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Apr 17, 2011

Pesach: Freedom in the Merit of Women

"For most of history, Anonymous was a Woman." - Virginia Wolfe

There are three major holidays that women are obligated in time-bound commandments within Jewish Law - By Chanukah, Purim and Pesach (Passover). Each time, the reasoning given is that they were part of the miracle ("Af hei'n Hayu B'oto Ha'nes").

Regarding Pesach, the Gemara (Pesachim, 108a-b) mentions that reasoning regarding the four cups of wine and Rash"i comments on the spot that in the merit of those women in Egypt the entire Jewish nation was redeemed. Their deeds and merits had a direct causal impact on the exodus and binding of the Jews together, as the American national anthem so aptly puts it, "one nation, under God."

Personally, I love that our history does not just use the label of "Anonymous" in the place of women (though it does sometimes bug me when the impact of various female role models and leaders is under-stressed or glossed over). And yet, most of the Egyptian decrees primarily affected men (eg. death of firstborn men, and by many accounts the field-labor of slavery).

I would like to take a moment here and recognize a debt of gratitude due for all the hard work that women -past and present -put in to make Pesach the experience it has always been. From their actions that merited our freedom to the tremendous work preparing the home and all of the different food items and aspects of the seders. If it were not for their unrelenting hard work, we'd have never had the original exodus and Pesach, nor would we have any Pesach Sedarim the way we do year after year.

For myself in particular, I must extend my tremendous appreciation and thanks to my own Mother, who manages to make the most delicious food of the year, every year, in addition to putting together amazing seders. I would be remiss if I left out her charoset -it was worth coming out of Egypt just for that alone -and I wish I could have it all year 'round. Sure, I often help with setting up, with Divrei Torah and invigorating the seder experience for myself, my immediate and extended family as well as our esteemed guests. But that's my little part, and what my Mother and other women throughout the Jewish communities in the world do to make Pesach possible gives others (like me) the freedom to enrich and enjoy an amazing evening and holiday.

Swinging back around, I also appreciate that despite how men may have experienced more oppression in Egypt, the women did absolutely everything they could -in their relationships and their observance -to help their men. What dedication! Their work leads to our freedom -physical and spiritual at the very least -and not just at the time of slavery, but in every generation.

To me, these reasons very well explain why women are obligated to partake in the commandments -in a very important way, it's their party! The fruit of their labors, even though we men reaped much of the benefit.

Also, I think there's a beautiful idea buried here -that we should fight (not with each other, but rather) as one to achieve rights and freedom regardless of gender or our differences. It is a message of unity, and I think the process of women working so hard (in whatever ways they could) to achieve freedom for (both themselves and) the men who were so harshly oppressed was precisely the process that bound us as one nation.

Have a wonderful Pesach, 
Chag Kasher V'sameach!

(Side-note: Perhaps it was that same process that bound the American nation together in fighting for freedom. And would very well explain the idea of "one nation, under God.")


  1. Beautiful. I'm reading this post a year later but we appreciate that you appreciate us :) We also appreciate you...

  2. I'm glad that you appreciate the efforts of women, but you also seem to somehow trivialize them and present them as apologetic.

    I have occasionally been surprised in the past by the differences in how certain things are taught to boys and girls in Jewish day schools. Maybe it's only because my class was entirely female that they felt the need to educate us in the role women played in different stages of Jewish history and the role we continue to play in Jewish life.
    And maybe teachers inform only their female students of the ways in which women were also oppressed during the slavery in Egypt. The Jewish women in Egypt were suffering more than the effort of encouraging their husbands every day. Recall that they too were subjected to backbreaking labor, they too were national property, and they suffered the pain of having their sons kidnapped from them and killed immediately after giving birth. Also of note is that the daughters were kept alive, not out of mercy, but out of intention to wait until they were old enough that their Egyptian taskmasters could enjoy their company. The result would have been the destruction of the Jewish people by the murder of all the men, and the subjugation of the female survivors. I don't think it's fair to say that "most of the Egyptian decrees primarily affected men." We were in it together.

    While it is true that in our history women usually weren't the ones out there fighting the wars and taking up the cause of G-d on the battlegrounds, it is wrong to say that they suffered less. The women in Egypt weren't able to put in the effort to encourage the men because they didn't have anything better to do, and it wasn't because they had the insight that a relaxing day at home with the kids gives you. They were able to inspire the men because their insight, their faith and their hope prevailed over the same pains that the men themselves had endured.

    With Chanukah the same idea is true. The men fought the war, but only after seeing the women fling themselves from the walls of Jerusalem with their infants in hand. And though the siege was ended due to the bravery of a woman, the reason why women are obligated in the mitzvot of Chanukah isn't just because of our participation in the redemption, it's due to our participation in the oppression as well. While all sorts of decrees were put in place affecting men, there were also such decrees as the one that every Jewish virgin who married would first have to submit herself to the greek general.
    Anyway, there is no such thing as a decree that affects only the men or only the women. We are one nation, bound up in each others' fates.

    Not that I attribute any malice to you. You clearly appreciate the women in your life and the role women have served throughout Jewish history, so this whole comment is probably preaching to the choir. I just wanted to clarify that it isn't a question of "less or more."