A Celebration of Wise Women

Shemini Atzeret
October 2007
A rite of passage marks the liminal moment when we move from one stage of life into another. The following ceremony celebrates women who have entered the time past childbearing in the past year. I’ve chosen Shemini Atzeret as the holiday for communal acknowledgment of a usually private and unacknowledged moment in a woman’s life because it is the ultimate day of the fall harvest festival. That the day falls in the season of fecundity is not the only reason why it is fitting to include a ceremony that celebrates woman’s wisdom.

Shemini Atzeret means “the eighth day of assembly”, an extra day added solely to extend the party we never want to end. The Regal One also has enjoyed our celebration and has given us one more day “to tarry a little longer”, thus prolonging the pleasure. When one reaches fullness of years (any time past 55), the awareness that life doesn’t last forever awakens keen appreciation for each day. We’d like to so many things to last a little longer: vigor, vacations, summer, and time itself.

The holiday marks the special petitionary prayer for rain said during the Musaf service. Water, the first earthly substance in which we come alive as we float within our mothers, is also connected to the feminine. Besides being the drawers from the communal well, we remember Miriam, whose presence guaranteed life-giving water to our ancestors.

Shemini Atzeret also includes a Yizkor service. This time of transition carries loss as well, and only when we face what is being lost will we move forward. The end of Sukkot is autumnal and so is menopause. The world renders non-reproductive women invisible and unimportant, as if childbearing capacity is the basis of sexual appeal. For many of us enjoying what Margaret Mead called “postmenopausal zest”, the time has come for a new way to experience this precious time in our lives. Just as the setting sun of autumn casts a brilliant golden light, so may the wise women in our community illumine others as they set forth in uncharted territory.

The word, Torah, is feminine and its reading is the heart of the service: it is our heart of wisdom. We call the celebrants to the Torah for the Maftir and they are given new tallitot to mark their new role in our community. The shawls are monochromatic, passionate colors. Inspiration for this comes from the book, When I Am Old I Will Wear Purple and a dear friend, now departed, who asked for a red pantsuit for her ninetieth birthday. These colors represent fruit, e.g. orange, lemon, pomegranate, and grape. Before the women collectively say the blessing for wearing their tallitot, the service leader says:

May you wear your tallit as a web of new light, an embrace of your wisdom as it reveals the fire that still burns in the depths of your heart.

Women acquire names throughout their lives. We are given one or two at birth–an English and a Hebrew or Yiddish one. We carry our father’s name and then our husband’s. In this eldering ceremony of sisters, we take a new name when we are called to the Torah, a Hebrew name that speaks of our strongest part and the characteristic we most want to bring forth in ourselves, e.g. Bracha, Emunah, Simha, or perhaps the name of a beloved wise woman in our lives. The leader calls each woman by her name, chosen in advance, for the aliyah.

After a collective aliyah and one woman chanting the Maftir (Numbers 29:35-30:1), the congregation sings Tzadik Katamar from Psalm 92:

The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree;
They shall thrive like a cedar in Lebanon.
Planted in the house of Adonai,
They shall flourish in the courts of our God.
They shall bear fruit even in old age;
They shall be ever fresh and fragrant.
They shall proclaim: Adonai is just.
God is my Rock, in whom there is no flaw.

The women then chant the haftarah together and take turns in the recitation of I Kings 8:54-66. The service continues with Yizkor and Musaf.

Rituals for becoming an elder in Jewish community are new. The ceremonies I describe acknowledge both the pain and the wisdom of women who are moving beyond the childbearing years into a new phase of fruitfulness. Energies that hitherto were used for the creation and nurturing of one’s family are now turned to the larger community of multi-generational families and to the world beyond the nuclear unit.

Shemini Atzeret offers a way for the entire community to celebrate its women elders. A more intimate gathering, for the women themselves, includes mikveh. It may include a circle of women who speak personally about their journey and incorporate songs and readings appropriate for this turning point.


We gather under the full autumn moon for a potluck dinner and talk about how we experience life on other side of childbearing. One is in her middle eighties, exuding both detachment and youthful curiosity. This is her first mikveh. One has always carried shame of adopting rather than bearing children, another is estranged from a child. One celebrates three years after uterine cancer while she mourns unconceived children. We talk about the names we have once been: daughter, sister, wife, mother, lover, learner, friend. Who are we now? Paradoxically, we are at the peak of our lives and we are entering old age that presages death. We want to birth the powerful essence that only emerges when we have played all the roles of daughter, sister, mother, and wife. We talk about all the parts we have played as students, teachers, and professionals. We have reached the place where we know that we are more than what we do.

We go outside for Havdalah, not only because it is Saturday night. It is a time of separation for us, separation from all that has defined us at earlier stages. We are ready for new definitions, new adventures, and new identities. The wine emboldens us to take a new step, the sweet spices remind us that the righteous remain fragrant forever, and the torch of four wicks mirrors the bright weaving of our long lives.

The water we will enter is alchemical. While it flows from Eden, older than memory, it makes us new. We speak of what we want to fall away from us, like the leaves of the season; barrenness will precede new growth. We enter the water to wash away what we experience as women in a world that regards external power as supreme, as Jews, and as women who no longer are valued for childbearing. Some of us are single, poor, or lesbians. We are so used to the pain that we don’t feel how it obscures who we are, and some of us have forgotten how much we know. This is the first of three immersions. It is immersion that marks the past that has brought us to this moment. We leave behind all that we no longer need and are grateful for all that life has taught us.

The next immersion celebrates the harvest of our lives. It represents the present, who we are right now. We embrace our bodies, no longer so firm, carrying scars and wrinkles, and we see our beauty. The third immersion takes us into the water of the womb, the future. We float as we once did within our mothers and dream the rest of our lives as wise women. We emerge from the water as newborn beings eager to nurture ourselves, celebrate our freedom from the judgments of a world not wise enough to value us, and committed to practicing what our hearts have always known: The highest wisdom is joy.