Parshat Behar: Are women obligated?

“And Hashem spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai saying: Speak to Bnai Yisrael and say to them, “when you come to the land that I am giving to you, you should rest the land. It is a Sabbath to Hashem. You may sow your field for six years, and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce. But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest a Shabbat to Hashem. You shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard.” (VaYikra 25:1-4)

Our parasha discusses the laws of Shemitah. The Shemitah year occurs in the Land of Israel every seven years. Shemitah is a Sabbatical Year. The land cannot be worked. The produce that is produced without cultivation is shared by everyone. Our passages are the source for the negative commandment prohibiting working the land during the Shemitah year. In addition to this negative mitzvah, a positive mitzvah obligates us to rest the land during the Shemitah year. Specifically, this positive commandment prohibits us from plowing the land, planting crops, and harvesting any produce.

Are women obligated in this positive mitzvah? Generally, women are not obligated in positive commandments that are related to a specific period of time. Maimonides explains this principle in his code of law – Mishne Torah. Before we consider his comments a brief introduction is necessary.

The Torah includes positive and negative mitzvot. Positive commandments generally require a performance. This performance may be very concrete – for example, to give charity. Other positive commandments are more abstract. The mitzvah to rest the land during the Shemitah year is an example of this type of positive command. The mitzvah does not require a concrete performance. It requires that we place the land in a state of rest. Negative mitzvot prohibit some activity, behavior or attitude.

Maimonides explains that both men and women are obligated in the observance of virtually all negative commandments. However, men and women have different responsibilities in regard to positive mitzvot. Maimonides explains that positive commandments can be divided into two groups. Some of these commandments are “constant” and are not related to a specific time. Generally, men and women share the same obligation in regard to these commandments. However, other positive commandments only apply “from time to time”— in other words – at a specific moment in time. Generally, women are exempt from these commandments. Of course, there are exceptions. There are instances in which a mitzvah only applies at a specific time but the Torah clearly states that women are obligated in its observance.[1]

Maimonides’ presentation requires some clarification. He divides positive commandments into two groups: those that are “constant” and those that only apply “from time to time.” The exact meaning of this distinction can be easily misunderstood. There are many commandments that seem to only apply from time to time but Maimonides includes them among those that are constant. For example, if a person owns a home with a flat roof, he must place a barrier around its perimeter in order to prevent someone from falling from the roof. Is this a constant mitzvah or a mitzvah that only applies from time to time? One might reasonably argue that this commandment only applies from time to time. A constant mitzvah requires ongoing observance. For example, we are required to accept that Hashem – the cause of all existence – exists. We must constantly accept this truth. But erecting a parapet only applies in the specific situation of having a house with a flat roof. This situation occurs on occasion. It is not constant. However, this analysis is incorrect. Maimonides regards the commandment to erect a parapet as a constant mitzvah. What is his reasoning?

Maimonides maintains that although this commandment does not require an ongoing performance, it is not associated with a point in time or a cycle of time. At any time that the relevant situation occurs – having a home with a flat roof – the mitzvah must be performed. Maimonides’ meaning is clearer if we contrast this mitzvah to another that he does categorize as applying from time to time. The mitzvah or reciting the Shema is performed in the morning and evening. This mitzvah is associated with points in time. In short, constant mitzvot are those that can occur and be performed at any time – even if specific conditions must exist. Mitzvot that occur from time to time are not merely occasional. These are mitzvot that are associated with a point in time or a cycle of time.

We can now consider are initial question. Are women obligated in the observance of the positive commandment to rest the land during the Shemitah year? Based on the above analysis, we should conclude that they are not obligated in this mitzvah. Resting the land during the Shemitah year is a positive commandment that is associated with time. It seems to meet the definition of a commandment that occurs from time to time. In fact, Maimonides seems to support this ruling. In his Mishne Torah, after explaining that women are exempt from positive commandments that occur from time to time, he lists those mitzvot that are exceptions to this rule.[2] This list does not include resting the land during the Shemitah year. Therefore, it seems that he rules that women are obligated in this mitzvah.

However, this conclusion is questionable. Maimonides never actually states that women are exempt from this commandment. Furthermore, he seems to imply that they are included in the commandment. In his Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides provides a brief description of each of the six hundred thirteen commandments. In each instance in which he describes a commandment from which women are exempt, he notes the exemption. In describing the mitzvah to rest the land during the Shemitah year, he does not indicate that women are exempt from the commandment.[3] This implies that they are actually obligated to observe the mitzvah.

In summary, women are exempt from most mitzvot that are associated with time. There are exceptions. Maimonides lists these. He does not include observance of Shemitah among these exceptions. Nonetheless, it seems that he does rule that women are obligated in this mitzvah. Why are they obligated in this mitzvah? Furthermore, why is this mitzvah not listed among the exceptions?

Sefer HaChinuch generally adopts Maimonides’ position. He rules that women are obligated in the positive commandment to observe the Shemitah year.[4] Minchat Chinuch discusses Sefer HaChinuch’s position and offers two possible explanations for the inclusion of women in this mitzvah. His first explanation requires some additional information. As noted, the Torah commands us to rest the land on the Shemitah year. This is a positive commandment. However, Shemitah is one of the few instances in which a specific behavior is the subject of a positive and a negative mitzvah. In this case, in addition to the positive commandment to rest the land, the Torah also legislates a negative mitzvah to not work the land during the Shemitah year. In other words, if a person works the land during the Shemitah year, two mitzvot are violated. The positive commandment to rest the land is violated and also the negative mitzvah to not work the land is violated.[5]

Minchat Chinuch suggests that in an instance in which a positive commandment legislates the same behavior that is prohibited by a negative commandment, the positive commandment applies to women – even if the positive commandment is associated with time. In our instance, women are obligated in the negative commandment to not work the land during the Shemitah year. Therefore, they are also obligated in the positive commandment to rest the land during the Shemitah year.[6]

Before considering how well this answer responds to our questions on Maimonides’ position, let us analyze this approach more carefully. Why should women be obligated in a positive commandment associated with time if this commandment is accompanied by a negative commandment legislating the same behavior? After all, the negative commandment is separate from the positive commandment. Why does the existence of this negative commandment obligate women in the positive commandment as well?

In order to answer this question, we must analyze more carefully the principle that exempts women from positive commandments associated with time. There seems to be two ways to understand the nature of this exemption. One possibility is that these commandments represent a class of obligation that does not apply to women. In other words, because the commandments only apply from time to time they are somehow less fundamental. As a consequence of this status they do not extend to women. The second possibility is that these commandments are no less fundamental than other commandments. However, a woman’s time has a special status and cannot be restricted by a positive mitzvah. Therefore, women are exempt from any positive commandment that creates a restriction on her use of her time.

Minchat Chinuch seems to accept this second possibility. Women are obligated in the negative commandment to not work the land during the Shemitah year. The positive commandment to rest the land during the Shemitah year does not create any additional restriction upon her time. The positive commandment merely legislates a behavior already required by the negative commandment. According to the second interpretation, women are obligated in this positive commandment. It is associated with time. But because the positive mitzvah deals with a period of time that is restricted through the negative commandment not to work the land, the positive commandment does not further restrict a woman’s time. Therefore, this positive commandment – despite its association to time – will apply to women.

This answer is certainly provides a wonderful insight into the nature of the exemption of women from positive commandments associated with time. However, this approach does not completely explain Maimonides’ position. According to this approach, it is reasonable that Maimonides should rule that women are obligated in the positive mitzvah to rest the land during the Shemitah year. However, as noted above, Maimonides does not list this mitzvah among the exemptions to the principle that women are exempt from positive commandments associated with time. According to Minchat Chinuch, we have identified a reason for this mitzvah’s exemption from the general rule. This explains Sefer HaChinuch’s ruling. However, it remains an exception that should be among those in Maimonides’ list.

Minchat Chinuch offers a second explanation of Sefer HaChinuch’s ruling that more thoroughly addresses the problems in Maimonides’ position. He suggests that the obligation to rest the land during the Shemitah year is not a commandment associated with time. He illustrates his point by directing us to an important difference between this mitzvah and the commandment to recite Kiddush on Shabbat. Reciting Kiddush on Shabbat is a positive commandment associated with time. Maimonides includes this mitzvah among the exceptions to the rule exempting women from such commandments. These commandments – Shemitah and Kiddush – are very different from one another in their formulations. The mitzvah of Kiddush is an obligation upon the individual to engage in a performance. The obligation to rest the land endows the land with a status – it must be rested. This mitzvah is not formulated as a personal obligation.

Minchat Chinuch suggests that a positive commandment associated with time is one that requires a personal performance at a specific time. However, the positive commandment of Shemitah does not meet this criterion. Rather than legislating a personal performance, it requires that the land be rested. It endows the land with a status for the period of the Shemitah year.[7]

This answer explains Maimonides’ position more completely. Women are obligated in the positive commandment to rest the land during the Shemitah year because this commandment does conform to the criterion of a positive commandment associated with time. Furthermore, because this mitzvah is not in the category of those mitzvot from which women are generally exempt, there is no need for Maimonides to list it among the exceptions.

It is notable that resting on Shabbat is not among Maimonides’ exceptions to the principle exempting women from positive commandments associated with time. According to either of Minchat Chinuch’s explanations for women’s obligation to rest the land during the Shemitah year, we would expect resting on Shabbat to be included in the list. It seems to be a positive command requiring a performance at a specific time – to rest on Shabbat, and women are obligated in this mitzvah.

This suggests a third possible explanation of Maimonides’ position. Perhaps, Maimonides is proposing a distinction between two types of relationships with time. A mitzvah can be associated with time either essentially or accidentally. Some mitzvot are associated with time in an accidental manner. These mitzvot require a specific performance and this performance can only be executed at a specific moment of time. Recitation of Kiddush can only be performed on Shabbat. Eating matzah can only be preformed as a mitzvah on Pesach. However, some mitzvot are essentially related to time. These mitzvot endow a period of time with a special status, sanctity or character. The mitzvah to rest on Shabbat endows Shabbat with its sanctity. Similarly, the mitzvah to rest the land during the Shemitah year endows that year with its unique character. These mitzvot are not merely commanding us in a performance that must be executed at a specific time. These commandments provide specific periods of time with their unique character.

Perhaps, Maimonides maintains that women are exempt from positive mitzvot that legislate performances that must be executed at a specific time. However, mitzvot that endow a period of time with its special character apply equally to men and women.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 12:3.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 12:3.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 134.

[4] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 84.

[5] Although it is rare for a single behavior to be the subject of a positive commandment and a negative commandment, this instance is not unique. The performance of melachah – creative labor – on Shabbat is also the subject of a positive commandment and a negative commandment. The Torah commands us not to perform melachah on Shabbat. This is a negative commandment. The Torah also commands us to rest on Shabbat. Rest is defined as refraining from melachah. This is a positive commandment.

[6] Rav Yosef Babad, Minchat Chinuch, Mitzvah 326, note 1.

[7] Rav Yosef Babad, Minchat Chinuch, Mitzvah 326, note 1.