Friday, October 09, 2009

Looking forward to Simchat Torah!

I am looking forward to Simchat Torah this year. Once again I will be at my favorite Rehovot synagogue The Rabbi Jacob Berman Community Center for Torah and Tefila known to locals as Berman's. I mentioned our Simchat Torah celebrations here last year.
At Berman's, for the fourth year now, the women will be leaving the main shul after the first reading of Vezot Habracha (during the time when the men repeat reading Vezot Habracha multiple times so every man can have an 'aliya') to hear divrei Torah given by women for women. We take this opportunity to show our respect and love for Torah by learning it together.  I'd like to share part of a d'var Torah that I gave when our weekly women's Gemarra class finished the first chapter of the Brachot. I also drew on resources from a lecture  series given by Rabbi Aryeh Frimmer at Berman's about women and halakha ( Women and  Birkat Hatorah audio here and source sheet here)

I chose the subject of women and the blessing on the Torah.  This is the blessing recited by those called up to the Torah when it is read publicly (on Mondays, Thursdays, Shabat and holidays) and possibly because of this it is associated mainly with men. But it is also one of the very first blessings every Jew says in the morning prayers.
We learned in our chapter (Gemarra Brachot 11:2)
Which blessing do we say? Rav Yehudah answers in the name of Shmuel
בא"י אמ"ה] אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו לעסוק בדברי תורה].
[Blessed are you lord our G-d, king of the universe] who has made us holy through his commandments, and has commanded us to practice what is written in the Torah.
And Rabbi Yohanan ends the blessing this way:
הערב נא ה' אלהינו את דברי תורתך בפינו ובפיפיות עמך בית ישראל ונהיה אנחנו וצאצאינו וצאצאי עמך בית ישראל כלנו יודעי שמך ועוסקי תורתך ברוך אתה ה' המלמד תורה לעמו ישראל
Please, Lord our God, make the words of Your Torah sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of Your people, the house of Israel, so that we, our descendants and the descendants of Your people, the house of Israel, may all know Your name and study Your Torah. Blessed are You, Lord, who teaches Torah to His people Israel.
And Rav Hamnuna said:
אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים ונתן לנו את תורתו ברוך אתה ה' נותן התורה
(Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Univese who has chosen us from all the peoples and given us His Torah. Blessed are You, Lord, Giver of the Torah.)
Rav Humnuna said: This is the most exalted of blessings - therefore we say all of the blessings. (In other words, this blessing is so important that we don't choose one of the formulations but recite all of them.)

Can women say the blessings on the Torah even though they are not obligated in the study of Torah? In Rabbi Yochanan's version we have no problem. Women are included as descendants of the house of Israel and the ending 'teaches His people' we can certainly say that includes women. Rav Hamnuna's wording is also inclusive since it refers to those who were chosen and that is the whole nation.
The question arises in Shmuel's formula and is focused on the word וצוונו 'who commanded us' and the question is are women in fact 'commanded' in the sense of being obligated and if so what is the nature of that obligation?
The Shulchan Aruch (47,14) says "women say the blessings on the Torah" and the Bet Yosef explains that this is because prayers take the place of the sacrifices made in the temple and women are required to pray and if so they are required to read the passages pertaining to the sacrifices (in the morning prayers and these are quoted from the written Torah and therefore require the blessing) and he adds that according to the Sefer Hamitzvot Hagadol 'women are required to learn the laws that apply to them' (and so for learning the Torah laws they also must say this blessing).

On the other had we hear the sages in  Gemarra Kidushin (29:2) say

  וְלִמַּדְתֶּם אֹתָם אֶת-בְּנֵיכֶם, לְדַבֵּר בָּם דברים י"א, י"ט
And you shall teach them to your sons Deuteronomy 11:19
and the Rabbis tell us 'your sons and not your daughters'


In light of this how can we justify including women in Shmuel's formula? If we look closely at his words we see that they can be understood beyond a narrow meaning of 'and you shall teach' ולמדתם (such as the formal acts of repetition, memorization and review). He uses the verb לעסוק which I have translated as 'practice' (but it can also be translated as to be involved with or to be occupied by) Torah.

Here I quoted Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (my very rough translation, see Rabbi Frimmers source sheet for the real thing)

"Birkat Hatorah applies not only to keeping the mitzvot and the commandment of studying Torah by the specific act of learning Torah, but also deep inner bond of a person to Torah and an obligation to be bound and connected to Torah. Support for this is found in the formula for the blessing לעסוק בדברי תורה instead of ללמוד דברי תורה and that is because the blessing is formulated on the bond with the Torah and the sanctification of Man by the Torah and not only on technical learning."
Rabbi Soloveitchi's words resonate. When we recite Birkat Hatorah our intentions are far greater than the formal learning of laws or biblical exegesis. That blessing reminds us that  we must internalize the words Torah and reflect them in our practices.

In the second chapter of the Gemarra Brachot (17:1) we find the sages celebrating the importance of women's faith and practice of Torah.
 גדולה הבטחה שהבטיחן הקדוש ברוך הוא לנשים יותר מן האנשים שנאמר
God makes a greater promise of reward in the world to come to women than to men citing the verse in Isaiah (32,9) where women are mentioned twice.
ישעיהו לב ט נשים שאננות קומנה שמענה קולי בנות בוטחות האזנה אמרתי
Rise up, complacent women , and hear my voice; confident daughters, listen to my speech.
אמר ליה רב לרבי חייא: נשים במאי זכיין? באקרויי בנייהו לבי כנישתא  ובאתנויי גברייהו בי רבנן, ונטרין לגברייהו עד דאתו מבי רבנן
Rav said to Rabbi Hiyya: Women, what are they rewarded for? For making sure that their sons go to the synagogue to pray and for encouraging their husbands to learn from their Rabbis and patiently awaiting their husband's return from the study hall.
In other words the women were thought to be rewarded for encouraging their menfolk in Torah. Today we can say that this double reward comes to include engaging in practical Torah and studying Torah ourselves. 

!חג שמח   Happy Simchat Torah!

The translations of the brachot are based on Rabbi J. Sacks' translation of the Koren Siddur

4 comments:

Leora said...

So happy to hear you enjoy Simchat Torah! Too many women report negative experiences.

You must have taken a while to write this post.

"patiently awaiting their husband's return from the study hall. " - something a little too passive for comfort about this...

shari said...

I am looking for the english translation for the bracha of a new child.....maybe you have one? Can't find one!

Risa said...

Leora, my point is that we have double credit because WE are studying!

Shari,
I don't know what bracha you refer too. The new Koren Siddur with translation by Rabbi Sacks has a "Thanksgiving Prayer After Childbirth" and a ceremeony for naming a girl - Zeved Habat - and of course the ceremony for the brit. Do you mean any of these?

When my children were born I said the 'sheheyanu' and when I came to shul the first time afterwards I said 'gomel' (or at the brit whichever was appropriate).

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