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Women in Synagogue


Rabbi David Sperling

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It is widely known that women are not obligated to pray in a minyan. However, this lack of obligation does not belittle the great benefit of going to synagogue, and joining in with the prayers of the community.

Firstly, by doing so, a woman hears - and partakes - in the parts of the service that require a minyan, such as Barechu, Kaddish, Kedusha, and Torah Reading. Secondly, by praying with the community, her prayers join those of the minyan and as such fall under the category of "the community's prayers are always heard" (Rambam, Prayer 8:1). Thirdly, the synagogue building itself is conducive to better prayer, as the Me'iri (B'rachot 6b) says, "Whenever one is able to pray in the synagogue one should do so, because it is there that the heart is able to concentrate." And lastly, in many communities, especially outside of Israel, the synagogue represents the very heart ofJewish life, and by participating in it, one not only strengthens the community, but in turn, becomes strengthened in one's commitment to Torah.

We find in even very early sources, records of women who received great reward for attending the synagogue. The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni (Ekev) records the case ofa woman who was extremely old. She came before Rabbi Yosi ben Chalaftah, and said to him, "Rebbi, I have become too old, and my life is disgusting. I want to depart from this world." He asked her, "Which mitzvah are you accustomed to doingevery day ?" To which she replied, "Every day, even if I'm involved in something I very much enjoy, I put it aside and go to the synagogue." He advised her not to come to the synagogue for three days running. Thus she did, and on the third day, she died. And this is what Shlomo HaMelech meant when he wrote, "Happy is the one who listens to me watching daily at my doors", to which he wrote immediately following "For whoever finds me, finds life." (Proverbs 8,34-35) [hinting that whoever goes to the synagogue daily will have a long life].

Of course, because this is not an obligation, one should weigh up the benefits of going to synagogue against everything else. The Vilna Gaon wrote to his family, that the women going to synagogue should be swift and leave quickly, "and it would be better to pray at home, because in the synagogue it is impossible to escape from jealousy and from hearing idle chatter and forbidden gossip, for which one is punished... And all the more so on Shabbat and Festivals when they gather together for that purpose - it would be better not to pray at all. Also for your daughter, it would be better for her not to go to synagogue at all, for there she sees fancy clothing and the like, and she is jealous, and when she comes home, she will start talking about it, and thus will come to forbidden gossip, and other things. Rather, all the honor of a princess is inside [the house]'".

This, however, needs to be measured against the prevailing reality. What will the women be doing if not in synagogue - reading ethical treatises at home, as the Vilna Gaon suggests,or idly gossiping in the park ? What is the synagogue like ? Today it is not so difficult, in most places, to find a women's section that is full of devotion and prayer, where modesty in dress and action prevail.

Another factor to be taken into consideration is taking care of young children and babies in synagogue. Rav Henkin writes (B'nay Banim Vol 1, 5) that "today, when women leave the house on all occasions for all other matters, it would be wonderful if they would leave the house in order to go to the synagogue... If their hearts desire to come to the synagogue, we should relate to this seriously... And so, in my opinion, you should organize a roster for child-minding in order to allow the women to attend the services." Where this is not possible, thenone should make sure that bringing the baby (or very young child) to synagogue does not disrupt other people's praying. [In some communities there are early minyanim which allow the husband to return home in time to allow the wife to go to synagogue while he minds the children].

Saying the Amidah with the Minyan.

When attending the synagogue, one should try to join in with the community's prayers. Thus, there are several halachot that teach us how to align one's personal prayer with what is being said by the congregation.

The major benefit of the synagogue prayer is reciting the Amidah (silent devotion) together with the minyan. In order to do this, one should skip over earlier parts of the service so as to start the Amidah with the congregation (or at least with the chazan's repetition - see below). During shacharit, one must say at least the blessing over washing the hands and after the bathroom (if these were not recited upon awakening), Elokay Neshamah, the blessings over learning Torah, and Baruch She'amar, Ashray, Nishmat (on Shabbat), andYishtabach.[There are differing opinions about this - but if one recites at least the above list they will certainly be acting properly]. One should try to say the complete service from Barechu onwards, and not skip over these parts of the service.

If one estimates that she has more time in which to pray and still be able to say the amidah with the minyan, she should add the following sections in their correct place in the service, as time allows :- Hallelu Kel b'kodsho, Hallelu et Hashem min hashamayim, the rest of the Hallelukahs, Vayevarech David until Tifartecha, Hodu until V'hu Rachum, Mizmor Letodah, and the rest of Pesukay D'zimra.

On Shabbat, the weekday sections come first (as we have just listed them), [except that Nishmat is also obligatory], and then one adds Lamenatze'ach, LeDavid B'Shanoto, and Tefilla L'Moshe, if there is more time. Those parts of the service that were left out - including the morning brachot - should be recited after the service [note:- one is not allowed to say the blessings of Baruch She'amar and Yishtabach after shacharit - they may only be recited before one starts the blessings of the Shema].

By skipping over these parts of the service, one should hopefully be able to start the Amidah with the congregation. One should try and do this even if it means praying more quickly than one would normally like, as long as each word is pronounced correctly.

If this skipping over the parts of service does not allow one to start the Amidah with the community, one can rely on the opinions which hold that by saying the Amidah at the same time as the Chazan, it is considered as communal prayer. To do this, one should say all the words together with the chazan, including the words of the kedushah. One should be extra careful to keep pace with the chazan and to say Shome'a Tefillah (on a weekday), and Modim with him.

If one comes late to synagogue for the afternoon service, and they are about to start the Amidah, one should join them, and say Ashray after the end of the service. If one comes late for the evening service, and cannot catch up to the Amidah with the congregation, she should start the Amidah with them, and say the Shema, and the blessings , after the service.[1]

If One Is Unable To Catch Up.

The Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 109, discusses what to do when arriving late to the service, in order to be able to answer Kedusha, Kaddish, Modim etc. He rules, in general, that it is forbidden to begin the Amidah if one will not be able to finish in time to answer to Kedusha, or Amen after the blessing of Shome'ah Tefillah, or Kaddish, rather one must wait and pray after these responses (or pray with the chazan).

Perhaps, though, this law only applies to men who have an obligation to participate in the communal service, as opposed to women, who are not obligated in these sections of the service at all. See the Mishna Brurah (ibid, 4,5) from which it is apparent that a man who has fulfilled his obligation to hear these sections of the service (in another minyan), does not have to wait before beginning the Amidah. From this we may learn that a woman who is not obligated at all to hear these sections, also does not have to wait. It is also unclear whether this obligation applies to women in the women's section of the synagogue. See the Mishna Brurah (ibid 1) who writes that all of these laws only apply inside the synagogue, but not "B'azarah, chutz l'beit ha'knesset" in the enclosure outside the synagogue. Perhaps this includes the women's section.

Nonetheless, a woman who has started her Amidah and is still praying when the chazan reaches the Kedusha, should stop her prayers, and listen - without answering - to the chazan. There are two exceptions to this. Firstly, if she herself has just finished the blessing of Mechayai Ha'Maytim, she can say all of the kedusha with the chazan. Also, if she has recited the line "Yiyu LeRatzon..." at the end of the Amidah, even if she has not taken the three steps backwards, she may also recite the Kedusha.

She should also stop and listen to the line of Amen Yehay Shmay Rabah... in Kaddish; and to Barechu. She should also bow at Modim and Barechu, with the community, (unless she is at the very start or end of a blessing of the Amidah that we do not bow for), without though, saying the reponse itself.If the priestly blessing is recited, she should also wait and listen to it before completing her Amidah.

Catching Up During The Torah Reading.

The Magen Avraham, 282, 6, writes that from several sources it is apparent that women are obligated to hear the Torah reading. The Mishna Brurah (ibid 12) quotes this opinion and adds that "we are not accustomed to be careful to fulfill this" and quoting the final words of the Magen Avraham himself, concludes, "the opposite it true, that there are places where the women leave the synagogue."

Whilst it is almost universally accepted that women are not obligated in hearing the Torah reading (except perhaps for Parshat Zachor), there are those who understand the Magen Avraham to be obligating women who are already in synagogue to listen to the reading, and not to leave. [See Rav Henkin's B'nay Banim, (vol 2, 10).] Others add that even if it is not an obligation for women to hear the reading, it is a sign of disrespect to the Torah to leave the synagogue for the reading (See Ishay Yisrael 38,21 and footnote there). Because of these opinions, it would seem to me that a woman who comes to the synagogue late should not catch up during the reading. Starting to pray other prayers during the reading is at least as bad as (if not worse than) leaving the building.

Halichot Bat Yisrael (chapter 2, 30) writes that women are allowed to pray shacharit during the Torah reading. But a close examination of the source there reveals that this is only when if one listens to the reading the time for shacharit will pass. Otherwise, though, it would be better to listen to the reading. [See there in the name of Rav Elyashiv that it is proper for women to listen to the reading, and that the citations about women leaving the synagogue at that time were only when they did not understand the Torah portion.]

To catch up on one's prayers between the call-ups is allowable, as long as one is very careful to stop one's own praying when the next call-up begins, in order to answer amen to the blessing before the Torah reading (and after).

It would seem that one could catch-up their own davening during the reading of the Haftorah and its blessings.

Shacharit During Musaf.

The Mishna Brurah (90,30) rules that if one prays the shacharit amidah at the same time that the minyan says the musaf prayer, it is considered as prayer with the community. With this in mind, a woman who comes late to synagogue, may want to pray the shacharit amidah while the community is saying the Musaf silent amidah, and then say the musaf amidah together with the chazan, and in such a way merit to have two prayers with the community.

Someone who is doing this should ensure that the time for shacharit does not pass before they start Musaf. Also, one would have to start the complete shacharit service as soon as the Torah reading was over, in order that one reaches the Amidah together with the minyan's starting Musaf. (Or start during the sermon if there is one at that point of the service). If you are slightly ahead of the minyan, you can wait for the minyan to begin the Amidah, at the words "Shira Chadasha...".


If one arrives at synagogue in time for Hallel, one should say this with the community, rather than after one's own Amidah. But one must at least say the blessings over the Torah first. If one is in the middle of Pesukay D'zimra and Hallel begins, one should say Hallel with the minyan, but without the blessings at the start and end of Hallel (we rely instead on the blessings before and after Pesukei D'zimra itself). This is true, unless full Hallel is being said, in which case one can not say Hallel in the middle of Pesukei D'zimra because one would miss reciting the blessings (see Mishna Brurah 422, 16). Sephardim generally do not say Hallel in the middle of Pesukei D'zimra at all. If, though, one has already finished Pesukei D'zimra, and started Shacharit, one is not allowed to stop praying in order to say Hallel with the minyan.

Pre-empting The Congregation.

The Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 90,10, rules that one is not allowed to pre-empt the minyan, and begin saying the Amidah before they do. The exception to this is where the minyan is going to be praying after the acceptable halachic time. Whilst it may be argued that this law also does not apply in the women's section, this is not so clear. Many authorities rule that it is forbidden to start before the community even if one leaves the synagogue (see Aruch HaShulchan ibid, 14), all the more so in the women's section itself. Therefore, one should be careful not to start the Amidah earlier than the community. If one needs to, it would be preferable to leave the synagogue and pray at home if one is forced to pray early. In a case of great need one can pray earlier than the minyan even inside the synagogue (see Aruch HaShulchan ibid and Mishna Brurah 36).

Mincha On Erev Shabat.

After the minyan in the synagogue has accepted Shabat, by saying Mizmor Shir L'Yom HaShabat, it is forbidden for an individual to pray Mincha inside the synagogue. One should go outside and pray there. It would seem that this is true of the women's section also, and a woman who comes late to synagogue on Erev Shabat should make sure not to pray the weekday Amidah inside the synagogue where they have already accepted the Shabat.

Also connected to this topic is whether women can pray mincha after lighting candles. The Mishna Brurah (263, 43) rules that it is forbidden for a woman to pray mincha after accepting Shabat with candle lighting. Furthermore, he rules that she is not allowed to light on condition that she will not accept Shabat in order to allow her to pray after candle lighting. There are those who rule that she can make a condition to light without accepting Shabat, and pray mincha afterwards. And there are even opinions that allow women to pray mincha after candle-lighting even without making a condition (as opposed to doing any forbidden Shabat labours). (See Rav O. Yosef's Levi'at Chen where he rules leniently even for Ashkenazi women).

Rav C.P. Sheinberg told my wife that one should act in accordance with the Mishna Brurah's strict ruling even if she wants to pray with a minyan after candle-lighting.


The merit of praying together with the community is great. However, as with every mitzvah, it is important to enter into the mitzvah with a clear knowledge of the halachot involved, in order to be able to fulfill it properly. May we merit that our synagogues be filled with holiness and reverence, and that the prayers of all Israel be speedily answered.

[1]I have seen written in the work Halichot Shlomo, in the name of Rav Shlomo Zalman Orbach zt"l, (Chapter 5, footnote to para. 2) that "a woman should not skip over any of the order of the prayer service in order to pray with the community, because she has no law of communal prayer at all." It is unclear to me what is meant by the phrase "she has no law of communal prayer at all". Does it mean that she has no obligation to pray with the community (and so she should not skip parts of the service to join the minyan), or that even when praying at the time and place of the minyan, she does not benefit from communal prayer ?

If the former, then the sources quoted there, (the Shvut Ya'akov and the T'shuvah Me'Ahava), do not support this idea, as they merely state that a woman is not obligated in communal prayer. If however she chooses to pray with the community, why should she not skip parts of the service inorder to do so ? Perhaps, one might say that she should not skip the obligatory service in order to participate in non-obligatory communal prayer. However, as many opinions hold that Pesukei D'zimra is not obligatory for women {see "Women's Prayer When Time Is Short", sent out several months ago}, it would seem to me that it is perfectly valid to skip parts of the service in order to join the minyan in saying the Amidah.

If however what is meant is that women do not benefit at all from communal prayer, it is not at all clear that this is the case. See Rav David Bleich's Contemporary Halachic Issues Vol. 3, where he states "If she chooses to pray privately she is in no way remiss; but if she does pray with a minyan she enjoys the kiyum (fulfillment) of tefillah b'tzibbur (communal prayer)." He brings as a proof to this the Meiri in Rosh HaShana 28a where he says that "our women, who pray in a synagogue separate unto themselves do not share in communal prayer". From this one can infer that women who do not pray in a synagogue separate unto themselves, but together with the main minyan, such as in our synagogue buildings today, where the women's section is in the same building as the main sanctuary, they do benefit from communal prayer. Another proof he cites is the Midrash we quoted above, where Rav Chalaftah told the woman not to come to the synagogue for three days, which caused her demise. From this it is evident that it was the communal aspect of her prayers she benefited from, and not the prayers themselves, for these she was not told to refrain from (nor could she refrain from them, as they are obligatory).
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