Should batmitzvah girls be called to the Torah?

By Simon Rocker
January 23, 2012

You may have read our story in Friday’s newspaper about a United Synagogue member asking the London Beth Din whether there are circumstances in which a woman could be called to the Torah.

Here is a copy of the paper submitted to the Beth Din written by Dr Alexis Brassey of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue in support of his case.

An enquiry to the London Beth Din:

I would like the United Synagogues Bet Din to clarify an issue pertaining to the baraita in Megillah 23a which states:

‘Our rabbis taught: All may be numbered among the seven, even a minor and even a woman, but the Sages said: a woman is not to read from the Torah on account of kevod hatsibur’.

Given the above baraita, also echoed in Tosafot and Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 282.3), the principle area of discussion in regards to permitting women’s aliyyot pertains to the notion of kevod hatsibbur. Much of the Rabbinic and halachic literature spends time debating the nature and extent of women’s obligations and the extent to which this may permit an aliyya, some of it tends to be permissive, some of it tends to be restrictive. The principle authority for the former position is based on Mishnah Rosh ha-Shannah (3:8) which states that unless one is obliged to perform a religious duty, one cannot perform it on behalf of the congregation. Instances of women being exempt from obligations include circumcising their sons, Pidyon Haben, Torah Study per Qiddushin 29a-29b and observances that are “determined by time”. Arguments in favour of the permissive position are based on the baraita itself, along with the explanation put by R Avraham Avli Gombiner (Magen Avraham) who cites Masekhet Soferim indicating women are obliged to hear the reading of the sefer as are men. This view is also followed by R Hayyim David Azulai (Hida) in Birkei Yosef. Further support for this view also comes from R Aryeh Leib Gunzberg (Turei Even) who argues from Tosafot that rabbincally ordained mitsvot (in this case qeri’at ha Torah) can be performed by the non-obligated.

There are two common features in the literature which appear to invite consensus. The first relates to the fact that women are not forbidden in all circumstances from being called. There are various authorities for this position but the most widely cited are the case put by Maharam of Rothenberg and the Mordecai in which a town is entirely populated by kohanim. R Issac Luria also permits women being called in certain stressing circumstances - sha’at ha-dehaq.(Siddur me-ha Ari Zal ha Niqra be- Shem Qol Ya’aqov p35).

The second area of consensus, relates to the position of non-obligatory performance of mitzvot. Here both sets of commentators appear to agree that providing there is sufficient communal consensus the halacha presents no barrier for a woman to perform positive obligations. This consensus appears to be uncontroversial and perhaps best articulated by Ramban who states:

‘women and slaves who want to wrap themselves in tsitsit wrap themselves without the blessing. And similarly, with the rest of the positive commandments from which women are exempt if they wish to perform them without the blessing, we do not protest’(Hilkhot Tsitsit 3:9).

The view that women may involve themselves in non-obligated mitzvoth is also supported by R Yosef Karo in Beit Yosef and R Mosheh Isserles (Rema) who states:

‘Nonetheless if women or slaves wish to wrap themselves in a tallit and make a blessing on it they may do so as is the case with the rest of “time determined” positive commandments’(Rema).

Given that a non-obligatory eighth alyyia (“8A”) is non-obligatory, this paper seeks clarification on its status from a theoretical halachic perspective.


I have considered positions from the mainstream Orthodox responses in respect to the area of non-mandatory aliyyot for women. These commentators all argue against women’s aliyyot for the mandatory readings. I have not rehearsed the arguments put by proponents who are in favour of women being called for mandatory aliyyot on the basis that I am seeking clarification only on 8A. I understand that Dayan Gelley is extremely busy and I therefore only seek guidance on this point.

The issue I would like the Bet Din to consider relates to this issue, solely from a theoretical halachic perspective. In other words I am not looking for a prescription, declaration or statement that expressly permits 8A from a practical perspective, merely clarification of the theoretical position.

Yehuda Herzl Henkin

R.Henkin argues forcefully in respect to not permitting women to receive aliyyot (Yehuda Herzl Henkin , Qeri’at ha-Torah by Women: Where We Stand Today.” Edah 1:2, 2001) in direct response to the paper put by Shapiro (Mendel Shapiro, “Qeri’at ha-Torah by Women: A Halakhic Analysis” Edah 1:2, 2001. Despite his position on mandatory aliyyot, however, R. Henkin states:

‘Only if her aliyyah is superfluous from the standpoint both of its ordinal number and its contents would kevod ha-tsibbur not apply’(Yehuda Herzl Henkin , Qeri’at ha-Torah by Women: Where We Stand Today.” Edah 1:2, 2001 page 6).

Although R. Henkin goes on to state that any congregation which institutes women’s aliyyot...

‘ not Orthodox in name and will not long remain Orthodox in practice. In my judgment this is an accurate statement now and for the foreseeable future, and I see no point in arguing about it” (Henkin p7).

... it is reasonable to consider these views as pertaining only to mandatory aliyyot and not to 8A. In support of the position that R. Henkin, in fact adopts a rather accommodative halachic stance towards 8A, it is of note later in his article when he argues in favour of specifically non-mandatory aliyyot for women, specifically in relation to Simhat Torah. He cites Resp Avnei Neizer, Orah Hayyim, no. 35...

‘ might be possible for women to have aliyyot even in the ezrat nashim...’ (Henkin p8).

He caveats this position by indicating such an innovation should only be considered where women strongly desired to participate in the service and should be subject to the decisions of a local halakhic authority.

R Henkin offers no halachic objection to women being called outside of the mandatory aliyyot per the views of Rema and Ramban as cited in the background notes.

Rabbi Gidon Rothstein

Gidon Rothstein writing in 2005 was also responding to R. Shapiro’s article in Edah (Gidon Rothstein, "Women’s Aliyyot in Contemporary Synagogues." Tradition 39:2, Summer 2005). R Rothstein takes issue with R Shapiro’s analysis of kavod hatsibur. His central argument pertains to the temporal nature of a wavier in regard to kevod hatsibur, specifically pointing to the “unbearded (young) Chazzan” as a matter that would pass in time.

It is of note, however, that R Rothstien recognises a number of medieval commentators accepted the theoretical possibility of women’s aliyot. He also accepts that most of the major authorities accepted that women could read the final aliyyot and therefore by implication 8A.

R Rothstein specifically points to R Shapiro’s authorities namely: Or Zaru’a, R. David Pardo, R. Isaiah de-Trani (Rid), R. Jacob Emden, R. Meir ha-Kohen of Rothenburg (Hagahot Maimoniyot), Ran, Rivash and Rema’s. He concludes that Shapiro’s points are difficult or invalid in relation to calling women for the first six portions but accepts they provide support for women potentially reading a seventh portion and by implication 8A. In regards to kevod hatsibur, R Rothstein suggests that...

‘ the outsourcing of an obligation betrays an undignified attitude towards the obligation itself...’

There are arguments to be had about whether this view is valid, particularly in the context of communities that contain individuals of widely varying knowledge and religious practice. What does appear to be the case, in regards to R Rothstein’s view is that his arguments do not pertain to aliyyot that are not “obligations” namely 8A.

R Rothstein offers no halachic objection to women being called outside of the mandatory aliyyot per the views of Rema and Ramban as cited in the background notes.

Rabbi Yaakov Ariel

R Ariel raises two issues which have a bearing on 8A. The issue of kol isha, and the problem pertaining to sexual distraction (Rabbi Ariel Yaakov "Aliyat Nashim ba-Torah 'o la-Torah", Women's Aliyot: In the Torah or to the Torah?", "Hazofe" August 8, 2007: and Ramat Gan chief rabbi slams 'radical feminist' egalitarian minyanim Jerusalem Post February 20, 2008). Dealing firstly with the issue of kol isha, R Ariel’s view does not appear to hold in regards to the possibility of 8A, this is based on a number of authorities namely Divrei Cheifetz (Specific mention is given to Shabbat Hymns and funeral diges are not kol isha because men to not derive sexual pleasure from them), R David Bigman, R Avraham Shammah, and importantly Maharshal and R Ovadio Yosef who permit various violations of the tzniut providing the behaviour in question is not sexually enticing in that time and place.

The issue relating to sexual distraction can also be dealt with by the same authorities given the purpose of 8A. There are few objections to 8A in the Orthodox literature that deviates away from the issue of kevod hatsibur, but R Ariel’s are noted.

Rabbi Aryeh A. Frimer

Rabbi Frimer argues that kevod hatsibur is unwaivable for reasons of modesty and obligation (Aryeh A. Frimer Review of Daniel Sperber’s Darka shel Halakha). He also suggests that the baraita in Megilla 23a only permitted leniency in the event of an emergency. R Frimer argues against the principle as put by R Sperber that kevod hatsibur can be overridden by kevod habriyot (Daniel Sperber, (2002) "Congregational Dignity and Human Dignity: Women and Public Torah Reading”). The basis for R Frimer’s argument is that kevod hatsibur can only be waived in certain circumstances such as where shame or embarrassments were to obtain. According to R Frimer, given that a rabbinic prohibition can never be characterised as an embarrassment, R Sperber’s argument fails.

Whilst it is the case that R Frimer’s points may have merit in regards to kevod hatsibur, they appear to again be based on the notion of obligations. The principle behind 8A is that the woman is engaging in something that has no obligation attached and therefore falls outside of the area of his critique.

R Frimer offers no halachic objection to women being called outside of the mandatory aliyyot per the views of Rema and Ramban as cited in the background notes.

Shlomo Riskin

R Riskin argues (Meorot 7:1, Tishrei, 5769, Yeshivat Chovevel Torah Rabbinical School) directly against the positions put by Shapiro (The Edah Journal 1:2, Sivan, 5761) and Sperber (The Edah Journal 3:2, Elul 5763) in their analysis to find justification for aliyyot or women. His principal arguments again relate to the assertion that women are not obligated to read Torah as men are. He also argues that kevod hatsibur cannot be waived.
In the final paragraph of Riskin’s paper and dialogue with Shapiro, he states:

‘...I am indebted to Rav Shapiro for having opened a full discussion of the broad issues raised by the encounter of halakhah with modernity in general and gender issues in particular. It should also be clear from my study that from a purely halakhic perspective, there may well be room for a woman to be called up to the Torah for a reading of the maftir and the haftorah as well as for hosafot to the seven obligatory Torah readings as long as there is a propert mehitsah in the synagogue’ (Meorot 7:1, Tishrei, 5769, Yeshivat Chovevel Torah Rabbinical School, p34.

R Riskin offers no halachic objection to women being called outside of the mandatory aliyyot per the views of Rema and Ramban as cited in the background notes.


Given that all of the Orthodox positions on women’s aliyyot relate to prohibitions pertaining to obligations I cannot appear to find any halachic authorities that prohibit non-obligatory aliyyot. I realise that there are many other practical obstacles such as the creation of an appropriate mechitza, the support of the specific congregation, the willingness of women participants and the logistics of such an operation. I do not, however, seek guidance on these matters.

R’s Frimer, Henkin, Riskin and Rothstein offer no halachic objection to women being called outside of the mandatory aliyyot per the views of Rema and Ramban as cited in the background notes.

Please could you confirm along with the views of Rema, Ramban, Frimer, Henkin, Riskin, Rothstein, Or Zaru’a, R. David Pardo, Rid, R. Jacob Emden, Hagahot Maimoniyot, Ran and Rivash that there is no halachic prohibition in so far as it relates to women and non-obligatory aliyyot.


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