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Sep 11 2013

Little Known Jewish Prayers, Written By and For Women

By at 11:52 am

pregnant woman in pretty dress

Giving birth was the most spiritual experience I ever had.

It was as if my body, mind and soul–my very being–was on high alert. I felt a new closeness to the man with whom I had fallen in love years before and who was now the father of my child. I felt an intense identification with the Creator God, to whom I prayed each day, and who was our partner in the creation of the new life I had just pushed from my body.

But as a religious Jewish woman, I was disappointed that my tradition provided no special prayer or ritual to mark my rite of passage from “woman” to “mother,” even as I softly said the generic Shehechiyanu blessing (“…who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this time.”)

There were many times that I felt shortchanged as a woman marking life cycle events or more mundane experiences that I felt were, in some way, sacred. There was no way to connect them Jewishly to the God I felt beside me as I lived my life.

Some years after my youngest child was born, I found a newly published book which introduced me to tkhines, prayers written by and for women, dating to the 16th century and originally written in Yiddish, the vernacular of the shtetls of Ashkenazic Jews. Although the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community had never “lost” them, tkhines were rediscovered by the larger Jewish community as a result of feminist Jewish scholarship which began to take off in the 1970s. Since my serendipitous discovery 20 years ago, I have taken a spiritual journey reading, collecting, writing, and teaching about these beautiful prayers which resonate so strongly with me, and with every woman I know who reads them.

Tkhines mark the important events in a woman’s life with prayer, connecting the experience to an immediate God, an approachable God, a God to whom one can pray in gratitude, hope or despair. They consecrate a moment, elevate the “mundane” to the holy.

There are beautiful prayers for almost any event or experience a woman might want to mark as sacred, connecting her to her God: the approach of labor, birth, breastfeeding, the bris of a son and naming of a daughter, finding a baby’s first tooth, taking a child to school for the first time, sitting at the bedside of a sick child, going to the mikveh, taking a son or daughter to their chuppah (wedding canopy), lighting Shabbos candles, concern for the health of a loved one. There are supplications for the safe return of one’s husband from a business trip, for the safety of family left behind in Europe after immigrating to the guldene medina (golden land) of America.

So often have I wished that I knew about these prayers when I wanted to get pregnant, when I miscarried, when I gave birth, when my babies were nursed and then weaned, as I stood tearfully at my sons’ brisim, when I took my children to their first day at kindergarten. My own whispered prayers to God to protect my child, to help me deal with the emotions that overwhelmed me, could have been enhanced had I an ancient prayer to recite, one said by generations of mothers before me.

Now we have several books of tkhines, translated from Yiddish, Hebrew, and German, as well as modern versions written in English. For me, they are spiritual resources which are not only a part of my daily davening (prayer) but which I have recited at my children’s weddings, when I worried about my husband’s health, a daughter’s well-being, a son’s transition to a new job.  

So what are these tkhines like? Here are some examples:

1. When you feel that first labor pain, you might want to pick up a book of tkhines and pray, “Let Your mercy shelter me, so that these birth pangs do not overtake me, so I am able to bear them with courage and strength so that You might guide me safely and securely across this awesome threshold.” Or look for the tkhine that begs, “Take the key to my womb in Your right hand and unlock me without pain and without suffering…”

2. When you put your infant to your breast for the first time, you can ask God, as your great-great-grandmother may have, in the same words, to “provide…plenty of milk, as much as he needs. Give me the disposition to find the time to nurse him patiently until he is satisfied. Cause me to sleep lightly so the moment he cries, I will hear and respond…”

3. When you hear that spoon clink against the first tooth, look to the tkhine which says, “For the precious gift, for the little pearl I have found in my child’s mouth, I thank You…may the remainder of his teeth cut through easily…”

And when you say the words of the tkhines, know that whatever you are feeling, women throughout time have also felt, connecting you to your Jewish foremothers who also sought God at those moments when we need Her most.

Recommended reading: Voices of the Matriarchs by Chava Weissler, A Book of Jewish Women’s Prayers edited by Norman Tarnor, Hours of Devotion by Fanny Neruda, edited by Dinah Berland, Seyder Tkhines edited by Devra Kay, and A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book, edited by Aliza Lavie. The website, ritualwell.org has modern tkhines, including some of my own.

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