Two of the most iconically gendered concepts in Jewish prayer — that “tenth man” for a minyan, on the one hand, and taking challah, one of three “women’s commandments,” on the other — come from this week’s portion. But gender issues can, I think, distract from other prayer ideas suggested by these same verses.
Like Crossing a Bridge
“You shall make a gift to the LORD from the first yield of your baking, throughout the ages.” — Numbers/Bamidbar 15:21.
This is the basis for the mitzvah of taking challah, a substitute for providing the first portion of dough to the priests. As it appears here, there is nothing gendered about the ritual commandment. And this mitzvah has always been incumbent on men who bake bread, or own the dough that is baked, as well as on women.
But challah, family purity and candle-lighting are identified as practices for which women’s non-observance leads to death in childbirth (c.f., B. Shabbat 31a-32b). So these became the three central “women’s commandments.”
Some traditional discussion of the “women’s commandments” puts special blame on Eve — and women generally — to explain why women are punished for non-observance of these particular commandments. But Shabbat 32a references a non-gender-based verse — “Israel was holy to the LORD, the first of His harvest. All who ate of it incurred guilt,” Jeremiah 2:3 — and goes on to say that men are “examined” when crossing a bridge or similar activity.
The point seems not about whether women or men sin more or deserve more punishment but that individuals’ fates are decided when they are most at risk and that women and men commonly face(d) different risks.
Some techinot** for taking challah express anxiety about the bread burning and a host of other concerns related to running a household and tending a family. Most recall the original dough-giving described in this portion and ask for forgiveness of sins in a post-Temple world: “…make me (and my family) like a person reborn.”
The anxiety and desire for forgiveness of sins seem appropriate to the context of this portion: Fear and failure of vision, which begins with ten individuals, is sufficient to bring near destruction on the whole people. God relents of immediate destruction, but the people’s actions will affect the rest of their lives: It is announced in 14:32ff that the entire adult community will never make it out of the desert.
When the people are told, in Leviticus/Vayikra 19:2, to “be holy,” God uses the noun, “eidah.” But how many are required to form an “eidah” [“community” or “congregation”]?
Spies are sent to scope out the Land (Numbers/Bamidbar 13:1ff). Upon their return, ten of the twelve spies report the Land full of giants and otherwise unconquerable. God reacts: “How much longer shall that wicked community [eidah] keep muttering against Me!…” (Numbers/Bamidbar 14:27).
Twelve spies minus Joshua and Caleb, who dissent from the negative report, keep muttering. The mutterers are called “eidah” [“community” or “congregation”]. Ergo: 12 – 2 = 10 = “congregation/community.”
The number ten plays a prominent role at other points in the Torah, such as when Abraham asks God to spare Sodom if ten righteous men are found there. And there are other explanations for the establishment of a minyan. But Rashi cites this muttering verse for the minimum requirement.
The spies are all men, but gender plays no active role in this episode. In the context of the portion, the Rabbinic requirement of ten men, and not women, for a minyan — the norm for millenia — is beside the point.
Lo Lefached Klal
In the Talmudic discussion above, we learn that we are most at risk when crossing a bridge or giving birth….not unlike the circumstance in this portion: We’re supposed to be crossing into the Land and creating a new national community.
Whether taking challah or not, each week we face the prospect of crossing fully into Shabbat and creating something new in the coming week….or not.
One way of understanding the commandment to take challah, the first dough, is that the first part of any endeavor belongs to God. In the context of this portion, that may mean seeking to be unafraid even if the bridge seems very narrow and the birth very frightening. (All the world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is lo lefached klal [don’t be afraid at all].)
Also in the context of this portion, prayer and other community action may benefit from considering the effect on an eidah… All the world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is lo lefached klal… don’t be afraid, together as a community.
** Many techinot [prayers of supplication, often written by/for women] have been created in association with “women’s commandments,” including taking challah. One common prayer asks:
…Just as giving the challah to the kohen in the past served to atone for sins, so may it atone for my sins and I shall be like a person reborn, free of sin and transgression. …may the spiritual influence of the mitzvah of challah enable me (and my family) to be constantly sustained by the hands of the Blessed Holy One…
For more on this topic, see Women’s Prayer Publications.
For the convenience of subscribers, here are links to other notes on this week’s portion:
Great Source: Shefa Gold and a fantastic painting by local (DC) artist Zachary Lynch.
A Path to Follow: Bialik’s Dead of the Desert