Rabbi Jacob of Marvège, who lived in Provence at the end of the twelfth century, was the author of the collection “Responsa from Heaven.” As indicated by the book’s title, Rabbi Jacob, in a state of mystical ecstasy, would submit questions in Jewish law for adjudication by the celestial authorities. One such inquiry was “regarding women who recite blessings over the lulav... whether this involves a transgression and if it is a superfluous blessing.”
In order to properly appreciate why the rabbi felt the need for supernatural assistance in resolving it, we must trace the evolution of this controversy back to its ancient roots.
The festival of Sukkot is distinguished by a remarkable assortment of observances that celebrate diverse aspects of nature, agriculture and sacred history. By virtue of being attached to an annual holiday, rabbinic discourse classified most of these rituals as “time-defined positive commandments”—and according to the principle set out in the Mishnah, women were exempted from performing the commandments of dwelling in the sukkah or carrying the “four species”: the lulav, etrog, the myrtle and willow branches.
And yet a survey of subsequent rabbinic discussions of the topic reveals that in spite of the Mishnah’s discouragement, Jewish ladies over the generations have been quite eager to participate in these rituals, and they often did so.
This situation impelled the rabbinical authorities to confront a number of related issues. Among the questions that had to be resolved were: Does exemption from a commandment preclude its voluntary performance in an “un-commanded” status? Does performance of a precept from which one is exempt violate the Torah’s interdict of “Do not add to what I command you”? Can one sincerely recite the blessing over the observance of such a ritual, when the blessing states that the Lord “has commanded us to...” perform it? When uttering such a blessing superfluously, is a person transgressing the prohibition against taking the Lord’s name in vain?
An interesting precedent was mentioned in an ancient midrashic source. Although women are exempt from the obligation of “laying hands” on the heads of sacrificial offerings, a calf would nevertheless be brought into the Temple upon which the ladies were invited to lay their hands. Although it was clear that this practice had no formal function as a requirement of the sacrificial procedures, it was introduced in order “to give satisfaction to the women.”
The Babylonian Ge’onim and most Sephardic authorities followed a straightforward reading of the relevant Talmud texts, and took the position that women may choose to perform time-defined rituals from which they are exempt; however, since the performance does not qualify as the actual fulfilment of a commandment, they are not allowed to recite a blessing over it. Those rabbis generally looked very disapprovingly at the prospect of invoking God’s name for unnecessary blessings.
On the other hand, the rabbis of France during the eleventh and twelfth centuries appear to have undergone significant transitions in their thinking about the status of women who perform holiday rituals. There was a longstanding tradition among the sages of the Rhineland and France that tended toward a more egalitarian approach to female religiosity, recognizing that women may elect to take on ritual practices—along with the accompanying blessings.
The enhanced status of Jewish women in the religious life of twelfth-century Europe corresponded to similar developments in the Christian environment, as ladies were actively pursuing spiritual options that had been previously denied to them by the male leadership of the church. Both the Jewish and Christian societies were experiencing an economic prosperity that enhanced the social prominence of women and allowed them leverage in demanding more prominent roles in the synagogue and ceremonial observance.
A valuable testimony to the early practices of Franco-German Jewry is the Sefer Ra’avan by Rabbi Eleazar bar Nathan of Mainz, a work that was largely devoted to the defense of established local customs against objections from contemporary talmudic scholars. In that connection Rabbi Eleazar deemed it necessary to include a discussion about “how our ancestors were accustomed not to raise objections against women who take a lulav and recite the blessing over it, and similarly recite the blessing over dwelling in the sukkah.” He felt that the category of “superfluous blessings” was a relatively minor rabbinic issue—not to be equated with the Torah’s grave prohibition of taking God’s name in vain—and it should therefore be superseded by other legitimate considerations such as the women’s sincere desire to express their religious devotion.
In some specific cases, including the obligation of dwelling in the sukkah, there seemed to exist a longstanding precedent of women’s observance that placed them on a level comparable to that of the males. This situation was reflected in a ruling by Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg in the thirteenth century that when a Jewish community collectively purchased sets of “four species” for Sukkot, women were not to be included in the compulsory levy to pay for the articles—except for those ladies who explicitly asked to participate in the mitzvah. The existence of such ladies as a recognizable minority was accepted as a commonplace feature of communal life. One author reported that some women had revised the wording of the blessing, replacing the problematic expression “who has commanded us” with the more generic “who has commanded his people Israel to dwell in the sukkah” or “to take the lulav.”
The twelfth-century Maḥzor Vitry, an encyclopedic compendium of French Jewish liturgical practice, cited a ruling by Rabbi Isaac Halevy: “We do not prevent women from reciting the blessings over the lulav and sukkah.” As for the Mishnah’s exempting women from time-defined positive precepts, Rabbi Isaac explained that all it meant to say was that the ladies are not obligated to perform those precepts—“however, if they should be personally motivated to accept upon themselves the yoke of the commandments, then they are entitled to do so and no objection should be raised... And as long as she is performing a commandment, it is impossible to omit the pertinent blessing.” A similar position was reported in the name of Rabbi Isaac ben Judah of Mainz who permitted women to recite blessings over all time-defined commandments.
Rabbis Isaac Halevy and Isaac ben Judah were both teachers of the illustrious Rashi. Therefore it is especially significant to note that their disciple, in his commentaries on the relevant passages in the Talmud and in a ruling cited in his name in the Maḥzor Vitry, was departing from the local tradition advocated by his teachers, in favour of a policy that was more akin to that of the Sephardic authorities who forbade women to recite blessings over the lulav or the sukkah. Rashi wrote that the voluntary performance of unnecessary rituals violates the prohibitions against profaning the divine name by adding to the words of the Torah or by invoking God’s holy name in unnecessary blessings.
Rashi’s authority as a talmudic scholar was sufficiently formidable to convince several other eminent teachers to accept his stance on the question. However, the older French tradition continued to hold its own among his students and his descendents. Notably, Rashi’s grandson Rabbi Jacob ben Meir (“Rabbenu Tam”) and other scholars from the schools of “Tosafot” argued that (except for some particular problematic rituals that were being discussed in the Talmud) there is nothing objectionable about women taking on precepts in a voluntary capacity and reciting the blessings.
We can appreciate why Rabbi Jacob of Marvège felt the need for supernatural guidance in resolving this controversial question. And indeed, the emphatic answer he received was that the themes commemorated by the Sukkot rituals apply equally to women, and hence they should definitely pronounce the blessings over the festival precepts.
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