Growing up, my favorite time of week was when my mother lit the Shabbat candles. Bathed in the glow of light, I loved to watch her face as she waved her hands over the candlesticks she’d inherited from her grandmother, who’d brought them with her when she left Poland. It was a powerful reminder that we are part of a Jewish chain going back thousands of years, connected to generations of Jewish women before us.

Those moments were special in another sense as well. I used to long to find ways to tap into Jewish tradition, but I couldn’t find many role models for me as a Jewish girl. I had been taught that much of Judaism was outdated and sexist, and that to be a female was long considered second best. Those moments of lighting the candles seemed to defy this logic; I loved the way it was my mother and me, the two women in the house, who were tasked with ushering Shabbat into our home.

It was only years later, as I learned more about traditional Judaism, when I found that far from being marginal in Judaism, we are central to Jewish tradition. In many ways, we represent the pinnacle of what it means to be a spiritual being.

Here are five ways that Jewish women have profoundly shaped who we are and how we connect with the Almighty today.

1. Sarah and Rebecca: Bringing Holiness Into Our Homes

(Shabbat in the Shtetl - by Eduard Gurevitch)
(Shabbat in the Shtetl - by Eduard Gurevitch)

When I used to love the stillness and beauty of my mother lighting Shabbat candles, I didn’t realize that Jewish tradition explains the first woman to kindle Shabbat lights was our matriarch, Sarah. Blessed with Divine insight into the weekly holiday of Shabbat, each week she would kindle Shabbat lights and bake bread for the holy day. Jewish literature describes Sarah as an intensely spiritual person who created a home full of love, peace and holiness. Miraculously, her Shabbat lights stayed burning all week long, and her bread didn’t spoil.

When Sarah died, these miracles ceased, until her son Isaac married Rebecca. Once more, the Shabbat candles were lit and Shabbat bread baked for guests. Like her mother-in-law Sarah before her, Rebecca was able to transform her home, making it a place of peace and holiness where miracles were a regular occurrence. Today, we Jewish women follow in these matriarchal footsteps each time we invite guests and cook meals for Shabbat. Like Sarah and Rebecca who came before us, we strive to harness the holiness they knew, transforming our homes as we light the Shabbat candles. It’s a powerful role to fillsetting the tone in our homes, and endeavoring to bring in holiness and goodness.

2. Rachel: Pleading for Her Children

(Rachel's Tomb - by Moshe Braun)
(Rachel's Tomb - by Moshe Braun)

One of the most beautiful examples of the power of a Jewish woman is found in another of our matriarchs, Rachel, who married Rebecca’s son Jacob and became Rebecca’s daughter-in-law, carrying on her legacy.

Rachel is the only one of our patriarchs and matriarchs who is not buried in the Cave of Machpelah in the city of Hebron. Instead, Rachel died in childbirth as she gave birth to her son Benjamin while her family journeyed to Bethlehem, just outside Jerusalem, and so she was buried near the side of the road. Her tragic death personified her willingness to sacrifice herself for her children, for all eternity.

A thousand years after Rachel’s death, the prophet Jeremiah foresaw a time when “a voice is heard . . . lamentation and bitter weeping: Rachel is weeping for her children and refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are away.” Rachel was pleading for her children’s childrenfor the Jewish people as they were conquered by the Babylonians and led into bitter exile. At last, it became clear why Rachel had to suffer an untimely death in such a manner. As she watched the Jewish people being led into exile along the very road near her final resting place, Rachel cried out from the grave, pleading with G‑d to free them and and for the Jews to return to Israel.

It’s a powerful, mystical moment in the Torah. In the merit of Rachel’s prayers, Jews did indeed return to Israel (Jeremiah 31:14-16), and Rachel became the embodiment of the power of Jewish women to guard their children, and to move heaven and earth with our prayers.

3. Defying Pharaoh in Egypt

(Miriam Watches Over Moses in the Basket - by Natalia Kadish)
(Miriam Watches Over Moses in the Basket - by Natalia Kadish)

During the long centuries of the Jews’ enslavement in Egypt, we nearly lost hope entirely. Worked relentlessly, subject to vicious beatings and arbitrary murder, our ancestors sometimes considered giving up the will to live. During those dark, dark years, it was the steely determination of Jewish women who saved our people.

In the worst days of Egyptian slavery, some men decided it was too harrowing to see their children worked to death. In their anguish, they decided never again to be with their wives, never to bring more children into the world. During these bleak moments, our tradition teaches, it was Jewish women who insisted on dressing themselves as well as they couldwho insisted, after a long day of back-breaking labor, on adorning themselves as much as they could and making themselves beautiful. It was Jewish women who persuaded their husbands not to lose hope and to believe that their children would one day inherit a better world.

Two of the bravest of these women, who instilled hope in our people in Egypt, were Miriam and Yocheved, the sister and mother of Moses. Jewish tradition relates that they were midwives. When Pharaoh decreed that all Jewish baby boys be murdered at birth, Miriam and Yocheved attended Jewish births and hid the newborn boys from Pharaoh’s forces. One of the babies they hid was Yocheved’s own son, Moses, the great prophet who helped rescue his people from slavery.

4. Resisting the Lure of Idolatry

(The Golden Calf - by Yoram Raanan)
(The Golden Calf - by Yoram Raanan)

After the exodus from Egypt, while the Jewish people were walking through the desert on our way to Israel, we experienced what was perhaps our lowest point. The Torah relates that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, some of the Jews waiting for him below began to grow restless, demanding that their leaders build an idol to worship. By the time Moses received the Torah and returned to camp, many of the Jews were busy dancing around a golden calf they had just forged. It was an unbelievable moment of ingratitude; G‑d had rescued them from misery and slavery in Egypt, and they were already turning to an empty idol of gold. But not every Jew engaged in the sin of the golden calf; many resisted, including the women.

Then, as often today, it was Jewish women who were able to discern the right way to behave, and who were unwavering in their faith and commitment to the Jewish way of life.

5. Chana: Learning How to Pray

It might seem surprising to learn that an ancient heartfelt plea of a Jewish woman has become the very model for Jewish prayer through the ages. Chana’s plea to G‑d is the example that every Jew follows today when we turn our thoughts and words to the Almighty. She even inspired the very way Jews pray: it’s customary to pray in a low tone, audible to oneself but generally not to others, because of her.

Chana was married to a man named Elkana, and she was heartbroken at not having children. Year after year, she and her husband would visit the Israeli town of Shiloh, and each year Chana pleaded with G‑d for a child in the Tabernacle. One year, an officiant at the site saw her praying. The Torah relates that “only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard”; she was praying nearly silently to herself (I Samuel 1:12). Incensed, Eli, the High Priest, demanded to know whether Chana was drunk: Who else, he reasoned, would stand and behave in this seemingly strange way?

Chana was undeterred. Patiently, she explained that she had not drunk spirits, but was determined to pour out her soul before G‑d. Impressed with her passion and goodness, the officiant blessed her and wished her success in her prayers. Chana’s impassioned plea worked; she did have a baby soon afterwards. She named him Samuel, and he grew to be a great prophet. Overjoyed, Chana composed a powerful song that is read each year during the Rosh Hashanah service.

In generation after generation, it has been Jewish women whose faith and fortitude have sustained the Jewish people through our darkest times. As we work to follow in their footsteps, we draw on these inspiring examples of Jewish women and try to bring the lessons of their lives into our own.