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Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women

Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women by Chava Weissler, Beacon Press, $18.50

This book is a scholarly examination of the religious, sociological, and ethnographic implications of the prayer form known as tkhines. Weissler contrasts these supplicatory prayers, written in Yiddish especially for women, with other popular Yiddish devotional writings, focusing especially on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She puts them in the context of the mystical writings that influenced male scholarship of the time, and also looks at the progeny of these prayers, created by contemporary Jewish feminists. A variety of devotions, prayers and stories based on the weekly Torah portion were written in the common language. These were provided for women who most frequently could not understand Hebrew (though they might be able to read it) and for what Weissler calls “men who were like women,” men who were not part of the scholarly elite. Within this body of literature, home-centered prayers are emphasized. We see the pious woman in her kitchen, saying her personal prayer as she “takes challah” while preparing the Sabbath loaves or as she covers her eyes and murmurs her prayer after lighting the Shabbat candles. The images in these prayers are of the Biblical heroines, role models for women living religious lives.

What is hard to find within these pages are the tkhines themselves. Voices of the Matriarchs provides copious background material about how such writings came to be and how the women for whom they were written fit into their Jewish society, but scant examples of the prayers themselves. The few tkhines provided give insights into the longings of the women who prayed them. An example is a tkhine for lighting Shabbat candles:

“Lord of the world, may [my observance of the] commandment of kindling the lights be accepted as the act of the High Priest when he kindled the lights in the dear Temple was accepted. Your speech is a light to my feet; may the feet of my children walk on God’s path.”

The tkhines were women’s prayers, but not all of them were written by women. In one entire chapter, Weissler demonstrates that different versions of the same prayer, as interpreted by men and by women, contrast their different world views, especially when they contain such biblical references as the implications of Eve’s apple bite. Weissler shows how male-created literature views women as direct inheritors of Eve’s sinfulness, the result being menstruation and painful childbirth. The women’s literature, by contrast, is “troubled by the idea that all women suffer because of Eve’s sin.”

Where they can be found, the true voices—prayers written by women for women—sanctify the everyday and allow their speakers to pour out their hearts. Their modern counterparts, new prayers and rituals, seek to do likewise. A modern tkhine or meditation for lighting Shabbat candles, by Navah Harlow from the Conservative prayerbook Siddur Sim Shalom, is more personal than its predecessor, but reflects the same impulse as the earlier ones cited by Weissler: “Ribbono shel Olam [Lord of the universe], when I am lonely, help me to realize that I am never alone….Hear my plea through the merit of our ancestors, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, so that the spark which they kindled will never be extinguished.”

Readers interested in hearing more of these voices might want to seek out some of the compilations of early tkhines as well as the modern ceremonies referenced by Weissler.

Debbie Perlman is psalmist-in-residence at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois, and author of Flames to Heaven: New Psalms for Healing & Praise.