Would you please clarify for me what a woman’s obligations are in prayer? Is it the same as for men, or different? Might it vary depending on whether she’s single or married, with children or without?
This is a very interesting question, with varying approaches in the classical commentaries on the Talmud.
The first point is that regarding women’s obligation to observe mitzvot, a very important general rule is that women are exempt from what’s referred to as “positive time-bound mitzvot”. This means that commandments which are “do’s”, like tefillin or succah, whose observance is brought about by the passage of time from a period of inapplicability to obligation, are not incumbent upon women.
Since tefillin is applicable only during the week but not on Shabbat, its obligation is brought on by the passage of time. Similarly, since succah is applicable only during the holiday of Succot, it is also time-bound. Notable exceptions to this rule would involve cases where women have a special connection the mitzvah, such as when it commemorates a miracle of salvation in which both men and women have a part; or when the positive time-bound mitzvah also has a prohibitive component, for example, Shabbat.
In any case, regarding prayer, which would seem to be considered a positive time-bound mitzvah from which women should be exempt, we find that women are, in fact, obligated. The question is why and to what extent.
Rambam is of the opinion that a person’s obligation to pray to G-d is from the Torah verse, “and you shall serve G-d with all your heart”. However, the Torah doesn’t specify any particular wording or time for prayer – these are of Talmudic origin. The result of this is that the Torah mitzvah of prayer is not time-bound, but rather applicable at all times and therefore incumbent upon everyone – both men and women. Everyone is required to pray in some way, every day, to G-d. But based on the general rule, the Sages exempt women from the additional rabbinic wording and time-bound components of prayer.
The majority of commentators, however, understand the mitzvah of prayer differently. They are of the opinion that the essential requirement to pray is not from the Torah, but rather entirely of rabbinic origin, together with its prescribed wording and times. Although according to the general rule women should be exempt from this rabbinic time-bound mitzvah, the Sages nevertheless obligated women to pray, since everyone needs to cultivate a relationship with G-d and to ask Him for their needs.
The practical difference between these approaches is that according to Rambam a woman must pray in her own way once a day; according to the others she must pray the formal “amida” prayer at its appointed times.
It seems that very many communities over much of Jewish history adopted the approach of Rambam, encouraging women to fulfill the Torah obligation of prayer by addressing their needs, whatever they may be, to G-d at least once a day.
Nowadays, it seems most communities encourage women to fulfill the other authorities’ opinion that the rabbinic aspects of prayer apply to them as well – requiring them to pray the formal “amida” prayer at its relevant times. However, even this approach has two important qualifications:
One, it does not apply to the evening “ma’ariv” prayer since initially, even for men, this prayer was voluntary and not obligatory, and, unlike men, women never took upon themselves the custom of “ma’ariv” as an obligation. Two, a woman who has her hands full with the supreme mitzvah of bearing and raising children, and finds this privilege to conflict with the burden of formal prayers limited by set times, is encouraged to rely on Rambam’s approach by turning to G-d once a day, in her own way, night or day.