(We shall resume our series on “Making Up For What We Missed” next week.)
Question: How should shuls deal with coronavirus space and time constraints this Rosh Hashanah? Should separate women’s minyanim be organized outside shul?
Answer: Let’s turn to our halachic sources for guidance. The Mishnah (Berachos 20a-b) states, “Women, slaves, and children are exempt from reciting Keri’at Shema and donning tefillin but are required to pray, affix a mezuzah to their doorposts, and recite Grace After Meals.”
The Gemara questions the need for the ruling about women. It should be obvious that women are exempt from Keri’at Shema and tefillin since they’re time-related mitzvot, from which women are generally exempt.
The Gemara answers that one might have thought that women are obligated to say Shema since in saying Shema one also accepts upon oneself the yoke of heaven (ol malchut Shamayim). Thus, the Mishnah declares that women need not say Shema. As for tefillin, one might have thought that women are obligated to put on tefillin just like they must fulfill the mitzvah of mezuzah (the two mitzvot are connected). Therefore, the Mishnah teaches us that they’re exempt.
Why are women obligated to pray if prayer is related to set times (e.g., Shachris must be said in the morning and Maariv must be said in the evening)? The Gemara answers that central to prayer is asking for Divine mercy, and surely women need Hashem’s mercy just as much as men. Indeed, Chana, the mother of the prophet Samuel whose prayer is a model for our own prayers, is a perfect example of someone who prayed to Hashem for mercy, asking Him to grant her a child. Her prayer was answered when she gave birth to Shmuel, one of the greatest individuals to ever live.
Yet, nearly all halachic authorities agree that women are not required to pray as many tefillos as men. The Rambam (Hilchos Tefillah 1:1-2) states that praying every day is a biblical obligation (based on the verse “u’l’avdo b’chol l’vavechem – you serve Him with all your heart”), but the Bible does not dictate how often a day we should pray or what words we should use when praying.
Since prayer is not biblically related to any time of day, women must pray. What constitutes prayer? Beseeching for Heavenly mercy, reciting praises of Hashem, and requesting one’s needs. Men must pray thrice daily, while women need only pray once.
The Mechaber (Orach Chayim 47:14) rules that women must say Birchot ha’Torah. Ba’er Heitev (ad. loc., s.k. 14) explains that these blessings relate to mitzvot that women must observe and must therefore study too. As such, women should also recite the Korbanot. I might add that since Pesukei D’Zimrah is a preparation for tefillah, women should probably say it as well.
Further on, the Mechaber (Orach Chayim 70:1, citing Berachot 20a-b) writes, “Women are free of the obligation to recite Keri’at Shema, for that is a biblically time-related mitzvah. However, it is entirely proper to teach them to accept upon themselves the yoke of heaven.” The Rema adds: “They should read, minimally, the first verse [of Shema].”
The Magen Avraham (Orach Chayim 70:1) writes that women are required to say “Emet V’Yatziv,” which immediately follows Shema, because with it one satisfies the commandment to remember our departure from Egypt. The Mishnah Berurah (ad. loc. s.k. 2) doubts that women must say this portion as he considers it a time-bound mitzvah, but he does believe they must say Shemoneh Esreh (infra Orach Chayim 106:6, citing Sha’agat Aryeh). He also encourages women to say, minimally, the first verse of Shema in accordance with the Rema.
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, zt”l (Responsa Yabia Omer vol. 6; Orach Chayim 17), writes that women should say Birchot Ha’Torah, Birchot Hashachar, the first verse of Shema, and Shemoneh Esreh. He also sees nothing wrong if they wish to recite the entire Shacharit except for Baruch She’amar and Yishtabach as these relate to time-bound mitzvot.
Ashkenazic women need not follow this ruling as Ashkenazic authorities believe women can say berachos on time-bound mitzvot. The mitzvah of lulav is a prime example.
Sefer Kaf Hachayim (by Rabbi Yaakov Chayim Sofer, who was born in 1870 in Baghdad and died in 1939 in Jerusalem) writes, “If [women] wish to say all the Birkat Keri’at Shema as well as Pesukei D’Zimrah and its blessings, they may. Therefore, women who know how to study and pray may say the entire tefillah just like men, from the beginning of Korbanot through Aleinu” (Orach Chayim 70:1).
This year, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many shuls may not have room to allow all women (or even all men) to attend separated by six feet.
If women gather together to daven without any men, they cannot say any davar she’b’kedushah, such as Kaddish, Barchu, or Kedushah. Nor would it be proper for them to read from the Torah due to modesty as per the ruling of our sages. As for the woman leader donning a tallit: Rav Soloveitchik was very critical of the idea.
It is important that a woman’s prayer group secure the services of a man of fine character and ability who can blow shofar. Better yet is if the group can pray with a minyan of 10 or more men, with the necessary gender separation with one of the men leading the services. That way, they can say all the devarim she’b’kedushah.
In general, this year, especially in shuls that require everyone to wear a mask, it might be prudent to omit some of the traditional piyutim to reduce the amount of time spent in shul. The rabbi’s sermon should also be shorter and more to the point, designed to evoke the true spirit of teshuvah that exists in every Jew’s heart.
A baraita (Megillah 31b) states, “It was taught: R’ Shimon b. Elazar says, ‘Ezra decreed that Israel read the curses of Leviticus prior to Shavuot and those of Deuteronomy prior to Rosh Hashanah.’” The Gemara asks: Why? The Gemara answers so that we conclude the year and all its curses. But why before Shavuot too? The Gemara answers: Since we are judged then concerning the fruit of the trees, it too is considered a new year. Hence our greeting and prayer, “Tichleh shana v’killeloteha – May this year conclude along with all its curses, v’tochel shanah u’birkoteha – and may the new year commence with all its blessings.”
We – the men, women and children of Klal Yisrael – have much to pray for. Indeed, for most of us, never before in our lifetimes has the motivation behind our prayers been so clear. Let us seize the moment and pray for the good of our people and all mankind.