By: Hannah Pollak  | 

The Unspoken Feminine Centrality of Simchas Torah

While Simchas Torah is not a chag that can be traced back to the Biblical era and not even to the times of the Gemara, we do know that sometime during the period of the Rishonim, when the yearly cycle of reading the Torah was already widespread, a massive communal siyum was held in honor of the Torah’s completion. This siyum consisted of two main customs: the hakafos (circling the bimah seven times while singing and dancing with the Sifrei Torah) and the minhag to give every man (and in some communities even children) an aliyah to the Torah. In modern times, with the rise of feminism and egalitarianism in the world, the minhagim of this day have become problematic for many. For technical halachic reasons and out of respect for mesorah (tradition), women do not actively participate in these minhagim. The passive feminine role on Simchas Torah elicited different responses from the Orthodox community. Some were indifferent to the trends storming the world and carried on with the normal traditions. Others went to the other extreme and pushed for hakafos for women; some even gave women aliyos. Many have found a middle ground and established Simchas Torah as a special day of learning for women. I would like to argue that regardless of anyone’s personal practice, Simchas Torah is a day both men and women can connect to because of Torah itself. 

There is a Brisker tradition that reveals the essence of what Simchas Torah is, which is a message we can all be inspired by regardless of gender, hashkafa or practices on Simchas Torah. Before I present the idea I need to give credit to those who taught me and shared the sources with me. Firstly, my seminary teacher and mentor, Mrs. Leah Hershman. Some ideas were also inspired by a shiur I heard from Rabbi Reuven Brand, rosh kollel of the YU Kollel in Chicago. In any case, this message has my input — I do not know if they would agree with everything that I write. 

The idea I would like to present begins with an anomaly in Hilchos Birkas HaTorah. It is well known that the Beis Yosef paskens based on the Sma"g that women recite Birkas HaTorah because they’re obligated to learn the laws that are relevant to them, such as Kashrus and Niddah (he also quotes other Rishonim who offer different reasons for such an obligation). The Halacha dictates that while men have to learn Torah for the sake of learning, women only have to learn for practical reasons. They have to learn Halacha to know how to observe it. In general, the rule is that there’s no bracha on the hechsher mitzvah (preparation of a mitzvah), but only on the g’mar mitzvah (fulfillment of the mitzvah itself). For example, we only say a bracha when we eat the matzah and not when we bake it. If so, why would the Shulchan Aruch (echoing what he had paskened in the Beis Yosef) legislate that women say Birkas HaTorah, if, as the Magen Avraham explains there, they learn in order to know how to observe other mitzvos, and the learning itself is only a hechsher mitzvah

We could argue, says the Beis Halevi, forgetting the rationale of the Shulchan Aruch, that Talmud Torah is like any other time-bound mitzvah for women. While they are not obligated to fulfill them, they are still welcome to do so. Similarly, a woman is permitted to voluntarily perform the mitzvah of Talmud Torah as she would do with any other mitzvah from which she is exempt (see Shu”t Beis Halevi I, ch. 6). 

The problem seems resolved. However, the Beis Halevi only explains the Ashkenazi practice. Ashkenazi women, following Rabbeinu Tam and subsequently the Rem”ah, consistently recite brachos for mitzvos they voluntarily fulfill. However, Sefardic women, following the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch, don’t recite brachos for these types of mitzvos (see Orach Chaim 589). If that is the case, even though we are allowed to take upon ourselves the mitzvah of Talmud Torah (since according to how the Beis Halevi understands the Sma”g there’s nothing intrinsically negative with learning practical Halacha), one still needs to understand why the Shulchan Aruch himself would say that women recite Birkas HaTorah, if for every other mitzvah from which they are exempt, he paskens that women don’t say a bracha

This issue is resolved by R. Chaim Soloveitchik (Rav Chaim of Brisk), the Beis Halevi’s son. As quoted by his son, R. Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveitchik (The Brisker Rav), R. Chaim Soloveitchik says that the Birkas HaTorah is not a blessing on the obligation of learning Torah, but rather on Torah as an object itself. In Brisker parlance, he says that Birkas HaTorah is not a din on the mitzvah, but on the cheftza of Torah itself. And thus, since Torah as an object belongs equally to men and women, women are in fact obligated in Birkas HaTorah (see Chiddushei Maran HaRiz Halevi al HaRambam, Hilchos Brachos 11:16). 

However, Rav Chaim’s terminology is quite cryptic. What is the object of Torah? Having gone through the first three generations of the Soloveitchik-Brisker mesorah, comes Rav Chaim’s grandson and student, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. The Rav referred quite explicitly to what he believed and felt was the “object of Torah.” According to the Rav, the Torah and the Shechina (the divine presence) are metaphorically daughter and mother respectively. In a way, he explains, “God, the Ribbono Shel Olam, in this case disguised as Mother Shekhina, never separated Herself from Her daughter; veiled in humble anonymity, She accompanies her daughter princess, the Torah... Can one meet the Mother Shekhina alone without having a date with Her daughter?” And thus, according to the Rav, learning Torah is “A Rendezvous with Mother Shekhina” (see “Family Redeemed, Torah and Shekhina” p. 176). According to the Rav, Torah as an object is the veil or the cover that hides or embodies G-d Himself. Some will say that they can find Hashem and be close to Him outside of the daled amos of Halacha. For Jews, argues the Rav, this is impossible. The only way to find G-d is via the Torah, Her daughter. One has to exert one’s intellect to understand Torah and then break one’s nature to observe its laws. However, on the flip side, what’s the point of dating the daughter and not her Mother? What’s the point of learning Torah because it’s exciting and stimulating and keeping every single detail of Halacha if it does not lead the individual to a deeper and more intimate connection with the Shechina Herself? As R. Moshe Weinberger often asks, what’s the point of learning Torah without thinking of or cleaving to the Nosen HaTorah? The cheftza of Torah is the Torah as a medium that brings us closer to Hashem. 

Having explained why women are obligated in Birkas Hatorah and what the object of Torah is according to the Brisker tradition, let us complete the hakafa. We began by saying that Simchas Torah’s minhagim are only male-active. However, once we consider that Simchas Torah might essentially be a day of connection with Torah as a cheftza and not as a mitzvah, the day is equally relevant to men and women. Every Jew, regardless of their gender, social status or intellectual capability has a chelek b’Elokei Yisrael, and thus every single one of us has a chelek in Torah, because as we know: “Torah, Yisrael and the Holy One Blessed Be He are one.” 
Let’s not get trapped in the minhagim, in the physical manifestations of the essential nature of the day. The customs are exciting, but they are not empty rites. I don’t think it’s coincidental that Minhagei Yisrael are called “Toras Imecha” (the Torah of your mother) based on a passuk in Mishlei. The more informal customs come to remind us that the entirety of Torah, the fixed system of Halacha and the seemingly “cold” analytical learning are ultimately about finding the Shechina and basking in Her presence. I believe that the minhagim of Simchas Torah express this idea on a meta level. And thus, with this awareness one realizes that it’s not necessarily about actively participating in them, it’s about transcending the boundaries of cognition for at least one day to realize how important it is to emotionally attach to the Torah as a veil to the Shechina Herself. Getting an aliyah or dancing with the Sefer Torah is secondary. Via the preservation of our minhagim — the Toras Imecha, the Mother Shechina is found. That is the essential core of the day.

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Photo Caption: The Chazon Ish testing Bais Yaakov students in 1952 in a photo that appeared in Hamodia

Photo Credit: Rabbi Jesse Horn on Twitter