Three things have been occupying my days over the past few months - preparing and recording the last of the forty-nine podcast episodes on the daily daf of Sotah, planning the details for a brand new Mishna course that we’re launching this summer, and most significantly, becoming a mom (for the second time) of a beautiful baby boy (for the first time). As I juggle the various roles in my life, these three life events started to come together.
I was six months pregnant when my sister and I started the ambitious project of producing a daily Sotah podcast for sefiras haomer. We had two months until Pesach and three months until my due date, so it was a wild race against the clock to record as many episodes as possible before the baby arrived. We started off recording three a week, but once Pesach came and we only finished half the episodes, we upped our game to recording one or two episodes per day. I was already on maternity leave at that point so my days became completely consumed with learning, researching and recording. I lived and breathed Maseches Sotah, spending every free moment plowing through as many commentaries as I could. As my due date grew closer, I knew in the back of my mind that any day now, I might need to drop everything (at least temporarily) and allow the little person about to be born to take over my life instead.
One Thursday morning, I sent my sister a message: “Don’t think we’ll be recording today. We might have to save the last six episodes for after the baby.” Four hours later, my son was born. My days were instantly consumed with nursing, diapering and swaddling. I lived and breathed mothering. Phrases from the Gemara that I had been learning whirled around in my mind during those late nights up with my newborn. The life I lived just one week ago now seemed light years away.
“If one teaches his daughter Torah, it is as though he taught her tiflus” reads the famous mishna on Daf 20 of Maseches Sotah. There are multiple readings of the word tiflus and many discussions about if and how this principle still applies today. What I found particularly interesting when I studied this daf this time around was the analysis of this mishna on the following daf. The Gemara there discusses the fact that a woman who is a sotah may be spared the affliction she would have suffered from drinking the bitter waters if she had some sort of merit. The Gemara proposes that perhaps the merit that would spare her is her Torah study. The Gemara rejects this because women are not included in the commandement to study Torah and therefore do not receive reward for it. However, the Gemara eventually concludes that the woman’s merit is indeed for Torah study, but not her own. It is through “escorting her sons to study and awaiting her husband’s return from the study hall” that she receives reward.
This idea is reflected in practical halacha as well. When discussing the laws of Torah study, the Alter Rebbe writes that women can only have a part in fulfilling the commandment of Talmud Torah through assisting their husbands and sons in their study. Almost as an afterthought, the Shulchan Aruch Harav adds that women also have an obligation to study the laws of the Torah that are applicable to them. Because the study that she does is not included in the obligation for talmud Torah specifically, it is not of primary relevance when discussing her connection to this commandment.
On the other hand, in the laws of birchas hatorah, the Alter Rebbe maintains that women do have an obligation to recite the bracha daily, since they have this mitzvah of studying the laws in the Torah that are applicable to them.
What follows is that there are really two components to a woman’s Torah study: the fulfilment of the obligation of Talmud Torah and the intrinsic value of connecting to the infinite G-dly wisdom contained in the Torah. Since women are not included in the obligation to study Torah, they can only connect to the former by assisting the men in their lives in their study. The latter, on the other hand, is an intrinsic part of engaging in Torah learning, irrelevant of one’s obligation. When a woman studies Torah, she has full access to its spiritual richness. It is for this reason that a she (at least according to some opinions) recites the blessing on Torah study every day, because the Torah study she does engage in, though it may not be her strict obligation, is entirely her mitzvah with regard to the connection she has to Hashem through Torah.
But there was something even more fascinating that I discovered when I studied this page of Gemara this time around. In a talk in 1990, the Rebbe discusses this first component - that the only way for a woman to have a relationship to the obligation of Talmud Torah is through assisting the males in her life with their study. On surface level, the modern equivalent of the Gemara’s description of “escorting her sons to study and awaiting her husband’s return from the study hall” might be packing her son’s lunch and walking him to the school bus that brings him to his local cheder. It might mean making her husband’s coffee before he leaves to study at kollel. But in this sicha, there is another meaning to this Gemara. Assisting her husband and sons, means assisting them in their actual learning. That means greeting her son when he comes home from cheder and asking him questions about the Chumash he learned that day. It means sitting down with him after dinner to review his mishnayos. It means centering the conversations at their Shobbos table around the Gemara he learned that week and bringing it to life with realistic scenarios. It means engaging in her own Torah study on a deep enough level that she can discuss her husband’s learning with him, ask questions, offer insights and make Torah learning a part of their everyday conversations. It means creating a home where Torah permeates every breakfast table, every trip to the park, every bedtime routine. It means being the spiritual nurturer of a home where Torah (not gossip, news or politics) is the common language that holds the family together.
This summer, we’re launching a new beginners mishna course. We like to call it “Mishna for Moms”. It’s a project we've been dreaming about for months now, inspired by moms we know who wished they could take a more active role in their sons mishna and gemara learning, but didn’t have the tools to do so. This course is an opportunity for moms like these to demystify mishna and gain a familiarity with its language and style, so that they can feel comfortable and confident with opening up a sefer of mishnayos on their own.
To be a student of Torah and to be a Jewish mother are not two separate missions in a Jewish woman’s life for her to reconcile. They are one and the same. When a woman lives and breathes Torah, she nurtures a home that lives and breathes Torah too.