Here a Tzit. There a Tzit. Everywhere a . . .

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.


Tzitzit remind us of the 613 Mitzvot


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.


16 thoughts on “Here a Tzit. There a Tzit. Everywhere a . . .

  1. Though most of my life (before last year) I wasn’t a part of a congregation, I did go to a Jewish Day School for kindergarten and first grade. One thing I remember is how much I admired the boys’ tzitzit! There seemed something so special about the way they swung around. What kid wouldn’t want to wear them? I’m sure I asked why I couldn’t wear them and continued to ask, “why?” for every explanation given, until, either I got tired of asking and not getting an answer that made sense, or someone got tired of trying to make sense of it.

    • People never seem to tire of trying to make sense of something that simply makes no sense. I am an expert at rationalizing, myself. It just seems like, at some point, people would find their rationalizations empty and start considering that their premise was wrong. That’s one of the many gifts of children — our own and others — they challenge our ideas. And if we can’t answer them, we should reassess what we think we know. Of course, we might still be right, but it never hurts to take another look.

  2. I remember the shock I felt when I first saw film of Orthodox men attacking women for the “crime” of praying at the Kotel, from physical abuse to statements such as “It’s worse than the Holocaust!” I have never understood why some men feel so threatened by the presence of women. On the other hand, there are many who resort to hatred when presented with same-sex marriage or any number of religious or social reforms.
    We hope things will change. After all, in Shakespeare’s time, women were not allowed on the stage, so their parts were played by boys. The Pope in Rome refused to allow women to sing in the first operas in the early 1600s CE. In Massachusetts, Anne Hutchinson was exiled for acting “like a man” in attempting to interpret the Bible. I do not know too much about Islam, but I have never heard a female muezzin, for example. So we are not alone in having men who fear women.

  3. Dear Dr. Peter Geidel – I have never heard a female muezzin reciting the adhan (call to prayer) either, which I didn’t think much about until now. Traditionally it is acceptable for a woman to do so but not loud enough for a man to hear it. Sound familiar to anyone? And now that I think about it, whenever a woman is reciting the quran there are no men present in the room, only women. Also, women face prison sentences in many Islamic countries for singing (in front of men). What’s astonishing about religious application of this law is that there is nothing in the Islamic religious texts, according to American Islamic Scholar, Amina Wadud (who happens to be a woman), that states women are prohibited from leading religious services, prayers, etc. I was, however, able to dig up videos of a group of Canadian Muslims and American Muslims being led in prayer by women including the recitation of the adhan. This group included men, although separated by an invisible line down the middle aisle, kind of like a ‘mechitza.’ Yet members of both genders (nonrelated) praying together is progressive in itself since some mosques, not all, require women to remain out of sight, behind a curtain, to worship. That’s not unlike the Ultra-orthodox Jewish women in Debra Feldman’s childhood community who had to peek through a hole in a curtain to witness the events in their shul. Anyway, I agree that many men feel threatened by women, but in my experience the men that feel threatened by women feel threatened by many other things, usually everything. So instead of building themselves up, they push everyone else, who will allow it, down. Thankfully there are just as many of us who will stand up to them. If they manage to knock us over, we’ll do everything we can to get back up.

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  11. Dear Dr. Geldel,

    I’m afraid you are being a bit hasty in drawing your conclusions. You write that you “have never understood why some men feel so threatened by the presence of women.” Actually, if you were to go to the Kotel you would see women thronging there every single day of the year, from early morning to late at night. And nobody feels “threatened.”

    These are basically two types of women: tourists and Orthodox women from all over Jerusalem (and sometimes elsewhere).

    Where are Anat Hoffman and the Women of the Wall? For the most part they show up once a month on Rosh Chodesh. Not as individuals coming to pray to G-d, but as an organization trying to push their agenda on the public.

    Isn’t it sad — and a bit cynical — that they use such a holy place to engage in politics and to fan the flames of controversy? Of course it’s also sad to see extremists getting all hot around the collar and reacting in such an uncouth manner, but keep in mind that they, like the Women of the Wall, constitute a very small minority.

    • I think it’s a little presumptuous to label the feelings of anyone other than ourselves, so I object to the statement that the men imposing the law at the Kotel feel threatened until they say they feel that way. How they feel is for them to discover and report, if they want me to know.

      That said, I also think it’s presumptuous to erect a mechitza at the Kotel. It is not my practice to pray in a gender-segregated group, and I’ve been praying as a Jew since the day I was born — well almost. And, on the day I went to the Kotel, it was my hope to support my son as he grieved for his best friend who had died, to pray with him, to hug him. Instead, he went alone, and I watched from a distance. I won’t guess at other people’s feelings, but I can tell you how I felt that day: betrayed.

      Isn’t it also presumptuous to question Anat Hoffman’s motives for praying at the Kotel, by your report, only on Rosh Chodesh? Are you suggesting that she doesn’t have a claim in this conflict because she doesn’t pray at the Kotel everyday? (Okay, that’s a real question.) Are you suggesting that fighting for gender equality couldn’t be a sacred act, in and of itself worthy of the Kotel? (And that is a rhetorical question, but if you want to clarify, please do because I’m making a pretty big assumption myself.)

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