The People of the Books

Some Prayer Books Were Made Solely for Women

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By Philologos

Published November 25, 2012, issue of November 30, 2012.
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In some cases, tkhines appeared in separate volumes devoted entirely to them, like the popular “Shloyshe She’orim,” “The Three Gates,” written by the legendary figure of Soreh bas Toyvim, a woman who supposedly lived in Ukraine in the 18th century. (Tkhines were composed by men and women alike, sometimes by one sex masquerading as the other.) In other cases they were printed, together with Yiddish translations of the standard Hebrew prayers, as part of the siddur, as they are in the “Korbn Minkhe.”

The wish that lighting the Sabbath candles should “count as much as all 613 commandments” reflects the fact that of all the many mitzvot aseh, as they are called by the rabbis, the commandments to perform specific ritual acts (as opposed to the mitzvot al ta’aseh, the commandments not to do something), women are, in Jewish tradition, excused from all but three, which are their responsibility alone: lighting the Sabbath candles; baking the Sabbath challah while setting aside part of its dough as an offering, and observing the laws of menstrual purification.

These three mitzvot had many tkhines written for them. The one for candle lighting has a continuation that goes: Riboynoy shel oylem, mayn mitzve fun di likht ontsundn zol azoy ongenumn zayn vi di mitzve fun dem kohen godel ven er hot di likht in libn beys hadmikdesh ongetsundn … un zol ongenumn vern az mayn kinders oygn zoln laykhten in der liber, hayliger toyreh — that is: Master of the Universe, may my commandment of lighting the candles be as acceptable [to You] as the High Priest’s lighting the candles in the dear Temple … and as acceptable as my children’s eyes lighting up in [the study of] the dear, holy Torah.

The simple, homey, intimate language of this prayer, quite different from the more formal language of the Hebrew prayers of the siddur, is typical of the tkhines that were recited by women for hundreds of years.

Today, when, even in the most traditional, Yiddish-speaking ultra-Orthodox circles, girls are given a far better Hebrew education than they received in the past, tkhines have lost much of their rationale and importance. And yet at the same time, feminist concerns and the spread of Jewish gender studies have led to a scholarly interest in them that never existed in the past and that has created a growing literature about them.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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