Women and keryat haTorah, the (public) reading of the Torah

Author: Rav Duvdevani of Bet Shemesh, Cheshvan 5765/Oct 2004

Rav Duvdevani began by examining the aim and function of the public reading of the Torah.

We learn from Maimonides that reading from the Torah in public (be rabim) on Sabbaths, Mondays and Thursdays was decreed by Moses and that Ezra added the reading on the afternoon of the Sabbath, calling three people to the Torah for the reading on Mondays and Thusdays and reading at least ten verses on those days. Maimonides adds that in the days of Ezra it was customary to have each verse translated after it was read. A few passages , such as the priestly blessing are not translated (Hilchot Tefila u Nesiat Kappayim, ch 12). The Mishna (Sota 32A) adds that some passages may be said in any language, e.g. the Shema and some are always spoken in Hebrew, e.g. the verses recited when bringing first fruits to the Temple (bikkurim).

A distinction emerges between two functions of a Torah reading: one is the reading as such and it serves a purpose in and of itself. This public reading it was that Moses established and a single verse might be considered sufficient. A second function is to enable the understanding of the Torah; this would be served by having the verses translated; the second function is attributed to Ezra.

‘And he (Moses) took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the audience (lit. in the ears) of the people (be oznei ha am)’ (Ex 24,7). The verse teaches that public reading is Biblical and that it is important to hear it. The context of the verse is the Covenant made between the Almighty and the Children of Israel at Sinai and the reading is clearly a part of the ritual here; in the next verse, Moses sprinkles the blood of the sacrifice on the people to mark the Covenant (brit). Moses read the Book of the Covenant, the Torah, as one might read a contract.

Moses also establishes that no Jew should have to live for three days without Torah (Tractate Bava Kamma 82A), based on the fact that the children of Israel suffered by having no water for three days – and water symbolises Torah). There is a physical and metaphysical benefit bestowed on us by the Torah.

Another public Torah reading that is a Biblical ordinance is Hakhel, a reading that took place every seventh year. Everyone was present, men women and children. The Gemara (Tractate Hagiga 3A) explains that men came to learn, women to hear and children so that merit should accrue to those who brought them. This reading is a re enactment and a renewal of the Covenant and requires the presence and the hearing of everyone. Learning is seen as a separate issue and here the women have no obligation. But they do have an obligation to hear since they are party to the Covenant. Tractate Sofrim (ch18 halacha 5) spells out that women in any keryat haTorah have the same obligation to hear as do men.

The Torah confers its sanctity to the Children of Israel (kedushat Israel) and women naturally share in this. The physical closeness and metaphysical connection to the Almighty is brought about by reading, hearing, even wearing (as in Tefilin) the text of the Torah. As Rav Soloveitchik explains (Shiurim le zecher Avi Mori, part 1) ‘ the Torah is read (not studied) so that its sanctity may fall on a person. That is the basis of keryat haTorah’.

Can women be called up to the Torah reading? According to Tractate Megilla (23A) ‘Everyone participates and is called to the reading of the Torah, even minors, even women’. It adds, however, ‘ A woman is not called up mipnei kevod ha tzibbur, out of respect for the public. The ‘tzibbur’, the public is a mixed one and perhaps that reasoning falls away when women only are present.

An early Ashkenazi source speaks of a city where all the Jews may be Cohanim. A Cohen would then be called up first and second (instead of a Levi). The remaining five people called up would not be Cohanim, but women and children (Beit Yosef Orach Chayim). This would indicate that women can, on principle, be called to the Torah reading. Here too, the reading confers kedushat Israel, re enacting the Brit which includes everyone.

There now arises the question of the blessing recited on being called to the reading. Perhaps the first person called up should say the blessing that precedes the reading and the last person should say the post reading blessing (Shulchan Aruch, Orah Chayim 282,3). (An interesting aside here is that 16th Century Rabbi Moses ben Israel Isserles, states that respect for the Torah requires all to cover their heads).

In a letter to Rav Aharon Tendler, Rav Moshe Feinstein writes; ‘They (the women) may read from the Sefer Torah.’ But it should not look like a copy of the reading of the Torah be tzibbur, in the Synagogue. It therefore does not take place in the Synagogue. In a gathering of women, those who have said the blessing for learning Torah could perhaps rely on that. Others should say the appropriate blessing undemonstratively.

Basing himself on the above sources, Rav Duvdevani concluded that, since women clearly share in ‘kedushat Israel’ and clearly participate in the ‘Brit’ between the Almighty and the Children of Israel, the reading of the Torah that applies to them is, as in the commandment enacted by Moses, a ritual reciting of the words of the Torah. Their recital is valid; it does not take place in a Synagogue and it is not a copy of the Synagogue recital (not, that is, as Reform Judaism sees it). The medieval custom of a blessing said at the beginning of ‘Keryat haTorah’ and one when the last person has been called up is advisable.

Can women touch a Sefer Torah? Kiss it?

The answer is positive, since ein divrei Torah mekablim tuma, words of Torah, a Sefer Torah, cannot become unclean.

When considering all of the above, women must at all times take into account the wishes of their community. To split a community is to undermine Judaism.