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What does it mean to be descendants of Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah?

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is Veyakhel (Exodus 35:1–38:20) and it addresses the role of women in the construction of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that the Jewish people carried with them throughout their forty years of wandering in the desert.

Here are some of the relevant verses: “Everyone who decided to offer a gift to the Lord brought the things that they wanted to give…. Both men and women brought beautiful things because they wanted to do that. They brought gold things and jewels that they had worn. They included rings, necklaces and other beautiful things…All the women who knew how to make things used their hands to make material. They brought what they had made: blue, purple and red material and good linen…Other clever women used goats’ hair to make cloth. They did that because they wanted to help…Men and women all brought the gifts that they had decided to bring.”

As such, let’s use this week’s article to discuss women’s role in Judaism.

A Jewish woman is a descendant of Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah. She should keep this in mind at all times. A Jewish woman, the lady of the house, is known as the “akeret habayit” – the “foundation of the home.” It is she who sets the tone and atmosphere of the home.

A Jewish home must be a place where Judaism is celebrated seven days a week. A place where God and Jewish tradition reigns supreme.

A place that revolves around the children, their education, and by extension, Jewish continuity.

Where mealtime centers around the laws of kashrut and blessings before and after meals.

A Jewish home is a mini-Tabernacle, a mini-Temple, where God Himself dwells as it says, “They shall make Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:5). All of this, and more, is in the hands of the lady of the house.

Marriage, domestic violence and divorce are all topics discussed by the sages of the medieval world. The rabbis instituted rulings and arrangements that made it impossible for a woman to be divorced against her will and gave her broader freedom as to when she could demand a divorce.

For example, Maimonides ruled that a woman who found her husband “repugnant” could ask a court to compel a divorce. As he writes, “because she is not like a captive, to be subjected to intercourse with one who is hateful to her”. Furthermore, Maimonides ruled that a woman may “consider herself as divorced and remarry” if her husband disappeared for three years or more. This was to prevent women married to traveling merchants from becoming an agunah (“chained”) if the husband never returned.

The rabbis also instituted and tightened prohibitions on domestic violence.

Rabbi Peretz ben Elijah ruled, “The cry of the daughters of our people has been heard regarding men who raise their hands to strike their wives. Who gave a husband the authority to beat his wife?” Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg ruled that, “One who beats his wife is to be excommunicated and banned and beaten.“ Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg also ruled that a battered wife could ask the rabbinical court to compel her husband to grant her a divorce. Monetary fines were also given to abusive husbands. These changes were made at a time where wife-beating was widely considered legal and routine!

Orthodox Judaism teaches that there are different roles for men and women in religious life. Equal but different.

One of the most noticeable differences between men and women in Orthodox Judaism is the issue of women being exempt, often mistakenly referred to as “excluded,” from the performance of certain mitzvot and rituals.

To understand: women are exempt from most “time-bound” mitzvot. For example, since the shofar must be sounded during the day women are exempt from having to hear the shofar! (although most women do indeed attend services on Rosh Hashana and make an effort to hear the shofar). The tallit, tefillin, and lulav shaking must all be done during daylight hours only, they cannot be done at night – hence they are “time bound.”

There are two primary reasons why women are exempt from time-bound commandments. One reason is practical: they have no time! They are too busy taking care of the home which is a much more important task. Another reason is because a women’s level of spiritually is higher than that of men and, as such, they don’t need all these commandments to keep them in tow.

As such, women are exempt from time-bound mitzvot.

Torah study for women, however, has been advanced and strongly emphasized in the orthodox community. Until the 20th century orthodox women learned very very little, and many were illiterate. It was the orthodox Beis Yakov system that brought advanced education or women to the forefront.

Here are some of the more prominent teachings from the Talmud on women: “Greater is the reward to be given by God to the righteous women than to righteous men,” “a man without a wife lives without joy, blessing, and good,” “a man should love his wife as himself and respect her more than himself,” “Israel was redeemed from Egypt by virtue of its (Israel) righteous women,” “women have greater faith than men,” and “women have greater powers of discernment.”

After thinking about all this, one might actually come to the conclusion that men are second class in Judaism! But that too, is false. We are equal!

For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.

How Torah Judaism Views Women

The Gift of Shabbat

Make Your Deeds Match Your Words

How Big Should a Leader’s Ego Be?