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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Spindle Wisdom

Spindle (textiles)

n.    A wooden spike weighted at one end with a circular whorl; it may have an optional hook at either end of the spike. It is used for spinning wool and other fibers into thread.

[source here]

Continuing with Friday's theme (crossing stuff of my 'to do' list), I'd like to follow up on some of the emails and comments I've gotten over the past few weeks asking about Ariella's high school admissions saga.  The dust has finally settled so I figure this is as good a time as any to tell you how things stand.

Ariella applied to four high schools; two in Jerusalem and two in Gush Etzion.  Of these, three of them are considered elite schools with exceptionally high admissions/academic standards, and one was somewhat less competitive... making the latter her 'safety school'.

When last we spoke, Ari had received one rejection letter from one of the elite schools (many tears), and one 'wait list' letter from another elite school (more tears with an added dose of self-doubt).  In the mean time, her 'safety school' remained unheard from (mildly troubling) as did the third elite school (extremely troubling).  BTW, it was this third, unheard-from, elite school which was really Ariella's first choice!

Needless to say, Ariella was an emotional wreck and Zahava and I weren't doing much better. The day after receiving the above-mentioned rejection and wait-list letters, Ariella stayed home from school.  Truth be told, she really wasn't feeling well... but I have a suspicion that the real reason she wanted to stay home was that she didn't want to to have to potentially face her classmates walking around with their acceptance letters.  I'd also taken the day off to attend to some personal stuff, so in the early afternoon Ariella and I hung out on the couch watching old movies and eating cookie dough (what else are fathers for???).

By late afternoon I had to go pick up Zahava so I left Ariella curled up on the couch watching the end of a movie and headed out.  On a lark I stopped by our mailbox.... and  sure enough, there was a fat envelope inside from the elite school that she really, really wanted to attend.  Now, for those who have never applied to a school, here is the rule of thumb regarding envelopes:

Skinny envelope = Rejection (or wait list) letter

Fat envelope = Acceptance letter (the envelope is fat due to all the paperwork that needs to be filled out by the perspective student and her parents)

I turned the car around and raced home.  I ran into the house and found Ariella still on the couch with a pile of soiled tissues on her lap.  I am well known in our family for making multiple trips back into the house after forgetting my coffee, office keys, cell phone, ID card, etc... so Ari barely looked up when I jogged back into the room.   But when she finally looked over at me I was grinning like an idiot and holding up a FAT! envelope with the school's name and logo clearly visible on the front.

It's now several weeks later and I am just now getting the hearing back in my left ear.  Yes, she screamed.  And cried.  And jumped up and down.  And cried and screamed some more.

In between all that screaming, jumping and crying I received a few hugs... and after a few minutes Ari settled back onto the couch to read and re-read the letter to confirm that she had actually been accepted.   By this time I was really late picking up Zahava, so I left Ari on the couch with the movie and her still-growing pile of tissues.

So what, you may be wondering, does all this have to do with the title of today's post (and subsequent definition)?

The high school which Ariella will (G-d willing) be attending this coming year is called 'Pelech'.   And the word 'Pelech' describes a rather archaic tool known as a spindle.  When I looked it up in the dictionary it didn't mean much to me... and I couldn't imagine that they had named a school after such an implement.  But then I went to my handy Jastrow Talmudic Dictionary and found an interesting reference:

You see, there is a Gamara (def: discussions and rulings of the Amoras, based mainly on the Mishnah) in tractate Yoma (66b) of the Babylonian Talmud which reads as follows:

A wise woman asked R. Eliezer: What was done with the golden calf being equally forbidden, why were the penalties different [for those who worshiped it], some being slaughtered with the sword, some dying by water, or by a plague?   He answered: A woman has no wisdom except in the spindle, as it is written [Ex. xxxv. 25]: "All the wise women spun with their hands." It was taught: Rav and Levi said--the one, that he who slaughtered to the golden calf and offered incense was slain by the sword; he who embraced and kissed it, died by the plague; and he who rejoiced in his heart thereat, died from dropsy. And the other says: They who did it in spite of warning by witnesses, were slain; they who were not warned but only witnessed, by the pest; and those whom witnesses had not seen, died by dropsy.

On the surface this is a tad troubling.  A wise woman asks a respected rabbi an excellent question, and rather than answer her he seems to relate only to the fact that she was considered 'wise', saying:

אין חכמה לאשה אלא בפלך

"A woman has no wisdom except in the spindle" [Spindle in Hebrew = Pelech]

Now, first of all, we need to set aside our modern sensibilities about gender roles (or lack thereof) when reading ancient texts.  At the time that Rabbi Eliezer delivered his answer, his comment might have been construed as evasive or even dismissive... but I doubt it would have been considered insulting on the level that a 21st century woman might view it.

However, here was a woman who was described by those who knew her (or at least knew of her) as 'wise'.  She asked a rather insightful question about why the generation that worshiped the golden calf at Mount Sinai didn't all receive the same kind of divine death sentence... and for her trouble she was handed what was, at best, a non sequitor, and at worst a somewhat condescending and unhelpful answer. 

As you can see for yourselves (above), two other Rabbis (Rav and Levi) provide the wise woman (and by extension us) with two different, but equally satisfying answers regarding why different people suffered different deaths following the sin of the golden calf. 

It is worth pointing out that many of the Rabbis in the Talmud said far worse things to one another in the course of their scholarly discussions.  One of my favorite snubs (which I'm paraphrasing here from memory) is found near the beginning of Tractate Ta'anit where two rabbis are dining together and one says to the other: "Master, share some words of Torah".  To which the other answers "it is brought down that one shouldn't speak during a meal".

But all of that is really beside the point.

I've shared this here because, although I'm not certain (meaning I've never seen it in any of their printed materials), I suspect that this High School, which was one of the first to take the (at the time) radical step of teaching Talmud to young women, chose it's name in order to deliberately turn Rabbi Eliezer's statement on its head.

You have to admit that, "A woman has no wisdom except in [Pelech]" reads very differently when, instead of pelech simply being the Hebrew word for 'spindle'... it is also the name of a top notch school.

I can't tell you how much this interpretation appeals to me.

Posted by David Bogner on February 24, 2008 | Permalink


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Wow! Pelech!

That is indeed a wonderful school in so many ways!

Congratulations, Ariella!

Posted by: Sarah | Feb 24, 2008 1:30:02 PM

I heard it's an awesome school, and given its reputation I'm sure that's exactly what the school intended with the name. Mazal Tov!

Posted by: Baila | Feb 24, 2008 1:34:01 PM

Mazal Tov to your Ariella! Tell her I expect to hear her doing Megillat Esther in 4 years! (I think it is the seniors who have a class that culminates in the daytime megilla reading). I've gone to that reading for two or three years and love it!

(Women only, of course!)

Posted by: Safranit | Feb 24, 2008 2:07:52 PM

Mazel tov to Ari! Glad to hear that the admissions process has come to an end.

Posted by: tnspr569 | Feb 24, 2008 4:23:38 PM

that's great news! you and zahava better gear up for some challenging co-learning years coming up - pelech's reputation is well-earned.

I love hearing those gemara tidbits. I remember one with rabbi yirmiyahu, who was brilliant, but also asked some annoying questions. the class was learning about the laws of ownership and proximity to property. if a bird is within 50 cubits (appx. 75 feet) of private property, you may not take it, and over 50 cubits you may. so rabbi yirmiyahu asked "what if one foot was within the 50 and one outside." for his question, rabbi yirmiyahu was thrown out of the study hall.

of course, the story certainly has a deeper meaning, but on the surface how can you resist a smirk when imagining them tossing the guy out of class for asking such a question.

let's hope ariella's teachers will be more tolerant when she pushes them a little!!

Posted by: yonah | Feb 24, 2008 5:30:52 PM

Mazal tov to Ariella! Wonderful news!

(Look out, world!)

Posted by: Rahel | Feb 24, 2008 5:33:05 PM

Kol Hakavod! I remember the stressful times of applications... Glad to hear the wonderful news, and I'm sure Ariella will do great no matter where she goes. :)

Posted by: Irina | Feb 24, 2008 7:53:27 PM

mazal tov! there's talk of opening up a branch of the school in my neck of the woods -- i hope it happens by the time my daughter is old enough to go!

Posted by: nikki | Feb 24, 2008 8:51:08 PM

Mazal tov to Ariella!

Posted by: Shira Salamone | Feb 24, 2008 8:57:20 PM

Mazal tov! I lived around the corner from Pelech when I was there, and I think I went to the shabbat minyan there a couple of times. I also knew a girl in shiur aleph of Nishmat who had gone there for high school, and if she's any example of the types who attend, Ariella will be in wonderful, stimulating company.

Posted by: Alisha | Feb 24, 2008 8:59:12 PM

Turns out that you were right about the Talmudic passage being the inspiration for the school, but off about the reason.

This article (in Hebrew) explains the name:

במקור נועד "פלך" להעניק השכלה כללית לבנות הציבור החרדי, וכך גם נקרא "תיכון חרדי לבנות". גם את שמו המוזר בחר רוזנבליט ברוח זו, לפי דברי חז"ל: "אין חכמה לאשה אלא בפלך" (כלי לטוויית בגדים). כלומר: עם כל חשיבות ההשכלה, כדאי שהבוגרות לא ישכחו שמצפים מהן להיות נאמנות לעבודות הבית. כדי להבהיר את המסר, הציב רוזנבליט בפתח בית הספר כמה מכונות תפירה ישנות. רק שנים אחר כך, כש"פלך" קיבל את אופיו הפמיניסטי, פירשו הבנות מחדש את הביטוי שעליו הסתמך רוזנבליט: אין לאשה חוכמה, אלא אם תלמד ב"פלך".

My translation:

Originally Pelech was meant to give a general education to Haredi girls, and it was also called "Haredi Girls High School". Rosenbluth gave it that name in this spirit, according to the saying of the Rabbis "a woman's wisdom is limited to pelech (the spindle)". In other words, with all of the importance of education, the graduates shouldn't forget that they should be loyal to a life of housework. In order to bring this point hoem, Rosenbluth placed some old sewing machines at the entrance of the school. Only years later, when Pelech became feminist, did the the girls give the new explanation to the expression - "A woman can only have wisdom if she learns at Pelech".

Posted by: Dave (Balashon) | Feb 24, 2008 10:00:35 PM

The Splendid Splindle. Mazal Tov to Ariella.

Posted by: Jack | Feb 24, 2008 10:16:41 PM

Mazel Tov to Ari. That's awesome and just one more reason to be proud of my beautiful and smart niece.

Posted by: Val | Feb 24, 2008 11:17:08 PM

Your children are so lovely, so full of life and joy. When I think of spindles, it always comes back to Sleeping Beauty. Now, when your Ariella touches the spindle, she will be wise. Mazal Tov, and all the best to her in the future.

Posted by: Jauhara al Kafirah | Feb 25, 2008 1:07:56 AM

And then there are those of us who still use a pelech to (gasp!) spin yarn. I have a couple of spinning wheels, but also a basketful of those "archaic devices," and my husband gives me a little grin whenever he gets to the line about spinning in aishes chayil.

Next time we're in Israel I'll be happy to teach Ariella to use one--it would only be fitting that she should know. :) Mazal tov!

Posted by: uberimma | Feb 25, 2008 2:55:25 AM

Sarah... Thanks Sarah.

Baila... thanks. But if you look at the comment from Dave, you'll see that they have sort of 'grown into' the explanation I gave. Either way, it's all good.

Safranit... I'll let her know. :-)

tnspr569... Now we have a couple of years to breath before her University applications need to go out. :-)

yonah... No, Gilad is the one who asks the questions that are likely to get him thrown out of the study hall... but thanks for the good wishes. :-)

Rahel... Thanks so much. And thank you also for your timely proofreading catch.

Irina... This isn't exactly law school, but you wouldn't have known it from the amount of pressure these girls (and their families) had to endure. Thanks for the good wishes.

nikki... Remind me how it is that we haven't met yet? Seriously, We've had half the regular commenters from 'chuts laretz' over for shabbat (or at least a dinner)... it's about time we got together.

Shira Salamone... Thanks Shira. Somehow I suspected that the description of Pelech might resonate with you. :-)

Alisha... Thanks, I'm sure she will live up to the reputation.

Dave (Balashon)... Thanks Dave. I can always count on you to slog through all those Hebrew sources that would take me a year. Much appreciated.

Jack... Thanks so much.

Val... Yeah, like you really needed a reason. :-)

Jauhara al Kafirah... Thanks so much. I'd completely forgotten about the fairy tale reference to spindles. Oh, and BTW... nice site. I'm going to have to dig through the archives when I have some down time.

uberimma... No problem. I'm sure she'd love it. Thanks.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Feb 25, 2008 10:53:55 AM

Mazal Tov!
English has an almost exactly parallel phrase for "feminine wisdom" - we talk about "the distaff side" of an argument. This, too, is a spinning implement.

Posted by: Ben-David | Feb 25, 2008 4:20:39 PM

Congratulations and a big *whew!* Having been through the exact same dilemma myself (waiting for first choice, attarctive offer from not so much first-choice that requires an answer) the stress can kill you! SO glad that Ari got exactly what she deserves!

Posted by: noa | Feb 25, 2008 8:13:50 PM

Ben-David ... Cool, I'd forgotten about that. Thanks.

noa... Yes, we're pretty jazzed about it. Just a reminder, we need to get you guys over for a shabbat one of these days. Call me [makes L.A. phone sign (closed fist against cheek with thumb in ear and pinkie near corner of mouth)].

Posted by: treppenwitz | Feb 26, 2008 11:51:56 AM

Mazal Tov to Ariella!

Posted by: SaraK | Feb 26, 2008 8:05:36 PM

Mazal Tov!!! I remember those days, but I was applying from the States, we made Aliyah 2 weeks before 9th grade began. Pelech had been one of the schools I considered (granted, this was over 11 years ago) but didn't apply to for a number of reasons. However, it's got a GREAT reputation and is in a fabulous location! Tell her to have fun on Derech Beit Lechem, it's a charming little street with some great restaurants!

Posted by: Aliza | Feb 26, 2008 8:07:18 PM

Late with my Mazel Tov to Ari, but still heartfelt.

Posted by: Jen | Feb 29, 2008 10:05:43 AM

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