August 15, 2022

Epidemic-sponsored empowerment: Jewish Feminists and Social Media

By Moria Ran Ben Hai

“They closed shul for minyan, I can’t go to Seder, but guess where I can go? The mikvah! What does that mean? Where do I stand in terms of the value of my life in rabbinic and halachic authority?” asked Ariele Mortkowitz moderator of the “Online Panel Discussion: mikvah and COVID-19” held on April , 2020.

Mortkowitz, founding director of the “SVIVAH” community of Jewish women, raised that loaded question at the end of the panel as a way of asking the more important question. Do the rabbinical authorities consider women when they make halachic laws, especially those related directly to women?

At the end of January, I gave a talk at HBI about the role of Facebook in modern Orthodox feminism in Israel. I concluded that social media gives women a stage and power, creating social structures of knowledge and new hierarchies in religious society that differ from the traditional gender-knowledge hierarchies. At the time, I did not think that we would reach the current COVID-19 crisis. But, now I see that the crisis has both strengthened the social media platform for women while actively undermining the Jewish legal hierarchy in Israel and abroad.

The COVID-19 epidemic brings challenges for observant halachic couples and families —  one of them is keeping family purity. Should a woman go the mikvah at the end of her monthly period, and allow the couple’s romantic and sexual closeness, or should she postpone the ritual until the epidemic ends?

To make this decision, there are many issues to consider. Is this an essential need? Is there a safe halachic alternative? Can we create one? How can we make sure women do not get exposed to the virus inside the mikvah, or on the way there and back home? What will happen if governments forbid the mikvahs from opening? Who has the authority to decide how to guide families if the mikvahs close?

One answer is clear. Both the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, allegedly representing the Orthodox halachic establishment in Israel and abroad, (as argued in Hebrew in Unbuttoned – The Disputes That Split Religious Zionism, 2019, by Yair Ettinger) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) have decided that women should immerse as usual, but with adherence to the social distance guidelines and frequent disinfection of the site. They chose an approach that continues the Jewish family purity tradition of thousands of years.

Female halachic consultants (yoatzot halacha), doctors, and Orthodox feminist activists provide more nuanced answers. Some are actively fighting to stop the monthly immersion. They want to prevent women who use the mikvah and mikvah attendants from being infected with the virus and potentially spreading the virus to their families and the public.

Interestingly, there is a new category emerging from the fray — that is the grassroots groups of women on social media. Modern Orthodox women in Israel have formed several Facebook groups, with titles like,  “Immersed in leisurely women” (“Tovlot Be’nakhat” in Hebrew), “I am a religious feminist and I also don’t have a sense of humor”, and “Halachic feminists.” Though some of the Facebook groups existed before the COVID-19 crisis, they are all expressing outrage on the social platform about the mikvah rules during a pandemic.

In long discussions about religious obligations in times of life-threatening virus, their rage includes themes of adherence to a spouses’ remoteness required by Orthodox Jewish law and the power of the rabbinical establishment over the public in Israel and abroad. Efrat Tamir of the public group, “I am a religious feminist, and I also don’t have a sense of humor” wrote on March 22, in what seemed to be a cynical comment that I translated from Hebrew,  “Of course that the generation’s decisors will order that we must have to continue to immerse in the mikvah. After all, they have been pumping us for years that thanks to righteous women, we got redeemed from Egypt. So Corona? A small task for us. Go ahead, righteous women. Go ahead and immerse in the mikvah near your home. Endanger yourself and your children. Your parents and the general population will come into contact with you. And save the people of Israel from the Corona.”

Some express the opposite view. On the same day, in the private group, “Halachic feminists,” one woman responded to several days of viewpoints against immersion, and wrote in favor of the use of public mikvahs, even with the risks involved. She gave me permission to use and translate her comment, as she still stands by it.  “You know what, if God forbid I would catch the Corona, I would rather be proud and happy that I went to the mikvah. I do it with my head up and with immense pride!”

A significant and practical result of the discussion’s application in Israel is the manifesto of Rabbanit Sarah Segal Katz and Rabbanit M.D. Hanna Adler Lazarovich, in which they state that the mikvahs should be closed for now. They explain that with no coordination between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Religious Services regarding the supervision of the mikvahs, the sole responsibility then falls to the balanit (mikvah attendants).  And, because there is no supervision of the sanitation of the mikvahs, the situation poses a real danger to the public. Therefore, women shall not come to immerse.

There is a similar discourse in the United States. In several Facebook groups that started in the U.S., but include voices from around the world, including “Rising tide,” “I’m also fed up with the way women are treated in Orthodoxy,” and “Halachic/Religious Discussion Group for Women,” members expressed frustration. Sarah Bronzite, a member of “I’m also fed up with the way women are treated in Orthodoxy” wrote on March 14,  “… and yet, even in these unprecedented times, the one area of practice that is not cancelled (unless a person has symptoms) is … mikvah. why? WHY? Why can rabbonim make exceptions for everything else except this? Why does a youth leader get to stay at home but not a balanit? Why can rabbonim paskin (decide) that it is no longer ok for ten men to daven in a room together (even with space between them) but married menstruating women are still required to go to a place where by definition there are lots of shared surfaces? Why is it not a reasonable thing to ask the WOMEN THEMSELVES to make a judgment call and not go to mikvah if they would rather avoid the risk? “

The global debate led to widespread awareness, but not to unequivocal statements like the Israeli debate. However, many women online are demanding something safer. This post received dozens of comments including a call for vital practical information. In comments, one person asked directly,  about an alternative, wondering if rabbis can just permit sexual relations without mikvah at this time? Or maybe allow the use piped water in home baths?

JOFA (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) posted Rabba Dr. Carmella Abraham’s article on their Facebook page, highlighting her conclusion.  “Let us consider other safe halakhic options for those in need (for example, women experiencing fertility issues) until we can safely reopen our mikvaot. Shutting down our mikvaot in the face of the coming peak may be the most responsible and urgent communal response necessary for this moment.”

It is one of the only authoritative statements in American Orthodox feminist groups on social media, and it is based on the Israeli Manifesto. In fact, in these groups, we can find many reports on what is going on in Israel regarding the mikvahs, but in the Israeli groups, I have not seen similar reports from other countries. This is probably because Israel is the country with a national Jewish establishment. The eyes of the Jewish communities around the world are monitoring Israel closely on these issues.

Another halachic solution offered by Israeli religious Facebook groups was home immersing. The detailed halachic ruling of Rabbi Haim Amsalem was brought to the social network by his daughter, Efrat Chocron, and received harsh responses from significant figures in “halachic feminist” groups, such as Rabbait Tirza Kelman. What could have been a practical solution to the problem, turned out to be impractical, as it is not possible in an average home bathtub. Ritual immersion requires non-tap water and full immersion. The controversy around this halachic ruling points to the reasons for the group’s criticism and more importantly, to their deep commitment to halacha.

During these online discussions, activist women in Israel and the U.S. expressed their views in Zoom panels. Both events took place on Sunday, April 1 and were recorded. The similarities and differences between the panels illustrated the relationship between modern Orthodox feminism in Israel and the U.S., a blog for another time.

In addition to the Manifesto, Nishmat’s halacha counselors published their guidelines for all aspects of immersion and family purity on their Facebook page and in various groups, in Hebrew and in English, while continually updating the data according to developments in the Corona reality. They are available for personal counseling, as they have done for the last two decades. Similarly, halachic counselors work locally in Jewish communities abroad.

In recent weeks, Manifesto writers, Segal-Katz and Adler-Lazarovich, together with the Itim Institute, began collecting data from the women and the balaniyut about the mikvahs throughout Israel, checking mainly whether the mikvahs are observing the health guidelines or violating them. They have posted questionnaires on social networks and analysis of the data that accumulates. The information collected is available to all women to enable them to make informed decisions regarding the mikvah.

The bustle of activity around this issue, from questionnaires posted on social media through the publication of Halachic guidance, private counseling and the Manifesto, indicates the direct connection between social networks and activism. The Facebook platform allows women to share with other women and to mobilize, to rebel against institutionalized bodies such as the Chief Rabbinate in Israel or the RCA in the U.S. It shows the possibility of bottom-up growth in practical halachic authority.

This did not occur in a vacuum. It is preceded by phenomena such as female Torah scholarship, the training of female halachic counselors for family purity issues and the entry of social networks to religious audiences. Furthermore, this is not the first time women have harnessed social networks to gain status in the religious sphere. Five years ago, a trial held in the Israeli Supreme Court led to the enactment of the “Mikvahs Law-2016,” allowing more religious freedom for women immersing in the government mikvahs. That struggle was waged mainly on social media and it allowed women to influence the law and practice of halacha together. Now, during a global pandemic, women have chosen to combine medical knowledge, Torah knowledge and public activism. They refuse to be passive or to wait for male halachic rulers to “see” them. Instead, they are acting as rulers of their own for their own. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a real revolution for Orthodoxy.

Moria Ran Ben Hai is a scholar in residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Her research examines the journey in Orthodox feminism in Israel and the U.S., looking at both Kolech and JOFA.

Helène Aylon: 1931-2020, May Her Memory Be a Blessing

By Amy Powell

HBI mourns the passing of Helène Aylon, the internationally-acclaimed Jewish feminist artist who died April 6, due to complications from COVID-19. She was a member of HBI’s Academic Advisory Committee, exhibited twice in HBI’s Kniznick Gallery and contributed to the permanent collection housed at HBI and the Women’s Studies Research Center. In 2012, HBI published her memoir, Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist, (Feminist Press, The Reuben/Rifkin Jewish Women Writers Series).

Shulamit Reinharz, HBI’s founding director, reflected on Aylon’s contribution and HBI’s pride in hosting her exhibitions and supporting her art in many ways including through the HBI Research Awards program. “This was really radical Jewish feminist art in the sense that it challenged the status quo,” she said.

Much of Aylon’s earlier work focused on the environment, but in the 1990s, she turned her attention to G-d, creating the first parts of The God Project: Nine Houses Without Women. The first work in The G-d Project was The Liberation of G-d, featuring the The Book That Will Not Close, the Five Books of Moses with every single page covered in parchment. “I decided I was going to liberate G-d from the patriarchal misogyny and brutality imposed by man projected onto G-d,” she said in a blog published by Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA).  “With The Liberation of G-d, I planned to go through every single page of the Old Testament, cover it respectfully with transparent parchment and then highlight in pink marker all the parts that revealed this. It was a very big thing; it took six years.” The Book That Will Not Close is part of HBI’s permanent collection.

Elaine Reuben, a member of the HBI Board of Advisers, recalled an essay that Aylon wrote about her Brooklyn childhood that ended with her husband’s death when she was 30 years old. At the time, Reuben, along with Reinharz and Gloria Jacobs, was an editor of HBI’s imprint with Feminist Press. Reuben founded the The Reuben/Rifkin Jewish Women Writers Series to honor her parents and grandparents.

“I urged her (Aylon) to take us further into the story and it took a long time,” Reuben said, describing the origins of Aylon’s memoir. “When it was published, we had a launch party in New York at the Feminst Press and something at HBI.  Then she took it on the road and it became an important part of her way of reaching out into the world.”

“She told her own story so much better than anyone else,” Reuben added. “The memoir is something we are honored to present. It tells her story as she would want it told, a personal, Jewish, feminist, artist story.”

For the Children, video still
Afterword: For the Children (2016)

The memoir, Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist, and the essay in the catalogue that accompanied Afterword: For the Children at the HBI exhibition, recount a conversation between Aylon and Rabbi Rolando Matalon of the Bnei Jeshurun synagogue in the Upper West Side of Manhattan about The Book That Will Not Close. Aylon, at the time, said, “Our forefathers were searching for G-d, but they found only themselves. They tried to speak for G-d, but spoke for themselves.”

David Sperber, an art historian, art critic and curator in The Department of Gender Studies, BarIlan University and a beloved friend of Aylon, writes in the catalogue essay that Aylon’s intention was to create change from within. In practice, it is precisely the fact that the artist did not erase the biblical verses, but marked them instead, is what allowed for the fruitful discussion among the rabbinical world.”

Reinharz, then director of HBI and the Women’s Studies Research Center, invited Aylon to exhibit the third part of the G-d Project, The Notebooks, in 2001, due to open in the Kniznick Gallery September 11. Reinharz cancelled the opening and Aylon, who had been on the train all day, arrived at HBI having no idea why the exhibition was cancelled. Reinharz broke the news of 9/11 to her.

Vanishing Pink. video still
Afterword: For the Children (2016)

The installation, as described in, showed 54 blank notebooks, some closed and some open, arranged in columns. The closed notebooks had dark covers, and the open notebooks were covered in white. Across this display, Aylon projected photographs from the Jewish girls’ school, Beit Shulamit, she had attended. In a powerful statement on the silencing of women’s voices in Jewish history, she dedicated the work to “Mrs. Rashi” and “Mrs. Maimonides,” “for surely they had something to say.”

The show “took you into the classroom” and “was a critique of what was going on there,” Reinharz said.

Helène Aylon pictured with The Air Commandments

Over the years, Reinharz suggested to Aylon that she consider a 10th part to The God Project. In 2017, HBI commissioned an exhibition from Aylon to honor Reinharz on the occasion of her retirement. The show, Afterword: For the Children, is the coda to The G-d Project. It exhibited at HBI from March 20 to June 16, 2017 and then travelled to the Jerusalem Biennale in October, 2017.  Aylon dedicated her finale in the series, Afterword: For the Children, to the future generations, challenging all who regard The Ten Commandments not to shrug off a dark foreboding which emanates in her view, from the patriarchy — not from G-d.

Sperber described Aylon as “a great woman who has constructed her life to be a work of art.” She was the recipient of numerous awards and grants including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art in 2016.

There are many complete obituaries written about Aylon’s entire career, including Helene Aylon, 89, feminist artist whose work reflected her evolution as a woman and a Jew in the JTA, and Helène Aylon, Eco-Feminist Artist Who Pondered Change, Is Dead at 89 of Coronavirus-Related Causes in ARTnews.

In the JTA remembrance published in The Times of Israel, Feminist Jewish artist Helene Aylon dies of coronavirus at 89,  Debra Nussbaum Cohen writes, “In a 2016 article about being one of four women to be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Women’s Caucus for Art, Aylon said, ‘I hope I would be remembered in a loving way because I’m not trying to defame Judaism but I wanted to tell the truth about it to see what we can do about it.’ ”

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.

To hear Aylon read from her memoir, Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist, join this reading given to at Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum on June 9, 2012. 

How is this year different from all other years?

By Amy Powell

The question, “how is this night different from all other nights?” takes on brand new meaning this Passover; nearly everything about this seder will be different from all other seders. Rather than celebrating our Exodus among friends, family –and even potentially strangers as the Haggadah encourages us to “let all who are hungry come and eat,” this year we are encouraged to celebrate alone.

Other years, we reflect on the 10 Plagues that occurred during the time of Pharoah, this year, we reckon with the real plague of Covid-19, ravaging communities around the world.

In this time of decreased trips to the store, shortages of all things except gefilte fish, we are learning of various rabbis relaxing hechshers and even restrictions on use of electronics for those who want to stream communal seders or Zoom with their family members.

To help you make the most of this strange moment, HBI has gathered a guide to some resources and readings.

How to Add Some Fun to a Strange Year

Did you ever wonder what comedian Lewis Black has to say about bitter herbs? Or, how Judy Gold’s annual dayyenu will explain this year, or want to hear Seth Herzog’s rendition of the 10 Plagues? The City Winery has you covered this Monday, April 6 with the Downtown Seder 2020. Yes, Cong. Jerry Nadler will be asking four important questions even though he won’t be the youngest and former Sen. Al Franken will be presenting from his shower. See the entire lineup of special music and commentary from The Lab Shul.

Do you need a Haggadah guide that pokes fun at the times we are in? Humorist Howard   Zaharoff, noting that Jews like to “find the humor”, published his Love in the Time of Coronavirus: Excerpts From a New Passover Haggadah in Here you will find the seder re-explained with gems like, “Urchatz: We wash hands before opening a jar of Rokeach gefilte fish, since who knows who touched the jar before?” and “Maror: We eat bitter herbs to remind us that our portfolio declined 30% in the month of March.”

From Shalom Sesame, there is a riff on the afikomen,  Les Matzarables.

How to Conduct a Virtual Seder

Moment Magazine created a virtual seder guide, 2020 Seder Supplement “The Seder is Already Virtual: Reflections for a Ritual in Extraordinary Times” by Amy E. Schwartz.  The multi-denominational guide notes that it “draws on Moment’s popular “Ask the Rabbis” section, which includes rabbinical wisdom ranging from independent to Orthodox,” and includes “interviews with scholars and writers as well as articles and poems from the Moment archives.”

The URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) produced Digital Content to Enliven This Year’s Virtual Seder with downloadable haggadot, playlists, children’s activities, recipes, thought questions and more.

The Washington Post created some variations on traditional recipes that offer a bit more immune boosting powers in A Passover like no other: Embrace a more intimate celebration of the Jewish holiday. has a variety of downloadable and DIY resources, but this year added more on conducting virtual seders. Their webinar, The Art of Virtual Gathering: Passover 2020, is available as are other items to satisfy a range of needs and interests.

UCSJ (United Synagogue Conservative Judaism) published Passover Resources with helpful guidelines for many of the rituals and extra resources for conducting virtual seders that include grandparents and others.’s How to Have a Kid-Friendly, Meaningful Virtual Seder, includes ways to incorporate the seder’s themes of resilience.

Readings to Help Make Sense of it All

For those who need or want permission to have a mediocre seder without fancy cooking, without creativity, Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick gives permission in Go ahead, have a shvach seder published in The Times of Israel. 

In The 11th Plague: Passover During Coronavirus, The gathered opinions from 20 influencers, offering commentaries on Passover this year.

Also in the, Abigail Pogrebin, author of The Wondering Jew, had conversations with six rabbis to reflect on this year’s Passover in Passover therapy: Our holiday expert asked 6 rabbis to reflect on this very different year.

In New York Jewish Week and the JOFA Blog’s The First Ever Seder Was Held In Isolation, Miriam Lorie relates our current moment to ancient times

In the Lilith Blog, Between Purim and Passover, a Plague, Rayzel Raphael, relates the Passover, Purim and Yom Kippur themes to the reality of today’s Passover.

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI. 

Esther and the Pursuit of Likeability

By Rabbi Wendy Amsellem and Rabbi Mike Moskowitz

In this election season, there has been a focus on whether candidates, especially female candidates, are sufficiently likeable. Likeability is a virtue as it indicates whether a candidate is attuned to others and can get them on board to work with them. Likeability can even be translated as חן, an ability to be found gracious by others.

Esther, a heroine of the holiday of Purim (March 10), is the queen of likeability. In Chapter 2 of the Book of Esther, Esther is described as נשאת חן בעיני כל רואיה, she is found graceful by all who see her. At first this seems like an ideal situation – Esther is liked by everyone! Yet, it is also kind of odd. Is it really possible to be liked by all people?

Rabbi Elazar in Talmud Bavli Megillah 13a explains that Esther appeared to each and every person as if she was a member of their nationality. To the Persians, she appeared Persian. To the Medeans, she appeared Medean. They did not see Esther for who she actually was. Instead she became, in their eyes, whomever they wanted her to be. 

Rabbi Yuda in the Midrash Esther Rabbah 6:9 takes this a step further. He explains that Esther was like a statue whom a thousand people can equally admire. In his understanding, Esther did not present as a distinctive personality with independent thoughts, opinions and predilections. Instead she was a blank canvas of a person upon whom others projected their idealized desires.

This is a familiar trap for women. In order to have חן, to move about the world in a state of grace, women are told to be everything to everyone, to blunt the more distinctive aspects of themselves in order to be likeable.

For Esther, this comes at the cost of an expression of selfhood. As long as Esther is a statue, everyone can like her. Esther is afraid that if she gives voice to her own ideas, she will sacrifice her likability. And so the real Esther, as her name implies, remains hidden. 

Esther’s pliability and willingness to be whomever others want her to be reaches grotesque expression in the continuation of the passage in Bavli Megillah 13a.  The Talmud cites Esther 2:17 The King loved Esther more than all of the other women and she found favor in his eyes more than all of the other virgins. Rav explains that Esther is favored above all the women and all the virgins because her body can transform into whatever the King desires. If he wanted the feeling of intercourse with a virgin, Esther could provide that. If he wanted the feeling of being with a sexually experienced woman, Esther could  provide that as well. She is the King’s fantasy, mutable according to his desires.

This is not true חן  .חן is not about scooping yourself out so that you become only a reflection of what others want. חן is about expressing yourself in a way that is cognizant of those around you, while still maintaining your personhood, in relationship with G-d.

Proverbs 31:30 warns  שקר החן והבל היופי, sometimes grace is false and beauty meaningless. חן is not an end in itself. חן that is only fixated on how others see you is שקר, falsehood. It is easy to get caught up in the desire to be well liked. The Ishbitzer Rebbe in Mei HaShiloach, writes that Proverbs 3:4 Find favor in the eyes of G-d and people is followed by Proverbs 3:5 Trust in G-d with all your heart and do not rely on your own wisdom. The Ishbitzer teaches that these verse are juxtaposed because if people are unduly preoccupied with finding favor in the eyes of others, they should focus their intentions on G-d, and fulfilling G-d’s will, and in this way they can achieve חן in the eyes of both G-d and people.

Indeed, this is what Esther does. When she realizes that G-d wants her to save G-d’s people, she is able to find the courage to express her distinctive self. Esther stands before the King as an out Jewish woman and makes a powerful argument to save her people. She asks for something real and important and the King can see her for who she actually is and finds her full of grace.

The story of the book of Esther is how Esther goes from the false חן of Chapter 2 to the true חן of Chapter 7. She stops trying to obey and please everyone and in doing so she finds her voice and her power. Purim celebrates the process of revealing the hidden truth and giving it expression to the outside world. As we read the Book of Esther may we be inspired to find true חן in the eyes of G-d and people, and the strength to persist in doing G-d’s work.



Rabbi Wendy Amsellem teaches Talmud and Halakha at Yeshivat Maharat. 








Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is a Scholar-in-Residence in Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. (Pronouns: He/Him)

Leavening and Lusty Hearts: Reconstructing the Bible’s Levivot

By Esther Brownsmith

Most people, when they read 2 Samuel 13, are horrified by its tragic contents. Amnon, the firstborn son of King David, falls in love with his half-sister Tamar. He devises a plan to get her alone, then despite her vocal protests, he rapes her. Afterwards, he brutally rejects her and throws her out. The story is tragic from start to finish — and it sparks a widening spiral of bloody revenge.

In short, when most people read 2 Samuel 13, they are not reading it as a recipe. But I am.

Amnon’s scheme relies on feigning illness, then asking for his sister to prepare him a special food, which she would hand-feed to him. That food is variously called bread (לחם), sustenance (בריה), and levivot (לבבות) — the latter a plural term that does not appear elsewhere in the Bible. Yet this term is crucial to understanding the eroticized atmosphere of the passage, which paints for us a picture of Amnon’s lascivious point of view. Thus, when I examined this passage as part of my doctoral dissertation, I decided that one of my tasks would be to recreate these levivot to search for clues to their significance.

Of course, the Bible does not provide a recipe for levivot, nor do other ancient Jewish texts, while modern Hebrew uses it as a name for latkes. A Google search for מתכוני לביבות (levivot recipes) results in many delicious photographs of potato pancakes, none of which resemble what Tamar made for Amnon. Instead, I turned to a combination of textual clues and culinary history.

Here’s what we know about the levivot:

Their name had passionate connotations. The heart (lev), which seems to form the basis for the word, was the seat of thought and emotion to ancient Israelites. Meanwhile, the root word לבב (L-B-B) had definite connotations of sexual desire in both Song of Songs 4:9 and Ezekiel 16:30, and the heart was a metaphor for arousal in Mesopotamian texts, like an incantation to help a man whose “‘heart’ does not rise for him.” As final evidence that the levivot had indecent connotations, a careful reading of 2 Samuel 13 reveals that King David and Jonadab avoid using the term; only Amnon and the narrator (who reflects Amnon’s lustful thoughts) use it to describe the food.

… But they weren’t “heart-shapedas we know it. Many scholars explain that their name means they were “heart-shaped” — but the heart shape, familiar to us from Valentines and emoticons, only dates back to the medieval period. In the ancient world, “heart-shaped” would have connoted a vaguely conical lump.

They were boiled in water. The Hebrew Bible makes this clear, even though most English translations say that they were baked. When Tamar cooks the levivot, the verb is בשׁל (B-Š-L), “to boil”; once she finishes boiling them, she pours them out יצק (Y-Ṣ-Q) to drain them. Later Jewish writings, like David Kimḥi’s commentary on 2 Samuel 13:6, corroborate that they were understood to be boiled in water.

They were made of kneaded dough. As part of her preparations, Tamar kneads לוש (L-W-Š) the dough. From a culinary viewpoint, this step is important, as it distinguishes the levivot from modern American dumplings. Kneading activates the gluten in flour, which gives yeasted breads their springy, chewy texture; in contrast, American dumplings are kneaded as little as possible, so that they retain a fluffy, tender texture.

Their composition included flour and other ingredients. This clue can only be inferred from the biblical text’s description of “dough,” which generally comes from flour, and the fact that they were a sickbed delicacy (and therefore probably contained fat and sugar to appeal to the palate). However, Maimonides corroborates it in the Mishneh Torah when he gives levivot as an example of a boiled food made of flour mixed with “other things” (Blessings, ch.3).

Based on these clues, I began to research boiled breads. I discovered that although boiled bread is not typical in modern American cuisine — even bagels are baked after being boiled — it has a rich history elsewhere in the world. Boiled bread ranges from Zulu ujeqe to German Hefeklösse, not to mention steamed breads like Chinese mantou. These bread rolls are a hearty dish, yet light and fluffy from their yeasted dough. For instance, one cookbook writes that “Hefeklösse mit Zimmetsosse (yeast dumplings with cinnamon sauce) were considered a meal in itself. When the cooks took the time to prepare dumplings with cinnamon sauce, the usual meat course was not served.”

Armed with this evidence that boiled bread was a real culinary possibility, I found a recipe for Hefeklösse and got to work. I knew that many of the ingredients would have to be modified, as the ancient world lacked ultra-refined ingredients like white sugar and white flour. I substituted whole wheat flour and date paste, which was the main sweetener in the ancient Near East. Most biblical mentions of “honey” actually refer to date syrup.

Moreover, the fat to use was unclear. Butter was rare in the warm weather of ancient Israel, and animal fat adds an unpleasantly savory flavor to the bread, as I discovered in an early trial. Olives were abundant in ancient Israel, but there is some scholarly debate about whether their oil was used in this period for culinary purposes, as opposed to anointing, burning for light, etc. In Mesopotamia, sesame oil was the primary oil used in cooking, and I found it added a mild, pleasant flavor. I used untoasted sesame oil, not the toasted oil used in many Asian recipes, which has a much stronger taste.

The stage was set for my final culinary experiment — and the final clue in my theory. When Amnon asks Tamar to make him the levivot, he doesn’t merely ask for “some levivot”; he asks specifically for “two levivot.” So I went through the same stages of cooking as Tamar — I kneaded the dough, shaped the rolls, boiled them, and drained them — and then I put exactly two levivot on a plate together. Sure enough, the plump, pale brown orbs bore a distinct resemblance to a woman’s bosom.

My theory had held: not only did the name levivot contain a certain level of innuendo, but the very appearance of two levivot had an erotic flair. Amnon knew exactly what he was asking for when he requested two levivot from his sister, and it wasn’t just an innocent snack.

Despite their disturbing history, though, levivot clearly continued to be eaten in Jewish communities into the Middle Ages, as the writings of Kimḥi and Maimonides attest. With the tenderness of Chinese steamed buns, they are a mildly sweet, fluffy treat, as well as a way to make bread without turning on an oven. The recipe below makes twelve large levivot — perfect for feeding the people close to your heart.

Esther Brownsmith, a doctoral student at Brandeis, is an HBI Scholar in Residence.  She was recently awarded a prestigious post-doc at the MF Norwegian School of Theology and the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters where she will work on the broader project, Books Known Only by Title: Exploring the Gendered Structures of the First Millennium Imagined Library.The title of her project is “‘But she said…’: (Para)biblical Expansions as Fan Fiction.”

Her lunchtime lecture, The Concubine in the Refrigerator: Objectifying Women in Comics and Scripture, will be March 30, 12:30-2 p.m., at HBI, 515 South St., Waltham. 

Reconstructed Levivot 

60g lukewarm water (1/4 cup)
57g date paste or well-mashed Medjool dates (1/4 cup)
7g active dry yeast (1 packet)
57g fat, such as untoasted sesame oil or butter (1/4 cup)
180g lukewarm water (3/4 cup)
6g salt (1 tsp)
395g whole wheat flour, ideally einkorn or emmer (3 1/2 cups)

1) Mix together the 60g water and date paste, then stir in the yeast. Let sit in a warm place for 5 minutes, until the mixture is very frothy.

2) In a large bowl, mix together the yeast mixture with all the remaining ingredients.

3) Using the kneading hook of a mixer, or your own arms, knead the dough for several minutes (at least ten if by hand). Add more water if necessary for a supple, tender dough. By the end of kneading, the dough should be stretchy and smooth.

4) Cover the bowl with a towel and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, or until the dough is doubled in volume.

5) Punch down the dough and knead it a few times. Divide the dough into twelve equal portions, then shape each portion into round rolls. Space out the rolls on a large tray and let rise in a warm place for 30-45 minutes, or until very puffy.

6) Meanwhile, in a large pot, bring several inches of water to a boil. Reduce heat to a steady simmer.

7) When the rolls have risen, use a slotted spoon to lower six of them into the water, one by one. Cover, return to a simmer, and simmer for 10 minutes. Do not remove the lid while cooking. When done, the rolls should be firm to the touch. Remove with a slotted spoon, and repeat with the remaining six rolls.

8) Serve warm, with butter and optional honey.

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