In Parashas Toldos we find Rivkah going to “seek out [the word of] Hashem” concerning the twins that agitated in her womb (Bereishis 25:22). The Torah itself does not reveal where she went, but Rashi (based on Chazal) explains that she visited the beis midrash of Shem and Ever, from whom she received counsel.
Different passages of the Midrash teach us that Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef and Yehuda all studied at different periods in the same study hall—that of Shem and Ever. Although Rivkah went there to receive Divine counsel, there is no record of her, nor of any other woman among the Matriarchs, having taken part in actual Torah study. The field of Torah study (even before the Torah was given) seems to have been reserved for the Fathers of the nation. The Mothers were not involved in it.
In the present article we will discuss the issue of Torah study for women—an issue that has risen to some prominence in forums exposed to the general modern movement for equality for women. Is there a prohibition against Torah study for women? Is it permitted for a woman to study Torah on her own? Is there a difference between different parts of Torah study? Is there room to distinguish in this matter between past generations and our own?
These questions, and others, are addressed below.
Is There a Prohibition?
The earliest mention of Torah study by women occurs in the 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, expressed here in terms of teaching one’s children, applies 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: “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: the Torah study itself is blemished, and amounts to just “vanity and nonsense” (Commentary to Sotah 3:4).
The same Tana, Rabbi Eliezer, is cited in the Yerushalmi as making the harsh statement that, “Words of the Torah should be burned rather than entrusted to women.” It is noteworthy that the Mishnah also cites the opinion of Ben Azzai, who maintains that a person should teach his daughter Torah. However, this does not amount to support for Torah study for study’s sake, but only for the instrumental value of Torah study, since it affords protection from punishment.
Chazal do make some positive mention of women’s Torah study. In one place the Gemara notes that in the generation of King Hezekiah there was not “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, although somebody vows not to derive benefit from his fellow, the latter may still teach Torah to the former’s sons and daughters. These mentions, however, are few.
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 reward, though it is not as much as that of a man, who is commanded to study the Torah. He adds: “And even though she earns a reward, the Sages have commanded that a man shall not teach his daughter Torah, for most women are not intellectually capable of study, but render words of Torah nonsense because of their ignorance.” This ruling is copied by the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 246:6).
However, the Rambam (and after him the Shulchan Aruch) restricts the issue to the Oral Torah only. The Rambam writes that although women learning Torah remains non-ideal, the teaching of Rabbi Eliezer does not apply to the study of Scripture, the Written Torah. The Bach (Yoreh De’ah 246) explains that the source for the distinction is the mitzvah of Hakhel, of which Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya 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, that is, just understanding the words of Scripture.
Concerning the non-ideal status of Torah study for women, even that of the Written Law, the Taz (246:4) writes that the Hakhel ceremony involved only the reading of the Torah words, which is entirely permitted even for women. When he writes that study of Scripture for women is non-ideal, the Rambam refers to in-depth study. The Bach himself offers an alternative explanation, distinguishing between regular study and a one-off session.
It thus emerges that the warning mentioned by Chazal and by later authorities concerning Torah study for women applies most forcefully to the Oral Law. Yet, according to these authorities it remains better to avoid even the study of the Written Law.
The Study of Practical Mitzvos
Women, like men, are obligated in mitzvah performance, and must therefore learn Torah to the degree required for them to know how to do the mitzvos. The Sefer Chassidim (313) writes that the restriction of Rabbi Eliezer (tiflus) applies only 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, adding that a father, “should not allow his daughters to grow and study in front of young men, lest he sin thereby, but he should rather teach them himself.”
The Maharil (Shut Maharil no. 199) objected to this approach, maintaining that women can gain practical knowledge by means of halachic (mimetic) tradition, without the need for any intellectual 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, citing the Agur) rules that a woman must learn those halachos related to practical issues relevant to women. The Vilna Gaon mentions that the source for this is women’s attendance of the Hakhel ceremony.
Yet, several commentaries stress that this does not mean to obligate women in Torah study in the same sense as men. The obligation of women is not Torah study per se, but relates only to the need to know the relevant halachos (see Shut Beis Ha-Levi 1:6; Shut Avnei Nezer, Yoreh De’ah 352). By contrast with the regular mitzvah of Torah study, in which the study itself is obligatory, for women the objective of knowing what to do is key.
This approach leads to a general limitation of the scope of teaching Torah to women and girls. This was summed up by Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l with respect to education of girls in Beis Yaakov schools: “In the matter of Beis Yaakov schools for girls, where the management and teachers want to teach Mishnah, the Rambam (Torah Study 1:13) rules that one must not teach Torah to girls. […] At the very least concerning Mishnah, which is the Oral Law, the sages instructed not to teach them, and this is considered teaching tiflus. Therefore, they should be prevented from doing this, and the study should be limited to Pirkei Avos which [is permitted] to arouse them to love of Torah and positive character traits, but not other tractates.”
Despite the need to know laws pertinent to daily life, Rav Moshe ruled that girls should not be taught the Oral Law (meaning Mishnah and Gemara), with the exception of Pirkei Avos.
Torah Study by Women
The discussion above relates specifically to teaching women Torah, and especially to the institutional teaching of Torah to women. What is the halacha concerning study of Torah by women themselves?
The Perisha (Yoreh De’ah 246:15) notes that the Rambam writes that a woman who studies Torah receives reward for it. This indicates that Torah study for women is essentially positive, only that it is wrong to do this institutionally, since as the Rambam writes, most women are not intellectually capable of study. Based on these observations, the Perisha concludes that women who learn Torah on their own have “distinguished themselves from the majority,” and therefore earn reward (provided they do not turn the words of Torah into “nonsense”). We should note that the Perisha’s wife was renowned for her study of Torah and several of her chiddushim are recorded by Poskim.
The Maharil likewise notes (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 significant number of women became first-rate Torah scholars, and even took part in halachic debates. The most famous, if very complex case, is the Talmudic example of Bruriah, who we find engaging in a halachic debate with Rabbi Tarfon (Tosefta, Keilim, Bava Metzia 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. This indicates 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) likewise cites a rebbetzin called Miriam who taught exceptional students halacha while sitting behind a curtain. The Maharil (70:2) engaged 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 to some degree.
Shut Shevet Ha-Levi (6:150) writes that in our generation it is wrong for girls to try to emulate such women, but adds that those who manage to do so will receive reward for it. Rav Eliezer Eliyahu Dessler, however, instructed his own daughter to, “strengthen yourself in your studies, and ensure that you know that which you have learned, so that you will be able to study yourself from the holy sefarim; and whenever Hashem will permit us to be together, I will study further with you in the sefarim.” (Michtav Me’Eliyahu, Vol. 4, 328-331)
An Intelligent Woman
As noted above, the Rambam mentions “most women,” and this mention led the Perisha to suggest that a woman who studies Torah of her own accord has distinguished herself from 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 qualities 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. Although most halachic authorities do not mention this approach as a halachic possibility, Rav Ovadya Yosef was a proponent of this approach, writing that a women should not be forced to study Torah, but if she is wise and wishes to study Torah, then it is a mitzvah to do so (see Halichos Olam, Vol. 7, p. 194).
Changes over Generations
The Chafetz Chaim (Likkutei Halachos, Sotah 20) writes that in his generation there is reason for a change in the 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 Kesuvim, 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.
The reason for this change is, as stated, that the world is a changed place. Once upon a time people stayed at home. Girls spent almost their entire day at home in the company of their family. One could thus rely that girls would receive an education-how to perform mitzvas properly and how to behave from their parents. Today girls go to school and are exposed to many influences. If they do not receive a proper Torah education they will lack proper Torah hashkofo and will not know how to perform the mitzvas properly.