Setting the foundation for Jewish family life
Success in life is predicated on two distinct undertakings: On one hand, an organism must advance and expand. On the other hand, it must protect and nurture. These two undertakings are opposites, but both are necessary for success. No football team could succeed with an excellent offense but no defense. The same is true on every level of societal and personal existence. It was with this theme that God created two distinct genders, to work together in unison to accomplish their ultimate goals.
In the 1990s, John Gray’s bestseller asserted that relationships can only be successful if gender distinctions are recognized and adhered to. For millennia, Jewish sources have taught that women’s physiological and psychological needs are different from that of their male counterparts. In God’s infinite wisdom, he delineated different responsibilities for men and women according to their respective metaphysical and physiological needs.2
Special Mitzvot for Women
Unlike other religions where the church is primary, Judaism treats the home and synagogue as being co-equal. Some of our most important rituals belong exclusively to the home, such as the Seder, the Sukkah, the Sabbath table, and the Chanukah menorah. The continuity of Judaism rests on the home more than anything else.
Throughout the ages, Jewish women have imbued spirituality into the Jewish home. As such, certain mitzvot are set aside especially for women because of their special connection to the home.3 Family purity laws, candle lighting on Shabbat and holidays, and the separation of challah are rituals that women always observed with particular pride and meticulousness.
And of course, Jewishness itself is passed on via the mother. If the mother is Jewish, the child is 100 percent Jewish.4
Pillar of the Family
Since the beginning of mankind, all societies have recognized that a woman’s sensitivity and warmth are ideally suited for motherhood. Moreover, the extraordinary feeling that men can never experience – nurturing a baby inside them – puts women in the position of being the best, most loving caregivers for their children. For the preservation of the family structure, and by extension the overall health of society, the Torah encourages women to embrace this role.
In this vein, the Torah released women from the obligations of certain time-bound mitzvot. This is not because of any difference in the level of sanctity between men and women.5 Rather, these exemptions allow a woman the ability to be totally devoted to her family without the constraints of having to fulfill such mitzvot at the correct time.6 Of course, whenever a woman does not face conflicting family obligations, she may fulfill these mitzvot and receive eternal reward.7Whatever the case, she is fulfilling God’s will, who knows that her spiritual growth is intertwined with her primary mission as the family cultivator.
Women are obligated to observe all the negative commandments, e.g. don’t murder, don’t steal.8 Regarding the time-bound positive commandments, a woman is exempt, with certain exceptions including:
observance of Shabbat9
eating matzah on Passover10
lighting Chanukah candles11
all the mitzvot of Purim12
Women are also required to perform all positive mitzvot that are not time-bound,13 e.g. mezuzah, returning lost items, etc.14
Regarding certain mitzvot, although a woman is technically exempt, women have historically accepted the performance upon themselves. This is the case with hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashana,15 sitting in the Sukkah on Sukkot,16 and taking the four species. But this should not come at the expense of family life.
When a woman chooses to perform this category of “time-bound positive mitzvot,” there is a question of whether she should recite a blessing (e.g. “Who commanded us to sit in the sukkah”). According to Ashkenazi custom, women say the blessing in such cases. According to Sefardi custom, women do not say the blessing.17
The mitzvah of tefillin is exceptional and may not be performed by women.18 The commentators explain that as tefillin is one way to connect with the Creator, women establish this link in a much more meaningful way than donning tefillin. When a man wears tefillin, he manifests that which a woman can accomplish naturally by carrying a child within her. Kabbalistically, the tefillin’s hollow chamber corresponds to the womb, and the straps correspond to the umbilical cord. Interestingly, the tefillin box is called the bayit (home). Thus, one can say that the home a woman develops is her private tefillin.19
Similarly, it is forbidden for women to wear a tallit, as this is considered a “man’s garment.”20
Privacy of the Woman
King David declared, “All the glory of the King’s daughter is found on the inside.”21 The regality and nobility of a woman emanates from her privacy and dignity. A woman’s choice of dress and behavior should be reflective of her natural dignity. For more on this topic, see Laws of Daily Living – Kosher Clothes.
Women and Prayer
Jewish women have long been praised for their ability to speak from the heart and pour out emotions to God. The prayers of the biblical Chana and other women serve as the source for many principles of Jewish prayer.
Because formal prayer is largely time-bound, a women’s obligation of prayer differs significantly from that of a man. A women’s obligation of prayer is superseded by her role as the pillar of the family. Whenever there is a conflict, the needs of her family come first. Of course, whenever it is possible for a woman to juggle her family responsibilities and still pray meaningful prayers, she should do so.24
According to most authorities, a woman should pray at least Shacharit, including
first paragraph of Shema
Women should also try to pray the Mincha afternoon service.
Rabbi Dov Lev (Aish.com)