Rabbi Hershel Shachter
Rabbi Hershel Schachter

Can Women Be Rabbis?

Editor's Note: the following is in response to various communications which I have received: Rav Schachter's dvar Torah portrays women very positively. He describes the bina yeseira with which they are endowed, the added element of imetatio dei which they are privledged to observe, etc. The statement about monkeys or parrots reading the kesuba was clearly intended to dramatize the halachic insignificance of the reading of the kesuba from the standpoint of the siddur kiddushin (marriage ceremony). It was not intended to imply or insinuate anything else. And his analogy applies equally for men or women reading the kesuba.


Some of the non-Orthodox denominations celebrate the bat mitzvah of young girls at thirteen - the same age that the boys celebrate their bar mitzvah. These groups felt uncomfortable about the discrimination between the sexes which had been practiced by Jews for millennia, and finally did away with it.

The rationale for this distinction is presented by the Talmud as follows: the Torah says (Breishis 2:22) that G-d created Eve from the body of Adam. The term used is "vayiven", from the verb bonoh, "and He built". The rabbis had an oral tradition that this verb "vayiven" has an additional level of interpretation, from the root "binah". "Binah yeseirah" was given to women more so than to men. Women mature intellectually at an earlier age than men, therefore girls should become bat mitzvah at age twelve, while boys only attain their intellectual maturity at age thirteen (Talmud Niddah 45b).

By insisting that the girls observe their bat mitzvah at age thirteen, just the same as the boys, one is in effect insulting women and denying that they were created with this "binah yeseirah".

In a recent study published in Time Magazine (May 10, 2004, p. 59) it was reported that the brain mass of females reaches its maximum size at age eleven, while that of the males only reaches its maximum size at age twelve and a half. It would appear that the ages of bar and bat mitzvah were established by the halacha in accordance with this attaining of maximum size of the brain mass, and the rabbis derived this point of biology from their additional level of interpretation of the possuk in Breishis. The Talmud (Bechoros 8b) relates that in the days of the tanaim, the rabbis were able to read in between the lines of the chumash and discover scientific details in the area of biology which the scholars of Athens had not yet ascertained through their scientific research. In later generations, however, this ability to "darshen" psukim was lost, to the extent that the chachomim couldn't even figure out halachos by reading "in between the lines" of the text of the Torah.


A new trend is emerging among certain "modern Orthodox" circles. A scholarly woman is called upon at a wedding ceremony to read the kesuba. They say that "halachically there is nothing wrong with this!" In a certain sense this statement is correct. If one only judges the issue from the perspective of the laws of siddur kiddushin there's nothing wrong. Yes, even if a parrot or a monkey would read the kesuba, the marriage would be one hundred percent valid. Strictly speaking, the reading of the kesuba is not at all a part of the marriage ceremony. This minhag was introduced in the days of the rishonim after the geonim had done away with the ancient practice of having a long pause (of several months) between the erusin and the nissuin. When a young girl would be married for the first time, the pause would be "a yohr un a mitvoch". The date for the chuppah would be set for the first Wednesday following the entire year after the erusin (see Talmud Kesubos 2a). In the days of the Talmud there would have been no objection if borei pri hagoffen would have been recited over the cup of wine used for the six brachas of nissuin, despite the fact that that same bracha had already been recited in connection with the cup of wine used for the birchas erusin [1], because there was a pause of months in between the two occasions. However, once the geonim introduced the practice of having the nissuin follow immediately after the erusin, the reciting of the blessing of borei pri hagoffen the second time seems very strange! There was no longer a pause of several months between the two brachos, but merely a pause of a few moments, and the reciting of the second bracha really seems absolutely unnecessary! This is what prompted the rishonim to institute the slow reading of the kesuba in between the erusin and the nissuin, to establish a hefsek between the two brachos al hakos, so that the second borei pri hagoffen will not seem so superfluous. It is for this reason that many have the practice that if someone is scheduled to speak under the chuppah, or if a chazzan is going to sing something, that these take place right after the reading of the kesuba. The greater the pause, the better. Some rabbis have the practice of reading the kesuba very quickly. I remember that when Rav Eliezer Silver zt"l would be called upon to read the kesuba at a chasuna, he would do so very slowly. Since the whole purpose of krias hekesuba is to introduce a pause between the brachos over the two cups of wine, the longer the pause - the better! (See Beikvei Hatzohn pg. 268.) So it is a correct observation that if one only studies Even Hoezer Hilchos Kiddushin and Hilchos Nisuin there's absolutely no mention whatsoever that anything is wrong with a woman reading the kesuba. Yes, a monkey could also read the kesuba!

But when a shailah is researched one must look through the entire Shulchan Aruch, and consider all the various aspects of that shailah. Just because there is an issue that does not appear in Even Hoezer Hilchos Kiddushin or Hilchos Nissuin, it doesn't mean that the issue is "non-halachic". Orach Chaim Hilchos Krias HaTorah is just as "halachic" as Even Hoezer Hilchos Kiddushin. In Hilchos Krias HaTorah the Shulchan Aruch quotes from the Talmud that although judging from the perspective of Hilchos Krias HaTorah alone a woman may receive an aliyah, from the perspective of Hilchos Tznius this is not permitted. All people were created b'tzelem Elokim, and the Torah has instructed each of us to preserve his tzelem Elokim. One aspect of Elokus is the fact that Hashem is a "Keil Mistater", He always prefers to hide b'tzinah. Therefore we assume that part of our mitzvah of preserving our tzelem Elokim is for all of us to lead private lives. The prophet Micha (6:8) uses the verb "leches" in conjunction with tznius: "vehatznea leches im Elokecha." The rabbis of the Talmud (Sukkah 49b) understood the choice of that particular verb to be an allusion to the expression in Koheles (7:2) "tov laleches el beis ovel mileches el beis mishteh." This particular form of the verb appears in connection with a funeral and a wedding - occasions which are intended for a public outpouring of emotion. The navi Micha is telling us that even on these occasions one should tone down his public display of his inner emotions. And kal vachomer - so much more so all year long, one should try to lead as private (as tzanua) a life as possible.

Sometimes the halacha requires of us to act in a public fashion (b'farhesia), for example to have tefilah b'tzibur, krias haTorah b'tzibur, etc. On these occasions the halacha distinguishes between men and women. We only require and demand of men that they compromise on their tznius and observe certain mitzvos in a farhesia (public) fashion. We do not require this of women. They may maintain their middas hahistatrus, just as Hashem (most of the time) is a Kel Mistater (Yeshaya 45:15). Of course, if there are no men in the shul who are able to lein and get the aliyos, we will have no choice but to call upon a woman, and require of her to compromise on her privacy and lein, to enable the minyan to fulfill their obligation of krias haTorah. If there is a shul where a woman gets an aliyah, this is an indication that there was no man who was able to lein, and this is an embarrassment to that minyan. This is what the rabbis meant when they said that a woman should not lein - for this would constitute an embarrassment to the minyan (Megillah 23a.)

The same is true regarding a woman reading the kesuba in public at a chasuna. Of course the kiddushin will not be affected in the slightest! An animal can also read the kesuba without affecting the kiddushin! The truth of the matter is that no one has to read the kesuba! We have a centuries-old custom to create the hefsek through the reading of the kesuba. Because we plan to satisfy the view of the Rambam that the kesuba must be handed over to the kallah before the nissuin [2], the rishonim thought that we may as well read that kesuba which we're just about to hand over. But nonetheless it is a violation of kvod hatzibur to have a woman surrender her privacy to read the kesuba in public. Were there no men present who were able to read this Aramaic document?


Clearly the motivation to have a woman read the kesuba is to make the following statement: the rabbis, or better yet - the G-d of the Jews, has been discriminating against women all these millennia, and has cheated them of their equals rights, and it's high time that this injustice be straightened out!

What a silly misunderstanding! Our G-d never intended to cheat women of their rights and privileges! Quite the contrary! He wanted to give women the ability to fulfill vehalchta bidrachav in a more complete way - without ever having to compromise their tznius.


The Talmud records that during the period of the Second Temple the Tzdukim had many disputes with the chachamim. The Tzdukim did not follow the Torah Shebeal Peh, and had many complaints against the rabbonim, based on their fundamental misunderstanding of the principals of the halacha.

One of their big issues was this issue of discrimination against women. According to the Torah law, a daughter will only inherit a parent where there were no sons. The Tzdukim felt that this was unfair, but there was nothing they could do about this because this point is explicit in the chumash (Bamidbar 27:8). But the following case is not explicit: if someone dies leaving a daughter and they previously had a son who had predeceased the parent, and that son left a daughter, i.e., a granddaughter of the deceased. According to the halacha, the granddaughter receives the entire inheritance while the daughter gets nothing. The Tzdukim were famous for their dispute with the chachamim in this instance, and they felt that the daughter should at least share along with the granddaughter (Bava Basra 115b). They preached that the rabbis were cheating that daughter, and that women should have equal rights to those of men!

Years later, after the destruction of the Second Temple, the early Christians picked up some of the "shtik" of the Tzdukim. Just like the Tzdukim of old pushed Shavuos off to a Sunday, in order to have an "extended holiday weekend" (see Menachos 65a), so too the Christians pushed off the observance of Pentecost (the holiday of the fiftieth day) to Sunday. And so too they felt that the rabbis had discriminated against women, so they preached (Talmud Shabbos 116b) that sons and daughters should always share an inheritance equally. They also did away with the women’s section in the synagogue and developed the notion that "the family that prays together stays together."

History repeats itself. In recent years, the Reform and the Conservative movements have expressed this same complaint against the rabbis, or better put - against the G-d of the Jews: discrimination against women! Look what has become of the Tzdukim, the early Christians, the Reform, and the Conservatives...


Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote in one of his teshuvos that if a woman choses to listen to shofar or to shake a lulav, despite the fact that these are mitzvos aseh shehazman gramma, we must determine what motivated her to do so. If she's upset at the rabbis and at the halacha, and her shaking lulav and listening to shofar is done out of protest to the tradition, then these acts constitute an aveira. Only if what motivates the woman to volunteer these mitzvos is her sincere desire to come closer to G-d is she in the category of "aina metzuvah veosaah", and she is deserving of reward.


The non-Orthodox movements have whole-heartedly approved of women rabbis. We read in the papers that a certain "Orthodox rabbi" has stated publicly that "the stupidest thing about Orthodoxy is that they don't approve of women rabbis."

In Pashas Devorim we read that Moshe Rabbeinu appointed many rabbis to serve the community. The expression used by the chumash is (Devorim 1:13), "let us appoint anoshim". Rashi quotes from the Sifre a fascinating comment: what is the meaning of the term "anoshim"? Was there even a "salka daitach" to appoint women rabbis?? The expression must certainly mean "anoshim tzadikim".

Why was it so obvious to the tanaim that we can not have women rabbis? After all, Tosfos (Bava Kama 15a) raises the possibility of giving semicha to women, and having them serve on a beth din. So if women can possibly receive semicha, why can't they serve the community as rabbis?

The answer is obvious. Although we must sometimes compromise on our midas hatznius and do certain mitzvos befarhesia (in public), this is not required of women. Women are not being discriminated against. They alone, unlike men, are given the opportunity to maintain their midas hahistatrus at all times.


Our generation is so much into publicity that this midas hahistatrus is totally unappreciated. We live in a generation in which there is no sense of shame. People will do the most intimate and the most private acts in a most explicit and most demonstrative fashion. Their arrogant attitude has led them to believe that if they were G-d they would always be bragging, boasting, and showing off, always "making a statement". They don't have the slightest notion that G-d exists, is a "Kel Mistater", and has created all of us with a tzelem Elokim, which also includes this midas hatznius.

In some kehillos in Europe the nusach hatfillah for Rosh Chodesh Benschen included a request that G-d should grant us "chayim sheyesh bohem busha uchlima" [3], i.e., a sense of shame and a sense of tznius and privacy. We have a lot to pray for in our generation!


[1] The truth of the matter is that historically the reciting of birchas erusin over a cup of wine seems to have been introduced during the period of the geonim, and was probably not practiced at all in the days of the Talmud.

[2] See commentary of Magid Mishna to Rambam Hilchos Ishus (10:7)

[3] The common nusach for this tefilah is, "chaim sheain bohem busha uchlima".

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