Thought for Sukkot: The glory of Jewish women


The Festival of Sukkot contains two major mitzvot — dwelling in the Succah on the night of the 15th of Tishrei, and the taking of the Arba’at HaMinim. These acts are in the halachic category of time-bound positive commandments which women may fulfill but not obligated to do so.

The following midrashic interpretation of the Arba’at HaMinim is intriguing in light of this ruling:

“The fruit of a beautiful tree [etrog],” this refers to Sarah, since the Holy One blessed be He honored her with good health in her old age. As the text states: “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, coming on in years.” (Bereishit 18:11) “Date palm fronds [lulav]” refers to Rivka, for just like a date palm tree has both fruit and thorns, so, too, did Rivka give birth to a tzadik (Ya’akov) and a ra’asha (Eisav). “A branch of a braided tree [hadas]” refers to Leah, for just like the hadas is filled with leaves, so, too, was Leah [blessed] with many children. “Willows of the brook [arvei nachal]” refers to Rachel, for just like the arvei nachal wither before the other Arba’at HaMinim, so, too, did Rachel die before her sister [Leah]. (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah, Parashat Emor 30:10)

We are immediately struck by the midrash’s choice of the emahot as metaphorically representing the Arba’at HaMinim. After all, what is their connection since, as we have seen, women are exempt from mitzvot aseh sh’hazman grama?

In my view, the midrash followed this approach in order to teach us a crucial lesson: Judaism is comprised of two beautiful and equally vital massorot (traditions), the massorah of the fathers and the massorah of the mothers. Therefore, it is fitting and proper to compare the Emahot to the Arba’at HaMinim.

In modern times, there was no greater exponent of this approach than The Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

“People are mistaken in thinking that there is only one massorah and one massorah community, the community of the fathers. It is not true. We have two massorot, two traditions, two communities, two shalshalot ha-kabbalah [chains of Tradition] — the massorah community of the fathers and that of the mothers. …

“What kind of a Torah does the mother pass on? I admit that I am not able to define precisely the masoretic role of the Jewish mother. Only by circumscription I hope to be able to explain it. Permit me to draw upon my own experiences.”

At this point we are privy to the Rav’s deepest personal reminiscences of his beloved mother:

“I used to have long conversations with my mother. In fact, it was a monologue rather than a dialogue. She talked and I “happened” to overhear. What did she talk about? I must use a halakhic term in order to answer this question — she talked me-inyana de-yoma [about the halakhic aspects of a particular holy day]. I used to watch her arranging the house in honor of a holiday. I used to see her recite prayers. I used to watch her recite the sidra every Friday night and I still remember the nostalgic tune. I learned from her very much.”

What was the essence of that which the Rav learned from his mother? What gift did she give him that transformed his perception of the world?

As he states in his inimitable manner:

“Most of all I learned that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life. — to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders.

“Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.”

It is, and perhaps always has been, the unique privilege of Jewish women to enable our people to “feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon [our] frail shoulders.”

Therefore, when we rejoice with the Arba’at HaMinim this Sukkot, let us remember the midrash’s essential and powerful message to embrace both the massorah of the mothers and the massorah of the fathers, so that we may fulfill this mitzvah as a “living experience” in all its “flavor, scent and warmth.”

With Hashem’s help, may we be zocheh to do so. V’chane yihi ratzon.