Acts of Transformation

Speaking on the anniversary of the passing of his mother, Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe would often point out that the initial letters of the three mitzvot especially entrusted to women—challah, niddah and hadlakat neirot—correspond to the letters of his mother’s name, “Chana.” In her memory, he would encourage all women and girls to strengthen their commitment to these mitzvot, and to Torah observance in general. The woman, the pillar of the Jewish home, has been gifted with three special mitzvot that are the foundation of Jewish living. These mitzvot are:

  • kindling the Shabbat and festive candles;
  • taking challah, and by extension, the laws of keeping kosher;
  • the laws of family life.

While both men and women are obligated in these fundamental mitzvot, the Jewish woman has been given precedence and carries the authority in ensuring their proper fulfillment. As the backbone of her home, she sets the tone and imbues her environment with its inner spiritual mission. The Shabbat candles ushering in the holy day of Shabbat transform our mundane weekday into a time of peace and sanctity. The challah taken from our loaves of bread reminds us that our sustenance comes from G‑d and, like the laws of kosher food, demonstrate that even the seemingly mundane activity of eating is a G‑dly act. And the laws governing family life reflect how even our bodily drives can be holy. The common theme weaving through each of these mizvot is the feminine ability to uncover, kindle and nurture the spark of holiness and G‑dliness found within every part of our world. At the vanguard of what is most dear to us as a nation, the Jewish woman carries the torch of tradition and passes on the chain of continuity to the next generation. She nurtures her inner space and her home, and fans the light of G‑dliness to create a better world.

 

Challah

The first portion of your kneading, you shall separate as a dough offering(challah) . . . In all your generations, give the first of your kneading as an elevated gift to G‑d. (Numbers 15:20–21) When the Jewish people first entered and settled the Land of Israel, one of the gifts they were commanded to give to the kohanim, the priestly tribe, was challah—a portion of dough separated from their kneading bowl every time they baked bread. Today, we do not actually give the challah to the kohen. However, we still observe the mitzvah by burning the challah portion, as its sacredness prohibits us from using it. The mitzvah of separating challah can be done by every Jew. Traditionally, however, this has been one of the special mitzvot entrusted to the Jewish woman, who is so influential in shaping the values and attitudes of her family, Taking challah expresses the belief that all our sustenance comes to us through G‑d. Whatever we are given is not for our use alone. If we have wisdom, money or good helth, our first step is to put them towards a G‑dly purpose. The hand that separates the dough as a gift to G‑d reminds us that even while kneading the most pedestrian components, we must suffuse our world with its G‑dly mission. By extension, the kosher laws are also considered part of a woman’s special mitzvot, and she is entrusted with ensuring that these laws and all their details are properly kept. The observance of kashrut has been a hallmark of Jewish identity. Like the mitzvah of challah, it conveys that holiness is not confined to holy places; rather, life in its totality is a sacred endeavor. Even the seemingly mundane activity of eating is a G‑dly act and a uniquely Jewish experience.