The “Women’s Commandments” in Epitaphs

In the “articles” section of the sidebar, I have posted a link to a fascinating article by Evyatar Marienberg from Tel Aviv University called “A Mystery on the Tombstones: ‘Women’s Commandments’ in Early-Modern Ashkenazi Culture.” It focuses on the inscriptions on women’s tombstones in the Jewish cemetery in Rosenwiller, in Alsace in eastern France. The article appears in  Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal, vol. 3, No. 2, Winter 2003

The abstract states:

In a cemetery in Alsace, many of the women’s tombstones bear the inscription that the deceased kept the so-called “Women’s Commandments.” The article argues that two reasons may, among other reasons, account for this custom: one is for the sake of the deceased, proclaiming that she has atoned for the sin of Eve, and the other is for the sake of her descendants, arming that they are not “Bnei ha-Niddah,” descendants of a woman who ignored the Jewish laws regarding menstruation.

As I noted on the home page, these “Women’s Commandments” include lighting the Sabbath candles, observing the laws of Niddah separating men from women during their menstrual periods, and observing that of Challah, or burning a piece of dough when making bread.

In the article, the author notes the tombstone of a woman who died June 22, 1837, on which the epitaph details her adherence to all three — it’s the only epitaph to be so explicit that he found. The stone does not seem to bear any decorative carving. The inscription reads:

Here is buried a

woman, Mrs. Breinel,

the wife of the

respected Yehudah,

known as Leib from

Kolbsheim, her hands

were open for the

poor, the candle of

Sabbath she lit on

time, the bloods of

her Niddah she

properly distanced,

from the kneaded

dough she separated

Hallah, she is the

wise woman, on

Thursday, the 19th of

Sivan, (5)597, may

her soul be in the

sack of [those

designated to] life,


Using the Hands in Blessing the Candles

In an article “Hand Signs of the Jews” on the Chabad web site, I found this explanation of using the hands in blessing the Candles — as so vividly portrayed on women’s tombstones.

Blessings over Shabbat Candles

When Shabbat candles are lit, a ritual involving hands takes place. Usually this is done by the woman lighting the candles, though if there is no woman in the house, a man is obligated to do it. The candles are lit, and with both hands she waves the light towards her three times. The symbolism is to draw the spirit of the holiness of the Shabbat towards her. She closes her eyes, covers them with her hands, and recites the blessing. It is this sight of physical movement, bathed in the soft glow of the candles, and the faint murmur of her prayers that has been etched into the memories of so many generations of Jews.

It is often the physical aspect of a ritual that not only adds to but impresses on us the importance of the ritual, so that we remember it long after the ritual is over. That is what Jewish hand signs are all about.