This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

On Matriarch Rachel and Mother's Day*

There is a sort of Mothers' Day that is observed in Israel, especially among the pre-schoolers. This occasion, on which the toddlers are usually guided in making crafts for their mothers, is observed on the eleventh of the Hebrew month of Heshvan (around October or November). It is a rather modest affair, lacking both the strict halakhic definition of a full-fledged religious holiday and the commercial hype of its American counterpart.

The choice of this date is an intriguing one. It falls on the traditional date of the death of the matriarch Rachel. I have not yet succeeded in tracing the derivation of this date, which is not mentioned in the Bible, talmudic literature or any of the medieval writings that I have been able to consult. My guess is that its origins are to be found somewhere in the sixteenth-century, when the Spanish Expulsion brought many Jews to the soil of the Holy Land. The Kabbalists had a special penchant for visiting the graves of the righteous, and evolved detailed calendars for pilgrimage to the burial sites of pious Jews of earlier times, including Rachel's Tomb on the road to Bethlehem. The eleventh of Heshvan was likely selected as a date for such a pilgrimage. There are some older midrashic traditions to the effect that two other Hebrew matriarchs, Sarah and Rebecca, died around the same time of the year.

The transformation of Rachel's Yahrzeit into a "Mothers' Day" raises the question: What is there in Rachel's life and personality that makes her a suitable embodiment of the Jewish ideals of motherhood? Like many Biblical heroines, Rachel did not have an easy time achieving motherhood, and for much of her married life had to resign herself to watching her sister Leah bear Jacob many children, until she herself finally gave birth to Joseph. Not long afterward she expired while giving birth to Benjamin.

While she did not have much opportunity to enjoy the blessings of motherhood--or perhaps precisely for this reason--the prophet Jeremiah depicted her poetically as the archetypal mother of the nation. It was she who wept as her children were sent off into exile, and who would most rejoice at their return from captivity. In Jewish folklore and in the mystical tradition Rachel was identified with the Divine Presence (the Shekhina), and came to be depicted as the spiritual mother of the entire Jewish people, following the fate of her children through their wanderings and remaining inconsolable until their reunification.

The commemoration of Rachel's Yahrzeit came to be observed with particular intensity among Ashkenazic women. This can be seen in the tradition of Tekhinnes, the Yiddish prayers which constituted a vital part of women's day-to-day religious life, and often made reference to pious Jewish women of earlier ages. The Tekhinneh literature developed an elaborate set of prayers for Rosh Hodesh, the first days of the each Jewish month (which had previously been observed as women's holidays). One of the popular tekhinnes for the month of Heshvan contains a touching appeal to Rachel, bidding her to strike on the heavenly Gates of Mercy in order to intercede before God to insure that he fulfil his pledge to her, to deliver her children from exile: Just as they passed by Rachel's grave on their way out of the Land of Israel, so will they now pass by on their return to their land.

The important themes that are embodied in the life of the historic Rachel, as well as in her stature as a national symbol, make her a worthy figure upon which to focus a Jewish Mothers' Day.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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First Publication:

  • Jewish Free Press, May 1 1991.