The Source of the “Prohibition”
The earliest mention of Torah study by women occurs in Sifri(Devarim 46). Addressing the Torah obligation of teaching Torah to one’s children, the Sifri states: “And you shall teach your sons – and not your daughters.” This teaching is cited by the Gemara (Kiddushin 29b), and it implies that the general mitzvah of Torah study applies specifically to men and not to women.
Beyond the exemption of women from Torah study, the Mishnah (Sotah 3:4) cites the strong opposition of Rabbi Eliezer to Torah study for women. He states: “Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah teaches her tiflus” (Sotah 21b).
According to Rashi, the word tiflus is defined as lewdness or promiscuity, meaning that the study will bring a woman to sin. The Rambam, however, defines the term as referring to the learning itself, and the meaning is that the Torah study is blemished, and amounts to “vanity and nonsense” (Commentary to Sotah 3:4).
The same Tana, Rabbi Eliezer, is cited in the Yerushalmi as making the harsh statement: “The words of the Torah should be burned rather than entrusted to women.” It is noteworthy that even Ben Azzai, who maintains (as cited by the Mishnah) that a person should teach his daughter Torah, does not support study for study’s sake by women.
The Gemara does make some positive mention of women’s Torah study. In one place the Gemara notes that in the generation of King Hezekiah, “They did not find a single girl or boy, man or woman, who was not expert in the laws of ritual impurity and purity” (Sanhedrin 94b). The Mishnah in Nedarim (4:3) further teaches that that although somebody vows not to derive benefit from his fellow, that other is permitted to teach Torah to the sons and daughters of the person who made the oath.
Oral and Written Torah
Halachic authorities cite the restriction of Rabbi Eliezer. The Rambam (Torah Study 1:13) writes that a woman who studies Torah earns a reward thereby, though it is not the equal to that of a man who is commanded to study the Torah. He continues:
“And even though she earns a reward, the Sages commanded that a man shall not teach his daughter Torah because most women are not intellectually capable of study, but render words of Torah nonsense because of their ignorance.”
This ruling is cited by the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 246:6). Yet, the Rambam (and after him the Shulchan Aruch) restricts the ruling to the Oral Torah, writing that the teaching of Rabbi Eliezer does not apply to the study of Scripture although such learning is also non-ideal.
The Bach (Yoreh De’ah 246) explains that the source for the distinction is the mitzvah of Hakhel, of which Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah taught: “Men come to study, and women to hear.” Men are obligated to study, including the intricacies of the Oral Law, whereas women are charged with hearing – learning the words of Scripture alone.
As noted, the Rambam writes that even the study of Scripture by women is non-ideal – a ruling that is apparently contradicted by the Hakhel ceremony. The Taz (246:4) resolves this problem by explaining that the Hakhel ceremony involved only the simple hearing and understanding of the Torah words, which is ideal even for women. The Rambam, however, refers to in-depth study.
The Bach himself offers an alternative explanation, distinguishing between regular study and a one-off session.
Thus, the severity involved with study by women of the Oral Law does not apply to the study of Scripture, yet it remains better for women to avoid it.
The Study of Practical Mitzvos
A further qualification of the issue relates to practical mitzvos that women need to know for in the course of their lives. The Sefer Chassidim (313) writes that the restriction of Rabbi Eliezer (tiflus) applies specifically to in-depth study, and to the study of Torah secrets. Concerning practical mitzvos, he relies on the precedents of King Hezekiah and the Hakhel ceremony to permit Torah study, provided that a father “should not allow his daughters to grow up and study in front of young men, lest he sin thereby, but he should teach them himself.”
The Maharil (Shut Maharil no. 199) objected to this approach, opining that women can gain practical knowledge by means of practical tradition without the need for any formal study. Indeed, he writes that “we see, in our generation, how well-versed women are in laws of salting and washing (meat) … and in the laws of niddah, and all by means of external tradition.”
The Rema (246:6) rules on this matter in accordance with the Maharil, writing that a woman must learn the halachos related to women.
Yet, a number of commentaries stress that this does not mean to obligate women in Torah study in the same sense as men: Rather than an obligation of study per se, the obligation of women goes no further than their need to know the relevant halachos (see Beis Ha-Levi 1:6; Avnei Nezer, Yoreh De’ah 352). In contrast with the regular mitzvah of Torah study for a man, in the case of women the objective (of knowing what to do) alone is important.
This approach leads to a general limitation of the scope of teaching Torah to women and girls, as summed up by Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 3, no. 87):
“In the matter of girls’ schools that are called ‘Beis Yaakov’ and the like, where the management and the teachers want to teach them Mishnah, the Rambam (Torah Study 1:13) rules according to Rabbi Eliezer that one must not teach Torah to girls […] and at the very least Mishnah, which is the Oral Law, the sages commanded not to teach them, and this is considered as teaching tiflus. Therefore, they should be prevented from this, and the study should be limited to Pirkei Avos which […] to arouse them to love of Torah and positive character traits, but not other tractates.”
In spite of the need for them to know laws pertinent to daily life, Rav Moshe thus rules that girls should not be taught the Oral Law (meaning Mishnah and Gemara), with the exception of Pirkei Avos.
Torah Study by Women Themselves
The discussion above relates specifically to teaching women Torah, and not to the study of Torah by women on their own.
The Perishah (Yoreh De’ah 246:15) states that the wording of the Rambam, which refers specifically to teaching Torah to women (and not to self-study), also mentions that a woman who studies Torah receives reward for it. In addition, the Rambam mentions that most women are not intellectually capable of study. Based on these observations, the Perishah concludes that women who learn Torah on their own have distinguished themselves from the majority, and therefore they do earn reward (provided they do not turn the words of Torah into nonsense).
Rav Shach zt”l writes similarly that the restriction against Torah study for women does not apply to self-study, and the concept is already noted by the Maharil (Shut Maharil Ha-Chadashos 45): “[This refers] specifically to somebody who teaches his daughter. But if she teaches herself she receives reward for it – as somebody not commanded in the mitzvah – for her intention is for the good.”
This approach can help us understand how a not insignificant number of women became first-rate Torah scholars, who even took part in halachic debates. The most famous, if very complex case is the Talmudic example of Bruriah, whom we find engaging in a halachic debate with Rabbi Tarfon (Tosefta, Keilim, B.M. 1:6 – Rabbi Yehoshua is cited as praising her words). Another Talmudic example is Rabbi Yehoshua (son of Rabbi Avika), who married a woman so that she should teach him Torah – indicating that scholarly women were a known phenomenon (Yerushalmi, Kesubos 5:2).
The Tashbatz (Vol. 3, no. 78) gives positive mention to the wife of a certain Rav Yosef, who answered a difficulty and conceived of a Torah chiddush in the words of Chazal. The Maharshal (29) cites a rebbetzin called Miriam who taught exceptional students halachah from behind a curtain, and the Maharil (70:2) engages in halachic debate with an erudite woman. In later generations we find that the mother of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the wife of the Sema, the grandmother of the Chavas Yair, and others, were recognized as Torah scholars at least to some degree.
It is noteworthy that the Shevet Ha-Levi (6:150) writes that in our generation it is wrong for girls to try to emulate such women – though he adds that those who manage to do so will receive reward for it.
An Intelligent Woman
As noted above, the Rambam mentions “most women,” and this mention led the Perishah to suggest that a woman who studies Torah on her own has left the majority of women. Based on a similar assumption, some write that it is even permitted to teach Torah to a woman who has clearly left the majority that the Rambam refers to.
Rabbi Shmuel (ben Elchanan Yaakov) Archivolti of Padua (1515–1611) writes that women with suitable intellectual abilities are not only permitted to study Torah, but are even obligated to do so:
“When a woman is ready to receive an abundance of wisdom, neglect will harm her, and […] we can differ, saying that the sages of blessed memory spoke only of a father teaching his daughter in her childhood. … There one might fear because most women’s minds are consumed with nonsense. But women whose hearts urge them to Hashem’s service of their own will shall ascend G-d’s mountain and live in His holy place, for they are outstanding women, and the sages of the generation must glorify, exalt and sustain them, encourage and strengthen them … and Torah shall go forth from their mouths” (Maa’yan Gannim, letter 10; quoted in Torah Temimah on Devarim 11).
A similar ruling is given by the Chida (Tov Ayin 4), explaining that it is permitted to teach a woman who has proven herself as having true intent of Torah study.
It is noteworthy that the majority of halachic authorities do not mention this approach as a halachic possibility.
Changes in Halachah over Generations
The Chafetz Chaim (Likkutei Halachos, Sotah 20) writes that in our (or his) generation there is reason for a change in the halachic approach to teaching girls Torah:
“All of this was pertinent particularly in bygone times, when each person lived in the place of his fathers, and the tradition from generation to generation was universally strong, so that each person behaved in the manner of his fathers […] under such circumstances we could say that [she should] not study Torah, and rely in her behavior on her fathers. Yet today, in our many sins, the tradition from previous generations has greatly weakened, and it is also common that a person does not live in the place of his fathers – and in particular those who study the script and language of the nations – in this case it is surely a great mitzvah to teach them Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim, and the ethics of Chazal, such as Pirkei Avos […] for barring this they might entirely leave the way of Hashem, and transgress all things prohibited.
Elsewhere (in his letter concerning the Beis Yaakov movement, printed in Shevilei Ha-Chinuch p. 35), the Chafetz Chaim writes that the reasons for prohibiting the study of Torah by girls are no longer relevant, and in turbulent times of heresy and detachment from tradition, there is a great mitzvah to teach girls Torah.
A similar approach is taken by Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (Moznayim la-Mishpat 1:45):
“In ancient times, Jewish homes were run according to the Shulchan Aruch, and since one could learn Torah from experience there was no need to teach daughters from books. Today, daughters must be taught so they will learn proper behavior. Not only is it permitted to establish schools for girls, but there is an outright obligation to do so. The only limitation is the study of the Oral Torah, as well as dialectics and theoretical study.”
Like the Chafetz Chaim, Rabbi Sorotzkin understands that reality calls for a change, yet he is careful to limit the scope of change, and does not permit the study of the Oral Law.
It is possible that the authorities who sanctioned a change in practice due to changes in social norms understood that there is no full prohibition, Torah or rabbinic, against teaching Torah to women. Rabbi Eliezer wrote harshly against doing so, but as something undesirable, not a full prohibition. The wording of the Rambam whereby “the sages commanded that a person should not teach his daughter Torah” also implies an ethical recommendation rather than a concrete prohibition.
Due to this understanding, authorities understood that a change of circumstances and new dangers to which previous generations were not exposed sanction a degree of flexibility in this matter.