A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book
Women’s prayers are emerging; venturing out of their confinement within the private domain. They are slowly seeping into hearts, wafting into souls, bearing an ancient longing. Men and women alike are adopting women’s prayers, hearing and feeling their own supplications resonating in the words. Women’s prayers are rediscovering their place in private and communal life; in life-cycle ceremonies, at moments of supreme joy and in times of grief and loss, in private devotion and in congregational services. At the same time, women’s prayers are at the center of a cultural reawakening: prayers texts are being set to music, dramatized, performed and recited by leading artists.
Tefilat Nashim, a mosaic of prayers and the life stories of the women who composed them, has emanated the unspoken longing from the world of mothers and grandmothers. For Generations, mothers and grandmothers kept this world, and their prayers, carefully guarded. And hence the words prompted an insistent longing for something out of reach and long forgotten. The source of these prayers are impossible to locate. Yet, they are there, and reminds us of its presence. These longings are what inspired the prayers words then, and continues to smolder within them, warming so many hearts today.
In the course of my research I came across prayers, both new and old, encountered unique customs and ceremonies, and came to know historical Jewish women who are mostly absent from the pages of our literature, documentation and tradition. In my book I sought to restore these women writers to their proper place in our historical and religious awareness; to show what liturgical gems were created even during periods when, according to the universally accepted academic assumption, Jewish women did not write at all. Thus, faces and voices like; Freiha, daughter of Rabbi Avraham; the coverso women of Spain and Portugal; the 15th century Jewish women in Italy; Fanny Neuda of Czechoslovakia, and many others are resurfacing. Their voices are amplified by accounts of rabbinical leadership that took a favorable view of women’s prayers and religious customs and acknowledged their validity.
The English edition of my book – “A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book” – was published at the end of 2008. The vigorous public response that developed in Israel has now extended outward to the English-speaking public, injecting a new dimension into Jewish and gender studies and bearing the hope of exposing texts and writers that prior have not been explored.
The book attempts to preserve the prayers authenticity while also appealing to contemporary men and women. I welcome all reactions, information, and ideas that could broaden and enrich the discourse on this site and other forums, as well as for the purposes of further research.
Tefilat Nashim became an immediate best-seller in Israel and was warmly embraced by diverse sectors of the public. The book itself, and its subject, have become the focus of extensive public discussion, numerous literary reviews, conferences, and cultural dialogue. This collection of prayers is the product of academic research, and as such serves as a bridge between the academic, critical discourse of Jewish studies and the generally conservative world of liturgy. Each prayer text in the book is presented along with explanatory notes such as the circumstances of its origins, its author, etc. (In the English edition, “A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book”, prayers appear in Hebrew and English, side by side.)
Tefilat Nashim is a collection of prayers written by and/or for Jewish women from a diverse range of historical and cultural backgrounds. These prayers surpass the borders of the Jewish Diaspora and the boundaries of Jewish time, bringing together texts formulated by Rabbi Yosef Chayim of Baghdad (the “Ben Ish Chai”) – a legend of Sephardic Jewry, and prayers inspired by the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav – an influential leader of Eastern European Hassidism. Prayers by Italian Jewish women of the 16th century appear side by side with similar prayers originating in 18th century Hungary. In this collection, even a prayer by an ultra-Orthodox, Hassidic Jerusalemite mother-in-law hits close to home as much as contributions by women who grew up on kibbutzim. “A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book,” is thus a motley of Jewish identities, all woven into a tapestry of women’s devotion.
The book is a collection of prayers of Jewish women throughout history. It reflects a Jewish life-story about a world that has almost disappeared, a narrative that is almost completely absent from our traditional history and religious consciousness. The seismic changes effected by historical processes – persecution and expulsions, the secular Enlightenment, the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel and the subsequent mass immigration of strongly traditional communities, the replacement of a close-knit community framework and the extended family with the nuclear family – have all but erased the feminine world of knowledge, law, prayers, ritual, customs and ceremonies from contemporary Judaism. As future factors that are contributing to this loss, we must also take into consideration the intensive secularization of Israeli society, on one hand, and mass assimilation within Diaspora communities, on the other. Both are expressions of a conscious desire and aspiration, among broad sectors of the Jewish nation, to liberate itself from tradition in general, and from “antiquated” religious tradition in particular, in favor of a new, modern identity.
Some of the prayers are unquestionably pervaded by conservative gender stereotypes that may offend some modern and politically correct sensibilities. My aim has been to convey in good faith a meaningful and compelling heritage. The real life of real Jewish women throughout the generations is what gave rise to the prayers that they created. The prayers reflect their norms and values, and these should not be distorted to conform with our modern views. Ultimately, the book and the attention that it has drawn have redeemed countless women—individuals and the communities around them—from oblivion, and restored them to their proper place in Jewish history, consciousness, tradition, and prayer.
The book tells us about the trials and challenges, joys and celebrations of Jewish women throughout hundreds of years. The texts reflect their customs, norms and rituals, and as such represent an alternative yet feminine religious model with the power to inspire continuity and further development. We cannot and dare not ignore the Jewish woman and her life throughout the generations, her activities and aspirations, her relationship with God and with herself. It is imperative that we develop research in these areas and encourage creative thinking aimed at reclaiming and restoring that which have been almost entirely lost.
These women’s prayers are an alternative model of Jewish being and expression that came into being alongside – and, to a considerable extent, as a response to – the male discourse, the foreign language of formal prayer (Hebrew), and the absence of women from the public arena and communal activity. Despite the great diversity of geographical and historical sources represented in Tefilat Nashim, the book evidences a remarkable degree of unity in the core perception of existential purpose. In the liturgical and devotional creativity that blossomed within the private, parallel world of Jewish women we detect the secret of the chain of tradition, the mortar that cemented generation after generation in the edifice of Jewish existence; the feminine Jewish “D.N.A.” which cannot be defined but which exists beyond the boundaries of time, place or language.
The women (and men) who composed these prayers were well aware of this chain, and they invoke it explicitly: “As He answered our holy matriarchs – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and Hannah, and all of the righteous, pious and upright women – so may He answer me”; “He Who blessed our matriarchs – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and Miriam the prophetess, and Abigail, and Queen Esther, daughter of Abigail, may He bless…”. Fortified with this solid tradition, the petitioner pours forth her supplication: “that when I call out to You—You answer me, that I petition You and You grant my request”; “My God in heaven – listen to the prayer of a mother’s heart”.
A great many of the women’s prayers of previous centuries were composed and recited in the different languages of the Jewish Diaspora. The Hebrew (and Aramaic) of the canonical prayer book were foreign to women, since they were generally excluded from formal Jewish education with its intensive study of Hebrew texts. Thus, Tefilat Nashim includes prayers that were originally composed in Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Italian, Old German, and English. Little remains today of this diversity: the Holocaust silenced Yiddish and Ladino almost completely, and mass immigration to and absorption in Israel soon made Hebrew the spoken language among Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. At the same time, the standard prayer book has largely replaced the unique, personalized, hand-written books of prayers that were treasured by Jewish women in the past.
Throughout the generations, there were women who took upon themselves the responsibility of promoting Jewish education for girls and seeking ways to the hearts of the younger generation. In the introduction to the book of prayers that she wrote and published in Prague in 1855, Fanny Neuda wrote:
“A genuine sense of feminine religiosity includes an exalted nationalistic feeling. Our daughters must learn to bear their Jewish identity with pride and confidence. They must recognize the true worth of their nation […]. They must know that they would be diminishing their own honor if they were ashamed of belonging to one of the greatest peoples in history, its chronicles featuring shining heroes, noble men, people who died for the sanctification of God’s Name […] Consolation, conscientiousness, selflessness and willingness are to be found in the goodness of her heart and her conduct, allowing her rise up above any contemptible act and to prove herself as a true daughter of her people, having succeeded in preserving a blessed atmosphere of home and noble morality, at the center of the battle continuing over the course of thousands of years against many hatreds causing profound pain.”
Concern for the guidance of Jewish women is similarly evidenced in the works of Sara Bat-Tovim, one of the best-known writers of “tekhines” (personal supplications) in Yiddish. She writes, in the introduction to her book, “Sheker ha-Hen” (Grace is Deceitful):
“I wrote this book, Sheker ha-Hen, in Yiddish, as a healing for the soul in this world and in the next world. Do not be sparing of your money, if you are able to obtain this book; in reward for this we shall merit the World to Come…”.
In several places in her books, Sara Bat-Tovim reproaches women for personal and moral failings. She held herself to the same high standards: at the beginning of her book of supplications, “Shelosha She’arim”, she asks for forgiveness: “May the blessed God forgive me that in my youth I would chatter in the women’s gallery during the prayer service and the reading of the beloved Torah.”
She called for simplicity, asking women not to visit the synagogue dressed in luxurious style that would arouse envy, and emphasized the communal and Jewish responsibility over every individual.
The tekhines of Sara Bat-Tovim are characterized by their emotion and honesty, and the unique way in which they address those precious moments when a woman senses with full impact the essence of life. This awareness, along with an impressive ability to capture it in writing – and apparently aided by considerable charisma – earned Sara Bat-Tovim enormous popularity among Jewish women.
Tefilat Nashim – and now the English edition, “A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book” – offers an unmediated introduction to Jewish women of the past whose message is unquestionably enriching and empowering – for men and women, Jews and non-Jews alike, in the third millennium.
Almog Behar, literary critic for the highly regarded Haaretz newspaper, wrote:
“The essence of the book ‘Tefillat Nashim’ (Women’s Prayers Throughout the Ages) isn’t realized in the first reading, nor in a continuous reading. A prayer that is uttered for the first time is not really ‘prayer’; it is a random prayer like many others. Only the element of repetition transforms it into real prayer. The power of a prayer-book lies in its communal acceptance into the life cycle; its power lies in the ceremony that is created around it, in being read aloud in public at the appropriate time and season. The power of the Jewish prayer book throughout the generations has arised due to the tension between tradition and innovation, between the fixed and the transient, between the Divine and the human. ‘Women’s Prayers Throughout the Ages’ is perhaps one of the most important events in the Jewish religion in recent years, and it is worthy of many sequels (Almog Behar, Haaretz, 30/6/ 2006)
The book is the result of a three-year voyage over continents and through time, exposing me to a fascinating human, feminine mosaic. I discovered prayers written for recitation by the whole congregation and others written specifically for women in the women’s gallery of the synagogue or as a separate prayer group; I found texts written by women for women and others written or collated for women by men (in many cases a father would present a book of prayers to his daughter, or a groom – to his bride).
I found rare manuscripts preserved in museums, libraries and archives, and also in private family collections. I recorded prayers shared by masraniyot (“conveyors” of tradition), or preserved with family records, or private prayer books that were handed down from mother to daughter over generations. Every prayer, every liturgical poem, had a story. Often it was the writer who captured my imagination; sometimes I was struck dumb by the beauty of new prayers, other times I was brought to tears. The emotional response that developed within me arose from a vague knowledge that I have always carried with me – a knowledge that such prayers existed, even though no-one had ever told me about them.
I believe that the collection of prayers that came together to become this book, is not coincidental. For three years I searched for the sources of unknown prayers and supplications for those fateful points in a woman’s life to which the standard prayer book gave no attention. I searched for prayers that would address infertility, childbirth, the loss of a child, heaven forfend. Such prayers existed, it turned out; and some had even been composed by men for women.
The search for prayers drew interest and involvement. Many people offered information and directed me to sources and texts. Thus, for example, the “Mother’s Early Morning Prayer” by Hava Pinhas-Cohen – a startlingly modern text – was brought to my attention by women’s prayer groups in Israel, which had incorporated it into their meetings:
“And grant me courage to soften my expression
So that each of my children may
See his face within my face
As in a mirror polished for a holiday”
Accessing the prayers was not always so easy. It took two years of gentle persuasion until I gained the confidence of Shulamit Eisenbach, an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalemite woman belonging to the Belz hassidic sect, who composed a unique prayer (in rhyming verse, in the Hebrew original) concerning the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship:
“…Grant me favor in the eyes of my sons-in-law and my daughters,
and grace with my sons and daughters-in-law.
Let me see no flaws in them, nor hear any faults;
Let me feel no resentment toward them, nor act in a miserly way;
Let no hint of jealousy be aroused in me, nor any vice lurk within.”
The prayers, poems, psalms and supplications may be different from one another, but they share the same themes: dialogue with the Creator, hope for a better future, and concern for the welfare of the Jewish nation.
The memories and life stories of the many women whom I have met have taught me about unique women’s rituals and customs, forgotten ceremonies, special prayer formulas. More than anything else, though, they taught me about a common longing for the prayers of grandmothers and great-grandmothers; for a women’s circle that was interrupted and broken. Much has been lost along the turbulent path of Jewish history; little was documented, few of the women who were part of this lost world are still with us to recall and recreate it.
The acceptance of my book in Israeli society has led me on another fascinating anthropological voyage, this time through the various sectors and groups that comprise Israeli society: ultra-Orthodox and secular, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, women and men. I was moved to discover that these audiences are connected with the book owing to a powerful longing, a sense of regret at not having listened to – perhaps having scorned – what our mothers and grandmothers carried with them from their homes: that magical knowledge that perhaps we were ashamed to carry any further, that feminine Jewish DNA, that cultural mortar and building tools that our mothers preserved. The warm embrace with which the book was greeted upon its appearance, and the growing circles that have come to accept and adopt it, demonstrate that these prayers are now finding their way home.