Tefillin 101 – Week Three

Tefillin 101 – Week Three
A ‘Crash’ Course on Tefillin for the World Wide Wrap
Sunday, February 12, 2023 

Prepared by Rabbi Ellen S. Wolintz-Fields,
Executive Director, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism

FJMC members and affiliated synagogue Men’s Club members can register here.

Learn more about Tefillin 101 by reading Executive Director Rabbi Ellen S. Wolintz-Fields’ updated guide to wrapping here!

Note from Rabbi Ellen S. Wolintz-Fields: As I prepare my weekly Tefillin 101 lessons for the five weeks before the World Wide Wrap, I have been reminding myself, and also want to remind everyone, that these are not the conclusive lessons on Tefillin, or the conclusive lessons on women and mitzvot. I have attempted to limit my focus, so that, in the five lessons leading up to the World Wide Wrap, readers will learn about Tefillin and, specifically, about women and Tefillin. There is still much to learn, and many varying opinions. I hope these lessons whet your appetite to learn more, and to embrace the mitzvah of tefillin.

1 – Is Tefillin considered a positive time-bound commandment?

Tefillin is considered a positive time-bound commandment, because tefillin are not worn at night and are not worn on Shabbat and Festivals.

2- Traditionally, are women obligated to the mitzvah of Tefillin? Where is this learned?

Mishnah Berachot 3:3 states: “Women, and slaves, and minors are exempt from the recital of the Shema and from Tefillin.”

3 – Why might women be exempt from the mitzvah of Tefillin?

There is a general principle of women’s exemption from performing certain mitzvot (commandments), based on the division of the mitzvot according to two criteria. The first criterion is whether the mitzvah is a positive commandment, mitzvah aseh, or a prohibition or negative commandment, mitzvah lo ta’aseh. The second criterion is time. Some mitzvot are time-bound and some are not time-bound.

Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7 states the general principle that women are exempt from performing positive time-bound commandments (Mitzvat aseh she’hazeman gerama): “Every positive precept dependent upon a set time, men are obligated to observe but women are exempt. But those positive precepts not dependent upon a set time both men and women are obligated to observe.”

4 – Aren’t there some positive commandments that are time-bound, which women are obligated to observe?

The principle of women’s exemption from positive time-bound commandments is not a comprehensive principle. There are positive time-bound commandments which are incumbent upon women, such as eating matzah on Passover, the obligation to rejoice on the holidays, and the duty of the whole community to assemble in order to hear the readings of the Torah (hak’hel), as stated in Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 34a. Therefore, there are positive time-bound commandments that women are obligated to observe. There are several reasons for why women are obligated for some positive time-bound commandments. One explanation for women being obligated to observe several positive time-bound commandments is that “women were in the same miracle,” such as the obligation of eating matzah. God also saved women from the hands of the Egyptians. Therefore, women are also obligated to give thanks for their redemption. In addition, women are obligated to observe all Rabbinic mitzvot that are celebrated to commemorate historical events. Hence, women are obligated to observe the following mitzvot: 1 – Mitzvah of listening to the Megillah and the rest of the MItzvot associated with Purim.  2 – Mitzvah of lighting Chanukah lights. 3 – Mitzvah of four cups of wine and the rest of the laws associated with the Seder, with the exception of reclining.

5 – Why were women traditionally exempt from positive time bound commandments?

The Talmud does not give an explanation for this principle of exemption.  It has been suggested that women in traditional Jewish society were busy with the duties of housework and motherhood, the demands of which dictated a woman’s time table. Time-bound mitzvot would interfere with this domestic time table and place an unreasonable burden on women.

Rabbi David ben Joseph Abudarham, who lived in 14th century Spain, proposed another reason for the exemption of women from positive time-bound commandments. He stated that women’s exemption is due to a basic conflict between the commands of God and the demands of a husband. Sefer Abudarham, Part III, The Blessing over (Fulfilling) the Commandments stated: “The reason women are exempt from positive time-bound mitzvot is that a woman is bound to her husband to fulfill his needs. Were she obligated in positive time-bound mitzvot, it could happen that while she is performing a mitzvah, her husband would order her to do his commandment. If she would perform the commandment of the Creator, and leave aside her husband’s commandment, woe to her from her husband! If she does her husband’s commandment and leaves aside the Creator’s woe to her from her Maker! Therefore, the Creator has exempted her from God’s commandments, so that she may have peace with her.”

Hence, according to Sefer Abudarham, the reason for women’s exemption is that a woman is a servant to two masters, God and her husband, and may be caught in the crossfire of jealousies between them. It seems that God relents and allows her husband to take precedence.

It has traditionally been stated that a woman’s home is her bayit, which is the Hebrew word for home, as well as the word used for the boxes of the Tefillin. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in the 1975 publication Tefillin: God, Man, and Tefillin, states that “One could say that a woman’s home is her tefillin.” Aryeh Kaplan suggests that women resemble God through their tefillin, (her home), just as men resemble God through their tefillin. Women bring spiritual Torah into the home, or bayit, which is similar to the Biblical passages found in the tefillin.

Times have definitely changed, since Abudarham wrote in 14th century Spain. Women do much more outside of the home, and there are many other times, much less sacred than praying to God, that may take a woman away from her home and her husband. The argument of being in conflict with God and one’s husband as a reason to not don tefillin is not compelling in 2019. It should not be assumed all women are married, or that the woman is the only one taking care of the home.

6 – What is the earliest source of a woman donning tefillin?

The earliest source that discusses that a woman, Michal bat Kushi (Kushi is another name for King Saul), wearing tefillin is found in the midrash (rabbinic legend) Mekhilta, Masekhta D’Pishta, Bo 17, the oldest Tannaitic source, compiled on the basis of discussions between 135 and 150 CE.

Mekhilta, Masekhta D’Pishta, Bo 17 states: That the Law of the Lord May be in Thy Mouth. Why is this said? Because it says: “And it shall be a sign unto thee,” which I might understand to include women. And the following argument could be advanced for it: The law about the mezuzah is a positive commandment, and the law about the tefillin is a positive commandment. Now, having learned that the law about mezuzah applies to women as well as to men, one might think that the law about tefillin should likewise apply to women as well as to men. But Scripture says: “That the law of the Lord may be in thy mouth.” I must therefore interpret this law as applying only to those who are under the obligation of studying the Torah. On the basis of this interpretation, the Sages said: All are subject to the law of tefillin, except women and slaves. Michal, the daughter of Kushi (King Saul), used to don tefillin. The wife of Jonah (the prophet) went up (to Jerusalem) for the Pilgrimage Festivals. Tabi, Rabban Gamliel’s bondsman, used to don tefillin.”

This source teaches that one might think that, because women are obligated to mezuzah, they are also obligated to tefillin. However, this thinking is not accurate.  It is also taught that those who are obligated to study Torah are also obligated to the commandment of Tefillin. (And don’t we teach women Torah today, the same as we teach men?)

Women and slaves are exempt from tefillin. Nevertheless, the aforementioned source from the Mekhilta told of three people, Michal bat Kushi, the wife of Jonah, and Tabi, Rabban Gamliel’s servant, who deviated from accepted norms of behavior and performed time-bound commandments, from which all three were exempt.

This early midrashic source, the earliest source I have discovered, does not state any objection by the Rabbis to Michal bat Kushi wearing tefillin. It can be concluded that the Rabbis did not object or protest to Michal bat Kushi’s practice of putting on tefillin, but, rather, approved of such an act. Therefore, with this thinking, the practice of women opting to fulfill positive time-bound commandments, such as tefillin, can be seen as an accepted behavior by the Rabbis of the Tannaitic period, since no protest to such behavior was mentioned in this source found in the midrash, Mekhlita, Masekhta D’Pisha, Bo, 17.

7 – What is a more commonly found source of Michal bat Shaul (also known as Kushi) wearing Tefillin?

It is stated in the Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 96a: “It was taught in a baraita: Michal, daughter of Kushi, King Saul, would don tefillin and the Sages did not protest against her behavior, as she was permitted to do so.

These are just a few of many more sources that discuss women and tefillin. Stay tuned for Weeks four and five before the World Wide Wrap, when more sources will be taught, including a fun fact about why seven is a key number for tefillin, and a few readings to put one in the mood for donning tefillin.

Questions before the next installment of Tefillin 101?
Contact Rabbi Ellen S. Wolintz-Fields at