Following the incident in which a woman performed a gelilah during a Hachnasas Sefer Torah and Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch’s outspoken opposition to the practice, historian and researcher Yisrael Shapira revealed a number of earlier instances in which eminent rabbis had approved the practice.
Shapira, who writes for the Kikar Hashabat site, revealed that nearly 200 years ago, when Moses Montifiore and his wife Judith visited Tzfat after the 1837 earthquake, Rabbi Avrohom Dov Avritch, the Bas Ayin, gave Judith significant honor.
On the eve of Shavuos, they were invited to a Hachnasas Sefer, and a special place was prepared for Judith, as she later wrote in her memoirs. (Otzar Masaos Eretz Yisrael, p. 558). During the Hachnasas Sefer, Judith was given the honor of standing right behind the Bas Ayin and carrying a wax torch. “And they brought me under the chupah behind the esteemed rabbi carrying the sefer, and everyone was crowded behind us singing, dancing, and clapping.” She added, “I was so happy and delighted to see this holy joy.”
Even Judith admitted in her autobiography that she was worried the candle “could fire the chupah, or I may leak wax over the white silk robes that the honorable R. wore. She actually attended the event in her husband’s place because he was ill at the time.
Avraham Dov wore.” The Montifiores went to Tiberias a week later to daven shacharis with the Bas Ayin. There was a sizable gathering of the town’s wise men, as recounted by Judith of the setting at the Bas Ayin’s shul. The Montifiores were also invited to have breakfast with the Bas Ayin. It was an honor for me to decorate the Sefer Torah, and everyone who came to read blessed us and asked how we were doing.
During the previous week, Judith reported a similar honor from “The Chacham Mizrachi”, who was the Sefardi rabbi in Tzfat. When the Montifiores visited his shul, “Montifiore was given Hagbahah (raising the Torah scroll), and I was honored to decorate the Sefer.”
After this historical evidence, Shapira also brings a modern-day posek, Rabbi Gavriel Tzinner, who in his Nitei Gavriel cites halachic sources that women did perform gelilah. For example, it was the custom in Zeewald, Holland, that a girl from the women’s section did gelilah, and this was approved by Rabbi Shmuel Hirsch.
Moreover, Rabbi Tzinner quotes the grandson of the Berech Moshe of Satmar, who said that when doing hachnasas sefer Torah, a childless couple should be honored with the husband doing Hagbahah and the wife doing Gelilah, as this could be a segulah (merit) for having children.
Furthermore, the Tiferes Aryeh, Rabbi Chaim Falagi in his Sefer Chaim, and other Spinka Chasidim members, as well as other people, gave similar accounts of women performing gelilah. According to the Nitei Gavriel, women may perform Gelilah as long as they are: 1) not Niddah; 2) clothed modestly; and 3) performing it in front of immediate relatives and close friends.