Unlike other religions where the church is primary, Judaism treats the home and synagogue as being co-equal. Some of our most important rituals belong exclusively to the home, such as the Seder, the Sukkah, the Sabbath table, and the Chanukah menorah. The continuity of Judaism rests on the home more than anything else.
Throughout the ages, Jewish women have imbued spirituality into the Jewish home. As such, certain mitzvotare set aside especially for women because of their special connection to the home.3 Family purity laws, candle lighting on Shabbat and holidays, and the separation of challah are rituals that women always observed with particular pride and meticulousness. And of course, Jewishness itself is passed on via the mother. If the mother is Jewish, the child is 100 percent Jewish.4
Pillar of the Family
Since the beginning of mankind, all societies have recognized that a woman's sensitivity and warmth are ideally suited for motherhood. Moreover, the extraordinary feeling that men can never experience -- nurturing a baby inside them -- puts women in the position of being the best, most loving caregivers for their children. For the preservation of the family structure, and by extension the overall health of society, the Torah encourages women to embrace this role.
In this vein, the Torah released women from the obligations of certain time-bound mitzvot. This is not because of any difference in the level of sanctity between men and women.5 Rather, these exemptions allow a woman the ability to be totally devoted to her family without the constraints of having to fulfill such mitzvot at the correct time.6 Of course, whenever a woman does not face conflicting family obligations, she may fulfill these mitzvot and receive eternal reward.7 Whatever the case, she is fulfilling God's will, Who knows that her spiritual growth is intertwined with her primary mission as the family cultivator.
Women are obligated to observe all the negative commandments, e.g. don't murder, don't steal.8 Regarding the time-bound positive commandments, a woman is exempt, with certain exceptions including:
observance of Shabbat9
eating matzah on Passover10
lighting Chanukah candles11
all the mitzvot of Purim12
Women are also required to perform all positive mitzvot that are not time-bound,13 e.g. mezuzah, returning lost items, etc.14
Regarding certain mitzvot, although a woman is technically exempt, women have historically accepted the performance upon themselves. This is the case with hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashana,15 sitting in the Sukkah on Sukkot,16 and taking the four species. But this should not come at the expense of family life.
When a woman chooses to perform this category of "time-bound positive mitzvot," there is a question of whether she should recite a blessing (e.g. "Who commanded us to sit in the sukkah"). According to Ashkenazi custom, women say the blessing in such cases. According to Sefardi custom, women do not say the blessing.17
The mitzvah of tefillin is exceptional, and may not be performed by women.18 The commentators explain that as tefillin is one way to connect with the Creator, women establish this link in a much more meaningful way than donning tefillin. When a man wears tefillin, he manifests that which a woman can accomplish naturally by carrying a child within her. Kabbalistically, the tefillin's hollow chamber corresponds to the womb, and the straps correspond to the umbilical cord.
Interestingly, the tefillin box is called the bayit (home). Thus, one can say that the home a woman develops is her private tefillin.19
Similarly, it is forbidden for women to wear a tallit, as this is considered a "man's garment."20
Women and Prayer22
Jewish women have long been praised for their ability to speak from the heart and pour out emotions to God.
The prayers of the biblical Chana and other women serve as the source for many principles of Jewish prayer.23
Because formal prayer is largely time-bound, a women's obligation of prayer differs significantly from that of a man. A women's obligation of prayer is superseded by her role as the pillar of the family. Whenever there is a conflict, the needs of her family come first. Of course, whenever it is possible for a woman to juggle her family responsibilities and still pray meaningful prayers, she should do so.24
According to most authorities, a woman should pray at least Shacharit, including:25
first paragraph of Shema
Women should also try to pray the Mincha afternoon service.26
Traditionally, a Jewish woman -- from the moment that she woke up until she fell asleep at night -- always had a prayer upon her lips.27 What every woman instinctively knew was that prayer needs no formalities; the Almighty just wants us to speak to Him.
Of course, women are welcome to come to the synagogue if it will make her prayer more meaningful, and it is a mitzvah to so when there are no other conflicting responsibilities.28
Mothers should especially pray for the welfare of their children.31 A particularly appropriate time for this is when lighting Shabbat candles.32 Here is the text of a traditional prayer to say when lighting the candles:
May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my fathers, to be gracious to me (and to my spouse, children, parents) and to all my family. Grant us and all Israel good and long life. Remember us for good and blessing. Consider us for salvation and compassion. Bless us with great blessings. Make our household complete, crowning our home with the feeling of Your Divine Presence dwelling among us.
Make me worthy to raise learned children and grandchildren, who are wise and understanding, who love and fear God -- people of truth, holy and attached to God, who will dazzle the world with Torah and goodness and service of God. Please hear our prayers, in the merit of our matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and ensure that the glow of our lives will never be dimmed. Show us the glow of Your face and we will be saved. Amen.
According to God's Will
In the morning blessings, there is one blessing that only a woman recites:
Blessed are You, God our Lord, Who has made me according to His will.33
What is the explanation for this blessing?
Adam and Eve were created in the image of God.
Therefore, one who resembles God must also have the ability to create human life. Additionally, God is constantly nurturing us and giving us of His goodness. Therefore, one who resembles God must also be nurturing and have the ability to exceedingly give goodness.
As the primary creators and nurturers of human life, women more closely resemble God than men do. When a woman makes the blessing thanking God "Who has made me according to His will," she recognizes that her will is like His will.
Now what about the morning blessing that men make? There is a series of three blessings that are stated in the negative: "Blessed are you God... for not making me a non-Jew... for not making me a slave... for not making me a woman." These blessings are in order from most general to specific.
Each mitzvah is a special opportunity to grow spiritually. The man is thanking God for providing these opportunities, as:
a non-Jew has seven mitzvot to observe,
a slave has a limited number of mitzvot, being that his time is not his own, and
a woman is also exempt from certain time-bound positive mitzvoth
With each of these three blessings, the man shows an increasing gratefulness for opportunities to serve God in performance of the mitzvot.
A woman, who is inherently more spiritual, as we explained previously, does not need as many "tools" to become close to God, and thus -- with a sense of satisfaction -- she thanks God for "making me according to His will" -- i.e. just the way I am.34