A Day of Rest for Mothers? Hardly

by Judith Shulevitz

Unlike most of Western culture’s other signature achievements — its music, art, architecture, philosophy, and so on — the Sabbath is not the indirect product of wealth extracted from the work of slaves, or serfs, or animals. That’s the whole idea: on the seventh day, labor should not be exploited and everybody should be allowed to rest. Not every worker in a Sabbath-keeping society has experienced the day as a real reprieve, of course. The Sunday of American slaves consisted largely of sitting and listening to pro-slavery preachers for hours on end. Servants in early American households were catechized in cold rooms on hard chairs. But even when actual Sabbaths were irksome, the holiday held out a vision of freedom for the downtrodden.

There is, however, one kind of laborer for whom the Sabbath has never promised respite, and that’s the housewife. She’s infamously omitted from the list in Deuteronomy: “you shall not do any work—you, your son or you daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements.” The biblical Hebrew here uses the singular masculine form of “you,” which is “atta.” There’s neither an “at,” the female “you,” nor mention of “your wife.”

There would be no Shabbat as Jews imagine it if female heads of households stopped doing what they’ve long done. Sure, men sometimes cook, clean, light candles, and so on. I’ve often been impressed by how helpful the husbands of female rabbis can be. But the way work still gets divvied up in our society, most of what we associate with the holiday, the scrubbed floors, shining faces, festive meals, hours of prayer and study, comes to you courtesy of women, whether they stay home full-time or hold down a job and manage a domestic service provider or two.

Maybe you’ll say that that housework and childcare aren’t this one-sided anymore, at least not in the non-Orthodox world, and I’ll agree with you up to a point. I first felt the prick of that point in shul one Saturday morning shortly after my first child was born. Until then I’d been among the worshippers who swiveled their heads when a baby wailed. Now I was the one being glared at. I had a second child 18 months after the first, so it was a good six or seven years before I got out of playrooms and off playgrounds—where mothers far outnumbered fathers —long enough to cultivate the kavanah required for prayer. And by then I’d forgotten how. I always prayed more aspirationally than whole-heartedly, anyway, but now I sit in the back, nostalgic for even that level of engagement.

Part of the problem is that I’m still pissed off. I’ve been to evangelical churches that make mothers feel more welcome than most egalitarian shuls do. Those congregations care enough about ensuring that women can worship or lead services (as they often do) that they have teachers or volunteers greet families at the door and take their children off their hands for much of the day. Egalitarian Jews have some consciousness-raising to do before we can match that.

The traditional response to this genre of feminist critique is that Shabbat honors the domestic sphere and she who makes the day beautiful. The family stands at attention while the wife blesses the candles; the husband sings Eishet Chayil; Shabbat enters in the form of a bride, et cetera, et cetera. But all that is symbolic. In the realm of the real, what mothers do during the 25 hours of supposed rest is deal with bodies and their needs and messes. Jewish law historically excused women from the obligation to perform certain time-bound mitzvoth in part so that they’d be available to operate in this biological dimension. Today, Jewish women have been accorded the right to keep the mitzvoth, at least in some communities. But legal equality is only partial equality. Jewish women won’t become socially and religiously the peers of Jewish men until the work of care is redistributed fairly—and explicitly— between the sexes.

Maybe it’s naïve to think that Jews in America, the country with the most backward child-care policies in the industrialized world, will figure out how to ensure full female participation in Jewish life, even if we’ve been at the forefront of Jewish feminism up till now. But America also has an impressive history of Sabbatarian activism and a large body of thought (Christian, mostly, but so what?) about how to make the seventh day live up to its potential. Given its emancipationist legacy, Shabbat should be spurring efforts to imagine a less unjust world. It should not be the day of the week when women remember that they’re the only ones not given permission to rest.

Judith Shulevitz, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, is the author of “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.”

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