The importance of women in the redemption of the Jewish People from Egypt is underscored – as we will see below – in both the verses of the Torah and in Midrashic additions.
In spite of this, when Moshe and Aharon come before Pharaoh to demand freedom for the nation, the Egyptian king declares (Shemos 10:11): “Not so! Go now, the men alone, and serve Hashem – for this is what you request.”
Pharaoh’s exclusion of women from the redemption and from the service of Hashem that the Jewish People demanded, casts doubt on the part of women in the redemption and in the subsequent service of Hashem.
In the present article we will discuss the status of women in halachah, and in particular in the matter of mitzvos. From which mitzvos are women exempt? Why is this exemption given? How does this relate to the mitzvos of Seder Night? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Women’s Role in the Redemption
During the harshest Egyptian oppression – the decree to kill all baby boys born to Hebrew parents – the midwives Shifra and Pu’ah stood up to Pharaoh, refusing to comply with his evil decrees. Instead of killing the infants, they ensured their well-being. Their brave actions are the first seeds of Hebrew resistance mentioned in the Torah.
Later on the Torah informs us of the birth of Moshe, which came as a result of the renewed union between his parents of the house of Levi – Amram and Yocheved. The Midrash relates that the renewal of the marital relationship between Moshe’s parents was a result of their daughter Miriam’s advice. Upon seeing that her parents had separated due to the fear of sons being killed, Miriam told her father: “Your decree is harsher than that of Pharaoh! Pharaoh decreed against the boys, and you decree even against the girls!” (Rashi, Shemos 2:1; see Sotah 12a). Amram followed his daughter’s counsel, and after his re-union with his wife Moshe was born.
It is was also Miriam (and not Moshe’s older brother, Aharon) who kept watch on the newly born infant as he was set out upon the waters of the Nile. The Gemara (Sotah 12a) explains that she had prophesied that the light of redemption would shine forth from the child, and was anxious to see “what would become of her prophecy.” Moshe’s salvation came through another woman, Pharaoh’s daughter, who pitied the baby and rescued him, bringing him to grow up in Pharaoh’s palace.
Moshe’s wife Tzipporah is the next heroine in Moshe’s life. When he was threatened by an angel who wished to kill him (see Shemos 4:24), it was Tzipporah’s swift intervention that saved him.
The Sages add that it was in the merit of the righteous women of Israel that the Jewish People were redeemed from Egypt. The Gemara (Sotah 11b) narrates the following fantastic details:
“R. Avira expounded: The Israelites were delivered from Egypt as a reward to the righteous women who lived in that generation. When they went to draw water, the Holy One, blessed be He, arranged that small fish enter their pitchers, which were then half full of water and half full of fish. They then set two pots on the fire, one for hot water and the other for the fish, which they carried to their husbands in the field, where they washed, anointed, fed, gave them to drink and had marital relations with them among the sheepfolds, as it is said: When you lie among the sheepfolds… After the women conceived they returned to their homes. When the time of childbirth arrived, they went and delivered in the field beneath the apple-tree, as it is said: Under the apple-tree I caused you to come forth…”
Thus, although the primary leaders were men – Moshe and Aharon – there is a clear and pronounced presence of women throughout the redemption process.
Women in Mitzvos of Seder Night
Against the backdrop of women’s strong role, Pharaoh’s declaration that men alone – and not women – should go to serve Hashem, is particularly notable. According to Pharaoh, freedom of worship, freedom to leave the country, and service of Hashem, apply to men alone – excluding not only women, but also the young and the elderly.
Moshe’s response was clear (Shemos 10:9): “With our young and our old we shall depart; with our sons and with our daughters – for it is a festival of Hashem for us.” Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch explains (Commentary on the Torah):
“We have no attorneys before Hashem, no priests and no representatives. If we are instructed to go, the instruction includes all of us, from young babes in their cradles to the last of our animals… Hashem calls us to gather round Him, and this calling is His will to see us around him, including all of us with our possessions.”
Because of the special part of women in the redemption, we find that although women are generally exempt from time-related mitzvos (see below), women are fully obligated in the mitvzos related to Seder Night, because “they, too, were part of the miracle” (Pesachim 108a; commentaries explain that the principle applies specifically to the rabbinic mitzvos of the night. The mitzva to eat matza is Biblical even for women.).
Rashi explains that the miracle of the redemption came about through women. For this reason, women are included in related mitzvos (see, however, Rashi, Megillah 4a, who explains with respect to Purim that women were included in the decree; this explanation is adopted by Tosafos).
Women in Mitzvos in General
In spite of their role in the redemption, the halachah is that women are exempt from what is surely a basic component in our service of Hashem: time-bound positive mitzvos. This halachah is stated by the Mishnah (Kiddushin 29a): “Any positive mitzvah which is time-bound [i.e., it may only be fulfilled at a specific time] – men are obligated and women are exempt.”
A number of explanations are given for the halachah. The Avudraham (p. 25, commenting on the words “all of Israel are obligated”) writes that the exemption derives from the fact that a woman is subservient to her husband. Due to this subservience, which the Avudraham saw as integral to marriage and marital harmony, women are exempt from the constraints of time-bound positive mitzvos.
Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch (Commentary on the Torah, Vayikra 23:43) suggests a quite different reason for the exemption. In his eyes, the exemption is a result of the more elevated spiritual status of women, who do not require the time-bound positive mitzvos to bring them to an awareness of Hashem.
These views can be understood as suggesting a qualitative or “essentialist” difference between men and women, as the foundation for the distinction in their respective obligations in mitzvah performance.
Reclining on Seder Night
A different understanding is proposed by Rabbeinu Manoach, which is raised in his discussion of the requirement to recline at the Pesach Seder.
The Gemara notes (Pesachim 108a) that a student who is at the Seder-table of his Torah teacher does not need to recline, because “the fear of one’s teacher is like the fear of Heaven.” Concerning women, the Gemara rules that “a woman who is at her husband’s table does not need to recline, but if she is an important woman – she should recline.”
How is “important woman” defined? Based on the assumption that reclining is a mode of behavior befitting kings and free men, Rabbeinu Manoach offers several explanations. First of all, he writes that “a woman is not required to recline since she is subservient to her husband, and the fear of him is upon her and she is not accustomed to reclining; but if she is an important woman – in other words, she has no husband and she is the matron of the house – then she must recline” (see also Rashbam; Rosh 10:20; Meiri)
Based on this understanding, which is reminiscent of the above Avudraham, it follows that specifically an unmarried woman can be considered “important.”
Rabbeinu Manoach proceeds to note other definitions of an important woman, including “important before Hashem, a G-d-fearing woman, a daughter of the great Torah teachers of the generation, who embodies the praises of a ‘woman of valor.'”
Finally, he writes that a woman “is not required to recline because she is occupied with the preparation of the meal; she is exempt from reclining just as she is exempt from time-bound positive mitzvos. But an important woman who has servants and maidservants who are occupied with the matters of the meal while she sits on her seat, is required to recline.”
According to this understanding, the difference between men and women, whereby men are obligated in time-bound mitzvos and women are exempt, is not qualitative, but rather technical. A woman is exempt from time-bound mitzvos because of the requirements of her tasks of running a home and raising children, and all that goes with them.
A similar line of reasoning is stated in Mishpetei Uziel (Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel, Vol. 4, no. 5): “I believe that the reason why women are exempt is because on account of their nature and their task in life their time is occupied with managing the home and taking care of the children, so that their time is not given to them. It is even possible to read this into the Tosafos Rid and the Avudraham.”
Based on this, he explains that women are essentially equal to men – only that they are exempt because of their “prior occupation with another mitzvah.”
“Important Women” of Today
With regard to Seder Night it is important to note that according to the Mordechai (Tosefes Arvei Pesachim) all women today are considered important (note that this is not in line with the explanation given by Rabbeinu Manoach). This ruling is given by the Rema (Orach Chaim 472:4), and based on this it appears that women ought to recline on Seder Night.
Nonetheless, the Rema adds that the common custom is that women do not recline, for they rely on the opinion of the Raavya, whereby there is no obligation today on to lean. Although the Raavya ruled for everyone, men, who always leaned, are obligated to uphold the custom, whereas women, who were used to not leaning, continue to refrain from doing so (see Gra on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 472:5).
The statement whereby all of today’s women are important reflects a change in the social status of women – at least in the Ashkenaz region. Rather than being considered entirely subservient to their husbands, it appears that women gained a measure of independence.
With regard to time-bound mitzvos, women remain exempt. We do not say that because women are important today, it follows that they are obligated in time-related mitzvos. However, it is permitted for women to perform many time-related mitzvos, and it seems that this became common practice for certain mitzvos, in particular in Ashkenaz.
According to the Rema (Orach Chaim 17:2; the ruling is based on Rabbeinu Tam, as cited in Tosafos Kiddushin 31a) women make a berachah when performing a mitzvah, even if they are exempt from it. This is the common custom of Ashkenazi Jewry. According to the Rambam (Tzitzis 3:9), however, women should not recite berachos when performing a time-related mitzvah. This is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 589:6) and is the common custom of Sephardi Jewry.
The Law and Halachah
Gender equality is a basic concept of secular law in Western countries. This is certainly true of Israeli law, where a law was passed in 1951 that declares the equality of women in all areas of the law. Whether there is true equality de facto between the sexes in law and in society is a widely discussed matter, and this is not the appropriate forum for the debate.
In halachah, there remain clear differences between men and women – differences that continue to apply even in the society of today.
Yet, although these differences indicate a division in roles between men and women, they do not diminish the basic theme of equality that we find in our parashah. For many centuries during which the world treated women as objects and worse, the Torah gave them individual identity and personal purpose.
In the final analysis, like the Hebrews coming forth from Egypt to Sinai, we are all called to serve Hashem.