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Truths my kallah teacher told me: Ten tips for new brides

By Tova Warburg Sinensky

The Times of Israel: The Blogs | July 8, 2015

In her thought-provoking and informative blogpost, “Lies my Kallah Teacher Told me: Ten Tips for New Brides,” Tali Rosenbaum draws attention to some serious misconceptions brides may have been taught in their kallah classes. While we wholeheartedly agree with Rosenbaum that kallah teachers must convey accurate information, perhaps the title of the article obscures the important contributions kallah teachers can and do make in educating young women about taharat hamishpacha and relationships. Especially in the past decade, kallah teaching both in the United States and in Israel has become more professionalized.

Here, we wish to highlight the contributions of the competent kallah teachers who set couples on halachic and hashkafic paths toward healthy marriages.  Given their crucial role, the importance of finding an excellent kallah teacher cannot be underestimated. Below are ten tips that highly qualified kallah teachers impart to kallot in order to support them as they begin to build their homes.

  1. Love and marriage are beautiful and exciting– and challenging.

As a couple begins their life together, they look forward to their marriage with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. A kallah teacher shares Jewish perspectives on the beauty of marriage and the sanctity of intimacy. She raises various ideas about how taharat hamishpacha can enhance marriage as well as one’s overall avodat Hashem (worship of God) to help each couple find an approach that adds meaning to their practice. Equally important, she presents research about common challenges that may arise, as well as “best practices” gleaned from literature and lectures by doctors, mental health professionals, rabbis, and yoatzot halacha.

The kallah enters her marriage equipped with proactive strategies to avoid common pitfalls, and with suggestions for more trying times. Some qualified teachers offer a session or two for both the chatan and kallah to discuss healthy communication and even to offer basics about financial planning, an area which often pushes romance into the background. Many teachers also advise couples to attend premarital counseling in order to prepare for marriage and to practice healthy communication from day one.

  1. In-depth study enhances halachic observance and overall experience of halacha.

A kallah teacher teaches halachot in a way that enables couples to observe them. Teachers who have learned the sources thoroughly have the ability to teach a text-based course, depending on the interest of the kallah. Part of this in-depth study entails exposing the kallah to areas of halacha where there might be room for leniency in extenuating circumstances, so she can inquire about leniency when warranted. Deeper mastery of the material enhances halachic practice and experience.

  1. Observing taharat hamishpacha does not lead to instant marital harmony and bliss.

Observing halacha can sometimes feel overwhelming, and these feelings may be particularly acute regarding Hilchot Niddah. A good teacher does not pretend that keeping Hilchot Niddah is a panacea that will lead to instant marital harmony and bliss.  Rather, she is honest about the complexity of any sexual relationship and the varying impacts couples experience in their observance of Hilchot Niddah. She discusses how observing the required periods of separation, while sometimes extremely challenging in the moment, has the potential to enhance a couple’s marriage over the long haul.

  1. Chatan and kallah must learn how to discuss all issues effectively and openly.

The laws of taharat hamishpacha and information about intimacy are often taught separately to the chatan and kallah. A kallah teacher can suggest that the couple review together what they have been taught so that they are on the same page.  This can often feel uncomfortable when it comes to intimacy, as the sexual encounter is inherently our most vulnerable human interaction. A good kallah teacher sensitively discusses ways to transition together at their own pace into these kinds of conversations and experiences. Additionally, she emphasizes the importance of each spouse communicating his or her needs and desires. She clarifies that intimacy is never halachically permitted to be coerced on any level and is forbidden when the couple is arguing; feelings of love and deep mutual respect should fuel every physical encounter. She can use discussion of the laws that govern intimacy to notice warning signals and help the kallah notice them as well as to ensure that the relationship is healthy and non-abusive.

  1. There is nothing that is inappropriate to discuss with a kallah teacher.

A central component of the teacher’s task is to impart the “how to’s” and the “what if’s” about intimacy.  For the kallah to feel comfortable learning about these topics and discussing her fears and concerns, the teacher must create a warm, safe space and let the kallah know that all questions are more than welcome. In order to prepare the kallah for this new area of life, a good teacher’s curriculum includes anatomy and mechanics, a discussion of the differences between male and female sexuality, and practical tips for how to make intimate experiences more enjoyable.

  1. When in (even slight) doubt, ask!

“What can we do to enable this couple to be together in a halachically acceptable way?” is halacha‘s starting point for decisions in Hilchot Niddah. This message is of utmost importance, as it encourages a woman not to assume she is a niddah — which has consequences for shalom bayit, fertility, and emotional well-being — but rather to ask questions. The in-depth, personalized education that kallot receive increases a woman’s understanding of when she should ask a question.

A competent kallah teacher keeps in mind that too much detailed information during the busy, emotionally charged engagement period can sometimes backfire. Therefore, she conveys the message that every new stage in life brings new applications of Hilchot Niddah, and the kallah should expect to have new questions arise over the years.

  1. There are different avenues for receiving halachic guidance from a qualified source.

Although accidentally frying a dairy omelet in a meat frying pan can be embarrassing to report, most people wouldn’t shy away from picking up the phone to call their local rabbi to determine the pan’s status. Not so with Hilchot Niddah. In this most personal area of halacha, many are far more sensitive in selecting a confidante. A qualified teacher exposes the kallah to different ways of asking questions and collecting information–calling a rav or yoetzet halacha, having her husband ask the question, calling the Nishmat hotline or using Nishmat’s website — whatever will enable her to receive the most authentic halachic response while feeling safe and dignified. The teacher clarifies that she is available for questions at any point down the road.

  1. Mikveh preparation day really can feel more like spa day!

The process of mikveh preparation often becomes clouded when women think of it as a highly time-consuming, cumbersome task. The competent teacher ensures that the kallah understands what is halachically required, clarifying which beauty regimens are obligatory and which can be skipped. She offers suggestions that can transform preparation from a halachic requirement  into a well-deserved pampering session. This can make a world of difference for a woman, and enable her to seek a spiritual dimension to the process of immersion. The teacher (and the chatan teacher as well) also suggests ways the husband can facilitate mikveh preparation to be more enjoyable: by taking on more domestic responsibilities for the evening, paying attention to his own physical hygiene and making romantic gestures.

  1. It is important to learn about contraceptive options and their medical and halachic ramifications.

There are many different halachic opinions regarding the permissibility of contraception throughout marriage. A competent kallah teacher opens up this conversation for the couple and, where appropriate, refers them to a halachic advisor and/or doctor for further discussion and education. Even if the couple plans to build a family immediately, contraceptive questions usually arise later. Therefore, a good teacher ensures that the kallah has access to knowledge about the many different forms of halachically acceptable options, including the pros and cons of each and their respective halachic ramifications.

  1. Know when to reach out to professionals.

Halacha does not exist in a vacuum but in the real world, and the laws of taharat hamishpacha are no exception.  In order to fully understand these laws and answer questions about them, a great teacher imparts relevant knowledge about the medical and psychological areas that intersect with taharat hamishpacha. For example, a hallmark of Nishmat’s Yoetzet Halacha Program curriculum is training in the areas of reproductive anatomy and physiology, gynecological abnormalities and procedures, pregnancy and childbirth, menopause, breastfeeding,  contraception, infertility, as well as related psychosocial topics.

Of course, the teacher never takes the place of a doctor, and has the training and knowledge to know what kinds of medical and relationship questions she can answer, and where consultation with an expert is required. The teacher provides a list of resources to her kallot, and emphasizes how normal, healthy and important it is to consult with halachic advisors and as well as other professionals when help is needed.

There is a growing network of well-trained rebbetzins and kallah teachers who are driven by dedication and commitment to halacha and to klal Yisrael. Kallot often receive upwards of 10 hours of formal instruction, in addition to phone, email and text time throughout their married lives. Those that engage in educating kallot deserve our sincere gratitude. As the field of kallah teaching becomes more professionalized, it is our hope that this list can be of use in identifying what to look for in a kallah teacher. We anticipate hearing that more and more brides feel well prepared to build strong, healthy marriages.

Yoetzet Halacha Tova Warburg Sinensky serves as the Yoetzet Halacha in the Greater Philadelphia Region. She also teaches Gemara and Halacha and mentors new teachers at Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station, PA.

This piece has been co-authored by Yoetzet Halacha Atara Eis who serves as the Director of Nishmat’s Miriam Glaubach Center’s U.S. Yoatzot Halacha Fellows Program.  She also teaches in Jerusalem at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim (MMY). She can be reached at [email protected]

The authors wish to thank Yoetzet Halacha Laurie Novick for her editorial advice, as well as the following individuals for their input: Yoatzot Halacha: Bracha Rutner, Rifka Sonenberg and Lisa Septimus; Yoatzot Halacha Fellows: Julia Baruch, Rookie Billet and Ilana Gadish.

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