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Women’s prayers in Yiddish with a kabbalistic twist

His story/her story: A unique collection of Yiddish tkhinot entitled Tkhine Imrei Shifre was published in late 18th-century Galicia.

Women pray at the Western Wall.
Photo by: Marc Israel Sellem
A unique collection of Yiddish tkhinot entitled Tkhine Imrei Shifre was published in late 18th-century Galicia. While it is difficult to verify the identity of the author with absolute certainty, it is generally assumed that this was the creation of Shifre Bas Yosef. Interestingly enough, this publication includes an introduction in the style of rabbinic haskamot that describes the author as an important and educated woman; her husband, Ephraim Segal, was a rabbi serving in the rabbinic court (either of Brody or Poznan).

The couple was supposedly planning to depart for the Holy Land, but Shifre was encouraged to publish her prayers beforehand. This declaration stated that there were so many rabbis and scholars in favor of her publication that listing them all would simply take up too much room! Chava Weissler informs us that this is the only time known to her in which such a statement appeared advocating the publication of a woman’s writings in Yiddish (Voices of the Matriarchs, 1998).

Shifre displays a penchant for mysticism and an expertise in Kabbalism during a period of religious ferment which ranged from Hassidism and anti-Hassidism to post-Sabbateanism and Frankism. One wonders how she had access to the Zohar as it is a difficult Aramaic text. However, as Weissler discovered, a Yiddish version or paraphrased edition of the Zohar entitled Nahalat Zvi appeared on the scene in 1711. While it was published with a male readership in mind, this would not have prevented an educated or motivated woman from gaining access to it. Shifre apparently was strongly influenced by the images and motifs she encountered there and quite possibly by other mystical works as well.

Imrei Shifre, dated to some time after 1770, contains four parts: one tkhine dealing with the themes of exile, repentance and redemption; a tkhine intended for everyday use; a special prayer for Shabbat; and a moral repudiation (tokhaha) intended specifically for Shabbat. Shifre was convinced not only that Shabbat observance was of utmost importance for women, but that their prayer was essential.

Women must not be slack in their Shabbat observance, for everything has a special significance.

She blatantly rejects one of the traditional stances which claims that women must light candles every Friday night as a punishment for Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden, a sin which darkened the world, creating something like a blackout. Shifre adapted her knowledge from the Zohar which enabled her to enlighten the readers of her tkhine. She explained that women are kindling a light in the lower world in conjunction with what is occurring above. When the priest in the Temple lit seven lamps there, he caused a similar illumination in the heavens above. Thus by lighting two candles, one for the regular soul and a second for the extra soul one possesses on Shabbat, a Jewish woman can also arouse the world above. Besides, this activity has additional benefits such as encouraging one’s children to learn Torah, bringing peace to the world and granting one’s husband longevity.

Candle-lighting thus gained a new and profound significance for women reading this tkhine. While her readers were unaware that the author had relied upon kabbalistic writings in order to present this interpretation, their lives were being understood from a new perspective in a way that granted them spiritual depth. This innovative use of sources via a mystical interpretation combined with the author’s personal stance metamorphosed the woman into an active participant of a regularly enacted weekly activity.

The fact that this collection was heartily approved by rabbis and scholars is impressive. One wonders about their motivation: To support the wife of their rabbi? To promote a creative writer? To expose women to kabbalistic ideas? The answer eludes us, and while it is assumed that Shifre was the actual author, whoever indeed composed these prayers was a creative thinker who respected women’s minds and sought to enrich their spiritual lives.

The author is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish women.


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