Learning from the women: The High Holidays during the coronavirus

It is mothers in particular, from the Bible to the current day, whose experiences help us navigate our uncertain, disturbing time, beginning with ’this too shall pass’
Paintings of people praying outdoors in the time of the coronavirus, from the collection of Leah Raab (and throughout the post). To see more of her work:

As Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approach, many of us are feeling anxious. How can we pray meaningfully on the High Holiday this year with synagogues closed or limited to 20 or possibly 50 people? There are two sets of challenges. The first is logistical. Where exactly will we daven? If outside, how will that be impacted by the weather? If in a smaller room than our shul, how will that be? Will the acoustics be as good, the atmosphere as moving, the singing as uplifting? If we have young children, who will look after them? The second set of challenges is existential. Will we feel the same sense of connectedness to our community? Will we be able to properly fulfill the mitzvot of this season such as teshuva, tefila and shofar?

This year, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur place us in a situation of forced compromise. In one respect, we are in a situation where circumstances mean that the optimal davening experience is not available to us. But in another respect, our compromised approach to community prayer is the right thing to do, and is therefore optimal. How should we think about that?

There is a model from Jewish experience that we can look to for guidance, for us to follow, and it isn’t historically distant or far from our regular experience. Mothers of young children have always had to compromise on the High Holidays. This year, we have much to learn from their experiences, from the narratives of women in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, and from the history of women and the mitzvah of shofar.

Before I had children, I was a strong shul-goer. When my youngest was old enough, I started to go back regularly. The 10-15 years in between? My shul attendance was filled with ups and downs and ins and outs. One of my children was born erev Yom Kippur, so that year, I prayed alone in my hospital room.

One of the most stressful experiences for mothers of young children is trying to coordinate feeding, diaper-changing, and catching the minimum number of shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah. Even for couples who share parenting ostensibly equally, in Orthodox families, the responsibility tends to fall more on mothers, since. at the end of the day, there is no requirement for women to pray in a minyan, though we are required to hear the blessing and minimum of 30 shofar blasts (as explained in Rosh Hashanah 34a and Shulchan Arukh OH 590:1-2).

But there is a hopeful message in this experience: mothers of young children often can only attend shul partially, if at all; but they know that period will pass, at some point. This year, due to the coronavirus, the same is true for many of us. Whether we attend shul partially, or if circumstances prevent us from being present at all, it is important to remind ourselves that this difficult period will (please God) pass.

Modeling our attitudes on the experience of mothers of young children is particularly appropriate for Rosh Hashanah, where narratives of “mothers” feature prominently in the liturgy.

The Rosh Hashanah liturgy is filled with imagery of birth and motherhood. Called “Hayom Harat Olam,” Rosh Hashanah is the day the world was “born” (Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a). However, according to the midrash, the world was created on the 25th of Elul, in which case, Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of humankind specifically, who themselves have the ability and calling to procreate (Vayikra Rabbah 29:1).

Additionally, the Torah and haftarah readings on the first day of Rosh Hashanah are the narratives of Sarah and Hannah, two women who conceive after years of infertility. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 11a) explains the connection between these stories and Rosh Hashanah: it was on Rosh Hashanah that God remembered them and they conceived. The imagery of moving from longing, suffering and infertility to pregnancy, achievement and redemption goes beyond the physical aspects of motherhood. Everyone, women and men, can relate this imagery to some part of their lives, be it their health, relationships, career, or finding happiness.

The Torah and haftarah readings of Rosh Hashanah end on happy notes, but they also contain images of mothers and women who have lived with uncertainty for long periods of time and have been praying endlessly for their dreams to be actualized, without answers or much hope. Sarah believes she is too old to conceive. Hannah’s fervent prayer is mistakenly diagnosed as drunkenness, yet the talmudic rabbis saw in its authenticity and resilience, the model for significant parts of the Laws of Prayer (Brachot 31a). Both women battle understandable jealousy and emotional exhaustion from their situations. These characteristics of uncertainty, waiting and struggling to be hopeful are all emotions people are feeling through this unusual period due to coronavirus, as we wait and pray for some hopeful news and solutions.

So the experiences of mothers of young children, as well as the narratives of Sarah and Hannah in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy provide a model for us, in how to look past current difficulties, while maintaining faith and optimism about the future.

Moreover, the classical sources suggest going far beyond the approach of “wait and see,” Is there a model for increasing our commitment during this time? Yes — the way women’s commitment created their obligation to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

Women were originally exempt from the mitzvah to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah (Kiddushin 33b). While they were not required to hear the shofar blown, as for many positive time-bound mitzvot, they could voluntarily participate in the mitzvah. However, that changed over time, due to women’s commitment to this mitzvah. Because women collectively took upon themselves the mitzvah of shofar, several halakhic authorities understood that their very practice changed the halakhic status of shofar for all women, transforming it into an obligation.

The Maharil took this created obligation so seriously, that he believed the person blowing the shofar would have to wait for the women to arrive, and exhorted the women not to keep the men waiting:

“Women, however, are exempt [from hearing shofar], as it is a positive time-bound commandment. But they have brought themselves into the obligation. Since they have obligated themselves, they must make haste to prepare their needs, whether in dressing or cooking, so that they should be free to go to synagogue and be there to hear the shofar blasts. They should not weary the congregation and make them wait for them.” (Sefer Maharil, minhagim, Hilchot Shofar). This has become widely established in many communities through today.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger states, “Since most of our women are strict with themselves and careful and eager to fulfill most time-bound commandments such as shofar, sukkah and lulav, it is as though they have accepted it upon themselves.” (Responsa Rabbi Akiva Eiger, siman 1)

Women did not need to go out of their way to take on mitzvot from which they were exempt. Some authorities explain that the purpose of their exemption was to allow them an “out” during the years they were having children and could not be commanded in something they could not physically manage (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rav Uziel, for example). Yet, the long-term historical commitment of women to mitzvot and tefila, even when they were not required to do so, starting with Hannah in the haftarah of Rosh Hashanah and through the anonymous women of the 14-15th and 18-19th centuries, demonstrates a model of enthusiasm for mitzvot and tefila.

Just because things are hard this year, and certainly not optimal, we should not withdraw. Women and shofar teaches us that even when there is no obligation, we should redouble our commitment — and that can change realities.

The model of mothers and women is instructive and inspiring. Mothers are a critical part of our communities, regardless of whether they are always able to be physically present with the congregation. The mothers of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy symbolize patience and long-term hopefulness. And the women of Jewish history transformed the nature of their shofar obligation through their strong commitment, although they could have used their exemption to justify inaction.

Even when one cannot physically be a part of a minyan, or for health reasons cannot come to shul and be a present member of the congregtation; even if this is for one year or, G-d forbid, a few more, these women provide inspiration for everyone to take the long view and find acceptance of the current situation while drawing on the faith and commitment of Sarah, Hannah and Jewish women and mothers throughout history.

About the Author
Karen Miller Jackson is a Morah l'Halakha, Jewish educator and writer, living in Ra'anana, Israel. She teaches and studies at Matan HaSharon and is the creator of Power Parsha, a short weekly whatsapp dvar Torah. Currently, Karen is a Matan Kitvuni Fellow, writing a book on Talmud Berakhot. She is the host of the Eden Center podcast: "Women & Wellbeing" and she runs Kivun l'Sherut, a guidance program for girls before sherut leumi/army service. Karen is a board member of Kolech - Religious Women's Forum.
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