By Rabbi Yaakov Klass
Chairman, Presidium Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim

This year the world is facing a pandemic that for most of us alive today is unprecedented, Covid 19. It has affected all aspects of our lives for this unusually long period of time now going on six months. It has affected the health of many and caused disruptions in work and the schooling of our children. It has also left much of the economy in shambles.

In our Orthodox Jewish communities what has been most felt is the disruption of Synagogue services. Many Shuls have finally reopened but in conformity with certain social distance guidelines as well as the requirement that all congregants don masks [that cover mouth and nose]. These requirements as well as the public’s ongoing fear of contagion have placed great pressure on many Synagogue leaders as to how to deal with and accommodate the anticipated surge of people who expect to be able to join in the High Holiday services this year [all members who pay good money to support their local shul]. 

We know that men, those over Bar Mitzvah have an obligation to join in congregational prayer, that means joining in with a minyan of ten adult males, whereby all Tefillot that require that minimal quorum may say those matters of Kedusha and respond [i.e. Kaddish, Kedusha etc.] thus their presence is not really optional, but rather mandated. But what of women and young children, where space is at a premium, what to do? What of the service itself would it be proper to shorten it? Let us turn to our Halachic sources for some guidance.

The Mishna (Berachos 20a-b) states “Women, slaves and minor children are exempt from reciting Keri’at Shema, and from donning Tefillin but are required to Pray, affix a Mezuzah to their doorposts and to recite the Grace after meals.

The Gemara, questions the need to issue the first ruling, for it is a simple matter, Keri’at Shema is a time related mitzvah [for which they are exempt]. The Gemara explains that since there is a need to accept upon one’s self the yoke of Heaven – ol malchut Shamayim I would think there is no difference between men and women, thus the Mishna declares otherwise. As regards Tefillin [which is a time related mitzvah] I would have thought since the two mitzvos, Tefillin and Mezuzah, are connected therefore one would assume that they too are required to don them. Therefore the Mishna lets us know that such is not the case.

On the other hand as to Prayer, the Gemara explains women’s obligation, as to that which is intrinsic to all prayer, the need to ask for Divine mercy – rachami and surely women are in need of Hashem’s mercy just as much as men.

The difficulty the Gemara encountered was that we pray three Tefillos every day, Shacharis, Mincha and Ma’ariv, each at a designated time, rendering our Tefillah as being time related. If so they should be exempt, thus the Gemara explains that all have a need to pray to seek Mercy from Hashem. Indeed Chana, the mother of the prophet Samuel, after whom our style of prayer developed is a perfect example of someone who prayed to Hashem for His mercy, in her case to grant her a child, a prayer that was answered with her bearing Samuel, one of the greatest individuals to ever live.

Yet there are numerous views as to the scope of women’s prayer and the ruling is near universal that they are not required to pray as many Tefillos as men.

The Rambam (Hilchos Tefillah chap 1:1-2) states: “It is a Biblical precept to pray every day. This he derives from the verse in Keri’at Shema “u’l’ovdo b’chol l’vavechem – that you serve Him with all your heart.” And our Sages say, what is the service of the heart? It is Prayer. Now, as to the number of prayers we recite daily that is not Biblical, nor is its text and nor are any specific time requirements [these were all instituted by the Sages]. Therefore Women… are indeed obligated to Pray as it is not a time related matter. As to what satisfies the requirement of Prayer? It entails a person beseeching for Heavenly mercy via Praying every day, reciting the praises of Hashem, then requesting one’s needs…..

Thus the Sages enacted the three Tefillos that men are to recite daily, while for women a once daily prayer suffices.    

Now what is the style of that prayer? The Mechaber (Orach Chayyim 47:14) rules that women are to recite the Birchot ha’Torah – the blessings over the Torah. Ba’er Heitev (ad. loc. sk14) explains as these blessings relate to those mitzvot that they are observe and which they must consequently study. As such they should also recite the Korbanot. I might add since the Pesukei D’Zimrah are a preparation for the Tefilla, they should probably say that as well. 

Further on the Mechaber (Orach Chayyim 70:1, citing our Mishna, Berachot 20a-b)) posits: “Women are free of the obligation to recite Keri’at Shema, for that is a Biblically time related mitzvah. However it is entirely proper to teach them to accept upon themselves the yoke of Heaven.

From the Mechaber we seem to extrapolate that they are required to recite the entire Keri’at Shema, thus the Rema (ad. loc.) adds: “And they should read, minimally, the first verse [Shema Yisrael etc.]

Magen Avraham (O.C. 70:sk1) writes: “Women are required to recite “Emet v’yatziv,” the text that immediately follows the Kerias Shema, because therein one satisfies the command to remember our departure from Egypt [at the hand of G-d]. Mishna Berurah (ad. loc. sk2) while doubting their obligation due to that too being a timely precept, nonetheless (infra O.C. 106:sk6, citing Sha’agat Aryeh) expresses the view that they pray the Shemoneh Esreh as well. He also encourages their reciting, minimally, the first verse in accordance with Rema. 

In fact if we turn to Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef Zt’l (Responsa Yabia Omer vol 6; O.C. 17) we find that he sets forth in the following exact manner his suggestion as the style of women’s prayer Birchot Ha’Torah, Birchot Hashachar, the first verse of Keri’at Shema and Shemoneh Esreh. Yet he finds nothing wrong if they wish to recite the entire Shacharit prayer as found in the Siddur, with two exceptions they are to recite neither Baruch She’amar nor Yishtabach as these reflect a timely mitzvah. 

Now we as Ashkenazim, do not follow his exclusion as our women recite a blessing on timely mitzvos, when they perform even though they are not so obligated, an example the blessing on the Lulav.

Yet, a definitive ruling might come for both communities Sefarad and Ashkenaz from the sefer Kaf Hachayyim (Rabbi Yaakov Chayyim Sofer b. 1870 Baghdad, d. 1939 Jerusalem; Orach Chayyim 70:sk1) “ If they [women] wish to bless all the Birkat Keri’at Shema as well as Pesukei D’Zimrah and its blessings they are so permitted. Therefore women who know how to study and pray may pray the entire order of the Tefillah just like men no less, and from the beginning of Korbanot through Aleinu

Now insofar the question of a women’s prayer group, completely separate from the Men’s synagogue service, for this Yamim Nora’im, and in such setting as they find suitable, be it outdoors or indoors. It must be understood that what follows is only a suggestion for this very unique situation, the Covid 19 Pandemic in whose grips we find ourselves.

First of all should they all join in together with one woman leading the services, whether ten women or 1,000 women, be aware that this does not constitute a congregational quorum. As such that would not allow for the recitation of those prayers that are davar she’b’kedushah, such as Kaddish, Barechu and Kedushah. Nor would it be proper to read from the Torah, albeit due to modesty, per our sages. As to a woman prayer leader donning a Tallit, Rav Soloveitchik, was very critical of such a practice. Lastly in this regard it is also important that a woman’s prayer group secure the services of a man of fine character and ability who is qualified to perform the blasts of the Shofar.  Better yet, if at all possible would be for the group to be joined by a minimal minyan of perhaps ten or more men, with the necessary gender separation, with one of the men leading the services thus allowing for the inclusion of all the devarim she’b’kedushah.   

In general this year, especially as regards those congregations where masks are an absolute requirement for both men and ladies, it might be prudent to cut back on some of the traditional Piyyutim that are said in order to reduce the time spent in the environs of the Synagogue. As far as the Rabbi’s sermons, these too should be shorter and more to the point that they evoke the true spirit of Teshuvah – repentance that exists in the hearts of every Jew..

In conclusion we refer to a Baraita (Megilla 31b) “It was taught: R’ Shimon b. Elazar says: Ezra decreed for Israel that they are to read the curses of Leviticus (Parashat Bechukotai) prior to Shavuot and those of Deuteronomy (Parashat Ki Tavo) prior to Rosh Hashanah. The Gemara questions: What is the reason? The Gemara answers in order that we conclude the year and all its curses. This reflects well regarding the reading before Rosh Hashanah, but how to understand the reading before Shavuot? The Gemara responds: “Since we are judged then concerning the fruit of the trees it too is considered a Rosh Hashanah – a New Year. Hence our greeting and prayerful exhortation “Tichleh Shana v’killeloteha – May this year conclude along with all its curses, V’tochel Shanah u’Birkoteha – May the New Year commence with all its blessings.” 

We, the Men, Women and children of Klal Yisrael, have much to pray for. Indeed, for most of us never before in our lifetimes has the motivation behind our prayers been so clear. Let us seize the moment and pray for the good of our people and all of mankind.

Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; he also serves as Chairman of the Presidium of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at and additionally at