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Taking Back Our Rites

Lighting candles, baking challah, and the laws of married sex 

Not long after my bat mitzvah, I decided that rather than staring into space during the silent readings in synagogue services, I would see what the prayer book had to say. That’s how I discovered this brief text crouching between Lekha Dodi and the beginning of the Friday evening service:

For three transgressions women die during childbirth: for being careless regarding the precept of niddah (separation during menstruation followed by ritual immersion in a mikvah), the precept of challah (removing a piece for tithing), and the precept of kindling the Sabbath light. (Mishnah Shabbat 2:6)

My cultural Jewish upbringing in a small, rabbi-less town in Kansas, even with summers spent at a Conservative camp and my mother’s new interest in lighting Shabbat candles in my grandmother’s candlesticks, left me unprepared. The footnotes informed me that this was a mishnah, a segment of Jewish legal discussion recorded around the second century. From that Sabbath eve, I struggled to come to terms with a religion that could find death in childbirth a fair punishment for anything, much less the few rituals traditionally performed by women.

The paradox of my love for Jewish ritual and tradition and my horror at texts such as this eventually led me to Israel to study. Kicked out of a program in Safed for being a “feminist” and a “troublemaker” (apparently synonyms), I found my way to the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, a traditional but tolerant yeshiva. In Israel, I found even greater depth and power in lighting the Sabbath candles as the city slowed and quieted; I learned to knead and bake my own challah; and I dipped in the ancient Ari mikvah in Safed at midnight, while a group of women sang softly to guard the entrance. But while I argued fervently in class against sexist and offensive texts, I found that staring into space like a teenager during the silent reading before the evening service was the only way I could keep my faith whole. Over the years, my level of observance waxed and waned, and I made peace with the unfolding path of my Jewish practice. Eventually I became a Jewish educator; the students in my classes ranging from the estranged to Orthodox, with the occasional curious pagan or Catholic. (I identified with them all.) And then, while preparing a class, the mishnah that had shocked me so long ago came back to haunt me when I stumbled across this commentary about Eve:

And why was the precept of niddah given to her? Because she shed the blood of Adam. And why was the precept of challah given to her? Because she corrupted Adam, who was the challah of the world. And why was the precept of lighting the Sabbath candles given to her? Because she extinguished the soul of Adam. (Genesis Rabbah 17:8)

In a few lines, the Rabbis all but extinguished my joy in observing these rituals. Lighting candles and baking challah had always been particularly meaningful to me, as I imagined my hands following the motions of centuries of Jewish women. Under normal circumstances, I would relish the idea of Eve participating, too, though I knew that these traditions developed much later than the story of Eve in Eden.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that transgressing these rituals was punishable by death in childbirth, I now learned that the rituals themselves were meant as atonement for an alleged earlier sin, that of Eve eating the forbidden fruit. Eve’s act, which I had come to view as brave and intelligent, was now reduced to first-degree murder. According to this commentary, candle-lighting, challah and mikvah, three sacred and joyful women’s rituals celebrated since Temple times, were given to us not because of the qualities we share in common with the beauty and mystery of light, bread and living waters, but because of how much we are not like them.

Once again I was 13 years old, wanting to forget what I’d read so I could simply enjoy the pleasures of Jewish ritual and community. And why not? I wasn’t an observant Jew. A typical Shabbat for me involved turning off the phone, lighting candles an hour or two after dark, and driving off to services or to the movies. But I could no longer turn my head from the page. I had no investment in making excuses for the Rabbis, who centuries ago shaped Jewish tradition, but I did feel a strong responsibility, as a Jew and a woman, to wrestle with and transform this tradition. I needed to know: what was going on here? Why did the Rabbis bother to go so far out of their way to say something so reproachable? Why link these three acts with death? Why specifically death while bringing in life? Why hearken back to Eve, rather than the first mother of Jewish history, Sarah?

Disturbing though they may be, the texts do serve to highlight, perhaps inadvertently, the supreme importance of these rituals. Why else would the Rabbis work so hard to link them all the way back to the Garden of Eden, and, even more significantly, to attach to their violation such harsh punishment? If they were just ritual leftovers of little importance, the Rabbis would not need to rely on such an enormous threat to ensure their proper practice. Clearly, the Rabbis are concerned because they recognize how very central candle-lighting, niddah and challah are to Jewish life. Marking the beginning of the Sabbath is no small task; by giving women this ritual Judaism effectively gives women the power to call the Sabbath into being. The mitzvah of challah, referring to the tithing of a portion of the challah dough for the Priests, now symbolically burned, is also a significant act of community responsibility. And to observant Jews, the Biblical precept of niddah provides the underlying pulse and cycle of family relations.

That the fate of these important rituals lay in the hands and hearts of women must have generated a bitter combination of jealousy and helplessness in the Rabbis. Still, given that traditionally Jewish women have so little participation in the domain of ritual, you’d think the men could have been more gracious about the few rites entrusted to us. Rather than taking the opportunity to praise women for being chosen to carry out these rituals, the Rabbis needed a reason why women were obligated to do something they were not. Therefore, important rituals were turned into acts of repentance, rather than rewards. And by hanging an outrageously severe punishment over women’s heads if they did not fulfill their duties, they did their best to assert some control. but it seems that something even more powerful was at stake than jealosy regarding this tiny, tiny, tiny, territory of Jewish ritual. I do not think it is accidental that the punishment relates to a woman’s experience of childbirth. Punishing a woman in childbirth is a way to establish control over the greatest act men cannot accomplish. And while the Rabbis connect these rituals to death — that of Adam, and that, potentially, of any woman who fails to carry them out — it seems that what is really at stake here is the woman’s power to create life. Could it be that these rituals hold powerful ties to life and death, to the inexplicable mystery of life, in a way that frightened or threatened the Rabbis? The lighting of the Sabbath candles does take us back to the creation of the world, to the exact moment of G-d’s completion of birthing the world. Challah also reminds us of the power of creativity in the process of transformation that occurs in baking, one that mimics the bringing of a golem to life. The laws of niddah delve into the cycle of menstruation, the rhythms of fertility, the potential for life. And the mikvah is itself a symbol of the womb, of eternal life and renewal, drawing us back to the rivers in the Garden of Eden.

No wonder the Rabbis were terrified! If these rituals have anything to do with death, it is by virtue of their very potent, almost magical, connection to life. Eve brought us death as a necessary consequence of bringing us life and the power to create life. Her name in Hebrew, Chava, means life, and she is thus named by Adam because “she is the mother of all living things.” Without Eve we might be still be held within the womb of the garden. Eve herself did, in a way, “die” in childbirth. While giving birth to the generations of humanity through her children, while being “birthed” from the womb of the garden, she accepted her own mortality as a necessary price.

The Rabbis want us to think women are assigned these rituals as a sort of punishment, a reminder of our sinful nature. But it seems more natural to view them as rewards, precious gifts entrusted to women for safekeeping in honor of Eve’s momentous act. Rather than viewing the rituals as tainted by sin and death, Jewish women might empower them to invoke creativity or fertility, to take us back to the garden and women’s power from the beginning to birth the world, and birth ourselves anew each month.

Together they form an almost magical triangle, balanced and strong, providing a complex female map of creativity and completion. All three are markers of time, tracing weekly and moonly/monthly circles rather than historical lines.

But each has a particularly physical, almost visceral component, marking space as well. These elements comprise the necessary components for creating life: air and fire in the candle-lighting, the earth in challah, water in the mikvah. Perhaps these rituals might serve as moments of prayer for women struggling to conceive, or times of reflection on the awesome creative power of all women. The kindling of the Sabbath candles might be a moment to think about carving out a time of rest in our over-committed schedules. And as we knead and shape the challah (or stand in line at the market waiting to purchase it), we might reflect on new creative projects, or how to create the kind of life we want for ourselves and our families.

The Rabbis plant these rituals in the relationship between Eve and Adam, implying that they signify women’s relationship to men. While it is true that these rituals hold intimate connections to the household, the problem is that the Rabbis try to ensure they stay exclusively in that realm.

And yet these rituals reverberate far beyond the scope of family. Lighting candles draws family together, but it is also connects us to G-d, welcoming the Shekhina, the feminine aspect of G-d who dwells with us on the Sabbath. While challah may also be seen as a “home-bound” mitzvah, the law of tithing symbolizes a woman’s responsibility to community and tzedakah. Niddah traditionally represents a woman’s relationship to her husband, but anyone who has experienced a mikvah knows of the intimate relationship of women to women at this private sanctuary away from the duties of family, and of the essential relationship to the self-provided by the separation and wholly private nature of this ritual.

While I will never be able to chant, “For three transgressions women die in childbirth…” either silently or out loud, and while my Jewish practice continues to evolve, I am glad I chose to confront these traditional texts about women’s rituals. Ultimately what all three rituals hold in common is the power of transformation—turning ordinary time into sacred time, transforming flour and eggs into a beautifully braided and risen bread, emerging from the mikvah changed and renewed. It is my hope that this same power of transformation can be used in our approach to Jewish text and tradition. Whatever our level of observance, only through the transformation of Jewish text and tradition can we stay connected to our Jewish past without sacrificing our feminist present and, ultimately, the future of both.

May no one woman ever die in childbirth for carelessness in niddah, challah or candle lighting. But may each woman who chooses to kindle the Sabbath lights, to set aside a portion of the challah she bakes, to dip in ritual waters, create something new: a sacred time, a child, a new perspective, herself

Jassica (Yiskah) Rosenfield an award winning poet, teaches workshops combining Jewish Mysticism, Ritual and creative writing in the San Francisco Bay area.