Avudraham’s claim that women are exempted from TBPC in order to fulfill the needs of their family, here is an instance where the wife’s exemption causes her husband to be conflicted about which mitzvah to perform. Had Avudraham been right in his general principle, no sukkah exemption would have been granted to women.

Of all the theories that have been presented, only Rabbi Berman’s correctly identifies—and tries to explain—the contours of the exemption. Instead of explaining why the Torah categorically exempts women from all TBPCs (which it does not) Rabbi Berman explains that the Torah exempted women from those TBPCs which require public performance. Rabbi Berman claims that because public TBPCs would have required women’s periodic absence from the home, the Torah exempted women from all such “public” performances.

Notwithstanding Rabbi Berman’s success in identifying the problem, his public-private theory of exemption does not seem correct to me. To quote Rabbi Berman’s central thesis:

In the light of this [public-private] proposition, we can understand why the Torah… exempted women from the mitzvot of Sukkah, Lulav and Shofar. These acts were of necessity performed outside of the home, in the latter two instances, preferably at the central sanctuary. We may likewise … understand the reason for the debates as to whether women are exempted from such mitzvot as tefillin, tzitzit and the reading of the Shema. For while obligations such as these need not involve communal appearance, and can adequately be fulfilled at one’s own home, their very association with communal worship would create, and indeed has created for men, a powerful religious preference for their performance within the context of communal presence.[41]

This logic is circular. To explain why women are exempt from tefillin, tzitzit and shema, Rabbi Berman points to a rabbinic enhancement (hiddur)—not even a rabbinic obligation—of communal performance of these mitzvot. Simply noting that the classical authorities made a connection between mitzvot women are exempt from and communal performance does not explain the exemption. Rather, it could just as well be the other way around: since Torah law exempted women from these mitzvot, later rabbis were able to deem public, communal performance an enhancement. Additionally, this approach does not address why women are exempted from certain other non-TBPCs. For example, Rabbi Berman’s explanation does not explain why women are exempted from procreation, the epitome of a mitzvah done in private.

If Rabbi Berman’s thesis is to show that the Torah wants to protect the rights of women who prefer a private, home-based, religious life, but not mandate such a role, the selection of mitzvot women are obligated in and exempt from hardly reflects that. Indeed, as a matter of Torah law, women can easily fulfill the mitzvot of tefillin, tzitzit, and shema in the comfort and privacy of their own home with no public act needed. Indeed, the Pesah-Sukkot mitzvot distinction above is also unexplained by Rabbi Berman’s theory. How are the Pesah TBPCs any more “private” than the Sukkot ones, or how are domestic duties any more disrupted by sukkah and lulav than by haggadah and matzah?[42] When looked at from the basis of the Torah obligation alone, neither shema nor tzitzit nor sukkah nor lulav nor any of the other TBPCs women are exempt from seem any more public than the ones women are obligated to observe.

Section III. The Physical Object as the Key: Women’s Exemption from Object-Dependent TBPCs
The common denominator underlying women’s exemption from certain TBPCs (tzitzit, tefillin, shofar, lulav, sukkah, and shema) is that in order to fulfill each of these commandments, one must use a physical prop. To fulfill the mitzvah of shofar, one needs a shofar. To don tzitzit and tefillin, one needs tzitzit and tefillin. To fulfill the mitzvah of shema, one needs to either have learned the text by heart or be able to read a specific written text.[43] To hold a lulav, one needs to own a lulav. So too, our theory explains why the exemption Rambam grants women in the counting of the omer never was fully accepted. Our theory suggests that this codification never became fully normative Halakhah because there is no heftza shel mitzvah required to count the omer, and hence no reason to exempt women.

These exemptions stand in contrast to the many other TBPCs in which women are obligated, which can be performed completely unassisted. The obligation to be joyous on a festival is an internal commandment. Similarly, the commandment of fasting and suffering on Yom Kippur are mitzvot that require no object to fulfill. So too, women are obligated in Shabbat kiddush, which as a matter of Torah law, is simply the recitation that the sacred day of Shabbat has begun, and does not require wine or a specific text.[44]

This theory also accounts for the distinction between the duties of Pesah and Sukkot. The difference between the mitzvot of Pesah, in which women are obligated, and the mitzvot of Sukkot, from which women are exempt, is that matzah and maggid are mitzvot with no hard-to-acquire objects. Women could easily acquire matzah in the same way they could easily acquire bread—by baking it in their kitchens.[45] So too, the commandment to remember the Exodus from Egypt (maggid) has no fixed text as a matter of Torah law; to fulfill the obligation one must simply mention the story of the Egyptian Exodus. The same is true for the suffering mandated on Yom Kippur, the rejoicing on the festivals, and for assembling every seven years. The idea which distinguishes TBPCs that women are obligated in from TBPCs that women are not obligated in, is then clear: object-dependent TBPCs—ones that require the assistance of others to complete— women are not obligated in. Independent TBPCs—which women can do without any assistance from another or without a prop or any heftza shel mitzvah—women are obligated to follow.

This theory also, perhaps, explains women’s exemption from other commandments, including those that are not time-bound. Women are exempt from the mitzvah of circumcising their sons, as that too is an intensely object-driven mitzvah. The same is true for the mitzvah of Torah study, which requires a text to study from and a teacher to study with. Additionally, women are not obligated in procreation, as this is necessarily dependent on another individual.

The example of procreation is admittedly still difficult, so I will elaborate. At one level, it is legally bizarre and counter-intuitive that women are exempt from the duty to procreate: Women are an integral part of the procreation process; indeed, it cannot take place without them. Even so, normative Jewish law clearly states, and none dispute, that “women are not obligated in the duty to procreate.”[46] This exemption seems illogical, and apologetic explanations to clarify it abound. Rabbi Meir Simkhah of Dvinsk lists the three classical explanations[47]: (1) maybe the Torah did not want to command women to have children since childbirth is dangerous; (2) perhaps women yearn for children by their very nature, and therefore there was no need to impose an obligation to that effect; (3) when a man who is commanded in the mitzvah of procreation finds that his wife is infertile, he can take an additional wife without a divorce; but, if a woman were obligated to procreate, and is married to an infertile man, Jewish Law would then have to mandate divorce which is against what God wants.

The heftza theory in this article suggests a different answer. A woman is not obligated in the mitzvah to procreate since, in cases where women come from little means, obligating a marriage and children creates a vulnerability through religious obligation. This could translate into a marriage to a man who is unsuitable for her simply in order to have children and fulfill her mitzvah. Since she is not obligated, she can choose a husband who is good for her, and, in any event, obtain divorce – even if doing so prevents her from having children. Her exemption empowers her right to choose. This approach aligns procreation with the basic ideas of this article. The purpose of the exemption is to allow women not to be dependent on others, whether in providing a lulav or assisting in procreation as a husband.

Kiddushin 30b offers a counterexample which further demonstrates this point. There, the Talmud questions how a woman can be obligated to respect and admire her mother and father when doing so can interfere with her duties to her husband. If the thesis of Avudraham and others were correct, one could expect that women should be completely exempt from the mitzvah of respecting parents. After all, such respect is an action that the Talmud posits directly interferes with her household duties.[48] Yet, Jewish Law does not exempt a married daughter—and certainly not all women— from the duty to respect or admire parents. Instead Shulkhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 240:17 notes “Both men and women are obligated in the duty to respect and admire their father and mother, but rather a woman practically cannot do so when she is encumbered by her husband and is thus exempt when married. If divorce or widowed, the obligation returns” and, of course if never married, she remains obligated. In my opinion, the continuous obligation is because there is no real ‘act’ to perform or be exempt from, but rather the mitzvah speaks to a required feeling of awe and respect in the heart, mind, and soul of the child. While duties must be balanced with competing duties, internal feelings need not. A woman is obligated to respect and admire her parents, even when married. Levush (n. 17) Shakh (n. 19) and Arukh ha-Shulhan (n. 38) to Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 240 all remind women that they must admire and respect their parents always, and serve them as much as possible, consistent with their obligation to serve their husband. This helps clarify that duties to feel a certain way —whether time-bound or not—are never suspended for women, but object-driven obligations (time-bound or not) are suspended when they interfere with marital obligations.

In the spirit of further speculation about the Divine will, the heftza theory posits that Jewish Law rules it unjust to obligate women in commandments they could not readily perform independently because doing so would create situations that would leave women susceptible to abuse.[49] The best proof of this argument is that the Torah did not exempt women in those mitzvot—time-bound or otherwise—that it deemed well within their abilities to perform, even when those mitzvot are both complex and interfere with spousal and maternal duties (as, for example, suffering on Yom Kippur does).

These obligations show that neither spousal nor maternal obligations are the central concern of the Torah’s exemptions. This is an important idea: if the Torah’s intent was really driven by the concerns found in the Avudraham’s work—a woman’s duties to her husband—there would have been many more applications of this principle, and unmarried women would have likely been obligated in those mitzvot. In other words, both the applications and the exemptions would have been different if the Avudraham’s principle was correct. The heftza theory argues that women were weak and vulnerable in times of old and thus exempting women—single or married—from commandments that require objects that they do not readily have was done to prevent people from taking advantage of the vulnerable.

This idea also explains why women are completely obligated in all negative commandments, even those which certainly interfere with both spousal and maternal obligation. It is impossible for a negative commandment to require an individual to possess a prop or become dependent on another in any way. Since women’s exemption is limited to object-based mitzvot, exemptions from negative commandments are not relevant.

Although I am aware of no rabbinic source that exactly states the heftza theory, something akin to this is advanced by Penei Yehoshua[50] in a discussion about why women are included in the Torah’s TBPC of tosefet yom ha-kipurim, “extending” Yom Kippur by fasting for an additional time before and after the actual day. Penei Yehoshua asks: why are women obligated in tosefet yom ha-kipurim? He replies that women are generally obligated in all TBPCs that can be fulfilled passively, without any act. This is somewhat close to the idea of women being obligated in prop-less mitzvot in the sense that it proposes that the exemption from TBPCs is not absolute or dependent on status or role, but rather dependent on certain inherent properties of the mitzvah. This suggestion is endorsed by R. Akiva Eiger, R. Avraham Shmuel Sofer (Ktav Sofer), and R. Saul Nathanson (Sho’el u-Meishiv), and is widely discussed by contemporary authorities, such as R. Ovadia Yosef.[51]

Section IV. Criticism of This Approach and Possible Responses.
Five possible criticisms of this theory are worth addressing preemptively.

First, my suggestion that women’s exemption from TBPCs is limited to object-based commandments deviates from the Mishnah’s clear statement that women are exempt from all TBPCs. This criticism is valid, but it is not only directed at my theory. Rambam, for instance, notes in his Commentary on the Mishnah (Kiddushin 1:7), which discusses the rule of TBPC, that one cannot “learn from the generalizations in the Mishnah, and the Mishnah’s use of ‘all’ means ‘most.’” Indeed, many passages in the Talmud demonstrate that the blanket rule of the Mishnah is not the “true” rule, but merely a heuristic with numerous exceptions.

Second, one could question whether the exemption of women from the recitation of shema is legitimately explained by this idea. After all, shema is not read from a scroll or book, and children learn it at a young age. While all of this is correct, the simple fact remains that shema is not a faith creed that a person can understand and recite perfunctorily. Rather, it is a fixed text that needs to be read precisely, a daunting task in times when perhaps not all women could read. Precisely because it is more than a mere thought in one’s head about the unity of God, classifying the mitzvah of shema in this way is reasonable even if the prayer does not require a bona fide heftza shel mitzvah like a lulav.

Third, I recognize that the thesis of this article suffers from a “data-fitting” methodological flaw. In a data-driven world, there is a well-known problem that “best-fitting” the known data does not always yield reliable predictions about future data—especially if the data set is fairly small or perhaps skewed in some way. Data-driven models sometimes pick up on features that happen to fit the examples extremely well, yet miss the real “explanation” for the data and are not in fact predictive of future data. While this point is correct, it is irrelevant to what the heftza theory endeavors to show. The purpose of this project is to explain the Biblical Jewish laws that we have. The point is not to predict future data or even propose a model that might help explain some future, not-yet-given mitzvot! No more mitzvot will be revealed.

Fourth, and related to the above, would be to question the value of this entire exercise if not to “predict” future data. This question is quite complex and lies at the heart of why we think about the reasons for mitzvot. Yet it is not really about my explanation, but about all explanations of any mitzvot (and categories of mitzvot) other than in those rare explanations where the reason impacts the observance.

A final criticism is whether the heftza theory does anything more than add another layer of apologetics to an already saturated field.[52] The hope of this paper is to avoid the defensive explanations that seem standard for the field of women and mitzvot, instead focusing on explaining the data and presenting a united solution to three questions: (a) Why are women exempt from some TBPCs and not others? (b) Why are women obligated in some TBPCs? (c) Why are women exempt from other positive commandments that are not time-bound? By presenting a unified data-driven approach, I hope to avoid as much apologetics as possible

Of course, as the above criticisms indicate, my approach does not fully fit all of the data perfectly. This theory does, however, explain the data better than other proffered theories and advances important critiques of them that cast doubt on their validity. A reader may discover other objections to the heftza theory that might require an imperfect answer. Indeed, complex Torah discussions are generally not resolved by conclusive, mathematical proofs; different views need to be weighed against each other on their strengths and weaknesses. Thus, any objections raised against this theory need to be weighed against the objections this article raises in Section I against other theories. I believe that there are less weighty objections against the heftza theory than to other approaches.

There are many TBPCs from which women are exempt. Yet, there are quite a few TBPCs in which women are obligated. Similarly, there are a significant number of commandments in Jewish Law that are not time-bound that women are exempted from. Although theories abound to explain women’s exemptions from TBPCs, they generally do not explain the data well—namely that women are exempt from only about half of the TBPCs and exempt from other commandments. Instead of theorizing as to why women are exempt from the entire TBPC category—which is simply not the case—previously suggested theories ought to have been questioning why women are exempt from some TBPCs while remaining completely obligated in others. Rabbi Saul Berman’s approach refreshingly addresses just this question, but the solution he puts forth does not fully explain the data.

The theory proposed in this article offers a more complete explanation as to why the Torah exempts women from certain TBPCs, obligates them in others, and even exempts women from other non-time-bound commandments. The purpose of the exemptions was not to protect women’s domestic role, but rather to protect women from the oppression of dependency. The Torah recognized the vulnerable status of women in earlier times, and issued exemptions to minimize that vulnerability. This is generally consistent with many other protections of the weak and vulnerable found in the Torah.

[1] Kiddushin 29a.

[2] See Section II for further discussion.

[3] A specific prayer text is needed. For example, for the recitation of Shema, a mitzvah from which women are exempt, Jewish Law mandates that the prayer be recited in a specific way based on a specific text; there is no other way in Jewish law to discharge one’s obligation. See Section IV generally for more on this.

[4] See e.g., Exodus 23:4-9; Leviticus 19:9-10, 33-34; Leviticus 25:25; Talmud Bavli, Gittin 52a.

[5] This article does not attempt to explain women’s obligations with regard to rabbinic commandments. Soo too, this article does not discuss the role of R. Yehoshua b. Levi’s well-known aphorism that women are obligated in certain TBPCs since “they too were part of the miracle,” since that statement is widely understood as applicable only to rabbinic obligations.

[6] 29a to 34b.

[7] See e.g., Pesahim 43b (regarding a woman’s obligation to eat matzah on seder night); Berakhot 20b (regarding a woman’s obligation to recite kiddush on Friday nights); Shabbat 44a (where Ran extends this kiddush obligation to include a responsibility to eat three festive Shabbat meals).

[8] In fact, there are three broad categories of mitzvot from which women are exempt. The first category consists of mitzvot that are inapplicable to women for biological reasons (i.e. circumcision). Second, there is an entire class of Temple mitzvot from which women are exempt (as delineated in the Mishnah, Kiddushin 36a). The theory put forward in this article does not address exemptions that stem from either of these two categories, although logic would suggest that the Temple was the ultimate heftza shel mitzvah and that is why women were exempt. Rather, this article focuses on the third category: TBPCs.

[9] Rambam, Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Siyum Mitzvot Aseh. Interestingly, Rambam himself makes no mention of why women are exempt from certain commandments. In fact, elsewhere, Rambam questions whether the categorical exemption from TBPCs even exists. He writes in his Commentary on the Mishnah (Kiddushin 1:7):

And you already knew that the main thing for us is not to learn from generalizations and that which says “all” should be understood to mean ‘most.’ Indeed, that which women are obligated in positive commandments and that which they are not obligated in, is not dependent on the general rule, but rather were transmitted orally and they are matters that come to us by tradition.

Notice that Rambam disconnects the exemptions from the principle of TBPCs and connects the whole matter to Talmudic exegesis. This is an argument whose reasons are impossible to discern here. It should be noted that this is a particularly telling statement coming from Rambam, who generally sought to give reasons for commandments. If Rambam says there is neither rhyme nor reason, that is a meaningful approach. (This insight was offered to me by Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner of Toronto.)

[10] Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 70:1; Mishnah Berurah §§4-5, ad loc.; Resp. Revavot Ephraim, Orah Hayim 2:48, 31.

[11] Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 38:3; Mishnah Berurah §11, ad loc.; Kaf ha-Hayim 38:9.

[12] Rambam divides tefillin into two separate exemptions (since in his view, they are each counted as a separate mitzvah of the 613 total mitzvot). For our purposes, however, these two exemptions will be treated as one since the same reasoning lies behind both.

[13] Menahot 43a; Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 17:2; Mishnah Berurah 5, ad loc.; Levush 17:2.

[14] Mishneh Torah, Temidim u-Musafim 7:20-24.

[15] Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 640:1.

[16] Rama on Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 658:9; Mishnah Berurah 654:1.

[17] Rosh ha-Shanah 30a; Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 589:3.

[18] Kiddushin 29a; Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 246:6.

[19] See Sefer ha-Hinukh, Mitzvah 613 and Minhat Hinukh ad loc. Others, including Rif, consider women to be obligated in this mitzvah. See Shakh on Yoreh Deah 281:6.

[20] The exact nature of this exemption is not entirely clear. See Minhat Hinukh 378 (discussing whether women are exempt because they are not considered kohanim or whether they are exempt because the mitzvah is limited to the “sons of Aaron” and not the daughters).

[21] Yevamot 65b; Genesis 1:28. For additional theories as to why women are exempt from procreation see Ketubot 62a-b, Yevamot 12b, and the famed explanation of the Meshekh Hokhmah to Genesis 9:7 discussed later.

[22] Kiddushin 29a; Rema on Yoreh Deah 261:1.

[23] Berakhot 20b; Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 271:2; see also Halikhot Beytah 15:10. Kiddush is one of the many zakhor commandments of Shabbat that women are obligated in. Others include eating three meals (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 291:6, Misnah Berurah 291:26), and havdalah (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 296:8, “Women are obligated to recite havdalah, just as they are obligated to recite kiddush.” Yet on the matter of havdalah, the Shulhan Arukh here notes, “Some disagree”).

[24] See Sifre, Aharei Mot, Ch. 7; Sukkah 28a-b. Of course, this mitzvah of actively subduing one’s desires on Yom Kippur is also connected to a negative commandment. The same interlinking is true in a more indirect way for Shabbat and matzah/hametz.

[25] Pesahim 43b: “[W]hoever is forbidden to eat hametz is obligated to eat matzah, and since women are included in the prohibition against eating hametz, they are also included in the positive commandment to eat matzah.” See also Kiddushin 34a.

[26] Pesahim 109a; Kiddushin 34a.

[27] Kiddushin 34a; Or Ha-Hayim, Deuteronomy 31:12. See also Taz to Yoreh Deah 246:4 who discusses this mitzvah in a normative way to explain why women are obligated. As many have noted, Rambam does not connect the existence of the Temple to the mitzvah of Hakhel (Sefer Hamitzvot 16) and the Minhat Hinukh notes that this mitzvah can be done anywhere in Jerusalem, Temple or not. For more on this, see for example Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon, “The Mitzva of ‘Hakhel’.”

[28] Although Rambam includes the retelling of the story of the exodus in this list of TBPCs that women are obligated in, he omits it in his own list in Hil. Avodah Zarah 12:3. It should be noted that there is no Talmudic source that discusses women’s obligation of or exemption from this mitzvah specifically. Sefer ha-Hinukh 21 assumes that our listing (in Sefer ha-Mitzvot) is correct and that women are obligated, while Minhat Hinukh ad loc. questions that assumption. See also Rema on Orah Hayim 473:6 and Mishnah Berurah ad loc. 64 who rule that women are obligated.

[29] See the listing in the Shabsai Frankel edition of Sefer ha-Mitzvot (Bnei Brak, 1995) at pages 285-286. See mitzvot 54, 154, 155, 156, 157, 158, 159, 160, 162, 163, 164, 165, 166, 167. Of course, some of these are connected to negative commandments and in some cases other rationales are put forward.

[30] Although this is the view of Rambam, Ramban disagrees. He instead claims that the counting of the omer is equally obligatory on women (Ramban, Kiddushin 34a).

[31] Although the material has been significantly altered and much new content has been added in, the three general theories presented here are modeled after the theories presented in Rabbi Chaim Rapoport’s article “Why Women are Exempt from Positive Time-bound Commandments: Is There a True Torah View?” Le’ela 50 (2000): 53-64.

[32] In addition to Rambam’s view (discussed above) that we have no firm reason for why women are exempt.

[33] In his Derush Al Ha-Torah (Sifrei Maharal, p. 28), the Maharal explains that women, who naturally exist on a higher plane, can more easily form a relationship with God. The same logic can be found in Yalkut Shimoni (Samuel I 1:13) where women are implied to have no evil inclination. A number of rabbinic authorities in later centuries put forth similar views. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch reasoned that women are exempt from TBPCs because they are superior; see R. Samson R. Hirsch, The Pentateuch (Gateshead: Judaica Press, 1976), Leviticus 23:43). Rabbi Emanuel Rackman and Rabbi Norman Lamm both more closely connect women’s exemption to a sense of time; see R. Emanuel Rackman, One Man’s Judaism (New York: Philosophical Library, 1970),  330, and R. Norman Lamm, A Hedge of Roses (Israel: Feldheim, 1966), 68-78.

[34] There are those who claim the female exemption from mitzvot stems from women’s more delicate nature. See e.g., Sotah 8a and Igrot Moshe, Orah Hayim 4:49. Rav Moshe in this teshuvah focuses not on marriage—like the Avudraham (discussed below) does—but on child-rearing. Notably, Rabbi Feinstein’s opening idea is economic and not ideological, which is more consistent with the heftza theory propounded by this paper.

[35] Ralbag, Exodus 15:21 (Ralbag contends that women are spiritually and intellectually inferior to men, and as a result of their inferiority, the Torah exempted them from performing those duties that were beyond their capacity); see also Yismah Moshe, Exodus 10:8-11 (Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, Rav of Ujhely (1759-1841) supports Ralbag in this line of thinking).

[36] Sefer Avudraham ha-Shalem, Sefer Tefillot Shel Hol, Sha’ar 3, Birkhot ha-Mitzvot. For a slightly different formulation, see Kolbo 73 in the name of the Bal Melamed. For an approach that elaborated on this (with a more metaphysical twist), see Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson Address to Convention of N’shei Ubnos Chabad, 25 Iyar 5744, who proposes that “Women are freed from performing commandments which are obligatory only at a specific time… The AriZal writes concerning such mitzvot: ‘When the male performs the mitzvah, it is unnecessary that the woman should also do them separately, for she has already been included with him at the time when he does the mitzvah…’ This is the meaning of our Sages’ statement, ‘One’s wife is as one’s body.’” See also Torah Temimah  on Exodus 13, note 42 for a further discussion of this idea.

[37] Saul Berman, “The Status of Women in Halakhic Judaism,” Tradition, 14:2 (1973): 5-28.

[38] See Marc Shapiro, “Rabbi Joseph Hertz, Women And Mitzvot, Antoninus, The New RCA Siddur, And Rabbis Who Apostatized”, at for additional rabbinic discussion of women and mitzvot.

[39] Nor is an exemption granted for what is possibly the most onerous of all the Torah’s TBPCs: fasting on Yom Kippur. There is no question that fasting uniquely compromises a mother’s ability to care for her young children, especially when it comes to nursing a baby.

[40] Orah Hayim 639:2:9.

[41] Saul Berman, “The Status of Women in Halakhic Judaism,” Tradition 14:2 (1973): 5-28 at 17.

[42] Rabbi Berman similarly draws support for his theory by claiming that lulav and shofar were “preferably performed in the central sanctuary.” Yet the performance of both lulav and shofar at home is completely in compliance with Torah law. (Perhaps Rabbi Berman was suggesting that there are a good number of TBPCs that are performed outside of Temple precincts, and yet are meant to mimic Temple procedure and that lulav and shofar are among them. As a result, he extrapolates that they too, when performed outside of the Temple, should preferably be performed in a public, communal way. Although I believe the lack of a clear halakhic mandate requiring public performance of these mitzvot outside the Temple invalidates such an argument, perhaps this is what he had in mind.)

[43] The consensus opinion is that the obligation to recite shema is not the obligation to merely recite an idea. Rather, to fulfill the mitzvah of shema, one must recite a formulaic set of vocalized verses in a formulaic way. See Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 61. As such, the recitation of the shema has the central characteristics of the mitzvot women are exempt from in that it is not something that a woman can do on her own easily. In an email commenting on this article, my friend, Rabbi Alan Berkowitz suggests another explanation for the exemption for Shema; he notes that “learning to read is almost always dependent on another person as a teacher—thus, an “external” prop.
This theory’s understanding of the exemption of shema can also explain the minority view that women are Torah-exempt from the mitzvah of birkat ha-mazon, grace after meals. See Berakhot 20b; Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 186:1 (discussing whether the requirement for women to bless after the meal is d’oraita or d’rabbanan.). If grace after meals is technically fulfilled by reciting even the shortest expression of thanks (as opposed to the full length four-blessing formula that appears in our benchers), then it would stand to reason that women are obligated in it. On the other hand, if birkat ha-mazon requires the recitation of a highly specific text (like the shema), this theory provides a rationale for their exemption. Another possibility—more consistent with this article, but possibly more farfetched—is that grace after meals is connected to the possibility of inheriting land in Israel, which is a prop.

[44] Mishneh Torah, Shabbat 29:6. See also note 23 and this discussion there about havdalah, a related topic.

[45] One could claim that matzah is a prop, but I do not not think that is correct. A prop in this context is intended to convey the idea of acquiring something people generally did not have. Matzah is merely an alternative form of bread and something every woman had, especially given that women were mostly in the home at that time. In this way, it is similar to Shabbat kiddush, a TBPC in which women are also obligated.

[46] Shulhan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer 1:13.

[47] Meshekh Hokhmah (Genesis 9:7).

[48] See Tosafot, Kiddushin 30b, s.v. “she-yesh reshut,” which makes this clear.

[49] In addition to the fact that women had restricted access to materials in the outside world because they were homebound, the Torah’s exemptions for women when it came to prop-based mitzvot might also have stemmed from Jewish Law’s restrictions on a wife’s ability to come into possession of property. The general assumption in the Talmud is that all the wife’s earnings belong to the husband (Ketubot 80a; Nazir 24b; Gittin 77a; Bava Kamma 87a; Shulhan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer 85:13, 17). This similarly explains other anomalies that we would otherwise be inclined to dismiss as mysterious. For instance, there are a group of authorities who posit that women are not obligated in the mitzvah of mezuzah, a mitzvah which is not time-bound at all (for the normative halakhic rule is that women are obligated in mezuzah, see Kiddushin 34a-b; Berakhot 20a-b). Despite the fact that the mitzvah of mezuzah is not a time-bound positive commandment, this theory provides a rationale for this exemption. Because mezuzah is a prop, and women can neither write it nor necessarily buy it in the marketplace, it is unfair to obligate women in this mitzvah that they cannot independently fulfill. See Yeshu’ot Malko, commenting on Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Mezuzah 5:10. The reverse of this logic also provides a basis for the view of Derishah (commenting on Tur, Yoreh Deah 281) that a woman may write a mezuzah. Since she is obligated, she must be able to do it on her own.

[50] Beitzah 30a.

[51] See for example, Teshuvot Rabbi Akiva Eiger, 3:80 (who notes this idea is “dear and logical”), Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Sofer, Ktav Sofer, Orah Hayim 56, Rabbi Shaul Nathanson, Shoel u-Meishev, Kamma 1:61 and Final, 1:464.

[52] See for example Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, “Women and Judaism: A Rejoinder,” Tradition (Fall 1975): 2-17, which opens with a discussion of what is apologetics and “Are these just apologetics?” is a heading at and so much of the literature does have such a feel.  

Michael J. Broyde is a Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law and the Berman Projects Director at its Center for the Study of Law and Religion. He was the Founding Rabbi of the Young Israel of Atlanta and has served in a variety of other roles in the rabbinic world. Broyde has written more than ten books, edited three more, and written hundreds of articles and book chapters. He has been a visiting professor at many universities, including Stanford, Hebrew University, University of Warsaw, and Reichman University, and speaks frequently on matters of Halakhah, law and religion, and on Orthodox policy in shuls, universities, and other public forums. He can be reached by email at