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Avoiding The Appearance of Religious Hubris

on Friday, January 24 2014. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

A prominent Modern Orthodox high school announced this week that girls who want to wear tefillin during davening at school would be permitted to do so.  Not to be outdone, a second school quickly proclaimed that they, too, would allow it.  News spread like wildfire and the headlines quickly went from, “Modern Orthodox Girls Fight for the Right to Don Tefillin,” to an editorial entitled, “Why Women Can and Must Lay Tefillin.”

Predictably, the reaction has been mixed with traditionalists rejecting the change and the more progressive segment of orthodoxy celebrating the welcome change.  Noticeably absent from the conversation, at least from my perspective, is an argument about the halachic merits or challenges of the decision.  Instead, the reaction has been largely driven by emotion, ideology and agenda, in both directions.

Many responded by wondering what’s the big deal, after all didn’t Rashi’s daughters wear tefillin.  In an excellent article in Jewish Action, Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky compellingly dispels this historical “fact” as a misconception and myth, though he does point out that Michal, the daughter of King Shaul, did in fact wear tefillin.  Regardless, it is clearly not the prevalent custom for Orthodox women to wear tefillin and so these policy announcements represent a significant shift and change.

The Shulchan Aruch (o.c. 38:3) is clear that as a time-bound mitzvah, women are exempt from tefillin.   Unlike other time-bound mitzvos such as sukkah, lulav and shofar, the Rama, Rav Moshe Isserless, the authority of Ashkenazic Jewry, discourages women from volunteering when it comes to tefillin and in fact says that if they choose to wear tefillin, mochin b’yadam, we should object.  The Gra, also known as the Vilna Gaon, goes even further and says women are outright forbidden from wearing tefillin.

Their positions stem from an unusual requirement when wearing tefillin.  As sacred objects similar to a mezuzah or Sefer Torah, tefillin require a high level of concentration and a pristine physical state.  Maintaining those levels has been determined to be exceedingly difficult today and, therefore, though in previous generations men wore tefillin most of the day, now we wear them for a minimal amount of time.  The authorities that discourage and disapprove of women wearing tefillin do so on the grounds that they are exempt and therefore, should not put themselves in a position to potentially dishonor the tefillin by losing concentration or the proper physical state.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan advances a more mystical argument for women’s exemption from tefillin.  He explains that the tefillin box is called bayis, home.  Kabbalah describes the tefillin as symbolic of the womb and the retzuos, the straps, as representing the umbilical cord.   The tefillin bind us to God by reminding us of our obligation to create and to nurture with compassion.  Men need external symbols to remind them, but women, he argues, create and nurture with their bodies and therefore don’t need them.

To be honest, my personal discomfort with the policy decision announced this week has less to do with strict halachic objection for which there are counterarguments, and more to do with an often neglected halachic value called mechzei k’yuhara.

Forget women and tefillin for a moment.  If a man wanted to wear tefillin the whole day as they did in the past, would we encourage him or frown upon the practice?  The Shulchan Aruch Ha’Rav written by the R’ Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, says that since today the custom is not to wear tefillin other than during davening, to do so publicly is mechzei k’yuhara, smacks of arrogance and hubris.

There was once a student at YU who would walk through Washington Heights wearing his tallis and tefillin while going to daven.  A concerned individual asked Rav Schachter to intercede and encourage the young man to stop this practice that was drawing negative attention.  Rav Schachter related to us that he didn’t want to embarrass the young man so he told him a story with the hope he would understand.  A man once asked a prominent posek if a particular practice was mechzei k’yuhara, appeared arrogant.  “No,” said the posek, “it is yuhara mamesh, it is actually arrogant.”  Unfortunately, the young man did not get the message.

Mechzei k’yuhara, refraining from unusual and radical practices even though they are otherwise virtuous, is a meta-halachic consideration in many areas.  A simple search for mechzei k’yuhara in the Bar-Ilan responsa project yields dozens and dozens of results in which halachic authorities throughout the ages have rejected halachickly acceptable behavior on the grounds that it is a departure from accepted practice and therefore, mechzei k’yuhara, divisive and promoting superiority.

The mechzei k’yuhara consideration doesn’t judge or question motivation.  Even if the man or woman is purely motivated, if the behavior is an outlier to what is customary, even when it is stricter, it is inappropriate because it smacks of religious superiority.  What everyone else does is not good enough for the individual taking on a practice outside of the norms.  I believe the philosophy of mechzei k’yuhara is that we should embrace and excel at what we are obligated in and what is customary, rather than spiritually one-up those around us.  Mechzei k’yuhara teaches us that the truly pious person doesn’t try to stand out in his religious fervor, creativity or scrupulousness.

Quite the opposite; the truly righteous person blends in and is loyal to the local customs and norms.  Mechzei k’yehura means we don’t seek to be creative, distinctive or unique in the way we observe halacha.  We seek to fit in and conform to the traditions and customs of the community without needing to make a personal statement through our superior practice.  Of course we should strive to grow in our religious experience, level of observance and commitment to Jewish values, but all within the communal religious norms and customs and not outside or above them.

I was talking to a teenage girl and mentioned the new policy at these schools.  Her response was, “Cool, I didn’t know girls can wear tefillin.  I wonder what that is like, I would try that.”  Shouldn’t we encourage our young women to embrace and excel at the laws and customs that are incumbent on them before inviting them to experiment with new spiritual experiences?  Shouldn’t we help them find meaning and inspiration in the traditional observant lifestyle, rather than reinforce the notion that spirituality is found in that which is radical, revolutionary or innovative?  Shouldn’t we be confident that our young men and women are committed to vigilantly observe halacha before granting them license to take on behaviors that their parents and grandparents didn’t feel worthy to perform?

Rather than discuss women wearing tefillin, we should be discussing ways to inspire our young men to maintain a commitment to never miss a day of putting on tefillin, even if they struggle to find it meaningful or uplifting.  Rather than encouraging our young women to wear tefillin, we should be encouraging them to find expression and inspiration in the Torah’s prescription for femininity and womanhood.

Our young people don’t need radical change leaving them as outliers from communal norms; they need to be taught radical commitment to halacha and tradition with fervor, enthusiasm and meaning.

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  1. James123 permalink

    Rabbi Goldman,

    Wonderful article. I would just like to point out a few things, however.

    1. Although you say your main objection to the practice of women donning tefilin is on grounds that are extra-halakhic, you begin by engaging in a halakhic analysis. There are multiple issues, however with the content of that analysis.

    You accurately cite the content of Rama’s opinion on women wearing tefilin. However, to give that opinion more weight, you refer to Rama as ” THE authority of Ashkenazic Jewry”. It is true that there are some that view Rama as indeed occupying such a pedestal. But, to refer to Rama in such a manner and then cite the Gra’s even stronger opinion in the same paragraph is grossly manipulative and misleading, seeing as the Gra was outspoken against reflexively and mechanically holding like Rama and Shulkhan Arukh when they are not in concert with what one believes to be a proper reading of Rishonim. Both the opinions of Rama and Gra matter in a halakhic analysis of women wearing tefilin, but according to Gra’s own mehalekh Rama’s opinion is not dispositive as you try to paint it to be.

    Moreover, you claim that those who are advocate the position that women should not wear tefilin adhere to such a position becuase of “an unusual requirement when wearing tefillin”. This sentence is again very misleading to the reader. You make it sound as if this requirement of a special pristine state of bodily cleanliness is universally held to exist, but for some reason some Rishonim/Aharonim did not believe it to impede women from wearing tefilin, whereas others did. The truth, however, is that the requirement of a pristine state of bodily cleanliness to don tefilin is a rather obscure position. It is never mentioned in the text of the Bavli nor the Yerushalmi. It is, however, mentioned in Tosafot Eruvin 96, but not as an accepted halakhic position. As I’m sure you know, in addition to the text of the Braita regarding Mikhal Bat Kushi found in the Bavli, that our Sages did NOT protest to her donning tefilin, there is another version of the Braita found in Yerushalmi and Pesikta that the Sages DID protest to Mikhal bat Kushi wearing tefilin. Of course l’ma’aseh there is no reason to poskin like a Yersuhalmi or Pesikta over Bavli. Nevertheless, Tosafot, in trying to understand how such a version of the Braita is justifiable, suggests that Tefilin require a “guf nakiy”. In essence, the requirement of an unusually pristine state of bodily cleanliness for tefilin, is suggested by the Tosfists only as a POSSIBLE justification for a halakhic position that is clearly NOT HALAKHA L’MA’ASEH.

    Of course, the Rishon Meir of Rothenburg, is quoted as saying something similar, but a.) his words most likely were that women can’t wear tefilin because of their ritual impurity due to menstrual bleeding (Sefer Tashbetz ¶ 270), which would be hard to reconcile given that ritual purity is not held to have an effect on one’s fitness to don Tefilin (Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Tefilin, 4:13 based on Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 26b). Even according to the version Meir of Rothenburg’s opinion which has him requiring physical “bodily cleanliness” (Orhot Hayyim, fol. 7b, ¶ 3 and Sefer Kol Bo, foo. 13c, ¶ 21), requirement is rather obscure as Meir of Rothenburg would be the only Rishon to hold of such a requirement l’maaseh.

    2. More pertinent to your main argument that women wearing tefilin is “Mechzey Kyohara”, that seems a bit of a stretch. Rishonim often mention reasons why things should not be done in spite of the fact that they are technically halakhically acceptable, yet none of the Rishonim mention that women should not wear tefilin because of “mechzey Kyohara”. Indeed, those that have discussed a possible reason why women should not wear tefilin say that although they can technically halakhically wear tefilin they should not do so because of their inability to maintain a “guf nakiy”. Why not also mention “mechzey Kyohara”? Rashba (Sh’eiloth U’Teshovoth Ha-Rashba, Vol. 1 No. 123) Rabbenu Tam (Tosafot, Eruvin, 96a s.v. “Dilma”) and Ba’al Hama’or (in commentary on Rif’s commentary on tractate Rosh Ha-shana, p. 9b in dapei ha-Rif) both clearly hold that l’ma’aseh a woman may wear tefilin. It seems highly irresponsible of them to fail to warn against doing so on the basis of “mechzey Kyohara” if they believed wearing tefilin to indeed constitute “mechzey Kyohara”.

    I think the problem is a failure to realize that mesorah is not static, but develops and changes over time. The fact that Rishonim listed above permitted women to don tefilin l’ma’aseh means one of 2 things. Either a.) that although the custom at their respective times and locales was for women to NOT wear tefilin, they had no problem with women doing so in spite of the fact that it would change the custom OR b.) that the custom at their respective times and locales was for women TO wear tefilin, but somewhere along the way, that custom changed, and it is thus OK for things mitzvoth to be done which have not been customarily done. Indeed,
    in the article by Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky which you quote he mentions how there was a time when men too were lax about wearing tefilin. Perhaps bucking the custom of this laxity on the males is also “mechzey Kyohara”, and the men who brazenly put on tefilin daily in those times and places should have simply behaved like the “truly righteous person [who] blends in and is loyal to the local customs and norms”.

    • reb yid permalink


      1. You’re arguing that the Gra would object to reflexively holding like the Ramo, but in this case the Gra is more forceful than the Ramo…surely the Gra isn’t arguing that we shouldn’t hold like him either! You can’t have it both ways.

      2. The requirement for guf naki is straight from the Bavli: Shabbos 49a.

      3. The Ba’al Hamaor and Rashba don’t say that women can wear tefillin generally. They merely say that a woman who is mekayem a mitzvas eseh shehazman grama makes a bracha, like Michal who wore tefillin would have.

    • permalink

      To address your comment regarding why “mechzei k’yuhara” is not mentioned in the rishonim regarding women wearing tefillin, is exactly because of the reason you mention that mesorah is not static. It is very possible that in the rishonim’s time, it was not considered a practice that would be classified as “mechzei k’yuhara”, as Rabbi Goldberg explained, was the custom for even men to wear Tefillin all day. But later, as times changed, as the level of purity decreased, the Shulchan Aruch Harav, and modern practice as well maintains that doing so would be in fact “mechzei k’yuhara”. The same can be argued for women as well.

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