Sunday, July 28, 2013

Bridal Circuits

Once upon a time, in my dark and distant past, I used to think that the Jewish wedding ceremony was terribly unfair to the woman. I thought it excluded any and all active participation by the bride – nothing to say, nothing to give, nothing to do, that would be in any way equivalent to the choson’s giving of a ring, and reciting an accompanying formula. Mute, blind and passive, she would stand there and let herself be acquired, not so much consenting as conceding, while the groom would be busy sanctifying her to himself. Why, I used to think, couldn’t tradition have allotted to the kallah some symbolic act, however modest, with which she could, at the very least, indicate her informed consent?

It took several years before the truth dawned on me: that not only does the kallah indeed have her own ritual to perform under the chuppah, but that her ritual takes up considerably more time and space – literally speaking – than that of the bridegroom. I am referring, of course, to the seven circles that the bride spins around her chosen choson; in my opinion, as we shall see, not as a prelude to the actual ceremony, but rather as its first significant component.

There are many different interpretations of the seven circuits and their origins. The most commonly cited, perhaps, is that they correspond to the seven levels of the mystical, heavenly Sephiros; or, that the kallah with her hakafos creates a wall around her choson that will protect him from outside temptations and evil influences. Another explanation is that the circles represent, and remind the choson of, the husband’s seven rabbinical obligations to his wife – his three Biblical obligations are written down in the kesubah.

Some other thoughts ……

I once heard it suggested that the circling was connected with a midrash that the Tevas Noach – the ark of Noah – circled seven times around Mount Ararat before it finally landed. Having asked around a bit, and having been met with vacant stares, I strongly suspect that this was complete fabrication and that no such midrash really exists, but I love the imagery that it evokes: the bride like a vessel with her veil for a sail, adrift on the ocean of life, circling, searching for a safe harbor, a welcoming port – until she finally anchors by the sturdy tree, whose sheltering branches reach out to embrace her.

There is probably a host of other poetic possibilities and historical references to draw from as well. Incurable romantic that I am, I can put a tender spin even on the story of Yehoshua, marching seven times around the walls of Jericho until they collapsed. In the context of a wedding, the wall would stand for the man’s instinctual defense mechanism against emotional involvement; the “wall” with which a man surrounds himself in his fear of being weakened by love. The wall has stood hard and fast, but here comes the bride and with gentle persistence she makes it crumble – a necessary process in order for her and her husband to become truly basar echad – one flesh.

Tent or Chuppah? Hard to tell!
Of course, the chuppah is really the symbol of a tent!
(Image from
To all of the above, I would like to add a fancy of my own, which occurred to me one day as I was lost in contemplation of that wedding which might, be’ezras Hashem, take place some time in the unknown future* with myself as one of the main characters. According to this conception, the spheres are spun around the groom at seven different physiological levels, (perhaps slightly reminiscent of the concept of the chakras – seven centers of spiritual energy, located along the human spine), each corresponding to the emotional energy of an organ or a limb positioned at that level.

Consequently, the first circle is drawn around the bridegroom’s body at the level of his eyes, so that he should only see beauty in his bride. The second circle envelops his ears, so that he should learn to listen to her with patience and understanding. The third circuit goes at the level of his mouth, to make him only speak gently to her. The fourth one involves his heart in order to make him always loving and loyal. With the fifth round his arms are charged with the task of shielding her, of carrying her through difficult times. The sixth circuit will ensure that all his physical passion is directed towards his wife; and the seventh, that he will stand firm in his commitment.

Regardless of how we choose to interpret the seven circuits, it is by encircling the choson that the kallah takes possession of him. Thus she is enclosing him within her sphere; marking her territory; leaving, if you will, her trail of scent around him, thereby setting him aside for her exclusive benefit. With these wedding rings – seven symbolic rings instead of one made of gold – the choson is sanctified to his kallah. Those misguided feminist detractors who (strange as this is to fathom), denigrate the ritual, lobbying for its abolition, calling it a remnant of a submissive and seductive dance that the bride performs for the pleasure of her prospective master, couldn't be more wrong! This is the proud and powerful act with which a Daughter of Israel takes herself a husband.

Shalom Uv'racha!

*FOOTNOTE: In 2004, seven years after this article was originally written, the author was finally zoche to walk, trembling but unaided by her unterfirerinnen, seven times around her choson. It worked!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Beauty in the Midst of the Mundane

The other day, after work, I went to visit a dear old (or rather, long-term) friend. She is retired and has some time on her hands. Together, we lamented the fact that nobody in our frum world ever gets together anymore, just for a simple coffee morning or anything at all, really, unless it is a Shabbos or Yom Tov se’udah. It has to be said that our frum community is populated by very busy women with nine or fourteen children, elderly parents to look after, and endless family and community commitments. Many of them are working outside the home as well. They deserve a medal! But nobody has time to just relax quietly for an hour with a friend or two. "It's such a shame," we said to each other. 

That simple, unpretentious weekday socializing of a woman dropping by her friends in the neighborhood for a coffee and a heart-to-heart seems to have all but vanished. Because it did exist once, didn't it? I have less day-to-day commitments, but I also get caught up in that merry-go-round of being “too busy” for the life I would like to lead. More than anything else, I think it is one of those "signs of the times" that we hear so much about. 
Then we went on to establish how it really doesn't take that much to get a little extra pleasure out of life. She reminded me of that time I spent a Shabbos in her house, and we had been sitting on her porch with our early morning tea in the pretty cups, instead of the ordinary mugs. Ten years later, the image is still alive and cherished in her memory! It has been said before, by many others, but that doesn't make it any less true coming from me: We must use the pretty cups more often!

I am not advocating using the pretty cups every day, because I do believe in saving certain things for "special occasions" – if nothing else, for Shabbos and Yom Tov – for otherwise, how could any occasion be marked as special? Then every day would again be the same, if slightly upgraded, which is ultimately no good. We all know that unlimited ice cream every single day will erode the magic rather quickly. Nevertheless, we should make more weekday moments count, and maybe we should make more occasions special too. Life is too short and too precious to be wasted on ordinary mugs.

And here we are really touching on a theme that I feel very strongly about: Creating beauty in the midst of the mundane. Nourishing our inborn need for beauty, whether it is visual, tactile, or anything else. Enjoying those little pretty moments that remain in our memories. I'll never forget the time I stole six minutes out of a busy Erev Pesach to sit on my stoop and blow some soap bubbles that shimmered in the spring sunshine. (I don't think the neighbors ever have gotten over it either.)

Of course, one might argue that pretty cups – or any other equivalent in the material world – are largely irrelevant; that life is about higher, spiritual values. To that I would respond that it is not a question of either/or; we should aim to elevate our lives both in the spiritual and the material realms. Indeed, it is the Jewish way to take everything material, elevate it, and serve a holy purpose with it!

Additionally, if a bit of material beauty can bring some fleeting joy to your life – then it is worthwhile. And in the case of my friend above, that little spot of joy wasn’t fleeting at all! Perhaps I should stress, though, that I am speaking of everyday beauty here – however that may look in the beholder’s eye – not of material accumulation for the sake of keeping up with the Cohens. Or even the Rabinowitzes.

In fact, I’m not endorsing materialism at all – this is about the soul. Working with people, as I do, I frequently see how a little beauty can affect the spirit. One instance that will always stand out in my memory is the day I came to work dressed all in black, but with a big, pink silk rose pinned to my scarf. An elderly client twinkled at me and said: “You will get s’char – your reward in Heaven – for that rose, because it makes us smile!”
Surely this adorable tented canopy would
add prettiness and pleasure to the most
stubbornly average weekday!

(Image from

Therefore, let us guard and cherish and cultivate the little things we can do to bring more color to an average Wednesday. Shabbos is - and should be! - incomparable, but maybe Monday needs a little pretty pleasure too? Take the time to relax with a friend – if just for a half hour. The day will come when she won’t be there anymore. Make your lemonade from live lemons, not that nasty stuff from the bottle. Pin a rose to your scarf. Don’t always routinely reach for the ordinary mugs – but let the pretty cups come out to play!

Shalom Uv'racha!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

In the Ohel - The Woman in the Tent

In Sefer Bereishis (Genesis) there is a narrative about three angels who come to visit Avrohom Avinu, our ultimate forefather, and Sarah Imeinu, the mother we all want to emulate. One of the pivotal lines spoken during that encounter is when Avrohom, asked about his wife’s whereabouts, replies, “behold! – in the tent”. Commentaries point out that it was a trait of extraordinary modesty which compelled Sarah to stay in her tent, leaving the serving of the guests to her husband. In fact, Avrohom’s statement about Sarah’s modesty laid the foundation for latter-generation Ruth to be allowed the great z’chus (merit) of becoming the ancestral mother of the Moshiach.*

Obviously, the Ohel Sarah – Sarah’s Tent – is both a physical structure and a state of mind; literal and figurative. By the same token, tz’nius – the modest privacy with which Sarah Imeinu surrounded herself – is both physical and mental, as well as societal, if I am right in thinking that this word describes the way we interact with society, the world around us.

No doubt it has not escaped the notice of the observant reader that in naming this blog, I chose to likewise place myself in the tent – and I’m trying to figure out what this really means to me.

Being a person who is naturally drawn to the limelight like a moth to the flame, I have had to resolve many internal conflicts on this topic. Furthermore, having come of age at a time and in a place where women were actively encouraged, even pressured, to break with as many gender “stereotypes” as possible, I have had to fight against some very formative conditioning as well. It has taken a good while, but I think I’m finally ready for the tent. There is a certain part of me that has always relished a measure of privacy, of being hidden and, yes, invisible, behind a shrubbery, or such. I am toying with the possibility that this might indeed be part of an innate sense of tz’nius – not reclusiveness, as some have tried to allege. (Don’t get the wrong idea, though – I work with people and I’m very outgoing and gregarious in my professional role.)

In many ways it can be a struggle to balance a normal, human need for acknowledgment with the kind of invisibility that Sarah Imeinu chose for herself. The very idea that a woman might spend decades of her life working for this or that cause, doing good for mankind, and then, at the very moment that the award ceremonies are about to begin, for her to step back and say, modestly, “aw, shucks, I don’t want any recognition” – it positively boggles my mind! I used to hear stories told of such women, but I never believed them – either the stories or the women. Then I met a couple of them in person – and I was awed. I saw that these women had reached a level of quiet, internal power that made them very admirable role models.

An irresistibly pretty tent, but perhaps eight 
doors are a few too many for real modesty?
(Image from
However, let us not forget that our ultimate First Family had a tent with four doors, open to the four winds, and Sarah “listened at the entrance of the tent” – she did not shut herself away completely from the world, she had her ear to the ground, she knew what was going on, and her intuition was faultless. Her great wisdom may have lain in knowing how to balance her modesty and her power, without compromising either. And now I’m going to say something very scary (at least I’m scaring myself!) – namely, that it may ultimately have been the very seclusion of the tent that gave Sarah some of her supreme visionary faculty, which was superior to that of her husband. In the privacy of the tent her mind was not cluttered with distractions; in the quiet of the tent she was able to hear the sound of Hashem’s voice.

So what does that mean for you and me? What does it mean for a woman in today’s world to dwell in her tent? The Jewish woman has never been confined to her tent the way women of numerous other cultures have been – and are, to this day! The Rambam (Maimonides) points out that a woman is not to be a prisoner in her own home. Historically, we have often been the bread winners, and as such, must have been out of the tent quite a bit. And yet, it seems that we must seek out an extra measure of modesty for ourselves if we want to aspire to be like Sarah Imeinu. I believe the difficulty for myself – and perhaps for other women – is not the modesty itself (which carries with it so many rewards both in this world and in the next), but rather the fear of losing oneself, of going forever unacknowledged and unencouraged; the fear of becoming a nobody. The tricky challenge is to remain true to our G’d-given personalities and talents, to cultivate whatever gifts Hashem has given us, but to do so “within the tent” - and still feel fulfilled. (A little bit like eating your cookie, and having it - and also not gain weight.)

Just as the wings of the moth will be singed by the flame, so it could be that a woman’s “spiritual wings”, that should ultimately take her on a sublime flight, might be crippled by too much exposure to the world. Because, resent this fact as I might (and I do!), some kind of irritating inner honesty forces me to recognize that most exposure in this world is just that – worldly, and therefore intrinsically antithetical to the spiritual heights we hope to scale.

A tent like this would be the perfect spot for a bit of blogging.
(Image from
So, there we are.

Now, what does one do in one’s tent all day? Easy. One blogs.

Shalom Uv'racha!

*For a little extra credit, and with apologies to my readers for not knowing the specific sources: 
When Avrohom Avinu spoke these words about Sarah Imeinu, he was, in effect, paskening, or rendering a binding statement of Jewish law, regarding the parameters of proper behavior for a woman. And as he paskened on Earth, so it was paskened in Heaven. This Heavenly decision-making allowed for the ability of Ruth, the Moabite princess, to convert to Judaism. At a certain point, the Moabite people had been forbidden to convert, due to their appalling lack of hospitality, which had been demonstrated when the Jews in the Wilderness were hungry and thirsty, and the Moabites sat at home scratching themselves, rather than bringing out a little lemonade and cookies to their long-lost cousins.

However, once it had been established that a proper woman should be in the tent – not out and about, serving strange men – the Moabite women became exonerated, as it were, and permitted to convert to Judaism. Ruth was therefore able to become one of the most famous Jews-by-choice ever, marry the greatest spiritual leader of her times, and give birth to Oved, the grandfather of David Hamelech, the ancestor of the future Moshiach. (Ruth herself was another epitome of modesty, well suited for her exalted role in history.) Thus we can see how the Ge’ulah Sh’leimah, the ultimate Salvation of the world, is intimately connected with the modesty of the Jewish woman.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Welcome to My Tent!

Welcome to my blog in my tent! 

A tent where I would like to see myself!
(Image from
As I type those words I begin to wonder whom it is that I am welcoming - for whom am I writing this blog? Obviously every reader is welcome - thank you for reading, and possibly commenting - but like every author, I would do well to have a picture in my mind of my imaginary reader, what kind of audience I am hoping to reach. 

Having myself gone through the process of becoming religiously observant, and having taught many other such beginners - both youngsters and adults - for many years, I think I naturally tend to gravitate towards those who are seeking for answers and looking for guidance.

At the same time, having lived and worked and made friends for even more years as an established member of a frum community, I also would like, somehow, to reach out to my peers - other Torah observant women who like to think and ponder and discuss. And laugh!

Perhaps it is the teacher in me (by natural inclination and force of habit; not by training), who wants to get up and preach, elaborate, and inspire. If I were actually able to do that - inspire somebody - it would be the most marvelous thing I could ever hope for!

But mostly, I just want to share some of my thoughts and observations with others - my female viewpoints regarding life, religion, marriage, motherhood - you know, the little things! 

Ultimately, I suppose, my reader is anyone who's willing to put up with it.
So, thank you for putting up with it so far! 
Hope to see you again!

Shalom Uv'racha!