On August 1, the biggest Jewish American event ever took place – the completion of the daily learning of the entire Gemara, which happens once every 7 and a half years, known as Siyum HaShas – filling 90,000 seats at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium. However, a significantly smaller, but just as intriguing group celebrated the event in skirts, scarves and a spirit of sisterhood in Jerusalem.
At Matan, an institute for women’s Torah study in Jerusalem, a festive meal, a class, and speeches by rabbis, teachers, families and students marked the occasion of the completion of another round of Shas -the first for the women’s group. While the Jewish people celebrated the 12th cycle finished since the practice of studying a page of gemara a day until its completion was instituted by Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin at the First World Congress of World Agudath Israel – an umbrella organization of ultra-Orthodox Jewry – in Vienna in 1923, this was the first commemoration of its kind for women.
“Baruch Hashem, we were able to finish the Shas”, mother, grandmother and Matan founder Malke Bina told The Jewish Press. “There were 15 completers for Siyum HaShas from Matan, about 30 women from all over Israel.”
“One woman finished it for the fourth time, and she said it was the first time she had a siyum she could participate in. I was very proud we had such a siyum where women were the main characters of the siyum and really did it with a full heart and were emotional – some of the women were crying,” Bina said. “It was beautiful. We finished the last shiur during our customary class time, from 8:10-9am, and families and friends came to join in the celebration”.
The years of classes have been conducted 5 days a week, not including Friday and Shabbat, when the women were obligated to study independently.
The study of the Babylonian Talmud has long been a focus of study for Jews. But while study halls are often filled with men bent over their books at all times of the day and night, the study of Talmud by women is a new phenomenon, one which is being received with mixed reactions.
“Why not?” Bina said in response to being asked why women should study Talmud. “It’s an integral part of what Torah is – the written law and the oral law. You write and you speak, why shouldn’t we be active participants in the oral law? It’s not logical.”
“Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach told me personally – I had women who were bright and educated – that, yes, he sees my point, and he agreed that I could learn Talmud and I could teach Talmud as long as the women doing it would gain knowledge and strengthen their commitment to Judaism, which is what I wanted to offer,” Bina said. “Other rabbis – Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav David Auerbach – also approved.” The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, also wrote that women’s Talmud study should be supported and encouraged. Yeshiva University features a graduate program in Advanced Talmudic Studies at Stern College for Women, a two-year program for women to study Talmud.
“In earlier times, when women were less educated, and socioeconomy didn’t permit, it wouldn’t fit in with what was happening in the big picture of the world. But the world is changing,” Bina said. “Torah also wasn’t permitted, until Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch and the Chofetz Chaim opened it up for women. That led to the opening of the Beis Yaakov movement… Now oral law has become available.”
“It all began with the Mishna in Sotah – a discussion between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Ben Azai as to whether you should teach women Torah,” Rabbi Mike Feuer, Educational Director of Yeshivat Sulam Yaakov in Nachlaot, told the Jewish Press. Ben Azai said fathers were obligated to educate their daughters, while Rabbi Eliezer said it was teaching “tiflut” – empty, meaningless things. Jewish law codifiers, Maimonides (the Rambam), Rabbi Yosef Karo (in his work the Shulchan Aruch), and later Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rama) agreed that daughters should not be taught the oral law, while the written Torah was permitted.
But the Jewish women have always been more educated than their non-Jewish counterparts, Feuer said, and throughout Jewish history, “where there was money left to be spent, many people did educate their daughters”. On top of Torah learning, Ashkenazi women were obligated by the Rama to learn Jewish laws pertaining to them, including laws of kashrut, Shabbat, and the laws of physical relations between men and women. “Historically, women have also always learned midrashim”, said Feuer, referring to the body of Jewish lore surrounding the stories of the Bible.
When the Enlightenment arrived in the 18th century, women of all backgrounds became more educated and literacy rose. “The liberalism of women’s role freed them to learn more things, and made it more threatening to traditional society that they were doing so,” said Feuer. “Women were getting higher secular educations, so there was a real danger if their only outlet for education was coming from the secular world, so they started to serve women who wanted to learn.”
In 1917, Beis Yaakov was founded to meet the needs of the intellectual and traditionally-observant Jewish woman, excluding material not traditionally covered by Jewish women, but delving deeper into those aspects which were considered permitted. “[Teaching women Torah] is definitely not the definition of the issur (prohibition] any longer”, Feuer said.
Moreover, the nature of the world today is such that many women no longer accept the idea of having fields of information closed off to them. “The world has shifted”, said Feuer. “This just needs to happen – it’s not forbidden even if it may not be recommended traditionally.”
“I see a place like Matan as trying to carve out a space of respect for women’s Torah,” Feuer said. “The playing field on which men win each other’s respect is the Gemara, and this is the expression of old school feminism, which is that a woman ought to be able to do what a man does.“
But the study of it takes commitment, regardless of the gender of the student. Matan’s 50 minute-a-day course, which begins at 8:10am, comes during the “crunch time” of the morning hours, when many women are busy getting their children off to school and preparing for the day, meaning women with children attending the class would have to be either extremely organized, or submit the responsibilities of that hour to someone else.
“So a woman has to figure it out in her life and see what she has available, what times she has available,” Matan’s founder Malke Bina said. “It might not be the right solution for everybody – now we have washing machines, we can get help cleaning, she won’t be doing other reading or literature, instead of doing other things, she’ll learn Talmud. Or maybe she’ll go at a slower pace. But there are times available to women if they really set their minds to it.”
And though the rabbis disagree as to how much merit a woman gets from spending time in learning for learning’s sake – as she is not obligated by Torah law to do it – she stands to merit “being more energized in Torah”, according to Bina. “It will enhance her way of viewing the world, her sense of debate and discussion, and makes her home much more of a Torah-based entity.”
Bina’s own background in gemara began after she made aliyah from Baltimore and began studies at Michlala and worked at the women’s seminary of Rabbi Chaim Brovender. “He would make himself available and gave the classes, and I was in charge of the beit midrash were women were doing the preparation, and that was a vehicle that pushed me ahead in my own studies because I had to help the women in their own studies,” Bina said. “Afterwards, the students would come back and we would cover the points he had covered in his shiur. Has definitely one of the first rabbis who would teach women Talmud in Israel.”
Years later, Bina began teaching a small group of women gemara in the living room of someone’s home.
“As a woman, I just wanted to make it more available… I gathered women of all ages and we formed a study group at the home of one of the women, and from that grew Matan,” Bina said. “We had 5 women around a dining room table the first year, I taught Ketubot. The second year Sanhedrin, by then there were 7 or 8 women. The table got a little small, so we decided to open an institute.” The women’s Daf Yomi began in 2005 with the same tractate as the men – Berakhot (Blessings) – and ended with Nidda, focusing on the menstrual laws. Lessons went on every day for an hour, come rain, sleet, snow, hail, labor pains, illness, birthday parties,work, or travel.
Today, Matan has taught over 3,000 women Talmud and other subjects at 7 locations throughout Israel.
“I think there is a woman’s Torah that needs to come out to the world, which is something we need desperately, and I don’t think it’s going to come out from the gemara,” Rabbi Mike Feuer said. “But I also know that there isn’t any other training ground, so I would say it is a useful thing for women to study the Talmud, because there’s no other playing field, but on the other hand, it’s limiting because a person with a hammer sees every problem as a nail.”
“The family unit is the basis on which society rests, and men and women need to be able to work together to make that unit function,” Feuer said. He said he thinks women could make a major contribution to Jewish knowledge by exploring topics such as new avenues of education and perspectives on how to communicate with and teach children. “And women’s prayer is sorely needed,” Feuer said.
“I respect the accomplishment, and I understand why women would want to learn gemara, but I think for the woman to put in the time and energy a man would, that’s either a social choice or a familial choice,” Feuer said.
Whether in daily classes or on the sidelines, women are getting closer and more familiar with the study of gemera. At this year’s Siyum HaShas in New York, even those who accepted their more traditional role took part in the celebrations, with an estimated 20,000 women joining the MetLife festivities, looking out on the male celebrants from the stadium’s top tier. According to a report in the New York Times, a $250,000 translucent curtain was fashioned of green woven plastic, extending for almost 2.5 miles, serving as a separation between the men and women along with traditional lines of modesty adhered to by the Hareidi public. The curtain was opened after prayers at 8pm, allowing women to fully view and hear speakers give speeches about Torah and sing songs in English and Yiddish.
The next Siyum HaShas will be celebrated in 2020, God willing.