I just found your site and am enjoying it very much. I am feeling torn as to wearing tallis. I do not see it as a matter of equality, rather as a beautiful way to envelop yourself and make a quiet place to focus on davening. Is that so bad? I would like to know the Biblical references that require men to do this and that forbid women to do it. Is this in the Torah?
Of course I see your point about giving birth and the impact of childbearing/raising for women but unfortunately that is not always to be for some women. I certainly agree with you about the importance and equal status of women’s role focusing on raising children. Unfortunately that’s not something that Hashem has blessed me with, and while I can believe in miracles, I have to be realistic-I’m single and 42.
I am trying to make a decision here about tallis, feeing torn that it is “men’s” clothing but there is also a part of me that sees that it can be gender neutral. Can you help me come to a better understanding of this. Thank you. Also, can you keep my privacy by not using my name in your posting? Thank you!!!
Thank you for giving me time to answer you. As the head of a Jewish household, my time for composing is limited.
Actually, the theme of this letter is time. The reason women are exempt from certain mitzvohs is because running a home takes up so much of their time. As you’ve pointed out, you’re single and you don’t have the same time constraints. But believe it or not, your situation has its advantages!
Don’t get me wrong. I’m very happily married and wouldn’t want to go back to being single. Hashem undoubtedly created marriage and parenthood because these relationships require us to be on our best, most giving and loving behavior. Life as a partner in a marriage and as a parent offers tremendous opportunities for spiritual growth. You’ve read some of my thoughts on this in “On Equality.”
Therefore, you are right on target when you ask why you, living without the time constraints of a married woman, should not perform a mitzvah like wearing a tallis. Even more important is your broader question: how does a single Jewish woman fit in – spiritually and socially – to our very family-oriented religion?
As I stated in “On Equality,” women are exempt from the mitzvohs which proscribe that a certain action be performed at a certain time. Tallis is one of those mitzvohs. Women are exempt from tallis because tallis is a time-oriented mitzvah.
I understand that you feel that wearing a tallis would deepen your prayers. Actually, in the Jewish Tradition, women have such a natural connection to prayer that they do not need a tallis to achieve this. Because women are not obligated to set times for prayers, their prayers can be completely spontaneous, an outpouring of the heart, said at any time of day – even over the housework. This sort of outpouring is considered a woman’s unique capacity for prayer.
Actually, the model for all prayer was a woman who prayed in exactly this manner. Her name was Chana, and we read about her prayer in the First Book of Samuel, Chapter 1, verses 12: “And Chana, she was speaking from her heart; only her lips moved and her voice could not be heard…” Chana’s method of prayer is the Scriptural source for the laws about the silent standing prayer known as the “Amidah.” Like Chana, when we make requests of Hashem, we whisper them intimately, yet stand with respect. This is the power of a Jewish woman’s prayer. It flows from within us and does not require the external stimulus of a tallis to deepen the experience.
The spontaneous prayers that come from your heart are dear to Hashem. However, you may also find tremendous inspiration in the prayers composed the Talmudic rabbis. Ideally, I think prayer should include a combination of both. There are specific parts of the prayers in which we may insert our own words, and it is worthwhile to take advantage of them. The power of prayer is as boundless as Hashem‘s mercy.
When I was single, I prayed far more often than I do now. I used to feel guilty if my daily prayers didn’t include some of the Pesukei D’zimra, a series of Tehillim (Psalms) which praise Hashem. Now that I’m a mother, if I say the Amidah, it’s a very good day. A satisfactory one includes only Birchas Ha Shachar (the morning blessings).
Recently, I had an experience that showed me that I had no reason to feel guilty over my level of prayer in my single days. The women on my block get together once a week to say Tehillim. The entire Book of Tehillim (150 Psalms) is divided up into 24 booklets. Each woman prays from as many booklets as she can until all the booklets have been completed. This way, we complete the entire Book of Tehillim in the space of about half an hour. After we finish, we pray that our reciting the Tehillim should help sick people to heal.
You may already know that the Hebrew in Tehillim is very difficult. If I receive a booklet I’m unfamiliar with, it will take me a long time until I struggle through it. But sometimes I receive one that I know, and that’s often because of the prayers I used to say when I was single: the Pesukei D’Zimra. It is a pleasure to recite those familiar and inspiring words. And to think I used to feel that I wasn’t praying enough! That showed me how unwarranted my previous guilt was, and furthermore, how likely it is that the guilt I feel in the present is equally unwarranted. One never knows the benefits her prayers will bring her in the future.
Another major way a woman can connect to Hashem is by learning Torah. Learning Torah is not a time-bound mitzvah; a person can and should learn Torah at any time of the day. Thus, women are not exempt from the mitzvah of learning Torah. However, there are a few mitzvohs that take precedence over learning Torah. One of these is taking care of one’s children. As a mother of young children, most of the Torah I learn is at home: with my husband, on audio tapes, and over the Internet. However, when I was single, I spent far more of my time learning. I even spent a full year at a women’s seminary where I learned seven hours a day. It was one of the most spiritually productive years of my life. I heartily recommend that you find shiurim to attend and become an avid scholar. Learning Torah is unquestionably the wisest way to use your time to connect to Hashem. Where do you live? Please let me know and I will do my utmost to help you find some learning opportunities.
Another freedom you have is the freedom to travel. I’m a strong advocate of “community-shopping,” visiting Jewish communities and experiencing their approach to life. I discuss this at length in my article The Kindness of Strangers. Hosting guests is a big mitzvah and Jews all over the world perform it enthusiastically. There is nothing like experiencing Shabbos with other Jews. As an unmarried person, you are a very easy guest to host. All you have to do is call an Orthodox synagogue and ask for Shabbos hospitality. Your options will be wide open!
Insofar as your social concerns, be assured that “sisterhood” is strong in the Orthodox Jewish world. Since we live our lives effectively separate from all men other than our husbands, we spend quite a bit of time with other women. As a result, our relationships with each other are deep and strong. This is even more true for unmarried women than for their married counterparts, since you do not have the responsibilities of family pulling you away from socializing.
I hope you will find these areas of Jewish life satisfying. Certainly they are not the only ways for a single Jewish woman to connect to G-d and to other Jews, but they are some of the more significant ones. There are so many permissible ways to express your spirituality even if you are not yet a mother. There is no reason for you to feel so deprived that you must seek out the questionable practice of putting on a tallis.
And I have one more point to make about this. I understand that your desire to put on a tallis does not stem from a feminist/political agenda. However, in Judaism, there is a concept called Maras Ayin. This means that a person should refrain from doing something that could be misconstrued as forbidden behavior. For example, if I serve non-dairy creamer in a fleishig (meat) meal, I must keep the creamer in its container so that everyone will see that it is non-dairy. I may prefer to put it in a pretty serving dish, but people might mistake it for milk and “follow my example” i.e., do what they think they saw me do, and serve milk with meat.
Wearing a tallis is something like this. Even if you are doing it from a pure motivation, it has taken on connotations of feminist rebellion. Therefore, if you want to be a true servant of Hashem, then it is best that your behavior does not even hint of rebellion. Distance yourself from appearances of wrong behavior, not so much for fear of what people will think, but because they might learn the wrong lessons from it. On the other side, perform the mitzvohs proudly, even when people laugh and criticize you. You cannot go wrong by doing something right.
Please stay in touch. I’d love to help you find a more Traditional Jewish environment.
My deepest thanks to my teachers at She’arim College of Jewish Studies for Women, especially Rebbetzin Marci Jablinowitz for her shiurim on Chana and prayer, and Elana Friedman, whose words of encouragement provided the basis for this article.