The Shabbes Table

Yesterday, I went to an exhibition which I had visited at exactly the same time last year. The exhibition included pairs of Shabbes candles, a realistic Shabbes table, and even a Sefer Torah. As I listened to the recorded brochos and touched the candlesticks, I remembered my thoughts as I had stood before this same table last year.

“I wish this were mine.”

As a Baalas Teshuva, the thought of celebrating Shabbes with my family was unthinkable. A kind of dream which I thought would never become a reality. I was moved almost to tears as I sat at that replica table last year- and remembering this yesterday almost knocked me over.

After a family reconciliation, my other relatives began- or continued- their own Jewish journeys, and Shabbes dinner became a central function of our lives. We laughed, cried, and told stories at the Shabbes table. Sometimes, it’s stressful: I can’t face hosting guests or mediating disputes, and I forget what a blessing the Shabbes table is. It’s not always perfect, but this week, as I light the candles, I’m going to try and remember to thank G-d for this beautiful gift He gave me.

Gut Shabbes! (Matos-Massei)

Shabbes is supposed to be an oasis in time. It’s 25 hours away from the hustle and bustle of the working week, without the worries of answering your emails, going to work, or even checking social media. But as a Jewish woman, even an unmarried one, I sometimes feel that Shabbes is more work than the rest of the week. Between cleaning the house for Shabbes, cooking a big dinner, inviting and serving guests, and trying desperately to find a cold Shabbes lunch which keeps everyone happy, I sometimes feel that it’s just way too much fuss and bother.

But Shabbes is a gift. And it was only this week that I realised that the biggest mitzvah of Shabbes is to enjoy it and rejoice in it. If Shabbes is spent worrying over the state of the dinner menu or clearing up after guests, it isn’t Shabbes. And so I decided to make changes to my routine; I let someone else help with the Shabbes cooking. I found some time to speak to G-d, and ask him for a wonderful Shabbes, rather than muttering Tehillim half heartedly while cleaning the house. When a relative offered to vacuum the house, I didn’t jump up to do it, and instead I chose to dedicate that half hour to myself. And amidst a number of fallings out and relationship problems, I realised I would be grateful to turn the internet off for 25 hours.

I always feel the need to single handedly make a perfect Shabbes; as a BT in a non observant family, it feels like my responsibility to make sure the house is spotless, the food perfect, and that the guests go home impressed. But maybe it’s not up to me. Maybe it’s up to G-d. Am I an aishes chayil? Perhaps not, but that can wait until after I get married, iyH.

In London, Shabbes candles should be lit at 8:46 PM, and Shabbes ends tomorrow at 10:09 PM. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Hadasa, Moshe ben Genya, Chashachana bas Bryna, Esther bas Malka and Shai bas Odeya. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

Parshas Matos-Massei: Inequality and Women’s Vows

When I write my weekly divrei Torah, I look for the inspiring messages found in each Parsha. Every single Parsha has them. Even what appears to be just a list of names carries an immense significance and by looking to the commentaries and words of the Sages and Rebbes we can find ideas and morals to enhance our lives. Sometimes, though, I come across things in the Torah which trouble me. If I were to name all these things, I would probably lose quite a few followers, so I will simply say that the Torah view on what is and isn’t an “abomination” is sometimes quite difficult to reconcile with my own.

But I am a Chareidi Jew. Specifically, I follow the teachings of the Chabad Rebbe and the Chassidus. I cannot simply dismiss a part of the Torah because it causes me to feel uncomfortable, or because it is not in line with 21st Century teachings, as I believe it is the literal Word of G-d. Largely, I’m quite socially conservative, and this means that there is usually no conflict between the Torah’s teachings and my own views. I aim to get my social and political views from the Torah, rather than adapting the Torah so that it fits my views. But occasionally, I just cannot seem to do it. Occasionally, a verse is just too troublesome for me to simply accept it without further research. Where does that leave me?

There are not all too many women in Chareidi Judaism who take part in in-depth Torah study (and, tangentially, I am fine with this- I see no wrong in women choosing to dedicate themselves to their families instead). But as a baalas Teshuva- someone who grew up with little religious influence and in a socially liberal climate- I need Torah study to understand the mitzvos I have taken on and the world I have chosen to live in. So to answer the question contained in the last paragraph- when I encounter a teaching which seems difficult to understand or accept, I turn to Torah study to try and shine light on it.

Which brings me to this week’s Parsha, Matos-Massei.

Matos-Massei is a double Parsha, which means that the daily study portions are much longer. But despite having read from it every single day this week, the very first portion has stayed in my mind and I have thought about it every day. It is here that we read about the topic of women making neyderim- vows.

“If a woman makes a vow to the Lord, or imposes a prohibition [upon herself] while in her father’s house, in her youth,

If her father heard her vow or her prohibition which she has prohibited upon herself, yet her father remains silent, all her vows shall stand, and any prohibition that she has imposed upon herself shall stand.

But if her father hinders her on the day he hears it, all her vows and her prohibitions that she has imposed upon herself shall not stand. The Lord will forgive her because her father hindered her…

…But if she vowed in her husband’s house, or imposed a prohibition upon herself with an oath…

Any vow or any binding oath of self affliction, her husband can either uphold it or revoke it.”

The message here is quite clear. While men are free to make oaths as and when they wish, and are required to uphold them, women are not granted the same freedom, instead requiring the permission- or compliance- of their husband or father. Some commentators have declared the ability to make oaths a burden, as opposed to a freedom, stating that the Parsha is treating women kindly by allowing their oaths to be revoked by their husbands and fathers. And while this fits into the notion that women are not obligated to do mitzvos in the same way men are, it fails to address the fact that women are presumed to be under the control of a male relative until they become widows in old age (when their vows can no longer be revoked)- something which I, and many others in this day and age, find difficult to deal with.

So I turned to Torah study in an attempt to find a solution to this problem, this conflict between my own views and sensibilities and the reality of the Torah. I looked at explanations and commentaries, until I came across a solution which, at first, made sense. It suggested that the root of this halacha was shalom bayis- suggesting that it provided a chance for women to discuss neyderim with their husbands before taking them on. This implied a kind of commitment to the relationship which sat well with me, until the obvious question arose- if this were the case, why didn’t husbands need to ask their wives’ permission to make vows?

This brought me to yet another difficult interpretation. If it were about shalom bayis, then the different rules for husbands and wives suggested that shalom bayis included the superiority of the husband. At the time when G-d gave Moshe Rabbenu the Torah, this was probably the norm. But in the 21st century, I object to it. Does my objection make the Torah wrong? No. But as someone who has spoken to and advised countless women in difficult and painful marital situations, I wanted to believe there was more to it than this. I was still troubled by the contents of the Parsha and wanted to find a suitable solution.

So I turned to a later part of the parsha, where it states that widows are exempt from the rules which other women face, and are not subject to the will of their brothers or sons. Normally, for example in inheritance cases, the Torah makes it clear that these male relatives have certain rights- for example, daughters only inherit if there are no sons. But there is no mention of other men in this part of the parsha.

This lends itself to a viewpoint which I found myself much happier with. To me, it suggests that women are not weak and in need of a man’s control after all- instead, it suggests that women have a great responsibility over the men in their lives and thus it is up to them to maintain peace and harmony. This may mean forsaking their vows, but unlike men, they are not obligated to serve G-d in the same way, partially due to the greater amount of Binah- wisdom- which they possess.

This explanation is still not entirely satisfactory, as it suggests that women need to make sacrifices to keep men happy. But it does hint to the fact that women are naturally more in tune with G-d and needn’t disrupt the harmony of the home to serve Him. It gives them a sense of responsibility- a responsibility which doesn’t always seem fair, but nonetheless a great responsibility to act wisely in every contribution made in a relationship.

At the end of the day, though this part of the Parsha is still difficult for me to understand and appreciate, I have learned something. Perhaps I find little inspiration in the laws of vows themselves, but I have learned something about my relationship with Judaism. I have learned to never stop asking questions, to never stop studying and looking for answers. I have learned that I won’t always agree with the Torah, but I still need to live by it. And to me, this is an important part of my Jewish identity. Many Chareidim do not question the Torah in any way. I admire this unwavering faith, but I also admire my own ability to question.

Just as Tzelefchod’s daughters, who also appear in this week’s Parsha, believed that sexism was man made and that G-d loved men and women equally, I, too, believe this. I believe that everything, including evil, comes from G-d, but I also believe that He is, by nature, just, and that to live as He intended me to, I need to understand His Torah. To me, this means I can’t just read it, and accept the parts which seem wrong to me. Instead, I must constantly strive to understand and love it.

Gut Shabbes! (Pinchos)

Yesterday, I wrote about the value and power of women in my dvar Torah for Parshas Pinchos. One of the topics I covered was the mechitza. In retrospect, I feel that I used the wrong words when talking about the screen which separates men and women in prayer. My words suggested that I saw the mechitza as a tool of oppression. A way of hiding woman. An obstacle to equality.

In reality, the opposite is true.

The mechitza is not oppressive or sexist, and indeed I wouldn’t feel comfortable in a shul without one. I have a great deal of experience with shuls of different denominations, and those with mixed seating make me feel uncomfortable. I accept that some women prefer to pray without a mechitza, but halachically, the mechitza is necessary and I appreciate it.

The mechitza I referred to was more a metaphor than anything. A metaphorical mechitza which hides women from public view- not allowing them to speak on their telephones in public, appear in adverts or newspapers, or wear clothes with the slightest hint of colour. Women are disappearing from the Chareidi public view- and this is the fault of a number of rabbis, committees, and vaads, but we can’t blame the mechitza in shul.

Having clarified this, I would like to wish everyone a wonderful Shabbes. In London, Shabbes candles should be lit act 8:54, and Shabbes goes out at 10:20. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chain Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Hadasa, Moshe ben Genya, Chashachana bas Bryna, Golda Shira bas Yenta Ruchel and Shai bas Odeya for a refuah shleimah. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

Parshas Pinchos: The Value of Women

This week’s Parsha, Pinchos, is named after a righteous man who killed a prince named Zimri and brought an end to the plague which had consumed the Israelites. Although some questioned Pinchos’ motives, G-d knew that they were pure, and rewarded him with the priesthood and the covenant of peace. But Parshas Pinchos also contains the story of five righteous women: the daughters of Tzefalchod.

Tzefalchod’s five daughters petitioned Moshe Rabbenu, and insisted that they should be granted their father’s portion of the land, for he died without sons. They did not back down, even when Moshe argued with them, for they believed that although mankind may believe that men are greater than women, G-d believes in equality and is kind to all. Indeed, G-d did agree with them and they were granted their inheritance.

The Midrasha Rabbah teaches us an important lesson based on Tzefalchod’s daughters. We read;

“In that generation, the women repaired what the men broke down.

You find that Aaron told them: “Break off the golden rings which are in the ears of your wives” (to make the golden calf—Exodus 32:2), but the women refused and held back their husbands, as is proved by the fact that it says (ibid. v. 3) “All the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears,” the women not participating with them in making the calf.

It was the same in the case of the spies, who uttered an evil report: “The men… when they returned, made all the congregation to murmur against Him” (Numbers 14:36), and against this congregation the decree [not to enter the Land] was issued, because they had said: “We are not able to go up” (ibid. v. 31). The women, however, were not with them in their counsel…

The men had been unwilling to enter the Land; the women petitioned to receive an inheritance in the Land.”

In every generation, not just that one, women hold an immense amount of power. Just as those women turned away from idolatry and who wanted to enter the Promised Land while their husbands were too afraid to, the women of this generation will bring Moshiach. Many argue that Chareidi women are treated as inferior; and, indeed, many Chareidi leaders call for women to be hidden behind mechitzas and confined to the kitchen. This is not the role of a Jewish woman.

We are not simply childbearers and cleaners, and the disturbing trend of “hiding” women- behind screens and in homes, photoshopped out of papers and told not to speak in public- is one which fights against the example set by the five daughters in this week’s Parsha, and, indeed, the matriarchs. Together, we will bring Moshiach; but not if we are sidelined and hidden away.

We are trailblazers. We are educators. We are businesswomen. We are carers. And, yes, we prop up the Jewish home and help Yiddishkeit to flourish under its roof. But that’s not all we can do. It took enormous courage and intelligence for Tzefalchod’s daughters to do what they did, but believe it or not, we can do the same in every generation. We have voices; let’s use them.

The Mitzvah Which Changed My Life

Earlier today, I was reading a fascinating article by Kylie Ora Lobell, named ‘Why I Pray Every Day’. I felt that I could relate to Kylie’s emotions on every level; although, unlike her, I am not a convert, I feel that, as a baalas teshuvah, I had encountered much of the same uncertainty and confusion. What’s more, her hurried days, beginning with oversleeping and ending with a feeling of stress and a glance at the to-do list sounded so much like my own that I could hardly believe it.

Lately, I’ve been waking up feeling overwhelmed and anxious about the day ahead, spending much of the day- like Kylie- trying to balance housework, writing and a number of other tasks, and going to bed late feeling both exhausted and stressed and yet as if I’ve accomplished nothing. There’s never a moment when I’m not thinking about what I need to do next, if I’ve done enough, if there’s something else to tick off.

Other than when I daven.

Yesterday, I was so busy that I almost forgot to daven. I ended up davening a ‘Belzer mincha’ at an extremely late hour. As I remarked on this, someone else told me that I wasn’t obligated to do such a thing. Very true. But, as a woman- in spite of, or perhaps because I’m not obligated- I derive a great sense of peace from prayer. Admist the hustle and bustle of the day, I take a few minutes away from the tasks and lists and stress and worry and simply talk to my Creator. Yes, I use a siddur, but as I say Tehillim and speak to G-d, my words are anything but rigid and structured.

It’s life changing.

Since I became observant, I took on many things, all of which have helped me in one way or another, if only through bringing me closer to G-d. Tznius, for example, something which was always at least slightly important to me, has given me a greater amount of self-esteem and confidence since I began observing it fully. Torah study, meanwhile, has expanded my knowledge and effected me intellectually as well as spiritually. But there’s nothing quite like davening. Nothing which has enriched every single day of my life in such a unique and special way.

Truly, prayer has changed my whole life.

Aishes Chayil

In honour of International Women’s Day.

This post is dedicated not only to the Rebbetzen OBM and the inspiring and righteous Chabad shluchos (female emissiaries), but to Jewish women all around the world who are striving to bring Holiness into their lives and the lives of those around them. Today, let’s honour the women working both in the limelight and behind the scenes to raise their families, build their careers, learn and study, and spread love and joy wherever they go. These are the everyday heroes- the women who can’t be given enough credit for the vital jobs they do- and it is through the merit of these women that we will welcome the arrival of Moshiach, may it come speedily and in our days!

(And while we’re at it- spare a thought for the righteous Noahide women, who uphold Hashem’s laws and abide by His Word, with relatively little community support and guidance. They truly are heroes, as well.)