“The Sages did not protest against her behavior, as she was permitted to do so.”
One of the most profound memories I have of my paternal grandfather was how he would wrap himself with his phylacteries each morning. It seemed like a strange and mysterious ritual to me and not one that I ever remembered my father performing. My paternal grandparents were immigrants from Lithuania and deeply religious and their life seemed somehow disconnected from the suburban New Jersey home I grew up in. If my father had a ritual of his own, it was associated with cheering on his beloved Philadelphia sports teams.
As a young girl, I had very little interest in discovering the mystery behind my grandfather’s tefillin. First, it seemed ancient and unknowable to me. And I had no role model for a woman’s deep display of devotion that the black box and strap represented. There has been a long of discussion over the last few days of Daf Yomi readings on whether it is permissible to don the tefillin on Shabbat or during the day or night, or how to best rescue a pair that are found abandoned; today the discussion turns to whether a woman can don the black box on her forehead.
We are told that Michal, daughter of King Saul, would don phylacteries and perhaps because of her privileged position “the Sages did not protest against her behavior, as she was permitted to do so.” We are presented with another woman who seemed to break through permissible boundaries and told that the wife of Jonah would “undertake the Festival pilgrimage” without a peep of protest from the sages. The name of Jonah’s wife, like so many women in the Talmud, is not mentioned in the text.
We first learned that women are not obligated by timebound mitzvas in Tractate Berakhot. We are told today that since there is evidence that women donned phylacteries, their adornment are not bound by time. We are told that in the case of placing one’s hands on a sacrificial animal, along with other obligations like donning tefillin and festival obligations, women may perform the rites if they wish. The text tells us that “women may perform other mitzvot that they have no obligation to fulfill.” We are even told that a woman may don “phylacteries and walk into the town.”
Of course, of course, this somewhat liberal perspective is challenged by the voice of the Gemara which tells us that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda do not allow for the option of women performing time-bound positive mitzvahs. A passage is quoted from Leviticus to support this position: “Speak to the sons of Israel…and he shall place his hands on the head of the burnt-offering.” We are told by inference, “the sons of Israel place their hands, but the daughters of Israel do not place their hands.” Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Shimon continue to support the right of women to opt in if they want and to “place their hands.”
There are so few women in the Talmud, and even fewer who are named. The ones that are named like Yalta, who refused to be shunned from the table of her husband, and Michal who wrapped herself in tefillin, were bold enough to turn tradition on its head. We have come a long way with the role model of female senior Rabbis in some of the great reform synagogues in the world who don phylacteries and carry out rituals that were once only the domain of men.
When I originally read in Tractate Berakhot that women were not obligated by time-bound mitzvahs I was irritated that there was less expected of women. Certainly, they are as capable as men of keeping their religious commitments and wrapping themselves with tefillin during morning prayer, if they are inclined. I have changed my stance somewhat since the start of this commitment to read the Talmud ten months ago.
The Talmud and the great tradition of Jewish learning had been previously denied to women. But through study groups and online forums women are claiming the Talmud and making it their own. They are not time-bound to study, but do so with much passion and perseverance. This is more profound from my secular sensibility than any time-bound commitment.