Festivals and Holy Days
According to halakhah, women are responsible for obeying all of Judaism’s negative commandments and for observing most of the positive ones, including the Sabbath and the Jewish year’s festivals and holy days. In some instances, however, male and female obligations on these days differ, and female exemption from certain positive precepts cannot be explained solely on the grounds of domestic duties. These exclusions must be seen as conforming to a larger agenda in rabbinic legislation to restrict female participation in public communal activities as much as possible. Yet it is also important to notice the ways in which Talmudic legislation specifically includes women in time-bound religious obligations connected with festival observance.
According to The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.halakhah, women are responsible for obeying all of Judaism’s negative commandments, and also for observing most of the positive ones. These positive precepts include observing the Sabbath and all of the festivals and holy days of the Jewish year. However, in some instances male and female obligations on these days differ. This essay describes in general terms central ordinances and customary practices regarding women’s observance of the festivals and holy days of the Jewish calendar as recorded in the Lit. "the prepared table." A code of Jewish Law compiled by Joseph Caro (1488Shulhan Arukh and other halakhic sources. In the many times and places in which Jews have lived over the centuries, numerous other customs (minhagim) have developed that have been incorporated into the holiday practice of various Jewish communities, and some of these concern women. Similarly, in the course of the twentieth century, liberal movements in Judaism fostered women’s equal participation in all aspects of festival and holiday observance and introduced a number of new rituals, some of which focus on women and female experience. While detailing these customs and innovative practices is beyond the scope of this article, references to recent relevant publications are included in the bibliography.
In Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) lists sixty positive precepts that are incumbent on every adult Jewish male at all times, at all places, and under all circumstances. Of these sixty “unconditional commandments,” forty-six are also binding upon Jewish women. Several of the fourteen positive mitzvot from which women are exempt relate to festival and holy day observance. They are: counting the omer; dwelling in a Booth erected for residence during the holiday of Sukkot.sukkah during the Lit. "booths." A seven-day festival (eight days outside Israel) beginning on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei to commemorate the sukkot in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40-year sojourn in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt; Tabernacles; "Festival of the Harvest."Sukkot festival; waving the lulav on Sukkot; and hearing the Ram's horn blown during the month before and the two days of Rosh Ha-Shanah, and at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. shofar on The Jewish New Year, held on the first and second days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. Referred to alternatively as the "Day of Judgement" and the "Day of Blowing" (of the shofar).Rosh Ha-Shanah, all commandments that are to be performed at fixed times with a prescribed liturgy. These exemptions conform to the ruling in Codification of basic Jewish Oral Law; edited and arranged by R. Judah ha-Nasi c. 200 C.E.Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7: “The observance of all the positive ordinances that depend on the time of year is incumbent on men but not on women, and the observance of all the positive ordinances that do not depend on the time of year is incumbent both on men and women.”
It is frequently asserted that women were relieved from time-bound commandments, which include, among other obligations, participation in daily worship at fixed times, study of sacred texts, and communal worship, because of their primary responsibility to fulfill domestic duties for their husband and children. If women were obligated to perform these time-dependent mitzvot, they might frequently be forced to choose between religious observance and family responsibilities, an untenable situation for all concerned. Certainly, this explanation makes sense regarding women who are wives and/or mothers. Moreover, rabbinic Judaism presumes that men perform mandated precepts and rituals on behalf of their wives, children, and slaves. Yet, female exemption from certain positive precepts cannot be explained away solely on the grounds of domestic duties since women are required to participate in other obligations that also take place at set times. Nor are women who are independent of male authority or the demands of others, such as childless unmarried adults or widows with grown children, required to take on the time-bound obligations from which wives and mothers are exempt. Rather, these exclusions must also be seen as conforming to a larger agenda in rabbinic legislation to restrict female participation in communal activities in the public domain as much as possible.
Yet it is important to notice the ways in which talmudic legislation specifically includes women in time-bound religious obligations connected with festival observance, despite the exemptions ordained in Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7. These exceptions, which are discussed in more detail below, generally apply to rituals that take place at home. They include women’s rejoicing during the Sabbath and the festivals (BT Pesahim 109a); their participation in kiddush (sanctification of wine) on the Sabbath (BT Berakhot 20b), and, according to most authorities, kiddush on the festivals, as well; women’s obligations to eat Unleavened bread traditionally eaten on Passover.mazzah on the first evening of A seven-day festival to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt (eight days outside Israel) beginning on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. Also called the "Festival of Mazzot"; the "Festival of Spring"; Pesah.Passover (BT Pesahim 43b) and to drink four cups of wine at the Passover seder (BT Pesahim 108a); and their responsibilities in lighting the Lit. "dedication." The 8-day "Festival of Lights" celebrated beginning on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev to commemorate the victory of the Jews over the Seleucid army in 164 B.C.E., the re-purification of the Temple and the miraculous eight days the Temple candelabrum remained lit from one cruse of undefiled oil which would have been enough to keep it burning for only one day.Hanukkah lamp (BT Shabbat 23a) and listening to the reading of the Lit. "scroll." Designation of the five scrolls of the Bible (Ruth, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther). The Scroll of Esther is read on Purim from a parchment scroll.megillah (Scroll of Esther) on Holiday held on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar (on the 15th day in Jerusalem) to commemorate the deliverance of the Jewish people in the Persian empire from a plot to eradicate them.Purim (BT Megillah 4a).
Nor are women prohibited from voluntarily fulfilling most of the time-bound ritual commandments from which they are exempt. A number of rabbinic authorities have held that a woman’s performance of these mitzvot should be understood as a praiseworthy personal minhag (custom) or permitted as a fulfillment of an individual neder (vow). However, as Maimonides ruled, a woman’s actions in this instance are understood to be less valued than a man’s because she is not responding to a divine commandment (Mishneh Torah “Study of Torah” 1:13). Authorities have been divided over whether one who observes an optional mitzvah may recite the benediction that usually accompanies the performance of that precept. R. Moses Isserles (the Rema, 1525 or 1530–1572) maintains that a woman may recite the blessing in this case (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 589:6) and this has become the custom among Jews of European origin and their descendants, including most of North and South American Jewry.Ashkenazi Jews.
Two of the three commandments that are specifically associated with women in rabbinic tradition are connected with Sabbath observance (Mishnah Shabbat 2:6). These are the kindling of Sabbath lights before sunset (hadlakah) and removing some of the dough from the Sabbath loaf and burning it in the oven in remembrance of Temple sacrifice (hallah). These two obligations may also be performed by a man if no woman is present; in fact, hallah is taken whenever bread is baked regardless of the gender of the baker. However, the Shulhan Arukh rules that a woman takes precedence in kindling the Sabbath lights for her household (Orah Hayyim 263:2, 3). Maimonides wrote that the mitzvah falls primarily on women because they are usually at home at the appropriate hour (Mishneh Torah, Shabbat 5:3); this explanation is repeated in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 263:3). For the same reason, women are also said to be responsible for the commandment of hallah in relation to Sabbath loaves. Female precedence in kindling Sabbath lights and separating hallah is also explained in rabbinic tradition as a punishment or atonement, according to the A type of non-halakhic literary activitiy of the Rabbis for interpreting non-legal material according to special principles of interpretation (hermeneutical rules).midrashic tradition that a woman caused Adam to sin and thereby extinguished the light of the world and darkened his soul; similarly, women must take hallah because of their responsibility in Adam’s sin, since Adam was the bread of the world (Genesis Rabbah 17:8; Avot de-Rabbi Nathan B §9; JT Shabbat 2:6 8b; Tanhuma, Noah 1; Kizzur Shulhan Arukh 75:4).
Legal codes preserve a number of customs pertaining to candle lighting, including the recommendation that women give a charitable contribution prior to lighting the candles (Kizzur Shulhan Arukh 75:2), and wash themselves and dress in Sabbath apparel prior to kindling the lights (75:6). Women may light a number of candles if they wish, but no fewer than two (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 263:1, 5); many women follow the custom of lighting a Sabbath candle for each member of their household. A woman who once forgets to light candles should light an extra candle every week for the rest of her life (Rema on Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 263:1). A childless woman or a woman “who is troubled with raising children” is advised to read Hannah’s prayer for fertility in 1 Samuel 2:1–10, the haftarah for the first day of Rosh ha-Shanah, after lighting the candles: “It is best that she should understand the meaning thereof and say it with devotion” (Kizzur Shulhan Arukh 75:2).
On lighting the candles, themselves, the Kizzur Shulhan Arukh 75:4 offers the following procedure:
It is a well-known fact that the blessing relating to a precept is said before the precept is performed, but in lighting the Sabbath candles, inasmuch as by lighting them, the woman assumes the holiness of the Sabbath and as the blessing is initiative to the lighting, if she would first say the blessing, she would no longer be able to light them, she should therefore first light them, and in order that the blessings be said previous to the performance of the precept she should spread her hands before her face in order to shut out the sight of the candles and pronounce the blessing. She should then put her hands down and gaze upon the candles. It is thus considered as if she said the blessings before lighting them (and in order not to make an exception, this is the custom also that prevails on Festivals).
Women are obligated to take part in the kiddush, the Sabbath sanctification of the cup of wine, an observance undertaken before all Sabbath eve and Sabbath day meals. According to BT Berakhot 20b, women participate in the kiddush on the Sabbath “by virtue of the Torah,” even though the observance is a time-bound positive commandment: “Rava explained: Scripture says zakhor and shamor—‘Remember (zakhor) the Sabbath day’ (Exodus 20:8) and ‘Observe (shamor)the Sabbath day’ (Deuteronomy 5:12). Whoever is enjoined to keep the Sabbath is also enjoined to remember it [by participating in joyous rituals].” Indeed, according to the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 271:2), a woman may recite the kiddush on behalf of men, “since the Torah obligates women as it does men.” Women, like men, are also required to partake of all three festive Sabbath meals (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 291:6).
There is some disagreement in halakhic sources regarding women’s obligation to participate in havdalah, the brief separation ceremony marking the conclusion of the Sabbath on Saturday evening. According to the Shulhan Arukh, “Women are obligated to participate in havdalah just as they are obligated to participate in kiddush,” but the text notes that some disagree on the grounds that havdalah is not included in the biblical Sabbath laws and is therefore not obligatory upon women (Orah Hayyim 296:8). Therefore, R. Moses Isserles stated in his gloss on this ruling that women are not required to recite havdalah on their own but may listen to havdalah recited by men (Rema, Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 296:8). However, he adds that women should recite the brief havdalah blessing on Saturday nights that concludes “hamavdil bein kodesh lehol” (“who separates the holy and the profane”) if they wish to kindle lights prior to their husband’s recitation of havdalah (Rema, Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 299:10). Women may recite the entire havdalah service, if they choose, as a voluntary mitzvah.
Listening to Shofar
The shofar is sounded daily during Elul, the month preceding Rosh Ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year; during the ten days of awe beginning with Rosh Ha-Shanah and ending with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; and to mark the conclusion of Yom Kippur. In ancient times, the key observances of Rosh Ha-Shanah may have been special Temple sacrifices and listening to the sound of the shofar; certainly, in traditional Jewish practice listening to the shofar is central to male observance of the holiday. However, women are excused from this observance (BT Rosh ha-Shanah 30a; Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 589:3) on the grounds that it is one of the time-dependent positive commandments from which women are exempt (BT Kiddushin 29a). A woman may choose to observe the mitzvah, however, by listening to the shofar or sounding it herself, and she may recite the appropriate blessing (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 589:6). A woman may not sound the shofar on behalf of others, according to the principle that only one who is obligated to perform a precept may perform it for others (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 589:1). The Kizzur Shulhan Arukh (129:19) assumes that some men will sound the shofar specially for groups of women outside of the synagogue setting and suggests when best in the day this should take place (after the third hour of the day, either at the time it is blown in the synagogue or after the teki’ot in the synagogue). He may recite the blessing at the time of the private shofar sounding for the women if he has borne in mind that other shofar blasts he has heard previously during the day have not exempted him from his obligation.
In some Jewish communities it was customary during Elul, the month preceding the Days of Awe, for women to visit cemeteries, unrolling a spool of cotton thread as they walked around the perimeter. The rewound twine was used as wicks for white wax candles that would be long enough to burn twenty-four hours; these were then donated to synagogue for use on Yom Kippur. In medieval and early modern Germany, women made the candles themselves on the eighth of Tishri, the day before Erev Yom Kippur and the anniversary of the dedication of the First Temple. Prayers and supplications recited over every wick asked dead relatives, particularly pious women, to intercede for the living.
Fasting on Yom Kippur
Women, like men, are required to fast and afflict themselves in various ways on the Day of Atonement and to refrain from doing any work (BT Sukkah 28b). Both women and men are obliged to fulfill the mitzvah of eating a late afternoon festive meal just prior to the onset of Yom Kippur. Pregnant women are expected to fast (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 617:1). However, if a pregnant woman says she must eat, she may be given incremental amounts of liquid and then food until she is satisfied (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 617:1). A woman in childbirth, from the onset of labor until three days after the birth of her child, must eat normally (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 617:4). A nursing mother should fast unless her fasting will jeopardize her child’s health.
Both women and men are required to observe and celebrate the festivals. Rejoicing is in order during the three pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot, A seven-day festival to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt (eight days outside Israel) beginning on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. Also called the "Festival of Mazzot"; the "Festival of Spring"; Pesah.Pesah, and Lit. "weeks." A one-day festival (two days outside Israel) held on the 6th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan (50 days, or 7 complete weeks, from the first day of Passover) to commemorate the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai; Pentecost; "Festival of the First Fruits"; "Festival of the Giving of the Torah"; Azeret (solemn assembly).Shavuot in fulfillment of the scriptural passage: “And you shall rejoice on your festivals” (Deuteronomy 16:14). According to BT Kiddushin 34b, this verse should be understood as “A husband must make his wife rejoice.” The medieval commentator Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi, 1040-1105) explains that this is because the obligation does not devolve upon her, but upon her husband, who is required to cause her to rejoice (Rashi’s commentary on BT Kiddushin 34b). According to BT Pesahim 109a, a man brings his wife joy on the festivals by adding to her wardrobe: “In Babylonia [a man must make his wife rejoice] by purchasing colorful garments for her. In Eretz Israel, he does so by buying her fine linen outfits.” Orah Hayyim 529:2 decrees, “Men must buy their wives clothing and jewelry [for the festivals] in accordance with their means.” Women take precedence in some festival observances, such as kindling lights before the holiday. Women’s obligations to recite kiddush and participate in havdalah for the festivals generally follow the same norms as for Sabbath observance.
According to the halakhah, women are exempt from the two central mitzvot of the eight-day autumn harvest festival of Sukkot because these commandments are considered time-bound. These commandments comprise dwelling in the sukkah and waving the four agricultural species that make up the lulav (palm, myrtle [hadas] and willow [aravah]) and etrog (citron) during festival worship (Orah Hayyim 640:1 and 658:9). However, women may choose to fulfill both precepts (Halikhot Betah 22:5, 9). The Kizzur Shulhan Arukh, in fact, assumes that women will be present in the sukkah to hear the kiddush (135:6) and counsels a man to “make a sukkah fit for the habitation of himself and his wife, just as he lives the entire year, if possible” (Kizzur Shulhan Arukh 135:8). It also advises that marital intimacy may take place in the sukkah (135:2) and rules that women are permitted to repeat the benediction “To sit in the sukkah,” even though they are exempt from the obligation to do so (135:15). Women, like men, must not work during hol ha-moed, the intermediate days of Sukkot and A seven-day festival to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt (eight days outside Israel) beginning on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. Also called the "Festival of Mazzot"; the "Festival of Spring"; Pesah.Pesah (Orah Hayyim 530).
Men have traditionally observed the conclusion and renewal of the annual synagogue cycle of Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah readings with festive celebration, particularly circular processions (hakafot) around the synagogue, and joyous dancing, with the Torah scrolls. In recent years many women have initiated separate women’s hakafot with the Torah scrolls on Lit. "rejoicing of the Torah." Holiday held on the final day of Sukkot to celebrate the completing (and recommencing) of the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah (Pentateuch), which is divided into portions one of which is read every Sabbath throughout the year.Simhat Torah. There is no halakhic objection to this practice since a woman, like a man, is permitted to touch and hold the Torah scroll at all times (Yoreh De’ah 282:9). Some contemporary Orthodox authorities, however, oppose this innovation because they link it with their perceptions of feminism as a threat to traditional Jewish life.
The three festivals of Lit. "dedication." The 8-day "Festival of Lights" celebrated beginning on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev to commemorate the victory of the Jews over the Seleucid army in 164 B.C.E., the re-purification of the Temple and the miraculous eight days the Temple candelabrum remained lit from one cruse of undefiled oil which would have been enough to keep it burning for only one day.Hanukkah, Purim, and Passover commemorate victorious outcomes in three central crises faced by the Jewish people. Jewish tradition credits women with being instrumental in bringing about redemption in each instance and women’s saving merits are invoked in halakhic sources to explain why they are obligated to participate so fully in each of these festivals.
Men and women are both required to light the hanukkiyyah, the Hanukkah lamp, at home on each evening of the eight days of the festival. BT Shabbat 23a is one of several Talmudic passages that state this obligation: “A woman certainly kindles the Hanukkah lamp. As R. Joshua b. Levi says: Women are obligated to kindle the Hanukkah lamp because they, too, were involved in the miracle.” (See also BT Megillah 4a and BT Arakhin 3a.) The Shulhan Arukh rules that although it is customary for a man to light the Hanukkah lamp on behalf of the entire household, and although the mitzvah is a time-dependent precept, a woman may fulfill the obligation on behalf of her household (Orah Hayyim 675:3). An unmarried or widowed woman or a woman whose husband is absent is obligated to kindle the hanukkiyyah and to recite the blessing and her absent husband need not fulfill the commandment if he knows that she has done so on his behalf (Kizzur Shulhan Arukh 139:19).
Several traditions tie women to the Hanukkah miracle. The book of Judith in the Apocrypha, which describes how Judith of Bethulia killed the military commander Holofernes, is connected with the Maccabean victory Hanukkah commemorates. Similarly, the heroism of the mother of seven sons, who saw all her children slaughtered in one day for refusing to apostasize (2 Maccabees 7; 4 Maccabees 8–18), is linked with Hanukkah. The Kizzur Shulhan Arukh 139:3 preserves the following tradition about women’s key role in the festival, apparently conflating the story of Judith with other literary elements:
It is permitted to do work during Hanukkah, but women observe the custom not to work while the Hanukkah lights are burning in the synagogue, and it is not proper to be lenient with them about it. Women are more scrupulous about it because the decree affected them severely, for they decreed that a maiden before her marriage must first have conjugal intercourse with the governor. Another reason for this is that the miracle was performed through a woman. The daughter of Yohanan the High Priest was a very beautiful maiden and the cruel king requested that she lie with him. She told him that she would fulfill his request, and she fed him dishes made of cheese so that he became thirsty, and drank much wine, and became drunk and fell asleep and so it was that she cut off his head and brought it to Jerusalem. When their general saw that their king had been killed, they all fled. Therefore, it is customary to eat dairy dishes on Hanukkah, in memory of the miracle performed by means of dairy foods.
A number of customary practices in various Jewish communities during Hanukkah have given special attention to women and girls. These include bestowing special gifts on daughters and wives among Tunisian Jews; women’s gatherings featuring consumption of delicacies made with cheese, accompanied by singing and dancing, were common in Eastern Europe.
The festival of Purim celebrates events described in the biblical book of Esther through which the Jews of Persia were said to have been saved from destruction through the courageous actions of Esther, the king’s Jewish wife, and her uncle Mordechai. Women are obligated regarding all the observances of Purim including hearing the reading of the megillah, the scroll of Esther; giving gifts of food to friends; and distributing food packages and charity to the poor. Women’s obligation to hear the megillah is ordained in BT Megillah 4a: “R. Joshua b. Levi also said: Women are under obligation to read the megillah, since they also profited by the miracle then wrought.” Megillah 2:5 of the Jerusalem Talmud indicates that women are obligated to hear the megillah because the survival of all Jews, women as well as men, was in doubt until the Jews were saved. This obligation is fulfilled either by reading from the megillah oneself or by listening to it being read by another. According to the Kizzur Shulhan Arukh, “It is obligatory upon all, both male and female, to hear the megillah read at night and in the daytime. Maidens, too, should go to synagogue, and for those who do not go it is necessary to be read in the house” (141:7). Ideally, the megillah should be read before a group of at least ten people, and women count in constituting this minyan (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 690:18).
Women may be megillah readers in private settings for groups of women and may recite the requisite blessings (Halikhot Betah 24:20). BT Arakhin 2b ordains: “All are eligible to read from the megillah. Whom is the word ‘all’ meant to include? It is meant to include women, in accordance with the view of R. Joshua b. Levi, who said: ‘Women are obligated in the mitzvah of reading the megillah.” However, a woman cannot read the megillah publicly in the synagogue in traditional Judaism on the basis of the same ruling that forbids women from reading the Torah in the synagogue. It is not that women are halakhically limited from contact with Torah or megillah scrolls. Rather, according to BT Megillah 23a, “The Sages said that a woman should not read because of the congregation’s esteem (kevod ha-zibbur)”; that is, if a woman reads publicly in the synagogue she may not only constitute a sexual distraction but will also shame the congregation with the implication that there are no men present who are qualified to do so (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 282:3).
According to the Book of Esther 9:22, Purim observance includes “feasting and joy, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.” Men and women are equally obligated to give presents to friends and to the poor; women traditionally send gifts to women friends but may give charity to needy men as well as to needy women (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 695:4). Women are certainly required to participate in the Purim feast (Halikhot Betah 24:23) but there is a difference of rabbinic opinion over whether women share the male obligation to rejoice on Purim by drinking wine until they “do not know the difference between the phrase “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai” (Halikhot Betah 24:24).
Women are obligated regarding all domestic observances pertaining to Passover. They must search the house for hamez (leaven) before Passover begins and refrain from eating hamez during the festival. They are also required to listen to the reading of the The "guide" to the Passover seder containing the Biblical and Talmudic texts read at the seder, as well as its traditional regimen of ritual performances.Haggadah in a language they understand and to participate in the Lit. "order." The regimen of rituals, songs and textual readings performed in a specific order on the first two nights (in Israel, on the first night) of Passover.seder meal, eating mazzah and bitter herbs and drinking the required four cups of wine (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 472:14). While these are time-dependent positive precepts of the type from which women are ordinarily exempt, according to Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7, the gemara of the Babylonian Talmud is explicit that women are required to fulfill all of them. In BT Pesahim 43b, R. Elazar affirms, “Women are subject to the [obligation of] eating unleavened bread by the law of Scripture.” Similarly, in BT Pesahim 108a–b, R. Joshua b. Levi rules: “Women are subject to the obligation of drinking these four cups of wine because they too were included in the miracle [of redemption from slavery]”(also Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 472:14). However, on the issue of whether or not women should recline at the Passover table, as men are required to do, the verdict is ambiguous: “A woman in her husband’s [house] need not recline [because she is subject to his authority], but if she is a woman of importance she must recline” (BT Pesahim 108a). In his gloss on this ruling for Ashkenazi Jewry in Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 472:4, R. Moses Isserles observes that all Jewish women in the present era are of importance and should therefore recline.
The reason cited for including women as active participants in so many aspects of the seder ritual is their central role in bringing about Israelite redemption from Egyptian bondage. Named biblical women who played prominent parts in assuring the redemption of Israel include the midwives Shiphrah and Puah; Moses’s mother, Jochebed, and his sister, Miriam; Pharaoh’s daughter; and Moses’s wife Zipporah. An enumeration of additional contributions by women appears in BT Sotah 11b:
R. Avira explained: It is in the merit of the righteous Jewish women of that generation that Israel was redeemed from Egypt. At the time that they would go to draw water, the Holy One would arrange for there to be small fish in their pails—they would draw half a pail of water and half a pail of fish. They would then take two pails to their husbands in the fields, one with warm water and the other with fish. They would wash and feed them, and when their husbands would desire them they would go between the banks of the fields together, as it is written, “When you lie between the banks …” (Psalm 68:14). … And the women would conceive and when the time came to give birth they would go to the field and give birth under the apple tree, as it is written, “I woke you under the apple tree” (Song of Songs 8:5).
Women are full participants in the ritual portion of the Passover seder (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 472:14). If the youngest child present with the requisite Hebrew skills is a girl, she recites the “Four Questions” from the Haggadah. According to the Kizzur Shulhan Arukh, if a man is childless or has no child old enough to participate in the seder, his wife should ask the questions (119:4). Over the past decades, some Passover Haggadahs have added language and new rituals inclusive of women and female experiences; these include adding and acknowledging a cup for Miriam on the seder table. Similarly, a range of feminist Haggadahs have also been written specifically for use at female seders.
Counting the Omer
There is a dispute over whether or not women are included in the commandment to count the omer during the seven weeks between the second evening of Passover and the festival of Shavuot. Maimonides says that women are exempt since this is a time-bound positive mitzvah (Mishneh Torah, “Dispositions and Ethical Conduct,” 7:24). Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides or Ramban, 1194–1270) disagrees, maintaining that this precept is not time-dependent and is, therefore, equally obligatory on women (Ramban on BT Kiddushin 34a). The Shulhan Arukh rules that counting the omer “is a mitzvah for everyone” (Orah Hayyim 489:1). The operative halakhah, however, is that women are not obligated but may choose to do so. According to the customs of some Jewish communities, women traditionally did not work after sunset during the period of the counting of the omer. This was in recognition of the women who were said to have buried Rabbi Akiva’s students at night after large numbers of them died in a plague during the time of the omer counting.
The halakhah assumes that both women and men fast on the ninth of Av (Tishah b’Av), the seventeenth of Tammuz, the third of Tishri (the Fast of Gedaliah), the tenth of Tevet, and, according to some authorities, the thirteenth of Adar (the fast of Esther) (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 550:1). On Tishah b’Av, men and women are also required to refrain from drinking, washing, wearing leather shoes, immersing in a Ritual bathmikveh, and sexual relations (Orah Hayyim 554:1–3, 7). New mothers are excused from fasting on any of these days for the first thirty days after childbirth (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 554:6); pregnant and nursing mothers may be exempted if they find fasting difficult (Halikhot Betah 25:2, n. 2).
The new moon; the first day of the month; considered a minor holiday, especially for women.Rosh Hodesh, the festival marking the New Moon and the start of each month, is strongly associated with women in Jewish tradition. In some eras in the Jewish past, it was customarily observed by men as a one-or two-day holiday from work (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 417:1). However, while men’s abstention from normal employment is not considered obligatory (idem), women’s abstention from work on Rosh Hodesh has a certain degree of customary sanction: the Shulhan Arukh says women may work on Rosh Hodesh but praises Jewish women who refrain from doing so, terming it a “good minhag (custom)” (Orah Hayyim 417:1). Women are exempt from the obligation to bless the New Moon on its appearance, since this is a time-bound positive precept (Halikhot Betah 16:10). According to the Shulhan Arukh, women are forbidden to fast on Rosh Hodesh (Orah Hayyim 418:1) and it is a mitzvah for them to feast (419:1).
According to midrashic traditions, the festival of Rosh Hodesh was given to women as a reward for their refusal to participate in the sin of the golden calf (Exodus 32):
The women were unwilling to give their golden earrings to their husbands. They said to them: “You desire to make a graven image and a molten image without any power.” The Holy One, blessed be He, gave the women their reward in this world and in the world to come. What reward did he give them in this world? That they should observe the New Moons more stringently than the men. And what reward did he give them in the world to come? That women are destined to be renewed like the new moons (Mishnah Ta’anit 1:6; JT Pesahim 4:1 and Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 44).
Complementary traditions recall that Jewish women contributed generously to the construction of the sanctuary by donating gold jewelry and the work of their hands (Exodus 35:22, 25, 26, 29). Since the sanctuary, to which women had given so freely, was said to have been established on Rosh Hodesh Nissan, Rosh Hodesh became a festival for Jewish women (Tosafists on BT Sotah 11b). In recent decades, many Jewish women have reclaimed their traditional association with this day, forming Rosh Hodesh groups for study and fellowship.
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