The shofar has always been a pivotal part of my Rosh Hashanah experience. Even when I was very young, and spent most of the day in groups eating pretzels, the group leaders would bring all the children into shul to hear the shofar being blown. Those moments I spent listening, wide-eyed and silent, to the piercing shofar blasts, were as close as my 6-year-old self could ever come to appreciating the significance of the day.
When I grew older, I started learning more about the holiday. But the simple sound of the shofar still resonated with me in ways that no class or speech could. Nothing I learned could ever match the long, chilling blast echoing in my ears, forcing me to wake up and reflect back on my past year. Most Jewish women I know feel the same way; the shofar is an incredibly powerful experience that they would never consider missing.
Yet, when we look into the halacha, we see that hearing the shofar falls into a category of commandments from which women are normally exempt. Shofar is a mitzvat asei she’hazman grama, a positive commandment that must be done at a specific time. Aside from several exceptions, women are not obligated in these kinds of commandments.
One way of understanding women’s exemption from time bound commandments is a halachic principle known as haosek bamitzvah, patur min hamitzva; one who is involved in a mitzvah is excused from doing another one simultaneously. Since women are constantly involved in the mitzvah of raising and educating children, they are not required to do a mitzvah that has a time constraint, such as hearing the shofar, because at any given time they may already be involved in a mitzvah.
However, despite this leniency, we know that the prevailing custom is for women to be in shul on Rosh Hashanah in time for shofar. The Chayei Adam describes how generations of women decided to take this mitzvah upon themselves; they adopted it in such a broad and overwhelming way that it reached the level of an obligation.
Sometimes I wonder what was going through these women’s minds when they made the choice to take on this new responsibility. I wonder what made them decide that their Rosh Hashanah could not be the complete without being there to hear the shofar blow; what about the experience made them feel that they could not bear to miss it. Although I will never know for sure, I will always admire and appreciate them for what they did. By taking this proactive step, they set the standard for their future daughters, and thus ensured that we would always have the privilege of experiencing the power of the shofar many years later.
Rachel Retter is a former summer intern at the Jewish Link and a senior at Manhattan High School for Girls.
By Rachel Retter