The quintessential image of home, holiness, and Jewish motherhood is that of a woman blessing the Shabbat candles, performing a ritual we assume has existed since time immemorial. But this assumption is wrong. In fact, it was only nine hundred years ago that, after much debate, lighting the Shabbat lamp came to be defined as a mitzvah—one with its own unique blessing, one that Jewish women took upon themselves.
Because there is no such commandment in the Torah, most rabbis before 1000 CE maintained that lighting the Shabbat lamp was not a mitzvah; it was merely a task women did because they were home and men were in synagogue on Friday afternoon. It was important only because, unless she lit the lamp before sunset, her family would be forced to sit in the dark. And while the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat) meticulously details what kinds of oil and wicks are best to keep the Shabbat lamp from going out, there is no mention of any special ritual for lighting it.
The great French scholar Rashi (1040-1105) took an opposing view. In his commentary on Tractate Shabbat (page 23b) he stated, “By observing the mitzvot of kindling a lamp on Shabbat and Hanukkah, one brings the light of Torah into the world.” Yet even if a community accepted that lighting the Shabbat lamp was a mitzvah, should a blessing accompany it? And if so, which one? There is no such blessing mentioned in the Talmud and halakha forbids any non-Talmudic blessings. Because of this, medieval Sephardic women lit their Shabbat lamps in silence.
However during the eleventh century, Ashkenazic women had greater religious status and autonomy than those in Sefarad, so much so that they began to fulfill those mitzvot that only men were obligated to perform, such as blowing shofar, and wearing tefillin and tzitzit. According to Machzor Vitry, a compendium of laws and customs collected by Rashi’s students, women took these commandments upon themselves and recited the blessings as well, in the same way that women today have taken on traditionally male mitzvot, instituted new rituals like Bat Mitzvah, and become rabbis and cantors.
Rashi clearly held that kindling the Shabbat lamp was a mitzvah, one that women, as well as men, were obligated to perform. Thus it seems logical that, if women made a blessing when they performed mitzvot from which they were exempt, surely they must recite a blessing if they perform a mitzvah for which they are obligated. Indeed, Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, declared that lighting the Shabbat lamp required a blessing.
But creating a new blessing is prohibited, so what prayer should be said? The solution was to take the blessing for lighting the Hanukkah menorah, which was in the Talmud, and substitute “Shabbat” for “Hanukkah.” As astonishing as it may seem, the Hanukkah blessing is the original one, a thousand years older than the Shabbat blessing, its derivative.
We know of this new blessing because we have a responsum by Rashi’s granddaughter, Hannah, describing the ritual her mother performed. She explained that in Rashi’s house, the woman first lit the Shabbat lamp and then recited the benediction, whose words are the same ones we say today. Rabbeinu Tam’s decision and his sister Hannah’s responsum were so authoritative that within a hundred years, even women in Sefarad were saying this blessing when they kindled Shabbat lights. Maimonides complained about it but admitted that he couldn’t prevent women from doing so.
Today, when women (and men) light Shabbat candles, they never imagine that the ritual doesn’t come from Sinai, that the blessing was once a source of controversy. And who knows? Maybe nine hundred years in the future Jews will assume that girls have always had a Bat Mitzvah, that women have always studied Talmud, and that there have always been female rabbis.
On July 27, the 29th of Tammuz, I will observe the 909th yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shlomo Yizhaki, better known as Rashi. Normally, an author has no deadline to finish her first novel, but I was determined to get Volume One of Rashi’s Daughters out in July 2005, to take advantage of all the hoopla I expected would commemorate Rashi’s 900th yahrtzeit. As it turned out, I was the only hoopla, but who knows if my historical trilogy about Rashi’s daughters would ever have been published without that impetus?
While Rashi is justifiably celebrated for his Bible and Talmud commentaries, few Jews know that it was under his authority and that of his Ashkenazi colleagues that Jewish women in medieval France enjoyed power over their own lives that their Sephardic sisters in the so-called “golden age” of Spain could only imagine. These were the days when Jews enjoyed a monopoly on long-distance trade, many traveling as far as the Levant. Jewish merchants became welcome visitors to French estates, buying the estates’ surfeit produce and selling them imported goods. By necessity, Jewish wives assumed the responsibilities of running the home and managing the family business while their husbands were away.
Even before Rashi was born, Jewish women were already the beneficiaries of edicts by Rabbeinu Gershom, which gave them previously unheard-of power in marriage. These prohibited a man from both taking a second wife and divorcing his wife without her consent. In addition, a woman was allowed to initiate divorce and receive a get, even against her husband’s will, and Jewish merchants were expected to give their wives a conditional get when they left on a journey in order to protect them from becoming agunot (chained wife).
Marriage was not the only arena in which the Ashkenaz Jewish woman asserted herself. Many sought to increase their ritual participation by fulfilling those ritual obligations which, according to the Mishnah, women were not obligated to perform—mitzvot aseh she-hazeman grama, the “time-bound positive commandments.” Obvious examples include blowing and hearing the shofar (at Rosh Hashanah), and taking the lulav and dwelling in the sukkah (at Sukkot). Others, perhaps less obvious, are reciting the Shema (said in the morning and at night) and wearing tefillin or tzitzit (worn in the daytime).
In Sephardic lands, these ritual exemptions became outright prohibitions, but the women in Rashi’s community not only insisted on performing these mitzvot from which they were exempt, they wanted to say the blessings for them as well. Rashi’s teacher, Rabbi Isaac haLevi, taught that “We do not stop women from saying the blessing over lulav and sukkah … since she performs the mitzvah, she cannot do so without the blessing.” It is interesting that they use the phrase “we do not stop women” rather than “women are permitted.” This suggests that the women took these mitzvot upon themselves and insisted on reciting the blessing as well.
There was yet another area affecting women in which Rashi argued against society’s restrictions. When it came to limitations on a woman while she was niddah (menstruating), Rashi made it clear these proscriptions applied only between husband and wife. In a time when superstitions about menstruation abounded (a scholar was forbidden to greet a niddah because the utterances of her mouth were unclean; a man shouldn’t walk behind a niddah since even the dust beneath her feet caused impurity; an untimely death resulted from walking between two menstruating women), a responsum of Rashi declared that, “Dishes which the niddah touches are clean, even for her husband. For people today are already impure from graves, houses of dead people, and corpses, and we will not be purified until the days of the Messiah. Therefore it is permitted to touch and use whatever the niddah touches.” He continues, “Niddah prohibitions are only to prevent sin between her and her husband; impurity does not pertain here.” Thus, while many of his Sephardic contemporaries were forbidding a niddah to even enter the synagogue, in Troyes, France the niddah “attends services as usual, prays as usual, and if she is accustomed to study words of Torah, she studies as usual.”
Finally—women studying Torah. Rashi, whose own daughters learned Talmud and Torah, was among many rabbis who obligated a man to teach his daughter those texts concerning the mitzvot, for “otherwise how can she observe them properly.” Sadly this golden age for medieval Ashkenaz women was short-lived. When the Black Death swept Europe, people held witches responsible, which tainted all learned and presumptuous women. It would take five hundred years before Jewish women would again reach the heights they attained in Rashi’s time, and in the case of initiating divorce, we are still waiting.
For those who want to learn more, I recommend these recent books:
Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe by Avraham Grossman
Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe by Elisheva Baumgarten
Rabbi Benay Lappe instructed us in the traditional method of Talmud study, employing a famous passage from tractate Bava Kamma dealing with laws of damages. We began by memorizing the Mishnah, and then moved on to the Gemara (this time in the original Aramaic text). We were expected to obtain an Aramaic dictionary, and prepare our translation prior to class without consulting an English version.
If I thought Talmud study was difficult before, this was nearly impossible. The Hebrew and English translations I’d used while studying tractate Berakhot had added punctuation, vowels, and enough additional words to make a sentence understandable. But the Talmud is written in an Aramaic shorthand where many of the words are missing and speakers are often called “he” rather than by their actual names. When we shared our translations in class, none of us had come up with the same one.
Thus the first thing I learned from Rabbi Lappe was how fluid the Talmud text was, how open to interpretation. I saw that if not for Rashi’s commentary, which cleared up much confusion, the Talmud truly would be a closed book. Eventually, I became familiar with common expressions the rabbis employed in their arguments, as well as the limited vocabulary used in discussing damages.
With translation no longer so onerous, I came to realize that the rabbis had done something revolutionary. They had taken the Torah verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24) and proved that it doesn’t mean actual physical retaliation by an injured party. Rather, the person responsible must pay monetary compensation. The Talmud demonstrated how the rabbis uprooted a problematic Torah text and gave it a new meaning that kept Torah relevant in their changed society.
The next year Rabbi Aaron Katz arrived at our synagogue. Personal problems had forced him to leave Israel, where he had over thirty years of Orthodox yeshiva experience, plus rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate. I was heavily involved in writing Rashi’s Daughters, and he graciously agreed to help me study sections of Talmud that dealt with women. He also insisted that I learn those passages most Talmud scholars knew. If my work was going to be taken seriously, I had to “walk the walk and talk the talk.”
During the seven years Rabbi Katz lived in Los Angeles, we studied Talmud together once a week, him using the Hebrew and Aramaic versions, and me the new Schottenstein English/Hebrew interlinear translation (a boon for American Talmud students). We delved into the Tosafot, medieval commentators—including Rashi’s grandsons—who disagreed with Rashi, and had terrific arguments over whose interpretation was correct. We chose our texts by subject, which meant we jumped from chapter to chapter, eventually criss-crossing the entire Talmud. I learned that Rashi, and even more so his grandson Rabbenu Tam, held quite “liberal” opinions when it came to Jewish laws concerning women.
I completed my Rashi’s Daughters trilogy shortly after Rabbi Katz obtained a position in Florida. I started researching my new series, Rav Hisda’s Daughter, by reading about the history of Jews in Babylonia, which relied almost completely on the Talmud. My publisher urged me to hire a research assistant. Just when I thought I’d never find anyone with the qualifications I needed, Henry showed up at Torah study class. He had just graduated with a bachelor’s in Jewish Studies, had several years of Talmud study in a Jerusalem yeshiva, and was fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic.
We started working together, beginning with tractate Berakhot and continuing through each tractate in turn, finding passages of Talmud that mentioned Rav Hisda, his daughter, and the two rabbis who ultimately married her. It took over a year, and by then I realized sorcery was going to be an integral part of the new series. So we went through the entire Talmud again, tractate by tractate, searching for every mention of demons, magic, and enchantresses. We found far more than I expected, some stories were quite fantastic, but that will be the subject of another blog post. Our third trip through the Gemara focused on the people who populated the Talmud, their daily lives and their community.
I learned how this small group of beleaguered rabbis struggled to establish new Jewish practices after the destruction of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. It took centuries, but the Talmud they created became the source of Jewish law and tradition for the last 1200 years. This was a story I had to tell. And, as a feminist, I was determined to write it from a woman’s perspective. That she turned out to be a learned, powerful enchantress made it even more compelling.
Readers often ask: How did a girl raised in a secular socialist family in Los Angeles come to be a Talmud scholar? A good question. But my background didn’t mean I lacked a Jewish education. I attended kindershul, run by Workman’s Circle, instead of religious school. I also learned a great deal about Judaism from books. For example: holidays, rituals, and the immigrant experience from All-of-a-Kind Family; the Holocaust and founding of the State of Israel from Exodus; Talmud and the yeshiva world from The Chosen. From this last book, it was apparent that only males studied Talmud.
Flash forward five years. My husband and I, newlyweds, had moved to Glendale, California, home to one small synagogue, which had just hired a new young rabbi. Seeing a Jewish community with many other young couples, we joined and started attending services as well as adult education classes.
Fifteen years later, I continued to study Torah in English, for my Hebrew skills had not improved much beyond being able to follow along in the prayer book. It was 1992. I heard about a new women’s Talmud class being taught by the feminist theologian Rachel Adler. She had started this class because, despite Southern California having the second-largest Jewish population in the world, there was no place where a woman could study Talmud. Whether one called it excluded, prevented, or prohibited—women didn’t study Talmud.
I confess that I signed up for this class for two reasons. 1. Rachel Adler had such a great reputation that I wanted to study with her no matter what the subject was. 2. I wanted to see why this Jewish text was forbidden to women. After all, as soon as something is banned, it immediately becomes more attractive.
The first class no sooner started than I knew I was way out of my depth. We met around Rachel’s dining table and nearly every other woman there was a Jewish professional, or studying to become one. We used the Steinsaltz Hebrew version of tractate Berakhot. I could barely keep my place, never mind reading aloud. Thankfully our discussions were in English. It took hours of agonizing preparation each week merely to keep my head above water. To my relief, our progress was sufficiently slow so that as time passed, I was better able to not only learn, but to participate.
I discovered that my forte was in rating the proof texts the Talmudic rabbis used to support their arguments. One would think that with the vast number of Torah passages available, the sages would have no trouble finding one to prove any position. Yet some were clearly better than others, and some were surprisingly lame. I learned that the first argument in a halakhic, or Jewish law, debate is a straw man, so obviously wrong that refuting it is easy. The second argument is only slightly better, and if the subject were simple, the third proof would be accepted. A complicated debate might have many more arguments, each supported by a proof text, until the matter is decided.
But not all arguments were resolved in one rabbi’s favor. Sometimes the debate ended with “teiku,” [let it stand], where each sage maintained his position. In other words, they were both right and Jews could legally follow either one. To my amazement, and delight, I saw that Jewish Law in the Talmud encompassed a diversity of opinions.
Talmud became my passion. Every Wednesday night for five years I sat with other dedicated Jewish women as we worked our way through tractate Berakhot. Here I learned the origin of the Judaism we practice today—synagogues, rabbis, observing holidays, our liturgy—things not even mentioned in the Torah where Jewish rituals primarily involve priests, sacrifices, and the Holy Temple.
The class ended when we completed that first tractate. Bereft, it took me some time to accept that my Talmud studies were over. We moved to a new synagogue, and on Rosh Hashana they introduced a woman rabbi who loved Talmud and wanted to teach it to us. My journey, apparently, had only just begun.