Monday, September 16, 2013

Women and Prayer

 Prayer, or tefillah, occupies a place of great importance in Jewish religious life. According to the Rambam (Maimonides), the commandment to pray each day is Biblical in nature. However, most  medieval authorities, including the Ramban, understand the mitzvah of daily prayer to be rabbinic.

The Mishnah in Masekhet Berakhot 3:3 states that both men and women are obligated in the mitzvah of prayer. Ostensibly, this means that men and women are absolutely equal with respect to the requirements of tefillah. Nonetheless, many commentators and contemporary halakhic decisors disagree, and maintain that women's obligation in prayer is less demanding than that of men. For instance, while men must pray three services a day - Shaharit, Minha and Arvit - women, some argue, need only to pray once a day.

The following reasoning is provided to support this conclusion: According to the Ramban, the entire institution of daily prayer is rabbinic. Since the Mishna includes men and women in the mitzvah of prayer, this perforce implies that everyone is obligated to pray three times a day, etc.

By contrast, according to the Rambam, there are two levels of obligation in prayer. On a Biblical level, one prayer per day is sufficient. The Rabbis legislated a thrice daily requirement of tefillah. Thus, these rabbis propose, we can conclude that the Mishnah only places upon women the Biblical, but not the Rabbinic, obligation of prayer. This line of reasoning is adopted by the Arukh Hashulhan as well as Harav Ovadiah Yosef, Shlit"a, both of whom (among other posqim) only require women to pray once a day.

In order to examine the validity of this theory, let us take a look at the words of the Rambam himself:

It is a positive Torah commandment to pray every day, as [Exodus 23:25] states: "You shall serve God, your Lord." Tradition teaches us that this service is prayer, as [Deuteronomy 11:13] states: "And serve Him with all your heart" and our Sages said: Which is the service of the heart? This is prayer.The number of prayers is not prescribed in the Torah, nor does it prescribe a specific formula for prayer. Also, according to Torah law, there are no fixed times for prayers.

Therefore, women and slaves are obligated to pray, since it is not a time-oriented commandment.
Rather, this commandment obligates each person to offer supplication and prayer every day and utter praises of the Holy One, blessed be He; then petition for all his needs with requests and supplications; and finally, give praise and thanks to God for the goodness that He has bestowed upon him; each one according to his own ability.

A person who was eloquent would offer many prayers and requests. [Conversely,] a person who was inarticulate would speak as well as he could and whenever he desired.
Similarly, the number of prayers was dependent on each person's ability. Some would pray once daily; others, several times.Everyone would pray facing the Holy Temple, wherever he might be. This was the ongoing practice from [the time of] Moshe Rabbenu until Ezra.
When Israel was exiled in the time of the wicked Nebuchadnezzar, they became interspersed in Persia and Greece and other nations. Children were born to them in these foreign countries and those children's language was confused. The speech of each and every one was a concoction of many tongues. No one was able to express himself coherently in any one language, but rather in a mixture [of languages], as [Nehemiah 13:24] states: "And their children spoke half in Ashdodit and did not know how to speak the Jewish language. Rather, [they would speak] according to the language of various other peoples." Consequently, when someone would pray, he would be limited in his ability to request his needs or to praise the Holy One, blessed be He, in Hebrew, unless other languages were mixed in with it.

When Ezra and his court saw this, they established eighteen blessings in sequence.
The first three [blessings] are praises of God and the last three are thanksgiving. The intermediate [blessings] contain requests for all those things that serve as general categories for the desires of each and every person and the needs of the whole community.Thus, the prayers could be set in the mouths of everyone. They could learn them quickly and the prayers of those unable to express themselves would be as complete as the prayers of the most eloquent. It was because of this matter that they established all the blessings and prayers so that they would be ordered in the mouths of all Israel, so that each blessing would be set in the mouth of each person unable to express himself.
They also decreed that the number of prayers correspond to the number of sacrifices - i.e., two prayers every day, corresponding to the two daily sacrifices. On any day that an additional sacrifice [was offered], they instituted a third prayer, corresponding to the additional offering.
The prayer that corresponds to the daily morning sacrifice is called the Shacharit Prayer. The prayer that corresponds to the daily sacrifice offered in the afternoon is called the Minchah Prayer and the prayer corresponding to the additional offerings is called the Musaf Prayer.
They also instituted a prayer to be recited at night, since the limbs of the daily afternoon offering could be burnt the whole night, as [Leviticus 6:2] states: "The burnt offering [shall remain on the altar hearth all night until morning]." In this vein, [Psalms 55:18] states: "In the evening, morning and afternoon I will speak and cry aloud, and He will hear my voice."
The Evening Prayer is not obligatory, as are the Morning and Minchah Prayers. Nevertheless, the Jewish people, in all the places that they have settled, are accustomed to recite the Evening Prayer and have accepted it upon themselves as an obligatory prayer.
Similarly, they instituted a prayer after the Minchah Prayer [to be recited] close to sunset on fast days only, its purpose being to increase supplication and pleading because of the fast.
This is called the Ne'ilah prayer, as if to say that the gates of Heaven are closed behind the sun, which becomes hidden, since it is recited only close to [the time of] sunset.

The Rambam first presents the Biblical formulation of the mitzvah of prayer: Once daily, with three necessary components but with no fixed text or fixed times. He then describes the innovation of Ezra the Scribe and his court, which was twofold - they established official texts for the prayers and official times for the prayers.

These two changes appear to be part of one fundamental redefinition of the institution of tefillah; namely, it shifted from being a daily personal expression of a person's own understanding of his relationship with Hashem - something which emerged from "within" - to being an objectively structured, regulated performance that was designed to affect the person from "without", educating the individual to an understanding of what his relationship with Hashem SHOULD be.

This explains the comparison to sacrifices, which are formal, ritual actions that don't manifest our inner thoughts and feelings but are meant, in various ways, to have an impact on and to shape those thoughts and feelings. Prayer is no longer the outgrowth of our subjective encounter with the Divine; it is a text to be studied and understood, an objective regimen to be followed. It is modeled after the sacrificial service in its timing and in many of its halakhic properties.

From this Rambam, it seems clear that there is no way to separate two layers of obligation (Biblical vs. Rabbinic) or to distinguish between the obligation to recite the formal prayer of Shemoneh Esreh and the obligation to pray three times a day. When the Rabbis restructured the institution of tefillah, they fashioned it in such a way that the number of prayers and the content of the prayers were "taken out of our hands", so to speak.

That being said, there is still a vestige of the original, Biblical conception of spontaneous prayer, as the Rambam states:

 The number of these prayers may not be diminished, but may be increased. If a person wants to pray all day long, he may. Any prayer that one adds is considered as a freewill offering. Therefore, one must add a new idea consistent with that blessing in each of the middle blessings. [However], making an addition of a new concept even in only one blessing is sufficient in order to make known that this is a voluntary prayer and not obligatory. In the first three [blessings] and the last three [blessings], one must never add, detract or change anything at all.
The community should not recite a voluntary prayer, since the community does not bring a freewill offering. Even an individual should not recite the Musaf Prayer twice, once as the obligation of the day and the other as a voluntary prayer, because the additional offering is never a freewill offering.
One of the Geonim taught that it is forbidden to recite a voluntary prayer on Sabbaths or holidays, since freewill offerings were not sacrificed on these days, but only the obligatory offerings of the day.

(Note, first of all, how the Rambam shifts his nomenclature to that of the sacrifices, seemingly requiring that the parameters of tefillah now match those of qorbanot....Even to the point that the Geonim restrict voluntary prayer on Shabbat because voluntary sacrifice was forbidden on Shabbat in the Temple! This underscores our observation of the "transformation" of the structure of prayer by Ezra and his court...)

We see that during the week, just as the structured regimen of the daily sacrificial service still allowed for individual expression in the form of "freewill offerings" as long as they are performed in accordance with the Law, so do the laws of tefillah - even after they have been recast after the fashion of the sacrifices - still permit us the opportunity to express ourselves with additional prayers as we see fit. The Biblical definition of tefillah still makes itself manifest in these voluntary devotions.

The conclusion that we can draw from our understanding of the Rambam is that, contrary to the explanation of many outstanding scholars, the notion that women are only required to pray once a day is not tenable. On the contrary, it seems clear that the Rambam obligates both men and women in Shaharit, Minha, Arvit, Musaf, and Neilah, just like men. וכנלע"ד להלכה ולמעשה


  1. from Rav Yitzak Yosef:

    ילקוט יוסף תפילה א הקדמה להלכות תפלה - חיוב תפלה וערכה

    ב. נחלקו הראשונים אם החיוב להתפלל הוא מן התורה או מדרבנן, ויש בזה כמה נפקא מינה להלכה, וכגון, לענין חיוב נשים בתפלה, שאם נאמר שחיוב תפלה הוא מן התורה, נשים חייבות להתפלל בכל יום פעם אחת בלבד, אבל אם נאמר שחיוב תפלה הוא מדרבנן, ומשום שאנו צריכים רחמים, גם הנשים צריכות רחמים, לכן הנשים חייבות להתפלל גם שחרית וגם מנחה. וראה להלן בסימן קו היאך ההלכה

  2. Clearly, my post is in disagreement with the conclusion you've cited.

    1. this is Rav Ovadya's son, which is him basically. You say:
      "The Rambam first presents the Biblical formulation of the mitzvah of prayer: Once daily, "
      I don't see a contradiction.

    2. I don't understand your comments. I am respectfully disagreeing with Rav Ovadya's interpretation of the Rambam. If you don't see a contradiction between the way I am understanding the Rambam and the way he does, then you haven't read my post!

  3. I (think I) was following your essay until the last paragrah. it's not clear to me. Can you clarify: Is the thrice daily davening a time-bound mitzvah or not? What's the basis for it being or not being time-bound? If it is time-bound, how is it obligatory for women? Thanks.

    1. The mitzvah is not considered time bound. The fact that the Rabbis restructured the mitzvah in a format that is time-bound doesn't mean that women are exempt. They're still required to fulfill it.

  4. "This line of reasoning is adopted by the Arukh Hashulhan as well as Harav Ovadiah Yosef, Shlit"a, both of whom (among other posqim) only require women to pray once a day."

    But according to Justin's quote a woman should pray twice a day.