Af Hen Hayu Be-Oto Ha-Nes: What It Means and Some of Its Halakhic Implications

“Nu, girls, what does it mean?” We all stared back at him in blank-faced silence. “What does it mean?” he repeated. One girl gathered up the courage to raise her hand. “They too were part of the nes (miracle)?” He looked amused. “Okay. And what does that mean?” From there, the rabbi launched into a lengthy discussion about this concept of af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes and its implications. Our pens were moving a mile a minute. It was only the beginning of our Women in Jewish Law class in seminary, and most of us had already written at least ten full pages of notes filled with fascinating sevarot and shitot pertaining to women as a halakhic category.[i] This new topic – af hen (as we liked to call it in its abridged form) – was particularly exciting. It was a phrase that we had heard thrown around multiple times in high school, yet few of us knew what it really meant. We were finally uncovering the basics.

So what exactly is the meaning of the phrase, and why is it so important? It plays an essential role in determining women’s involvement and obligation in certain mitsvot. Generally, women are exempt from mitsvot aseh she-ha-zeman gerama (positive time-bound mitsvot.)[ii]  There are, however, three mitsvot de-rabbanan from which, on the basis of one concept, women are not exempt: hearing Megillat Ester, drinking four cups of wine on Pesah, and lighting Hanukkah candles. These three mitsvot are discussed at length in Megillah 4a, Pesahim 108b, and Shabbat 23a, respectively. In all of these sugyot, R. Yehoshua ben Levi uses the phrase af hen hayu bei-oto ha-nes as the justification for women’s unusual obligation in these positive time-bound mitsvot.[iii]

So what does the phrase mean? To be sure, the Hebrew is fairly simple to translate: “They too were part of the miracle.”[iv] But what does the phrase imply? Rashi, in his commentary to Shabbat 23a, writes, “al yad ishah na’asah ha-nes – the miracle occurred through the hands of a woman.”[v] Similarly, in Rashbam’s commentary to Pesahim 108b he quotes Sotah 11b: “she-be-sekhar nashim tsidkaniyot she-be-oto ha-dor nig’alu – in the merit of the righteous women in that generation they were redeemed (from Egypt),” once again suggesting that the phrase means that the miracle was done through women.[vi]  In his commentary to Megillah 4a, however, Rashi offers a markedly different explanation: “she-af al ha-nashim gazar Haman le-hashmid le-harog u-le-abed – even on the women, Haman decreed annihilation and death and sought to destroy them.”[vii] Rather than implying that the phrase means that women instigated the miracle, Rashi here explains that women were simply involved in the miracle. Tosafot espouses this explanation based on its comprehensibility as well.[viii]

But a question is then raised by the Tosafists based on this explanation: Why does R. Yehoshua Ben Levi limit the halakhot to which he chooses to apply af hen? Should it not also apply to mitsvot like akhilat matsah?[ix]  Why is the sevara of kol she-yeshno[x] needed to obligate women in this mitsvah when af hen could have sufficed? Furthermore, why are women exempt from the mitsvah of sitting in a sukkah if the halakhic guideline af hen exists? Were women not part of the miracle of the sukkot (huts) in the desert as well?[xi]

R. Soloveitchik, based on his own explanation of af hen, proposes an answer to Tosafot’s question. [xii]  Af hen, R. Soloveitchik says, only applies to those mitsvot where the miracle constitutes part of the mitsvah. In other words, when there is a mitsvah of pirsumei nisa (publicizing the miracle) involved, af hen can be applied to obligate women. According to R. Soloveitchik, it was not that women caused or participated in the miracle. The cause or participation is irrelevant to their obligation. Rather, women play an inherent role in the mitsvot containing pirsumei nisa, which is the real basis of their obligation. That is why of all the mitsvot aseh she-ha-zeman gerama women are obligated in the ones that contain an element of pirsumei nisa.

For example, there are a myriad of hilkhot Hanukkah dedicated to ensuring that the lighting of the Hanukkah candles accomplishes pirsumei nisa. Additionally, for the reading of Megillat Ester, we recite the blessing of she-asah nissim (He performed miracles[xiii]), instituted for the purpose of publicizing the miracle prior to the reading of the megillah. Similarly, on Pesah, we find that the bulk of the Haggadah’s purpose is to publicize the miracle. The seder is meant to maximize the storytelling of yetsiat Mitsrayim (exodus from Egypt).[xiv] Children receive permission to stay up late, questions are asked, and candy is given out for the purpose of publicizing the miracles. If one does not have enough wine for the four cups, he is obligated to sell his clothes, borrow money, or hire himself out for the sake of fulfilling this mitsvah.

This pirsumei nisa aspect of R. Soloveitchik’s explanation also allows for an answer to Tosafot’s own question on the seemingly illogical limitation on af hen: The three laws of megillah, Hanukkah candles, and four cups have a halakhic element of pirsumei nisa, and women, therefore, became obligated in them. Mitsvot such as sukkah and matsah, however, do not contain any element of pirsumei nisa and women are therefore not obligated in them on the premise of af hen.[xv], [xvi]

Perhaps this is why the topic of af hen was an exciting topic to learn about in the Women and Jewish Law class. The sources all deal with women and their involvement in crucial points of our history as a people. Questions like “did the women cause the miracle?” or “were women involved?” that were asked by Rashi and Tosafot exhibit a concern for the involvement of women in Halakhah. Many view the category of mitsvot aseh she-ha-zeman gerama as a means to exclude women from performing mitsvot and, therefore, see it as a regressive concept. From an analysis of af hen, we see that the development of Halakhah looks to include women in areas such as pirsumei nisa where they are viewed as crucial characters in the purpose of the mitsvah. Women may not be obligated in certain mitsvot, but when it comes to public acknowledgments of God’s generosity to us and acknowledging the miracles that occurred, women are equally obligated. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that women were traditionally involved in the role of hinnukh (education) in the home. Pirsumei nisa’s role in Halakhah is to spread God’s name throughout the world. When we light our hanukkiyot and read the megillah, we do so with the hope of questions being asked and knowledge being gained. Women, like men, are obligated in this educational endeavor. “They too were part of the miracle” began to mean something more. It began to mean that women, like men, play a halakhic role in disseminating the name of God throughout the world.

Miriam Khukhashvili is a junior at SCW majoring in English, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] Slightly embellished, but more or less an accurate account of the class.

[ii] This is brought about by a hekesh (connection) between the mitsvot of talmud Torah and tefillin (Kiddushin 35b). Devarim 6:7, “ve-shinantam le-vanekha — and you shall teach your sons” (JPS translation) teaches that women are explicitly exempt from talmud Torah. Since they are exempt from talmud Torah, they are also exempt from tefillin, which is considered a form of talmud Torah by halakhic authorities, and since tefillin is a positive time-bound mitsvah, women are generally thought to be exempt from all positive time-bound mitsvot.

[iii] It is important to note that these are not the only positive time-bound mitsvot in which women are obligated. These are, however, all the ones for which women are obligated based on the concept of af hen.

[iv] All translations are my own unless otherwise noted.

[v] S.v. hayu be-oto ha-nes.

[vi] S.v. she-af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes.

[vii] S.v. she-af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes.

[viii] See Megillah 4a, s.v. she-af hen.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] A halakhic phrase meaning “anyone who is included.” Anyone included in the prohibition of eating hamets on Pesah is also included in the positive commandment of eating matsah. This is the reason given for women’s obligation in akhilat matsah.

[xi] Pesahim 108b. s.v hayu be-oto ha-nes. (Tosafot actually do answer their own question by stating that “af hen” only applies to rabbinic mitsvot.)

[xii] Iggerot ha-Grid ha-Levi, Hilkhot Hanukkah 4:9-11.

[xiii] Artscroll’s translation.

[xiv] It is written in the Haggadah, vi-kol ha-marbeh le-saper be-yetsiat Mitsrayim harei zeh meshubah — anyone who maximizes the storytelling of the exodus from Egypt is praiseworthy.”

[xv] Women are, however, obligated in matsah for another reason.  See Pesahim 43b.

[xvi] R. Soloveitchik’s explanation also works with Rashi’s first elucidation of af hen: According to Rashi, the women were the cause of the miracles and it is therefore only fitting that they play a part in publicizing them.