How the Unnecessary Became Necessary

I come from a rather Modern Orthodox, Ashkenazi family that is composed mostly of women. The only male in my immediate family is my father. So obviously women’s halakhic obligation in mitzvot is important to me. But it became even more important to me in the past few years.

Ashkenazim are notoriously more machmir, or halakhically strict, than Sephardim. Many Ashkenazic rabbis say that women and men aren’t equally obligated in many mitzvot, such as havdalah (the closing ritual of Shabbat), whereas some Sephardic rabbis say that women and men are similarly obligated in such mitzvot and therefore in some instances women can perform certain rituals for men. Additionally, while many Sephardic rabbis say women are only obligated to pray once a day (as opposed to men’s obligation to pray three times a day), many Ashkenazic rabbis say that women are obligated to pray twice a day, with arvit, the evening prayer, considered an optional prayer.

For many years, these issues never concerned me. My father made havdalah for me, so either way I fulfilled my obligation. I had always learned that arvit was an optional prayer, so I never bothered with it and just prayed the shacharit (morning) and mincha (afternoon) service. However, in the past few years, these issues have become pertinent.

Almost three years ago, my parents separated, and my dad moved into an apartment a few blocks away from our family home. He would still come over and make kiddush and havdalah for us every Shabbat.

However, this year, my mother decided we should just perform these rituals ourselves. At first, my mother, being the oldest and the head of the household, performed all these mitzvot and rituals. Eventually, she asked me if I, being the more “observant one” of the family, wanted to do it. At first, I performed both rituals, but after an unfortunate, clumsiness-caused wine spilling incident, I was relegated to just doing havdalah.

While this was a mitzvah that was kind of plopped in my lap due to circumstances, it made me realize how fulfilling it could be to perform those “extra” mitzvot that I may not be as obligated in as a woman. I found it empowering to, every week, bring in a new week through the ritual of havdalah and ask God for a blessed week for me and my loved ones while still being able to remain within the boundaries of halakha since I was performing it for other women, who have the same obligation as I do. I realized that there are many “optional” mitzvot I could fulfill as a woman while still remaining within the parameters of Orthodox halakha.

Which is how, a few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to start praying arvit. It was a bit of a spur-of-the-moment decision, on the second night of Shavuot. In the spirit of the holiday, I was thinking of ways I could increase and show my devotion to the Torah and halakha. I decided I would do so by praying arvit daily.

It’s been about three weeks since I have started, and while I haven’t quite managed to pray arvit every day, I have started to include it in my nightly routine. It is perhaps my most fulfilling prayer of the day, the prayer where I’m able to reflect on my triumphs and failures of the day, thank God, and ask God to protect and guide me in the coming days. In fact, in that aspect, I find it to be, for me, a “women’s prayer,” for it is women in Judaism who have been characterized as the ones who often provide protection and guidance, and who are traditionally considered to be reflective, perceptive, and sensitive to all that goes on around them.

So while I may not be obligated at all or equally obligated in certain mitzvot, I’ve found it remarkably fulfilling to adopt these mitzvot and make them my own. It has taught me how just a few minutes a day can make a difference in your attitude towards Judaism and your connection to God.

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