Celebrate Mother’s Day the Jewish way

Mother’s Day 2006

Rabbi Judy Chessin

Temple Beth Or

Jewish mothers evoke jokes with punch lines about light bulbs and martyrdom. But missing Mother’s Day is no laughing matter, making us wonder if Mother’s Day could possibly be a Jewish holiday.

The earliest known tributes to mothers date back to ancient Greek and Roman spring festivals dedicated to their mother gods. Christians honored Mary on the fourth Sunday of Lent and thus, in England, her “Mothering Sunday” was later expanded to celebrate all mothers.

In the United States, following the Civil War, Anna Jarvis, an Appalachian homemaker, organized a day to raise awareness of poor health conditions in her community, calling it “Mother’s Work Day.” Fifteen years later, Julia Ward Howe, author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, organized a day for mothers to rally for peace, suggesting that mothers bore the loss of human life more severely than anyone else.

When Anna Jarvis died on May 9, 1905, her daughter Anna began a campaign to memorialize her mother’s life work. At a church service on the third anniversary of her mother’s death, the younger Anna handed out her mother’s favorite flower, a white carnation, and embarked upon a national campaign to create an American memorial day for all Mothers. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson signed a bill recognizing Mother’s Day as a national holiday on the second Sunday in May. Ironically, Anna later bemoaned the blatant commercialization of Mother’s Day. In 1923 she filed a lawsuit to stop a Mother’s Day festival, and was arrested trying to break up a peace convention selling carnations for a war mothers’ group. She died blind, penniless and regretful that she ever started Mother’s Day in the first place.

Nonetheless, Mother’s Day was enthusiastically embraced by the American Jewish community. The Jewish Welfare Board published a Mother’s Day pamphlet, and some synagogues even instituted special prayer services for the day, offering mothers white carnations and singing Eshet Chayil (Proverbs’ A Woman of Valor) to them.

A little known fact is that we Jews already had our own Mother’s Day on our Jewish liturgical calendar. The 11th of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan (October/November) has long been associated with the death of our matriarch Rachel, and, as such, was regarded as a sort of Jewish Mother’s Day.

It is unclear why the 11th of Cheshvan became associated with Rachel. One theory has it that when the Spanish Expulsion brought many Jews to the Holy Land, the Kabalists (Jewish mystics) created a pilgrimage festival to Rachel’s Tomb on the road to Bethlehem. While the 15th of Cheshvan had generally been accepted as the major pilgrimage day to Rachel’s tomb, tradition places her yahrzeit (day of death) on the 11th of the month. Might it be that since eim or “mother” has a numerical equivalent of 41, and the 11th of Cheshvan is 41 days after the birth of the world (Rosh Hashanah) that it became the preferred date for Rachel’s commemoration and Yom Ha-Eim, the Day of the Mother? Midrashic tradition further associates the death of the matriarchs Sarah and Rebecca with the day.

So why would Rachel be chosen as the quintessential Jewish mother, rather than one of the other matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, or Leah? After all, Rachel suffered infertility for years before becoming a mother, while her sister, Leah, bore Jacob child after child. Perhaps it was this very suffering and death after childbirth that earned her special merit in our national folklore. Rachel certainly raised Jewish maternal martyrdom to new heights when, in Genesis she exclaimed to Jacob, “Give me children or I shall, die!” Sadly for Rachel this was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Because Rachel did not have much opportunity to enjoy the blessings of motherhood, the prophet Jeremiah depicted her as the archetypal mother of the nation of Israel: Rachel weeps for her children; she refuses to be consoled for her children, for they are gone. In Jewish folklore, Rachel became identified with the indwelling Presence of the Divine (the Shekhina), and the spiritual mother who accompanied the Jewish people into exile and remained disconsolate until their return.

We Jews were not surprised earlier this year when The American Journal of Human Genetics concluded that four women from the Middle East bequeathed their genetic signatures to the nearly eight million Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews now living around the world. These genes do not appear in non-Jews and are rare in Jews not of Eastern European descent. Thus was confirmed for us what we already assumed: While it takes no Jewish women to screw in a light bulb, it is possible that four Matriarchs populated our Jewish nation. And more important, it took one great Jewish woman to give birth to you, dear reader. So celebrate and honor your mother on Sunday, May 14, on 11 Cheshvan, today and every day.

© 2006 Rabbi Judy Chessin



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