The Jerusalem Post

What role do women have in the Jewish High Holy Days? - opinion

 Scales of Justice: Libra astrological sign at the Wisconsin State Capitol. (photo credit: AnotherGypsy/Wikipedia)
Scales of Justice: Libra astrological sign at the Wisconsin State Capitol.
(photo credit: AnotherGypsy/Wikipedia)

With the approach of the High Holy Days, women are searching for a role that will be neither insignificant nor undervalued.

A cobbler passed by the window of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak and called out, “Have you nothing to mend?” The rabbi began to cry,“Woe is me! Rosh Hashanah is almost here, and I have not yet mended myself!” (Zichron Ha’Rishonim)

According to Rabbi Kruspedai, in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: one for the wholly righteous; one for the wholly wicked; and one for those in between. The wholly righteous are inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life; the wicked in the Book of Death; and the rest are held suspended until Yom Kippur, when they are judged worthy or unworthy. The zodiac symbol for the Hebrew month of Tishri is, fittingly, a balance – the scales of justice.

When the Creation was established but still incomplete, humans had an important role: to fill the Earth with life and to sustain life at the highest level (Genesis 1:28). We became a partner with the Creator in tikkun olam – perfecting the world.

The role of women in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

Women are not relegated to a minor position in this task. As Rosh Hashanah approaches, Jewish women reflect on their role and realize that they have more to do than merely bake honey cakes, send out Shana Tova cards, and light candles.


Since coming to live in Israel five decades ago, I have felt the need for a deeper, more spiritual aspect. Every type of Jewish woman is represented in Jerusalem, from the ultra-Orthodox bewigged matron to the professional, educated modern religious woman; from the Reform woman rabbi to the completely secular woman who sees any kind of ritual as comparable to voodoo. Each has her own convictions and will act on them accordingly.

 ON THE rise: Women learn Gemara together (Illustrative).  (credit: Tzippy Blumenthal, Jewish Life Photo Bank)
ON THE rise: Women learn Gemara together (Illustrative). (credit: Tzippy Blumenthal, Jewish Life Photo Bank)

Having begun my life as a fairly assimilated Jewess, I fall somewhere in the middle. I consider myself a modern, observant woman, although I fall short of my daughters who cover their hair and have studied Talmud, Mishna, and Jewish philosophy at a level of commitment to Judaism I will probably never attain. 

Yet I am not totally ignorant, nor have I been left entirely unaffected by the feminist movement. I do believe that the Torah was given by God at Mount Sinai, and one may not change even one iota of it. Yet neither am I satisfied to fulfill the prayer of the pious father at his daughter’s birth in the Middle Ages: “May she sew, spin, weave and be brought up to a life of good deeds” – especially as the first three skills are completely beyond me!

I want to find a comfortable spiritual niche for myself within the framework of Halacha. I have no desire to make myself ridiculous by donning tallit or tefillin to make a feminist statement, yet I know there are possibilities that exist for the Jewish woman that give her a place beyond catering to the family’s gastronomic needs when the Days of Awe come round. Opponents of Orthodoxy always state that women are not honored in Judaism, despite the deep reverence for Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. 

My namesake, Dvora the Judge and prophetess, is also greatly honored for her political, moral, and religious leadership.


There are contemporary Orthodox women who have widened the Halachic barriers by challenging practices of separate synagogue seating and questioning the right of women to be called to the Torah and to be counted in the minyan. 

These privileges do not unduly attract me. If they did, I would attend a Conservative synagogue. I am not even tempted to join a halachicly permitted women’s minyan  – I rather enjoy my silent communion with God and don’t feel it necessary to see everything that is going on. God hears Jewish women’s pleas – as He did in the case of the childless Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah, and the landless daughters of Zelophehad.

I don’t yearn for religious parity with men. Not everything in life can be equal at every given moment. Demands for personal gratification and unreal expectations can destroy good family relationships in the secular sphere also. American writer Blu Greenberg has defined “time, energy, a measure of sacrifice and generosity of spirit” as the enemies of instant gratification and believes that one is only free within an ethical and moral structure.

With the approach of the High Holy Days, women are searching for a role that will be neither insignificant nor undervalued, and to sift, through the perspective of Jewish values, what we can welcome and what we can reject.

We will attend synagogue and listen to the shofar as men and women are obligated to do, and to try to observe the period of penitence that ends with Yom Kippur. There are also tehinnot – prayers of supplication for women, written in Yiddish in Bohemia and published in Germany, Russia, and Poland in the 18th century – which I would like to find and have translated. They emphasize God as a loving father rather than as a stern judge; the merit of the matriarchs; and define rewards in terms of pious and virtuous children. They represent a kind of folk literature, mirroring the daily life and concerns at that time in the ghetto. As it is known that many of the tehinnot were composed by women, a rare phenomenon, I think they are appropriate prayers to be added by women to the traditional ones at this time.

Mainly we should sustain our belief that women, as well as men, are made in God’s image. For me, being a Jewish woman largely defines who I am and what I am called upon to do. Our sages tell a story that when the Torah was first given, God told Moses to teach it first to the women. I believe the reason was – and it is still valid today – that women were the architects of the next generation, and their acceptance of the Torah would determine whether or not future generations would continue the covenant.

Surely there is no more significant role as we approach the New Year and the Day of Judgment. May we all be inscribed for a good year!  ■

The writer is the author of 14 books. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah. Her email is dwaysman