The Kabbalat Shabbat Memorandum Sivan 5773
by Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber
The recent rather acrid debate on women leading the Kabbalat Shabbat service appeared, at first, to be primarily a halachic one. But it soon overflowed into additional areas, revealing it as a clearly political polemic. Indeed, I found the whole discussion which appeared on a whole series of blogs, and a major published article, most astonishing. We are not talking about women reading the Torah and/or having aliyot. The criticisms raised against this practice I can well appreciate, though I disagree with them and have sought to refute them.
But here we are talking about a practice first established in the latter years of the 16th cent., among a small group of people, disciples of the Ari ha-Kadosh in Safed, which took place outside the confines of the synagogue looking over the hills and watching the sunset, and reciting some psalms and piyyutim. It gradually spread to other venues, first being practiced outside the synagogue in the courtyard, and, later, when in the synagogue, recited at the bimah, rather than the chazan's lectern, clearly to emphasize its different status from the Maariv service. In many communities there is no sheliah tzibbur leading the service; rather the congregants sing the Psalms together. Indeed, in small communities often the service begins even before there is a minyan of ten men, and the congregation wait for the requisite number in order to say Barchu.
As to the argument that, as it is followed by Kaddish, it must have the status of a tefillat tzibbur or teffilat rabbim, a communal service which cannot be led by women, it should be noted that the Kaddish Yatom only comes after Mizmor Shir le-Yom ha-Shabbat, which is already found in some Rishonim as part of the Maariv Shel Shabbat; and therefore does not in any sense relate to the Kabbalists of Safed's Kabbalat Shabbat. Furthermore, Kaddish Yatom itself may be recited by women, as was ruled by R. Ahron Soloveitchik and others. But, in point of fact, this Kaddish is not found in early sources, such as the Tur (Orah Hayyim 337). Indeed, the whole argument aimed to give Kabbalat Shabbat this new status is far-fetched.
But the debate about Kabbalat Shabbat was intended to have far broader implications, for, by the same argument it would also disallow women to lead Pesukei de-Zimra, for example. Indeed, this tendentious aim is overtly revealed by yet another argument put forward, namely that a Shaliah tzibbur must have a full beard; something that obviously excludes women, (Shulhan Aruch 53:6). The reason given is the dignity of the congregation, kevod ha-tzibbur, which is clearly irrelevant in present day society. Both the Maharam Mi-Rotenberg and the Rashba agree that the congregation can waive this requirement. The original ruling applied only to permanent shlichei tzibbur, not to occasional readers, and, on occasion, even a thirteen-year old, who has reached maturity may lead the service. Additionally, the Biur Halachah writes that this requirement may be waived when there is no one else to fulfill this function. And finally, this restriction referred to very specific prayers, such as Keriat Shema, on fast-days in Eretz Yisrael because of drought, and The High Holidays. In any case, nowadays hardly any synagogue requires its reader to be bearded; even American Rabbis are often clean-shaven, because the plain meaning of that ruling is that a service should be led by one who is mature, i.e. post-bar-mitzvah. And a thirty-year old without a beard is fully eligible to serve as a shaliah tzibbur. Indeed some of greatest hazzanim were beardless, such as the Koussevitzky brothers, Mosheh, David, Jacob and Simhah, Leibele Waldman, Leibele Glanz, Zavel Kwartin, Shmuel Malavsky, to list only a few of the best-known names.
Two additional arguments were put forward. Firstly, that for Kabbalat Shabbat, the Shaliah Tzibbur wears a tallit. This, of course, is in the case where there is a Shaliah Tzibbur. Now according to the Magen Avraham (Orah Hayyim 18:1) citing the Bayit Hadash (Bah) one really should remove the tallit one is wearing when one says Barechu since it is night and one does not wear tzitzit at night. And so many Aharonim specifically rebuked those who wore a tallit at night. However, those who did so, did so because of kabbalistic reasons related to Kevod Shabbat, and not kevod ha-tzibbur. Indeed, there were even those who wore a tallit for kiddush at home, and kiddush at home is hardly a tefillat tzibbur or rabbim, (see J. Levy, Minhag Yisrael Torah 1, Brooklyn 1994, pp.87-88).
The second point raised was, curiously enough, from R. David Sperber, my grandfather's Teshuvot: Afrakasta de-Anya, (3rd ed, Israel 2002, vol.4, p.215). There he says that if one cannot find a minyan, at least try to pray with two other people, since this would constitute a tefillat rabbim, which is more readily accepted by God. He derives this from a passage in Hayyei Adam (Klal 68:11) who says that every mitzvah which can be done be-haburah in a group, should be so done, and not as an individual, because "the greater the number of people, the greater is the honour to the king." If three people give tzedakah, does that make it a rabbim? If three people declaim Psalms together does that make it a tefillat rabbim? Surely the term my grandfather zt"l used was not intended to give a special status to the group of three, but merely to say that such a mitzvah or prayer is more acceptable before the Holy One Blessed be He, than that of a single individual. (His other reference to vol.2 p.211 is quite irrelevant to this issue.)
(On a personal note, I might add, that in order fully to understand my sainted grandfather's ruling, one has to appreciate his particular brand of hassidic piety, which was a blend of halachah, kabbalah and a special brand of hassidut. See my father's introduction in his Michtam le-David on the Torah.
His belief in the efficacy of prayers was all so evident to anyone who saw him in prayer. I served him in his latter years and received my semichah from him.)
Now my learned colleagues knew all these facts, which are plainly evident to anyone who is conversant with the relevant sources. Nonetheless, they chose to disregard them, or to reinterpret them in a forced fashion.
So looking more closely at the discussion, it becomes evident that rather than this being a genuinely halachic debate, it is more a socio-political polemic, built on shaky grounds and dressed in the somewhat misleading garb of halachic disquisition.
(And see now the very significant comments of Prof. Marc B. Shapiro, (link), and Rabbi Zev Farber's responses to Rabbi R. Freundel’s articles.)
Another note on Women's aliyot.
One of the central points of controversy between those who permit women's aliyot and those who do not, is the understanding of the critical text in B. Megillah 23a which states that "all are counted among the seven aliyot, even women and children. But the Rabbis said: 'A woman should not read the Torah because of the dignity of the community' ". It is this final section that is the main source of the controversy. Some have claimed that "But the Rabbis said: A woman should not read…" is an absolute decree that cannot be changed. Others – myself included – have argued that this is advice, rather than a decree, limited by the principle of "the dignity of the community". That is to say, if there is no such slight on the community, the advice becomes irrelevant. I argued that most of the places where the phrase "But the Rabbis said" may be understood as "advice" and not "decree". Recently Ephraim Bezalel Halivni sought to show that in many instances "But the Rabbis said" should clearly be understood as a "decree" formulation. However, he himself (Studies in Liturgy and Reading The Torah, Jerusalem 2012, p.160) agrees that there are examples where this phrase can be understood as "advice". Hence, even according to his position, he will have to agree that it is possible that in our Megillah text "But the Rabbis said" may be advice. In other words there is an element of uncertainty (safek) as to the precise interpretation of that text.
And even if we were to interpret it, as have some, as a decree, it is a decree with a reason. Now there exists a well-known controversy between Rambam and Raavad as to whether when the reason for a decree is no longer relevant the decree is still in force; Rambam says yes, and Raavad disagrees. It is true that in such controversies we follow the Rambam; however, it is equally true that it is not certain that he is correct. Perhaps the Raavad's position is more correct. In other words, there still exists an element of uncertainty (a safek) as to who is right. It is just that in accordance with certain pragmatic rules of halachic adjudications (pesak), we follow the ruling of Rambam.
Moreover, R. Yosef Messas added a further consideration, arguing that even according to the view of Rambam, this principle only applies where there is a fear that the original reason could be relevant in the future. But in a case where there is little or no reason to think that the reason will resurface, the original prohibitions may be disregarded, (Otzar Michtavim 1, 454; cf. Marc B. Shapiro, Conversations 7, 2010, p.101). Here too, we may be fairly certain that in our modern society the dignity of the community will not be impugned by a woman's aliyah even in the future, in addition to which, we have already pointed out that a community can, according to both the Maharam Mi-Rotenburg and the Rashba, forgo their dignity should they so wish.
Now, I cannot say that R. Messas' interpretation is necessarily correct. There exists a safek, in fact, a triple sfek sfeka: (i) what is the correct interpretation of B. Megillah's phrase, (ii) whether to rule like Rambam or the Raavad, and (iii) even if one follows Rambam, should we accept R. Messas' interpretation that it applies even when there is little or no reason to think that the reason will resurface.
Without going into all the details of the very complex kuntres sfek-sfeka, surely here we should rule: sfek sfeka le-kula, most leniently, admitting the permissibility of women's aliyot, especially when added to all our other arguments.
And finally, a somewhat pedagogical comment. The Beit Yosef, of R. Yosef Caro in Yoreh Deah 242 writes:
It is forbidden for a hacham to give a ruling permitting something which looks strange, for the masses will see this as permitting the forbidden.
He bases himself on Hagahot Maimoniyot to Rambam Hilchot Talmud Torah chapter 5 sect.6. Now almost all innovations look strange, and can easily be understood as permitting the forbidden . And indeed this is the ruling in Shulhan Aruch Yoreh Deah 242:10. (And see Beur ha-Gra ibid. sect. 21 for Talmudic sources.) But the Shach (Siftei-Chen) ad loc. sect.17 modifies this statement as follows:
It would appear that this [refers to a case] where he permitted [something] without any explanation [for his ruling] – setam – and indeed so it appears from the proofs he brings from Hagahot Maimoniyot and B. Sanhedrin 5ab… and B. Nidah 20a…, and the beginning of B. Berachot (3 b)… But if he tells the questioner the reason for his ruling, and explains to him his arguments (ומראה לו פנים), or if he brings evidence from the book, it is permitted.
And the Beer Heiteiv brings this in abbreviated form. (See also note 8, ad loc. in Otzar Mefarshim in the Machon Yerushalayim [Friedman] ed. of the Shulhan Aruch.)
This indicates to us very clearly that all the changes that we are advocating must not only be firmly based in our canonic sources, but also clearly presented to the general public.