May a Woman Lead Selichot?


לגרסה העברית לחצו כאן /Read this teshuva in Hebrew This teshuva is part of a series. To read Rabbi Ysoscher Katz’s response to this teshuva in Hebrew, click here. To read Rabbi Katz’s response in English, click here. To read Rabbi Linzer’s response to Rabbi Katz, click here. To read Rabbi Katz’s response to Rabbi Linzer’s response, click here.

May a woman lead selichot if she does so with a minyan of men present, and from her side of the mechitza?



For the purposes of this teshuva, I will bracket the larger discussion of partnership minyanim. I will also bracket any discussion of kol isha, as there is sufficient evidence that this is not a problem with chanting, as opposed to singing, in a seriousminded context, such as that of a beit knesset or of a funeral.1 I will look only at the question of whether the selichot is a davar she’bikdusha or something similar that would formally exclude a woman from leading them.

Although our practice of reciting selichot is not found in the Gemara, an aggadah in Rosh HaShanah (17b) discusses the reciting of the י”ג מדות של רחמים, the Thirteen Divine Attributes, which form the centerpiece of our selichot:

ויעבור ה‘ על פניו ויקרא. אמר רבי יוחנן: אלמלא מקרא כתוב אי אפשר לאומרו, מלמד שנתעטף הקדוש ברוך הוא כשליח צבור והראה לו למשה סדר תפלה. אמר לו: כל זמן שישראל חוטאין – יעשו לפני כסדר הזה, ואני מוחל להם….

אמר רב יהודה: ברית כרותה לשלש עשרה מדות שאינן חוזרות ריקם, שנאמר הנה אנכי כרת ברית

‘And God passed before him’ (Shemot 34:6) – Said R. Yochanan: Were the verse not written, it would not be possible to say such a thing. It teaches that the Holy One wrapped Himself in a tallit as a prayer leader, and showed Moshe the order of prayer. He said to him: ‘Whenever Israel sins, let them perform before Me this order, and I will forgive them.’ …Said Rav Yehudah: A covenant is made with the י”ג מדות, that [when recited] they do not return unanswered, as it says, ‘Behold I make a covenant.”

This aggadic passage, while not a halakhic statement, serves as the model for the use of the י”ג מדות as a central form of our prayers for repentance. It also indicates that this prayer is a communal one (“when Israel sins… let them perform this order”) and that the person leading the service has a status of a shaliach tzibbur, a prayer leader of communal prayer.

If this aggadah were to define the halakhic nature of the recitation of the י”ג מדות, we would most likely conclude that it would be a communal prayer which would require a minyan of 10 men, as this is the classic halakhic definition of a community. However, since the text does not explicitly use the term tzibbur, perhaps another definition would be possible for the term “Israel” in this context. For example, women might count towards the requirement of 10 for something to be considered to have taken place bi’farhesya, in public, or bi’rabbim, amongst the many, for example, in the cases of kiddush HaShem2 and the reading of megillah.3 Perhaps the same would be true here.

The most relevant and specific term, though, is shaliach tzibbur, the prayer leader who represents the community. If this aggadic text is treated halakhically, then the act of reciting the י”ג מדות would require a shaliach tzibbur and by extension a tzibbur as well. While it is true that this passage does not say that God was functioning as a shaliach tzibbur, but rather that He “wrapped himself like a shaliach tzibbur,” there is no doubt that the simple sense is that the recitation of the י”ג מדות is led by someone who has the status of a shaliach tzibbur. This would mean that not only would 10 men be required for the recitation of י”ג מדות, but also that the one who leads the recitation, the shaliach tzibbur, would have to be an adult male, the standard criterion for a shaliach tzibbur.4 The Sefer HaMinhagim5 sums up this approach succinctly in the name of Rabbeinu Meshulam:

רבינו משולם אומר די“ג מדות אין לומר ביחיד כשמתפלל סליחות, מדאמרי‘ הקדוש ברוך הוא נתעטף כש“צ ולמדו למשה, ש“מ אין לומר רק לש“צ בציבורRabbeinu Meshulam says that an individual should not say the י”ג מדות when he prays selichot, since we say that “God wrapped himself like a shaliach tzibbur and taught it to Moshe.” From this it may be inferred that they should not be said except by the shaliach tzibbur in a tzibbur.

Although there are a few voices of dissent, this is the approach adopted by the large majority of Geonim and Rishonim who discuss the issue. They treat this aggadah as halakhically relevant, and require a minyan for the recitation of the י”ג מדות. Although only a few mention the requirement of a shaliach tzibbur as explicitly as Rabbeinu Meshulam, this requirement is often implied, and indeed follows logically from this approach. We will return to this point after exploring the positions regarding the requirement for a minyan.

Recitation of the י”ג מדות Requires a Minyan

The majority position that a minyan is required is found first in the Geonim. Seder Rav Amram Gaon quotes Rav Natan Gaon who states that the י”ג מדות may only be said in a minyan and are forbidden to be recited by an individual.6 Rav Natan is quoted verbatim and li’halakha in Siddur Rashi (no. 545), Machzor Vitri (no. 271), Or Zarua (2:416), and Sefer HaManhig (p. 275). A slight reservation appears in Ri Migash, who at the outset states that there is nothing in the Gemara to indicate that an individual could not recite the י”ג מדות but then proceeds to quote the opinion of Rav Natan Gaon that they may only be recited with a minyan.7

While Rav Natan requires a minyan, he never claims that this recitation is a davar she’bikdusha – a recitation that sanctifies God’s name and requires the presence of a tzibbur – and, indeed, it does not appear in the Gemara Megillah (23b) which discusses the need for a minyan for devarim she’bikdusha. Later authorities do designate this recitation as such. Shibolei HaLeket states that an individual reciting selichot must skip over the recitation of the י”ג מדות, quoting Rav Natan’s ruling, and then adds that Rav Avigdor Kohen Tzedek declared this to be a davar she’bikdusha.8 Rashba in a teshuva responded similarly, stating that an individual may not recite them because they are כדברים שבקדושה, like devarim she’bikdusha.9 Rashba does allow an individual to recite them as verses not in the form of prayer because their special status as devarim she’bikdusha exists only when these verses are used as a type of prayer.

While there is no textual support in the Gemara for the idea that the recitation of the י”ג מדות is a davar she’bikdusha, this position makes intuitive sense. The exact definition of devarim she’bikdusha is elusive, but it stands to reason that a ritual where the shaliach tzibbur is understood to be acting as God, כביכול, as he recites God’s Attributes, would be a statement of great holiness and a sanctifying of God’s name. Whether this is enough to qualify for the technical definition of davar she’bikdusha is less clear. This explains why Rashba says that it is like a davar she’bikdusha, indicating that it might not be a davar she’bikdusha in the technical sense.10

Rav Natan, who demands a minyan for the recitation of the י”ג מדות but does not define it as a davar she’bikdusha, understands that the minyan is coming to serve a different purpose, namely, to create a tfillat ha’tzibbur, a communal prayer . Rav Natan connects the idea that the prayers of the community are never rejected by God – an idea found in Berakhot (8a) – to the Gemara in Rosh HaShanah (17b) which states that the recitation of the י”ג מדות do not return unanswered:

כשהצבור מתקבצין… הב“ה מרחם עליהם ואין מואס תפלתן של רבים ועונה אותן… וכרת הב“ה ברית עם משה ועם אבותינו שאין חוזרות ריקם שנאמר הנה אנכי כורת ברית. לפיכך אין אומרין אותן אלא בצבורAnd when they gather… God has compassion on them and does not despise the prayers of the community and He answers them… And God made a covenant with Moshe and with our forefathers that they [the י”ג מדות] do not return unanswered, as it says, ‘Behold I make a covenant.’ Therefore, we do not say them except in a tzibbur (with a minyan).

Just as God promises to answer every communal prayer, God made a special covenant regarding the communal prayer of the י”ג מדותי. This prayer exists only as a communal prayer, according to Rav Natan; for the individual it holds no meaning.

The requirement of a minyan for communal rituals is distinct from the requirement of a minyan for devarim she’bikdusha. In fact, the Mishna in Megillah (23b) which lists those things which require a minyan includes devarim she’bikdusha, like kaddish and barkhu11, and also rituals which may not be devarim she’bikdusha bur are chovot tzibbur, communal obligations, like the reading of the Torah.12

The difference between these two categories is as follows. Devarim she’bikdusha are acts of sanctifying God’s name which even when done by an individual, for example kaddish yatom, may only take place in the presence of a community based on the verse ונקדשתי בתוך בני ישראל. In contrast, the recitation of the י”ג מדות for Rav Natan is not a sanctifying of God’s name; it is rather a communal prayer to God. The reason a minyan is necessary here is not because this is something that may only be done in the presence of a minyan, it is because this is something that may only be done by a minyan, by the community as a whole.

Whether recitation of theי”ג מדות requires a minyan because it is a davar she’bikdusha or a communal tefillah, it must be acknowledged that it does not appear in the Mishna Megillah (23b) which lists those rituals that require a minyan. One explanation for this found in the Rishonim is that that Mishna only lists obligatory prayers, and the recitation of the י”ג מדות is an opportunity, not an obligation.13

The idea that this recitation requires a minyan because it is a tfillat ha’tzibbur is also found in Rashbash (Rabbi Shlomo ben Rabbi Simeon Duran). In a teshuva (Shut Rashbash, no. 191), Rashbash quotes his father, the Tashbetz, who questions Rav Natan’s position that the recitation of the י”ג מדות requires a minyan, since there is no textual evidence that the י”ג מדות are considered devarim she’bikdusha. Rasbhash then offers the following explanation:

ואני אומר ליישב המנהג, שכיון שמה שאנו אומרים אותו אינו אלא מהא דאמר ר‘ יוחנן … מלמד שנתעטף הקדוש ברוך הוא כשליח צבור וכו‘, א“כ אין לאומרו אלא כדרך שהראהו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה בסיני כשליח צבור, שהקב“ה היה דוגמא לש“ץ לכל ישראל שהיו צריכים ומבקשים רחמים וכרת עמהם ברית שלא יחזרו ריקם, אבל שלא כיוצא בזה אין לנו סמך בזה.

א“כ מה לו ליחיד לאומרן והוא אינו צריך עכשיו לקרות אותם פסוקים יותר משאר פסוקי התורה שיאמרם כקורא בתורה

And I say to defend the practice (of only reciting it in a minyan), that since our recitation of it is based only on the statement of Rebbe Yochanan – “… This teaches that God wrapped Himself like a shaliach tzibbur, etc.” – therefore one may not say it except in a manner similar to how God showed Moshe on Sinai, i.e., like a shaliach tzibbur. For God was playing the role of a shaliach tzibbur for all of Israel, who needed and were asking for compassion, and God then made a covenant that their prayers (in this manner) would not return unanswered. But under different circumstances (when there is no minyan and no shaliach tzibbur), we have no basis for such a thing (a ritual recitation of the

י”ג מדות)

Therefore, what purpose is there for an individual to say them as if he is reading verses from the Torah, given that he has no need to read them more than any other verses in the Torah?

Rashbash’s explanation is simply this: while this recitation does not qualify as a davar she’bikdusha, and is not forbidden to be said by an individual, it is a ritual that was given only to the tzibbur and which requires a shaliach tzibbur. The recitation of theי”ג מדות is a tfillat ha’tzibbur and never a tfillat yachid. Therefore, when an individual recites them they have no more meaning than reading any other verses from the Torah. While not technically forbidden to read them as a form of prayer, it would be ineffectual to do so. One might go further and say that it would be inappropriate to do so, as it would be appropriating a ritual that only has meaning at the communal level.

Rav Soloveitchik (Harerei Kedem, no. 1, section 5),14 without reference to Rav Natan Gaon or the Rashbash, develops a similar approach based on Rambam’s statement (Hilkhot Teshuva 3:4) that the practice during the asseret yimei teshuva is to say selichot in the synagogue. The emphasis on the synagogue is evidence for Rav Soloveitchik that this recitation is a communal and not an individual prayer. He specifically rejects calling it a davar she’bikdusha.15

The idea that the recitation of the מדות ג”י are a tfillat ha’tzibbur is further developed in the Levush (Orah Hayyim 581:1), who says that the entire structure of selichot is modeled after the structure of tefillah:

קדיש שלם עם תתקבל. אף על גב שבכל ימות השנה אין אומרים תתקבל אלא אחר תפלת שמונה עשרה, שכן הוא משמעות לשון צלותהון שפירושו תפלה, וסתם תפלה רצה לומר תפלת שמונה עשרה, שאני סדר הסליחות שנתקנו כולם על סדר התפלה של כל היום, כי הפסוקים שקודם הסליחות הם כנגד פסוקי דזמרה, והסליחות עם הי“ג מדות שאומרין בין כל אחת ואחת הם במקום תפלת י“ח, שעיקר התפלה הוא י“ג מדות, ואח“כ נופלין על פניהם כמו אחר כל התפילות ומסיימין ואנחנו לא נדע, לכך אומרים אחריהם קדיש שלם עם תתקבל כמו אחר גמר כל תפלות השנה[One recites after selichot] a full kaddish with titkabel. It is true that during the rest of the year we only recite titkabel following Shmoneh Esrei, for this is the meaning of tzolot’hon [“let their tzolot’hon be accept”], that is, prayers, and “prayer” by itself means the Shmoneh Esrei. The order of selichot is nevertheless different [from other non-Shmoneh Esrei prayers], for it was modeled after the structure of the daily prayers. The verses that precede the selichot correspond to the pesukei di’zimra,16 the selichot with theי”ג מדות that are said between the selichot are in the place of the Shmoneh Esrei, for the fundamental prayer [of the selichot] is the י”ג מדות. We then we fall on our faces [and say תחנון], like we do after Shmoneh Esrei, and we conclude this with ואנחנו לא נדע. Therefore, we say a full kaddish with titkabel after it, just as we do when we complete all of the Shmoneh Esrei prayers of the year.

For Levush, the central prayers of selichot are the recitations of the י”ג מדות, which are joined with the supplications that precede them, and which stand in the place of Shmoneh Esrei. When they are said in the tzibbur, the י”ג מדות become a tfillat ha’tzibbur and thus kaddish titkabel may be said, and must be said, following its recitation.17

In summary, we have a long list of Geonim and Rishonim who follow the lead of the aggadah of God wrapping Himself as a shaliach tzibbur and require a minyan for the recitation of the י”ג מדות, either because this recitation is defined as a davar she’bikdusha or as an exclusively communal prayer.

One important implication of this debate is whether it is strictly forbidden for an individual to recite the י”ג מדות, or just ineffectual to do so. If we define the recitation as a davar she’bikdusha, it would be forbidden outside of a minyan. As the ,כל דבר שבקדושה לא יהא פחות :Gemara states מעשרה “any davar she’bikdusha may not be done with less than ten people” (Berakhot 21b and Megillah 23b). However, if it were a tfillat ha’tzibbur it would not be prohibited to be done by an individual just ineffectual and without purpose; it would be no different than reciting any other Biblical verses.18 The approach that is forbidden for an individual to recite the י”ג מדות is implicit in Rashba and Shibalei HaLeket, who state that an individual must either skip the י”ג מדות or recite them as Biblical verses, but not as prayer. Consistent with this, they both explain that the recitation of the י”ג מדות is a davar she’bikdusha. In contrast, Rashbash states merely that such a recitation serves no purpose; it is not technically forbidden to do so: א”כ מה לו ליחיד לאומרן והוא אינו צריך עכשיו לקרות אותם פסוקים. This follows his explanation that the recitation is not a davar she’bikdusha but rather a tfillat ha’tzibbur.19

Regardless of which explanation is given, it seems that according to this camp which requires a minyan, a woman could not lead the י”ג מדות just as she may not lead tefillah bi’tzibbur or devarim she’bikdusha.

However, there are some devarim she’bikdsuha that a woman may lead, such as kaddish yatom. We will explore below if this is relevant to the question of a woman reciting the י”ג מדות, and to the question of a woman leading the selichot alone, without the recitation of the י”ג מדות.

Recitation of the י”ג מדות May Be Done by an Individual

There are Rishonim who disagree with the above quoted authorities and state that a minyan is not required for the recitation of the י”ג מדות. Trumat HaDeshen quotes a number of authorities, including Sefer HaMinhagim,20 who allow an individual to recite the י”ג מדות. Trumat HaDeshen rules in the end against this position, and allows an individual to say theי”ג מדות only if he reads them with cantillation. This is similar to Rashba’s position, quoted earlier, that theי”ג מדות may only be read by an individual if it is not done in the form of a prayer. This is achieved for Trumat HaDeshen by the use of cantillation which identifies the act as a non-prayer reading of Torah verses.

Tur clearly states that a minyan is not required. After quoting Rav Natan, Tur states (OH 565):

ואיני יודע מה חשש יש בדבר הרי אינו אלא כקורא בתורה שהרי לא אמרו חכמים אלא כל דבר שבקדושה כגון קדיש וקדושה וברכוBut I do not understand what concern there should be with this (an individual reciting the י”ג מדות, behold he is doing nothing more than reading from the Torah. For the Rabbis did not say [that a minyan was required] except for a davar she’bikdusha, such as kaddish, kedushah and barkhu.

Tur seems to rule that in principle the י”ג מדות may be said by an individual.21 This position is not unique to Tur. Beit Yosef cites the Abudraham who states that this is also the position of Rabbeinu Yonah. Likewise, Rema in Darkhei Moshe (565:4) quotes Sefer HaMinhagim that an individual may recite the י”ג מדות as long as he does not do so in the middle of the Shmoneh Esrei, which used to be the practice on fast days. This position is found in more than one of the Ashkenazi works on Minhagim22 and seems to reflect an existing practice that individuals recited the י”ג מדות. In fact, one of the Sefer HaMinhagim ends his discussion by saying וכן אנו נוהגים, and this is our practice.23

Halakhic Conclusion Regarding Recitation of י”ג מדות by an Individual

Although Beit Yosef and Rema both quote positions that support the Tur, in their final rulings they side with the majority that requires a minyan for the recitation of the י”ג מדות. Beit Yosef concludes his quote of Abudraham by saying לא נהוג עלמא הכי, the practice of the world does not follow this, that is, the practice is to not allow an individual to recite the י”ג מדות. And Darkhei Moshe follows up his quote from Minhagim by quoting Mahari Weil and Trumat HaDeshen who only allow an individual to recite them if he does so in the form of reciting Biblical verses.

This is also the ruling in Shulkhan Arukh. Addressing the practice of saying selichot on fast days, Shulkhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 565:5) states:

אין היחיד רשאי לומר שלש עשרה מדות דרך תפלה ובקשת רחמים, דדבר שבקדושה הם; אבל אם בא לאומרם דרך קריאה בעלמא, אומרםAn individual is not allowed to say the י”ג מדות in the form of a prayer or supplication, because it is a davar she’bikdusha. But if he wants to say them as a mere reading of verses, he may do so.

Rema reinforces this:

וכן אין ליחיד לומר סליחות או ויעבורAnd an individual should similarly not say selichot or [the verse] va’ya’avor [which introduces the י”ג מדות].

The second part of this statement echoes the Shulkhan Arukh that an individual may not recite the י”ג מדות, clarifying that this starts at ויעבור. It is not clear whether Rema agrees with Shulkhan Arukh’s formulation that the recitation is a דבר שבקדושה, or whether he understands it as a tfillat ha’tzibbur; either way an individual may not recite the י“ג מדות.

The first part of Rema’s statement, that an individual may not recite selichot, is more difficult to understand, since until now it was only the recitation of the י“ג מדות that was considered to be a davar she’bikdusha or a tfillat ha’tzibbur, and not the selichot themselves. Rema is not alone in this position. Shalah, a contemporary of Rema, posits that the entire selichot are considered to be devarim she’bikdusha and may not be recited by an individual.24

Rema’s source for this position is Or Zarua (2:416), who says that selichot may not be recited by an individual: דאין היחיד אומר סליחות כלל.  Or Zarua bases this on the position that an individual may not say the י“ג מדות; it is likely that Or Zarua only meant to prohibit an individual from reciting selichot as they are usually recited, that is, together with the י“ג מדות. This is the position of Bach (OH 565), who states that even according to Or Zarua it is permissible for an individual to recite selichot if he does not recite the י“ג מדות. Taz (OH 565, no. 5) interprets Rema’s prohibition to be referring to the selichot which make mention of the י“ג מדות in the text of the selichot themselves.25 The consensus among the Achronim is to follow Bach and reject Rema completely. They rule that an individual may say all the selichot as long as he or she does not do the recitation of the י“ג מדות that follows the selichot.26 As Mishna Brurah states: והסכימו דסליחות בלא י“ג מדות יכול יחיד לומר “and the consensus is that selichot without the י“ג מדות may be recited by an individual.” (OH 565, no. 13).

Since Shulkhan Arukh and Rema rule that the recitation of the י“ג מדות may only be done bi’tzibbur, the logical conclusion is that a woman may not lead this recitation, just as she may not lead other tefillot ha’tzibbur.

The consensus position that an individual may recite selichot without the י”ג מדות since they are not devarim she’bikdusha or tfillat ha’tzibbur is equally significant for our purposes. This suggests that a woman might be able to lead the selichot sections as long as she does not lead the י”ג מדות. We will explore this point in the conclusion.

The selichot of עשרת ימי תשובה

Until now we have been assuming that all recitations of the י”ג מדות, whether on fast days or the asseret yimei teshuva, have the same status. This is the dominant position (see, for example, Mishne Brurah 581, no. 14)27 with some notable exceptions. The rulings of the Shulkhan Arukh quoted above are in the laws of fast days (OH 565). They are not stated in the section dealing with the selichot before Rosh HaShanah and during the asseret yimei teshuva (OH 581). Pri Megadim (Eshel Avraham, 581, section 3) questions whether an individual might be permitted to recite the י”ג מדות during the asseret yimei teshuva. Although he only touches on this topic, his discussion indicates that he is inclined to think that individual would be allowed to recite the י”ג מדות during this period.28

How are we to understand the position of Pri Migadim? Why should the recitation of the י”ג מדות of asseret yimei teshuva be treated differently? This position is found in the various Minhagim books quoted by Rema in Darkhei Moshe,29 who state that an individual may recite the י”ג מדות if he is not inserting them into the Shmoneh Esrei as was the practice on fast days. This leads these poskim to conclude that an individual may recite them during asseret yimei teshuva, since during this period selichot are recited first thing in the morning and not in the Shmoneh Esrei. This seems inconsistent with how Rema rules since the practice in his time was to recite the selichot on fast days after the Shmoneh Esrei and not to insert them in the body of the Shmoneh Esrei itself (see Orah Hayyim 566:4), and he nevertheless forbids an individual to recite the י”ג מדות on these days.

There are other reasons why the recitation of י”ג מדות might be different during the asseret yimei teshuva according to Pri Migadim. As this is a period when everyone is saying selichot, one could argue that the recitation of the י”ג מדות even when done privately is part of the larger tfillat ha’tzibbur of all communities at this time, and thus constitutes a tfillat ha’tzibbur for these purposes.30

Rav Soloveitchik in Harerei Kedem (vol.1, no. 1, sec. 5) offers another reason for distinguishing the selichot of asseret yimei teshuva. According to Rav Soloveitchik, selichot on the fast days are the exclusive prerogative of the community, for it is only the community as a whole that has the privilege of approaching God in this way. Since they can only exist as a tfillat ha’tzibbur, on a fast day they must be incorporated into the communal repetition of the Shmoneh Esrei or, as is our practice, be recited immediately following the repetition of the Shmoneh Esrei, for it is the connection to the communal Shmoneh Esrei that makes them a tfillat ha’tzibbur. During the asseret yimei teshuva, however, the prayers of individuals have equal access to God as those of the community. The recitation of the י”ג מדות at this time can exist as a tfillat yachid, as evidenced by the fact that it is recited first thing in the morning, and not after or during the communal Shmoneh Esrei. 31

This explanation follows the Sefer HaMinhagim’s ruling that a tzibbur is only required when the selichot are inserted into the Shmoneh Esrei and not when they are recited independently. Rav Soloveitchik makes this consistent with Rema’s ruling that requires a minyan on fast days even when the selichot are recited after the Shmoneh Esrei by treating the post-Shmoneh Esrei recitation as equivalent to their recitation in the Shmoneh Esrei. This leaves the asseret yimei teshuva recitation to be permitted to be done by an individual. Rav Soloveitchik goes further and adds that the same would apply to the saying of selichot in the days leading up to Rosh HaShanah, as here too the selichot are said in the morning and not as part of the Shmoneh Esrei.

We have been exploring the possibility, raised by Pri Migadim, that the recitation of the י”ג מדות may be done without a minyan during the asseret yimei teshuva. In practice, however, most poskim either reject or ignore Pri Migadim and assume that a minyan is required, whether during a fast day or during the asseret yimei teshuva (see, for example, Mishne Brurah 581:14). Regarding Rav Soloveitchik’s analysis, is it not clear if he would follow his theoretical discussion to its practical halakha li’maaseh implications. In addition, Rav Soloveitchik was only discussing the selichot; it is possible that his position would be different regarding the י”ג מדות, although his silence on this matter indicates that he would treat them similarly and allow them to be recited by an individual during the asseret yimei teshuva.32

In addition to the Pri Megadim and Rav Soloveitchik, this approach may find support in other poskim as well. We should note that Rav Soloveitchik’s approach is actually an explication of the position found in the Minhagim, quoted by Rema in Darkhei Moshe, which stated that the practice was for individuals to recite selichot and even the י”ג מדות on asseret yimei teshuva. This position then carries the weight of these earlier poskim and practices as well.

Thus, while we are only dealing with the minority positions, there may be room to rely on this in cases such as a girls high school, or women’s seminary or a women’s tefillah group, when no formal minyan is present.

May a Woman Lead the Selichot in a Minyan?

We have seen that the recitation of the י”ג מדות, whether on fast days or asseret yimei teshuva, must take place in a minyan, either because it is a tfillat ha’tzibbur or a davar she’bikdusha. While Pri Migadim raises the possibility that an individual may recite them during asseret yimei teshuva, most other poskim do not follow suit. Were one to want to rely on the position of Pri Migadim, would this allow a woman to serve as a prayer leader, since there would not be a need for a tfillat ha’tzibbur?

I believe that the answer is still “no.” Even if an individual may recite the י”ג מדות when alone according to Pri Migadim, when recited by a tzibbur it would take on the status of tfillat ha’tzibbur, no different than Shmoneh Esrei. Although we recite Shmoneh Esrei without a minyan, when it is said in a minyan, it becomes a tefillah bi’tzibbur and the repetition may only be done by a shaliach tzibbur.

Another possibility suggests itself. Why not just recite the י”ג מדות with the cantillation and the intent that it not serve as a prayer? Done with this intent and in this form, it should be considered a reading of verses and not a tefillah, let alone a tfillat ha’tzibbur, and may thus be led by a woman. I believe this position is untenable. First, the presence of a minyan might ipso facto define the recitation as a tefillah, regardless of intent. More to the point, it would be in no way acceptable to forgo the opportunity to recite the י”ג מדות in the standard way. This is a tfillat ha’tzibbur which constitutes the central tefillah of the selichot and of the asseret yimei teshuva, and one that we are promised will always be answered. If there is the opportunity to recite the י”ג מדות as a tefillah with a minyan, this cannot be exchanged for the recitation of them as Biblical verses.

One argument, however, requires serious consideration. We have been assuming that since halakha derives the need for a minyan for the י”ג מדות from the aggadah of God acting as a shaliach tzibbur, this would indicate that the shaliach tzibbur for the selichot must satisfy the standard halakhic criteria for a shaliach tzibbur. As we have seen, this position was stated explicitly by Sefer HaMinhagim:

מדאמרי‘ הקדוש ברוך הוא נתעטף כש“צ ולמדו למשה, ש“מ אין לומר רק לש“צ בציבורSince we say that God wrapped Himself like a shaliach tzibbur and taught this to Moshe, we can derive that they cannot be said except by a shaliach tzibbur in a minyan.

This role of the shaliach tzibbur is also tacitly assumed by all the Rishonim who treat it as a davar she’bikdusha or a tfillat ha’tzibbur based on this Gemara.

Against this, one could argue that this may have been true in the past, when it can be surmised that the shaliach tzibbur was the only one who recited the י”ג מדות on behalf of the whole tzibbur.33 This would be exactly parallel to God’s proclamation of the מדות ג”י to Moshe. If God was acting as a shaliach tzibbur, we can reasonably infer that the actual shaliach tzibbur would recite it alone with everyone else listening. This is also implicit in the passage from Sefer HaMinhagim who speaks of the shaliach tzibbur reciting the י”ג מדות in, but notably not with, a tzibbur.

Even in some contemporary Sephardic and Edot Mizrach communities, the shaliach tzibbur plays a distinct role as prayer leader. He recites the י”ג מדות first by himself and is then answered responsively by the community. This role is even more pronounced when it comes to the recitation of the selichot themselves. In many of these communities, the shaliach tzibbur alone recites the selichot and the community participates only during the responsive reading.34

None of this is the case in Ashkenazic communities where the shaliach tzibbur functions more as a pacer, like the person who leads פסוקי דזמרה. The recitation of the י”ג מדות along with the rest of the selichot is done together, unlike when a shaliach tzibbur alone repeats the Shmoneh Esrei, and it is done without a responsive component, unlike when a shaliach tzibbur leads barkhu or kaddish. The only distinct role that the shaliach tzibbur plays is in prompting the recitation of the י”ג מדות by reading the verse ויעבור, and it is not clear that his prompting should be seen as an actual leading of the י”ג מדות. It will, however, be remembered that Rema, following Ri Migash, Shibolei HaLeket and others, states that when an individual is reciting the י”ג מדות without a minyan, he must also skip over the lead-in verse of ויעבור, understanding this to be part of the recitation of the י”ג מדות. The shaliach tzibbur’s recitation of this opening verse might then identify him as the leader of the י”ג מדות, although this is not conclusive.

In addition to ויעבור, the shaliach tzibbur also functions in a distinct role when he leads the responsive recitation of the פזמון and שמע קולנו, however neither of these has halakhic status as a davar she’bikdusha or tfillat ha’tzibbur. The only time that one functions as a classic shaliach tzibbur during selichot is for the reciting of kaddish after Ashrei and at the end of selichot. An argument could thus be made that, those kaddishes aside, a woman may lead the selichot, including the י“ג מדות.

The problem with this approach is that we would have to conclude that our selichot do not constitute a tfillat ha’tzibbur. Without a shaliach tzibbur, we would have many people praying together, but nothing to unify them as a tzibbur. It is helpful to introduce a distinction that Rav Soloveitchik makes between tefillah bi’tzibbur and tfillat ha’tzibbur. The first one – prayer in a community – describes the silent Shmoneh Esrei. Each individual is saying his or her tefillah in the presence of, and together with, the community. In contrast, tfillat ha’tzibbur – the prayer of the community – describes the repetition of the Shmoneh Esrei. Here, the entire community, as a single corporate entity, is reciting the Shmoneh Esrei through their representative – the shaliach tzibbur, the agent of the community, who is their assigned spokesperson.

Without a shaliach tzibbur for the י”ג מדות, not only would we not have a tfillat ha’tzibbur, we would not even have tefillah bi’tzibbur. Unlike Shmoneh Esrei, the recitation of the י”ג מדות does not exist as a prayer for individuals. As an exclusively communal prayer, it may not be recited by individuals even in the presence of a community. For the recitation of the י”ג מדות, we can only have the prayer of the community as a whole and without a shaliach tzibbur this is not possible.35

This also emerges from the recitation of kaddish titkabel which follows the selichot. Levush, as we saw earlier, points to the fact that the recitation of the מדות ג”י is modeled after classic tefillah bi’tzibbur. It is preceded with Ashrei and kaddish, and followed by kaddish titkabel, a structure found in Seder Rav Amram Gaon, as quoted by Tur (OH 581).36 The presence of kaddish titkabel as a part of selichot says a lot about the nature of this tefillah.

The recitation of kaddish titkabel is always done by the shaliach tzibbur who led the communal tefillah. Without a formal shaliach tzibbur it isn’t said. Thus, we find that if there was a minyan when the shaliach tzibbur began to repeat the Shmoneh Esrei, he may say kaddish titkabel even if the minyan is no longer present. In contrast, if there was a minyan for the silent Shmoneh Esrei, but not for its repetition, kaddish titkabel would not be said. It is not enough that a many individuals prayed together; they must have prayed as a community through the agency of the shaliach tzibbur.37

If our selichot are a tfillat ha’tzibbur led by a shaliach tzibbur, what are we to make of the phenomenon that the shaliach tzibbur is merely reciting the prayers together with everyone else? The answer can be found in a statement in Perush haTefilot vi’haBrakhot by Rabbeinu Yehudah ben Yakkar, a teacher of Ramban. He writes in the section on Fast Days:

וטוב להתפלל בדמעה, כי שערי דמעה לא ננעלו, ולצעוק בקול רם עם החזן בעשרה כשאומר סליחותIt is good to pray with tears, for the gates of tears are not sealed, and to cry out in a loud voice alongside the chazan with a minyan, when he says selichot.

It is the shaliach tzibbur who is reciting the selichot, and the rest of the community joins in and adds their voices to his. This is eminently logical. If the institution began with just the shaliach tzibbur reciting the selichot, as we have surmised, then even at a later stage when everyone recites them together, this does not change his role. Far from it being a recitation of individuals paced by the shaliach tzibbur, what we actually have is what we’ve always had – the primary recitation of the shaliach tzibbur, only now, joined by the rest of the community. This is the reality that is being reflected in the leader’s reading of the lead-in verse ויעבור: he is the shaliach tzibbur for the recitation of the י”ג מדות, no different now than in the past.

The discussion above follows the tfillat ha’tzibbur model of the recitation of the י”ג מדות. If, however, the reason a minyan is required is based on devarim she’bikdusha model – and this is the reason given explicitly by Shulkhan Arukh – one could argue that the leader for the י”ג מדות does not have a formal status of shaliach tzibbur. A simple example of this is kaddish yatom, which is a davar she’bikdusha. which may be said by women in the presence of a minyan of men (see Teshuvot Chavot Yair, no. 222).

While we cannot assume that this is the case for all devarim she’bikdusha,38 it is certainly worth considering for the recitation of the י”ג מדות. Once we drop the tfillat ha’tzibbur model, who is to say that a woman cannot be the leader or prompter for this recitation?39

The problem with this approach is that it assumes that those who assert that the recitation of the י”ג מדות is a davar she’bikdusha would say that it is only a davar she’bikdusha and not also a tefillah bi’tzibbur. But not only is there no evidence to this, it also goes against Rosh HaShanah (17b) which describes the recitation as taking place with God in the role of shaliach tzibbur and which was used as the halakhic source for the requirement of a minyan even by those who those who defined the י”ג מדות as a davar she’bikdusha (for example, Teshuvot HaRashba 1:211). Once this source defines the halakhic parameters of the recitation of the י”ג מדות, it is hard to escape the conclusion that even those who say that the recitation is a davar she’bikdusha would agree that it is also a tefillah bi’tzibbur and that a shaliach tzibbur is required. What is added by saying that it is a davar she’bikdusha is that it is forbidden to be recited by an individual, as discussed above.

The more conclusive proof is the practice of reciting kaddish titkabel at the end of selichot, a practice that goes back to the time of the Geonim. As argued above, this practice clearly shows that the selichot or some part of it – i.e., the י”ג מדות– is defined as a tfillat ha’tzibbur. And this can happen only through the agency of a formal shaliach tzibbur, who unifies and represents the tzibbur and who can thus recite the kaddish titkabel following this communal prayer.

It seems clear, that even those who explain the need for a minyan as based on devarim she’bikdusha, also agree that the selichot, or at least the י”ג מדות, constitute a tfillat ha’tzibbur when said in a minyan and led by a shaliach tzibbur. One could argue that a community could choose to forgo this tfillat ha’tzibbur and recite the י”ג מדות only as devarim she’bikdusha without a formal shaliach tzibbur, and to forgo the kaddish titkabel at the end. As discussed earlier regarding a similar proposal – the reading of the י”ג מדות as verses and not as prayer – this suggestion is not tenable. It sacrifices tefillah bi’tzibbur and kaddish titkabel, and goes against the Gemara’s model of the recitation of the י”ג מדות as something led by a formal shaliach tzibbur.40

Our conclusion, then, is that a woman may not lead the recitation of the י”ג מדות as this requires a formal shaliach tzibbur.

What about having a woman leading the selichot if a man leads the י”ג מדות? On the one hand, we have seen that the selichot may be said without a minyan, and thus perhaps they should not be considered to be a part of the tfillat ha’tzibbur even when said with a minyan. On the other hand, it will be remembered that Rema states that selichot are like the י”ג מדות and that they as well require a minyan. Rema’s position is rejected, and when selichot are said by themselves, they may be said by an individual. Nevertheless, the ruling may be different when they are said together with the י”ג מדות. When this happens, they become connected to the י”ג מדות and the entire unit – selichot and י”ג מדות –becomes a tfillat ha’tzibbur.

Levush in fact states that when they are said together they combine as a type of Shmoneh Esrei, and this position is adopted and expanded on by Rav Soloveitchik (Harerei Kedem, 1:1.1). If the selichot become part of tfillat ha’tzibbur when joined with the י”ג מדות, then they too would require a shaliach tzibbur and could not be led by a woman.

There is also the fact that the selichot are concluded with the recitation of kaddish titkabel. As we have seen, this kaddish ties back to the beginning of the selichot, and it thus might have the force of incorporating all the selichot and tefillot which precede it into one unit of prayer. It would seem hard to allow a different prayer leader, who is not a shaliach tzibbur, to cut out and lead separately pieces of this single prayer unit, whose core elements – the י”ג מדות – require a formal shaliach tzibbur.

Finally, and significantly, the texts of many of the selichot describe the reciter as a representative of the tzibbur who is coming to pray on their behalf before God, that is, as a shaliach tzibbur. 41 While this could be seen as a preparation for the recitation of the י”ג מדות and not an actual tfillat tzibbur itself, it would seem at very least inappropriate for a non-shaliach tzibbur to describe herself this way and to recite this preparatory tefillah only to have the real shaliach tzibbur recite the actual tefillah of the י”ג מדות. This is different from a case when these selichot are recited without a minyan, for while the descriptions of the reciter as shaliach tzibbur are inaccurate in that case as well, they are not confusing or misleading, as they would be in this case of a woman leading the selichot in a minyan.

Based on these arguments, I would rule that a woman should not lead the selichot even when a man leads the י”ג מדות. Nevertheless, for those who want to be lenient, there may be what to rely on. First, the Gemara only discusses the י“ג מדות and never discusses, let alone gives any significance to, the selichot that precede the י”ג מדות. In fact, it is highly questionable if the Gemara even knew of the practice of reciting selichot prior to the ,י“ג מדות 42 and they certainly were not given any weight by the Gemara. Thus, from the standpoint of the Gemara, at least, such selichot are not part of the י”ג מדות and are not considered part of a tfillat ha’tzibbur. Whether they took on this status once they became a staple of the recitation of the י”ג מדות remains an open question, as discussed above. The evidence strongly points to the conclusion that the selichot are now part of the י”ג מדות, and this is clearly the position of the Levush. This conclusion, however, is not irrefutable, and an argument could be made that the selichot remain independent of the י”ג מדות even when said alongside them. If one chooses to rely on this argument – which is not my position – and permit a woman to lead selichot, the woman leading should skip over the lines in the selichot that describe the reciter as a shaliach tzibbur or choose other selichot to recite.


The following are the rulings that emerge from our discussion above:

  1. The recitation of the י”ג מדות must be done only in the presence of a minyan, unless they are recited as a reading of Biblical verses.
  2. There is a debate whether an individual may say the י”ג מדות which are embedded in the selichot, and one may rely on those poskim that say it is permissible (see Mishna Brurah, 565:16).
  3. The Pri Migadim raises the possibility that an individual may say the י”ג מדות for the selichot of asseret yimei teshuva. While the dominant position is against this, there is room to rely on this opinion. This is relevant not only for individuals praying alone, but also for girls high schools, women’s seminaries, and women’s tefillah groups.
  4. When recited in a minyan, theי”ג מדות are considered either a davar she’bikdusha or a tfillat ha’tzibbur, or both, and the one who leads the recitation has the formal status of a shaliach tzibbur.

Regarding what role a woman may play in the presence of a minyan from her side of the mechitza, as a matter of strict halakha and bracketing the larger discussion of partnership minyanim and any other concerns such as communal norms and the like:

  1. A woman may not be the shaliach tzibbur for the recitation of the י”ג מדות.
  2. A woman should not lead the selichot that are attached to the י”ג מדות, even if a man is leading the י“ג מדות themselves.
  3. A woman may, in principle, lead the portions of the selichot service that precede the first of the selichot (the petichah) and that follow the last of the י”ג מדות, including the שמע קולנו. While the שמע קולנו is recited responsively, there is no evidence to say that this requires a shaliach tzibbur. If she is doing so, she should stop before the עננו section, so that a man can lead this43 and the kaddish titkabel which follows.
  4. A woman may not lead the kaddish titkabel or the kaddish after Ashrei, both of which require a formal shaliach tzibbur .



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