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Is it appropriate for a woman to wear a tallit?

Is it appropriate for a woman to wear a tallit?

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Women are not obligated to wear a tallit. This is because they are exempt from fulfilling almost all time-bound positive commandments (such as reciting the Shema, which is done morning and night, or taking the Four Kinds on the holiday of Sukkot). Nonetheless, women do fulfill many of these mitzvot if they so desire.

Yet the prevailing custom is that women do not wear tallitot. A number of reasons for this reticence are found in Halachic works:

A. Both women and men are Biblically forbidden to wear clothing normally associated with the other gender. For example, men may not wear skirts. Since a tallit is traditionally a male garment, for a woman to wear one would constitute a violation of this statute.

B. Although women observe many time-bound mitzvot though they are not obligated to do so – an admirable practice for which they are certainly greatly rewarded – a tallit is different because there is no obligation whatsoever to wear a tallit—even for a man. Rather, in the event that he wears a four-cornered garment, a man must attach fringes to its corners. Since a man is not obligated to seek out such a garment, women who are entirely exempt from this mitzvah (i.e. they may wear fringeless four-cornered garments) do not wear them at all.

C. A woman who fulfills this mitzvah, which she is not obligated in doing and is not performed by the vast majority of her gender, draws undue attention to her excessive piety in an inappropriately ostentatious manner. [The concept of abstaining from a particular activity because it is deemed to be ostentatious is a general rule in Jewish law, applied both to men and women in various cases.]

D. On a mystical level, the inner workings of this mitzvah are male oriented and just don't "do it" for a woman.

So what is a woman who wishes to wear a tallit to do?

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, eminent 20th century halachic authority, writes1 that a woman who desires to wear a tallit may do so, provided that she wears a distinctively feminine tallit, to avoid the problem mentioned above. He cautions, however, that this applies only to women whose desire to wear a tallit stems from a yearning to fulfill this mitzvah, though recognizing that they are not required to do so, and not to individuals who don a tallit as a "protest," a means of challenging what they perceive to be a gender bias in Jewish law. Such an individual is not fulfilling a mitzvah, and to the contrary.


While the above addresses the practical aspect of this question, I would be remiss if I did not address the deeper issue this question involves. While altogether the feminist movement is to be commended for the equal rights it has secured for women, and the elevation of the woman's social, legal and economic status, a certain aspect of this movement's aims is questionable at best. I refer to the desire to make women masculine, rather than accentuate their feminine qualities. To evaluate a woman based on her ability to "do whatever a man can," is to dishonor womanhood, and all the unique qualities it brings to the table. A true feminist is someone who believes and is committed to making others understand the equality and importance of a women and the natural feminine role, not someone who believes that women should forsake their femininity in favor of becoming more man-like.

The same is true in the religious arena. There is a certain element that wishes to see equality between man and woman in all areas of religious ritual—i.e. that women should do whatever men do. The apparent premise of this movement is the belief that the woman's role in Judaism is less important and noble than the man's, and thus the need to right this perceived wrong.

But the One who created both man and woman thinks otherwise. He is aware that He endowed man and woman with equally valuable but fundamentally different qualities and talents—and then in His Torah advised both man and woman how to maximize these unique strengths.

So the larger question is: why would a woman want to wear a tallit if the Torah does not encourage her to do so?

For more on this topic, see Women in the Synagogue, or browse the articles in our Women, Femininity & Feminism section.

Footnotes
1.

Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim IV, section 49.

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Carmel USA September 9, 2016

I think Rabbi Feinstein makes a good point: to "don a tallit as a 'protest,' a means of challenging what they perceive to be a gender bias in Jewish law. Such an individual is not fulfilling a mitzvah, and to the contrary." Intention is everything, especially when praying. I don't think the rabbi is reading hearts because that is the Almighty's job (1 Samuel 16:7). But if a woman wears a tallit with any other intention (especially a negative one) than for what it was intended, I can't see how that could be a good thing. We have been having the same type of argument in Catholicism as well. I used to think women were not treated well in our faith as well. But after careful study and prayer, I came to the conclusion that we are actually blessed by the Almighty because women have been given such a responsible role of bearing and raising the next generation. I know this doesn't sit well with a lot of women, but I look at it as the first and most important mitzvah. Reply

Anonymous September 4, 2016

There is something to the ritual of putting on the talit to help focus your prayers. Putting a lace on my head never felt sufficient. And then I married a man who is not a Jew. Because we are now in the Reform movement, I want to lead my children by example such that at least one of their parents wears the talit as an example to my boy as much as my girl. I don't see enough reform men wearing a talit such as to make the example to the boy that it is for men only. Reply

Leah Seattle May 27, 2016

Men and women's dress historically has absolutely no bearing on this discussion as styles and dress customs have changed over the last 2,000 years. Women never traditionally wore slacks and in ancient history, neither did men. There is no "his/her" clothing as most styles are unisex. Both men and women wear jeans or slacks. Both men and women wear shoes, coats, sweaters, hats, shirts, various colors.... The only thing that distinguishes a mans clothing from a woman's is a particular style and there are many feminine styles of Tallit. The Tallit with fringes can also be called a shawl which is a garment traditionally worn by women so perhaps men should not be allowed to wear them or perhaps we should not allow women to wear anything that has fringes on it. Reply

Ronald Sevenster May 27, 2016

I would be interested in knowing something about women's dress in biblical times. Apart from the question of tzitit, did women in the Middle East (in Israel and other countries) ever wear the typical four-cornered garment that was men's traditional upper garment? Or was their upper garment different? How were clothes for women and men exactly distinct from each other in these times, when there existed no trousers and other typically modern men-wear. How did a person know from afar that another person was a woman by her clothes. Can anyone inform me about this? Reply

Michoel HaKohein Here April 20, 2016

You typed before you thought--a common problem among people who get angry at what they read on the internet.

The Torah (not the author) clearly prohibits men from wearing feminine clothing and women from wearing masculine wear. Since the items you listed are (generally) neutral, they are fine for both men and women.

Any woman wishing to don a tallit will have to contend with the fact that it is a historically male piece of clothing.

This was not something "discovered" by some "biased" males in Brooklyn. Rather, it is recorded in the Targum, the oldest commentary on the Torah.

Don't shoot the messenger.

Think, think again, and then decide. Reply

Anonymous April 20, 2016

Your logic is fundamentally flawed not to mention insulting to women. You pretend to "know" what motivates our desire to wear Tallit. I'll go into that later but first let me address the very first "wrong" thing you said.
Re: "women and men are Biblically forbidden to wear clothing normally associated with the other gender."
Shall I list all the clothes men and women wear that are "gender" neutral? socks, gloves, coats, hats, shirts, pants, shoes, n
Only the "style" and/or color of these outfits conveys gender. A type of clothing is worn by all.

Exempting someone from something is not the same as prohibiting someone from something. You don't seem to understand the distinction.

Re: "The inner workings of this mitzvah are male oriented and just don't "do it" for a woman. " - well neither do you but we can "do it'' for ourselves (and usually do)
Really? It does it for me! Anything I add to my observance by taking on a mitzvah, I am blessed greately.
Your reasons are pure bias Reply

Gene Hot Springs SD April 17, 2016

Thank you Rabbi for the way you explained this seeming malady. It has always mystified me why some of G-ds creation wants to change that creation. As men & women are joined in marriage and they become whole,the two parts engage in different activities so both are given credit for raising children etc. and doing tzadic life. Reply

Anonymous South-Africa February 16, 2016

I thought about this for a while. I can accept that only men wear the Tzitzit. Us females are mostly checkers. check this, check that. We after a while do not even notice we do that. But when a man wears Tzitzit, he is Hashem-checked. This concept creates instant peace of mind to me that that particular individual is no threat to me and my loved ones and that the country is safer with him in it. Tzitzit on men makes a whole lot of sense. Reply

Shoshana GA November 16, 2015

Torah says for Israel to wear tzitzit. While traditionally men have interpreted this to be limited to men, women have always figured prominently in the history of Israel. I wonder if Deborah wore tzitzit and how would she have judged the matter? Should men be the only ones reminded to pray during the day? Reply

Anonymous PORTLAND September 18, 2015

As you end with a question, I recommend that you actually ask women who do wear a tallit or who wish to, and *listen* to their answers, rather than projecting your own biases on them. Reply

Michael Scholar Walla Walla, WA. August 19, 2015

I was happier until I read Rabbi Posner's after thought, in which he feared women protesting inequality by wearing a tallit in protest. A mitzvah is always a mitzvah and Rabbi Zposner's screed expresses his superhuman ability to read the mind of others. Maimonides wrote about such assumptions. Posner's would have berated the Baal Shem Tov for his "protests". Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn, NY April 29, 2015

My comment is to Leah, Now Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, a prophetess, she Judged Israel doing her time. Reply

Leah October 30, 2014

Women "shouldn't" or "don't have to". Does this preclude the deep spiritual yearning of the soul to go deeper? A woman is not forbidden to wear tallit but me thinks men doth protest too much. The exclusion of women from this commandment was determined in a male dominated world where women didn't attend shul, stayed home, cooked and took care of the children. We take on many demanding roles in our world now and need all the help we can get to attain a higher spiritual level. I wear Tallit. Since the other women in my shul wear Tallit, it does not draw attention to me. It is rich and satisfying. Try it. Reply

Ben Slobodkin Jerusalem October 28, 2014

For those who would like to read the responsum by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt"l cited above, but their Hebrew is not up to par, an excerpt from it has been translated and posted online in English. Do a Google search for “Women and Tallits: Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.” I found that although the responsum was written four decades ago, it still resonates today. Reply

KarenMarie October 27, 2014

This is to me a very meaninful and really purposed discussion. Many of the thoughts and sentiments expressed mirror my own ; I hope this discussion board comes more current since the last posting was in June 2014.

Israel having been directed to be a "light" to the nations" has certainly acted as a light for me - though singularly I am not a nation - I am one who collectively joins with all those who make up the nation I live in. The tzizit being a commandment of G-d to Israel acts as sort of light in that it guides the spiritual eye to remember G-ds laws which is the true light by which people are to live. It is great to see so many Jewish men wearing tzizit - it would be equally wonderful to see women do the same! Reply

Katie United States June 7, 2014

This is something I have been thinking on for a long time! I have studied and talked with many wise people but I just cannot come to a firm decision. I have such a desire to wear the tzitzit but I hear so many talk about how women shouldn't or don't have to, yet I want to but I still don't know. From what I have seen in my study the command was given to the "Children of Yisra'el" and I saw that this same wording is used many times, for many commands and events that would have included both men and women. But looking into the word more found it spoke often most specifically of sons. So really I am still not sure but I hope to find an answer and peace about it soon. Reply

Leah Seattle January 5, 2014

On a mystical level, the inner workings of this mitzvah are male oriented and just don't "do it" for a woman.
How do you know it is male oriented? Reply

Elisheva January 2, 2014

Traditionally, Jewish women in Spain as well as women in Russia and other Eastern Europe countries have already worn Shawls, some triangular but some rectangle, thus with 4 corners. Men were rarely seen wearing shawls, doesn't that make a shawls and wraps women garments?

Also, women wearing Tallitot usually wear a kind that has nothing to do with the Tallit Gadol (traditionally worn by the Sefardim) quite colorful and silky, the kind a man would never wear because very feminine looking, Can those still be considered to be men garments?

Thank you. Reply

Yisroel Cotlar Cary, NC April 30, 2013

As the article pointed out, the oral tradition explains that the Mitzvah of tzitzit is a daytime Mitzvah. Therefore, like most time-dependent positive obligations, it is not something women are obligated in.

As for this only being mentioned in the oral tradition:

Let's take a step back:

How do we know what that the "Tzitzit" mentioned in the Torah mean? The fact that it has a certain number of strings, the knots, etc.

All of these are ideas passed down through the oral tradition!

People often don't take note how much we "rely" upon the oral tradition for our understanding of the very basics of Mitzvot. From the very vowels and punctuation in the Torah (which changes so much) to the many details of the Mitzvos we all take for granted but are not specifically written in the Chumash, these oral traditions are the way we have understood this since Sinai.

It is this same oral Tradition that outlines the obligations of a particular Mitzvah. Reply

Citrine US April 30, 2013

That's right, thank you, Shoshana! I often feel as though the women are looked down upon, as though we aren't 'good enough' to do some of the mitzvot. We're children of Yisrael and I look forward to fullfilling the mitzvot, I don't look for being excused out of them. Obviously if it's something for the kohanim or husbands, etc, then I can't do them but if it's for "the children of Yisrael" then I'm in. I also believe I will receive the protection of the tzitziot from unclean spirits; why wouldn't a women need that? Oh my. Especially me. Reply