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May a Woman Lead Selichot and the Recital of God’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy?

In the Name of God, Ruler of the Universe

By Rabbi Ysoscher Katz

Our Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Dov Linzer (shlita), was recently asked if women are permitted to function as shelichot tzibur (prayer leaders on behalf of the community) for the recital of the selichot (penitential prayers) and God’s 13 Attributes of Mercy. In a detailed responsum, he explains his reasons for prohibiting such practices. But this is not my position. In my opinion, women are permitted to lead the congregation in the recital of the penitential prayers and the 13 Attributes of Mercy, specifically if they are recited as one would read a verse from Torah (a concept that will be explained below), since fundamentally there is no “communal” religious obligation to recite the selichot and the 13 Attributes, and as a result of this the person who leads these parts of prayer is not considered a “shaliach tzibur” (an intercessor on behalf of the community).

Before I explain my reasons for permitting such a practice, it is important to offer a methodological introduction that will serve as a guiding principle when called upon to grapple with questions of a communal nature such as these. When rabbinic decisors (poskim) deal with a halakhic question, they must know what their starting point is, or understand the underlying presumption behind this question. Is the matter permitted until proven otherwise? Or is perhaps the issue at hand forbidden, and those who seek to permit them must prove that this is not the case? The establishment of a starting point has the power to help poskim navigate their way through halakhic decision-making—a process that, as we know, is fraught with dilemmas and potential complications. It will also impact their opinions as they come to render decisions at every halakhic juncture, establishing how much weight to bestow on each argument or how seriously to consider each proof. Most importantly, the starting point will establish once and for all on which side stands the burden of proof.

It is obvious that the starting point is, generally speaking, established based on precedents and in consonance with the spirit of those precedents. If queries of a particular nature were asked many times before, and the conclusions rendered stood uniformly in the affirmative, one can reasonably assume that the matter is permissible unless proven otherwise.

Regarding the question at hand, when we come to assess the place of women within the communal-religious public sphere, the preponderance of precedents compels us to assume that the practice is permissible. Over sixty years ago the question was asked whether a woman may study Torah; the response was affirmative. After some time, the question of whether a woman may read the megilah in front of a congregation of women was raised; the case received the authorities’ approval. Is it permitted for women to fulfill the obligation of kidush on Shabbat morning on behalf of the congregation? Again the answer is in the affirmative. There are many more examples of this. The proliferation of cases creates a wealth of precedents that require rabbinic decisors who are delving into this subject to assume permissibility, and to place the burden of proof on those who assert that the halakhah forbids such behavior in contrast to the practices mentioned above.

My approach does not imply that from now on everything is permissible; that according to halakhah women are equal partners to men regarding all religious practices and rituals. There is no doubt that, for women, the area of halakhic maneuverability is limited, but when we deliberate about a specific case we must assume permissibility, until the one who prohibits such action brings forward irrefutable evidence in his favor.

With this in mind, my assessment of this situation is that—unless one can categorically prove otherwise—it is reasonable to assume that it is permissible for women to lead the congregation when they come to pray and to ask for mercy from their Creator.

Additionally, Bavli Berachot (20b) postulates in a simple and incontrovertible manner that women are obligated in prayer just as men are, despite it being a time-bound commandment (from which women are generally exempted), since “mercy it is”. That is to say, women’s need for God’s mercy trumps the concept that generally diminishes their status in the halakhic sphere. Indeed the need for women to ask for mercy from their Creator makes their status equal to that of men, even though the comparison does not suit the principles of halackha itself regarding their halakhic status.

And now to the crux of the matter

The liturgical recitation of God’s 13 Attributes of Mercy is an interesting and innovative concept. When we recite the 13 Attributes we are not doing anything special. We are merely reading scriptural verses, in accordance with a tradition that they (the Attributes of Mercy) have metaphysical powers for forgiveness (or atonement).

The prooftext for the above is in tractate Rosh Hashanah (17b): “‘And the Lord passed by before him and proclaimed’, R. Yohanan said: Were it not written in the text, it would be impossible for us to say such a thing; this verse teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped His talit around Him like a communal leader and showed Moshe the order of prayer. He said to him: any time Israel sins, let them perform this service before Me, and I will forgive them.”

This agadah recounts that the Almighty taught Moshe that by reciting the 13 Attributes of Mercy we are capable of awakening heavenly mercy. Their effectiveness is not dependent upon any external condition (“Any time… let them perform this service”), except one: “The Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped His talit around Him like a communal [prayer] leader.” When the Almighty said to Moshe that the effectiveness of the 13 Attributes depended upon Israel carrying out the service like this, He meant that they should also wear a talit, just as He did.

Indeed, one who recites the 13 Attributes of Mercy must wear a talit (see Levush 581:1; cited by the Magen Avraham, Orach Chayim 18:2; the Mateh Ephraim; and other achronim. This requirement is also mentioned earlier by Rabeinu Bachya in his book Kad ha-Kemach, Ma’arechet tzitzit. It is important to note, however, that the Peri Megadim (581:3) is inclined to be lenient and permits the recital of the 13 Attributes without a talit. He notes that the issue remains unresolved and deserves further consideration).

And the Ba”ch (Orach Chayim 24; cited in the Eliyahu rabbah, Ibid, 5) went even further. He deduced from this the fact that the talit must be white, since the talit of the Holy One, blessed be He, was (presumably) white, as it is written (Daniel 7:9): “His garment was like white snow.” Aside from this, no other prior condition is mentioned in the words of the Holy One. The recitation of the 13 Attributes alone has the power to initiate change and to soften the harshness of God’s judgment.

This is probably how the words of the Gemara were understood through the course of many years, that is, until the Geonic period. In those days, a new reading became prevalent, one which explicitly contradicts the plain understanding of the words in the sugya. This novel reading posits that, according to the talmudic section cited above, the reading of God’s 13 Attributes of Mercy requires the presence of a congregation, and as a result, from a conceptual perspective, it has the status of davar shebikedushah (sacred public act, such as prayer or the kedushah in the amidah, that is only recited in the presence of a quorum of ten men and which only a man can fulfill the obligation on behalf of others).

The development of this innovative reading and the process of its acceptance are interesting and informative. The geonim ponder it, the rishonim accept the concept as halakhah, but the achronim are perplexed, unsure about it, and eventually reluctantly accept it.

One of the earliest authorities to mention this idea, that the reading of the 13 Attributes has the halakhic status of a sacred public act and therefore requires a quorum, is the Ri Migash. He states (Teshuvot ri migash, 193):

Regarding that which you asked if an individual is permitted to say in his prayers and in his supplications “The Lord passed by him” [God’s 13 Attributes of Mercy] or not.

Response. I have not seen in the Talmud anyone who disallows this, but I have seen in the responsa of a few geonim that an individual cannot say vaya’avor [the 13 Attributes], and this was inferred from the [talmudic statement (Berakhot 63b)] “And how do we know that the Holy One does not reject the prayers of the community? It is written (Job 36:5): ‘See, God is mighty; He does not despise anyone.’”

It is clear that the Ri Migash believes that there is no talmudic source whatsoever to claim that the 13 Attributes of Mercy qualify as a sacred public act incumbent upon the congregation, and that the individual should therefore be prevented from reciting them. In his opinion, the aforementioned talmudic agadah (Rosh Hashanah 17b) is not a legitimate source for such a position, and another section of Talmud that is often cited as a prooftext (Berakhot 8a) is not a bona fide source; those who side with this opinion are merely “linking” to it, it is not a valid proof. It is important to note that in the responsa of the geonim (Musafia 116) there is a lengthy piece on the aforementioned agadah by Rabeinu Hananel. He explains how it constitutes a source for the custom of the recital of the 13 Attributes of Mercy as a prayer and a request for divine mercy, but there is no mention of the fact that it must be recited communally (with a quorum).

It is clear that this novel approach does not work well with the plain interpretation of the Gemara. There is no mention of community in the agadah; on the contrary, the Holy One, blessed be He, reads the passage with no-one else besides Him. We can assume that some prefer to be stringent and require the verses to be read in a communal context because of their understanding of the motif of the leader (shatz) in the story. The fact that the Almighty wrapped Himself in the talit like a communal leader leads them to believe that God wrapped Himself like a leader of the congregation because there indeed was a congregation with Him and He was actually functioning as a shaliach tzibur. There is no doubt that this reading is very far from the plain meaning of the text. Reference to a prayer leader is allegorical and illustrative, not a description of reality. God wrapped Himself like a communal leader, but was not really leading prayers. There was no congregation present that He could represent.

Despite the fact that this understanding of the recitation of the 13 Attributes as a davar shebikedushah was based on an erroneous reading, it was accepted by several geonim and the principal halakhic decisors.  For example:  R. Amram Gaon in his Siddur (Seder ha-Tsomot) cites the “custom” in the name of R. Natan and it seems that R. Amram agrees with him.   He states:

Indeed, Rabbi Natan wrote that we have the custom to only recite the 13 Attributes of Mercy in the presence of a congregation, and an individual is not permitted to recite them in his prayers, rather only in a congregation. Hopefully, when the community members gather and fast, give charity, request divine compassion, and direct their hearts towards their Father, the Holy One blessed be He has compassion upon them, does not reject the prayers of the community, and answers them, as it is written (Job 36:5): “See, God is mighty; He does not despise anyone.” And the Almighty established a covenant with Moshe and our ancestors, promising that [their prayers] would not go unanswered, as it is written (Exodus 34:10): “I hereby make a covenant.” Therefore we only say them [the 13 Attributes] in the presence of a congregation.

As Rabbi Linzer cited in his aforementioned responsum, a similar position appears in the siddur of Rashi (545), Mahzor Vitri (271), in Sefer hamanhig (275), and among other rishonim.

The first of the rishonim that mentions and explains this custom is Rashba (Part I, 211). He states:

Regarding that which you said: May the 13 Attributes of mercy be recited by an individual?

Response: It makes sense to me that, whenever they are recited as a form of prayer or as a request for mercy, they cannot be said by individuals and are considered like a davar shebikedushah. As the agadah states, “the Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped His talit around Him like a communal leader and demonstrated it to Moshe at Sinai. And he said that every time Israel sins or when difficult times befall them, “let them perform this service before Me, and I will forgive them”. If he recites this, however, as a mere reading [of verses], he can do so in the same way as people recite the ofanim and the kedushah, as a reading of verses.

It seems that the Rashba accepts the “custom” from the Geonic period as halakhah, and in his view, God’s 13 Attributes of Mercy qualify as a sacred public act and should be recited by the congregation, and not by the individual. One cannot ignore, however, the fact that even according to his opinion, the 13 Attributes do not fit neatly within the laws of prayer in a way that obligates the congregation. A careful reading of his words reveals that the Rashba himself is not totally comfortable with the fact that the geonim turned the recital of the 13 Attributes into a sacred public act: in essence it is just “like a sacred public act”, but not actually a sacred public act. Rabbi Bezalel Stern makes a similar inference from this passage in his book Betzel hahokhmah (Part V, 61:3). Additionally, Rashba proposes a way to bypass this halakhic limitation. The recitation of the 13 Attributes of Mercy only counts as a sacred public act when performed as prayer, but if it is chanted “as a mere reading [of verses]”, it does not count as davar shebikedushah, and an individual is permitted to say it.

The rishonim and the poskim that followed them generally accept this novel and innovative definition, according to which the 13 Attributes have a liturgical status that requires a quorum, although the Rishonim occasionally express doubts regarding this conceptual definition. A particularly prominent example is the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer of Mitz in Sefer haminhagim (Klausner, section 3, also cited in Darkhei moshe 565). He states:

Rabeinu Meshulam writes that the 13 Attributes of Mercy should not be recited by an individual when he is praying selichot, as was stated “the Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped His talit around Him like a communal leader and showed Moshe.” This is proof that only the prayer leader may recite this in public. Rabbi Eliezer of Mitz said that specifically within the 18 blessings [of the amidah] one may not recite the 13 Attributes as an individual and must say them [publically] in the congregation, for one is not permitted to pause in the middle of the 18 blessings. When there is no interruption within the 18 blessings, such as this [situation], and during the ten days of repentance, one is permitted to recite the 13 Attributes even individually, and this is our custom.

Rabbi Eliezer of Mitz rejects the custom from the Geonic period which transformed the recital of the 13 Attributes of Mercy into a sacred public act. According to him, there is no reason to prevent an individual from reciting the passage—except for when it appears in the middle of the amidah, for then it would be considered an interruption within the 18 blessings. But when an individual is praying by himself, he is permitted to recite the 13 Attributes since they do not have the status of a sacred public act.

Halakhic Practice

The Tur (Orach chayim 565) does not understand this innovative idea of the Geonic period at all. He cites in the name of Rabbi Natan the view that the 13 Attributes of Mercy are only recited in public, and rejects it outright. He states:

Rabbi Natan wrote that the custom is for an individual who is fasting not to recite the 13 Attributes. I do not know what possible concern there could be in this matter, as he is merely considered as if he is reading verses from the Torah, and the rabbis only prohibited [an individual from performing] sacred public acts such as kadish, kedushah, and barechu.

He mentions the custom but cannot come up with a source, and he is not convinced by the argument, for the same reason that we stated above: the recital of the 13 Attributes of Mercy is not liturgical, but rather a reading of scriptural verses that have the metaphysical power to cause change and transform God’s will from anger to compassion. The reading per se, initiates the change. Even though the Taz wrote (565:5) that “it is clear that the Tur requires  that the individual intend that his reading should merely be considered a reading [of verses] from the Torah, rather than a prayerful request”, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef refutes this position (Yehaveh da’at, Part 1, 47) and writes: “It appears that the Tur thinks that an individual is permitted to recite [the 13 Attributes] in any case, even if his intention is to recite these words as a form of prayer and supplication.” In other words, according to Rabbi Ovadia, the Tur completely rejects the geonim’s idea; he considers it a scriptural reading—not a liturgical one—and there is no reason to mandate the presence of a congregation (or a quorum) for its recitation.

The Beit Yosef (Ibid) mentions the Abudraham who quotes the opinion of Rabbeinu Yonah as agreeing with the Tur.

The author of Terumat hadeshen (8), like the Tur, does not accept the position of those who adopted the custom to bestow the status of sacred public act upon the 13 Attributes of Mercy. He cites their respective opinions and refutes them, stating they are not “acceptable” to him:

Question: May an individual recite the 13 Attributes of Mercy or not?

Response: It seems that an individual may recite them. Even though the Or zaru’a on tractate Ta’anit indicates that an individual may not say them, and various books of customs provide divergent opinions on this matter, I saw a manuscript responsum by one of the gedolim which instructed an individual to recite the 13 Attributes of Mercy, and he wrote that since Minhagim kav venaki records that the dominant practice is to allow saying them, one can follow that practice. (Gloss: We can also deduce this from Bava Batra ch. 5. The Gemara asks regarding [doubtful] first fruits [over which one does not recite the special bikkurim proclamation], that since the proclamation over the first fruits is from the Torah, should we allow a person to simply read the verses? Rashbam commented: since the verses are in the Torah, they should be regarded as if one is reading from the Torah, and what difference would it make if he reads them unnecessarily? He answered that either this is due to the fact that it might look like a lie or because of a rabbinic decree. See the commentary of the Rashbam, confirming that these reasons do not apply to this case).

The Or zaru’a and other opinions cited by the various books of customs require a congregation to be present, but these sources are not “acceptable” to the Terumat hadeshen, since the divergent position is from Minhagim kav venaki and we should follow that custom.

In practical halakhic terms, the mechaber of the Shulchan arukh (565:5) accepts the position of the geonim that God’s 13 Attributes of Mercy have a halakhic status in the liturgy, that they are considered a sacred public act, and that they therefore may only be recited in public–in a communal context. As the rishonim already wrote, however, the innovative custom that confers upon the 13 Attributes the status of prayer is limited in scope. It only applies when the one who is praying recites them as prayer. But if the supplicant reads them as a routine reading, in the same way as a person would read a verse from Scripture, there is no impediment whatsoever preventing him from reciting these words without a quorum. The same is true in the conclusion of the aforementioned Terumat hadeshen: in principle he accepts the opinion of those who posit that there is no reason whatsoever for an individual not to recite the 13 Attributes, but in practice he recommends that such a person should read them in the same way one would read from the Torah.

Therefore, even according to the mechaber, an individual may recite the 13 Attributes as long as he does not recite them as prayer, and reads them as a regular and routine reading. And that which the Magen Avraham (§5) and the Mishnah Berurah (§12) wrote that it must be read with “tune and cantillation (trope),” is not necessarily so, as R. Moshe Feinstein wrote in Responsa Igrot Moshe (Yoreh De’ah, Part III, 21):

Regarding the reciting of the 13 Attributes as an individual, it is critical that he recite the entire verse until the word ribe’im, specifically without using the tune which sounds like prayer, but rather as if he is learning Torah. If he generally reads verses from the Torah with the trope in the regular tune, he must recite them that way; and if, when he studies verses from the Torah, he reads them in a different tune to make it easier for him, he is permitted to read them in the melody of text study to which he is accustomed, as long as he does not appear to be praying.

That is to say, according to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the intent of the mechaber is to negate one possibility without mandating an alternative one. An individual or a congregation that is not considered an halachic community– such as a woman serving as prayer leader—should not recite the 13 Attributes of Mercy in the tone and tune of tefilah (prayer), but rather in the way in which he or she regularly reads scriptural verses when reading a verse from the Torah.

Although the rabbinic decisors generally adopt the position of the mechaber, it is difficult to ignore the distress that is apparent when reading between the lines of the poskim who delved deeply into the sugya. Prominent among those who express skepticism are the Gaon Rabbi Bezalel Stern and the Gaon Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Rabbi Bezalel Stern (Part V, 61) states:

The Tur (565) states, in the name of Rabbi Natan, that it is not customary for an individual who is fasting to recite the 13 Attributes of Mercy. He wrote concerning this: “I do not know what possible concern there could be in the matter, as he is merely considered as if he is reading verses from the Torah, and the rabbis only prohibited a sacred public act such as kadish, kedushah, and barechu.” And the Beit Yosef (Ibid, s.v. katav) indicated in the name of the Abudraham that Rabeinu Yonah agreed with the Tur. The Abudraham (Seder tefilot hata’aniyot, p. 251) wrote: “Rabbi Natan Gaon wrote that there is no custom for an individual who has declared a fast [upon himself] to recite the 13 Attributes”, and Rabbi Ya’akov, the son of the Rosh, stated: “And I do not know what possible concern there could be in this matter, as he is merely considered as if he is reading from the Torah, as the rabbis only prohibited sacred public acts in a gathering with fewer than ten; and only kadish, kedushah and barechu are considered davar shebikdeushah. And Rabeinu Yonah wrote similarly.” The Tur and Rabeinu Yonah explicitly rule that the 13 Attributes of Mercy are not considered davar shebikedushah, and the language of the Abudraham indicates that he too agrees with their positions. And look in Sefer machzik berakhah (Orach chayim 131:1), in which Mahari Albo asked Rabbi Ovadia from Bartenura about what the Rashba wrote in his responsum—that an individual is prohibited from reciting the 13 Attributes. And his proof indicates that the Holy One blessed be He wrapped Himself in a talit like a communal leader … For if this were true we should not recite the 13 Attributes without wrapping ourselves [in a talit], and this is not our custom. Additionally Rabbi Yehudah Ha’chasid wrote that due to the dangers of the road an individual should say the 13 Attributes of Mercy nine times; and likewise in the special prayers that the Ramban composed, he wrote that an individual should recite them. According to their opinions the 13 Attributes of Mercy are certainly not considered a sacred public act, in agreement with the he Tur and Rabeinu Yonah—and it seems that the Abudraham also agrees with their position. According to them, an individual who is reciting the verses of the shema or the accompanying blessings should certainly not interrupt [his prayers] in order to say the 13 Attributes together with the congregation.

And see Shibolei haleket (29) who gives another reason for the custom of only saying the 13 Attributes in a communal setting: “Since when the congregation gathers together, fasts, performs acts of righteousness, and requests divine compassion … And the Holy One blessed be He shows compassion and does not despise the prayers of the public… And the Holy One blessed be He established a covenant with Moshe our teacher and our ancestors that they [the prayers] will not go unanswered…Therefore they only say them publically with a congregation.” Look carefully there. And it seems that Rabbi Natan himself already gave this reason. According to this interpretation, it is clear that there is no basis whatsoever for the Tur’s query of Rabbi Natan, since his reasoning for not allowing an individual to recite the 13 Attributes is not due to the fact that it is considered a sacred public act, but [for] the reason cited above. And if this is the case, an individual who is reciting the verses of shema or the accompanying blessings should not stop to recite the 13 Attributes with the congregation.

We certainly do not stray from the decision of the Shulchan Aarukh quoted above (§A), according to which an individual may not recite the 13 Attributes in the manner of prayer and supplication, but merely as one would read a verse in the Torah, with tune and trope—as explained in the Magen Avraham (Ibid, seif kattan 5). Similarly, we take into account the conclusion of the Machzik berakhah which I have mentioned, as well as what all the achronim wrote. Regarding all these opinions, we can state that it is not truly a sacred public act, as the Rashba indicated in his responsum (211): “And they are like a sacred public act”— i.e. not actually a sacred public act—and despite the Beit Yosef’s aforementioned comment on the language of the Rashba’s responsum (565) according to which “they are [considered] a sacred public act.” Similarly the Shulchan arukh (ibid, 5) and the Shibolei haleket (29), the latter in the name of Rabbi Avigdor Kohen Zedek, stated “that they are devarim shebikedushah” (see there). One can say that this pertains specifically to an individual, who is not permitted to say them as a prayer or a request for divine compassion. But they would also acknowledge that they are not actual sacred public acts in the matter of someone who is in the middle of reciting the verses of shema or their blessings that he should not stop to say them together with the congregation. And certainly it is preferable to accept that ruling [not to interrupt shema or their blessings for the recital of the 13 Attributes] since in the opinion of the poskim that I cited above (letter B), they are not considered as a sacred public act whatsoever, and an individual who finds himself in the middle of the recitation of the verses of shema or their blessings should indeed not stop in order to say the 13 Attributes with the congregation.

I have copied these lengthy comments in order to show the extent to which the author of Betzel ha-chochmah is not comfortable bestowing upon the recitation of these verses the status of a sacred public act. The degree to which he strives to reduce the application of this concept is clear evidence of this discomfort.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef also displays a skeptical attitude towards the halakhic upgrade that was carried out on the recitation of the 13 Attributes of Mercy. In his two responsa on the subject (Yabi’a omer Part V, Orah hayim 7; Yehaveh Da’at, Part I, 47), he clearly finds it difficult to accept the custom that emerged in the Geonic period, which requires the presence of a quorum to recite the 13 Attributes of Mercy, against the plain interpretation of the Gemara.

Summary

The simplest interpretation of the statement of the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 17b) is that the recital of God’s 13 Attributes of Mercy requires nothing beyond wrapping oneself in a talit. When the Almighty modelled for Moshe how to recite them in such a way that they would be effective, He recited them Himself, without others being present. This interpretation carries theological implications. On the simplest level, we are speaking of a routine reading of the verses. It follows that the ordinary recital of the verses– like one would read any verses from scripture—can initiate a change of the divine will or rend a (divine) decree.

During the Geonic period, a novel and creative understanding developed. Some understood (contrary to the plain interpretation in the Gemara) that the fact that “God wrapped Himself up [in a talit] like a prayer leader” meant that He actually led a congregation; there was a quorum praying together, and the Holy One blessed be He was their messenger—an emissary on behalf of the community. This alternative understanding affects not only the method of recitation, but also changes its substance. In the opinion of the geonim, the verses have the power to initiate change only when uttered as liturgy; a reading that is defined as prayer is considered from a Jewish legal perspective as a sacred public act—and one can only recite it with a congregation (in a quorum). If the 13 Attributes of Mercy are indeed to be regarded from a legal perspective as prayer and a davar shebikedushah, then women would not be able to lead selihot from the rostrum (amud) and to function as prayer leaders on behalf of the congregation.

This innovative interpretation was not easily accepted by the geonim. On the one hand, the Ri Migash posits that there is no source for it, and in Teshuvat hageonim (Musafia 117) Rabeinu Hananel limits the comparison to a communal leader to the act of donning a talit, and does not require the presence of a quorum. (He states: “This is to teach us that the Holy One blessed be He wrapped Himself [in a talit] as a messenger on behalf of the community… The proper interpretation is that the Almighty commanded an angel to wrap himself in a prayer shawl like a prayer leader in full view. And that which they said, that ‘the Almighty showed Moshe the knot of the tefilin’ was also an outwardly visible demonstration resembling a leader of the congregation who leads the community in prayer while standing in front of the ark in order to teach Moshe our teacher.”)

This new approach was apparently accepted during the period of the rishonim. The Rashba, and many rishonim that followed, turned this custom into a law. (Despite this, as the author of Betzel hahochmah accurately noted, this is not actually legally considered a sacred public act; rather, its status is merely like that of a davar shebikedushah.) On the other hand, the Tur cites this position and criticizes it. He “does not know” why the recitation of the 13 Attributes should have the status of a sacred public act.

The mechaber, finally, accepts the new approach and concludes, in a decisive ruling, that the verses qualify as davar shebikdushah. There are, however, two caveats: A) certain poskim questioned the mechaber’s decision; B) even according to his opinion, one may recite it as an individual as one would ordinarily read verses from the Torah.

Conclusion

Whether women can function as prayer leaders in the recitation of the 13 Attributes is directly related to another question, that is, whether those verses require the presence of a halakhic community. If the recitation of the 13 Attributes of Mercy have the legal standing of a sacred public act that may only be recited with a halakhic congregation, it is understood that women are clearly not part of a halachic community of this nature.[1] Conversely, if the recitation of the 13 Attributes does not qualify as a sacred public act, and its metaphysical power derives from the essence of the words as they are read as “one would read from the Torah”, then there is no reason whatsoever to prevent women from serving as prayer leaders during such a service.

Those who regard the inclusion of women within the religious communal landscape as a supreme principle could easily, therefore, arrange minyanim in which women can lead the selichot services, by reciting God’s 13 Attributes of Mercy as they would chant verses from the Torah. As we have seen above from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, “someone who reads from the Torah” does not mean that he must read these verses with cantillation, but rather refers to a regular and routine reading, the same way people would read a verse in Scripture to themselves, and hence even without trope.

It is critical to note that a scriptural reading of this nature is no less significant or effective than a liturgical reading within a community of men. Indeed, as we have seen, the reading which the Gemara mentions was a scriptural reading, not a liturgical reading-there was no tzibur present at the time-and the same is true of the status of the scriptural reading that was proposed by the rishonim, the Shulhan arukh, and the achronim. The tune used for this reading might be different, but its theurgic role is not inferior whatsoever to that of a liturgical reading.

Similarly Rabbi Ovadia Yosef writes explicitly (Yechaveh da’at, Part I, 47): “In any event, even an individual who reads them with trope, his essential goal remains to mention the Attributes of Mercy by way of prayer and supplication.” In other words, the recitation of the 13 Attributes as “one would read from the Torah” has a theurgic purpose: it has the power to prompt the Almighty to rely on the attribute of mercy rather than that of justice. If this is correct, and a scriptural recitation also constitutes “prayer and supplication”, then there is no reason to insist on appointing a man rather than a woman as prayer leader, even if that means opting for a different tune. A male prayer leader will recite the 13 Attributes of Mercy, while a woman leading prayer will merely read them. The tune will surely be different, but either way, they will carry equal potential in awakening the attribute of mercy over that of justice.[2]

It is so abundantly clear to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef that this reading is liturgical in nature that he applies to it the law of prayer regarding the halakhic concept of “all verses that Moshe did not establish as verses, we do not either”. He is of the opinion that even when an individual recites the 13 Attributes as if he is reading a verse from the Torah, he is not obligated to complete the entire verse, since its status according to Jewish law is that of prayer. Just as one is permitted to stop reciting a verse in the middle when praying, the same applies here. (On this issue, he differs with many achronim, who posit that one who reads the 13 Attributes as “someone would read from the Torah” is prohibited from breaking in the middle of the verse). He states:

Seemingly, it can be said, that the congregation’s practice of reciting the 13 Attributes of Mercy and concluding with the word venakeh, even though it is in the middle of the verse, is correct. The halakha follows the ruling (Megilah 22a) that “all verses that Moshe did not establish as verses, we do not either”; in any case, since they recite the 13 Attributes as prayer and supplication, and not in the same way in which they read the Torah, it is acceptable to stop in the middle of the verse, as the Magen Avraham (282:1) and Nishmat Adam (5:2) similarly stated. How can an individual who recites the 13 Attributes with trope as if he is reading from the Torah, however, be permitted to stop on the word venakeh? A comment on this appears in the book Chesed la’alafim (131:9), indicating that since the individual recites the 13 Attributes as an ordinary reading [from the Torah], he should not conclude in the middle of a verse with the word venakeh, since “all verses that Moshe did not establish as verses, we do not either”, but he should complete the entire verse (see there for further elaboration). The Gaon Rabbi Ya’akov Schorr, in Responsa divrei ya’akov (4), shares a similar position. Further support is offered in Responsa hitorerut hateshuvah Part II (140). From the clear implication of the words of the poskim such as the Rashba, the Terumat hadeshen, and the Shulhan arukh, however, it is obvious that even an individual should end the recitation of the 13 Attributes of Mercy with the word venakeh, the only difference being that the individual must read them with trope like he is reading from the Torah. In any event, even an individual who reads them with trope, his essential goal remains to mention the Attributes of Mercy by way of prayer and supplication. Therefore one is permitted to conclude this recitation in the middle of the verse, with the word venakeh. And the accepted custom is to say the 13 Attributes of Mercy on yom tov at the time of the opening of the ark (before taking out the Torah scrolls) until the word venakeh, and there is nothing more to discuss (see Birkei yosef 188:5). I further found in Petach hadevir (51:6) a comment from Mahari Ben Chaviv, questioning how an individual can conclude with the word venakeh, and not continue until the end of the verse. And he managed to explain it. This question was raised by the Gaon Rabbi Yosef ChHayim in the book Rav berakhot (6th edition, 51b). And he resolved it in the same fashion as the aforementioned sources. He revisited this topic in Responsa rav pe’alim Part I (Orach chayim, 11), s.v. vehineh al pi, etc. There, he reconciled it in a different fashion. It should be clear from the statements of the aforementioned achronim that there is no need for an individual to finish the verse. Rabbi Reuven Margoliot in Mekor chesed on Sefer chasidim (250) wrote in his own name that one ought to be stringent and complete the entire verse, since every verse that Moshe did not establish, we do not either. Rabbi Ya’akov Sofer wrote in similarly in Kaf ha-Chayim (131:23). Nevertheless it seems that essentially we must permit [the practice of reciting the verse until venakeh] like the opinion of the aforementioned achronim.

His opinion is clear beyond any doubt, that reading verses like “one would when reading Torah” must also be considered as prayer.

It therefore seems to me that there is no reason whatsoever to prevent women from functioning as prayer leaders on behalf of the community for selichot and for the recitation of the 13 Attributes of Mercy—as long as the penitential prayers are recited in the tone and the tune of a routine reading of a scriptural verse. Even though this reading does not have the status of a halachic community, we have seen that the mechaber believes that even an individual may read the 13 Attributes, as long as he does so in the same way as he would read any verse from Scripture.

Even though Rabbi Linzer in his teshuvah on the topic infers from the Levush (Orach chayim 581:1) that selichot have the status of davar shebikedusha, that is not in my opinion what the Levush says. The Levush proves, from the fact that we recite a full kadish (kadish titkabel) after the selichot, just like we do after the Amidah, that the recitation of selichot has the same status as the amidah. In other words, a comparison of the kadish caused the author of the Levush to conclude that the selichot are just like tefilah. If selichot, according to the Levush, has the halakhic status of tefilah, Rabbi Linzer claims, women should not be able to serve as shelichot tzibur for it. I have already noted, however, that these comparisons are not exact, as indicated by the operative term “like”. When a posek says that aleph is like bet, he does not necessarily mean that both are exactly the same. There are similarities between them, and in several ways they are equal to each other, but that is not to say that aleph is an exact copy of bet.[3]

Therefore, regarding the matter at hand, even though the Levush compares selichot to the amidah, it does not mean that the laws pertaining to selihot are the same as those governing a religiously-mandated prayer service. They share common points, and are similar enough that the principles of one can apply to the other. In our situation, since the selichot share strong similarities with the amidah prayer, it stands to reason that we would conclude them in the same fashion as we would conclude the amidah—with the full kadish. But in essence, even according to the Levush, the recital of the 13 Attributes of Mercy is considered a scriptural reading, not a recitation of prayer. Hence women are allowed to function as a prayer leaders for their recitation.

One might argue that women should nevertheless not lead the community because of the Gemara (Berachot 8a), which indicates that communal prayer is more effective than the prayer of an individual: it is more readily accepted, every time it is recited. If this is true, it would seem appropriate to opt for a male prayer leader, since when a woman serves as shelichat tzibur, the prayer no longer qualifies as communal prayer, and therefore loses its theurgic force. As a result, her prayer would be inferior. This is a mistake. The supremacy of public prayer derives from the collective, not from its halachic standing. According to the sugya mentioned above, when people gather together to pray in unison, their strength has greater chances of awakening the mercy of Heaven than that of an individual supplicant. The gender of those praying neither elevates nor belittles the community. The beneficence of the Holy One blessed be He is more easily awakened when congregants gather in prayer—be they male or female.

There is further proof to this: the scriptural commentators and other rishonim quote a statement by ChHazal: “Many who perform a commandment cannot be considered comparable to few who do it.” (The source is found in Torat kohanim, Bechukotai, parashah 1, “Many who obey the Torah cannot be considered comparable to few who fulfill the Torah.”) It is inconceivable that this statement should apply only when “many” comprises ten men. If a group of women performed a commandment together, would their collective not have any theological significance whatsoever? That is clearly not the case. The same holds true with regards to the issue at hand: when Chazal, Maimonides, the poskim, and the Shulchan arukh all stress the ideal of communal prayer, they refer to a congregation of many people, regardless of whether they are men or women.

Therefore, people who recite selichot and the 13 Attributes of Mercy in a congregation in which their prayer leader is a woman—even if the service does not have the status of an halakhic congregation—receive the reward that the aforementioned Gemara guarantees to all those who pray communally (with a multitude of people).

Kadish

We still have to clarify the halachic status of the kadish titkabel after selichot, and determine whether a woman who functions as prayer leader may recite it.

As we have seen, the Levush posits that the reason we recite the full kadish after selichot is due to the fact that selichot falls under the category of prayer, and at the conclusion of such a service we are required to say kadish. As I stated above, I believe that this categorization is not meant to apply systematically. That is to say, even according to the Levush, the intent is not that the recitation of selichot and the 13 Attributes of Mercy corresponds exactly to prayer, it is merely “like” prayer. If the recitation of the selichot is not actually halachically considered prayer, then this impacts the kadish we recite. Hence it would seem that a woman could also be permitted to recite this kadish. Theoretically, it seems to me that this is correct, that the kadish which follows the recitation of selichot does not halackhically correspond to a kadish. A woman could therefore recite it. Practically speaking, however, this matter deserves further consideration.

In addition to the full kadish which is recited at the end of selichot, there is also a Chatsi kadish (half-kadish) which is recited at the beginning, right after ashrei. On the surface, there is no impediment towards allowing a woman to recite it. A woman is permitted to recite the mourner’s kadish; why should this not apply to the half-kadish? It is said in the name of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik that the purpose of the chatsi kadish is to “connect and create community”. If its goal is to create a halakhic congregation, a woman would not be in a position to recite it, as she is not part of this halakhic community. But the above concept (“to connect and create community”) is a novel concept proposed by Rabbi Soloveitchik. He has no prooftext in the rishonim or acharonim to support his position. It is therefore not clear to me that we should necessarily following his ruling.

It is more reasonable to argue that the chatsi kadish is a type of introduction to prayer, and not an intrinsic part of the prayer service itself. Of course, if this is correct, a woman may recite it as well. Even if we were to say that she may not recite it at the beginning of the daily prayer services, it is possible that she would still be able to recite the half kadish at the beginning of selichot since the selichot and the recital of the 13 Attributes of Mercy, as I wrote above, are not intrinsic parts of the prayer service, as they are merely “like” prayer.

However, the matter requires further consideration.

In practice

1) A woman may function as a prayer leader for the congregation—both for men and for women—for the recital of selichot and the 13 Attributes of Mercy.

2) The selichot may be recited in the regular and accepted tune of selicihot that has been passed down from generation to generation.

3) Every time that a female prayer leader reaches the 13 Attributes of Mercy, she may continue to function as prayer leader for the congregation, but the tune to which she sings the passage must change. She may not read them with the commonly accepted tune of selichot, but rather in the manner in which she would read a verse in the Pentateuch, when she is studying on her own or with her peers.

4) When a woman serves as prayer leader, who should recite the kadish that precedes and concludes the selichot? From a purely legal standpoint, it seems to me that a woman can recite both of them, but I need to consider this matter further and therefore, in the meanwhile it is preferable to refrain from doing so.

I wrote that which I humbly believe to be right and true, with the hope that the divine will dwell upon our endeavors.

I submit this responsum at the end of the this year, mid- Elul, 5776

Ysoscher Katz

[1] All this rests on the assumption that the status of a sacred public act which we attribute to the 13 Attributes places the passage on an equal standing to that of tefilah or kedushah, from which women are excluded. One could also argue that the categorization of these verses as sacred public act makes them more akin to kadish, for which the status of women is equal to that of men. Women may recite kadish just like men, and the congregation is obligated to answer amen to a kadish recited by women just as it would for males. Rabbi Linzer in his responsum rejects this possibility. The issue remains unresolved and deserves further consideration.

[2] The concern regarding the notion that “the voice of a woman is considered to be nudity” is not relevant here, since practically the poskim limit it to the voice of a woman singing. Additionally, the Chida (Nahal kedumim, Beshalah, 14) states that wherever the Divine Presence (shekhinah) resides, there is no suspicion of distracting thoughts: “This law is applicable when God’s presence is revealed in public, for then there is reverence for the divine, distracting thoughts are not present, and both men and women may sing.” Similarly Maran Rabbi Ovadia Yosef agreed with the opinion of the Chida and quotes it in several of his own writings.

[3] If I had not been afraid to express such a bold and daring idea, I would have said the same thing about the concept of davar shebikedushah with regards to the question at hand. I’m not convinced that, when the rishonim and the poskim say that the 13 Attributes of Mercy qualify as a sacred public act, they mean to compare them to an actual davar shebikdushah in the fullest sense of the term. This is a conceptual comparison, intended to place the action within its halakhic context, and does not necessarily imply that the analogy applies systematically. If this is correct, it is clear that even those who define the 13 Attributes of Mercy as a sacred public act would posit that a woman may act as a prayer leader for their recitation. It is like a davar shebikedushah, not truly one (as the Rashba says explicitly.) This matter is a matter which I hope to consider further in due course.

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