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Women and Talmud Torah

Adapted from聽

What is the mitzva of learning Torah? Does it apply to women? What Torah does a woman聽have聽to learn? How and why did text study open up to women? What texts should women study, why, and how?

What is the mitzva of聽talmud Torah?

The formal mitzva of learning Torah is only one element of the broader concept of聽talmud Torah. At minimum, the mitzva entails studying a few passages of Written and Oral Torah each day. At maximum, it is all-encompassing.

Where does the mitzva come from?

The Torah: 鈥淎nd you will teach them [words of Torah to] your children [beneichem]鈥 (Devarim聽11:19).

Why are women exempt?

The聽midrash聽on this verse reads the word 鈥beneichem鈥 as 鈥測our sons,鈥 to the exclusion of daughters, meaning that a parent has no Torah-level obligation to teach daughters Torah. The Talmud quotes the midrash and concludes that, since a female need not be taught Torah, she is not obligated in the Torah-level mitzva to teach or learn it.

Does the exemption exclude women from talmud Torah?

No. The broader concept of聽talmud Torah聽still applies to women. Women have an exemption specifically from the obligation of formal Torah study.

Where does exemption from the mitzva of聽talmud Torah聽leave women?

The聽Mishna聽presents two rabbinic perspectives on women鈥檚 Torah study,聽Ben Azzai鈥檚 and Rabbi Eliezer鈥檚.

  • Ben Azzai says a father has an obligation to teach his daughter Torah, and that her Torah study can be beneficial.

  • Rabbi Eliezer strongly disagrees. He likens a father teaching his daughter Torah to teaching her聽tiflut聽(lewdness, or nonsense). It鈥檚 hard to know exactly what Rabbi Eliezer means by this and why he says it. But it is clear that he is not in favor of women learning Torah.

Rabbi Eliezer鈥檚 position becomes widely accepted as halacha.

If a woman can鈥檛 learn Torah, how is she supposed to know how to observe Halacha?

Presumably even Rabbi Eliezer never meant to exclude women from Torah study for the purpose of learning practical Halacha. Even if he was opposed to text study, he would have at least supported women鈥檚 Torah study through informal cultural transmission.

Is learning Torah exclusively through informal cultural transmission enough, or should everyone have access to texts?

Early halachic authorities disagree on this question. As early as the thirteenth century,聽Rav Yitzchak of Corbeil聽addresses his mitzva compendium to women and men.

What position does Rambam take on women鈥檚 Torah study?

Rambam codifies聽Rabbi Eliezer鈥檚 position, that a father is not supposed to teach his daughter Torah. But Rambam leaves room for women鈥檚 Torah study in a number of ways:

  • Rambam limits the restriction to Oral Torah. That allows for women to learn Written Torah.

  • His choice of language may indicate that there is no clear prohibition even on women learning Oral Torah.

  • The restrictions on teaching a female may apply only to a father teaching his daughter.

  • His concerns about women鈥檚聽talmud Torah聽do聽not seem to apply to a woman learning on her own. Women鈥檚 independent study is praiseworthy.

  • Rambam does not deny that women have the capacity to pursue Torah study properly. Women聽have聽to in order to achieve the highest levels of faith.

What other openings develop?

In the nineteenth century,聽Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch聽establishes a day school for girls. He writes that formal education is an extension of the informal study women have always engaged in.

What is the modern turning point in women鈥檚 Torah study?

In 1917,聽Sarah聽Schenirer observes educated women moving away from religious life. She perceives that their souls 鈥榟unger for Torah.鈥 Inspired by Rav Hirsch鈥檚 educational approach, she聽founds the Bais Yaakov network of girls鈥 schools.

What support does Bais Yaakov receive and why?

Chafetz Chayim聽supports Bais Yaakov. He argues that historical shifts away from traditional communities and toward textual transmission of Jewish tradition mean that learning through imitation can no longer meet women鈥檚 educational needs. Rabbi Eliezer鈥檚 reservations no longer apply. Women now聽must聽turn to texts to learn Torah.

What happens once聽Chafetz Chayim聽gives his approbation to聽Bais Yaakov?

Calls to restrict access to Written Torah and its commentaries never regain traction.Teaching Oral Torah to women remains contentious, though, because of different understandings of how much has the world changed and what Torah women need in light of that change.

What are the opinions on Oral Torah for women?

Opinions range from limited approbation (e.g.,聽Rav Moshe Feinstein), to saying there is no halachic constraint (e.g.,聽Rav Mordechai Eliyahu), to considering it an imperative (e.g.,聽Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik).

Is there common ground among the different opinions?

Yes, widespread acknowledgement that:

  • Women have a portion in Torah and textual access to that portion must expand from what it was historically.

  • Nowadays, if someone聽doesn鈥檛聽learn Torah, chances are that that will lead to聽frivolity.

  • The halachic justification for women to study independently goes back long before Bais Yaakov, so any debate should center more around school policy than individuals.

What do supporters of women learning Oral Torah advocate?

  • Rav Soloveitchik advocated teaching girls Torah just as we teach boys.

  • Rav Aharon Lichtenstein聽was less certain of pressing all women to learn聽Talmud聽intensively, but believed that we must teach women all areas of Torah seriously and well, out of respect for Torah and out of respect for women.

  • The聽Lubavitcher Rebbe,聽Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson, agreed that women must learn Written and Oral Torah, and added that women鈥檚 learning is a positive sign of approaching redemption.

What is the goal of women鈥檚 Torah study?

Anyone鈥檚 study of Torah should contribute to halachic observance, building moral character, and faith. Engagement with Torah can be transformative, enhancing the聽avodat Hashem聽of the individual and community.

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