Each shofar has a unique undulating shape and trumpeting sound. The sound may be low and haunting or bold and jarring. But whatever its call, the shofar awakens us from slumber and reminds us that the time for teshuva, repentance, has arrived.
During the Hebrew month of Elul, we blow the shofar on a daily basis at the conclusion of the morning service. This custom is derived from the Midrash that Moses ascended Mount Sinai at the beginning of Elul to receive the second set of tablets, having broken the first set when he witnessed the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. While Moses was on the mountain, the Israelites blew the shofar on a daily basis to serve as a warning to the people to maintain their faith in God.
It is interesting to note that the Shulchan Aruch explicitly permits a woman to blow shofar for herself or for other women on Rosh Hashanah. But our rabbinic sources are silent on the issue of women blowing shofar during the month of Elul, leaving us to extrapolate for modern times. The Rema, Mishnah Berurah, and other halakhic authorities categorize blowing the shofar during Elul as a minhag, custom, rather than as an obligation. With these considerations in mind, a woman could blow shofar for herself or in the presence of other women during Elul to assist them in fulfilling the minhag. Alissa Thomas-Newborn, author of a forthcoming JOFA publication entitled, “A Cry from the Soul: Women and Hilkhot Shofar,” holds that a woman may indeed take on this role.*
Blowing a teki’ah (the long, solid blast) is not all that difficult. It takes some creative positioning of the mouth and hands, and some trial and error, but it can be mastered within a few minutes of effort. It is incredibly satisfying to put the shofar to your lips and produce a deafening blast. While the sound is energizing when it is merely heard, the call of the shofar is incredibly impactful when it draws from the energy deep within you.
Would you like to try it yourself?
The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, an agency of the Federation of Metrowest New Jersey, is hosting the Great Shofar Blowout on Sunday, September 21st in Whippany, NJ. In an attempt to break the Guinness World Record, 1500 participants will blow shofar in the same place at the same time! JOFA is co-sponsoring this historic event.
But before you can join in the Blowout, you may need to practice. JOFA will be hosting a workshop for women, men, and children who are interested in getting some practical experience; first-timers are welcome! The workshop will be enriched by a shiur, text-based class, which will review sources addressing the permissibility of women blowing shofar. I invite you to join me on Sunday, September 7 at the Mount Freedom Jewish Center in New Jersey, at 10 am, for this exciting event. Bring your personal shofar as you will want to learn the best technique for your instrument!
Rosh Chodesh Elul is almost upon us. The shofar calls out to me with a voice that is strong and unwavering. It is a call that has been heeded by countless generations each year at this time. This year, I will do more than just listen to that call. I intend to feed it with my own strength, my own will and my own breath. I will infuse the shofar call with my own hopes and desires for a fresh start in the New Year, for a greater level of commitment to God, to my people and to my community.
* Note: The issue of women blowing shofar for a mixed congregation, however, is more complex and requires intensive study of the sources; a synopsis is beyond the scope of this posting.
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
For millennia, it has been taken for granted that the place for Jewish women was in the home and in the kitchen. And of all the public arenas that women were discouraged from entering, the Beit Midrash (study hall) was on the top of the list. Many Jewish women never even had the opportunity to engage with a page of Talmud.
While that reality has changed for most modern Jewish women, we owe a great debt to those pioneers who cleared the way for thousands of Jewish women to engage in high level Torah and Talmud study.
To celebrate a few of these women, JOFA has teamed up with six young Jewish women artists to create a poster featuring six such educational leaders from the 19th and 20th centuries. These posters are available now through a Kickstarter campaign ending July 14.
Meet the scholars:
Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997) Nechama Leibowitz was born in 1905 in Riga, educated in Berlin, and moved to Palestine in 1930. She taught at many schools including Tel Aviv University, where she was appointed a full professor. In 1942, she began distributing stenciled pages of questions on the weekly Torah portion, They reached a vast audience and were eventually translated and published. She was awarded the Israel Prize for Education. Though her thoughtful, literary approach to the Bible revolutionized Torah study, she humbly insisted, “I only teach what the commentaries say. Nothing is my own.” Her tombstone is inscribed, “Nechama Leibowitz: teacher.”
After graduating high school in Baltimore, Henrietta Szold established the first American night school to teach English and vocational skills to Jewish immigrants in Baltimore. After moving to New York, she became an editor for the Jewish Publication Society. At the age of 49, her first trip to Palestine sealed her life’s mission: the health, education, and welfare of the Yishuv. In 1912 she founded Hadassah, which became the largest and most powerful Zionist organization in America, and which now boasts 330,000 members worldwide. Starting in 1933, Szold also ran Youth Aliyah, which helped save 30,000 children from Nazi death camps.
Rachel “Ray” Frank was born in San Francisco to Polish immigrant parents at a time when Jewish communities were just beginning to emerge in the West. She taught bible studies and Jewish history in California, where she quickly garnered a large following. She rose to prominence after delivering a series of sermons in Washington for the High Holidays and was soon dubbed “the Jewess in the Pulpit,” and later, “the Golden Girl Rabbi of the West.” Although she had no rabbinic aspirations, Ray Frank’s presence in the pulpit made space in the collective imagination for public female religious leadership.
Farha “Flora” Sassoon was born in Bombay to a family of influential tradesmen from Baghdad known as the “Rothschilds of the East.” By the age of seventeen, she knew Hebrew, Aramaic, Hindustani, English, French, German and had a thorough knowledge of Jewish texts. She wrote on Rashi, lectured on religious education, read publicly from the Torah, and her expertise in Sephardic doctrine and practice was unparalleled. According to historian Cecil Roth, she “walked like a queen, talked like a sage and entertained like an Oriental potentate.”
Born in Poland, Beilka “Bessie” Gotsfeld immigrated to New York with her family in 1905. In 1925, she founded the precursor of AMIT, an organization connecting religious women to the cause of Zionism and expanding educational and vocational opportunities for religious women in Israel. Gotsfeld became the Palestine representative of the organization, eventually settling in Tel Aviv. She worked to establish three urban vocational schools for adolescent girls and two large farm villages that provided Jewish children, Holocaust survivors, and new immigrants educational programs and resources.
Born in Krakow to poor Hassidic parents, Sarah Schenirer left school after she turned thirteen and became a seamstress. After World War I broke out, she started to teach Jewish studies to a group of girls. This blossomed into 300 schools now known as the “Beis Yaakov” network, and by the time of her death approximately 35,000 girls were learning at Beis Yaakov schools. In her will, she wrote: “My dear girls, you are going out into the great world. Your task is to plant the holy seed in the souls of pure children. In a sense, the destiny of Israel of old is in your hands.”
Nearly every book of Tanakh, the bible, is filled with stories about strong, independent women who influenced and led the Jewish people. Contemporary Jewish feminists have championed these women, taking inspiration from their actions and using them as role models. One biblical figure that has been a source of encouragement for generations of Jewish women leaders is Devorah HaNevia, Deborah the Prophet.
Of the sixteen shoftim (judges) that served in pre-monarchic Israel, the only woman among their ranks was Deborah. She was also one of seven female prophets recorded in Tanakh who communicated directly with God. As with most of the other shoftim, little is known about her personal life: the only information the text gives us is that she was “eshet lapidot,” the wife of Lapidot (Judges 4:4). Most commentators hold that this simply means that Lapidot was the name of Deborah’s husband. Some go on to explain that he is called Lapidot, which literally means torches, because Deborah encouraged him to deliver wicks to light the Menorah in the Mishkan (Temple).
However, there are shivim panim laTorah (70 interpretations of the Torah), so this passage does not have to be taken literally. The term “eshet lapidot” can also mean that Deborah had a deep connection – was “wedded” to – torches. I believe that this relationship is derived from the fact that torches are made up of several wicks tied together. Beginning with our matriarch Sarah, the Jewish women of each generation dedicated a wick – a wick of knowledge, strength, experience, religious fervor – to the torch. Deborah was able to seize the torch that was passed down to her and use it to illuminate her generation with Torah.
It is imperative that the Jewish feminists of today follow Deborah’s example and continue to pass on the proverbial torch. I cannot even begin to stress the importance of cultivating the younger generation and encouraging them to get involved in Jewish feminist activist work. Because of my age, I have found myself unwelcome and marginalized in so many feminist spaces. If it wants to have a vibrant future, the Orthodox feminist community cannot let young people continue to feel this way.
Consequently, I am so pleased to be a part of JOFA’s transition to Feminism 2.0. Young people are on the Internet, and the way to engage them is through that medium. In this age of the Internet and constant advancement in the high-tech field, it is crucial for the feminist movement to use the various new forms of technology that become available.
This new JOFA blog is named The Torch to signify Deborah’s torch, the torch that so many Jewish feminists carried before us. We cannot let the torch idle in our hands. We must actively engage with the times and ensure that there we create a space where the younger generation feels comfortable. By doing so, we will be continuing the legacy, the mesorah, that has been handed to us by centuries of strong Jewish women.