What is the principle of "af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes"? When and how does it obligate women in mitzvot?
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By Debbie Zimmerman
Rav Ezra Bick, Ilana Elzufon, Shayna Goldberg, and Laurie Novick, eds.
As a rule, women are exempt from positive time-bound commandments. However, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi states that women are obligated in three specific mitzvot, based on the principle of “Af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes,” “they, indeed/too, were part of that miracle.”
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated in these four cups since they, indeed/too, were part of that miracle.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated in megilla reading since they, indeed/too, were part of that miracle..
As Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated in the Chanuka lights since they, indeed/too, were part of that miracle.
Each of these mitzvot commemorates a miracle:
- The four cups of wine at the Pesach seder commemorate the exodus from Egypt.
- Megillat Esther on Purim commemorates the defeat of Haman and his genocidal plan.
- The Chanuka candles commemorate the victory over Antiochus, the Seleucid Greeks, and their harsh decrees, and the rededication of Beit Ha-mikdash.
Inclusion in the miracle
What does it mean to be part of a miracle? Two perspectives emerge from early rabbinic authorities:
I. A Central Part:
Rashi in Pesachim
(as well as his grandson, Rashbam
) points to the active role women played in the miraculous redemptions that these mitzvot
Rashi Pesachim 108b
They indeed were part of that miracle – As it says (Sota
11b) “they were redeemed in the merit of righteous women of that generation;” and we also say this regarding megilla
reading, since they were redeemed through Esther. So, too, regarding Chanuka candles, in Tractate Shabbat
(23a).Rashi cites the central role Esther played in the Purim miracle. He quotes a midrash that credits the “righteous women of that generation” with the redemption from Egypt,
and, regarding women's role in the Chanuka miracle, he points us to another of his comments:
Rashi Shabbat 23a
Were part of that miracle – the Greeks decreed that all virgin brides be bedded first by the commander, and the miracle was performed through a woman.
Rashi seems to allude here to the story of Yehudit, a young Jewish woman who was forced to spend the night before her wedding with a Greek general, and who took the opportunity to assassinate him. (For more on this, see our forthcoming piece on Chanuka.)
II. Part of the People Tosafot disagree with Rashi’s reading, and offer an alternative explanation:
Tosafot Megilla 4a s.v. She-af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes
…This is difficult, because “they too” (“af hen”) indicates they are ancillary; according to his explanation it should [just] say “they [were part of that miracle].” Therefore, it seems to me that “they too were” subject to the uncertainty (safek) “to destroy, kill, and annihilate.” So too on Pesach – they were enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. And on Chanuka, the decree was mightily against them…
The word “af” usually means “even” or “too,” which indicates that women are not the primary actors. Rather, women and men all experienced the same miraculous salvation. Tosafot bolster their argument by referring to the Jerusalem Talmud, which focuses on the threat rather than the miracle:
Jerusalem Talmud Megilla Chapter
Bar Kappara said…"they, too, were in the uncertainty."
Bar Kappara rules that megilla
must be read for women since "they, too, took part in in the uncertainty" of Haman’s threat of annihilation.
He asserts that women were fully part of the miraculous deliverance, with halachic consequences.
The question of the role of women in these miracles is more than a linguistic dispute; it is an attempt to understand why inclusion in these miracles should obligate women in time-bound positive mitzvot from which women would normally be exempt. Rashi asserts that women’s active role in bringing these specific miracles about leads to an obligation for women to commemorate them, while Tosafot maintains that women's obligation is to convey gratitude for benefitting from God’s miraculous intervention.
These three mitzvot are not the only commandments to commemorate miracles. On Tosafot's view that the principle of inclusion does not relate to the specifics the role of women inthe Purim, Chanuka, or Pesach narratives, it is unclear why only these mitzvot are singled out. Can this principle apply to other mitzvot? Let's turn our attention to different attempts made to define the scope of inclusion in the miracle.
Torah and Rabbinic Level Mitzvot
Tosafot ask why inclusion in the miracle does not obligate women in the mitzva of dwelling in a sukka, which commemorates the miracle of the Exodus:
Tosafot Pesachim 108b s.v. Hayu be-oto ha-nes
…We say they [women] are exempt from sukka even though they, too, were part of that miracle – “for I caused [Israel] to dwell in sukkot.” There [regarding sukka] it is a positive Torah commandment, but the four cups [of wine at the seder] are rabbinic, and they enacted them for women as well since they too were part of that miracle.
Tosafot suggest that “inclusion in the miracle” may only obligate women in rabbinic obligations. The three mitzvot that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi lists are widely understood as rabbinic. Since sukka is a Torah commandment, inclusion in the miracle cannot form the basis for obligation.
This claim is complicated by another comment of Tosafot, which seems to suggest that inclusion in the miracle could establish a rabbinic-level obligation for women to fulfill a Torah-level positive time-bound commandment.
Tosafot Megilla 4a s.v. She-af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes
Regarding matza one could ask why it is necessary to draw the analogy [hekesh] that “Anyone who is included in the prohibition against eating chametz is included in the positive obligation to eat matza.” Why can’t [women's obligation to eat matza] be learned from the rationale of “inclusion in the miracle?” And one must say that it is for this reason, that this would only obligate women rabbinically were it not for the analogy.
Both comments by Tosafot seem to agree that inclusion in the miracle cannot obligate a woman on a Torah level. Why should this be the case? Rav Yosef Engel presents one possible explanation, and sides with the view that inclusion in the miracle can only obligate women in rabbinic-level mitzvot
Gilyonei Ha-Sha"s, Megilla 4a
This rationale [inclusion in the miracle] can obligate a woman only in a rabbinic-level mitzva, but in a Torah-level mitzva, it cannot obligate her even rabbinically. The reason for this is that in Torah-level mitzvot we don't legislate based on rationales [behind the mitzvot] and we don't [even] legally expound rationales for verses. So the sages cannot obligate a woman, even rabbinically, [in a Torah-level mitzva] from the vantage of inclusion in the miracle.
When enacting new rabbinic decrees, the sages can decide whom to obligate and whom to exempt, based on rationales such as inclusion in the miracle. But the Torah itself decrees who is and is not obligated in Torah-level mitzvot. Our sages cannot alter the Torah’s legislation by invoking a rationale, like inclusion in the miracle, to create any sort of obligation in a Torah-level mitzva.
Widening the Scope
Even setting aside Torah-level mitzvot, there is room to apply inclusion in the miracle to mitzvot other than the three Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi mentions. Indeed, it is widely accepted that women are obligated in commandments that closely relate to the original three miracles. For example, Tosafot rule that women are obligated to recite hallel on seder night, since “they, too, were part of that miracle.”
Tosafot Sukka 38a s.v. Mi she-haya
It seems from here that a woman is exempt from hallel on Sukkot and Shavuot, and the reason is that it is a positive time bound mitzva.... Hallel on Pesach is different because it is on a miracle, and they too were part of that miracle, but here [on other festivals] it is not recited because of a miracle.
Inclusion in the miracle may also obligate women in hallel
Women are obligated in other mitzvot
of Purim, not just megilla
, because of inclusion in the miracle as well.
Maharil suggests that women are obligated in ta’anit bechorot
, the fast of the firstborn on Pesach eve, in recognition of the salvation during the final plague in Egypt.
Rabbeinu Tam takes the principle of inclusion in the mitzva beyond Chanuka, Pesach, and Purim. He suggests that on Shabbat women are obligated to eat a third meal, and to recite ha-motzi over two loaves of bread, because of women's inclusion in the miracle of Manna. (We'll address the practical halacha in these cases in future pieces on Deracheha.)
Responsa Sefer Ha-yashar 70:4
(In the matter of three meals [on Shabbat])…Whether women are obligated—it seems that they, too, were part of that miracle, because the double portion of manna was for everyone. So, too, they are obligated to break bread [on Shabbat] over two loaves…
Narrowing the Scope
In a move that more precisely defines the scope of inclusion in the miracle, Maharam of Rothenburg rejects Rabbeinu Tam's suggestions about Shabbat. Recalling the Jerusalem Talmud's mention of existential uncertainty, Maharam explains that “inclusion in the miracle” only applies to miracles that saved the Jewish People from an imminent threat:
Maharam of Rothenburg IV 473
The reasoning of “inclusion in the miracle” is only applicable to miracles that happened to Israel when they were in danger and escaped it, like megilla, the four cups, and Chanuka lights.
In a parallel effort to define the scope of inclusion in the miracle, Rav Yosef B. Soloveitchik limits it to commandments enacted to “publicize the miracle.”
"Iggerot Ha-Grid Ha-Levi" (in Hilkhot Chanuka 4:9-11) trans., David Silverberg
It seems clear that this entire reason of 'af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes' applies only to those mitzvot where the miracle constitutes an independent halakhic entity within the actual fulfillment of the mitzva, that it [the mitzva] entails a fulfillment regarding the miracle and publicizing the miracle… Moreover, regarding Chanuka candles and Megilla reading, a separate berakha was instituted – 'she-asa nisim,' for this halakha concerning the miracle constitutes a fulfillment within the actual mitzva itself, and so a berakha is established over it. Indeed, we find 'af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes' only regarding Chanuka candles, Megilla reading, and the four cups. This is due to the fact that in all these mitzvot, the halakha concerning the miracle is not merely the reason behind the mitzva, but is rather established as part of the actual fulfillment and act of the mitzva, as evidenced by the special berakha instituted over it. Regarding kiddush and matza, by contrast, although they involve a commemoration of the miracle, there is no independent halakha, requirement or entity within the actual mitzva act. It would therefore seem that the entire factor of 'af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes' does not apply.
Rav Soloveitchik distinguishes commandments that include commemoration of a miracle, such as kiddush and matza, from commandments whose very fulfillment involves publicizing the miracle, such as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi's three. As proof for this distinction he notes that we recite unique berachot before the fulfillment of mitzvot that publicize a miracle: she-asa nissim for Chanuka candles and megilla reading, and asher ga’alanu over the wine on Pesach.
When a mitzva commemorates a miracle, that commemoration can still be peripheral to its fulfillment, so not everyone included in the miracle is obligated. In contrast, when publicizing a miracle is central to fulfillment of a mitzva, anyone included in the miracle must take part in publicizing it further.
Level of Obligation
Does “inclusion in the miracle” obligate women in the same way as men?
We can view inclusion in the miracle as a principle that establishes women's full obligation in these mitzvot, exactly on par with men's. Alternatively, one could argue that inclusion in the miracle creates a new type of obligation, perhaps lesser than men's.
This question is important, because discharging another's obligation depends on having an equivalent or higher level of obligation. If women’s obligations resulting from inclusion in the miracle are lesser than men's obligations, a woman would be unable to discharge a man's obligation in this category of mitzvot.
Chavot Yair makes this claim, assuming that violating a straightforward rabbinic prohibition is also a violation of the Torah-level prohibition of straying from the teachings of our sages:
Responsa Chavot Yair 10
Since they [women] are obligated [in megilla] based on the general rationale that they, too, were part of that miracle, and men are obligated based on the prohibition of straying from the sages' directives, it [the obligation in megilla] is for them [men] akin to a Torah law. If so, for this reason women do not discharge men's obligation.
According to Chavot Yair, a woman's obligation rooted in inclusion in the miracle is lesser than a man's, and this can explain why women do not discharge men's obligation in megilla.
Others disagree. Ritva, for example, maintains that women are obligated in the same way as men in both megilla and Chanuka candles, and thus can discharge men's obligations. (No one can drink the four cups on anyone else's behalf.)
Chiddushei Ritva Megilla 4a
… And it seems that, since they are obligated in megilla reading, they may fulfill the obligation on others’ behalf, as it says (19b) “All are fitting to read the megilla,” and the term “fitting” indicates reading for others. And we say in Erchin (3a) “’All’ – to include women,” and it seems that the Mishna includes them. And also regarding Chanuka they said (Shabbat 23a) she lights on behalf of others since she is obligated.
In general, halachic authorities do not view the principle of inclusion in the miracle as creating different levels of obligation for men and women. Although there are significant opinions that a woman cannot read megilla
for men, most of these are based upon other considerations.
Jewish tradition is rich in stories of women's involvement in miraculous redemption. Rashi tells us that the women playing timbrels at the song of the sea came prepared with instruments because they had faith that God would redeem them:
Rashi Shemot 15:20
With timbrels and with dances." The righteous women of that generation had faith that God would perform miracles for them. Therefore, they brought timbrels [out with them] from Egypt
The principle of inclusion in the miracle is an example of how our traditions and history become embedded in Halacha. In this case, Halacha reflects the crucial role of Jewish women through the generations, maintaining faith in times of darkness and striving to lead our people to the light of redemption. Rabbanit Ora Rivka
Weingort suggests what this can mean to us spiritually today:
Rabbanit Ora Rivka Weingort, “Kindle the Light for a Moment”
Women are obligated in the Chanuka lights even though it is a positive time-bound commandment, because 'they, too, were part of that miracle,' and because the miracle came about through a woman… The Divine miracle cloaks human dedication, and it is in our power to bring about its revelation. Thus one need not wait for the miracle of a respite [from challenges] to arrive. It is possible to create this illuminated space on our own, whenever we so desire.
The consciousness that we all have benefited from miracles, and that faith and action can sometimes help bring them about, shapes our identity as a people.
Rashi provides an alternative explanation in his commentary on Tractate Megilla
, which aligns with the opinion of the Tosafists. He quotes the Midrash Lekach Tov
) on Esther
Rashi Megilla 4a
They, too, were part of the miracle – Haman’s decree also applied to women “to destroy, kill, and annihilate – from young to old, children and women…”
108b s.v. She-af
. The language is nearly identical to Rashi's in Pesachim
The midrash describes how an entire generation of women, not just Yocheved and Miriam, kept the hope of redemption alive and brought forth new life throughout the harrowing enslavement in Egypt.
Rashi could counter that “Af
” can be read as “indeed,” not only “too,” allowing the principle to refer to women’s more central, active role in the miracle. It is possible that the Babylonian Talmud rejects the version of the principle brought in the Yerushalmi.
See our forthcoming piece on Chanuka.
A woman is obligated in matanot la-evyonim and mishlo'ach manot, like a man.
Mishna Berura ad. loc., 25
A woman is obligated etc.- For all of them were a part of that miracle.
As proof that women were included in the plague of the firstborn, Maharil cites the midrash that Moshe’s adoptive mother, Pharaoh’s daughter, was a firstborn who should have been killed during the plague, but was spared due to her merit.
Sefer Maharil Minhagim, Laws of Erev Pesach
Firstborns normally fast on the eve of Pesach because of the miracle when they were saved in Egypt… and it is written in Aguda that even female firstborns [fast], and the proof is from the midrash that Pharaoh’s daughter [was spared by] the protection of the merit [of saving] Moshe Rabbeinu, from here we learn that they, too, were in the miracle.
 Devarim 17:11
In accordance with the Torah that they teach you and the law that they say to you shall you do. You should not stray from the matter that they tell you, right or left.
As we will explore in a future piece, there is significant halachic discourse surrounding women’s obligation in megilla
and whether a woman may read megilla
for men. Shulchan Arukh and Rema bring three different possibilities about women reading megilla
Shulchan Arukh OC 689:1-2
All are obligated in reading [megilla]: men and women, converts and freed slaves. And children are taught to read it. Both one who reads it and one who hears from the reader have fulfilled their obligation, as long as one hears from someone who is obligated to read it. Therefore, if the reader was deaf or a minor or mentally incompetent, the listener has not fulfilled [their obligation]. And there are those who say that women do not fulfill the obligation for men [when they read]. Rema: And there are those that say that if a woman reads for herself she should recite the beracha “to hear megilla” since she is not obligated to read.
The first opinion in Shulchan Aruch is that of most Rishonim - there is no difference in obligation and if a man hears a woman’s reading he has fulfilled his obligation. The second opinion – that women may not read for men – is quoted in the name of Behag. His distinction is generally explained as men having an obligation to read megilla, and women merely to hear it. Others argue that a woman may not read megilla for men due to other concerns, such as modesty.