A reader asked: What are the most significant Jewish rituals for women? Let us explore three: baking bread and separating the dough; lighting Shabbat candles; and ritual immersion in a mikvah.
Recently, I was asked to speak to a young singles group of professional women who had strong nostalgic ties to Judaism, but very marginal connection to actual Torah observance. As a lead into our discussion, I asked them to share their background with the group, focusing on who in their families had impacted them the most.
Invariably, there was a bubbie in each of their experiences. Sherri, one of the young women present, pointed out that, to her mind, there is a clear and strong distinction between a bubbie and a grandmother. She claimed to have one of each:
- Her grandmother was a nice enough woman, but she had a very busy, independent life of her own. She worked, played bridge, golfed, etc. and occasionally "made time" for her grandchildren.
- Her bubbie, in contrast, was always available. Her home was always open and welcoming. At this point the tears flowed down Sherri's cheeks. She spoke longingly of the aromas of freshly-baked delicacies that without fail awaited her every visit to bubbie's house. It was clear that in Sherri's mind the aromas of her bubbie's home would always be associated with an expression of her great love for Sherri. They confirmed for Sherri that nothing mattered to her bubbie more than she did.
There are many jokes that circulate about the Jewish mother's preoccupation with food. From a traditional perspective, the preparation of food offers many opportunities and possibilities. The investments of time, effort, creativity, caring, and yes, even prayers, are connected with this seemingly mundane activity.
Baking bread for Shabbat is seen as one of the three special mitzvoth for women. This is because Jewish Law provides that when we bake a given quantity of bread, we remove a requisite sized piece of the dough, called "challah", recite a blessing, and set it aside.
Historically, when Jews lived in Israel in Temple times, this consecrated piece of dough would be given to the kohen, "priest," God's special servant at the Temple. Deprived of that context, this consecrated piece of dough is currently burnt in the oven. But the rite of setting aside, separating, consecrating, and hallowing the piece of dough informs us that nothing we do is pedestrian or mundane. A portion must be given to God (through the kohen at the Temple, His representative).
This ritual is an acknowledgement that though we work hard, sustenance ultimately comes from the Almighty. The awareness that flows from this act elevates the physical practice of preparing bread (symbolically the staple of our sustenance) to a spiritual realm.
Nothing we do is pedestrian or mundane.
Thus, the preparation of food, by a Jewish woman following the ideals of Torah, leads to much more than merely nourishment for the body – it actually becomes nourishment for the soul.
The Talmud suggests that women are the ones who should prepare and consecrate this dough. One reason given is that Adam, the first human being on earth, and embodiment of human kind, is referred to as the bread of the universe. Just as bread is the staple food, the mainstay of a meal, the human being (Adam) was and is the purpose of creation. Eve, possessed with a tremendous power that God invested in her (and in all women), persuaded Adam to eat of the food of the Tree of Knowledge contrary to the instructions of God. As a result, she compromised all of humanity, we were exiled from paradise, and the rest is history.
To raise the consciousness and awareness of all subsequent Eves (women of the world), of the tremendous God given power inherent in all of us to influence and enable our loved ones in a positive way, we bake bread. As we knead our dough, we can choose to focus prayerfully on some personality characteristic of a loved one that requires some help from heaven. Perhaps a son is quick to anger, a husband is limited by lack of compassion, or a daughter is self-involved. With love, tears, and prayers, we knead the dough, mindful of our responsibility to use the special powers given to us by God, to knead and influence the "dough" of our family towards growth and perfection.
The Leliver Rebbe, a man of great note, traveled to a distant village on an urgent matter. The rabbi of the village greeted his distinguished colleague and invited him to his humble abode. In great excitement, the rabbi ran into the kitchen to apprise his wife of his honored guest's presence and requested that they serve the Leliver Rebbe appropriately. She woefully shared with her husband that the only ingredients they had at their disposal were a bit of flour and some water. He said, "We'll have to do the best with what we have." She made a pancake and served it to the Leliver Rebbe, who went into total ecstasy over the extraordinarily delicious taste of the pancake and thanked her gratefully.
A few weeks later, the rabbi's wife received a letter from the Leliver Rebbe's wife telling her that the Rebbe, who never takes note of mundane things such as food, had not stopped raving over the heavenly pancake she served. Could she possibly share the recipe?
The rabbi's wife replied immediately, "To tell you the truth, we were mortified that we had so little to work with for so esteemed a guest. I mixed bits of flour with a mixture of water and tears and said to God, ‘I am contributing all I have -- a meager bit of flour and water -- and You God, spice it with the flavor of paradise, as only You can.' I guess that explains the heavenly taste your husband experienced."
A rose is a rose is a rose, perhaps. But the results of our labor are dependent on the insights, emotions and prayers with which we invest in them.
LIGHTING SHABBAT CANDLES
Lighting Shabbat candles is the second of the mitzvoth that are special to women.
Light in Jewish tradition represents illumination, direction, clarity, and vision -- the ability to see clearly. Torah is seen as the ultimate light. It teaches morality, decency, values, and propriety. The Talmud tells us that the objective of lighting Shabbat candles is Shalom Bayit, peace in the home. The commentaries note that the word shalom, meaning "peace," and shalem, meaning "whole," draw upon a common root. This offers the additional insight that peace in the home derives from the creating of a "wholesome" environment for the family.
Women kindle the light because women, as the primary nurturers, determine the spiritual and emotional climate of the home. When we light our Shabbat candles we celebrate our role. We acknowledge our sacred trust as guardians of the light. As we stand before our Shabbat candles, we can grasp the awesome reach of the power God has invested within us. With this understanding, we commit ourselves to use our strength constructively.
As the primary nurturers, we determine the spiritual and emotional climate of the home.
It is customary after we recite the blessing over the candles to entreat the Almighty on behalf of the members of our family. We pray for heavenly assistance to use our uniquely feminine endowments of insight, wisdom, and intuition to illuminate the lives we touch.
My daughters left Milwaukee to attend school in New York at the age of twelve. They lived with my parents, of blessed memory. Their most cherished memory is of bubbie lighting Shabbat candles at the conclusion of a hectic Friday. A tranquil sense of peace and serenity replaced the frenetic pace of the workday week. Bubbie would, at long last, rest her weary feet and sit down in her favorite chair by the window. My daughters gathered around her, and in the glow of the flickering Shabbat lights, she would recount the stories of the Old Country. My daughters never tired of these stories, the embellishments, the images, the characters of a world they otherwise would not have known.
My brother-in-law, a psychiatrist of note, often illustrates the important impact parents have on a child's self esteem with an anecdote from his childhood. On one particular Friday, when he was five years old, before lighting candles at sunset at the prescribed time, his mother, of blessed memory, pointed out a particular candle. She said to him, "Shea, I light this candle for you because ever since you were born, I celebrate the gift of you. Your presence has brought more light into my life, the life of our family, and hopefully someday the life of the world." When he tells this story, my brother-in-law concludes that there is no amount of money you could pay a therapist to boost your self-esteem that would come anywhere close to what he felt at that moment.
In the Torah, physical intimacy between husband and wife is prohibited when a woman menstruates. Upon the conclusion of her menses, she follows a prescribed protocol concluding with immersion in a mikvah before resuming a physical relationship with her husband.
The mikvah is a pool attached to a cistern of natural rain waters untouched by human hands. As such, it represents the primordial waters of creation. Before re-engaging the intimacy of marriage, the most significant of human relationships, a woman immerses herself in these waters and by reciting the blessing she invites the Almighty to join the couple in their most sacred space. His Presence expands a loving bond to one of sanctity and spirituality.
The woman is seen as the creator in microcosm.
It is the woman who enters these holy mikvah waters, because in tradition she is seen as the creator in microcosm (not only in terms of conceiving and giving birth, but as the creator of home, space, environment, etc.). When a woman immerses in a mikvah she touches hands (so to speak) with the Creator in macrocosm and invokes His presence and blessing into her home.
This period of physical separation between husband and wife is an invitation for women to step back and allow space for us to assess and determine how we are using our God-given talents, endowments, and strengths. Power may either be used appropriately and beneficially or abused such that it leads to destruction. The onset of the menstrual flow begs the question of our creativity. Is it death-oriented (as was the eating of the forbidden fruit that brought death into the world) or is it life-oriented?
Barbara was a young woman with two children who struggled with a difficult marriage. She divorced her husband after many attempts through counseling to make things work. She then began focusing on becoming self-sufficient. She worked hard to juggle her responsibilities and finally graduated with a degree in nursing. She was hired at a regional hospital and soon met a wonderful man, a psychiatrist. They were married. Several years later they came to see my husband and me. Their marriage was fine; the children had adjusted beautifully and the two of them obviously loved each other very much. Their concern was that their intimacy had lost its sparkle. It had become routine and predictable.
We informed them about Jewish law concerning marital relations which involves an approximate two-week period of physical separation every month, followed by the woman's subsequent immersion in the spiritual waters of the mikvah. They committed themselves to its observance.
They came back some months later and reported that the benefits were amazing. Every month they courted each other anew and they felt like bride and groom all over again. The anticipation built into the discipline was exhilarating. It renewed, recharged, and re-energized the stagnated physicality of their intimacy.
I have by no means exhausted the deep, rich, meaning and far reaching impact of the three dictates of women's mitzvoth:
- The bread which enjoins us to influence, shape, form, and mold the human beings entrusted to our care that they might reach their greatest potential;
- The kindling of Shabbat candles which dictates that our teaching and examples illuminate and bring wholeness and peace to the many spaces of our lives
- The "dance of intimacy" prescribed by Jewish law which summons us to separate and join so as to assess the critical spiritual components in the creative process of our lives.
In conclusion consider the comment of the sages in the Talmud: hakol min ha isha, "everything depends on the woman."