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Parshat Shelah: Separating Challah, Designating Women

Sivan 5783 | June 2023


Hafrashat Challah, the mitzvah to separate challah, is often regarded as a mitzvah that is particular to women, along with lighting Shabbat candles, and keeping the details of niddah. Some women feel a special affinity for these mitzvot. Considering women are exempt from the obligations of many mitzvot, the existence of mitzvot that “belong” to women – that are their responsibility – is a source of pride. Some women invest significant energy into these mitzvot – taharat hamishpacha (ritual purity within marriage), Shabbat candles (and Shabbat in general), and hafrashat challah. In the past few years there’s been a rise in communal hafrashot challah and it has become a significant part of many women’s avodat Hashem (service of God).

Other women are less enthusiastic by the narrowing of women’s religious world to these specific mitzvot. This may be compounded by the discomfort, fear, and negative emotions that may be elicited by the triggering rabbinic statement that women die in childbirth due to negligent observance of these specific mitzvot.[1]

Why are these mitzvot considered the domain of women? What’s the significance of the idea that women who do not observe these mitzvot properly may die during childbirth?


Challah, candles, blood

There are various answers to these questions. Many midrashim associate these mitzvot with the creation of the world. Some midrashim consider Adam the pinnacle of the creation. Midrashim also describe him as the “blood,” “challah,” and “candle” of either God or the world.[2]

In more relatable terms, one could say that the creation culminated with the “pinching” of the ground to form Adam, like challah is pinched off the dough, the “reishit” (prime) of the dough that formed all living things. Added to this was the blood – the life-force – and the light of the soul. Subsequently, challah is connected to Adam’s physical needs, blood to vitality and creativity, and the flame to spirituality. Another midrash explains the symbolism of these mitzvot isn’t connected to Adam’s creation, but to the creation of the Jewish people as a whole – as our existence is dependent on the observance of these mitzvot.[3]

Midrashic interpretations explain that Chava’s actions resulted in humanity’s mortality; she shared her sin with Adam and brought death upon them both so she is obligated in the mitzvot that people’s lives depend on.[4] There are two ways to look at this midrashic idea. It’s possible to interpret this responsibility as an eternal damnation of “woman,” an adoption of the concept of “original sin” for which women must forever atone. Alternatively, the midrash can be seen as an inspiring message that we can repair what is broken in our world, in God’s creation; women are partners in this vital task. Woman was granted the name “Em kol chai” (Mother of all living things). In this respect she is God’s partner in creation, so she is given mitzvot that symbolize creation. It’s also possible this is the reason she’s held accountable for her observance of these mitzvot precisely when she acts as God’s partner in creation, when giving birth, a time she must recognize the vitality of these “natural” phenomena.


A womans responsibility in Jewish tradition

The traditional role of women in the “Jewish home” offers another possible explanation for their responsibility for these mitzvot and their “accountability” at the moment of birth.  The division of roles is reflected in the Torah and the Mishna Ketubot, where a husband is responsible for providing for his wife’s physical needs – food, clothing, shelter, and  intimate physical contact – and a wife is responsible for the work inside the home. While these mitzvot belong to all – regardless of gender or marital status they’re a part of every Jewish person’s Avodat HaShem (service of God). Nevertheless, they are specifically delegated to a woman within her marriage and home, she’s responsible for preparing food, lighting candles for the Shabbat meal and enabling marital intimacy.

These mitzvot facilitate connection. The Shabbat candles are meant to bring peace and joy into the home as the household – the couple, the family, friends – eat together and enjoy each other’s company.[5] When niddah is observed properly, a husband and wife may merit to connect in a way that invites the “Shekhina” (Divine Presence).[6] The mitzvah of challah is related to the general trust a husband has in his wife’s proper preparation of food. These mitzvot are not only the basis of the entire household’s mitzvah observance, they also reflect the mutual trust that is the bedrock of a strong marriage.

A similar idea is reflected in a mishna brought in a different context: “These [women] are divorced without [the monetary settlement in] their ketuba – a woman who transgresses dat Moshe or Yehudit (the Laws of Moshe or Laws of Jewish women). And what is the dat Moshe? If she feeds him untithed [food], has relations when she is niddah, does not pinch off challah, and makes vows she does not fulfill.”[7]

The mishna discusses cases where a husband can divorce his wife without giving her the money she is due according to her ketuba because her actions are considered to have damaged the sanctity of the marriage. The category of “transgresses dat Moshe ” falls under this purview. This is not a woman who doesn’t observe Torah and mitzvot in general. A man is not responsible for his wife’s mitzvah observance and if she transgresses it’s between her and God and is not a basis for divorce. The mitzvot in the list are ones that directly affect her husband and his trust in his wife. A woman who does not carefully observe the laws of niddah can cause her husband to sin as well. A woman who does not take challah or tithes when she prepares food for her husband leads him to sin when he eats the meal she made him.[8]

These are not simply “personal mitzvot” based on the most basic aspects of mitzvah observance in the home, like Shabbat and kashrut. Because they affect others they have an added importance, and also a greater risk. The mishna states that before Shabbat a man should say to his household: “Did you take tithes? make eruv? light the candle.”[9] Meaning a husband is supposed to check that his wife prepared the food, either by taking tithes or by making an eruv (which is done with food) in the proper place. He also mentions lighting the Shabbat candles.

The gemara says that one should say these things calmly.[10] A parallel source in Gittin explains that if a man terrifies the members of his household they may feed him food that is not kosher.[11] Why?

It’s possible that these warnings are the other side of the coin, the flipside being the sages’ statement that negligence in these mitzvot endangers a woman during childbirth. Both are based on their understanding of the division of responsibilities in a traditional marriage. On the one hand these mitzvot demonstrate the faith a man has in his wife. On the other hand, negligence in these mitzvot may not be due to a wife’s carelessness; a husband can foster a hostile or uncomfortable home environment and the pressure or desire not to disappoint might lead his wife to take shortcuts. Rashi on Gittin mentions that when a man’s wife is afraid of him she may be too scared to tell him if she didn’t immerse in the mikva because it is cold or uncomfortable, which can cause both of them to transgress.[12] If a woman forgets to take challah or tithes she may be too afraid to tell her husband that she hasn’t done so yet.[13] And in the pre-Shabbat rush, when it’s possible to miss candle lighting time, if Shabbat has already begun she may choose to violate Shabbat and light candles rather than incur his displeasure.

To prevent such things the sages cautioned husbands to act kindly and calmly, and reminded them that too much pressure can have the opposite effect to the one desired. Instead of diligent mitzvah observance, others may take shortcuts to please the man of the house. At the same time they stressed a wife’s responsibility, which is not only to her husband. Transgressions a woman may commit in private will have repercussions in another intimate moment between her and her Creator – when she is giving birth. Another midrash discusses childbirth in terms borrowed from the Sota waters – “she sinned in the recesses of her womb so she is afflicted in the recesses of her womb.”[14] Transgressions committed in private have repercussions that are also private.

One might think these warnings would make these mitzvot dreaded, but instead they are generally celebrated. They are the center of a midrash about the foremothers, whose tents were constantly blessed with a burning candle that remained lit, a blessing in the bread dough, and the cloud of the Shekhina.[15] These mitzvot shape each individual’s Jewish existence and bring the Shekhina into the home. They are the bedrock of the trust and partnership between husband and wife, and they turn the home into a mikdash me’at – a small sanctuary. In the home the Temple’s shewbread becomes the blessing in the bread dough, the menorah an eternally burning candle, and the cloud that symbolizes the sacred connection between God and the Jewish people now symbolizes the connection between the wife and husband who invite the Shekhina into their home to work together, as partners.

In this sense a woman is like the High Priest who stands at the head of the household and invites the Shekhina to dwell with them. In such a sacred space the stakes are higher; in the Temple one who does not approach properly and violates the sanctity may be injured or even die. The same can be said for the Shekhina that dwells within the home. The potential for danger is proportionate with the potential for sanctity.

[1] Mishna Shabbat 2:6

[2] Avot d’Rabbi Natan Nuscha II Chapter 9

[3] TB Shabbat 31b

[4] ibid

[5] TB Shabbat 23b, 25b

[6] See TB Sota 17a

[7] Mishna Ketubot 7:4

[8] The mishna in Ketubot mentions a woman who makes vows and does not fulfill them. The gemara explains the problem is that her husband will also suffer any punishment she receives. It’s possible that on a more basic level the Torah gave a man the ability to annul his wife’s vows, which makes it seem like he is partially responsible for her fulfillment or failure. See Tb Ketubot 72a, Bamidbar 30:4.

[9] Mishna Shabbat 2:7.

[10] TB Shabbat 34a

[11] TB Gittin 6b – 7a

[12] Rashi Gittin 6b “giluy arayot”

[13] Based on Rashi Gittin 7a “Ever min ha-chai”

[14] TB Shabbat 31b, specifically referring to nida

[15] Bereishit Rabba 60:16

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.