Holiness in the kitchen

In her article "The Traditional Piety of Ashkenazic Women," Dr. Chava Weissler's focuses on a neglected area in the history of Jewish spirituality — the spiritual life of women. She finds that a particular literary genre — called tkhines (supplications) — popular among Ashkenazi women throughout the 17th-19th centuries, opens a window to the study of women's religious lives and their spiritual concerns. Recitation of tkhines was particularly popular before the performance of the three "women's commandments," the first of which is the duty of separating out the hallah portion.

Hallah refers to the part of the dough separated out as a gift for the priest. Any dough made from a determined volume of wheat, barley, spelt, rye or oat flour, was subject to the laws of hallah[1]. After the destruction of the Temple, the separated portion could no longer be given to the priest, and was therefore burnt. Since it was usually the woman who baked in the home, the dictate of hallah is enjoined particularly upon her[2]. She takes a tiny quantity of the dough (the size of an olive) as a symbolic reminder, throws it into the oven or fire to be burned, and recites a special blessing. The loaves baked for the Sabbath and festival meals are called hallot, since their preparation provides one with the opportunity fo perform the duty of separating out the hallah portion.

*    *    *

Collections of Yiddish prayers, called tkhines,[3] became a widespread literary genre in the 17th-19th centuries among Ashkenazi (central and east European) women. Unlike the Hebrew liturgy, tkhines (supplications) were voluntary; women could recite them if and when they wished, and on a variety of occasions. Tkhines provide an excellent focus for the study of women's religious lives, because, in contrast to other Yiddish religious genres, a significant number of them appear to have been written by women. Further, as prayers, they express women's spiritual concerns in a more direct manner than the other types of Yiddish religious literature.

Tkhines were written for a wide variety of religious occasions and everyday concerns (recovery from illness, rain during a drought, visiting the cemetery), which were common to the lives of women and men. With tkhines for the special "women's commandments," three religious duties singled out as incumbent especially upon women since mishnaic times,[4] we enter the women's world: there are the supplications recited for performing the mizvot of hallah, separating a small portion of the dough; niddah, marital separation during menstruation and ritual immersion after menstruation; and hadlaqat ha-ner, lighting the candles on the eve of Sabbaths and festivals.[5] We will focus here on hallah — the first of the three, and the expression it found in these very personal supplications.

Shloyshe She'orim (The Three Gates)

Varying collections of tkhines differed both in style and in substance. One particularly beautiful, erudite and sophisticated collection of tkhines, Shloyshe She'orim (The Three Gates) was written by a woman named Sore (Sara) bas Tovim.[6] The introductory material in Shloyshe She'orim includes both historical background and laws of observance for each of the three "women's commandments," thereby preparing the woman who reads the book to understand more deeply the religious acts themselves and even the allusions contained within the tkhines she recites.

The introductory material concerning the taking of hallah begins by quoting the biblical verse from which this mizvah is derived: "As the first yield of your baking, you should set aside a loaf as a gift" (Numbers 15:20).[7] The text continues by interpreting a paraphrase of Proverbs 8:21 ("By the merit of this [commandment] God will fill your storehouses to satiety") as an assurance that fulfilling the mizvah of hallah will ensure plentiful sustenance. Next the author explains the biblical system of tithes and states that since the destruction of the Temple, the mizvah of taking hallah is all that remains of this system.

In the quick transition between the historical and the personal which is typical of Shloyshe She'orim, the paragraph continues:

Therefore, Lord of the World, we pray that you accept the mizvah of hallah, and send great blessing on us wherever we turn. May our children not become strangers, and may we be able to provide for our children with a livelihood, I and my husband, by ourselves, during a long life.

A later section of the work, entitled "Laws of Hallah," explains that the dough must be made with at least 43 "eggs" (a rabbinic measure of volume) or at least two "quarts" of flour (another edition specifies three "quarts") in order for it to require that a portion be separated as hallah.[8] This is followed by the blessing for separating hallah (in Hebrew) a little paragraph asking that the performance of the commandment be acceptable before God, and Yehi Razon, a brief Hebrew prayer of kabbalistic origin asking God to rebuild the Temple.

graphic Hebrew
Next comes the tkhine for the act itself:

May my hallah be accepted as the sacrifice on the altar was accepted. May my mizvah be accepted just as if I had performed it properly. In ancient times, the high priest came and caused the sins to be forgiven; so also may my sins be forgiven with this. May I be like a newborn child. May I be able to honor my dear Sabbaths and holidays. May God bestow upon me that I and my husband and my children be able to nourish ourselves. Thus may my mizvah of hallah be accepted: that my children may be fed by the dear God, be blessed, with great mercy and compassion. May this mizvah of hallah be accounted as if I had given the tithe. As I perform my mizvah of hallah with might and main, so may God, be blessed, guard me from anguish and pain. [This last line is rhymed in Yiddish: Vi ikh tu mayn mitsve fun khale mit gants hartsn, zo zol Got borukh hu mikh hitn far payn un shmartsn.]

This tkhine contains several themes: the desire to perform mizvot properly, the continued association of hallah with receiving adequate nourishment, the desire for forgiveness of sins. Perhaps most interesting, though, is the sense that by taking hallah, the woman is continuing the ancient system of sacrifices and tithes. In this tkhine, she identifies with those ancient Israelites who brought sin offerings and gave tithes to the poor and the Levites.

This identification is taken even further in the tkhine for candle lighting:

Lord of the world, may my mizvah of kindling the lights be accepted like the mizvah of the high priest who kindled the lights in the dear Temple.... May the feet of my children walk on God's path and may the mizvah of my candle lighting be acceptable, so that my children's eyes may be enlightened in the dear Torah. I also pray over the candles that the dear Go may accept my mizvah of the light as if my candles were the olive oil lamps which burned in the Temple and were never extinguished.
Here the woman identifies not with the ordinary Israelite but with the high priest himself. This is an unexpected association it seems to suggest, at the least, the woman's strong sense of the importance of her religious role: The reciter of the tkhine compares her own religious acts to those of the high priest, the highest religious functionary of ancient Israel. These two tkhines contain a richness of historical and midrashic allusion. They also sustain a complex of associations: hallah and nourishment, Torah and light, and also (in material not quoted) light and health and livelihood.

Seyder Tkhines

Yet not all tkhines are this sophisticated. Seyder Tkhines, an earlier anonymous collection [9] contains a prayer for baking the Sabbath loaf which contrasts with the Shloyshe She'orim in style and substance.[10]
Lord of all the worlds, all blessing is in your hands. I come now to honor your holiness, and pray you to give your blessing on what I bake. Send an angel to guard the baking, so that everything will be well baked, will rise nicely, and will not burn. May this baking, over which we make the holy blessing, honor your holy Sabbath, which you have chosen that your people Israel may rest thereon. God, listen to my voice, for you are the one who hears those who call upon you with the whole heart. May you be praised to eternity.

In its humble, tender tone, in its simplicity, this tkhine shows us how women could sanctify the most ordinary household chores. It also reminds us that women's spirituality was far from monolithic. While one woman was moved by envisioning herself as a participant in the ancient Temple worship, another found holiness in her own kitchen.


[1] Numbers 15:7-21; Mishnah Hallah 1:1 [back]
[2] Mishnah Shabbat 2:7 [back]
[3] From the Hebrew tehinnah (supplication; plural tehinnot), the Yiddish word tkhine can refer either to an individual prayer or to a collection of such prayers. [back]
[4] Mishnah Shabbat 2:5, phrased negatively: "Women die in childbirth for three transgressions: because they do not take care in observing marital separation, setting aside the portion of dough, and kindling the Sabbath light." [back]
[5] The first letters of each word were combined to form an acrostic, h-n-h, which is the Hebrew for Hannah. For this reason, the biblical Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, became associated with the women's commandments, and sometimes appear in tkhines (books of supplication which we will soon discuss) for these acts. [back]
[6] There is some question about whether Sore bas Tovim was a historical or a legendary personage. See Zinberg, Old Yiddish Literature, 253-55; Niger, "Yidishe literatur," 83, 106n. [back]
[7] The source of the Hebrew phrases, including paraphrased and misquoted biblical verses and long sequences of rhyme, reamain a puzzle. Did the author quote, mistakenly from memory? Did she compose the many Hebrew sentences with no obvious source? Or was there some Hebrew source on which she relied? Does the extensive use of Hebrew and familiarity with such esoteric sources as the Zohar indicate that the author was in fact a man? These questions remain to be answered. [back]
[8] The word hallah adds up to 43 in Hebrew numerology. [back]
[9]Amsterdam, 1650 and 1752. [back]
[10] In some varieties of Eastern Yiddish, the Sabbath loaf is also called hallah (khale), because one must separate hallah in order to prepare it. The Seyder Tkhines, however, uses the western Yiddish term berkhes. [back]

BREAD Table of Contents




Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend