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Women and Shofar

On Rosh Hashanah, Jews throughout the world hear the shofar blown 100 times each of the two days (except on Shabbos). Hearing shofar is a time-bound positive mitzvah (mitzvas aseih she-ha-zeman gerama). Since, generally speaking, women are exempt from time-bound positive mitzvos, they are not required to hear shofar. However, over the centuries women have accepted as a custom to hear shofar.

I. Hearing Shofar

This means that women have to exert great effort to hear shofar. Normally, they may choose whether to perform a mitzvah from which they are exempt. While we should want to do as many mitzvos as possible, women can take into account other competing concerns — crying babies, exhaustion, household responsibilities, mitzvos they find more personally meaningful, a desire for some quiet time, and much more. When it comes to shofar, a woman is expected to put in serious effort to fulfill the mitzvah.

Additionally, shuls have to try to accommodate families so that both husband and wife can hear shofar. Because little children often cannot stay in shul for the whole morning, and sometimes cannot come to shul at all, most communities have multiple shofar blowings so parents can alternate between watching children and hearing shofar. This also gives parents the flexibility to walk out during the middle of shofar blowing if a child cries. It is important not to let your mitzvah take away from other people’s mitzvah. If the person blowing shofar has already fulfilled the mitzvah, then instead of him saying the blessings for the listeners, everyone should say the blessings themselves quietly (Rema, Orach Chaim 589:6).

There are times when a woman is unable to hear shofar at all. For example, a woman who has recently given birth or is otherwise too weak may not be able to go to shul. Because hearing shofar is a custom and not an actual obligation, a woman who feels she cannot go to shul does not have to worry about hearing shofar. Sometimes women feel guilty about missing shofar. This is understandable but unnecessary guilty. The Chayei Adam (141:7) writes that, in such a situation, a woman has not failed to fulfill the custom. Rather, the custom has always been that sick or weak women do not have to hear the shofar.

II. How Much Shofar?

For men, the biblical obligation is to hear three shofar blows of teru’ah. Each teru’ah must have a teki’ah before and after. Additionally, we are unsure whether the biblical teru’ah is what we call today a teru’ahshevarim or shevarim-teru’ah. Out of doubt, we blow three of each. That means three sets of each with a teki’ah before and after each, totaling 30 shofar blasts. As a custom, on each day of Rosh Hashanah we blow another 70 blasts, totaling 100. The custom of women hearing shofar only refers to the 30 blasts (Rivevos Ephraim 1:397).

Once the shofar blowing begins, a man is not allowed to talk unnecessarily until the very last blast is blown so that the blessing applies to all the shofar blasts (Shulchan AruchOrach Chaim 592:3). Rav Ephraim Greenblatt (Rivevos Ephraim, ibid.) asked a number of leading rabbis whether women are allowed to speak in between the 30 shofar blasts that they have to hear. This only refers to in between shofar blasts. If they talk while the shofar is blown, they do not fulfill the mitzvah. Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav Binyamin Yehoshua Zilber and Rav Moshe Bick all replied to him that women may not speak from the time of the blessing on the shofar until they hear the thirtieth blast. Rav Zilber adds that women who attend shul for the full services and hear 100 blasts of shofar should not speak unnecessarily until the last blast, like men.

III. Eating Before Shofar

As with most mitzvos, you are not allowed to eat a meal until you fulfill the mitzvah. Some shuls and yeshivos have a break before shofar blowing, so people can make kiddush and eat. This was a source of controversy in the mid-twentieth century, when Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin insisted that yeshivos stop this practice and Rav Mordechai Gifter objected, because it was the practice in the Slobodka yeshiva (Gevuros Eliyahu 1:158-160).

All agree that men may eat before shofar if they feel weak (Mateh Ephraim 588:2). The Chayei Adamsays that for women, the permission is even stronger since technically they are not obligated in the mitzvah. However, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (129:19) only permits women to eat if they feel weak. People who eat before shofar should recite kiddush before eating.