For many years, the gage of an Orthodox home was the observance of Shabbos, kashrus and Taharas HaMishpacha (Laws of Family Purity). Nowadays, with the growth of observance, there are often more telltale signs of an Orthodox home: modest clothes, sheitels, tzitzis, seforim (Jewish books) in the home, minyan and shiurim as part of the daily schedule.
But for some reason, while it seems that there are becoming more societal norms of observance, davening for women is not necessarily among them. From my very non-scientific study, it seems that there are many frum women, who dress modestly, who attend classes, who check their vegetables for bugs carefully, but do not daven. And for many years, I was no different.
Like most people, my relationship with Tefilla has functioned in waves; waxing and waning over the years.
I grew up in a modern Orthodox home, thinking that davening was a weekday activity; something we had to do at school. But daven on a non-school day? That was only for teachers.
As I grew older, I became interested in becoming more observant, choosing to wear only skirts and dressing in a more tzanua way, but davening never became part of my daily routine. It was too hard to wake up early, it was another thing to do; whatever the reason, it wasn’t something I ever considered.
Until my waning days as a senior year in high school. I was on the verge of embarking on an intense year in Yerushalayim, where I would be spending my days in seminary. It was an intense time, much of it spent in analytic conversations with friends. And one day, one of those conversations centered around davening. A friend said to me she believed that the gage of a person’s religious sincerity was not how they dressed, but whether they davened. After all, she reasoned, the way a person dresses is a symbol to the world of a person’s religious stature but whether or not a person davens is only between themselves and Hashem.
The words hit home.
So in typical Ariela style of never doing anything half-way, I started to daven. Three times a day. With a minyan.
I went off to Israel that summer and minyan fell by the wayside. But davening three times a day continued. I would often walk to the Kotel in the early morning hours as dark turned to light, listening to the birds greeting the day, standing at an empty space at the Wall, pouring out my heart in prayer. Sometimes I would daven Maariv on the roof of my seminary’s building late at night, alone with my Creator. Davening was meaningful and beautiful.
But emerging into a world that wasn’t wholly spiritual was a letdown. I stuck with my commitment to davening three times a day through college, through my first three years teaching, through my wedding and through the birth of my first baby. Sometimes it was a mumbling of words, sometimes I only remembered to daven Maariv late in the night, sometimes I even woke up in the middle of the night as it struck me that I forgot to daven and hurriedly ran to my siddur, but I stuck with it. Over the years, it became a duty. And not much more.
After the birth of my second child, it became just twice a day.
After the birth of my third child, it became a struggle to daven even once a day. Most days, I did daven, sometimes squeezing it in right before mid-day, but there were also times when the day would go by, prayerless.
By the birth of my fourth child, I was working in administration at our school, a job that felt all-consuming and was juggling the duties of being a Rebbetzin and taking care of four children with my husband often not home. It was a struggle to get to work on time while getting my four kids dressed and ready for school; it seemed like an impossibility to find time to daven in the morning. And so davening became relegated to a feeling of guilt of something I should do… but didn’t.
I’d heard and read that some say women with children are exempted from Tefilla but having learned and taught the topic of Women and Tefilla many times, I never understood this (unless one is Sfardi and even then, the Rambam obligates women in informal prayer). The Mishna Brura quotes the Ramban, whose position is that women are not exempt from Tefilla despite it being a time-bound mitzvah, with the reason given that prayer is all about mercy, and women need mercy too.
And so while I knew others offered justification for not davening in my situation, it didn’t sit right with me. I also knew I managed to find the time to go on facebook and text with friends. I woke up at the exact moment I had to for work. Surely there was time if I really wanted to make it.
Three years ago, I stood before Hashem on Rosh Hashana and admitted the fact that I was in a downward spiral. I asked myself what was my religious life and inspiring others worth if I couldn’t make room for G-d in my day, even once? I repeated the conversation I had had with my high school friend long ago and asked myself how sincere my religious convictions were if I could find time for everyone else in my day, but not the G-d that I taught about all day. And so I committed to daven.
That commitment has changed my life.
Starting my day by laying out my concerns and stresses before G-d has given me a new perspective on life, in a way that I could never have appreciated when I was seventeen. When frustrations are overwhelming, I now realize that I don’t have to carry it all; nor can I control it all. I can do my best and leave the rest for Hashem. When I’m tired, I ask G-d for strength and energy. When I don’t know what the best decision is with regards to parenting, to working with colleagues or congregants, I ask G-d for clarity and after davening, somehow, the answers seem more tangible. When things seem impossible, I ask G-d to carry me through.
While some days I daven with my students at school, on other days, I daven at a park during the early morning hours, or overlooking the Charleston Harbor and I find davening in nature to be an incredibly powerful experience. Watching the day come alive at sunrise and observing birds and dolphins welcome the day anew makes the words of the Tefillot all the more poignant. I see “HaMechadesh b’tuvo b’chol yom Tamid maaseh Breishit”, “He, who in His goodness renews the creation each day” unroll right before my eyes. The Battery is usually pretty quiet so early in the morning but on occasion, a jogger passes by while I am davening. While I used to feel funny about whispering to myself in a public place, I feel more emboldened now. I am praying to my G-d, why should I feel ashamed? V’lo neivosh ki vicha batachnu, we are not ashamed for we believe in You.
I will be honest and admit that I don’t say nearly as much of the siddur as I did when I was younger and stick to the Tefillos that the Mishna Brura states that women are obligated to say. I also won’t lie and say that every Tefilla is an experience that moves Heaven and Earth; there are definitely days that I mumble through. What I can say is that more days than not, I find tremendous meaning in the words of the Tefilla, in a way that I never have before. I find tremendous meaning in starting off my day by making room for G-d. On days that go well, Tefilla teaches me humility, that luck and fortune comes from G-d. On days that don’t go so well when I’m overwhelmed in the chaos of life; balancing children, work, keeping my house in order and community work, when I am constantly feeling that I am falling behind in something and at those times when life seems unfair, Tefilla is truly my anchor.
I realize that not every woman is at a stage where she make the time (the Magen Avraham assumes these women offer an informal prayer at this stage of life and are fulfilling the Rambam’s obligation of Tefilla). I know women who wake up at 5am to nurse their babies before making a long commute to work and really have zero time to add anything to their schedule. I know women whose kids need to be watched every second and they don’t have the luxury of 10-15 minutes to daven. For those women, this is their stage of life and Tefilla may not be practical or even possible. But I do think it’s a question every woman should ask herself: can I find the time? Personally, I look back at the years that I didn’t daven and wonder what they would have been like if I had made the time. Would life surrounded by diapers and toys in every corner had been more meaningful if only I had made the time to daven?
Whether women obligated are in formal Tefilla is an answer will depend on your posek. But asking ourselves the question of if we can find the time, can enhance and add so much meaning to our lives.
Ariela Davis is the Director of Judaics at Addlestone Hebrew Academy and the Rebbetzin of Brith Sholom Beth Israel, the historic shul of downtown Charleston, South Carolina. She writes and speaks about issues related to Israel, the Holocaust and Jewish thought. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.