Writings from the Rabbis

Teshuvah: Women as Shelihot Tzibbur
Nov 23rd 2017


Is it permissible for Jewish women who have reached the age of mitzvot to serve as prayer leaders for Shaẖarit, Minhah, Ma’ariv, Musaf and Neilah at Beth Tzedec Congregation?


During my tenure as Senior Rabbi, I have permitted and encouraged women to participate in many public ritual activities,  performative mitzvot that were previously limited to Jewish men. Women began regularly chanting Torah and Haftarah, receiving aliyot to the Torah, lifting and dressing the Torah (hag’bah and gelilah), counting in a zimmun, for Birkat Hamazon, and leading non-obligatory prayer services such as  Pesukei d’Zimrah, andthe Torah service. My decisions were guided by my own study and by rabbinic responsa (teshuvot) written by other Conservative rabbis on these subjects.

In 5771, I responded to the questionwhether women may be included in a minyan, the quorum required for the recitation of specially sanctified prayers”.[1] In that teshuvah, I concluded, “It is permissible, appropriate and desirable for women to be included for the minyan required for public prayer (devarim shebeqedushah) in our synagogue community”. Beth Tzedec adopted this conclusion in its ritual practices. At the time, I did not address the permissibility or desirability of women serving as prayer leaders for mitzvah mandated services (Shaharit, Minhah, Ma’ariv, Musaf and Neilah), a role from which they were historically ineligible. This teshuvah addresses that area of Jewish law.[2]

As with my previous teshuvah on women and the minyan, “this teshuvah is for Beth Tzedec Congregation. Not every congregation or community will find this to be the appropriate path for itself.[3]

The Role of Prayer Leader

The person who leads a community in prayer is often referred to as a shali'ah tzibbur or emissary of the community.The shali'ah tzibbur fulfils a number of functions.

  • The shali'ah tzibbur may set the pace of prayer, keeping worshipers together, even when they are praying quietly, by reciting the prayers (first and last lines) out loud.

  • The shali'ah tzibbur can enhance the spiritual experience by adding melody and song to the prayers.

  • The shali'ah tzibbur enables “the Jews in the pews” to fulfil their obligations for prayer.

There is no substantive objection to women fulfilling the first two of these functions.[4] The third role of the shali'ah tzibbur will be at the centre of our examination.

Fulfilling Another’s Prayer Obligation

At the age of bar or bat mitzvah (adulthood), Jews become legally required to fulfil the sacred responsibilities of mitzvot. These mitzvot require individuals to carry out specific speech-acts and particular actions, as well as to avoid prohibited behaviour. In the Torah tradition, prayer should be the sincere expression of one's soul; it may also be a defined and required verbal formula.

That obligation for prayer, in certain circumstances, may be fulfilled by responding amen to the blessings articulated by another person. The capacity of an individual to enunciate words and thereby fulfil the prayer obligation of another is specified by Rabbi Yosef Karo:

לְאַחַר שֶׁסִיְּמוּ הַצִּבּוּר תְּפִלָּתָן, יַחֲזֹר שְׁלִיחַ צִבּוּר הַתְּפִלָּה, שֶׁאִם יֵשׁ מִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ לְהִתְפַּלֵּל יְכַוֵּן לְמַה שֶּׁהוּא אוֹמֵר, וְיוֹצֵא בוֹ; וְצָרִיךְ אוֹתוֹ שֶׁיּוֹצֵא בִּתְפִלַּת שְׁלִיחַ צִבּוּר לְכַוֵּן לְכָל מַה שֶּׁאוֹמֵר שְׁלִיחַ צִבּוּר מֵרֹאשׁ וְעַד סוֹף; וְאֵינוֹ מַפְסִיק; וְאֵינוֹ מֵשִׂיחַ; וּפוֹסֵעַ ג' פְּסִיעוֹת לְאַחֲרָיו, כְּאָדָם שֶׁמִּתְפַּלֵּל לְעַצְמוֹ.

After the community finishes their prayers, the shali'ah tzibbur repeats the prayer, so that if there is someone who does not know how to pray, that person may direct intention to what the leader is reciting, and discharge [an individual obligation] through it. The one who is discharging [his obligation] through the prayer of the shali'ah tzibbur must have intention for all that the shali'ah tzibbur says, from start to finish, and may not interrupt, nor speak, and takes three steps backwards, like a person who is praying oneself.[5]

The Shulhan Arukh, in outlining the practice known as חזרת הש"ץ, the Reader’s repetition of the Amidah, makes clear that prayers recited by one person can, in certain circumstances, fulfil the obligation of another person to pray.

However, in order to serve as another’s agent in prayer, the person reciting the words has to be at the same or higher level of obligation as the person whose obligation is being fulfilled: “כל שאינו חייב בדבר, אינו מוציא את הרבים ידי חובתן, whoever is not obligated in a matter does not fulfil the obligation of others.”[6] An essential question therefore becomes whether Jewish women have the same (or higher) level of obligation for prayer as Jewish men.[7] If they do, then that further opens the door for women serving as shelihot tzibbur. If they do not, and utilizing a traditional understanding of the role of shali'ah tzibbur as fulfilling another’s prayer obligation, then women would be excluded for the role of shali'ah tzibbur.[8]

As already concluded in my 5771 teshuvah, women share an equal obligation with men for regular prayer”. There is little need to repeat the arguments here.[9] On a preliminary level, i concluded that women can serve as prayer leaders for Shaharit, Minhah, Ma’ariv, Musaf and Ne’ilah at Beth Tzedec.[10]

Possible Caveats

Nevertheless, prior to a final conclusion we must address a few more considerations.

  1. Prayer—Tefillah—in classic rabbinic parlance refers specifically to the Amidah. A shali'ah tzibbur not only leads that prayer, but also the Shema, Bar’khu, Kedushah, Kaddish, and more. Are those aspects of the liturgy legally comparable to the Amidah in relation to women’s prayer leadership?[11]

  2. Even if a woman may lead public prayer, does this lead to the conclusion that a woman should lead public prayer, altering historic public custom and tradition. Under what circumstances would a “may” become a “should” or even a “must”?

Let us first examine the Shema and the unit of Bar’khu, Kedusha, and Kaddish.

Recitation of Shema

Tefillah (the Amidah or Shemoneh Esreh) and the recitation of Shema are different categories of prayer. While I did address equality of obligation with respect to the Amidah in my 5771 teshuvah, I did not address legal questions with respect to the Shema.

Jewish law has generally followed the ruling that  “נָשִׁים וַעֲבָדִים פְּטוּרִים מִקְּרִיאַת שְׁמַע מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהוּא מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה שֶׁהַזְּמַן גְּרָמָא, Women and slaves are exempt from reciting Shema because it is a positive time-related obligation.”[12]

Women, unlike men, are classically exempted from mitzvot whose obligation is time dependent. The obligation to recite the Shema (and its surrounding blessings) depends on time, specifically the rising and setting of the sun. It might appear that a woman reciting the Shema cannot fulfil a man’s obligation for this affirmation of faith, as she has a lesser degree of obligation.

However, for public Shema recitation in synagogues, the prayer leader rarely, if ever, fulfils the Shema obligation for others. This is the case historically as well as in contemporary synagogue practice. In Beth Tzedec, as in most Ashkenazi communities, the prayer leader does not recite the paragraphs prior to and following the Shema fully aloud, a condition necessary for the exemption of others from their recitation.[13] During the Shema, therefore, the prayer leader’s function is not to help others fulfil their obligations. Women and men may serve this role.

Bar’khu, Kedushah, and Kaddish

Bar’khu, Kedushah, and Kaddish are categorized as devarim shebikdushah, matters of holiness, which require a minyan for public recitation. Each involves a call by the leader and a response by the community. The understanding of the degree of obligation that a Jewish adult (man or woman) has towards the recitation of these components has changed over time. Early rabbinic authorities tended to view them as esteemed, but voluntary, components of prayer. More recent authorities viewed them as obligatory. There is disagreement  as to the nature of these prayers: does every individual have an obligation to recite or respond to these calls or does the responsibility lie on the assembled minyan to articulate a communal response?[14]

I have come to accept the argument that these elements of prayer rest upon the community as an obligation; there is no individual responsibility for the recitation or response to Barekhu, Kedushah, or Kaddish. To provide but one example, in a codified conclusion that links these three prayers, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Rema) specifically notes that it is permissible to leave a prayer service prior to the recitation of Kaddish or Kedushah, so long as a minyan remains.[15] It is reasonable to conclude that an individual has no obligation to recite devarim she’bik’dushah or to have someone recite them on his or her behalf. Without an individual obligation, concerns about level of obligation that exist for T’fillah (Shemoneh Esrei) and the Shema do not exist for devarim she’bik’dushah.

Further, devarim she’bik’dushah, though recited within the context of communal prayer, are best understood in the context classified not as fulfilment of the mitzvah of prayer, but of the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of the Divine name. The fulfilment of this mitzvah rests equally upon men and women.[16] The mitzvah category of sanctification of the Divine name includes women for equal participation and leadership. 

May, Should, Must

The second question above, whether a may” leads to a should” or even a “must” with respect to women’s prayer leadership, overlaps with the discussion of devarim she’bik’dushah and moves well beyond it.

Many authorities include Torah reading within the category of devarim she’bik’dushah. With respect to Torah reading specifically and by inference devarim she’bik’dushah generally, the Tosefta (Megillah 3:11) notes that women are excluded from ascending to read from the Torah because of k’vod hatzibbur, the dignity of the community. Although the exact meaning and legal parameters of k’vod hatzibbur may still be contested in the Orthodox community,[17] I have previously ruled that the religious life of our community is enhanced by the inclusion of women for Torah honours. This would also be the case when women will serve as leaders for Barekhu, Kaddish and Kedushah[18]

At Beth Tzedec, we have further reason to believe that women’s prayer leadership would be accepted by our community. In the recent strategic planning survey, 75% of the respondents were positively disposed to women serving as prayer leaders, with fewer than 5% opposing the idea. While halakhah is not determined by popular vote, in some cases (such as ours), Jewish law does take into account community values. A strong majority of Beth Tzedec members view with favour the idea of women serving as prayer leaders.

A Broader View

From an halakhic and social perspective we have determined that there are no legal impediments to women serving as shelihot tzibbur at Beth Tzedec. However, the Jewish legal system views custom as significant. It also is consequentialist, examining what positive and negative outcomes might result from a particular decision. In addition to sound legal reasoning, a mara d’atra (legal decision maker) must provide significant justification for the overturning of well-established precedent.

Edward Shils has explained that tradition is not merely the preservation of the past. it also involves the utilization of the past to renew and refresh an existing tradition.[19] Moshe Halbertal has shown how this approach characterized the legal writings of Rambam.[20] While contemporary sensibilities prize dynamic change (“move fast and break things”), classical civilizations esteem what has been transmitted from earlier generations. Striking an appropriate balance was always recognized as one of the most important aspects of rabbinic leadership.[21]

Equality of obligation, opportunity and access, the outcome of the inclusion of women in the leadership of prayer, is a significant value that recognises the personal dignity of women. This ethical imperative should be considered in relation to the importance of the preservation of existing custom (masoret). My approach to some halakhic matters, where change is possible within a multivalent legal system, has often been to preserve or to return to earlier traditions. The re-institution of a full Torah reading, Birkat Kohanim and Tahanun, the continuation of the ban on kitniyot on Pesah and the shift away the use of vaults for burial, demonstrate the significance of minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu, “the practice of our ancestors is in our hands”.

Nevertheless, the opportunity for Judaic growth and spiritual engagement among women and the public recognition of their inherent worth and capabilities outweigh concerns presented by changing long established custom. There also is social value in including women in what previously had been male-only leadership spaces. In a revealing ethnographic study, Jeffrey Summit has described the intensification of religious engagement and the development of spiritual life as women singing their way into sacred space.[22]

As I have previously indicated, ritual changes should not be evaluated in terms of membership rejection, retention, or recruitment. Toronto is blessed with a variety of kehillot and our rabbis are available to help members find their appropriate spiritual niche.

Investing in the Future

Recent studies note the effect egalitarianism has on the religious involvement of boys and men in synagogue life. “American Jewish boys and men have fewer connections to Jews and Judaism than girls and women in almost every venue and in every age, from school age children through the adult years.”[23] There seems to be a relationship between greater female participation and the distancing of males from religious life. While shifts towards increased female ritual participation have already taken place at Beth Tzedec, the visual and aural changes that accompany women’s prayer leadership may have implications for the involvement of boys and men.[24]

As we modify halakhic rules and permit Jewish women who have reached the age of mitzvot to serve as prayer leaders for Shaharit, Minhah, Ma’ariv, Musaf and Neilah, synagogue leadership should invest resources in two areas: (1) the religious growth and communal connections of Jewish boys and men; and (2) the development of training programs for girls and women to enter into their new roles with competence and confidence.

P’sak Halakhah: Conclusion and Decision

In my teshuvah of 5771, I wrote:

The sanctity of the Jewish people includes men and women and enables the people of Israel to be worthy of the mitzvot. … In our time, when many social barriers have shifted and women are involved in all areas of public life, their personal dignity (kevod haberiyyot) is impinged upon when they are marginalised within the spiritual life of their religious community. Surely this causes many women anguish and anger. In a time when women are socially, politically and culturally integrated with and equal to men, an unjustified gap between genders in synagogue life can bring about a denigration of Torah and a desecration of the Divine name.

In keeping with that sentiment and halakhic direction, it is permissible and desirable for Jewish women who have reached the age of mitzvot to serve as prayer leaders for Shaharit, Minhah, Ma’ariv, Musaf and Neilah at Beth Tzedec Congregation. We eagerly look forward to individuals of all genders leading our community in prayer as we strive to deepen the covenant between God and the Jewish people.

[1] <https://www.beth-tzedec.org/upload/media/1143/frydman-kohl-women-and-minyan-2011.pdf>

[2] Other areas of areas of halakhah that have communal implications in which sex/gender may be a relevant factor are not addressed in this teshuvah. I thank Rabbi Adam Cutler for his research assistance; all conclusions are my own.

[3] This teshuvah draws on a number of other responsa and secondary sources, particularly the work of  Rabbis Ethan Tucker and Micha’el Rosenberg whose writing in this area I found to be particularly convincing. See their Gender Equality and Prayer in Jewish Law (KTAV, Brooklyn, 2017). Though published after the writing of my teshuvah on women in the minyan, their book is an expansion of an earlier teshuvah noted by me.

[4] Although there are some classical commentators who consider kol ishah, the feminine voice, to be inherently sensual and prohibit female song, this is not an issue at Beth Tzedec and is, increasingly, accepted even within Orthodox circles. See Rabbi David Bigman, “A New Analysis of ‘Kol b’Isha Erva’” in www.jewishideas.org

[5] Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 124:1.

[6] Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 3:8

[7] This teshuvah does not distinguish between an obligation for prayer in private rather than prayer in public. Such a differentiation is not legally material. On this, see Tucker and Rosenberg, Appendix B, at 157-171.

[8] Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz argues that the shali'ah tzibbur no longer serves the role of fulfilling another’s prayer obligation, due in part from the reality that worshipers today are all literate and have access to prayer books in the vernacular. He therefore concludes that women may serve as Shlihot Tzibbur. “An Advocate’s Halakhic Responses on the Ordination of Woman” available at http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/19861990/ordinationofwomen1.pdf. See Tucker and Rosenberg at 21 for a rejection of Rabinowitz’s reasoning.

[9] See discussion at 3-12. Rabbi Joel Roth, whose analysis differs from mine, argued that women may self-impose a prayer obligation on par with that of men. Through such self-imposition they become entitled to lead public prayer. See “On the Ordination of Women as Rabbis”, in The Ordination of Women as Rabbis: Studies and Respona, ed. Simon Greenberg. Although women at Beth Tzedec have not made public declarations regarding their acceptance of prayer obligation, in the years since my teshuvah on women in the minyan, it does appear that women at Beth Tzedec take their obligation vis-à-vis kaddish and prayer quite seriously, comparable to that of men, to the extent that prayer as hiyyuv, obligation, is understood at all within our community.

[10] Regarding the argument that Musaf (and Neilah for at least one authority) is a unique case and that women are not obligated for these additional prayers, see Tucker and Rosenberg, at 40, n. 46. Regarding the argument that the mitzvah of public prayer is distinct from the mitzvah of prayer and that the obligation of public prayer only applies to men, see Tucker and Rosenberg at 41 (top) and Appendix B, at 157-171.

[11] Rabbi Wayne Allen argues for a maximalist understanding of what constitutes Tefillah, contending that  prayers added after the Talmudic period, such as Pesukei d’Zimrah, are themselves Tefillah and that the question of women’s prayer leadership must consider these elements as well. See his Women Leading the Preliminary Morning Service,” in Perspectives on Jewish Law and Contemporary Issues (Jerusalem: Schechter Institute, 2009), at 9-14. I find Rabbi Allen’s argument to be outside of the consensus understanding of the rabbinic meaning of Tefillah. Also see his Counting Women in the Minyan,” in Further Perspectives on Jewish Law and Contemporary Issues (Trafford, 2011), at 36-58 for his critique of my teshuvah on women and minyan.

[12] Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 70.

[13] See Shulhan Arukh 59:4, Mishnah Berurah 59:15 and Beur Halkhah 59 s.v. benahat, which all point to the need of the ordinary worshipper to hear the full blessings recited by the leader and to respond amen in order to fulfill the personal obligation. See also Mishna Megillah 4:3, which discusses the presence of a minyan-quorum as needed for the practice of פורסין על שמע. Women’s inclusion within minyan was addressed in my 5771 teshuvah, so it is unnecessary to analyse this mishnah here. While  the meaning of פורסין על שמע remains open, it does seem related to the blessings (and possibly Bar’khu) before and after Shema and fulfilment of obligation on behalf of others.

[14] Tucker and Rosenberg, at 80-89

[15] Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 55:2. The Rema is primarily concerned about those who leave during the recitation of Kaddish or Kedushah (Barekhu being so brief that one would not exit the synagogue in the midst of its recitation). But the section already identified the similarities between the Bar’khu, Kaddish and Kedushah, and it is reasonable to conclude that the rule pertaining to exiting before the Barekhu is the same as for the other two.

[16] See my 5771 teshuvah, at 13-14.

[17] Tucker and Rosenberg, at 55-73; Mendel Shapiro, "Qeri'at ha-Torah by Women: A Halakhic Analysis." The Edah Journal 1:22001 1-52. 9 Nov 2008 <http://www.edah.org/backend/coldfusion/displayissue.cfm?volume=1&issue=2>; Daniel Sperber, "Congregational Dignity and Human Dignity: Women and Public Torah Reading." Edah Journal 3:2(2002) 23 Nov 2008 <http://www.edah.org/backend/coldfusion/search/document.cfm?title=Congregational%20Dignity%20and%20Human%20Dignity%3A%20Women%20and%20Public%20Torah%20Reading&hyperlink=3_2_sperber.htm&type=JournalArticle&category=Jewish%20Diversity%2FRelating%20to%20the%20Non-Orthodox&authortitle=Professor&firstname=Daniel&lastname=Sperber&pubsource=not%20available&authorid=223&pdfattachment=3_2_Sperber.pdf > and Darkah Shel Halakhah: Kriyat Nashim B’Torah (Israel: Massa, 2007). But see Aryeh A. Frimer, “Lo Zu haDerekh: A Review of Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber’s Darka shel Halakhah,” Sefarim Blog, June 12, 2008 < http://seforim.blogspot.ca/2008/06/aryeh-frimer-review-of-daniel-sperbers.html>.

[18] Individuals whose gender is not binary would also be permitted to lead the community in prayer.

[19] Edward Shils, Tradition (University of Chicago Press, 1981).

[20] Moshe Halbertal, Maimonides: Life and Thought (Princeton, 2014).

[21] David Brooks writes about the importance of the interaction between continuing communal covenantal values and allowing for individual liberty and social change. “A society with strong covenantal attachments — to family, community, creed and faith… [can build on top of them] liberty and individual rights. The deep covenantal institutions gave people the capacity to use their freedom well. The liberal institutions gave them that freedom.” <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/16/opinion/elites-taxes-republicans-congress.html>

[22] Jeffrey A. Summit, Singing God’s Words: The Performance of Biblical Chant in Contemporary

Judaism (Oxford University Press, 2016).

[23] Sylvia Barack Fishman and Daniel Parmer, “Matrilineal Ascent / Patrilineal Descent: The Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life”, at 1-2, <http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=931>

[24] While the impetus for the change in policy regarding women in minyan did not arise out of need – that is, prior to the 5771 teshuvah, Beth Tzedec rarely encountered a service in which ten Jewish males were not present – it is now common during weekday services for a quorum to be reached through the counting of both sexes. Additionally, during shiva minyanim and funerals as well as in the Little Minyan, the counting of women towards the minyan often has completed the quorum of ten.