to act.172 Moreover, the reason for the decision to refrain from a particular activity must be rooted in the desire for greater halakhic scrupulousness.173
In light of these principles, the lack of women’s prayer groups in previous generations cannot serve as the basis for a binding minhag. While the non-appearance of women’s tefilla groups in previous generations is obviously passive behavior, there is no evidence—or even a claim—that it resulted from any form of halakhic ruling. Similarly, it was not the consequence of any deliberate or conscious decision to refrain from establishing women-only tefillot—it was simply not done. And finally, the absence of women’s services in the past had little to do with halakhic stringency, especially in light of the reality that most women rarely attended shul at all!174
The fact is, however, that women’s prayer groups, in which one woman leads many others in prayer, have been around in one form or another ever since the Jews crossed the Red Sea. On the verse,175 “. . . And Miriam sang unto them . . .”, the Mekhilta states that just as Moses led the men in song and praise of God, Miriam, his sister, led the women. Midrash Or haAfeila176 posits that with the words recited first by Miriam and then her female entourage, “Sing ye to the Lord, for He is highly exalted,”177 Jewish women accepted upon themselves the obligation of daily prayer.178 Finally, a commentary attributed to R. Sa’adya Gaon notes179 that Miriam sang the 18 verses of the Red Sea song and the women repeated them, just as the hazzan recites the 18 benedictions of the shemone esrei to which the community answers amen. All the above texts suggest that women’s praying together—even with a female precentor—has clear roots in Jewish tradition.
Records show that throughout the Middle Ages, certain women were noted because they led groups of women in prayer.180 This institution continued in Europe, and the female precentor later became known as the firzogerin (foresayer), foreleiner (forereader) or zogerke (female sayer). The latter were generally educated and highly literate women who chanted or sang aloud prayers, Psalms and tehinot (supplications), some of which were original compositions. Among Sephardic Jews, on the other hand, there are traditions of a regular women’s service with a hazzanit and use of the Torah. Thus, the late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Haifa, R. Joseph Messas, writes:
The wont of righteous women is to rise earlier than their husbands and prepare them coffee, then wake them up to worship their Creator and hand them the coffee to restitute their minds,