A Special Syllabus
‘As One Who Is Exempt, But Nevertheless Does’
The Gemara states that the only merit that can prolong life and delay the effect of the sotah water is the merit of Torah study. Women do not acquire this merit when they study Torah because the commandment of Torah study does not apply to them.
Rashi (s.v. “ha lo mifkeda”) explains that we derive it from the verse (Devarim 11:19), “Velimmadetem osam es beneichem… – You shall teach them to your sons…” (implying that it does not apply to daughters).
It would seem that women are at a decided disadvantage without a possible merit for prolonging life and delaying the effect of the sotah water. Therefore, the Gemara expounds that women do acquire the merit of Torah study through assisting the Torah study of husbands and sons. By waiting for her husband (and allowing) him to return home late from the Beth HaMidrash, and by sending her sons off to study in a yeshiva, a woman gains a portion of the merit of their Torah study.
Laws That Pertain to Them
Tosafot (21b s.v. “Ben Azzai”) state: The women would listen to the Torah reading, at Hakhel, in order to learn about the mitzvos that they were required to perform. Tosafot indicate that although women are exempt from the general mitzvah of Talmud Torah, they are obligated to study the laws that pertain to them. Indeed, the Semak (in his introduction, cited by Beit Yosef, Orach Chayyim 47 in the name of the Semag) rules that women are required to recite the daily Birkas haTorah (blessing over the Torah) because they have an obligation to study these mitzvos.
The Beth HaLevi (Parashas Mishpatim) asks why the Gemara says that women can acquire the merit of Torah study only by participating in their husband’s and son’s study. He asks why women do not acquire the merit of Torah study through the study of the mitzvos and laws that pertain to them.
In answer, he explains that the special merit attained through Torah study is achieved only through the study of Torah for its own sake (i.e., to know Hashem’s Torah) and not if it is studied for other reasons. When a woman studies for the sake of knowing how to properly conduct herself, though this is important and necessary, it is not considered an act of studying Torah lishmah, since she is not studying for the sake of knowing Torah. This type of study is considered preparing for the fulfillment of a mitzvah – for which she will receive the reward of that particular mitzvah that she is preparing to fulfill (but she does not receive the special merit of Torah study).
No Good Deed Goes Unrewarded
Rambam (Hilchos Talmud Torah 1:13), while ruling in accordance with R. Eliezer (supra 20a), who discourages women from studying Torah, indicates that if a woman does study Torah she fulfills the mitzvah of Torah study and is rewarded.
A Limited Scale
The Taz (Yoreh De’ah 246:s.k.4) says that women listened to the king read the Torah at hakhel because women are permitted to study the written law (Tanach) without delving too deeply into the complexity of the laws and the intricacies of pilpul and derush. The Gemara (Chagigah) means to say that while men came to hakhel to study in depth, women came to listen.
Nevertheless, the Talmud records numerous instances of learned women. The Gemara (Bava Bathra 119b, cited by Rashi in Bamidbar 27:4) relates that the daughters of Tzelafchad were learned Torah scholars. The Gemara (Pesachim 62b and Eruvin 53) also reports that R. Meir’s wife Beruriah was an extremely learned woman.
Times Have Changed
The Chafetz Chayyim (Likutei Halachos to Sotah 11a – and Iggeres Chafetz Chayyim 23 Shevat 5693/1933) points out that teaching Torah to women was discouraged in former generations when girls were raised (and remained) at home until marriage. Formal schooling was not necessary because they absorbed all the required knowledge in their home environment, and instinctively were strongly committed to their parents’ beliefs and way of life. Today, however, when girls study secular subjects and are clearly influenced by the non-Jewish society surrounding them, a solid Torah education (Tanach, Jewish philosophy, Jewish history and mussar works) is essential.
A ‘Woman’s’ Shulchan Aruch
Rabbi Menashe Klein (Responsa Mishneh Halachos vol. 7:79) nevertheless would urge today’s educators of girls to place great emphasis on all the mitzvos that pertain to them. He suggests creating a special syllabus including mitzvos that pertain to women.