Adapted from deracheha.org by Deracheha: Women and Mitzvot
May a woman perform mitzvot voluntarily?
The test case is semicha, leaning on a sacrifice, a ritual from which women are exempt.
- According to Rabbi Yehuda, women may not perform it. Voluntary performance is prohibited as a matter of “bal tosif,” the prohibition of adding on extra obligations to the commandments.
- Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Shimon permit it, because there is independent halachic value to providing women with gratification, nachat ruach shel nashim.
Halacha follows Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Shimon’s view.
What is the halachic meaning of voluntary performance?
Though one who is not commanded cannot recreate the “command” element of a mitzva, he or she may still fulfill a mitzva act. Some medieval authorities even characterize women’s voluntary performance as a mitzva.
VOLUNTARY MITZVA PERFORMANCE
Is it permissible to perform a mitzva in which one hasn’t been commanded?
Our sages debate the permissibility of women’s voluntary mitzva performance in the context of their discussion of semicha, leaning on a sacrifice.
ויקרא א:ב,ד דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם אָדָם כִּי-יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן לַה’. … וְסָמַךְ יָדוֹ, עַל רֹאשׁ הָעֹלָה; וְנִרְצָה לוֹ, לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו.
Vayikra 1:2,4 Speak to benei (lit. children of or sons of) Yisrael and say to them: A person from amongst you when he brings a sacrifice to God… and he shall lean his hand on the head of the burnt offering and it will be accepted for him, to atone for him.
At the time of the Beit Ha-mikdash, a person bringing a sacrifice would lean his hands on the animal’s head just before it was slaughtered. This created a personal, physical connection between the person bringing the sacrifice and the sacrificial animal.
Women are exempt from semicha based on a midrashic understanding of the above-cited verses. The Talmud cites the midrash, which also debates whether women may perform semicha voluntarily.
ראש השנה לג. “דבר אל בני ישראל” בני ישראל סומכין ואין בנות ישראל סומכות דברי רבי יהודה רבי יוסי ורבי שמעון אומרים נשים סומכות רשות
Rosh Ha-shana 33a “Speak to benei Yisrael” – The sons of Israel lean and the daughters of Israel do not lean; these are the words of Rabbi Yehuda. Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Shimon say: Women lean [as a matter of] reshut (permission).
The midrash halacha deduces from the use of the term “benei Yisrael” that benot Yisrael, daughters of Israel, i.e. women, are not fully included in the command. According to Rabbi Yehuda, women may not lean on a sacrifice at all. Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Shimon agree that women are not obligated in semicha, but maintain that women may lean voluntarily. (We explore their viewpoint below.)
Semicha is a positive commandment that is not time-bound. However, the Talmud links the debate over semicha to the discussion of women’s blowing shofar – a positive, time-bound commandment from which women are exempt – making the ruling on semicha relevant to positive time-bound commandments.
Rabbi Yehuda’s View
Rashi and Tosafot present two very different explanations of Rabbi Yehuda’s view:
- Rashi’s Explanation: Rashi explains that Rabbi Yehuda prohibits women from leaning on a sacrifice or blowing shofar because he thinks that a woman who performs these acts violates the prohibition of “bal tosif,” adding to the commandments.
רש”י ראש השנה לג. ד”ה הא נשים דפטורות לגמרי דמצות עשה שהזמן גרמא הוא וכי תקעי איכא בל תוסיף :
Rashi Rosh Ha-shana 33a s.v. Ha-nashim For they are completely exempt [from shofar] because it is a positive time-bound mitzva and when they blow there is [a violation of] bal tosif [adding to the mitzvot].
Typically, bal tosif refers to adding quantitatively to a mitzva, for example, by sitting in the sukka for an additional day or attaching an extra compartment to tefillin. However, Rashi suggests here that bal tosif might also refer to performing an act that is not obligatory, while treating it as if it is.
- Tosafot’s Explanation: Tosafot present a different understanding of Rabbi Yehuda’s position. On their reading, Rabbi Yehuda usually permits women to perform mitzvot voluntarily, even when exempted. He prohibits women’s leaning on sacrifices and blowing the shofar for other reasons.
עירובין צו. תוד”ה מיכל .. למאן דלית ליה רשות לאו משום דמיחזי מוסיף אלא משום דתקיעה מלאכה דרבנן היא …וסמיכה אפי’ בהקפת יד מיחזי כעבודה בקדשים.
Tosafot Eiruvin 96a s.v. Michal …According to one who doesn’t hold that women have permission [to perform mitzvot from which exempted voluntarily], it is not because it gives the appearance of adding on [to the mitzvot]. Rather because blowing [shofar] is a rabbinically prohibited labor [on the festival] and semicha, even with mere resting of the hand [on the animal], gives the appearance of [a violation of the prohibition of] avoda she-bekodeshim [labor with sanctified animals].
Tosafot explain that a person who leans on a sanctified animal when not required to do so appears to be doing avoda she-bekodeshim, labor with sanctified animals. Avoda she-bekodeshim is prohibited on a Torah level, and appearing to do it is rabbinically prohibited. Rabbi Yehuda would similarly prohibit women from blowing shofar, because there is a rabbinic-level prohibition on blowing shofar on a festival when not commanded.7
According to Tosafot, unless there is a specific reason to prohibit a woman’s voluntarily performing a particular mitzva, Rabbi Yehuda permits it.8 That does not tell us whether or not Rabbi Yehuda sees any value in the act.
Rabbi Yosei’s and Rabbi Shimon’s View
The halachic consensus is to follow Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Shimon’s position over Rabbi Yehuda’s. Their position also appears in a parallel midrash halacha, alongside a related anecdote:
ספרא דבורא דנדבה פרק ב פרשה ב:ב רבי יוסי ורבי שמעון אומרי’: הנשים סומכות רשות. אמר רבי יוסי: אמר לי אבא אלעזר: היה לנו עגל זבחי שלמים, והוצאנוהו לעזרת הנשים, וסמכו עליו הנשים. לא מפני שהסמיכה בנשים – אלא מפני נחת רוח של נשים.
Sifra, Dibura De-Nedava II 2:2 (cf. Chagiga 16b) Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Shimon say: Women lean [as a matter of] reshut. Rabbi Yosei said: Abba Elazar said to me: We had a calf for a peace offering, and we brought it out to the women’s area, and the women leaned on it. Not because leaning is [the law] with women, but rather because of nachat ru’ach shel nashim [women’s gratification].
Apparently, women in the Temple wanted to perform semicha, even though they were exempt from it. Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Shimon maintain that women’s gratification, nachat ru’ach shel nashim, has independent value. If we assume that they, too, might have been concerned about the appearance of performing avodah shebekodeshim when leaning on animals voluntarily, we can learn here that nachat ru’ach shel nashim supersedes that rabbinic prohibition. On this view, Halacha takes women’s feelings into account.
What is the halachic meaning of voluntary performance?
As we have seen, Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Shimon permit a woman to perform semicha as a matter of reshut, permission. There are two main ways in which to understand reshut here (and in general).
- The voluntary act has little or no objective halachic value. Here, we would say that a woman receives personal emotional satisfaction, but her action is not a direct fulfillment of God’s will.
- The voluntary act has objective halachic value. There are two major elements to a mitzva: the command and the mitzva act. Although the command element of the mitzva cannot be recreated, the mitzva act still has meaning as a fulfillment of God’s will.This is sometimes called reshut de-mitzva.
Rav Yitzchak Ha-levi, one of Rashi’s teachers, characterizes a woman’s voluntary performance of mitzvot as ‘bringing herself into the yoke of the mitzva.’ This phrasing suggests that voluntary performance is a mitzva act. At the same time, he holds that the act is fully optional.
מחזור ויטרי סימן שנט כן הורה ר’ יצחק הלוי [דאינן] חייבות ואינן צריכות. אבל אם חפיצות להביא עצמם בעול המצוה הרשות בידה…דמקיימת מצוה היא.
Machzor Vitri 359 So ruled Rav Yitzchak Ha-levi, that they are not obligated and don’t need [to perform positive time-bound mitzvot]. But if they desire to bring themselves into the yoke of mitzva the permission is in her hand… for she is one who fulfills a mitzva.
Rav Yitzchak thus calls a woman who undertakes voluntary performance a “mekayyemet mitzva,” one who fulfills a mitzva.
Ramban uses an even stronger formulation to describe a woman’s performance of positive time-bound mitzvot:
חידושי הרמב”ן מסכת קידושין דף לא עמוד א דרשות דמצוה הוא, והקב”ה צוה במצוה זו לאנשים חובה, לנשים רשות
Chiddushei Ha-Ramban to Kiddushin 31a For it is reshut de-mitzva, and God commanded this mitzva to men as an obligation, to women as optional.
According to Ramban, a woman is commanded in the mitzva. It’s just that men receive the mitzva as an obligatory act to pursue, while women receive it as an optional act to fulfill.
The view that a woman’s voluntary mitzva performance has halachic value, and may even itself be considered fulfillment of a mitzva, predominates.13 Ra’avya (Ashkenaz, 12th century) directly calls a woman’s voluntary mitzva performance a mitzva.
ראבי”ה חלק ב – מסכת סוכה סימן תרמ דנהי שגדול המצווה ועושה ממי שאינו מצווה, מכל מקום מצוה הוי:
Ra’avya II Sukka 640 For albeit one who is commanded and performs [a mitzvah] is greater than one who [performs but] is not commanded, in any case it is a mitzva.
Halacha generally permits a woman to perform mitzvot from which she is exempt – and recognizes these acts as halachically meaningful.
Click here to learn more about voluntary mitzva performance. What makes it valuable? Can customary performance become obligatory? And how should someone decide whether to voluntarily perform certain mitzvot? Read the full article to see the sources and further analysis at https://www.deracheha.org/voluntary-mitzva-performance/