Is it permitted for women to wear tallit and tefillin?

April 6, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Between the lunar and solar calendars, there is a difference of 11+ days.

The gap needs to be bridged if Pesach is to fall in the spring as required by the law of the Torah (Ex. 23:15 etc.). Hence 7 times in 19 years an extra month is added to the Jewish calendar. If it appears that Pesach will be coming early, the extra month acts as a corrective.

At an early period, this was arranged on a pragmatic basis. It would not always be known in advance that the extra month would be added. Hence the Mishnah (M’gillah 1:4) informs us, “If they had read the Megillah in the first Adar and then a leap year was proclaimed, they read it again in the second Adar”.

When the authorities decided that the new moon of Nisan had arrived, messages were sent out through the Jewish world.

When Christianity emerged, both Jews and Christians found themselves waiting for this announcement. The Jews now counted 15 days and observed Pesach; the Christians counted 15 days and observed Easter.

However, Christian reliance on the Jewish authorities came to an end in the early 4th century when the Roman Empire became Christian. The emperor Constantine determined to break the link between Pesach and Easter and determined that Easter observances were to commence on a Friday regardless of Pesach.

Not all Christian groups accepted his edict and the emperor now prohibited the long-entrenched Jewish practice of announcing a new moon.

The Jewish calendar now lost a traditional ceremony but Hillel II ensured that there would never be a doubt as to Rosh Chodesh by proclaiming the intricate calendrical rules which govern the Jewish year.

The Jewish people continued to announce each month (other than Tishri) after consulting the fixed calendar.

(Why no announcement was made of Tishri is that in days when eyewitness testimony of the new moon led to the sending of messages, Tishri presented a problem. As the only month which had a festival, Rosh HaShanah, on Rosh Chodesh itself, the sending out of messages would conflict with the laws of Yom-tov and in any case the messages would probably not arrive in time for most communities to observe the festival.)


Q. Is it permitted for women to wear tallit and tefillin?

A. There is a principle that in general women are exempt from time-bound positive commandments (“thou shalts”), but there are a number of exceptions.

Time-bound positive commandments which are intrinsically linked to negative commands, such as Kiddush on Shabbat, which is linked to the prohibition of work on Shabbat, are obligatory on women.

Time-bound positive commands which celebrate events in which the whole community was involved, such as hearing the Megillah on Purim, are likewise obligatory on women.

There are also commands which women have chosen to observe out of piety, such as hearing the shofar.

May they opt to observe the mitzvot of tzitzit and tefillin? (I know your question mentions the tallit which is worn during prayer, but the crucial element of the tallit is the fringes – tzitzit – which are worn on four-cornered garments throughout the day).

The “time-bound commandments” issue is still the major consideration.

Let us first look at tzitzit:

• The Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chayyim 17) makes a distinction between tzitzit and the other time-bound commandments of shofar and lulav. The latter are limited to a few minutes of the year whilst tzitzit is carried out daily.

• Men created a four-cornered garment which is worn constantly so as not to limit the mitzvah of tzitzit to the tallit.

• Rav Moshe Feinstein allows women to have tzitzit on any four-cornered garment, so long as they do so out of genuine piety and not in order to make a statement. To avoid the problem of women wearing a men’s garment, Rav Feinstein speaks of women not putting tzitzit on exactly the same type of garment as that which men wear.

The second part of the question deals with tefillin.

Rabbinic authorities do not permit them to women. Tefillin go directly on the body and there is a problem of bodily cleanliness at certain times; women have a different bodily regime than men.

But as men too cannot guarantee bodily cleanliness, they usually keep the tefillin on for a limited time (during morning prayers) and not all day, though some exceptionally pious men do wear tefillin for extended periods.

The Talmud (Eruv. 96a) says that King Saul’s daughter Michal wore tefillin and the sages did not object, but she was an exception and we do not derive anything from her example.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.


One Response to “Is it permitted for women to wear tallit and tefillin?”
  1. Liat Kirby says:

    Thank you for your sincere attempt to discuss the issue of whether or not women may wear Tallit and Tefillin, Rabbi Apple. It seems to me there are various opinions and/or decisions (sometimes rather muddled); as well as the Rabbinic authorities not permitting tefillin to women due to a perceived problem with ‘cleanliness’ (we all know what that means).

    In the 21st century it won’t do for men to make these kinds of decisions, using these kinds of excuses. ‘Time-bound commandments’ and commitments can be used as an excuse to deny women a fuller role in practising Judaism. A woman is smart enough to know if she has the time to commit to something, or maybe she simply wants to make the time to do so. After all, she is expected to make the time to do what amounts to an enormous workload, both caring for family and often working outside domesticity to earn money, and Rabbinic authorities don’t object to that.

    Is there anything specific in the actual Torah relating to all this?
    What are the lines or passages in the Torah that these interpretations come from?

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