(Bumping this post from Friday afternoon back up for a 2nd chance. Perhaps it was buried too quickly by later posts? Or perhaps it's just not as interesting/clever as I fancied? Let's see...)
I generally try to steer clear of controversial and/or widely-discussed topics on this blog, both because I hate to stir up yet more contention in the J-blogosphere, and because I feel that I would have little to add to well-plowed ground. This post will be somewhat of an exception. It was inspired by a number of both recent and past discussions on Shira's blog, and relates to the subject of the separate roles of men and women in Judaism. Specifically, I'd like to present a theory I've been developing as to why the Torah exempts women from certain mitzvos.
The topic of women not being obligated in "mitzvos aseh shehazeman gerama" - the so-called "time-bound" positive commandments - is discussed in Gemara Kiddushin beginning on 29a and elsewhere in Talmudic sources. The key examples of the mitzvos from which women are halachically exempt are:
- Shofar on Rosh Hashanah
- Lulav and Sukkah on Sukkos
- Sefiras Haomer
- Most areas of Tefilah [prayer]
- Learning areas of Torah unrelated to practical halacha. This definition is kind of vague, but the category exempted definitely includes the kerias hatorah [reading of the Torah] in shul.
- Tallis and Tefillin
- Matza/Seder on Pesach
- Megillah on Purim
- Chanukah candles
- Shabbos kiddush, candles, and other positive commandments related to Shabbos observance
1) Women were exempted from these mitzvos to give them time to take care of children. The inadequacies of this approach are numerous: just to state the two most obvious, men and women are both obligated/involved in child-rearing, and this reason would not explain why unmarried/divorced/old/childless women are also exempt, while single fathers are not. Furthermore it doesn't fit the examples at all; if the issue is being too busy with the kiddies, why would women be exempt from Sefira which takes all of 15 seconds a night, but not from the Megilah reading (~40 minutes) or the Seder (hours on end)?
2) Women have an innate bodily sense of time and season due to their female cycles, whereas men require these time-related mitzvos to give them that same perception. There's a sort of cleverness to this explanation in that it does hinge on an objective difference between the sexes, and is consistent with the fact that both the Jewish calendar and menstrual cycle are monthly. But I highly doubt most women would claim to feel "innately in tune" with the Jewish calendar, or would agree that their periods substitute for hearing the shofar or the other mitzvos listed above. This explanation also falls flat for post-menopausal women and, like the last one, doesn't provide any basis for differentiating between the two sets of mitzvos.
3) Women are exempt from these mitzvos because their focus should be on the private sphere rather than the public. This does come closer to what I believe is a correct explanation, but has several issues. Firstly, there is no source in the Torah stating explicitly that women are to be, in a blanket sense, less publicly visible than men. (The midrashic explanation of the Psalmic verse "kol kvuda bas melech penima" is hardly pshat; it's an after-the-fact justification of a sociological phenomenon.) Furthermore, the concept of "public" and "private" is far too nebulous to provide a basis for choosing which mitzvos should be non-obligatory for women. Finally, if the issue were really keeping women from being publicly visible, they would not just be exempted from these mitzvos but would be forbidden to perform them; whereas in fact women are encouraged in most of these. It's just that unlike men, they are not forced to do them.
And that last line provides the key to what I think is the genuine explanation of why women are exempted from this particular set of mitzvos. For the question could really be restated, not as "why are these mitzvos voluntary for women", but as "why are they not voluntary for men"? My belief is as follows: the set of mitzvos that are compulsory only on the male of the species, are specifically those whose goal is to bring those men together as a social group and promote collaboration.
There is overwhelming evidence that men as a whole have a much greater natural tendency towards competitiveness and aggression than do women. Numerous books have been written about the male "competitive" style versus the female "cooperative" style, from the "Mars and Venus" series on down. Left alone, unencumbered by the rules and restrictions of society and religion, us guys would probably all kill one another - and often do anyway.
Therefore, halacha provides a fundamental counterbalance to this innate male trait: the institution of minyan. On a continual basis, three or more times a day, Jewish men have to work together, and not just with one or two other men, but with at least nine others. In a group that size, conflicts are bound to arise, and the group is forced to deal with them cooperatively in order to perform the minyan-related mitzvos. Little by little, slowly but surely, the natural male anti-social tendency is tamed.
Note that almost without exception, the mitzvos from which women are exempt are those primarily done in synagogue: tallis/tefillin, tefilah, kerias hatorah, shofar, lulav. Of course, many of these can be done by someone alone, but only bidieved [after the fact]. They are designed to be performed in a minyan, a group environment. And it is thus specifically males - those who halachically make up a minyan - who need to overcome their innate testosterone-driven aggressions through mandatory collaborative rituals every day. Women are welcome to participate as well, but they don't need to be coerced into doing so.
By contrast, the time-bound mitzvos which are binding on both sexes are essentially those intended to be done in the home: the seder, shabbos candles/kiddush, chanukah candles. In the family sphere, men and women both are equally involved and thus equally obligated in mitzvos, time-bound or otherwise.
There seem to be two exceptions to this pattern, one in each group. The megillah is generally read in shul, yet women are obligated in it. The reason for this seems clear: the prime mover of the events of Purim was a woman, Queen Esther. It would be absurdly illogical to exempt women from hearing the reading of the very book that bears their heroine's name. Another reason could be that most of the Purim-related mitzvos are home-centric; eating the seudah, sending gifts of food, giving money to the poor. Since those Purim mitzvos would certainly be incumbent on women, they are obligated in the entire set, including megillah.
The other apparent exception is Sukkah - a home-centric mitzvah from which women are nevertheless exempt. Perhaps this is because of the connection of sukkah with lulav, which as mentioned above is a shul-focused mitzvah and thus exempts women. But a stronger reason might be that the sukkah itself symbolizes the gathering of people together in a single enclosure. Thus, it intrinsically models the "coerced cooperation" goal that underlies the set of male-specific mitzvos. Finally, there may simply be practical reasons for exempting women from "living" in the sukkah in close proximity to the menfolk, which involves not just meals but also sleeping.
As per my introduction, I'm sure some on both the "right" and "left" sides of the religious spectrum will disagree with this theory. To me though, it is the only explanation for women's exemption from certain mitzvos that really relates to a universal, innately rather than societally-driven difference between the sexes, and also accounts for the distinction between the two sets of mitzvos. I'd be interested in knowing:
- Have you heard something like this before? Sources?
- Whether you personally agree with it or not, does it have the ring of truth?