Aliyot for Women

May women read from the Torah or have an Aliyah when the Torah is read in public?

At the outset it must be explained that in tannaitic times whoever went up to the Torah read his own portion and only the first and last person recited the blessings. In the amoraic period it was instituted that everyone who reads recites the blessings. Lastly, in the Middle Ages, when many could not read their own Aliyah, the custom arose of having a ba’al keriah read, while the person who went up only recited the blessings and read along silently with the reader. Thus, halakhically speaking, whoever can read from the Torah can recite the blessings and vice versa.

1) The main source which deals with this question is a beraita in Bavli Megilah 23a: “Everyone goes up to read among the seven who read from the Torah, even a woman, even a minor. But the sages said: a woman may not read from the Torah [in public] because of kevod tzibbur [literally “the honor of the congregation” but see below].”

2) Various commentators have tried to limit the phrases in this beraita to special circumstances. Some say that “goes up,” means “goes up to complete” but as Prof. Jose Faur had pointed out, the simple meaning is “goes up” for any or all of the Aliyot. Others say “among the seven” meaning on Shabbat but not among the three or four or five or six. However, the number seven is merely an example and does not come to exclude. Lastly, as Prof. Saul Lieberman has pointed out, the second sentence “But the sages said” is the Bavli’s addition to the original beraita as is proven by the parallel beraita in the Tosefta. This is also proven by the phrase “kevod tzibbur” which does not appear in any tannaitic work but only in the Bavli and even then only in the mouths of the amoraim or in sections written by the editors of the Talmud.

3) Many medieval authorities simply quote the beraita without any explanation. Those who explain it, can be divided into two groups: a) Those who feel that even without the addition of “kevod tzibbur” women may not read from the Torah or may only read part of the Aliyot if they obligate themselves to do so because women are exempt from reading the Torah in public; b) Those who feel that according to the original law in the first half of the beraita, women may read any or all Aliyot because women are obligated to read from the Torah in public. The only reason they do not read is because of “kevod tzibbur” in the second half of the beraita.

4) There is no doubt that the second interpretation is the correct one. Women are “obligated” (see below) to read the Torah in public exactly like men, but the later sages decreed that they may not do so because of kevod tzibbur. There are five proofs that this is the correct interpretation:

a) It is clear from the language of the beraita in the Bavli and in the Tosefta. In both cases a blanket permission is followed by a later limitation. Thus the only reason to forbid what is allowed in the first sentence is the reason given in the second sentence.

b) If, as some claim, women are exempt from reading the Torah in public because they are exempt from studying Torah, why do “slaves go up to read among the seven”? They too are exempt from studying Torah!

c) Similarly, why does “a minor read from the Torah and translate”? Minors are exempt from all the mitzvot!

d) According to Rabbeinu Tam, if you recite the Torah blessings in the morning you must still recite the blessings if you go up to the Torah. Thus, reading the Torah in public is not the same mitzvah as studying Torah.

e) Massechet Soferim states that, “women are obligated to read the Torah like men.”

5) However, if women, minors, and slaves can read Torah in public, what kind of “obligation” could be involved, since all three are exempt from studying Torah? The answer is hinted at in the Mekhilta and the Bavli, stated by four rishonim, and summarized by Prof. Faur: Moses decreed that we read from the Torah on Shabbat, Monday, and Thursday “so that the people should not go for three days without hearing some Torah”. In other words, the congregation has an obligation to make the Torah heard (“l’hashmia”) in public, but the individual has no obligation to hear the reading or to read from the Torah in public. Therefore it doesn’t matter who reads – a man, a woman, a slave, or a minor are all acceptable. This understanding of the original takkanah explains eight other facts or halachot. Among them:

a) Reading the Torah in public is not included in any of the lists of 613 commandments “because whoever did not hear the Torah reading has not transgressed”.

b) We do not recite “who has sanctified us with his commandments” as we do for the Megilah reading because it is not an obligation of the individual but of the congregation.

c) According to the Tosefta, if one person knows how to read he reads all seven Aliyot. But if he has already fulfilled his obligation the first time, how does he read again time after time?

d) Rabbi Abbahu used to leave the synagogue between Aliyot and this is still the accepted halakhah. Would this be permissible if there were an individual obligation to hear the reading?

e) Rav Sheshet used to recite Mishnah by heart during the Torah reading and this is still the accepted halakhah. Would this be permissible if there were an individual obligation to hear the reading?

Thus according to the first sentence of both beraitot, women, slaves and children can all read from the Torah in public just as a man. The only reason to prevent women from doing so is kevod tzibbur as many authorities have stressed.

6) But what is kevod tzibbur? One modern authority says that we do not know. Others say it is sexual or erotic distraction. Another says, “it is not in keeping with public policy”. In fact, though, kevod tzibbur in our beraita in the Bavli means “a disgrace to the congregation”. There are three proofs of this explanation:

a) This is what kevod tzibbur means in all of the other five places where the term appears in the Bavli.

b) This was the interpretation given to our beraita by R. Judah Anav in 13th-century Italy: “It is a disgrace to the congregation for a woman to come (shetavoh) and read.”

c) This leads us back to the parallel beraita in the Tosefta where the second sentence reads: “One does not bring (ein mevee-een) a woman to read for the congregation.” And why not? We know from the following sentence there that we are dealing with a synagogue where only one man knows how to read. In such a synagogue it is a disgrace to bring a woman to read for the congregation because the men who cannot read will be embarrassed. In such a case, the Tosefta says, it is better for one man to read all seven Aliyot. And indeed this is the way Rabbis Uziel, Gerstenfeld and Blumenthal have explained kevod tzibbur in our beraita.

7) If a woman is only excluded from reading the Torah because of kevod tzibbur, may the congregation “relinquish its honor” and allow a woman to read? Some authorities say that a congregation can relinquish its honor while others say no, but in most of the cases we have found, most of the authorities rule that a congregation may “relinquish its honor”. This would therefore hold true in our case as well.

8) However, even if we were to rule the opposite, there is no need in this case for the congregation to relinquish its honor. In the amoraic period the disgrace to the congregation stemmed from the fact that men learned how to read the Torah and women did not and thus it would disgrace the men to have a woman read in public. Today, of course, this is no longer the case. Men and women are taught Hebrew and Torah on an equal basis. We are thus faced with a situation where the original reason for the prohibition – kevod tzibbur – no longer exists and many authorities have ruled that if the original reason for a gezerah has disappeared, a later court of law can annul the gezerah even if it is not as great in wisdom and numbers as the original court of law. We therefore rule that the original reason no longer exists and we can return to the basic law: all read from the Torah, even a woman, even a minor.

Lastly, we must briefly discuss two side issues:

9) Some people believe that women cannot read from the Torah because they cannot touch the Torah during their menstrual period. This folk belief is based on a sectarian work called “Beraita Demasechet Niddah” and is in direct contradiction to Talmudic law and most rabbinic authorities, who rule that “words of Torah are not susceptible to ritual impurity”. Furthermore, none of the dozens of authorities who dealt with our question suggested this as a reason to prevent women from reading the Torah.

10) Some people believe that in general men are not allowed to listen to women singing because Samuel says in the Talmud: “the voice of a woman is lewdness”. However this interpretation originated with Rabbi Moshe Sofer in the 19th century. The early authorities explained that Samuel was talking either about the speaking voice of a woman (which is clearly the peshat of the gemara) or that it is forbidden to recite the Shema when a woman is singing nearby. Neither of these interpretations is relevant to a woman reading the Torah in public.

Therefore it is halakhically permitted for women to read from the Torah or to have Aliyot when the Torah is read in public.

Rabbi David Golinkin
In favor: Rabbi Tuvia Friedman
Rabbi Reuven Hammer
Rabbi Chaim Pearl