Since time immemorial, the widely accepted practice in the Torah-observant community is that women do not wear tefillin. Let’s explore this issue in the light of halachah.
Do They Need To?
Tefillin is a time-bound positive mitzvah. In plain English, this means that it is something that must be done at a specific time. Women are generally exempt from such mitzvahs.
But even if they are exempt, shouldn’t they be encouraged to wear tefillin anyway of their own volition? After all, we find that most women do hear shofar on Rosh Hashanah and shake the lulav on Sukkot, even though they are technically not required to. Why whould tefillin be any different?
Our first point of reference is the biblical prohibition against crossdressing. The Torah states, “A man’s attire shall not be on a woman, nor may a man wear a woman’s garment, because whoever does these [things] is an abomination to the L‑rd, your G‑d.”
The great Talmudic sage Yonatan ben Uziel, in his elucidated translation of the Torah, sees this as precluding a women from wearing a tallit or tefillin, since they are male apparel.
Others, however, are of the opinion that the prohibition of crossdressing applies only to clothing worn for style or appearance, but it would not apply to ritual items like tefillin. Accordingly, this prohibition alone would not be sufficient reason for women to refrain from doing this mitzvah.
Halacha teaches that when someone does a non-obligatory pious act that is not performed by the vast majority of their peers, it draws undue attention to their excessive piety in an inappropriately ostentatious manner, and is to be discouraged. For this reason, there are some who say that women wishing to go the extra mile may not put on tefillin.
This may help explain why women refrain from putting on tefillin publicly. However, it is not clear that this reason would apply to those who wish to do so in the privacy of their own homes.
Extreme Holiness of Tefillin
While our discussion centers on why women don’t wear tefillin, the truth is that this isn’t the only question.
Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves why men don’t wear tefillin the whole day. After all, the mitzvah isn’t to wear tefillin just during the Shema and prayers, but applies from early morning to evening. Indeed, in ancient times, it was the custom of many to wear tefillin the entire day. So, what changed?
Another strange phenomenon we find with regards to tefillin: We train our children to do almost all mitzvahs at a young age, so that these habits are deeply ingrained by the time they reach the age of majority. When it comes to tefillin, which is a lot more complex than other mitzvahs, we wait until weeks (at most two months) before he turns 13 to start training. Why the delay?
The reason for all this can be traced to the exceptional degree of holiness of the tefillin. Due to this sanctity, wearing tefillin requires purity of thought and body.
While some view this requirement as going so far that one needs to be pure of sin to wear tefillin, most explain it to mean that when one wears tefillin, he must foster an awareness of G‑d and strive to constantly be conscious of the tefillin he is wearing. A high degree of physical cleanliness is required as well.
The importance of all this cannot be overstated. In fact, if a man cannot meet these requirements, he doesn’t put on tefillin (although a rabbi should be consulted). It is for this reason that nowadays, to avoid compromising the holiness of tefillin, men wear tefillin only during prayers, when they are in a state of awareness of G‑d and of cleanliness.
This is also the reason why boys are not taught to wear tefillin until close to their bar mitzvah.
It seems that this requirement is also one of the reasons that there was a period of time when many men refrained from wearing tefillin altogether. Rabbi Moshe of Coucy (13th century) relates that he traveled throughout Western Europe, exhorting men to wear tefillin during the morning prayers, teaching that they could maintain cleanliness and purity of thought for at least the duration of the services.
In light of the above, since women are not obligated to wear tefillin, the Code of Jewish Law rules that they should not do so, as it would mean voluntarily positioning themselves to perhaps wear tefillin in an inappropriate state.
The Historical Exception
Having discussed some of the reasons why women don’t put on tefillin, it must be noted that historically we find rare exceptions.
(There is the famous legend that that the pious and learned daughters of the renowned commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) used to put on tefillin, but this is most certainly a myth.)
The Talmud notes that Princess Michal, daughter of King Saul and wife of King David, used to put on tefillin.
Already in Talmudic times, the rabbis disputed whether her behavior was condoned by the sages of her era. Those who say that the sages protested are of the opinion that women are explicitly prohibited from wearing tefillin.
Others explain that due to Michal’s extraordinary piousness and the fact that she was a princess and queen, she was able to maintain purity of body and thought when putting on tefillin.
Regardless, it seems quite clear that her actions were not intended to set public precedent. Indeed, the very fact that the Talmud needs to go back more than a thousand years to the days of King Saul to find an example of a woman wearing tefillin indicates that it was a unique occurrence.
On a deeper level, the Kabbalists explain that although for mystical reasons (as well as those outlined above) women do not put on tefillin, Michal, being the deeply spiritual woman she was, knew that she was a reincarnation of a male soul (which also explains why she bore no children), and it is for that reason that she wore tefillin.
Please see also Is it appropriate for a woman to wear a tallit?