by Rafi Josselson ’25
Since the Rabbinic era, Jewish men have been instructed to wear tefillin and tallit during tefilot. These rituals can be powerful symbols of connection to God and to Jewish faith, but until the past few years, most Jewish women have not been included in the obligation to take on these mitzvot.
Freshman Raya Creditor is one of the few Leffell School female students who wear tefillin and tallit. She began wearing these garments last summer when she attended Camp Ramah in New England.
“I wanted to wear [tefillin and tallit] and also my dad wanted me to wear them,” Creditor said. “ I feel connected to Judaism and I also know some of my friends wear it, so I like that connection.”
Freshman Sidonia Rotenberg-Schwartz also wears tefillin and tallit. She started wearing them after her bat mitzvah.
“It had never really crossed my mind that I could wear tefillin,” Rotenberg-Schwartz said. “So when I came to that realization and I didn’t see any girls doing it I decided to do it.”
Rotenberg-Schwartz feels as if the wearing of her tefillin and tallit has been helpful in starting her day consistently.
“It helps me set my day because it is part of my routine, something that I have been doing for almost three years,” Rotenberg-Schwartz said. “Since it is an everyday thing, if I don’t put it on it feels kind of weird.”
Tefilah Coordinator and Talmud teacher Rabbi Joshua Cahan has been talking about this topic for 20 years, and he is excited by the growing number of girls who participate in this ritual.
“Tallit and tefillin are both very powerful rituals and very powerful symbols,” Cahan said. “When there has been a group of girls in a grade who all put on tefillin every morning it definitely influences their tefillah and the tefillah space more generally.”
As girls start to wear these garments, they are part of a small minority of Jewish women who take on the mitzvah. Cahan feels that there needs to be a certain number of girls in a grade to make this practice more mainstream.
“In a grade where there is a critical mass of girls that wear [tefillin and tallit] and they feel that they aren’t the only ones,” Cahan says. “They are more likely to continue wearing them than if there is only one or two.”
Rotenberg-Schwartz agrees with Cahan, sometimes feeling awkward during tefilah because she is only one of a few females who wear tefillin and tallit in the ninth grade.
“It’s not really nerve-wracking as much as awkward,” Rotenberg-Schwartz said. “We are standing in front of the rest of the grade and anyone who hasn’t finished wrapping their tefillin are the last ones still standing and it can be awkward.”
While Rotenberg-Schwartz said she would find it more comfortable to wear her tefillin and tallit if more girls also did it, she feels it is important for everyone to make their own choice in the matter.
The school’s position is quite similar to Rotenberg-Schwartz’s; TLS encourages women to practice the ritual but the choice is optional.
“Officially, the school encourages girls to wear tallit and tefillin,” Cahan said. “Over the years the school hasn’t done much to actively encourage that. They mostly just let kids decide on their own.”
As the wearing of tefillin and tallit has become more common among young women, sexism has become a prevalent issue in this field. While Morah Ruchanit and Talmud Chair Rabbi Abby Sosland no longer wears tefillin and tallit daily, she used to wear them in rabbinical school.
“When I was in rabbinical [school] we were asked to wear a tallit and tefillin and there were places I would not be allowed to [wear them],” Sosland said. “If I went into an Orthodox synagogue the rabbi would say ‘please don’t wear a tallit or tefillin here’. As a woman, I often felt out of place when I was wearing them, so ultimately I chose not to wear them so that I could feel comfortable davening anywhere. It was a personal and painful choice.”
Sexism and social stigma have been an issue for girls thinking about wearing tallit and tefillin, and that is why Cahan began talking to sophomores a few years ago about this topic.
“I generally lead the 10th-grade minyan and many years I have gathered groups of girls who cared about tefilah, and I have had some great conversations,” Cahan said. “Some years it has led a group of students to explore this topic more actively. Other years it has been a series of conversations that didn’t continue.”
Cahan hopes that the conversations will continue, and aspires to one day include other grades in this vital discussion. Cahan thinks one takeaway from this topic is that if the ritual was optional for men as well, we would see fewer men participating.
“If we said the same thing to boys as we do say to girls, that it is encouraged but not required, what percentage of the boys would put tefillin on every morning?” Cahan said. “Not most of them, because they are teenagers and they’d say I am not really feeling it today. If we really wanted to get a consistent number of girls in each grade who did it every morning, we would have to work on that.”
Despite the obstacles and challenges that women face, female students who partake in these mitzvot cite a closer connection to their Jewish heritage and family.
“I also feel very connected to my family and to the people in my family who wear tefillin and the other girls who wear it,” Rotenberg-Schwartz said.
Looking forward to the future, Creditor hopes that more girls will participate in this mitzvah.
“I hope that more people will feel comfortable wearing tefillin and tallit if they want,” Creditor said.
Rotenberg-Schwartz also hopes that more girls will wear these garments.
“If anyone is interested in wearing tefillin and tallit I think that they should,” Rotenberg-Schwartz said. “Because putting tefillin and tallit on is really great and I think everyone who wants to wear them should have the opportunity to. I would hope that if someone wants to wear tallit and tefillin and is worried about the cost, that Leffell would help with that.”