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This article examines the mishnaic rule that women are exempt from all timebound, positive commandments. It argues that the rule does not offer clear evidence concerning rabbinic views of women. The common reading of the rule regards it a statement of normative law that accommodates how women typically use their time. By way of contrast, this article proposes that the key terms of the rule ("timebound, positive commandments from which women are exempt") were formulated as a summary of exegetical exercises concerning tefillin. Only later in the transmissional history of the rule did it come to be regarded as normative law. The article reconstructs the long-forgotten exegetical roots of the rule.
A second task of this article is to set the observations about the exegetical roots of the rule in the context of recent scholarly discussions about the schools of R. Ishmael and R. Akiba. It has been proposed that the school of R. Ishmael presents halakhah in a way that makes it roots in scripture clear. By way of contrast, the school of R. Akiba presents halakhah as a teaching received from earlier generations of authoritative teachers. This article argues that one reason the exegetical roots of the rule have gone un-noticed for so long is that the rule reaches us primarily in the form of the mishnaic formulation from the school of R. Akiba, which de-emphasizes halakhah's scriptural roots. The article examines the rich evidence of sources from the school of R. Ishmael to fill in the gaps.