Mitzvahs are divided into two categories—the things that we’re commanded to do (“positive mitzvahs,” e.g., believe in one G‑d, honor our parents) and the things we’re commanded not to do (“negative mitzvahs,” e.g., don’t kill, don’t steal).The Mishnah tells us that women are obligated to do mitzvahs that aren’t bound to a specific time, as well as refrain from almost1 all prohibitions—including those that are time-related. They are generally exempt, however, from all obligations that must be fulfilled at a specific time, such as tzitzit, tefillin, reading the Shema, shofar, sukkah,lulavand Sefirat HaOmer.2

It’s important to note that “exempt” doesn’t mean “stay out of this.” Most of these are optional for women—if a woman so chooses,3 she can fulfill the mitzvah, and she has a reward for doing so. Indeed, some, such as reading the Shema morning and night, women have accepted upon themselves as an obligation.

Furthermore, this is not an absolute rule, as there are certain time-bound mitzvahs that women are obligated to do. For example, women must make or hear kiddush on Shabbat, even though it is clearly a time-bound mitzvah. Why? Because women are included in the prohibition “Don’t work on Shabbat,” and since both the obligations and prohibitions of Shabbat “were said as one” during the giving of the Ten Commandments, women are obligated to do all the positive aspects of Shabbat as well.4

Additionally, women are obligated to fulfill time-bound mitzvahs that commemorate an event or miracle that they were part of, such as the mitzvah of eating matzah (which commemorates the Exodus) or the rabbinic mitzvahs of Chanukah and Purim.

Nevertheless, the question remains: Why, generally speaking, are women exempt from time-bound mitzvahs?

Women Have Other, More Important Obligations

One common explanation is that women are often preoccupied with their familial duties and it is not realistic to expect them to make themselves available for mitzvahs that must be done at a specific time. In Jewish tradition, raising children is considered one of the most elevated forms of service of G‑d, crucial to the continuation of His nation and His Torah.5 And it is specifically women whom G‑d endowed with qualities vital to nurturing a family.6 Thus, since women are often engaged in this holy task, they are exempt from these obligations.

This brings us to the obvious question, what about women who don’t have family responsibilities—why are they exempt? Although some would answer that once there is a general rule in the Torah, it applies even in situations where the reason behind it may not apply, in truth, there are deeper reasons given behind this exemption.

Women Don’t Need These Commandments

Some explain that the Torah did not impose these time-bound mitzvahson women because there is no need to. Women have a greater natural fervor and more faithful enthusiasm and are in less danger than men of falling prey to the temptations that they encounter in the course of their lives. Accordingly, it was not necessary to give women these repeated reminders to remain true to their calling, and warnings against moments of weakness.7

However, if it were only a matter of faith and fervor, it begs the question, does a man who is righteous or “the shepherd of faith” like Moses also not really need to fulfill time-bound mitzvahs? And what about a woman who is not so fervent? Does she then need to fulfill these mitzvahs? Is the difference in obligation simply a matter of the Torah setting down the rule based on the majority of men and women?

Two Halves of a Soul

A deeper look at the relationship of man and woman can enlighten us in this regard.

When discussing the creation of man and woman, the Torah does not describe them as two distinct entities, but as a single whole: “And G‑d created the Adam in His image, male and female He created them.”8 Thus, the Zohar explains that divine image is neither male nor female, but a synthesis of both.9 It is only later that G‑d separates Adam into two distinct entities, and even then man and woman are each considered half a person—not just in soul, but in body as well.

Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal) explains that man and woman are two dimensions of a single soul. Each individual soul is charged with the implementation of the entire Torah–its masculine element, acting through a male body, is enjoined to carry out the Torah’s masculine commandments; and its feminine element, vested in a female body, to realize the Torah’s feminine goals. Thus, the Arizal explains that “when the male performs a mitzvah [commanded specifically to men], there is no need for the woman to do it on her own, since she is included in his performance of the mitzvah.”10

This applies even if the two souls never actually join in marriage, for, ultimately, they are still two halves of the same soul, with each part of the soul working in its distinct way.

For more teachings of the Kabbalah concerning men and women, see The Kabbalah of Man and Woman.

Yet we are still left with the question of why it is that the female half is the one that doesn’t have to do time-bound mitzvahs.

Why can’t we reverse the roles and have her fulfill the obligations of the man? What is the essential difference between the makeup of the two halves of the soul that results in their different missions and obligations in this world?

Again, we need to probe deeper.

Women and Timelessness

The phenomenon of gender is a core element of our universe. Almost everywhere we look, life is propagated and sustained by a continuous drama of opposites meeting and uniting. Torah, being the “blueprint of creation,” also contains two opposite poles that meet and unite to create the dynamic of applied wisdom. Throughout the halachah of Torah, we meet the synthesis of these opposites in different forms: the timeless and the time-bound, the general and the specific, permanence and change—these are only some of their manifestations in the practical wisdom of Torah.

When G‑d gave the Torah to Moses, He instructed him, “So you shall relate to the house of Jacob, and pronounce to the sons of Israel . . .”11 Expounding on this verse, the Midrash explains that “the house of Jacob” refers to the women; “the sons of Israel,” the men. The verse is saying, “Relate the general principles [of Torah] to the women, and pronounce [its] exacting particulars to the men.”12

In other words, the female soul is more aligned with the general, essential, and timeless principles of awe and faith—as exemplified by many biblical women—whereas men relate more to the detail, the specific law, the particular application within time and space.

This distinction between women and men is also reflected in the role parents have in determining the identity of their child. The essence of Jewishness is determined by the mother, whereas the particulars of Jewishness, such as tribal identity, are determined by the father.

This, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains, is the deeper explanation as to why women are generally exempt from time-bound mitzvahs. Women are more connected to the general aspect of the mitzvahs, that essential, primordial aspect that is not constrained or bound by the limitations of time. Therefore, they are generally only obligated to keep the negative commandments, as well as non-time-bound positive commandments.13 14

Just as it was in the merit of the righteous women that we were redeemed from Egypt and received the Torah, so, too, in the final redemption, it is specifically in their merit that we will usher in the final redemption.15 May it be speedily in our days!