Women dancing with the Sefer Torah

In what follows, I will relate to the proper way to act when women dance with the sifrei Torah on Simchat Torah. This responsum is intended for a community which has decided that women will dance with the sefer Torah, and its purpose is to respond to two questions which are likely to arise as a result of that decision.

Is there a problem for a woman to touch the sefer Torah when she is a niddah?

In Masekhet Berakhot, the following is quoted in the name of the tanna R’ Yehuda b. Beteira:

“Words of Torah are not susceptible to becoming impure, as it says ‘For lo, my words are like fire, says God’- just as fire is not susceptible to becoming impure, so too the words of Torah are not susceptible to becoming impure (Berakhot 22a).”

Thus did Rambam rule in the laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah, chapter 10, halakha 8:

“All who are impure, and even niddot and even a Kuti are permitted to hold the sefer Torah and read from it, because the words of Torah are not susceptible to impurity, and this is on condition that his hands are not soiled or dirty with mud, rather, they should wash their hands and then touch it.”

In other words, according to the Rambam, the criterion to allow holding a sefer Torah is not impurity but cleanliness. The Shulḥan Arukh rules in accordance with the Rambam, and he notes in two places that all those who are impure are allowed to touch the sefer Torah. In the laws of the sefer Torah in Yoreh De’ah 282:9, he writes:

“All those who are impure, even niddot, are permitted to hold the sefer Torah and to read from it. This is as long as their hands are not soiled or dirty.”

The Shulḥan Arukh relates to this law in OraḤayyim  88 as well, and there the Rama notes that in ‘our country’, the women have a different custom:

“There are those who wrote that a women who is a niddah during the days she is seeing [blood] should not enter the beit knesset, pray, mention God’s name, or touch the sefer [Torah], and there are those who say she is permitted to do all of these, and this is the fundamental law, but the custom in these countries follows the first opinion. And during the days of [wearing] white, the custom is permissive. And even in places where the custom is to be stringent, during the Days of Awe and the like, when many gather to go to the beit knesset, they are allowed to go just as other women are, for it would cause them great sadness if all were gathering and they had to stand outside.’

The Rama rules that a women is allowed to enter the beit knesset, to pray, to mention God’s name and to touch the sefer Torah during her days of niddah, but quotes the women’s custom not to do these things during the time when they are seeing blood. This custom is not connected to ritual impurity, because they didn’t practice this during the days of wearing white, when a woman is still ritually impure. And this custom is likewise limited and not practiced during holidays when all of the community comes to the beit knesset. Later halakhic decisors,  both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, opposed this practice. The Mishna Berura  on the same halakha attests to the fact that in his country, the custom is not as the Rama described it (though he cites the Ḥayyei Adam who describes and supports the custom), and R. Ovadiah Yosef, in Responsa Yeḥaveh Da’at (3:8) vehemently opposed the custom not to bless or pray, and at the conclusion of his words, he writes that women are permitted to be strict with themselves and refrain from entering a beit knesset, and touching and looking at a sefer Torah, but he did not accept that this custom is obligatory for women who were not strict with themselves regarding this custom.

As mentioned, according to the fundamental halakha, these is absolutely no problem with a niddah touching the sefer Torah, and in our days, many women do not follow this custom,  and they come to beit knesset  during their niddah period, look at the sefer Torah, and even kiss it when given the chance. Therefore, it seems that even a woman who is strict with herself during the year not to touch or look at the sefer Torah during her period need not give up on touching or seeing the sefer Torah on Simḥat Torah. Likewise, nowadays, thanks to modern hygiene, there is no concern for a lack of cleanliness during a woman’s period, so that even if, in the past, a woman may have refrained from touching the sefer Torah because of this concern, this is no longer the situation. On the other hand, it is important not to embarrass women who are not interested in touching the sefer Torah for various reasons, and one should be sensitive to this.

Are there rules one must observe while touching and dancing with the sefer Torah?

In many communities in Israel, women are not used to touching or carrying the sefer Torah, and therefore, in a community which has decided to have women dancing with the Torah, it is important to review the  rules of how to act with the Torah.

Earlier, we saw the words of the Rambam in the laws of Sefer Torah and the Shulḥan Arukh who both discussed impurity and cleanliness. As mentioned, there is no problem of impurity related to touching the sefer Torah, but one must be strict regarding cleanliness. However, beyond the requirement for clean hands to touch the Torah, being in the immediate presence of the sefer Torah, and certainly holding onto it, demand an air of respect and seriousness. Thus the Shulḥan Arukh writes at the beginning of siman 282 in Yoreh Deah:

“A person must act with great respect towards the sefer Torah. It is a mitzvah to dedicate a place for it and to honor that place and to make it exceedingly beautiful. One may not spit in front of a sefer Torah, and one may not reveal their skin [which is normally covered] before it, or spread out their legs in front of it, or put it on one’s head like a load…but rather, one should sit in front of it with seriousness, awe and fear, for it is the testimony before all the people of the world, as it says ‘And it shall be a witness for you’ (Devarim 31:26), and one should respect it as much as one can.”

The Shulḥan Arukh describes the emotional state of a person in the presence of the sefer Torah: seriousness, awe and fear, and sets a high standard of maximal respect- ‘one should respect it as much as one can’. In light of this ruling¸ we ought to seek halakhic parameters to define respectful behavior of the highest standard. In the laws of Tefillah, the person who is praying is seen as if standing before the King, and in that context, additional standards of dress are required beyond what is required for making blessings and reciting the Shema. In the laws of Tefillah, OraḤayyim, siman 91:1, the Shulḥan Arukh writes:

“If one had a garment tied to his waist covering him from the waist down, it is forbidden to pray until his heart his covered.”

And in 91:5: “A person may not stand in their money belt (afunda) or with an uncovered head or uncovered legs if the local custom is not to stand before important people without socks.”

What emerges from these laws is that standing for the prayer of shemoneh esreh, which is like standing before the king, ideally demands clothing appropriate for standing before kings or important people, not with arms or legs uncovered, and this depends on local customs. As mentioned, when close to the sefer Torah, one is required to respect it as much as one can, and therefore one should be exceedingly careful in matters of dress, as during prayer, since the respect due the Torah is the same as that due to kings. In my opinion, in Israel, there are two primary places from which we can learn what the dress code demanded of women in a place of honor is: from those who speak before the Knesset, and who appear before the High Court. In these places, men and women generally wear clothing which covers their arms, and not tank tops or shirts with very short sleeves, and which covers most of their legs, even if in other contexts, there may be a different dress code. Therefore, it would seem that a woman who plans on carrying and dancing with a sefer Torah should be especially careful about how she dresses, as in the laws of Tefillah for men in this regard. This demand does not distinguish between men and women, and it stems from a criterion of honor for prayer and for the Torah.

Attention should also be paid to the fact that many of the sifrei Torah are heavy, so that a woman who will carry a sefer must be sure she has the physical strength to do so. Each woman must evaluate her own ability in this matter.

To summarize: The fundamental law is that there is nothing preventing a niddah from touching the sefer Torah, and even those who have a different custom regarding this are permitted on Simḥat Torah. However, a woman who is not interested in touching the sefer Torah should not be pressured into doing so. When we come to rejoice with the Torah, we all- both men and women- must be especially stringent regarding our dress, and be careful to honor the Torah as much as we can. May we all merit the joy of performing mitzvot, with peace and unity, ‘all the tribes of Israel, united’.

rabbanit yael shimoniYael Shimoni, a member of Beit Hillel, teaches Talmud and Halacha at Pelech High School and various seminaries in Jerusalem and Gush Etzion. She studied at Migdal Oz with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein ZT”L, at the Matan Talmudic Institutenad at Herzog College. In recent years she has been a member of the Institute for Halachic Leadership at Midreshet Lindenbaum. She is currently heading the Beit Hillel Meshivat Nefesh Project.


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