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Balancing Act

An elderly lady was in front of me at the checkout at the supermarket. She wasn't buying much and I was buying rather a large amount and had my hyperactive children in tow. She turned to me and said wistfully, 'We used to buy only what we needed for the day, and that was from the grocer's on the corner.'

I thought of my husband's Yemenite grandmother who brought ten children up in a two-roomed house in a small neighbourhood near Rechov Bar Ilan in Jerusalem, surviving the siege, the British and the wars with no time-saving technology, no washing machine and at times (such as during the aforementioned siege) no food and only a litre of water a day between twelve for washing, cooking and drinking. My father-in-law was young at the time of the siege, but he remembers plucking and eating leaves from the trees because there was nothing else to eat. But his mother and her friends got together once a week or two and made ten kilos of cookies together, or prepared charoset for Pesach or a special baklava for Purim, and by the grace of G-d, they all got by. Their lives revolved in a smaller orbit and I imagine the community feeling in her neighbourhood was glorious.

'Life must have been simpler like that,' I replied, fishing for my clubcard amongst credit and debit cards, somewhere below my phone and electronic car keys.

'You know,' the elderly lady said, 'you might have all the machines nowadays and cars and what not, I still think it's harder for you than it was for us.'


'Oh, yes. Much harder.'

I wanted to get her phone number and go around to her house for tea to ask her all about it, but as usual, I had no time. I had a washing machine, a dishwasher, a mobile phone, the Internet and a car and somehow time had not been released to the extent that would enable me to talk to this lady about how much more simple her life was and how much more time she may have had without machines. Oh the irony of it.

So here we are in our complicated lives, still lacking time. I was reading about halacha and marriage this week. Around the time Ketubot were instated, marital rights and obligations of men and women were laid down. Men had ten obligations to their wives, including providing her with food, appropriate clothing and conjugal rights. The most important safeguards were for the woman’s financial future if the marriage ended in divorce or death, as well as heredity for the children. In return, women had obligations to her husband, and these including ‘grinding corn, baking bread, washing clothes, cooking, suckling her child, making ready his bed and working in wool.’

But, and this is the part I like, ‘If she brought him one bondswoman she need not do any grinding, baking or washing. If she brought two bondswomen, she need not even cook or suckle her child. If three, she need neither make ready his bed nor work in wool. If four, she may lounge in an easy chair.’ (M. Ketubot 5:5)

R. Eliezer objects, however, to this easy life, as he believes idleness leads to questionable chastity. Rabban Gamliel agrees, saying that no matter how wealthy she is, a woman should see to her husband’s personal needs or she may compromise her faithfulness when she becomes bored.

When we apply these ideas to modern life, although four bondswomen are not found in many houses I frequent, we do have machines to lighten our loads and often a cleaner. Sadly, we are rarely found lounging in easy chairs, and as bored as we can be, I can't say I know anyone who is bored enough with lack of housework to compromise her fidelity. Perhaps the lack of muscle-forming housekeeping chores do leave us bored and restless, or another argument (and one I prefer) could be that it is precisely these housekeeping chores that leave us bored and restless, but we are still bound to a certain extent by the laws of our religion (not to mention notions of trust or lack of time), which means this boredom is more likely to send us towards a good book, a chocolate fudge brownie or a shopping centre than into a questionable situation. G-d forbid.

What I'd do is write and study all day. We had a class with Rabbi Belovski this week and one of the ladies next to me turned to me in the break and joked, 'Oh, how I wish I could study in a yeshiva morning and night and not have children or a husband.'

I told her what I'd read in the Shulchan Aruch (231) the day before where the argument about whether we should work or study Torah all day came up. There is no answer; it's just left hanging. The gist is, I read somewhere else, that marriage provides a framework of security (ie food, licit conjugal outlets and clothing) from which we can continue working and/or studying, and the inferences I made are that there's something about marriage and childrearing that is challenging enough to make us have to remain in this realm and not solely in the spiritual one. Rabbi Nachman of Breslev believed Moses wasn't allowed into Eretz Israel because he had reached the level where he could commune 24 hours a day in with G-d, but he had to come down and serve the people to help them with laws and boundaries, and his sin was that he resented that. Because he would rather have stayed in communion with G-d and not serve the stiff-necked people, he couldn't enter the land of Israel.

I suppose the answer is that we need to do both - work and study, keep a home running, children fed and nurtured and a husband happy and still find time to commune with our spiritual needs. The question is, and this is more pressing to me, does anyone know where can I get four bondswomen? My easy chair calleth.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 14th, 2009 12:43 am (UTC)
And another day of ethnic cleansing.
Jan. 3rd, 2010 11:38 pm (UTC)
Don't be fooled
It wasn't so great. It's easy to romanticise the past and say the previous generations had it better or easier, or for older people to say it themselves. Life has its element of suffering in every age and simpler lives aren't necessarily easier just because they had no machines. Imagine washing things by hand every day and having no heating. No thanks.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


Emma Shevah

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