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Jewish Women

When G-d first told Moshe to prepare the Jews to receive the Torah, He commanded him, This is what you shall say to the House of Yaakov and speak to the Children of Israel. (Shemot 19:3).

Our Sages explain that the House of Yaakov refers to Jewish women, and the Children of Israel to the men. G-d told Moshe to approach the women first. This order implies a sense of priority: for the Torah to be perpetuated among the Jewish people, precedence must be given to Jewish women.

Three fundamental mitzvot are associated with Jewish women:

  1. Challah - the separation of a portion of the dough being prepared for baking, and by extension, the preparation of kosher food in its entirety.
  2. Niddah - the observance of Taharat HaMishpacha, the Torah's guidelines for maintaining the purity of marital life.
  3. Hadlakat HaNer - the lighting of candles to welcome the Shabbat and festivals into our homes.

The name Chanah serves as an acronym for the Hebrew names of these three mitzvot, for the prophetess Chanah serves as a paradigm for Jewish women. The Tanach (Shmuel I, Ch. 1-2) underscores her unique contributions as a wife and as a mother, and accentuates her activities beyond her household through which she inspired the Jewish people as a whole.

These three mitzvot lead to precisely the same goals: They help a woman to weave the physical and spiritual fabric of her home, to forge a link to posterity, and to transform her home into a lantern that will illuminate its environment.

Kashrut: You Are What You Eat

The observance of the commandment of Challah (and, by extension, maintaining a kosher diet) shows the uniqueness of the Torah lifestyle. Even eating, drinking, and other physical activities, are to be carried out in a manner which expresses the connection we share with G-d.

How does a woman help a man?" - and they answer with rhetorical questions: "If a man brings home wheat does he chew it? If [he brings home] flax does he wear it? If so, does she not bring light to his eyes and put him on his feet?
Talmud, Yevamot 63a

On the most obvious level, a woman is responsible for the physical health and well-being of those who depend on her judgment. Beyond that, since the food one eats is quite literally transformed into one's own flesh and blood, there is a responsibility for the effects of this food on the family's tendencies and character traits.

Though these concepts are also relevant to men, the responsibility in this area is primarily a woman's. The choices as to her household's diet are mainly hers.

Family Purity: Building Eternity

The inextricable bond between material and spiritual is further tightened by the next of the three mitzvot - observance of the laws of Niddah, and adherence to the Torah's directives concerning family life.

The Torah's guidelines enhance the relationship between a woman and her husband and endow it with purity. Above all, these guidelines nurture eternity, since they prepare for the conception of children in holiness.

The newborn body which is to host a Jewish soul for a lifetime needs to be conceived according to the principles that govern family purity, Taharat HaMishpacha.

This mitzvah, too, is also relevant to men. Indeed, the very name "family purity" is a reminder that this mitzvah affects the entire family.

Nevertheless, the responsibility for its observance centers on women. Jewish Law grants a woman unique authority to define the state of ritual purity that determines the periodic resumption of relations.

Shabbat Candles: Generating Light

One of the special gifts of women is - generating light. The spiritual light generated by a woman's Shabbat candles illuminates the home, not only on Shabbat, but also during the weekdays that follow.

In this vein, the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah and Rashi commenting on Bereishit 24:67) tells us that the Shabbat lamps kindled by Sarah Imeinu, our matriarch Sarah, continued to burn for an entire week. Moreover, this miracle repeated itself whenever her daughter-in- law, Rivkah Imeinu, lit candles. And, less visibly, the same miracle occurs whenever a Jewish woman or girl lights her Shabbat candles.

It will be noted that Rivkah Imeinu lit her candles before marriage. From her example we see what a three-year-old Jewish girl can do: she can kindle lamps which will radiate light for an entire week. Every little Jewish girl who is old enough to appreciate the significance of what she is doing can mirror that light - by lighting candles every Friday, and before every festival.

The more candles lit around the world, the more light. For even a little light dispels a great deal of darkness.

Though this commandment, too, obligates men as well as women, it has been entrusted to those in whose hands its observance is most powerful. To refer back to the Midrash mentioned above: Although Abraham lit Shabbat candles after Sarah's death, they did not burn throughout the week. That enduring achievement was the prerogative of Sarah, representing all Jewish women, and of Rivkah, representing all Jewish girls.

These sources also allude to the other two mitzvot mentioned above. For in the case of both Sarah and Rivkah, there was always a blessing in the dough, an allusion to the mitzvah of Challah. And a cloud hovered over the tent, an allusion to Taharat HaMishpachah, for the cloud distinguished this dwelling's holiness.

Jewish Destiny

We have G-d's longstanding promise: If you cherish the lights of Shabbat, I will show you the lights of Zion. (Yalkut Shimoni). Shabbat is a foretaste of the Day which is entirely Shabbat, and repose for life everlasting, that is, the World to Come. (Tamid 7:4). Kindling Shabbat candles anticipates and precipitates the enlightenment of that future era.

Similarly, the purifying waters of Taharat HaMishpacha clear a path for the Redemption. For, as our Sages explain, the coming of the Redemption is dependent on the birth of more and more Jewish children. (Talmud, Yevamot 62b). In that age, moreover, we will merit the fulfillment of the prophecies, I will sprinkle upon you purifying waters and you will become pure, (Yechezkel 36:25) and I will remove the spirit of impurity from the earth. (Zechariah 13:2)

The mitzvah of kosher food is also connected with the era of which it is written, I will destroy dangerous animals within the land. (Vayikra 26:6). Moreover, G-d will prepare a feast for the righteous, and their partaking of it will depend on newly-revealed insights into the laws of kashrut. (Vayikra Rabbah 13:3)

Our Sages teach that In the merit of righteous women, the Jews were redeemed from Egypt. (Talmud, Sotah 11b). In the Era of the Redemption, A woman of valor [will be] the crown of her husband. (Mishlei 12:4 and Yirmeyahu 31:21). These concepts have been reflected throughout Jewish history.

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