Category Archives: women

Mechitza

A mechitzah (מחיצה‎, partition, pl.: מחיצות‎, mechitzot) is a partition used in Orthodox synagogues to separate men and women during formal prayer services.

For the last 2 centuries it has been erroneously taught that a mandatory mechitzah is an ancient law, followed since the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, 2,000 years ago, and enshrined in the Talmud itself,

Here is an unfortunate example of such a belief, popular among the ultra-Orthodox:

“It is my job as a Rabbi to teach and educate people. In the times of the second Temple (Beis HaMikdash) in Tractate Sukkos it was written that a special platform was made for the women so that they could view the men dancing and the Lulav and Esrog ceremony. WOMEN AND MEN HAVE ALWAYS BEEN SEPARATED from the time of Avraham until about 1800 in Germany. After the Sabbatai Ẓevi and Jacob Frank  false moshiachs [messiahs], the Reform Movement started.”

No historians would agree with this. The entire paragraph is an urban myth. There is no relationship between Zevi & Frank, and classical German Reform Judaism. Sabbatai Zevi was a kabbalist, and historians say that some of teachings actually influenced Orthodox Hasidic Judaism; in contrast classical German Reform was rationalist and rejected all kabbalah, both Zevi’s and Hasidic.

It is true that over the centuries, women and men didn’t sit together in modern-day style. Few historical sources exist, but those that do imply that perhaps men prayed more often in synagogue, and women less often. There were local customs for women and men to sit separately, but there is no evidence that this was ever a widespread law, indeed, perhaps no evidence that it was even considered a local law.

The idea that a mechitzah is mandatory didn’t develop until after the Enlightenment, and the emergence of classical Reform Judaism. In response to these changes, the Orthodox community created new rules on tefila (prayer) and gender.

Two rationales were developed by the Orthodox, in an effort to claim that this rule had always existed.

I. The Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 51b, 52a) describes a divider in the form of a balcony, in the Temple in Jerusalem. However, it was only set up only during the festive, raucous, Simchat Beit Hasho’evah (Water Drawing Ceremony) on Sukkot. Otherwise it was not used.

II. The Talmud cites a teaching that we may not daven in the presence of an ‘erva, an immodestly dressed woman. Berachot 24a states “tefach b’isha erva”, “an area of uncovered skin of a woman is ‘erva.” What an area (tefach) actually is, is not defined. Thus one may not daven in the presence of women where this much skin is exposed.

Noah Gradofsky writes:

In absence of evidence the claim that mechitzah started in an effort to avoid davening in the presence of ervah is conjecture. Somewhat reasonable, but you would have to argue that women going in to shul with ervah uncovered was commonplace enough to necessitate this enactment. This strikes me as unlikely, since if women were commonly enough going into synagogues with certain body parts uncovered, those body parts would be, by definition, not ervah. perhaps the conservative mores of a synagogue led people to label what offended them as ervah even though the cultural reality around them was different. One of the interesting points of the phrase במקום שדרקן לכסות – “where they normally cover” is whether the word מקום (place) refers to a geographic location, an anatomical location, or both.

During the same time period, Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews developed prohibitions on women from singing with men, the prohibition against Kol Isha. The result of this gender segregation (mechitzahs and Kol Isha) was to effectively render women not part of the Jewish congregation: Many Orthodox siddurim have a prayer asking God to “bless the congregation – and their wives”, clearly implying that women are full members.

The upshot: There is no mention of any mechitzah in the Temple in Jerusalem, not during the First or Second Temple, nor are there are mentions of it in the Talmud. Rabbi David Golinkin writes:

Towards the end of the Second Temple period the Sages directed that a women’s gallery be constructed in the Women’s Court to keep the sexes separated ONLY during the somewhat light-headed celebration of the water festival during Succot.

During the balance of the year men and women mingled freely in the Women’s Court. (It appears that this was so named because it marked the limit of approach by women who were not bringing sacrifices, to the inner courts of the Temple). There is no literary or archaeological basis for assuming the existence of a synagogue separation during the period of the Mishnah and the Talmud.

The first mention is towards the end of the period of the Geonim (around the eleventh century). From then on, such separation is occasionally mentioned in passing. Not until the end of the nineteenth century do we have a halakhic source *requiring* separation in the synagogue.

At this point one is reminded of the classic joke retold by the ThinkJudaism blog:

Conservative Jew: Why doesn’t Rav Yosef Karo’s law book, the Shulḥan Aruch, have a section for the laws of meḥitza?
Orthodox Jew: Why?
Conservative Jew: We learn from this that a synagogue really doesn’t need a meḥitza.
Orthodox Jew: No, we learn from this that a synagogue really doesn’t need women.

Jews in front of Western Wall Kotel

Image: Jews in front of Western Wall, Jerusalem, from a negative taken approximately 1900 to 1920. Library of Congress LC-DIG-matpc-12192

Laws about mechitzahs were never said to be a part of halakhah until the 1800’s.  Examples include

Chatam Sofer, Orech Chaim 5:190
Moses Schreiber (1762–1839), Germany

It is right according to our Torah law to listen to the voice of a woman in shul, in a place that men congregate, and the women’s voice goes from the women’s section to the men’s section?  The reason for this, is that we believe that all prayer and praise and thanksgiving should not be mixed with improper thoughts. And because of this we separate the women from the men in shul, to make sure they do not come to think improper thoughts during the time of prayer. And we learn this from the water libation ceremony that is spoken about in Tractate Sukka where they made sure the women were above and the men below so they would not come to kalut rosh. . And it is said there on 52a, as it says: “And the land shall mourn, every family apart: The family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart; the family of the house of Nathan apart, and their wives apart.” (Zecharia 12:12). And it is a kal v’chomer- here where they are talking about a eulogy where there is no evil inclination the Torah tells us that the men were separate, and here that we are talking about happiness, where there is an evil inclination, all the more so there should be a separation.
– Translation from Sefaria.Org

Maharam Shik מהר”ם שיק, Orech Chaim 77
Rabbi Moshe Schick משה שיק‎‎, (1807 – 1879), Hungary

Igrat Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:39
Rav Moses Feinstein משה פיינשטײַן‎‎  (1895–1986), New York

Shu”t Tzitz Eliezer 7:8
Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg (1915–2006), Jerusalem

Joseph B. Soloveitchik יוסף דב הלוי סולובייצ׳יק  (1903-1993) Community, Covenant and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications. Ktav Publishing House, 2005. p. 129-130. During the 1950’s, Soloveitchik ruled that it was forbidden to pray in a synagogue without a separation between the sexes, and that this law was actually mi-d’orayta, an actual law in the Torah. At the time, during the political-social fighting between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, many Orthodox Jews accepted this claim as correct. Today however no person takes this claim seriously; there is not mitzvah in the Torah on this subject. He further stated that the use of a mechitza as we know it today was mi-derabbenan, a rabbinical prohibition from the Talmud (discussed above, which we now know is mistaken. He misread the Talmudic text about the temporary partition erected during raucously celebrated Simchat Beit Hasho’evah (Water Drawing Ceremony) on Sukkot.

Further reading

Is the Entire Kotel Plaza Really a Synagogue? Rabbi David Golinkin, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies

The Mehitzah in the Synagogue, Rabbi David Golinkin

Meḥitza: Do Orthodox prayers count in a Conservative Synagogue? from ThinkJudaism

The Mehitzah in the synagogue, by Rabbi Monique Susskind Goldberg (PDF file)

The Trichitza Phenomenon, by Jordan Namerow

Trichitza. A strange word, no? Until I was in Israel two weeks ago and prayed in a trichitza setting for the first time, I’d never heard the word before. Shortly thereafter, I came across a trichitza-related article in the November/December 2006 edition of New Voices. I’ve since learned that over the past few years, a growing number of communities have experimented with a trichitza, defining religious space in new, pluralizing ways. Adapted from the word mechitza (which literally means “separation” and refers to the physical divider traditionally used to separate men and women during prayer services), a trichitza divides the prayer space into three sections: one exclusively for women, one exclusively for men, and one not classified by gender. This provides options for nearly everyone: those whose Jewish practice is built upon gender-egalitarianism, those who wish to pray in a gender-specific space… , and those whose own gender-identity lies outside of the male/female binary. The author of Mah Rabu, a blog about Jewish politics, culture, and religious issues writes of the trichitza: “It’s an elegant idea that didn’t exist and then someone came up with it, and everyone said: ‘why didn’t I think of that before?’”

Hilchot Pluralism, Part III: Macroscopic prayer issues – Includes a discussion about trichitzahs

Simchat Bat

A Simchat bat (also, Brit Bat) is a naming ceremony for girls, welcoming them into the covenant. Some form of such ceremonies have been traditional since the early medieval era.

Simchat Bat Baby naming

In medieval German Jewish communities, a simple baby naming ceremony existed for both girls and boys, the Hollekreisch. In Sephardic Jewish communities this exists as the Zeved habat, which is somewhat more elaborate than the earlier German tradition. It is usually celebrated within the first month of the girl’s birth. Over the centuries there have been a variety of simple name-giving ceremonies for girls, but all were relatively informal.

In the last half-century, many in the non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox Jewish community have revived interest in ceremonies for welcoming baby girls; we have developed innovative ceremonies which place equal emphasis on welcoming both daughters and sons. A wide variety of liturgies have been written, mostly informal, but some gaining wide use, and a few being incorporated into the liturgical works of various rabbinic organizations.

Currently, only a small number of liturgical developments have received widespread approbation within the Orthodox Jewish community. On the other end of the spectrum, an uncountable number of personalized ceremonies are being written with the Reform & Reconstructionist communities, but few of which represent an official point of view. Between these groups there exists Conservative/Masorti Judaism, which has been accepting of liturgical innovations, and working to make Jewish ceremonies and educational opportunities egalitarian.

Working within their understanding of halakhah {Jewish law} the Rabbinical Assembly has brought together a range of options within their official Moreh Derekh: The Rabbi’s Manual of the Rabbinical Assembly. The liturgies include options such as (a) Lighting seven candles (symbolizing the seven days of creation) and holding the baby towards them, (b) wrapping the baby in the four corners of a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl), or (c) lifting the baby and touching her hands to a Torah scroll.

The Simchat Bat below is based on the tallit ceremony.

—————————————

Rabbi’s welcome

B’rukhah haba’ah b’shem Adonai.
B’rukhah at ba’ir, uv’rukhah at basadeh.
B’rukhah at b’voekha, uv’rukhah at b’tzetekh.

Welcome little one! Blessed may you be all your days, all your life;
Blessed may you be wherever you are, In all of your comings and in all of your goings.

Candle ceremony – p.A35
Parents read verses
Rabbi – p. A37

Tallit ceremony:

I will wrap {girl’s name} in my tallit.
Grandparents each hold a corner of the tallit, and wrap the baby.
Rabbi reads selections from pages A-42 to A-43

Kriat Shem – Naming the Baby

Eloheinu ve’elohei imoteinu ka’yem et ha’yalda ha’zot le’aviha u’leima, ve’yikarey shmah be’Yisrael {baby’s name}. Yis’mach ha’av be’yotze chalatzav vetagel emah bifri vitnah, ca’ka’tuv: El hana’ar hazeh hitpalalti vayitayn Adonai li et shiaylati asher sha’alti me’imo. Vikayem-lah, Adonai Eloheinu, mah shecatuv. Pihah patkha vi’khokhmah vi’torat khesed al li’shonah.

Hodu la’donai ki tov ki le’olam chasdo. Zot haktana {name} gdolah te’hiyeh. Yihi ratzon sheyizku horehah ligadlah li’Torah ul’chupah ul’ma’asim tovim, amen.

Our God and God of our ancestors, sustain this child. Let her be known among the people Israel as {her Hebrew name}. May her mother be blessed with renewed strength and may both parents find joy in their child, as it is written: “It was this child I prayed for, and the Lord has granted me what I sought.” [ I Samuel 1:27 ]
Fulfill for her, Lord our God, that which is written: “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the Torah of loving-kindness is upon her tongue.” [ Proverbs 31:26 ]

Let us give thanks to the Lord for he is good; God’s loving-kindness is forever. May this child, {her name}, grow into greatness as a blessing to her family, to the Jewish people, and to all humanity. May her parents be privileged to raise their child to womanhood, and may {name} enjoy the blessings of Torah, chupah and ma’asim tovim. And let us say, Amen.

Rabbi: Sustain this child with her father and mother, and may her name be called among the daughters of Israel: {name} daughter of {parents}. May her parents rejoice with their child.

Bircat HaCohanim – Priestly blessings – A46

May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
May the Holy One bless you and keep you.
May the Holy One shine light upon you and be gracious to you.
May the Holy One turn towards you and give you peace.

Shehehe’yanu

Rabbi: K’shaym shenikhn’sah labrit, kayn tikanes l’Torah, ul’huppah, ul’ma’asim tovim.

Guests: As she has entered the covenant, so may she attain Torah study, the wedding huppah, and a life of deeds of loving-kindness.

Here parents sometimes choose to read verses connected with each letter of her Hebrew name (verses shown in the manual)

 

Rebecca and Isaac

D’var Torah by guest author Rebecca! Temple Beth Abraham Hebrew School, Kitah Dalet student

Today, everyone is a hero. Doctors, teachers, scientists, police officers, and firefighters no matter what gender. In the bible heroes are soldiers, kings, leaders, and prophets (people who speak to God.) They are mostly men. But in the story of Rebecca and Isaac, Rebecca – or Rivkah – is the hero and the prophet.

Eliezer and Rebekah at the Well by Gustave Doré

Eliezer and Rebekah at the Well by Gustave Doré

In the story, Abraham’s wife Sarah dies, he realizes he won’t be long after her. So he sends one of his most trusted servants to go to Nahor, his birth place, to find Isaac a wife. Once there the servant goes to a well where women are collecting water. He asks God for a sign that a woman will give him water, and that she will be Isaac’s wife. When Rivkah comes over, she gives him water after him asking, and offers to give the camels water too. That is when the servant knows that she is the one.

God is telling Rivkah to act kind. After Rivkah and Isaac are married, Rivkah comforts Isaac over his mother’s death. Rivkah’s name means to tie or to bind. Like healing someone.She is a shepherd, a loyal wife, and is very kind. Rivkah and all the other women prophets, Sarah,Leah, and Rachel, are all true bible heroes.

Though as they grew older they had two kids, Jacob and Esau. Rivkah loved Jacob, for when she heard his voice the more she loved him. He would stay at home with her all day long. But, Isaac loved Esau more for he provided viands – choice cuts of meat. Esau was stronger than his brother and hunted, while Jacob was more of a studier. (1)

Later as Isaac was dying, he told Esau to prepare him a venison dish and that then he would bless him afterwards . Rivkah overheard Isaac talking and because of her strong love for Jacob said. “ Go get some goat skin and I will prepare the dish.” Jacob did as he was told, and Rivkah put the goat skin on jacob’s arms so his would feel as his brothers hairy arms. Fooled, Isaac blessed Jacob instead of Esau. (2)

(1) The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Ed. Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yohoshua Hana Rivitzky, Trans William Braude, Schocken Books, NY, 1992, p.43

(2) The Illustrated Jewish Bible for Children, Hastings, Thomas and Burch, DK Publishing, 1994

The Original Women of the Wall – תפילת נשים בכותל

The Original Women of the Wall – תפילת נשים בכותל.

Shulamit Magnus writes that:
The organization known as “The Women of the Wall” has radically shifted gears and has a different goal than the one for which this group (the original Women of the Wall) was founded and for which it fought– and won. What they are now after is egalitarian, mixed prayer at a five-star Robinson’s Arch, at which the Reform and Conservative movements will have recognition. For this, they have given up the goal of women’s pluralistic, inclusive tefilla at the kotel [the Western Wall]. They are using this cause to advance different goals; they have given up the independent, autonomous women’s movement and are allied with those movements.

We warmly support, the right of Jews who wish to make a new prayer site at Robinson’s Arch, or anywhere else. While we think it would be a terrible, short-sighted, mistake to cede the Kotel, the historic holy site of the Jewish people, to any segment of Jewry to run as its private preserve, with the right to exclude other Jews, if Conservative and Reform Jews wish the deal, outlined above, for themselves, we wish them well.

What we reject is the right of anyone, in those movements, in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) establishment, or in the Government of Israel, to trample our legally recognized rights as Jewish women to full, religious expression at the Kotel.

Religious coercion is not what we normally associate with those movements, with “progressive” Judaism in general—or with feminism. But that is an intrinsic part of this deal and those negotiating it are party to that. Efforts to dismiss our position as that of a “few” individuals is a knowing distortion among many being asserted, amid patronizing, paternalistic mischaracterizations.

Basic principles are not negotiable. Upholding them is about integrity, vision, and fundamental commitments. Jews know this well. We have done it for thousands of years, which is why we are still around. We are about fresh, new visions of and for Judaism and for Jews, women and men, and respect for historic legal pronouncements that recognize the religious rights of Jewish women at the Kotel. These must be enacted fully on the ground, becoming the base for holy, new possibilities for the Jewish people in Jewish sacred space—for true wholeness– shelemut—literally, “integrity.”  To this path, we are committed, and on it, we proceed.

via The Original Women of the Wall – תפילת נשים בכותל.

Women and Safrut: Can a Woman Be a Scribe? By Ross Singer

Women and Safrut: Can a Woman Be a Scribe?
By Ross Singer
from the JOFA Journal, Winter 2006 Tevet 5766

sofer: scribe (m)
sofer STa”M: scribe of texts of Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot
soferet: scribe (f)
safrut: scribal arts

Our synagogue’s Megillat Esther was extremely faded and worn. For the past few years we had been borrowing a megillah from a nearby shul. Upon learning of this situation, a female member of our synagogue and student of safrut (scribal arts) was offering to restore our scroll. I did not know what the classic sources said about women writing and repairing megillot, and I was relieved that the condition of the scroll precluded the necessity of an immediate response to her offer. However, our conversation got me thinking: Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a megillah penned by one of our own congregants? Furthermore, to have a woman write it would fit with our community’s openness to exploring untried halakhic options for women’s participation in synagogue life. With this in mind, I began researching the issue of women and safrut and uncovered a considerable amount of fascinating material.

Perhaps most striking was the discovery that my very question regarding the status of women writing a Megillat Esther had been asked previously l’ma’aseh (in an actual case). Sarah, daughter of renowned head of the Beit Din of Prague, Rabbi David Oppenheim, (1664-1736)1 wrote a Megillat Esther and the question arose as to the possibility of reading from it on Purim. The deliberation over this actual megillah, as well as many other theoretical discussions, provided rich material containing varied positions on women’s status vis-à-vis safrut. I am grateful to JOFA for providing me with this forum in which I can share a brief sketch of what my research uncovered….

See the full article here in the JOFA Journal: Women as scribes

Why This Orthodox Woman Wears a Tallit

from the JOFA Journal, Fall 2014
The Road To Wearing A Tallit: Why This Orthodox Woman Wears a Tallit, By Bat Sheva Marcus

Photo courtesy Women of the Wall

Photo courtesy Women of the Wall

I will never forget the first time I saw a woman wearing a tallit. I was twenty-seven years old, living in Israel, and attending the first International Conference on Women and Judaism. I came early, stumbled into the “wrong” room, and came upon a room full of women praying. Many had on tallitot, tefillin, and kippot. I thought I was going to throw up. To me, it looked awful. It looked like a mockery of everything I loved. It seemed to me a caricature of the pictures I held close to my heart of my father standing in a faintly lit room in the early morning, wrapped in tallit and tefillin. I backed out of the room and went into the ladies’ room to calm down. Even then, I was rational enough to be annoyed at myself for my violent overreaction.

So here I am, twenty-five years later, a tallit wearer. I often marvel at the transitions we go through in our lives.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when my feelings began to change. When my sense of disgust transformed itself into an indefinable longing. When I began to look over the mehitzah at my husband wrapped in his white tallit and find that I too wished I could be wrapped in white, feeling cool cotton transport my existence into a space of holiness. But somewhere and somehow my feelings had changed. Maybe it was partly that as I got older, the “right way” to do something often seemed less clear. Meeting different people, discussing issues openly, somehow I found out that in so many areas of my life, right and wrong were not quite as black and white as I had originally assumed them to be.

Maybe it was also that I couldn’t “seem to get myself into a good space” for tefillah. I grew up in the day school system, praying daily. I grew up in a home where tefillah was expected to be a part of my daily life, even on vacation days. But I never really davened. Usually I daydreamed. Often I moved my lips to mimic the prayers. And then I found myself an adult, no longer praying to fulfill someone else’s expectations, and unable to sustain regular, daily, ongoing prayer.

The agonizing fact was that, philosophically, I believe prayer to be critically important in our lives. It’s a chance, amid the chaos and the self-centeredness of our generation, to stop and thank God for all of the everyday miracles: for our children, our community, and our health. So there I was, thirty-five years old, still struggling with daily prayer and full of frustration and guilt because of it.

And then my daughter was born. If I knew one thing as a parent, it was that if she didn’t see me davening daily, it would be hard, if not ridiculous, to expect her to do so. In my heart of hearts, I knew that if I didn’t want her to grow up with the same struggle, it was time for me to resolve the issue once and for all……

read the rest here:
https://jofa.org/sites/default/files/uploaded_documents/jofa_journal_fall_2014.pdf

It’s not about the extra mitzvot: Mansplaining the Morning Blessings

It’s not about the extra mitzvot: Mansplaining the Morning Blessings.

..In Orthodox prayerbooks, a traditional daily morning blessing specifically thanks God for “not making me woman.” It is a part of a trio of prayers expressing gratitude for what we are not. The other two members of the trio are thanking God for”not making me a slave” and for “not making me a non-Jew”.  These blessings remain only in Orthodox prayerbooks, (at least in the negative “who has not made”  formulations) all other denominations having gotten rid of them for various reasons.

I have heard numerous well-intentioned men (and a some women like  Mrs. Leah Kohn  and Kressel’s Korner ) explain that the  blessing for not having been made a women is not a negative reflection on women, which the simple or pshat reading would tell, you but in fact is gratitude for the additional mitzvot/ obligations that a man has, but which a woman is excepted from due to her duties to her husband and childrens….

[but read on… these negative blessings were quite obviously sexist]