The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day

The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day
by Francine Klagsbrun, Harmony Books, $24.00

When I speak with women’s groups about their relatively recent empowerment to participate in Jewish ritual, I often pose the question: who lights the Shabbat candles in your home? If you would like to lead services and read from the Torah, would you be willing to share the mitzvah of benching licht with a man? Some agree that would be fair, but many others resist relinquishing what has been one of the few mitzvot specifically incumbent on women. The Ten Commandments are, of course, gender neutral. But it is the fourth commandment, remembering/observing the Sabbath, that has always enjoyed special resonance for women. Many of us hold in our hearts the memory of a mother or grandmother standing in prayer before the Shabbat candles, hands moving to draw in the holy light. The images of the Sabbath itself, as queen and as bride, are authentically female.

Lilith readers will be particularly interested in this new book on the Sabbath by Jewish feminist pioneer Francine Klagsbrun. Not surprisingly for this author of the useful resource

Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living, Klagsbrun’s familiarity with Jewish sources is impressive; she makes traditional texts on Shabbat accessible. Even Jewishly sophisticated readers will find new material here, drawn not just from Biblical and rabbinic literature, but also from later Jewish and secular texts along with insights from archeology, philosophy, and history.

Klagsbrun provides a useful introduction to Shabbat, as well as to wider Jewish tradition. Want to understand how Jewish law develops— from Torah, to the rabbis, through the medieval codifiers, to our own day? Turn to the chapter on “Labor and Laws.” Want the basics of Kabbalah? Try the chapter “Women at the Center.” Intrigued by the role of Shabbat during the Inquisition? Look at the chapter entitled “The Sabbath Jew and the Sabbath Gentile,” in which Klagsbrun illustrates how Shabbat home observance by crypto-Jewish women served simultaneously to place the observer and her family at risk, and to perpetuate Judaism itself.

The book begins and ends, as does Shabbat itself with the symbol of light. In between, Klagsbrun seamlessly weaves together her sources, interspersing personal family memories. She writes with feminist sensibility and rigorous intellectual honesty, as when she confronts sexism by the sages. She wrestles with the kabbalists’ imagery of the Shekhinah as passive and subsidiary to male images of God. She notes that some of the ancient rabbis view women’s responsibility for lighting candles as a form of expiation for Eve’s sin of removing God’s original creation of light from the world.

More like a tone poem on the law and lore of Shabbat than a “how-to” manual, the book is a useful resource for teachers and adult students, as well as for personal enrichment. I plan to assign it to those studying for conversion, as well as to adult bat mitzvah students, and to recommend it as a good read for Shabbat afternoon.

Rabbi Avis D. Miller is Rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC. Her congregation has recently published a collection of her sermons, entitled on Wings of Hope: Reflections on the High Holy.