Several months ago, my friend Margaret, a Reform rabbi, moved away to Mendicino, California to serve a congregation there. Three of us — Sue, Zari and myself — wanted to send her off with a ritual that was 1) Jewish, 2) gave her something of us to remember and 3) reflected a sense of the importance of women’s history, since we all felt strongly about the need for women’s voice in Jewish practice.
We ended up making her a qesher, that is, a small bag of keepsakes, herbs, shells, semiprecious stones and the like, which she can use as a sachet. We learned of this ancient Jewish religious object through the work of my Recon-structionist colleague, feminist historian and rabbi, Julie Greenberg. Her research uncovered the following Talmudic verse:
Abbaye said, “Mother told me that three qesharim protect; five cure; and seven are effective against spiritual malaise.” (Shabbat 66B — my translation)
For many hundreds of years this verse was indecipherable. However, Greenberg cites the finds of Israeli archeologist Yigael Yadin in the Bar Kochba caves to show that small bags of shells, crystals and feathers were “protective amulets” which Yadin identified as the mysterious qesharim. They were bound to a person’s clothing — hence the name, “qesher” that is “bound.”
Of course, our qesher for Margaret had a more modern flavor. We put in a cube of bouillon “to sustain her” a small mirror “so she would remember to take care of herself as well as her congregation,” a bit of curry “to spice up her life” in addition to the more common contents of a qesher/sachet such as rosemary and rose petals.
On the front of the bag we wrote the traditional phrase of send-off, “Brucha at b’voyach u’vrucha at b’tzaytaych” (adapted from Deuteronomy 28:6). “May you be blessed in your coming in and in your going out. Amen.”
We came together for an evening of song, shared memories and tears over the impending separation. We gave Margaret her qesher, and she gave each of us a farewell blessing. We also looked for future direction through the medieval Jewish women’s practice of bibliomancy, that is, opening the Hebrew Scripture and choosing a verse at random for life illumination (similar to using the I-Ching). Margaret’s verse was Ezekiel 37:26 “I will make a covenant of peace with them” — a good omen, and as it has turned out, a very accurate one, for Margaret’s new life, she tells me, is one of great fulfillment and peace.
Margaret’s congregation is receptive to her spirituality. They welcome her efforts to bring women’s rituals into “normative” Jewish life. Too often, what we call “normative Judaism” is the product of an inbred male elitism. Ancient and medieval women’s and folk practices are relegated to the status of superstition and bubbemeiseh. But the symbolic content of qesharim, bibliomancy, red ribbons, incantation bowls, amulets and other non-Talmudic Jewish expressions can have a great deal of emotional significance to a sometimes overly-intellectualized Jewish community. A new generation of women rabbis and scholars now have access to sources of historic spiritual practices as well as to communities in which to reintegrate this rich heritage.
It is an exciting and sacred task.
Rabbi Jane Litman is the western regional director congregational affairs for the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot. She says that her life’s work is researching and reconstructing Jewish women’s spiritual practices