Tzitzit are fringes attached to the four corners of a tallit, or a special four-cornered garment (arba kanfot or tallit katan) in fulfillment of the biblical commandment:

“And the Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the children of Israel and bid them that they make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringes of the corners a thread of blue. And it shall be to you for a fringe, that you may look upon (and you shall see it) and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them.”
(Num.15:37-41)

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“And you shall make yourself twisted cords upon the four corners of your covering, wherewith you cover yourself”.
(Deuteronomy 22:12)

In the first reference to the tzitzit above, the phrase “children of Israel” is ambiguous as the male plural form is always used in Hebrew when addressing mixed groups. It is, therefore, possible to interpret this command, originally intended to indicate that Jews wore outer garments with fringes, as incumbent on men and women. This is, in fact, how the Talmud interprets the command in the first instance. In tractate Menachot 643a we read that everyone is obligated concerning the tzitzit – Kohenim, Leviyyim, Yisraelim, converts, women and slaves. Then a comment by Rabbi Simon follows:

“Rabbi Simon exempted women because this was a positive mitzvah limited by time and from all positive, time bound mitzvot women are exempt”.

This view was reinforced by subsequent codifiers. In the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayyim 17:2), Joseph Caro writes:

“Women and slaves are exempt (from the tzitzit) because this is a positive, timebound mitzvah”.

Moses Isserles, was a Rabbi and Talmudist, renowned for his fundamental work of Halakha and the Shulkhan Arukh, adds:

“If they (women) wish to wrap themselves in a tallit for woman and make a blessing over it, then it is up to them, as with other timebound, positive mitzvot. But if they do put the talit for woman on, it will appear to be a show of haughtiness or pride in their piety. Therefore, they should not wear tzitzit since it is not an obligation which resides in the person themselves (lo chovat gavra) but rather in the garment”.

Isserles’ point becomes clearer if we examine one of the commentators on the Shulchan Aruch, the Ba’er Hetev, who writes:

   

“It is explained that he is not obligated to buy a tallit … because in all events, any time he is not wearing the tallit even if he has a four-cornered garment, he is exempt from (the mitzvah of) tzitzit. And it is not a personal duty because he is not obligated to purchase a tallit in order to fulfill the obligation of tzitzit. Only if he owns a tallit of four corners and wears it, is he obligated with regard to tzitzit”.

In other words, the mitzvah of tzitzit and tallit is something you can only fulfill if in possession of the requisite garment. You need not to own a tallit and do not need to purchase one in order to fulfill the obligation to wear tzitzit. The implication of Isserles is that a woman who would go out of her way to purchase a tallit for woman must be showing off her piety. No such implication exists for the man who goes out to purchase a tallit. Indeed, it has become customary for men to do so.

It is interesting to note that Isserles does make a statment regarding wearing a tallit for women and does not make the comment that women who fulfill the obligations of eating matzah, or hearing the shofar, or shaking the lulav, are showing unseemly pride in their piety. It would seem that this particular mitzvah of tzitzit, because it is an external symbol, because the wearing tallit for women may extend over time, and because wearing the tallit may have implications for the involvement of women in services, is more threatening to the codifiers.

However, that being said, nearly all other codifiers permit women to wear a tallit for women and to recite the blessings over it, with two exceptions – Maimonides and Epstein. Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Tzitzit 3:9) writes:

“Women, slaves and minors are exempt from tzitzit according to the Torah … Women and slaves who wish to wrap themselves in tallit may wrap themselves without making a blessing. And thus with other timebound, positive commandments from which women are exempt: if they wish to fulfill them without making a blessing, then you don’t prevent them”.

Maimonides’ protagonist, the Rabad, disagreed with that decision of wearing the tallit for women without making a blessing and noted in his comment on Hilchot Tzitzit that others disagreed as well.

The strictest position is that of Epstein in Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chayyim 17:3). He examines the rabbis’ acceptance of women performing other timebound, positive mitzvot, such as the shaking of the lulav, and raises no objections. But in his eyes talit is different. First, the other timebound mitzvot are matters of chovat gavra (personal obligation), whereas tallit for women is not, and so they have more importance. Second, the shaking of the lulav and the hearing of the shofar occur only once in a year, but wearing the tallit is a daily commandment. He then says: “It is not fitting for a woman to wear tallit …” and his arguments lead him to ask: “How can we allow women to wear a tallit?”

One could say that Epstein’s comments on the frequency, and therefore the prominence and public visibility of women wearing a tallit, reveal his own prejudice with regard to women and are at variance with most other codifiers.

In summary, the overall halachic position on tallit for women suggests that, as with all other positive, time-bound commandments from which women are exempt, women can and have worn a tallit with the permission of most rabbis and do recite the blessing upon wrapping themselves in the tallit for woman.

Having explained what the traditional sources have to say about tallit for women, we now need to acknowledge that halachic arguments alone will not ‘convince’ them to wear tallit for women, or men and women to accept this development. The arguments against the wearing of the tallit for women are also emotional and may have to do with the same feelings which provoke Isserles to describe the law fairly, and then set about to express his opinion that women who undertake mitzvot such as tzitzit are immodest. It seems to be difficult for some people to believe that women can have a genuine desire to increase their level of observance. The wearing of a tallit for women has in all cases been accompanied by an increase in commitment and attendance at synagogue services and study sessions.

It may be that if women continue to wear tallit for women, and wear it on all occasions, this will become the custom and override the exemption. The only problem is, if wearing a tallit for women becomes the general practice for many women, should we then ask women who attend a service to put on a tallit?

This may depend on the individual synagogue and whether it is their practice to ask men who are clearly bar mitzvah and clearly Jewish to put on a tallit at a Shabbat morning service. This is done with regard to the kippah but that is a different issue. It is not within the scope of Jewish tradition to require someone to fulfill an obligation from which they are exempt. This, and our desire not to force a difficult issue on women who may have been raised in more traditional ways, might lead us to treat tallit for women as optional. But this question must remain open to be addressed in the future.

A more difficult issue arises with regard to women who accept mitzvot in the service, such as an aliyah or hagbahah. One could argue that they should really be required to wear a tallit for women because, in accepting the mitzvah, they are implying that they accept some sort of obligation. However, in practice, the imposition of this kind of obligation may cause women to refuse mitzvot because they have not settled the issue of women wearing a tallit. Therefore, one solution might be to offer women who have accepted a mitzvah of wearing tallit for women which they can either do before the service or just prior to being called up. Bat mitzvah girls should also be offered the option, of wearing a tallit for women, through class and private discussion in the context of becoming obligated in the ritual of Jewish adulthood.

There are many issues which still need to be sorted out. But perhaps, as more and more people come to accept our Reform commitment to the equal status of women and men, it may be only a matter of time before the vast majority of Reform Jewish women wear a tallit for women.