Women and Prayer by Miriam Biber
Volume 1 , Issue 4 (June, 1988 | Tammuz, 5748)
When considering the varying domains of Jewish religious life, it seems that the mitzvah of prayer is most commonly associated with men. When we speak of ?a Jew praying? for example, we are more likely to conjure an image of a man wearing a tallit and t'fillin than of a woman with a prayer book in hand. People seem to have the misconception that prayer is only relevant to men. However, if we examine the question of prayer carefully, we discover that prayer plays an extremely important role in the life of women as well. What are a Jewish woman's responsibility concerning prayer and what form does her prayer take?
By examining the Hebrew root for ?prayer? we can gain some insight into the nature of Jewish prayer and then be better able to evaluate whether there are any gender related differences regarding this important mitzvah. The Hebrew word for prayer is ?t'filah? which comes from the root ?pallel?, meaning to attach oneself. Thus by praying, a Jew is attaching one's self to God. The famous analogy of prayer to a ladder which connects a Jew on earth to God above, exemplifies this conception. Prayer serves as a way of bridging the gap between our physical body and the spiritual spheres. It is a form of communication between our soul and God. This primary and basic attachment between a Jew and God is one that transcends gender and age. Both men and women, young and old, have a need to establish a relationship with and communicate to God. Jewish Law provides this fundamental need by providing a structure for both men and women to pray to God Even though the form of prayer may differ, the fundamental purpose for both sexes is the same.
Women Role Models
Evidence of the importance that prayer holds for women can be found in the Torah. The Chumash provides many examples of women who rely on prayer to communicate their needs and desires to God. Perhaps the most salient of these are three of our matriarchs. Sara. Rifkah and Rachel. We learn in B'raishit, (Genesis) how all three of these women were barren for many years before having offspring. We learn that, Sara, for example had to wait 75 years before giving birth to Yitzhak. An obvious question arises with respect to the experiences of the Matriarchs. If God intended to bless them with children, why did he wait so long? Why couldn't God provide them with the blessing of offspring soon after marriage rather than having them suffer as barren women for so many years? Our sages tell us that the women were only blessed after many years of heartfelt prayer. One explanation of this commentary is that our foremothers somehow developed spiritually through the experience of having to pray intensely for children. If we look at our own lives we may better be able to understand how this could be the case. So many of us take for granted the fundamental blessings of our own lives, our livelihood, our health and our children. When we experience no difficulty in attaining any of these blessings we often forget that they are a gift from God and not, as those who suffer without them painfully realize, an automatic result of nature. Only when things do not go as we plan do we begin to think about the source of our blessings.
The Blessing of Children
Similarly, the experience of having to ask God for these blessings enhances our awareness that they are not guaranteed us and are not completely within our control. Although it is difficult to speculate about the spiritual standing of the Matriarchs, it seems that the experience of our foremothers having to pray repeatedly and intensely for children, improved their spiritual service. Because they had been barren for so long, they developed an internalized awareness that God is the one who gives life. And perhaps it was their long and intense yearning and prayer for offspring which provided a paradigm for subsequent generations of Jewish mothers' true understanding and appreciation for the blessing of children.
The experience of our Matriarchs also illustrates the two-way, reciprocal nature of the relationship between a Jew and God. God responded to these women after hearing their suffering. Our actions, thoughts and desires, move God so to speak. When God hears our ?cries? he responds. Our sages tell us that no prayer goes unanswered. Thus we see that God is receptive and, perhaps, even vulnerable to our pleas. The events of a person's life are not predestined. Rather the Torah teaches us, that God constantly gives life to the world and creates destiny in each and every moment of time. Thus prayer (and repentance) can certainly change one's destiny. The fact that Sara was able to conceive after passing her childbearing years certainly demonstrates that God can respond to our prayers in miraculous ways. Thus the spiritual impact of prayer, to enhance our awareness of Godliness in the world, and to elicit a response from God, is the same for both men and women.
Obligation to Pray
Now letus look at how a women's communication to God is unique and differs from that of men. We know that men are obligated to pray three times daily, and whenever possible to pray with a minyan (quorum) of ten men. Due to the unique nature of women, we are neither obligated to pray at fixed times of the day, nor must we necessarily go to the synagogue to daven. As I have discussed previously in this column, women do not require the same structure as men in order to attain closeness to God. Since women have a greater intrinsic awareness of Godliness they are not obligated in those positive mitzvot which must be performed at specific times. Although not obligated to pray three times daily and with a minyan, women are nevertheless obligated to communicate with God on a regular, daily basis (an Orthodox rabbi should be consulted for specific details regarding a woman's obligation for prayer). Since prayer serves as a way of attaching ourselves to God, it is vital for a woman to pray with regularity.
Why is regular contact required, one might ask? Why can't a woman pray just when in need, especially since she possesses the natural closeness to God which I have spoken of? We might attempt to answer this through an analogy with human relations. Just as when relating to a good friend, it is not generally possible to be out of touch for a long time and then be able to just pick up where one has left off, so too with our relationship to God. Although God knows what we need, we require regular contact in order to become comfortable in communicating to God. Rather than pouring out our hearts only when something miraculous or tragic (God forbid) happens, a full and intimate relationship with God requires that we speak to God about the daily occurrences in our lives. It is through daily conversations with God that we can truly become grateful for the seemingly routine, but nonetheless miraculous, events which occur in our lives at all times.
Proper Form for Prayer
What form should a woman's prayer take? One might suppose that since a woman does not have the same requirements regarding times and location of prayer as men, maybe she also does not need to use a set of text. Continuing with the concept of prayer as a form of communication to God, we can see that like nearly all human communication, a prayer follows a defined structure. When speaking to another person, for example, we would not immediately ask for what we want from the other person. Instead we would begin by greeting the person, asking how they have been, and so on. Although the content of our communication to God is different, it also must follow a certain format. Rather than beginning with our requests, we first go through a series of stages (which warm us up spiritually, so to speak) before we make our most meaningful communication. Thus for women, as with men, using the standard text, that is praying with a siddur is the fundamental basis for communicating with God. A woman, no less than a man, should therefore famialirize herself with the siddur, its contents and its manifold levels of significance. This is not to say that the siddur's prescribed prayers should not be enhanced and supplemented by our personal prayers. However, the prayer book provides a foundation even for these ?individualized? requests.
In summary, we have seen that prayer has the same function for both men and women and that both sexes have an equal responsibility to communicate to God on a regular basis. The circumstances surrounding prayer (e.g., times to pray and with whom) are different for women and men. Nonetheless, the fundamental role prayer plays in Jewish life as a means of a Jew attaching him or herself to God, clearly transcends differences in gender. As women we have an equal responsibility to educate ourselves concerning prayer and to use this gift to enhance our awareness of God.