Can a woman wear a tallit or observe the mitzvah of tzitzit? Many people have delved into this question, and I’ve found that a lot of them lack a clear understanding of a key term used in the discussion of the relevant halacha: “yehora.”
In the Shulchan Aruch O.C. 17, 2 the Rema, whose emendations on the Shulchan Aruch are considered authoritative for Ashkenazim, writes as follows:
ומכל מקום אם רוצים לעטפו ולברך עליו הרשות בידן כמו בשאר מצות עשה שהזמן גרמא אך מחזי כיהורא, ולכן אין להן ללבוש ציצית, הועיל ואינו חובת גברא, פרוש, אינו חיב לקנות לו טלית כדי שיתחיב בציצית
For those of you whose Hebrew is not up to speed, let me take a stab at a decent translation:
However, if they [women] want to wrap themselves [in a tallis or tallis katan] and recite a blessing on it, as with other time-bound mitzvahs, they are entitled to do so, but it appears to be ostentatious piousness, and therefore they should not wear tzitzis, since it is not incumbent on the individual, i.e. one does not have to buy a tallis in order to become obligated in [the mitzvah of] tzitzit.
I have often come across people trying to analyze the Rema’s remarks here do a sloppy job of translating the words mechzei k’yehora, calling it simply “pride,” which is quite misleading.
Yehora is better translated as “holier than thou.” It means that we do not undertake a stringency in public view. One common example is Rabbenu Tam tefillin. The vast majority of people lay tefillin with the compartments arranged according to the order prescribed by Rashi. However, Rabbenu Tam has a different opinion, so some people buy two sets of tefillin. They lay Rashi tefillin, and then at some point during Shacharis, remove it and switch to their Rabbenu Tam tefillin.
Obviously this is not a question of being “proud,” but of being super-frum. And to be precise, it’s not even a matter of acting super-frum, but of giving the appearance of being super-frum. The Rema does not say yehora, but rather mechzei k’yehora — it looks like yehora.
If yehora is such a problem in the case of time-bound mitzvahs for women, you might ask, how come we have no problem with women going to hear the shofar or sitting in a sukkah? To understand the distinction between these examples and the mitzvah of tzitzis, note that there is a fine distinction that the Rema took the trouble to explicate.
I respect other people’s opinion, but two things bother me: 1) When people don’t take the trouble to understand the issue, but simply decide to wear a tallit because they see other women do so in their congregation. 2) When women start wearing a tallit for the wrong reason, namely as a political statement rather than a desire to come close to Hashem through His mitzvahs. In this regard, the responsum written by Rav Moshe Feinstein several decades ago resonates to this day.