Oz Torah: Ask the Rabbi on “Who were the women?”


Question. Who was it that successfully agitated for women to be allowed to undertake extra mitzvot (good deeds)?

Answer. The issue revolves around which category of commandments we are dealing with.

There are actions which are commanded and actions which are prohibited. The second category is basically the “thou shalt nots” of the Torah. These apply to men and women equally; though there are a few cases in which being a womanmak es a difference, for example in regard to not cutting the corners of one’s beard.

One cannot argue that “thou shalt not kill” applies to men because they are men but not to women as women. Killing is wrong, period: wrong if the killer is a man and wrong if the killer is a woman (though halachah distinguishes between them insofar as a female sentenced to death has extra rights to modesty when it comes to the execution).

The male/female distinction applies to “positive mitzvot dependent on time”, which were not obligatory upon women, though they were duty bound to observe some such mitzvot (Kidd. 29a).

Women wearing tefilin in Jerusalem. | Photo by Michal Fattal

Those that they did not have to observe were not prohibited to them but they were exempted, and at some stage women wished to undertake some such mitzvot (e.g. hearing the shofar) waived their exemption. Who those women were, and whether they struggled to find acceptance – that’s a question for the historians.

Though there are women who have shown an interest in the mitzvot of tzitzit and t’fillin, rabbinic authorities have not been in favour and there has been little female interest.

Probably the most visible mark of increasing female involvement in Jewish observance has been in the field of Torah study; there are now many learned women who can handle Jewish texts with great competence.

Amongst orthodox women there is little real interest in becoming rabbis, but our value system always regarded scholarly substance more highly than communal rabbinic office.

(See Saul Berman’s “The Status of Women in Halakhic Judaism”, in Tradition 14:2, 1973.)


Question.Should a nation allow an elderly person to be its leader?

Answer. It all depends on the leader. If he or she is like Moses, they can still lead in extreme old age if “their eyesight is not dim or their natural force abated” (Deut. 34:7).

In the 1960s there was a saying, “Don’t trust anyone over 30”, but some people under 30 are unfit to lead and some who are over 70 or 80 are capable of exercising power with great wisdom.

When Dr. Johnson was asked who were better, men or women, he said, “Which man, which woman?”

Likewise we should say, who is the better leader, an old person or a young one, and the answer is, “Which old person, which young one?”


Question.Is the purported grave of Maimonides in Tiberias genuine?

The grave of the Rambam in Tiberias / northern Israel. credit: shearim.blogspot.com

Answer. At the time of Maimonides’ 800th anniversary in 1935 (the Rambam lived from 1135-1204), Professor Simcha Assaf (1889-1953), the great scholar and historian and later a judge of the Supreme Court of Israel, investigated all the available evidence that Maimonides was really buried in Tiberias.

He found the Rambam’s name in a listing of graves in Eretz Yisra’el compiled about 1260, a poem from the same period referring to the Rambam being buried in Tiberias, and a statement of a traveller of the time that gives the location of the grave. A few decades later the rabbis of Tz’fat and Akko visited the grave in order to protest against Maimonides’ denigrators.

Thus, though Maimonides died in Egypt, his remains must have been brought to Eretz Yisra’el, as had been the case with a number of other great Jews beginning with the patriarch Jacob. Indeed Maimonides himself had specifically stated in his Code (Hilchot M’lachim 5:11) that a Jew who is unable to settle in the Holy Land should at least arrange for his body to be buried there, and we have to presume that the sage himself took his own advice.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

Check Also

Whenever I feel afraid – Rosh HaShanah

Julie Andrews made it into a famous song – the notion that whenever I feel …