Jewish Women and Religious Devotion: The Rise of the Tikhine

The Chava Weissler papers are now available for research!

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Prayer is how the devout connect to the divine. It helps shape the life cycle and daily schedule of all religious communities. But, prayer is not always an equal experience for those who wish to participate. Judaism is a religion that has a reputation of being male centric and Hebrew centric. These tendencies extend to prayer and the daily or life cycle events to which they are tied. For generations, Jewish women were excluded by both the content and language of Jewish prayer, which can often be focused on men and are typically written in Hebrew, which not all women were taught to speak or understand.

However, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, new prayers known as tkhines began to appear. These private devotions were usually written in Yiddish, by both men and women, and were intended to be used by women and men who did not have extensive knowledge of Hebrew. These new prayers opened up Jewish ritual practice for women in an entirely new way, allowing them to build new connections to the divine and to be fuller participants in key Jewish rites. However, these tkhines also helped create a religious dialogue and set of practices for areas that traditionally fall within the “women’s domain” and are not addressed in typical Jewish prayer. Women suddenly had a means by which to verbally express their supplications to God regarding pregnancy, childbirth, infertility, and widowhood, to name a few.

Enter Dr. Chava Weissler, professor of religion. In 1985, Dr. Wiessler was a member of the Princeton University faculty and had just returned from a trip to the Jewish National and University Library, bringing back with her pounds of photocopies of the over 900 tkhines she found in their collection.

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Already an enthusiastic scholar of Jewish women’s lives, Dr. Weissler was enthralled with her find, which would become the basis of her first book, Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women. Weissler’s research was some of the first to address tkhines and Jewish women’s prayers. Much like the tkhines themselves, her writing opened up a whole new world of understanding, forever changing that way that both Jewish women’s payers and women’s roles within the Jewish community are perceived. Her work was at the cutting edge of the field, and continues to influence new generations of scholars.

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