Tefillat Nashim: Jewish Women's Prayers throughout the Ages (review)
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Reviewed by
Aliza Lavie. Tefillat Nashim: Jewish Women's Prayers throughout the Ages. Tel Aviv: Yedioth Ahronoth, 2005. 312 pp. (in Hebrew)

The entry "Devotional Literature" by Kaufmann Kohler and Judah David Eisenstein in the 1905 Jewish Encyclopedia contains a section on Yiddish Te.innot—devotional literature for women—in which we read the following comments:

The names of the authors are nearly all fictitious and high sounding and have been affixed to make the te.innot salable. It is known that some of the te.innot were written by indigent students of the Rabbinical Seminary of Wilna or Jitomir . . . for nominal sums, and that the publishers stipulated that the writers should fashion the composition in tearful and heartrending phrases to suit the taste of the women readers. This forced cultivation of devotional feeling rendered the te.innot exaggerated and over-colored, and this did not escape the criticism and ridicule of the men against the women who were such devotees of the te.innot.

(IV, p. 551; online at www.jewishencyclopedia.com)

Kohler and Eisenstein thus dismissed not only the tehinnot, but also women and their prayer life. There is no suggestion in the entry that women might themselves be authors of prayers, or that they could exercise choice or discrimination in the prayers they offered. The implication is that they were ignorant and taken in by the devotional equivalent of a cheap novel, written purely for profit.

A century on, and a very different attitude to these prayers has emerged. Much has been written about the tehinnot in the last twenty years, and Aliza [End Page 212] Lavie follows the now generally accepted view that many of them were written by women, and that, in the main, they were carefully composed to meet specific needs. Further examples of women's prayers are drawn from surviving Italian prayer books, hand written and lovingly prepared, often by fathers for their daughters or husbands for their wives. Yet others are individual prayers—some written by women, and some by men for women—from different places around the Jewish world, meeting women's devotional needs in a variety of contexts and occasions. While not all of them may excel in literary merit (though since many have been translated into Hebrew from other languages, it is difficult to tell), Lavie, by placing them in their historical context—her notes appear alongside each prayer—renders them inspirational and exceedingly moving. No one, reading this book could make fun of a woman's choice of prayer.

Full of variety in subject, mood and style, the book is attractively set in two colors, distinguishing prayer from commentary, with a stylized decoration around each title. is the texts are expected to be prayed rather than studied. On the whole, these are prayers that once were alive in the supplications of the petitioner. Is it possible that they will live again on the lips of our own generation? The success with which Tefillat nashim has been met since its publication two years ago suggests that this is happening.

Aliza Lavie's task has been a difficult one. Throughout Jewish history, a man's strict daily recitation of the statutory prayers took place in the public arena of the synagogue. These were the prayers that were written down and preserved in siddurim over the ages. Women's prayer, on the other hand, was a private matter and on the whole extemporary. Prayers were transmitted orally from mother to daughter—an oral tradition that, with the vicissitudes of the twentieth century, has been all but lost. In addition, male scholars' disinterest in the subject gave rise to the suggestion that women did not pray. It has taken a generation of female scholars to show this to be quite wrong, and to revisit such ancient prayers as do exist in writing and reevaluate them in the context of the ages in which they were written.

While many studies have been done on individuals and on specific groups of prayers, Lavie's book, to my knowledge, is the first to have gathered examples of all the known literature relating to women's prayer life and rituals. This impressive collection covers...