Can Women Touch the Torah? A Halakhic View

Can Women Touch the Torah? A Halakhic View

By Rahel Berkovits

Now that Orthodox Jewish women have the ability to access Torah on a high intellectual level, they have begun to inquire if they too could participate in certain synagogue rituals surrounding the sefer Torah. Would halakha permit them to dance with the sefer Torah on Simkhat Torah? Could they carry the sefer through the women's section to be honored and kissed?

The majority of traditional halakhic sources on the issue of women touching a sefer Torah address the topic as part of a larger discussion concerning whether a menstruating woman can enter the synagogue, utter God's name, or pray.

Upon initial examination, these sources seem to present a clear and simple answer: when discussing the special edict that a ba'al qeri [one who has had a seminal emission] must immerse himself in the mikvah before he is permitted to pray or study, the last mishnah in Berakhot 3 states as follows: “A zav [a person with a genital illness] who has a seminal emission and a niddah that discharges semen and a woman who becomes a niddah during intercourse require immersion [in a ritual bath].”

The mishnah implies that the only condition preventing a niddah from prayer is her quasi-status as a ba'al qeri, and not her own status as a menstruant. The corresponding Tosefta Berakhot (2:12) explicitly states that there exists no barrier to ritual for all other forms of tumah, other than ba'al qeri. “Zavim and zavot [males and females with genital illnesses], menstruants and women who have just given birth are permitted to read from the Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim, to study the mishnah, the midrash, the halakhot, and aggadot. Balei qerin are forbidden from all of these activities.”

The Gemara Berakhot 22a brings a tannaitic source that presents the defining factor of this discussion:

“It has been taught, R. Judah b. Bathyra used to say: ‘Words of Torah are not susceptible to tumah.’ Once a certain disciple was mumbling before R. Judah b. Bathyra. [He thought his status of tumah prevented him from speaking words of Torah.] He said to him: ‘My son, open your mouth and let your words be clear, for words of Torah are not susceptible to tumah, as it says, “Is not My word like fire? says the Lord.”Just as fire is not susceptible to tumah, so words of Torah are not susceptible to tumah.’”

The sugya concludes that the law is according to R. Judah b. Bathyra in this case. The Rambam extends this law even further. He states: “All tameh people, even niddot, even a gentile, are permitted to hold a Torah scroll and read from it, for the words of Torah are not susceptible to tumah.”(Hilkhot Sefer Torah 10:8) Not only may people in the status of tumah recite the words of Torah, but they may also physically touch and hold the sefer Torah provided their hands are clean. Both the Tur (Yoreh De'ah 282) and the Shulchan Arukh (282:9) codify the Rambam's decision as halakhah.

Yet, despite the clear-cut halakhic statements made by the Talmud and codes, the practice of women seems to have been otherwise. The Ravyah states as follows:

“And the women practiced stringency on themselves and piety at the time of menstruation by not entering the synagogue, and even when they [women who are not menstruating] pray they do not stand in front of their neighbor [who is menstruating].”( Tractate Berakhot 68)

The Or Zarua (Vol.1:36) also records such behavior. Rashi in Sefer Ha-Pardes (p.3) also mentions the additional minhag of refraining from touching religious texts.

The Remah codifies this practice. “There are those who have written that a woman who is menstruating cannot enter a synagogue, or pray, or mention God's name, or touch a holy book. And there are those that say she is permitted all these things and that is the essential [law]. But the custom in these lands is according to the first opinion. And during the white days [the seven days after her flow stops before she is permitted to immerse herself in the mikvah] the practice is to permit. And even in the place where the practice is to be stringent, on the High Holy Days and [days] like that, when many gather together to go to synagogue, they [menstruating women] are permitted to go to synagogue like the rest of the women, since it is a great sadness for them that all gather and they would stand outside.”(Shulchan Arukh Orah Hayyim 88:1)

If the essential law is to allow a menstruant to perform all of these actions, from where did the dissenting view originate and how did it become accepted custom? The Ravyah further explains that he had seen the practice recorded “in the works of the gaonim in the language of a breita” and that “it is not in our collection of the Tosefta.”The original source to present the idea that a menstruant desecrates anything sacred or holy appears in Breita D'- Masekhet Niddah, a pre-Gaonic work written by a Jewish faction that did not follow rabbinic law. This group believed that the menstruant contaminated her surroundings, and that even the realm of the sacred and Torah were susceptible to her tumah. According to Breita D'- Masekhet Niddah, one may not say a blessing in front of a menstruating woman, for if she answers ‘amen’ she defiles God's name. (p.17) A menstruant may not enter a house of study or a synagogue since anything she comes into contact with becomes impure. (p.26)

The text derives this law from Leviticus 12:4, the biblical passage concerning a woman who has just given birth, which states “she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary.” These ideas were incorporated into the anonymous gaonic work, Sefer Ha-Mikzo'ot, as defining law and not as mere custom. Despite the fact that the Sefer Ha-Mikzo'ot is one of only two gaonim to hold this opinion, hasidei Ashkenaz adopted these stringencies as law.

This tradition of prohibiting a menstruant contact with the sacred, and specifically the sefer Torah, appears to have existed only in Ashkenaz. In Sephardic tradition, Rav Saadya Gaon, the only other gaon to posit that a menstruant should not enter the synagogue, specifically states that “even though we call them holy writings, we do not warn about them, that a tameh person should not touch them.”The Kararites had adopted similar teachings to those stated in the Breita D'- Masekhet Niddah, and Rav Saadya reacted against them. It also seems, from the language of the Rambam, that he specifically singles out menstruants as a polemic against the Kararites, who lived in his midst. But in Ashkenaz, where no threat from another sect existed, the practice persisted.

The Sephardic practice of not holding by this is clearly demonstrated by an Italian tradition in which the women there used to hold a sefer Torah during labor to give them strength. Even in Ashkenaz, those outside of the hasidei Ashkenaz tradition, such as the Remah, considered the practice pure custom and not law as originally taught. Many poskim, such as Rashi, felt that the custom was a mere stringency which women did not need to follow. In more modern times the Mishneh Brura (88:1), basing himself on earlier sources, states three times in succession that the custom in his country is to permit menstruating women to enter the synagogue, utter God's name, and pray, and one should prevent anyone from trying to do otherwise. The only remnant from the earlier custom appears in the Mishneh Brura in the form of a prohibition against the menstruant looking directly at the sefer Torah when it is lifted up to show the congregation.

Today the question of women touching a sefer Torah remains in many Orthodox communities. There are those rabbis, such as in the recent dispute in Australia, who wish to claim that there exists a problem of k’vod ha-Torah. They base their claims on their understanding of the Remah, who distinguishes between the period when the woman sees blood and is prohibited from touching a sefer, and the period of her clean days when she is permitted. Based on their knowledge of the halakha, they posit that the reason she is prohibited could not possibly be due to issues of tumah, since the halakha clearly states that the words of Torah are not susceptible to tumah, but rather the problem must stem from the issue of k’vod ha-Torah: that one whose hands are dirty may not touch the sefer. Therefore they object to a woman touching a sefer Torah on the halakhic grounds that she might come to dirty it with blood.

This p’sak is difficult to understand for a number of reasons. Do these rabbis suggest that a menstruating woman should also refrain from entering a synagogue, praying, and mentioning God's name? Furthermore, the custom brought by the Remah stems from a tradition which contradicts the traditional teachings and believes that a menstruant and any tameh person can defile the sacred realm of Torah. There is no need to try to reconcile the practice with traditional teaching. The Remah brings this custom as it was practiced, in accordance with the original prohibition. He makes his comment in the laws of reading the Sh’ma, where the Shulchan Arukh discusses the relationship between people who are tameh and the realm of the sacred, and not in Yoreh De'ah 282 where the laws of k’vod ha-Torah are discussed.

Another group of rabbis prohibits women specifically from dancing with a sefer Torah. These rabbis admit that halakhicly there exists no prohibition on a woman touching the sefer. But for thousands of years women did not dance with the sefer Torah and such traditions are sacred. Although their concern is understandable, permitting women to fully participate in Simkhat Torah might actually strengthen Jewish women’s commitment to synagogue and traditional practice. 

These rabbis should take their cue from the reasoning of the Terumat Hadeshen, upon whom the Remah bases himself, with regard to menstruants praying in synagogue on the High Holy Days. He states:

“In truth I permitted them on the High Holy Days and other such days to go to synagogue, since many gather in the synagogue to hear the prayer and the reading [of the Torah]. And I relied on Rashi who permits in the laws of Niddah, because of nachat ruach l'nashim, peace of spirit for women, because they had a saddening of spirit and a sickness of heart, that everyone gathered to be part of the community and they would stand outside.” (Vol.2:132)

Considering the halakhic permissibility of women touching a sefer Torah, hopefully the desire to bring peace of spirit to the sickness of heart felt by the women of our day will motivate the leaders of today's communities. 

Rahel Berkovits teaches advanced Judaic studies at Evelina De Rothschild Middle School and at Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. She is also a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. For the complete text of this article, email [email protected].

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