“Who knows four? The Imahot in rabbinic Judaism.”
by Alvin Kaunfer “Judaism” Vol.44 (Winter ’95) p. 94-103
Many contemporary siddurim now include the imahot (Biblical matriarchs) in the first blessing of the Amidah, which has traditionally mentioned only the avit (Biblical patriarchs.) This article explores the little known extent and importance of the imahot in rabbinic literature. The author argues that adding the matriarchs into the liturgy is not a radical idea but is consistent with a long tradition that recognized and valued the concept of the imahot.
Recently there has been much interest in the Imahot (the Matriarchs) and their use in the liturgy. A number of contemporary editions of the siddur have included the imahot, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, in the first blessing of the amidah, as well as in such prayers as the misheberakh which have traditionally mentioned only the avot–the Patriarchs. (1)
Justifications for such additions have been based on sensitivity to gender inclusiveness, as well as on historical precedents of liturgical flexibility, and on halakhic interpretations of the structure and requirements of the berakhah formula. (2)
However, there has been less attention given to an exploration of the concept of the imahot in traditional Jewish sources. Although there have been some attempts to look at classical midrashic images of various female personalities, those studies have been largely focused on individual characters rather than on “the Matriarchs” as a concept and rubric. (3)
This article will explore more fully the concept of the imahot in rabbinic literature, looking at how this concept was understood in classical sources, and how its submotifs developed within the context of rabbinic Judaism. I will also trace the concept beyond the rabbinic period and see how the imahot as a motif was employed in postrabbinic literature. I will suggest that inserting the imahot in the liturgy is not a radical idea, but is consistent with a long tradition that recognized and valued the concept of the imahot.
THE IMAHOT IN BIBLICAL AND RABBINIC TEXTS
The rubric of “the fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” occurs numerous times in both Torah and in the subsequent books of the Bible in connection with God’s revelation and covenantal pronouncements. The first time that the phrase occurs with all three of the Patriarchs is at the revelation at the burning bush. In that short narrative, which introduces Moses to God’s plan to rescue the Israelite people, God is described three times as the “God of the father(s) Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”(4)
In Leviticus 26 it is the covenant with Jacob, with Isaac, and with Abraham that God will remember; however, neither the word imahot nor the set “Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah” ever appear in Tanakh. Imahot as a concept is absent in biblical literature. Both the Jewish Encyclopedia (1905) and the Encyclopedia Judaica (1972) have entries for “Patriarchs” but no corresponding entry for “Matriarchs.” The Matriarchs as a concept is treated only in passing in both articles, under the heading of the Patriarchs. Given the strong patriarchal emphasis of traditional Judaism, and given the hundreds of entries in rabbinic literature for the avot, and “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” this may not be surprising. (5) Yet, the motif of the imahot definitely exists both in classical Talmudic, and especially in midrashic sources which deal with the biblical narrative.
The number of occurrences of the term imahot and of the set Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah is not insignificant, appearing some 76 times as imahot, and 15 times naming the individual matriarchs. (6)
While a number of those occurrences are parallel versions of the same exegetical comments, the concept of “the imahot” was clearly a recognized motif in rabbinic literature. It would seem that at least to some rabbinic sages, the Matriarchs were deemed worthy of mention as founders of Judaism, along with their male counterparts. The motif of the imahot includes several major midrashic submotifs which, in turn, are transformed and transfigured in numerous permutations.
James Kugel has effectively demonstrated how midrashic motifs can travel through both time and biblical contexts as those motifs evolve. (7) Sometimes the motif is attached to one key exegesis which is then reapplied to other verses. Our concept enjoys a similar varied life as it is employed in a number of submotifs. These include the merit of the Matriarchs, the Matriarchs as prophets, the barren Matriarchs, the use of the Matriarchs as metaphors, and the six Matriarchs. Each of these is worth some discussion.
THE MERIT OF THE MATRIARCHS
Zekhut Avot, the merit of the forefathers, is one of the basic ideas in rabbinic theology. Schechter explored the notion in his classic essay in Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology.(8) The forefathers’ faith serves as a reservoir of merit upon which the Jewish people may call to plead their case for mercy in God’s judgment of their individual and corporate deeds.
Schechter mentions, in passing, the parallel notion of zekhut imahot, the merit of the Matriarchs, but his exploration of the motif is minimal.(9) However, zekhut imahot is a valid rabbinic concept, appearing in several forms in numerous texts. The motif of zekhut imahot seems to focus on an exegesis of the word gevaot, “the hills,” in a number of biblical passages. The exegesis is clearly well known in rabbinic circles. Though it is difficult to ascertain which verse was the original locus for the exegesis, we might surmise, by its simple repetition throughout the literature, that it was connected with Numbers 23:9: “For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him” – “the top of the rocks” refers to the merit of the fathers, “from the hills” refers to the merit of the mothers. (10)
A similar exegesis connects the idea with the verse, “The voice of my beloved, behold he comes, leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills” (Song 2:8). “Leaping upon the mountains” means the merit of the Patriarchs, and “skipping upon the hills” means the merit of the Matriarchs.” (11)
The choice of “hills” as a metaphor for the Matriarchs would seem to be an apt one, reflecting the contours of the female body. That association, of the merit of the matriarchs with gevaot, “the hills,” leads to a fascinating use of the concept, applied to the story of the battle with Amalek. A Tannaitic Midrash cited in the Mekhilta states: ‘Tomorrow I will stand upon the top of the hill” (givah) (Ex. 16:19).
R. Eleazar of Modim says, (Moses said) Let us declare tomorrow a fast day and be ready, relying on the deeds of the ancestors. For ‘the top’ (rosh) refers to the deeds of the fathers; ‘the hill’ (ha-givah), refers to the deeds of the mothers…. ‘And Moses, Aaron and Hur went up to the Top of the Hill.’ (v. 10) This bears upon what we have already said above–to make mention of the deeds of the fathers and of the deeds of the mothers, as it is said: ‘For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him.’ (Num. 23:9). (12)
Moses, in this midrash, is calling upon the zekhut imahot as well as the zekhut avot in a prayerful supplication to God for aid in the imminent danger of the attack by Amalek. The liturgical context is intriguing especially given the more current uses of the imahot in the siddur. One wonders whether this midrash reflects actual rabbinic prayers for fast days which included both the avot and imahot, but which are now lost.
In any case, it is clear that rabbinic tradition included calling upon the merit of the Matriarchs to rescue the Jewish people in times of distress. What happens, however, when the reserve of merit runs out and the “credit” upon which the Jewish people have drawn begins to wane and falter? Leviticus Rabbah states: If you see that the merit of the Patriarchs is failing and the merit of the Matriarchs slipping away, go and occupy yourself with deeds of loving kindness. (“depend on God’s grace”–in a parallel version) (F3) Here the understanding seems to be that there are parallel and equivalent reserves of merit of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs.
Although it must be said that the merit of the Patriarchs is the dominant concept in rabbinic literature, texts such as these indicate that an idea of zekhut imahot not only existed, but held a prominent and parallel status at least in some rabbinic circles. Not only was the merit of the Matriarchs a source for help in times of distress, but it was extended to more positive contexts. The Exodus from Egypt was viewed as a reward for the dedication of the Matriarchs. The Holy One … at length set them free from Egypt, but did so only as a reward for the conduct of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah; as a reward for Sarah’s taking Hagar and bringing her to Abraham’s couch; as a reward for Rebekah who, when asked, “Will you go with this man?” said, “I will go.” (Gen. 24:58) … as a reward for Rachel because she took Bilhah and brought her to Jacob’s couch; and as a reward for Leah because she took Zilpah and brought her to Jacob’s couch. (14)
This midrashic tradition, which is probably a later development, considers the earlier notion of zekhut imahot not only as a reserve of merit to be tapped in prayerful supplication, but also as the key factor in the saving of the Jewish people at the Exodus. This midrash reflects the broader midrashic motif that the righteousness of the Israelite women contributed to their liberation from bondage.( 15) The power of the concept is thus expanded to include historic significance: the imahot become the major factor in the redemption of the Jewish People. In another positive context, the notion of zekhut imahot is extended to the covenant between God and the Patriarchs.
On the verse in Leviticus 26:42, “I have remembered (et) my covenant with Jacob, and also (et) my covenant with Isaac, and also (et) my covenant with Abraham will I remember,” the Tannaitic midrash, Sifra, comments that “et” refers to God’s covenant with the Matriarchs. God not only made his covenant with the Patriarchs; he made it with their wives, the Matriarchs, as well. (16)
THE MATRIARCHS AS PROPHETS
A second major rabbinic leitmotif concerning the Matriarchs is that they were prophets, along with the Patriarchs. (17) The archetype was Rebekah. After Jacob steals the blessing from Esau and Esau plots to kill his brother, the text in Genesis 27:42 comments that “the words of Esau were told (vayugad) to Rebekah.” Genesis Rabbah states in the name of R. Haggai quoting R. Isaac: “The Matriarchs were prophetesses, and Rebekah was among the Matriarchs.” (18)
It seems that the Rabbis based this tradition on the passive voice vayugad–Rebekah “was told,” and “by whom was she told? by none other than ruah hakodesh–The Holy Spirit.”(19) However, the Rabbis had ample textual support in the Torah itself for the fact that God revealed future events to Rebekah. God directly communicated with her in the oracular message: “Two nations are in your womb, and two separate peoples will issue from your body (Gen. 23:23).” On that verse there was a strong midrashic tradition that “an angel” or “the Word” spoke to Rebekah. (20)
That both the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs were considered prophets is also expressed in the exegesis of the verse from Psalms 105:15: “Touch not My anointed ones, and do not harm My prophets.” “My anointed ones” are interpreted to refer to the Patriarchs, while “My prophets” refer to the Matriarchs. This verse is used in conjunction with “It was told to Rebekah,” in the various transmissions of this tradition that both the Matriarchs and the Patriarchs had the status of prophets.(FN21)
THE BARREN MATRIARCHS
One midrashic theme which recurs in a number of sources is the theme of “the barren Matriarchs” which may strike a discordant note to the modern reader. In Genesis Rabbah we read:
Why were the Matriarchs barren? R. Levi said in R. Shila’s
name and R. Helbo in R. Johanan’s name: Because The
Holy One, blessed be He, desires their prayers and their
supplications, as it is written, ‘O my dove, you are like the
clefts of the rock’ (Song 2:14). Why did I make you barren?
So that ‘I might see your countenance, that I might hear your
voice.'(FN22) It would seem that their lengthy state of
childlessness led the Patriarchs to pray to God more
frequently, and God longs to hear the prayers of the
Patriarchs. However, the idea that the Matriarchs’
barrenness provides opportunities only for their husbands to
approach God is not completely uniform in all of the
sources. In Song of Songs Rabbah(FN23) we find a similar
exegesis with a different ending: “Why did God keep the
Matriarchs barren so long? Because God wished to hear
their prayer.” In any case, as uncomfortable as this Midrash
may be to the modern reader, it was clearly meant to project
a positive quality in the Matriarchs, given the context of the
ancient rabbinic writers. The Matriarchs were responsible
for the desired prayers being offered to God.
OTHER METAPHORIC APPLICATIONS
The Matriarchs became symbols not only of merit, of prophecy, and of prayer; they also became metaphors of other concepts associated with the number four and with particularly female qualities.
In Pesikta De Rab Kahana, the “four species” taken on Sukkot are interpreted to symbolize aspects of the lives of the four Matriarchs: ‘The fruit of the tree hadar’ (Lev. 23:40). Hadar stands for our mother Sarah whom the Holy One gave a majestic bearing in her old age….
‘A branch of palm trees’ stands for our mother Rebekah: like the palm tree which bears both fruit and thorns, so Rebekah bore a righteous man and a wicked man. ‘And a tree whose boughs are leafy’ stands for our mother Leah: as the myrtle tree is rich in leaves, so Leah was rich in children.
‘And willows of the brook’ stand for our mother Rachel: as the willow in the lulav cluster wilts before the other three plants in the cluster do, so Rachel died before her sister did.(FN24) The fruitfulness of the four species may be an apt referent especially for females, indicating fertility. Similarly, in the exegesis of Abraham’s future blessing, the three times “great” mentioned is understood to refer to the three future Patriarchs, while the four occurrences of “blessing,” refer to the four future Matriarchs.(FN25) The implication is that we are to associate the Mothers metaphorically with the notion of “blessing,” which may be more relational and thus a more particularly female metaphor than “greatness.” In an exegesis of a verse in the Song of Deborah, “Above women in the tent shall [Yael] be blessed,” “women in the tent” is understood as referring to Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah.(FN26) These four women were the symbols of the “home,” as in the famous midrash in which Rebekah is envisioned as continuing Sarah’s quality of hospitality, as Rebekah enters to occupy Sarah’s “tent.”(FN27)
THE SIX MATRIARCHS
There is some disagreement as to how many Matriarchs there were. The assumption is that the Matriarchs includes only the four wives Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. Yet, in some sources we find that Jacob’s concubines, Zilpah and Bilhah, are included as Matriarchs, making six: “And they brought their offering before the Lord, six covered wagons” (Num. 7:3) Six corresponding to the six Matriarchs–Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah.(FN28) Other sources connect the number six with the six days of creation.(FN29)
It would seem that some rabbinic traditions recognize that Bilhah and Zilpah were also mothers of the Tribes of Israel and thus deserve the status of “Matriarchs.” In most instances, however, the number is limited to four; indeed, the Tractate Semahot declares that one may not call any “fathers,” “our father” except for the three Patriarchs; and not any “mothers,” our “mother” except for the four Matriarchs.(FN30) Similarly, the unit Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah appears several times, as in the text cited about their merit contributing to the Exodus from Egypt, and in the metaphoric applications mentioned above.
IN LATER LITERATURE
The Matriarchs are mentioned in a variety of liturgical works in medieval and early modern times. The most well known of these is the fifteenth century poem sung at the Seder, “Who Knows One?” in which the answer to “Who knows four?” is the four Matriarchs; yet, there are other medieval poems which mention the Matriarchs. In a less well known piyut for the eve of Rosh Hashanah attributed to Gershom ben Judah of the tenth century, the righteous deeds of our forefathers are invoked. But then the poet asks that God recall, “berit avot v’imahot v’ha-shevatim,” the covenant with the Patriarchs, Matriarchs, and tribes.(FN31) In another medieval piyut, recited in the Italian rite on Shabbat Ha-gadol, after asking Isaac who was bound on the altar to stand by God’s right, the four Matriarchs are asked to stand on God’s left to intercede for Israel.(FN32)
Perhaps one of the most intriguing later liturgical developments of the imahot theme comes in the Yiddish Tehinah literature. These prayers and devotions for Jewish women, so popular among Ashkenazic Jewry, employed ample use of the imahot in expressing the deepest hopes and prayers of the women who recited them. In a “Tehinah of Sore, Rivke, Rokhl, and Leye,” we hear heartfelt supplication: Answer us this month, through the merit of our Mother Sore, for whose sake You commanded and said: ‘Do not dare touch my anointed ones.’ … And may the merit of our mother Rivke, who caused our father Yankev to receive the blessings from his father Yitskhok, cause the blessings to be fulfilled soon through her children Yisroel. And may the merit of our faithful mother Rokhl, to whom You promised that through her merit her children Yisroel would be delivered from exile, cause the promises to be fulfilled…. And for the merit of our mother Leye … that through her merit You may illumine our eyes so that we may overcome darkness. (FN33)
Turning to the merit of the Matriarchs for help becomes very personalized in these prayers. For example, a woman whose own mother is named Leye prays: Because of the merits of our Matriarchs, Sore, Rivke, Rokhl, and Leye, and the merit of my dear mother Leye, who also pleads before God – praised be He – on my behalf, may my wanderings serve as an expiation for my sins. (FN34) The Matriarchs, in these Tehinahs, become tangibly accessible to the woman praying. The sense of complete identification with and closeness to the Matriarchs is striking in this form of very personalized prayer. Here it is clear that the merit of the Matriarchs becomes more than an obscure rabbinic concept. The imahot concept is transformed into a central Tehinah motif.
This brief survey of the concept of the imahot indicates that it is not an invention of the past decade to infuse prayers with more egalitarian language. On the contrary, the imahot is a concept central to the classical sources of rabbinic and postrabbinic literature. Granted, it existed in connection with the concept of the avot–the Patriarchs–but it was not merely a subset of that idea. In many sources as we have seen the concept of the imahot was a parallel and independent concept. The imahot had their own merit and their own source of divine prophecy, analogous to, but separate from that of the avot. Their merit was credited with bringing the exodus and they, too, were recipients of God’s covenant.
In addition, the metaphoric symbolism of the imahot was characteristically female: they were the guardians of the “tent” and home; they were the “blessing” promised to Abraham, and they were the “fruitfulness” represented by the four species. The sages who created and transmitted these traditions recognized the significant role that the mothers of Judaism played in preserving both faith and family. In their eyes, the Matriarchs were neither silent nor invisible. Rather, they were partners in the development of Judaism and thus worthy of recognition. This recognition of the Matriarchs is even more noteworthy given the patriarchal society in which the authors of these texts lived.
Moreover, it is significant that many of the sources refer to the imahot in prayerful and liturgical settings. From the early midrashic prayer of Moses, through the medieval piyutim and into the premodern Tehinahs, the merit of Matriarchs was invoked to come to the aid of the Jew in distress. It therefore seems quite in concert with this tradition to include the imahot in the opening berakhah of the Amidah.
After all, in the first berakhah of the amidah, we turn to God who “remembers the loving kindness of the avot.” As Moses “made mention of the deeds of the avot and the imahot,” as the paytanim asked God to “recall the covenant of the avot and imahot” and asked the imahot to stand at God’s right hand, and as the Tehinahs pleaded for God to answer “through the merit of Sore, Rivke, Rokhl, and Leye”; we, too, might direct our prayers to, “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, who remembers the loving kindness of the avot and imahot.” Such an addition would not be so much an innovation as it would be a restoration of the concept to its use in former times.
ALVAN KAUNFER is the rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, Providence, Rhode Island. He has written about midrash and the teaching of midrash.
To the memory of Rabbi William G. Braude, teacher, colleague, and friend
1. See, for example, Kol Haneshamah (Reconstructionist), and the notes there on the Amidah; and On the Wings of Awe Mahzor (Hillel). The new Siddur Sim Shalom (Conservative) will contain the imahot in an alternative Amidah. Note that the Orthodox siddur, Rinat Yisrael (Sephardic), includes the imahot in the mi sheberakh for the sick. Also see Harry P. Solomon, “Including the Matriarchs: A proposal for Birkat ha-Mazon,” Reconstructionist, March, 1988, pp. 12-14.
2. Joel E. Rembaum, “Regarding the Inclusion of the Names of the Matriarchs in the First Blessing of the Amidah,” unpublished paper adopted by the Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, March 21, 1990. 3. See, for example, Linda Kuzmack, “Aggadic Approaches to Biblical Women,” in The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives, Elizabeth Koltun, ed. (New York: Schocken, 1976). For a more serious midrashic character study of a biblical woman which could serve as a model for other character analyses, see, Devora Steinmetz, “A portrait of Miriam in Rabbinic Midrash,” Prooftexts 8 (1988), pp. 35-65. 4. Exodus 3:6, 15, 16.
5. The Davka CD-ROM locates over 900 entries for avot, and over 700 entries for the set “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
6. The Davka CD-ROM counts 76, excluding the general use of imahot as “mothers” in halakhic contexts. It is interesting to note that the four Matriarchs are named far fewer times, mostly in later midrashic collections.
7. James Kugel, In Potiphar’s House (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1990).
8. Solomon Schechter, “The Zachuth of the Fathers,” in Rabbinic Theology (New York: Schocken, 1909, 1961); see also, Ephraim Urbach, The Sages (Cambridge MA: Harvard Press, 1987), pp. 496-508.
9. Schechter, p. 172.
10. Bemidbar Rabbah 20, 19 and parallels listed in Vayikra Rabbah 36,6, Margulies, p. 852, note to line 6.
11. B. Rosh Hashanah 11a.
12. Mekhilta, Amalek 1, Lauterbach II, pp. 142-143; Horovitz-Rabin, p. 179. I have followed Lauterbach’s translation with minor changes. See Horovitz’s note to line 6 for parallels.
13. Vayikra Rabbah 36,6. See Margulies, p. 852. Note that this midrash quotes Isa. 54:10, again linking the Matriarchs with the word “gevaot.”
14. Tanna Debe Eliyahu, Friedmann, p.138; Braude, p. 340.
15. Shemot Rabbah 1, 12. See notes in A. Shinan, p. 54.
16. Sifra, Weiss, 112c; see also, Vayikra Rabbah 36,5, Margulies, p. 850.
17. Seder Olam, p.92 (see next note), and Gen. 20:7 where Abraham is called “navi.”
18. Bereshit Rabbah 67,9 and 72,6. See Theodor’s note on p. 765. See, also, Ratner’s note 25 to Seder Olam, p. 92, in which he quotes a number of parallel sources as well as suggests that the Seder Olam text should read, “How do we know that the Patriarchs [and Matriarchs] were called prophets?”
19. Midrash Tehillim 105,4, Buber, p. 450; Braude, p. 182. See, especially, Buber’s note 14.
20. See Theodor, p. 188 and J. Sota Chap. 7, and Theodor’s note to line 4 on p. 765.
21. See notes 18 and 19.
22. Bereshit Rabbah 45,14, Theodor, p. 450 and note; also Ginzberg, Legends, V, p. 231, n. 116. See B. Hullin 60b where God longs for the prayers of the righteous in general.
23. Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2,14.
24. Pesikta De Rab Kahana, Mandelbaum, p. 415; Braude, p. 422; Vayikra Rabbah 30, 10; Margulies, p. 708.
25. Bereshit Rabbah 39,11.
26. B. Nazir 23b. See Tosafot for the connection of “tent” with each. See also Bereshit Rabbah 48,15.
27. Bereshit Rabbah 60,16
28. Bemidbar Rabbah 12,17; Shir HaShirim Rabbah 6,4,2 and parallels.
29. Esther Rabbah 1,11; Shir HaShirim Rabbah 6,15.
30. Semahot 1, 12, quoted in B. Berakhot 16b.
31. Abraham Rosenfeld, The Authorized Selichot for the Whole Year (New York: Judaica Press, 1984), p.168.
32. “Kakh Gazru,” Mahzor Kol HaShanah Kefi Minhag Italiani (Livorno, 1856), p.91. My thanks to the JTS library for helping to locate this source based on Ginzberg, Legends VI, p. 7, n. 39.
33. Tracy Guren Klirs, The Merit of Our Mothers (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College, 1992), pp. 84-86, Transliteration of names follows that in the book. Note the use of Psalms 105:15 indicating that the author knew of the exegesis of the verse referring to the Matriarchs. For additional examples, see, Tehinah Rav Peninim (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1916), pp. 176-183, where the merit of both Patriarchs and Matriarchs are invoked.
34. Ibid., p.12.