In Her Voice

By HAVIVA NER-DAVID
May 12, 2011 14:12

A treasure of a women’s prayer book containing 28 hand-written prayers and ornamented with micrography makes this book innovative and unique.




‘Upon this Bank & Shoal of Time’

HANNAH’S PRAYER 311. (photo credit: KOREN PUBLISHERS JERUSALEM)

THERE HAS BEEN MUCH interest during the past few years in Jewish women’s prayer. Since the publication of Aliza Lavi’s book, “Tefillat Nashim,” in 2005 (an English translation was published three years later), this has been a hot topic.

“Tefillat Nashim” is a collection of women’s private prayers from various time periods – some written by men for women and some written by women for women. Despite the fact that before the 20th century Jewish women did not act as prayer leaders, nor were they counted as part of the quorum of 10 required for public group prayer, the truth is that women praying in private is nothing new. The prayer of the biblical Hannah serves as both the paradigm of formal prayer in Jewish law and the model for personal heartfelt prayer.

As Bleema Posner, the owner of a New Jersey bookstore specializing in artistic Judaic books, facsimiles, and book arts, writes in an introduction to “In Her Voice”: “It is noteworthy that our tradition views woman’s private prayer as the defining standard for our uniform prayers. To the rabbis, tefillat Hannah [Hannah’s prayer] captured the essence of what we pray and how we pray. Perhaps this is an acknowledgment that the wellspring of Jewish liturgy flows from the purity and emotion of the Jewish woman’s personal prayer.”

In private, women prayed in the vernacular (in Yiddish, these prayers were called tehinot) and even in Hebrew when they could. Many of these prayers were written to mark life-cycle events, such as the onset of menses, pregnancy, birth, marriage, etc. And some were written to coincide with the performance of mitzvot that were seen as especially meant for women, such as immersing in the mikve, lighting the Sabbath candles, and separating the dough for the Sabbath bread, or challa.

“In Her Voice” is a compilation of private prayers like these, as well as various other prayers that relate to women’s spiritual and religious lives. For example, Hannah’s prayer is included in this collection, as is “Eshet Hayil,” from the Book of Proverbs, a song praising a “Woman of Valor” sung at the Shabbat dinner table on Friday nights, as well as the blessing traditionally recited each morning by Jewish women thanking God for creating them according to God’s will (as opposed to the prayer men recite, thanking God for not creating them as women!).

What is especially innovative and unique about Keshet’s book, however, is the combination of these women’s prayers with the classically male art of manuscript illumination, here done by a woman artist. Keshet, who lives in Pardes Hanna in central Israel, became interested in this art form and specifically in the work of the Lisbon Workshop, a group of Jewish artists who collaborated from 1469-1496 to create illuminated manuscripts, the most famous of which is the Lisbon Bible. With the final expulsion of the Jews from Iberia, this school’s style was abruptly ended. Keshet here revives it.

“IN HER VOICE” CONTAINS 28 prayers and tehinot, each one illuminated in Keshet’s interpretation of the Lisbon style. The prayers (written in calligraphy by Sharon Binder) are further ornamented with micrography, the creation of shapes and forms by writing texts in minuscule letters and words. The artwork as well as the texts chosen to accompany the central prayers were obviously the result of much thought and study. (In her personal note at the opening of the book, Keshet thanks Dr. Joel Wolowelsky, who teaches at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, Brooklyn, for his help in choosing these texts and in writing explanations of them.)

For instance, bordering Hannah’s prayer is the text from the Talmud, which uses this prayer as the basis for a discussion about the nature of prayer itself. And set into that border as pieces of women’s jewelry are the 12 stones of the hoshen, the High Priest’s breastplate – combining feminine and masculine, physical and spiritual, and Hannah and Eli the High Priest (who found Hannah praying in the Tabernacle for a son and mistook her for a drunk because of her intense yet silent prayer). Also included in the border is a menora, a fixture of the Tabernacle, and a Magen David broken in two, symbolizing Hannah’s broken heart. The branches within the border represent the fulfillment of Hannah’s prayer: The buds at the bottom of the page move outward and upward and are transformed from buds to leaves, to flowers, and finally to fruit at the top.

Another example is a bat mitzva prayer, traditionally recited by girls reaching the age of 12 in Turin and Milan. Above the prayer is a rising sun, which calls to mind the elevation of the girl to adulthood. The sun itself is a micrography of “Pirkei Shira,” a collection of hymns praising God put in the mouths of various creatures, personifying nature, which some women recite every weekday.

Another manuscript, for the zeved habat, the Sephardi ceremony celebrating the birth of a daughter that has now become common in Ashkenazi circles as well, contains both the traditional naming and blessing that are part of the zeved habat ceremony, and a more modern addition – an adaptation for the zeved habat of the “harahaman” the special blessings recited at a boy’s brit mila circumcision ceremony. For this manuscript, Keshet chose a border with two verses from the “Song of Songs,” embellished with pomegranates, conveying the bounty of blessings and good fortune in welcoming the new “princess,” her crown topping each fruit, gifts of jewels suggested by its kernels.

The prayers in this book are derived from various sources: biblical, Talmudic, Yiddish tehinot, and Ladino prayers. Some come from “The Prayer Book for the Married Woman” (written for Yehudit Kutcher Coen by her husband in 18th century Italy), and some are modern creations, such as the “Prayer for Agunot,” by Shelly Frier List, and a tehina for a “Woman Prior to Torah Study,” by Yael Levine.

IWOULD HAVE PREFERRED THAT Keshet had included more of these modern prayers written by women and fewer older prayers written by men for women.

As a rabbi who often offers consultation about how to create modern ceremonies and rituals, I find these prayers to be much more useful than some of the older prayers that inevitably are a product of their pre-feminist times. While I appreciate putting the modern prayers in context, I would have preferred more of a balance between old and new – especially since Keshet’s illumination attempts to create that same balance by using the Lisbon Workshop style through the paintbrush of a 21st-century Israeli woman.

There are also pieces that are unclear in their message. Are they making a subtle feminist point, or are they actually espousing a more traditional stance? For example, the blessing women traditionally recite in the morning, thanking God for creating them according to God’s will, is accompanied by two midrashim (rabbinic texts that elaborate on biblical texts) from Bereishit Rabba that suggest that a woman’s virtues are her modesty and her physical beauty. And the border of this manuscript is a micrography of the verses that tell of Eve’s creation – both the verse from Chapter 1, which describes man and woman being created alongside one another as equals, and the verse from Genesis Chapter 2, which describes Eve being created from Adam’s side.

Are we meant to read these verses and midrashim critically, or are we meant to take them at face value? Keshet’s illumination stresses the sacred nature of the texts she chose, which militates against a critical reading. And the text describing the manuscript presents the verse from “Genesis” Chapter 2 as a “more detailed description of how woman was created from man’s body” with no suggestion that perhaps these two verses are in fact two different versions of the creation of humanity. It is difficult to believe that a modern Israeli woman artist, religious or otherwise (Keshet is silent as to her views), would have no feminist critique of these misogynist texts.

Nevertheless, this book is a treasure. I am personally planning to take a drive to Pardes Hanna to see the original illuminated manuscripts.


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