Three years ago Maya Rosen, now 20, began wearing tzitzit every day.
A mitzvah traditionally observed by men, the donning of a four-cornered fringed garment has become if not widespread, at least not unheard of among observant 21st-century women.
But while Rosen, a Squirrel Hill native, has found great meaning and spirituality from taking on the mitzvah of tzitzit, the garment that she was wearing — the arba’ konfot purchased on a street in Safed while she was studying in Israel as a high school junior — just didn’t fit.
No wonder. It was made for a man.
“I wore them for a while, but logistically, they were really difficult to wear,” said Rosen, a student at Princeton University. “They would bunch up, and they didn’t fit right.”
So she decided to take matters literally into her own hands.
Rosen purchased a tank top from a department store, learned to tie on the tzitzit in accordance with halachah and created her own garment.
Last August, after several conversations with other women who had already taken on the mitzvah of tzitzit, or who had been contemplating doing so, Rosen realized that she could help fulfill a need.
Such was the genesis of Netzitzot, Rosen’s web-based nonprofit through which she and a team of co-founders create and sell tzitzit specifically designed for female bodies.
Netzitzot was launched in April 2014. Rosen held a launch party for the website on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at which she taught about 40 people how to tie tzitzit onto the garments refashioned by seamstresses. The group produced about 60 sets of tzitzit that day, and within a couple weeks, that inventory had almost sold out. Netzitzot’s second batch of tzitzit is now in production.
“We’ve had a tremendous amount of positive feedback,” Rosen said. “I’ve had dozens of emails from around the world.”
The feedback has come from women across the denominational spectrum, Rosen said, and includes women who had been wearing tzitzit and who find this new garment more comfortable.
Rosen hopes to launch a Hebrew version of the site in the coming weeks, she said, and production has started in Jerusalem.
“The goal is to make tzitzit as accessible as possible,” she said, adding that the $20 price tag just about covers their cost.
Rosen has been wearing tefillin while reciting her daily morning prayers since she was 16. The words of the Sh’ma, taken from Numbers 15:37-41, that command Jews to put fringes on the corners of their garments as a reminder to observe the mitzvot and to be holy before God, were Rosen’s motivation to take on the mitzvah of tzitzit, she said.
“I was really drawn to the commandment of tzitzit because I was excited by the idea that the text I was saying during the Sh’ma could be embodied in some way,” she said.
Although, traditionally, women have not worn tzitzit, Rosen does not see that as a reason for women to eschew the mitzvah.
“The main point of this initiative is that the mitzvah of tzitzit should be open to everyone,” said Rosen, who wears her tzitzit tucked into her clothes.
“I think part of it for me has been that tzitzit in general embody Torah,” she added. “It makes the Torah real. That’s something that I love. Doing this project has also created a community. And that’s really exciting for me.”
The commandment to wear tzitzit is considered a “time-bound mitzvah,” said Rabbi Scott Aaron, community scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning. Traditionally, women were exempt from those mitzvot that had to be performed at a certain time, he said, because of their familial obligations. The traditional model of Judaism, he said, was to “split up the mitzvot.”
“Men had a certain role, and women had a certain role,” he said.
But the egalitarian model of the 21st century, in which women are commonly ordained as rabbis, has created a shift in the interpretation of time bound commandments, leading more women to believe that the mitzvot are also binding upon them, he said.
While some women take on the time-bound mitzvot because they believe they are required to, others do so as a voluntary path to spiritual meaning, he said.
“Some women take on these commandments because it feels spiritually significant,” he said. “It’s a way to engage on a voluntary level rather than because it is a commandment. These are women asking the question, ‘Will this enhance my sense of Jewish identity and relationship to God?’”
Rabbi Amy Greenbaum, spiritual leader of Beth Israel Center, says that while “the halachah is pretty clear that women are exempt from time-bound mitzvot, they certainly have the opportunity to take them on.”
Greenbaum, who has taken on the obligation of wearing a tallis each day during prayer, finds great meaning in the mitzvah of tzitzit.
“What could be better then surrounding yourself with the Shekinah [God’s sheltering presence]?” she said, adding that she was moved by Rosen’s Netzitzot project.
“What a beautiful thing she’s doing,” Greenbaum said. “I hope she adds holiness to people’s lives.”
Although it is generally agreed that women are not prohibited from wearing tzitzit, other issues arise because it is a deviation from traditional custom, according to Michael J. Broyde, a law professor at Emory University, who was the founding rabbi of Young Israel in Atlanta and who has written on this topic at torahmusings.com/2012/12/women-wearing-tallit/.
“To me, the question of whether to encourage women to do these kinds of optional mitzvot — and if so, do we want to encourage them to do them in public or in private? — is complicated,” said Broyde.
Women taking on the mitzvah of tzitzit is contrary to the historical halachic Ashkenazi tradition, Broyde noted, and it is the change from the custom of the community that is at issue.
“Public change is more complicated than private change,” he said. “It’s important to start at the point of privatemitzvah observance, rather than public observance, because there is a sense of hubris when one is deviating from the norm of any community.”
Broyde said he generally counsels anyone taking on a new optional mitzvah that is not generally done to begin doing so privately.
“I think this is true for both men and women,” he said. “Deviation from the common custom is not always a good thing.
Communities have standards of practice. So, a person who wants to deviate should do so privately for an extended period of time for the sake of humility.
“I have no problem with a woman who comes to me and says she wants to wear tzitzit,” Broyde continued. “But I would tell her that I wear mine under my shirt and have the fringes tucked into my pants and you can’t tell I’m wearing them. So should she.”
The tradition of women not wearing tzitzit is ancient, Broyde said. “I think deviation from that practice should be kept low key and private.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)