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This passage from Numbers is the same text used in the third paragraph of the Shema, Judaism’s most fundamental creed. Sarah Wolk, 26, told the Forward at the Netzitzot event that the importance of this script is one of the reasons she started wearing tzitzit two and a half years ago.
“I was [praying] every day, and it didn’t feel right to be saying the Shema and not doing it. It just wasn’t consistent,” she said. “I like that [wearing tzitzit] is a physical, tactile, tangible mitzvah. Judaism is very ‘heady’ — you can get distracted with words.” For Wolk, wearing tzitzit is part of a uniform in the same way that others might wear a skirt or a yarmulke; it’s her way of reminding herself and showing others that she is Jewish.
The question of whether the law of tzitzit applies to women as well as men appears in the Talmud, which says in tractate Menachot 43a, “The rabbis taught: all are obligated in the laws of tzitzit: Priests, Levites, Israelites, converts, women and slaves.” It adds the opinion of Rabbi Shimon, who says that women are exempt because tzitzit is considered a positive time-bound commandment, which is not mandatory for women.
In the paraphrased words of the medieval Jewish authority Maimonides, however, there’s nothing stopping women who want to observe non-obligatory commandments from doing so. But there are also eminent authorities who rule differently, and even today, traditional Judaism frowns upon women wearing tzitzit. This is usually true for two reasons: the law prohibiting women from wearing men’s clothes, and the idea that it is arrogant or contrarian for a woman to voluntarily adopt this commandment, likely seen as a form of protest. As men aren’t even obligated to go out of their way to wear tzitzit — the law just stipulates that if a man happens to wear a four-cornered garment, he should put fringes on it — women who adopted this mitzvah were seen as over-pious.
Those who oppose women laying tefillin cite the same two reasons in their arguments. The issue surged recently after SAR, a Modern Orthodox high school in Riverdale, N.Y., gave permission for two of its female students to don tefillin in daily morning prayer.
Women wearing tzitzit is the younger sibling of this controversy: Still in its infant phase, the movement hasn’t (yet) made headlines in the same way in the United States. In Israel however, dozens of women have been arrested at the Kotel for wearing a tallit, a version of the tzitzit worn over the clothes during prayer.
As with many religious practices, the public perception of this Jewish ritual is informed by much more than legal discourse.
“You have to look at the anthropological picture here,” explained Rabbi Ethan Tucker, co-founder and head of the yeshiva at the egalitarian learning program Mechon Hadar. He pointed out that the mitzvah of tzitzit is viewed differently from other “men’s commandments” such as blowing the shofar or sitting in the sukkah, because its fulfillment involves wearing a garment. “At least to some external eyes, women were wearing men’s ritual garb in a way that even if tzitzit were not intrinsically male, it came to be perceived as a thing that men wore and women did not. It might have been jarring to people — a kind of ritual cross-dressing.”
That could be part of the reason why tzitzit hasn’t become popular among women yet. Meggie O’Dell, 26, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, started laying tefillin long before she started wearing tzitzit, because “tefillin never felt male… it never occurred to me that it was a gendered thing.” Tzitzit, on the other hand, were available only in shapes and sizes that would suit a manly body. That did not appeal to O’Dell, who covers her head but does so with a large flowery headband rather than a man’s yarmulke. Making her own tzitzit, which she wears tucked in and considers a private mitzvah not visible to others, allowed her to fulfill her egalitarian understanding of Jewish obligation without succumbing to the legal issues of wearing men’s clothing or using the ritual as a form of protest.