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Women, Precepts, and Perimeters

As a rule, women are obligated to observe the commandments of the Torah just like men, with the exception of positive time-bound precepts. Yet, if a woman wishes to voluntarily perform a positive time-bound commandment, she receives merit for this.
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1. Are Women Permitted to Bless Over Time-bound Commandments?
2. Mussaf and Hallel
3. The Torah Reading

As a rule, women are obligated to observe the commandments of the Torah just like men, with the exception of positive time-bound precepts, as the sages say in the Mishnah (Kiddushin 29a): "Regarding all positive time-bound precepts - men are obligated and women are exempt."

These are the positive time-bound commandments from which women are exempt: 1) the reading of the evening Shema and the reading of the morning Shema (this includes the obligation to recall the Exodus from Egypt), 2) the wearing of head- and arm-Tefillin, c) Tzitzit, d) Sukkah, e) Lulav, f) Shofar, g) the counting of the Omer.

There are positive time-bound commandments regarding which the Torah teaches that women are obligated: 1) eating Matzah on Passover (Pesachim 43b), 2) rejoicing on festivals (ibid. 109a), 3) Kiddush on Sabbath (Berakhot 20b), 4) additional fasting ("tosefet inui") on Yom Kippur (Sukkah 29b).

According to most authorities, women are also exempt from rabbinic time-bound commandments, for all enactments made by the sages were made to be like the laws of the Torah itself. Accordingly, women are exempt from reciting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh. However, some authorities are of the opinion that women are in fact bound by rabbinic time-bound commandments.

But all authorities hold that when it comes to those commandments which the sages enacted because of a miracle, they obligated the women as well, for they too were in that very miracle. These commandments are: 1) the four cups of wine on Seder Night, 2) hearing the reading of the Scroll of Ester, 3) lighting candles on Hanuka.

However, regarding all other commandments, there is no difference between men and women, as explained in the continuation of the Mishnah (Kiddushin 29a): "Regarding all positive precepts that are not time-bound - both men and women are obligated."

The sages further teach that "regarding all negative commandments, whether they be time-bound or not - both men and women are obligated" (ibid.).

For example, women are obligated like men to observe the prohibition against leaven on Passover, and eating and drinking on Yom Kippur. And despite the fact that they are time-bound commandments, women are obligated to uphold them like men because they are negative commandments.

And there are a number of negative commandments which apply to men alone: not to cut off the hair on the sides of the head and not to shave off the edges of one's beard with a razor (Leviticus 19:28), and the prohibition against male priests becoming defiled by the dead (Kiddushin 29a).

In what follows we shall endeavor to explain the reason for the difference between men and women when it comes to positive time-bound commandments.

Are Women Permitted to Bless Over Time-bound Commandments?
If a woman wishes to voluntarily perform a positive time-bound commandment she receives merit for this, yet not like that which a man receives. In the words of Rabbi Chanina: "Greater is one who is commanded and performs than one who is not commanded and performs" (Kiddushin 31a). And Ritba explains that the reason for this is that a person who is commanded to carry out a precept is denounced by the negative forces and the evil inclination exerts itself more to disturb him. Therefore, such a person's merit is greater, for, in the words of the Sages, "in accordance with one's suffering comes one's merit (Avot 5:23).

But early halakhic authorities are at odds as to whether or not women are permitted to bless over the performance of positive time-bound commandments. According to Rambam and a number of other early authorities, it is forbidden for women to bless over the performance of such commandments, for when we bless we say "Who has sanctified us in His commandments and commanded us," and how can a woman say "and commanded us" when she has not been commanded; this would constitute a blessing in vain. Shulchan Arukh rules in the same manner (Orach Chaim 589), and this is the practice followed by most Jews of Sephardic descent.

However, according to Rabbenu Tam and the majority of the early authorities, women are permitted to bless over positive time-bound commandments, for these commandments relate to some degree to women as well, after all, the fact of the matter is that they receive merit for performing them. And there is no need to be concerned regarding the wording of the blessing, for we do not say "and commanded me" but "and commanded us," i.e., the Jewish people as a whole. Women, being part of the Jewish people as a whole, may therefore praise and thank God regarding the sanctity with which He has sanctified Israel as expressed in this commandment. Rema rules in the same manner and this is the practice of all Jews of Ashkenazi descent.

However, when it comes to time-bound blessings of praise and thanks which do not contain the expression "and commanded us," like the blessing over Pesukei D'Zimra and the blessings over the Shema reading, Sephardic women can also recite them, and by doing this they are credited with fulfilling a commandment.

There are those who say that, according to Sephardic custom, because women are exempt from reciting these verses, they are not permitted to recite the blessings over them, and therefore in schools in which both Ashkenazi and Sephardi girls study, the teachers must instruct the Sephardi girls not to recite the blessings over Pesukei D'Zimra and the Shema (Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef).

However, the fact of the matter is that most authorities rule that even according to Sephardic tradition it is permissible for women to bless over Pesukei D'Zimra, and one who does this fulfills a commandment, for these are blessings of praise and thanks, and this is the predominant practice. Therefore, teachers do not have to instruct their Sephardic students to practice any differently than the Ashkenazi students, especially in light of the fact that this can cause confusion in the classroom.

Mussaf and Hallel
It is a Torah commandment to offer additional communal sacrifices on special days in honor of the sanctity of these days; these offerings are called "Mussafim." Corresponding to these Mussaf sacrifices the sages instituted the Mussaf prayer on these days. These are the days: Sabbaths, New Moons, Holidays (Yamim Tovim), and the intermediate days of the holidays (Chol HaMoed).

Torah authorities disagree as to whether or not women are obligated to pray Mussaf. There are those who say that since in Mussaf we also ask for mercy, it is akin to all other obligatory prayers, regarding which Ramban says that women are obligated. In addition, because they were instituted due to the sanctity of the day, just as women are obligated to recite Kiddush on Sabbath so must they pray Mussaf (Magen Giborim). On the other hand, there are those who hold that since the Mussaf prayer is time bound, women are exempt from it.

In practice, because it is a rabbinic commandment, the law follows the lenient opinion and there is no obligation for women to pray Mussaf. Yet, if a woman wants to pray Mussaf she is permitted to do so and she receives merit for this. And on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur it is appropriate for every woman to pray Mussaf, for the primary request for mercy during the Days of Awe is in the Mussaf prayer.

The sages made an enactment for men to recite the Hallel prayer of thanks on Holidays and Hanuka and the custom is also to say Hallel on New Moons, and since Hallel is time-bound in nature women are exempt from it. Yet, a woman who wishes to recite Hallel receives a blessing for this. But, as we have learned, according to Sephardic tradition she does not recite a blessing over Hallel, while according to Ashkenazi tradition she is permitted to bless over Hallel.

The Torah Reading
According to all opinions women are exempt from hearing the reading of the Torah on the weekdays and on holidays. However, according to Magen Avraham (282:6), women are obligated to hear the Torah reading on the Sabbath, for the sages enacted that women must hear the entire Torah every year. However, according to the great majority of authorities, women are exempt from hearing the reading of the Torah because this is a time-bound commandment. And this is the accepted law. However, a woman who is capable should hear the Torah reading on the Sabbath, for, according to all opinions, even though she is exempt, if she hears it she will be fulfilling a commandment, and she receives merit for this.

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