Is there a problem with women touching, handling and carrying the Sefer Torah?

October 26, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the Rabbi…

Rabbi Raymond Apple

ECLIPSES

Q. Is there a Jewish view on eclipses? A Chinese colleague heard that Jews regard an eclipse as a good thing whereas the Chinese believe it is caused by the “sky dog” eating up the sun and so is a bad thing.

A. The sun was a subject of absorbing interest for every ancient culture.

According to B’reshit, sun and moon were created on the fourth day (Gen. 1:16), but as the sun was larger it was regarded as more powerful.

The sages said that originally both were the same size but when the moon complained about this its size was reduced (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 6).

The rising and setting of the sun had poetical significance; the sun was regarded as having a habitation from which it emerged in the morning like a groom coming out of the bridal chamber (Ps. 19:5).

The sun brought benefit to the earth (Deut. 33:14), its permanence symbolised lasting fame (Ps. 72:17), and its “wings” brought healing (Mal. 3:20).

Twice in the T’nach the sun “stood still”, in the time of Joshua (Josh. 10:12) and Hezekiah (II Kings 20:8), but it is not at all certain that this was an eclipse.

A verse in Jeremiah (10:2), “Learn not the way of the nations; be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the heathen are dismayed at them”, is understood by the rabbis as referring to eclipses, which other nations regard as evil omens whilst Judaism sees them as part of the Divine system (Sukk. 29a).

FASTS IN MAR-CHESHVAN & IYYAR

Q. Why do some people fast on the first Monday, Thursday and Monday of Mar-Cheshvan?

A. The same practice is followed on the first Monday, Thursday and Monday of Iyyar.

Whilst not of very ancient origin, these fasts follow Pesach and Sukkot to seek forgiveness for any excesses of eating, drinking and levity on the Yom-Tov.

The Midrash says that Job was concerned that his sons may have overdone their feasting and he told them to fast as a means of atonement.

Not many people keep these fasts, though at some stage a pious custom developed of a pious fast every Monday and Thursday, which led to the popular saying about people with predictable habits doing things “alle Montag und Donnerstag”.

Monday and Thursday were chosen because these were market days when the Beth Din had court sessions, and there was a belief that the heavenly court sat then too.

WOMEN & THE TORAH

Q. Is there a problem with women touching, handling and carrying the Sefer Torah?

A. There are two major aspects of the issue:

1. Does the fact that it is untraditional for women to handle the Torah scroll mean that it is forbidden?

2. Is the problem caused by the possibility that a woman may be “niddah” (menstruating)?

The Talmud states, “Words of Torah are not susceptible to ‘tumah’ (ritual impurity)” (Ber. 22a).

Maimonides says, “All who are ‘tameh’ (ritually impure) and even ‘niddot’… may hold the scroll of the Torah and even read from it, because the words of Torah are not susceptible to ‘tumah’. All this is permissible with the proviso that one’s hands should not be unclean…, in which case they should wash their hands and afterwards touch it” (Hilchot Sefer Torah 10:8).

Rabbi Moshe Isserles in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch says that though the essential law is that it is permissible, there is a stringent view that disagrees in the case of a “niddah”, but even then there is no objection on High Holydays (Orach Chayyim 88:1).

Rashi and others confirm that it is a mere stringency for menstruant women to refrain from touching the Torah. Provided one’s hands are clean there is no basic reason for a woman not to touch the Torah.

Women’s piety is frequently attested in rabbinic sources to be deeper and more innate than that of the men.

From the time of Sarah, who brought other women to belief in God, through Miriam, who led the women in praise at the Red Sea, to the “tzov’ot” who gathered at the entrance of the Tabernacle (Ex. 38:8), and throughout Jewish history, the record of Jewish women’s spirituality is unquestioned.

Indeed, though the law exempted women from certain commandments, many of these commandments were voluntarily assumed by women and are today performed by them as a matter of course.

There were many centuries in which women were expected to play a behind-the-scenes role. But now we have a new world, a new situation, and indeed a new type of woman who is educated not only in secular subjects but in Judaism.

It is no longer enough to resort to old slogans and stereotypes and exclude women from a say in Judaism. It insults them, belittles their spirituality, damages the credibility of orthodox Judaism, and is not halachically necessary in any case.

Yes, there are and will remain limitations on the roles women can play in public worship, but those who wish to kiss the Torah or carry it on Simchat Torah should not be brushed aside.

Some women do not ask for these things: but others do, and their right to show their love for Torah and Judaism should be encouraged.

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.

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