When I read about the arrest of a woman for wearing a tallit at the Western Wall, I was appalled and asked myself the question: Why is this a criminal act? It is certainly not forbidden according to Jewish law.
Perhaps this is a good opportunity to consider the meaning of wearing a tallit in general and the Halacha concerning women and tallitot in particular.
First we have to distinguish between the tallit - the garment itself - which has no particular significance or holiness - and the tzitzit, the fringes, which are the basis of the entire mitzva. When we don the tallit, the blessing we recite ends with the words "and has commanded us to wrap ourselves in tzitzit." The commandment concerning tzitzit is well known, since it is recited as the third paragraph of the Shema - The Lord said to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and instruct them to make for themselves tzitzit on the corners of their garments throughout the generations; let them attach a cord of blue to the tzitzit of each corner. That shall be your tzitzit; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God (Numbers 15:38-40).
These tzitziot are a reminder to observe all of the mitzvot so that Israel will be holy unto the Lord, as we read in Exodus, "You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy people" (Exodus 19:6). It is a mitzva that leads to the observance of other mitzvot, an action symbol reminding us of our obligations and warning us against temptations.
Jacob Milgrom, the well-known biblical scholar, has shown that wearing such elaborate fringes on hems of garments were a sign of a special status in the ancient Near East, while deep blue or purple was associated with the priestly status (Exodus 28:6). Wearing them is a sign that the entire people of Israel is elevated to the status of the servants of God.
In biblical times there was no special garment, no tallit. Rather these ornamental fringes were sewn on to the corners of whatever garments were being worn. In this way all Israelites were displaying their special status as a kingdom of priests, a holy nation and, seeing them, would be reminded of this and of the need to observe God's mitzvot. Later, when styles of clothing changed, a special garment with four corners, the tallit, was made to accommodate the tzitzit. When that happened the sages also designated the exact way that the fringes would be wound, so that taken together the twists and knots add up to 613, the traditional number of mitzvot.
There is no reason to think that this commandment was intended only for men. The phrase "the children of Israel" in the Torah is a general one, indicating all Israelites.
This indeed was the understanding and the ruling of the majority of the ancient sages as well, as is cited in the Talmud - Our rabbis taught: All must observe the law of tzitzit, priests, Levites and Israelites, converts, women and slaves. Rabbi Simeon exempts women because it is a positive mitzva dependent upon time, and women are exempted from all positive mitzvot dependent upon time (Menahot 43a). Similarly in the midrash (Sifre Numbers 115): "The Lord said to Moses... make for themselves tzitzit." Women are included in this. Rabbi Simeon exempts women from tzitzit because women are exempt from a positive mitzva dependent upon time.
Rabbi Simeon's ruling is based on the fact that, according to the interpretation of the sages, since the Torah says "Look at it," the tzitzit are to be worn only when one can see them, namely in the daytime and not at night. This, according to Rabbi Simeon, puts them into the category of mitzvot from which women are exempt. The sages quoted in the Talmud did not agree with him and obligate women to wear tzitzit. The Tosefta explicitly rules that tzitzit is "a positive mitzva that is not dependent upon time" (Tosefta Kiddushin 1:10).
Even Rabbi Simeon, who disagrees, does not forbid women from wearing them, merely ruling that they are exempt. There are many mitzvot from which women are exempt, yet they still perform them. Lulav and etrog, sitting in the succa are among them. Does performing a mitzva from which one is exempt warrant an arrest?
The Talmud, in the same place, records that one of the rabbis, Rabbi Judah, "attached tzitzit to the aprons of the women of his household." If those women had come to the Kotel, Rabbi Judah would have had to bail them out of jail! It is true that Rabbi Simeon's opinion was commonly followed and that it was not customary for women to wear a tallit during the Middle Ages and after, but if women today, following the ruling of the Tannaim, wish to wear tzitzit, why should they be prevented from doing so?
The Spanish commentator on the Siddur, David Abudarham (14th century), reviewed the literature on women wearing tzitzit. He cited Maimonides, who ruled that women are permitted but not required to wear them, although not reciting a blessing. Rabbenu Tam (France, 12th century), however, permitted women to recite a blessing as well.
As the Sifre put it, "Women are included in this," and even if it is only a voluntary act rather than a required one, is it not an act of piety that should be applauded rather than condemned? To be arrested in the Jewish state for performing a mitzva is indeed the ultimate absurdity.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.