Some Jewish trivia of more profound importance than might be apparent at first: Tzitzit are tassels, little dangly, knotted strands of wool, tied with intention and worn to symbolize connection to God’s law. Most of us Jews don’t wear them day to day anymore, but you can still spot four white tassels around the hips of Hasidic Jewish men. For most Jews, the tzitzit don’t come out until Shabbat and the holidays when we wear our tallitot — prayer shawls — with tzitzit affixed to the corners.
Women were freed from the obligation to wear tzitzit because it is a time-bound mitzvah — meaning you fulfill the commandment at a particular time. Women were excluded from time-bound mitzvot because such obligations might interfere with their obligations as a wife, mother, and home manager. But there are other time-bound mitzvot to which women are encouraged, even though they are not obligated. However, women who want to wear tzitzit are to be discouraged, according to a ruling in Shulchan Aruch, a compendium of Jewish law, completed in the 1560s.
And some people take that ruling very seriously, today. At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, women are forbidden, by law, to wear a tallit or any other ritual object associated with a man’s obligation. Women are also forbidden, by law, to pray loudly enough to be heard.
It’s an astounding position to be taken by the Jewish people. After all, the first public prayer was uttered by Hannah, pouring out her soul to God and praying for a son. When the priest Eli saw her, he accused her of being drunk; but when he recognized her devotion and piety, Eli blessed Hannah and said he hoped that God would grant her request. The reward for Hannah is the son she was praying for, Samuel, the Judge and Prophet. (See 1st Samuel, chapter 1.)
Imagine if she had kept her voice down.
In present-day Israel, another woman wouldn’t keep her voice down, and she was arrested for her prayer. Anat Hoffman, leader of the group Women of the Wall and a human rights lawyer, was arrested for praying, and her companions were arrested for wearing their tallitot, most recently on October 16, 2012.
They knew what they were doing when they approached the Kotel with their tzitzit dangling off of their prayer shawls and their throats ripe with the Shema (our central prayer). And I know what they were doing, too. They were speaking truth, living truth, and defending truth: A woman’s prayer practice is as sacred and pleasing to God as a man’s prayer practice.
In recognition of the risk and the effort that Anat and her organization do for the cause of equality in the State of Israel, I am taking The 30-Day Tzitzit Challenge, along with Rabbi Leah Berkowitz. For the Hebrew month of Kislev (November 14 to December 13), I intend to wear tzitzit every day, usually attached to a scarf, though I’m looking for other interesting ways to do this.
I don’t know what I expect to happen. Maybe I’ll start to love the practice and never stop. Maybe I’ll find that it really is a pain in the tuchus with all of the other things I’ve got to do for my family. Maybe my practice will offer some comfort and support to the women fighting this battle for me in Jerusalem. Regardless of the outcome, it seems like a sacred adventure, and I’m excited to be starting it. Let me know if you decide to try it too.