Posted by: RaeAn | 11 August 2010

Rosh Chodesh Elul

Today marks the beginning of a new month in the Jewish year! Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul. Elul is the month before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and for every day leading up to Rosh Hashanah beginning א’ Elul (the first day of Elul), you’re supposed to sound the Shofar to usher in the High Holy Day season.

Additionally, Rosh Chodesh holds particular meaning and spirituality for women; the moon waxes and wanes with our natural monthly cycle, and the beginning of each new month is seen as a special time for women. In the past, I’ve gone to some stunningly beautiful Rosh Chodesh services which emphasize community, togetherness, and celebration of our bodies.

The Women of the Wall holds a service on every Rosh Chodesh at the Kotel (a.k.a. the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, or just the Wall). To those not deeply entrenched in Israel’s politics, that may seem like a simple thing.

It’s not.

First, for some background, read a little bit about Women of the Wall (in Hebrew, Nashot haKotel / נשות הכותל). Anat Hoffman, the group’s leader, was arrested last month for carrying a Torah in the women’s section of the Kotel. Why? Because apparently, the Kotel is only a place for one type of Jew to pray, and that type isn’t women who desire equal access to spirituality as men.

Some of the restrictions placed on women at the Kotel, the limits of which WoW has been trying to push for years (and many of these points are already a stark improvement on the situation just a few years ago): We cannot wear a tallit in the proper way. We have to wear it “like a scarf” rather than as a prayer shawl over our shoulders. We cannot carry a Torah, let alone read from it, at the Kotel. This is Israeli law. Not merely tradition: law. On WoW’s About Us page, you can read about the restrictions which Israeli law places on women, singling us out, relegating us to the status of “not spiritual enough” to pray at Israel’s holiest site. Women praying aloud, as a group, at the Kotel has only been legally protected for a short period of time; women’s communal prayer often earns a great deal of heckling, though the police will protect us from true harm. (Yes, there is security. At a religious service. For our own safety.)

This morning, I woke up bright and early (5:45 am… yaaawn!) to meet up with other HUC students at 6:30 am to walk to the Kotel for the service at 7:00 am.

First, the walk to the Kotel was beautiful. I’m very disappointed in myself for not bringing a real camera. I didn’t take any pictures at all except on my iPhone during the last part of the service. But I do have those pictures, plus those that are in the news. (Article on WoW’s return to the Wall this month.)

At 7:00, we met with dozens of other women at the Kotel. We walked into the women’s side. Some of our male classmates came along as well; they went to the men’s side and stood as close to us as possible on the other side of the mechitza (divider) so be supportive. Many of us put on tallit; many of us wore kippot; and one of us began leading a group service. A policeman came up to one of the women near me and told her that she can’t wear her tallit like that — she has to wear it like a scarf. She moved it to wrap it around her neck rather than her shoulders. (Of course, as soon as he walked away, she moved it back… which, fortunately, he never noticed, because he could have become very nasty and even kicked her out.)

I wore my grandfather’s tallit, the one I received at my Bat Mitzvah. I don’t often wear a tallit to pray, but when I do, I love the feeling of connection it gives me — to my grandfather, who wore the same tallit; to my mother, who passed it on to me; and to generations of Jews before me who have worn similar tallitot for generations.

I couldn’t quite follow the service — it was a different style of service than I usually go to — but there was some amount of spirituality in praying with a group of women on Rosh Chodesh that I couldn’t ignore. A lot of the prayer was quiet and quasi-individual for a bit… and then we got to Psalm 150, and we all know the tune. We begin singing aloud. And we get louder and more joyful.

And the heckling begins.

Some religious man from across the mechitza starts yelling at us (and continues doing so, uninterrupted, for the entire hour we were there). He calls us faggots and says that our actions will condemn us to 2000 years of curses for so damning God (or at least that’s what I gathered with my broken knowledge of such heavily accented Hebrew). Some other religious men counter by just doing their prayer louder and louder as well. (Yep, men can pray together aloud, but not women.) A woman comes up to the group and started yelling as well. I couldn’t catch her words, but there was an incredible amount of vitriol in her voice — you’d think we were sacrificing a child in the square, not praising God with the words in our texts! At least the police officer who had been nasty to us about staying within the lines of what was deemed “proper” was equally nasty to her and kept her away from us. We plowed on with the service.

People started taking pictures of us; some visitors took video; religious women stared, some open-mouthed, at this group of women who dare pray “like men.”

After Psalm 150, we went back to the quiet type of praying for a bit… the heckling quieted down, but didn’t stop.

At one point, we heard our boys on the other side praying the Amidah. Now, the Amidah traditionally mentions “avoteinu” — the fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Egalitarian congregations also added in “imoteinu” — our mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. The boys prayed the Amidah… boldly and loudly including imoteinu. As we heard the names of the mothers of the Jewish people ringing strongly over the mechitza, my friend Sari and I exchanged a glance of sheer pride: “Those are our boys! They’re praying for us, too!” It was an amazing moment, that amidst all of this anger and vitriol aimed at us for merely wanting to recite an hour’s worth of Hebrew as a group, we had a minyan (yes, there were a full ten of our HUC boys there) who supported us from the more privileged side of the divider. Up until that point, I was becoming a little weighed down by all of the hate spewed at us — but in that moment, I felt renewed and continued praying with the most heart I’ve felt in years in a prayer service.

My classmate Leah had volunteered to blow the shofar for us to mark the first day of Elul. As one of the women handed her the shofar, however, a policeman rushed up and confiscated it — apparently it would be too disruptive for one of our woman to blow shofar. (This in spite of the fact that another woman, not in our group, had blown a shofar elsewhere in the plaza earlier that morning.)

It was time for the Torah service at that point anyway, so we filed out of the Kotel plaza to Robinson’s Arch, the area around the corner from the Kotel which WoW had been offered as a “compromise” location for reading the Torah. Since the Ultra-Orthodox wouldn’t put up with women reading Torah at the Kotel, they relegated us to outside the Kotel plaza. It’s absurd — men can read Torah on their side of the divider. Women, however, are not deemed equal in this aspect of Israeli law.

And so we met Anat outside the gate (she had been banned from the Kotel for a month after being arrested at last Rosh Chodesh; here’s a video of the service and the arrest, a press release from WoW, and an article in HaAretz) and we held a procession down to Robinson’s Arch for the Torah Service.

Our procession down to Robinson's Arch for the Torah reading portion of the service. Anat is carrying the Torah in the front, though it's difficult to see in this picture. This is only a small portion of those who came to support WoW and to pray with us on Rosh Chodesh. There were at least 50 people walking with us from the Kotel.

Once we got to Robinson’s Arch, we began the Torah service. It was an entirely women-led service, which was refreshing after attending Shirah Chadashah last week for Shabbat. Women called women for aliyot, women read the Torah, women blessed each other, and women prayed together — with our male supporters proudly singing and praying with us as we made our assertion: We, too, are Jews and this, too, is ours.

The first Torah reader reads the first aliyah.

To be honest, I think Robinson’s Arch was a far more pleasant place to pray than at the Kotel. It was quieter; no one heckled us; and it’s simply beautiful:

We were standing what would be just to the left of the frame of this picture, but this was essentially our view as we prayed and read the Torah: the remains of the Second Temple, left as-is for their own sake, in beautiful 2000-year-old Jerusalem Stone.

As the service ended, Leah was invited to blow the shofar — for real this time. The sound echoed off the stone on the other side of the valley.

Leah blows the shofar to ring in Elul as Sari, the Women of the Wall, and our friends look on.

And her picture made the news:
The story, in Hebrew, is here:,7340,L-3933954,00.html
And a story in English:
They even live-tweeted the whole thing, so you can follow them if you want and get updates live during future events:

And thus, at 9:00 am, ended the service at the Kotel and began my day of Ulpan tests and registering for the Bone Marrow Registry and conference calls with financial aid in the US and other mundane things that all pale in comparison to this peaceful push for equality which is one of the reasons I’m here at Hebrew Union College.

I will wholly admit that I think the Kotel is overrated. It was a retaining wall which happens to be the closest part of the stones to where the Holy of Holies was in the Second Temple that still stands and happens to be in Jewish possession. In some ways, it’s a pile of stones, v’zehu. I’ve found many other places to be far more spiritually fulfilling as a place for prayer and community and spirituality.

However, the Kotel remains a powerful symbol in Israel and in Judaism all around the world. It’s a connection to our past. It’s a place with a strong meaning for many Jews, and it belongs to all Jews of the world.

Not just the Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the world: all Jews. Including Reform Jews. And Conservative Jews. And Progressive Jews. And Reconstructionist Jews. And women.

The reasoning for banning women from wearing tallitot and reading from the Torah and sometimes praying aloud and sometimes blowing shofar is to “keep the peace” to maintain the “sanctity of the place.”

However, the sanctity of the place cannot be kept when a group of women who merely want to read the words of the Torah, or even sing the words of Psalm 150, have to do so amidst yelling, insults, and the threat of arrest.

Many Israelis do not see the point in praying at the Kotel. They see it as belonging to “them,” the Ultra-Orthodox, who are separate from “us,” the more secular and/or progressive Jews. But that doesn’t have to be the case. The Kotel can belong to all of us — once all are seen as equals under the law in such a holy place.

Some footage from today can be found on the JPost front page, but I couldn’t find a permanent link, so grab it while it’s still there. Look under “Top Stories,” and at this moment, it’s the first one listed.

The "subversive" activity of reading the Torah.

B’shem shivyon (in the name of equality),

~ Rae



  1. As the author of the blog post about it that you identified as the news, I’m happy to point you to this article, which is probably a better news link:

    • Thanks! I added in additional links. That’s what happens when I’m rushing to finish a blog post at almost 1 am.

  2. For more information about Shofar and other Holy Temple instruments, we have written extensively on the Shofar and have three websites

    1) Joint Effort with Michael Chusid, an expert Shofar sounder and commentator
    2) Shofar Sounders WebPage
    3) Shofar WebPage

  3. […] Rosh Chodesh Elul […]

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