Memorial Evening 2010

5770/2010 Memorial Evening
marking the 15th Yahrzeit of Etta Ehrman Kossowsky z.l.

The Memorial Evening marking the 15th Yahrzeit of Etta Ehrman Kossowsky z.l. was held on 6 February 2010 in Bet Shemesh. Etta's family and friends, some forty people, came from far and near to remember her and learn in her name.

As in previous years, a guest speaker was invited. Aliza Segal is a distinguished educationist as well as a yoetzet halacha, one of the few women recognised by the Rabbinate as qualified to advise women with halacha-related problems. Aliza spoke about women's halachic obligations in "The Making of History and Community".

Eli Ehrman gave a devar Torah on our ability to reverse the curses of Gan Eden: Geula and the Three Curses in Gan Eden.


Introduction by Esther Ehrman


Aliza Segal: The Making of History and Community


The following is a short summary of Aliza Segal's talk, written by Aliza.

Af hen hayu be'oto hanes: The Making of History and Community

In three different places in the Gemara, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi uses the same principle to obligate women in particular mitzvot. The mitzvot in question are: reading the Megillah on Purim; drinking four cups of wine at the Pesach Seder; and lighting Chanukah candles. These mitzvot have two important things in common: they are all positive, time-bound commandments, from which women are generally exempt, and they are all derabbanan/Rabbinic obligations.

The principle articulated by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is "af hen hayu be'oto hanes / even they were in that miracle." There is a disagreement among Rishonim as to the meaning of this principle. The position that appears in Rashi in two of the places, and is attributed to Rashbam as well in the Tosafot, maintains that the miracles associated with these three holidays were in some way brought about by women (Esther on Purim, Judith on Chanukah, and all of the "righteous women" in Egypt). "Af hen" indicates a female protagonist, in whose commemoration women of subsequent generations are obligated in the mitzvot. The position attributed to Rabbenu Tam disagrees on textual grounds. First, the terminology "af / even" implies inclusion, but not primary involvement, and second, the Palestinian Talmud features the phrase "oto safek / the same danger," and not "nes / miracle." Rather, Rabbenu Tam's opinion maintains that the women were equally endangered, and therefore the salvation applied equally to them, and so they are equally obligated in the mitzvot.

In the Etta Ehrman Kossowsky Yahrzeit Lecture, we focused on three arenas upon which the interpretive argument surrounding af hen hayu be'oto hanes may impact. The first is a look to the past. What do the halakhic positions reflect about how we read our history? What narrative is constructed, and what does this say about the position of women in Jewish history? On the one hand, we tend to value active over passive participation in historical events, and the notion of a female protagonist indeed sounds appealingly heroic. Our history is short on women featured prominently in leadership positions, and opportunities to focus upon such women perhaps should be maximized. On the other hand, if we require truly heroic women in order to be inclusive of women, then women are written out of more than into history. Rabbenu Tam's view then seems to be the more inclusive, the one that views women as part of the national history not by dint of outstanding actions, but by dint of sharing in the national destiny.

The second arena of impact is that of halakhah. If af hen is restricted to miracles involving a female protagonist, its application beyond the three particular cases is indeed limited. (The creation and application of such a principle may also be related, we have suggested, to Rashi's position regarding the rules governing mitzvot miderabbanan.) If, however, af hen may be applied to mitzvot commemorating any event in which women were also involved, perhaps there are other mitzvot that are implicitly affected by this principle. Tosafot (in the position that later Rishonim associate with Rabbenu Tam) restrict the application of the principle to mitzvot miderabbanan. One possible application would be the obligation of women in the third Shabbat meal, commemorating the miracle of the manna in the desert. Others would disagree, restricting the principle's application further to the specific types of situations represented in the Purim, Pesach and Chanukah stories: the Jews are in clear and present danger, and/or the mitzvah is one of pirsum hanes / publicizing the miracle.

The third arena that we considered in discussing the af hen principle is that of the present with a look towards the future. What is our construction of community? To what degree do we seek to be inclusive? Being counted among the mitzvah-observers is, within the halakhic system, a means of being counted. While women are not literally counted, as in for a minyan / quorum, we can seek ways of having people "count" as part of the community. Exceptional and heroic actions, akin to those undertaken by Rashbam's female protagonists, need not be the entry requirement into the community. Rather, it should be sufficient to share the fate, or the way of life, of that community, as in Rabbenu Tam's model. In seeking balance between the viewpoints represented by these positions, perhaps the individual can strive for whichever greatness in service he or she can achieve, while the community includes all by the mere fact of their belonging.