Why do Orthodox women not wear tefillin or tallit?

One potential problem raised in an early Bible translation is that tefillin and tzitzit might constitute men’s clothing.

women of the wall 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
women of the wall 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The widespread Orthodox practice is for women not to don tefillin or wear a tallit with tzitzit while praying.
Following the controversial arrests of a non-Orthodox woman who prayed at the Western Wall while wearing these articles, it behooves us to understand the underlying dispute within Jewish law.
As a general principle, talmudic law exempts women from performing timebound positive commandments, such as blowing a shofar on Rosh Hashana or dwelling in a succa (Kiddushin 29). The Talmud derives this principle from the commandment of tefillin, which are deemed “time-bound” since they are not worn on Shabbat or holidays (33b). Some explain that this is a pragmatic exemption which removes time pressure from women already consumed with household duties (Avudraham, Sha’ar 3), while others contend that women have superior inherent spiritual wisdom (bina) and do not require timely religious imperatives (Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Leviticus 23:43). Be that as it may, the Talmud notes that there are many exceptions to this rule, with women remaining obligated in many time-bound commandments such as Shabbat and Pessah rituals.
The talmudic sages disagree whether women may nonetheless perform rituals for which they are exempt (Rosh Hashana 33a), thereby providing spiritual satisfaction (Sifra Vayikra 2) and an opportunity to receive reward for such voluntary actions (Kiddushin 31a). Normative law resolutely accepted the lenient opinion, to the extent that some decisors discuss whether certain commandments (like shofar blowing) have become obligatory because women regularly observe them (Yabia Omer OC 2:30).
Maimonides (Tzitzit 3:9) and Rabbi Yosef Karo, however, asserted that this optional behavior does not warrant a blessing, whose formula includes “Blessed are you... who has commanded us...,” since women were not commanded to perform these actions (Rosh Kiddushin 1:49). Others retorted that women may recite the blessing since they remain commanded in mitzvot in general and receive reward for such behavior (Tosafot, Ran RH 33a). While Ashkenazi decisors adopted this approach (OC 589:6), Sephardi practice remains divided, with some permitting the blessing (Birkei Yosef OC 654:2) and others demurring (Yabia Omer OC 1:42).
Given this background, one might expect that the donning of tefillin or a tallit should remain a viable option for women. In fact, with regard to a tallit, the sages recorded an opinion that women should (and did) wear tzitzit, even as normative law deemed it a time-bound commandment because one is not required to wear them at night (Menahot 43a). Similarly, the Talmud records that Michal, the daughter of King Saul, donned tefillin and did not receive rabbinic reproach (Ritva Eruvin 96a), with Rabbi Moses of Coucy and others specifically listing tefillin among the optional commandments women can perform (Hagahot Maimoniyot Tzitzit 3:9). Nonetheless, in each case, various factors were raised to remove exclude these rituals from popular practice.
One potential problem raised in an early Bible translation is that tefillin and tzitzit might constitute men’s clothing, thereby raising problems of cross-dressing (Targum Yonatan Deuteronomy 22:5). While a few decisors agreed with this sentiment (Levush OC 17:2), many rejected this concern since this prohibition only applies to articles of clothing worn for style or appearance, not to fulfill a commandment (Maharam Schick OC 173).
While various other reasons were historically raised against women wearing tefillin (Piskei Riaz RH 4:3), the primary objection stemmed from the requirement that one must maintain a “clean body” to don tefillin. As such, one may not wear tefillin if they believe they may fall asleep (OC 38:2). (This requirement is why most people do not wear tefillin throughout the day.) Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg contended that contemporary women could not fulfill this requirement, perhaps out of concern for dirtiness from menstrual blood. While some demurred, the majority ultimately agreed that women should not don tefillin, either by deeming Michal as an exceptional case (Aruch Hashulhan 38:6) or citing a different talmudic tradition which criticized her action (Beit Yosef 38:3).
While Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits and non- Orthodox rabbis claimed that women could still choose to vigilantly perform this mitzva, the vast majority of Orthodox decisors have determined that this practice is forbidden, since we are dealing with an optional commandment which women have not historically practiced (Eliahu Raba).
This latter sentiment greatly impacted women wearing tzitzit, which is only required to be attached to a four-cornered garment like a tallit. Since women do not regularly wear such garments, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (OC 17:2) asserted that donning it would be an act of religious arrogance (yuhara). This position became widely accepted within Orthodox circles (Aruch Hashulhan), which became further emboldened in the face of the feminist critique (Igrot Moshe OC 4:49). This last factor has undoubtedly contributed to why these symbolic rituals have become such a flash point at the Western Wall.

Rabbi Brody, online editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.