By Rabbi Lisa Delson
Today, in honor and celebration of Rosh Chodesh Sivan, traditionally regarded as a women’s holiday, I thought we might consider what it means in liberal circles that there are specific commandments for women. Traditionally, women are not beholden to the time- bound commandments, like praying three times a day. However, there are three commandments that women are required to do, light Shabbat candles, prepare challah and immerse in the mikvah maintaining the family purity laws.
As a female Reform rabbi, these three laws seem very far removed from how I live on a weekly basis. Working six days a week, maintaining a social life and a marriage, there are plenty of Jewish rituals and commandments I do and many that I do not follow according to halacha. Even though I may not follow these halachot exactly, I do see how they have been recreated in my life. Each Friday, I arrive at the synagogue in time for Tot Shabbat at 5:30pm followed by Tot Shabbat dinner at 6, a service for elementary aged kids and their families at 6:30 and the “traditional” Shabbat service at 7:30. There is little room for home-baked challah, a quiet moment before lighting Shabbat candles or even sitting down to eat a proper meal. But this is the life of a Jewish professional who loves her job.
Instead of lighting the candles myself each week, I facilitate and invite members of the congregation up the bima to light them for the rest of us. Watching single women, mothers and daughters, b’nai mitzvah students and anyone who wants to, light Shabbat candles, have a moment of Jewish pride and a sense of belonging gives me joy and allows me to feel as though I have fulfilled the mitzvah myself.
Challah is a different story. I often tell people that challah is my favorite part of Shabbat. There is something so visceral about breaking open a freshly baked challah. This is something I wish I had the time and skill to do on a regular basis. Last week, I attended a challah baking workshop offered by Zingerman’s, a household name in Ann Arbor. I signed up with two friends who also wanted to learn the basics and variations of making delicious challah. We arrived at the Zingerman’s sparkling demonstration room that already smelled like freshly baked bread. The instructor showed us the three types of challah we were going to have the opportunity to bake, a regular six stranded challah, a Moroccan spice challah with anise, fennel, and sesame seeds and a round rum-soaked raisin challah. For the next four hours, we mixed, kneaded, watched, and talked about what this challah means in the Jewish context and how spectacular a vehicle it is for French toast. Even with the recipes filed away for future use, making challah last Thursday night was as close to home-baked challah I am going to attempt in a very long time. The experience taught me that even though I cannot make it a habit to prepare it every week, I do connect to this traditional women’s commandment on my own terms.
The last law of family purity is not something I personally wish to discuss on a public blog but as a rabbi I do tip my hat to the ritual. Springtime is wedding season and I have had the great pleasure of officiating at quite a few weddings in recent months. Meeting with couples ahead of their wedding does provide a sense of creating a family ritual. We discuss what it means to have a Jewish home, how the couple might handle adversity in marriage and how children may or may not fit into the picture of their relationship.
As female rabbis we have the opportunity to re-imagine these commandments as they fit into the way we live, at least for this one does. As our friends and colleagues gather this morning to celebrate the new moon at the Kotel wearing tallit and tefillin, singing in unison, and reading from the Torah, all traditionally male commandments, may they have the koach, strength to continue the tradition of recreating Judaism into a meaningful experience.
Rabbi Lisa Delson serves as Assistant Rabbi and Program Director at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, Michigan.