Jews have been paying homage to mom since Mount Sinai. Or, at least, we were supposed to have.
The fifth commandment — “Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” (Exodus 20:12) — is among one of the oldest religious encouragements of giving mom her day. It’s notable that this is the first commandment with a promise — do this, and you’ll get something in return. Some scholars say its placement is pivotal — for it lies between the commandments teaching us to love God, and those to love and respect all of humanity.
Are mothers then the bridge between the heavens and the earth? A wealth of jokes about strong-willed Jewish mothers getting what they want through love, guilt and everything in between would certainly seem to indicate this (Question: What’s the difference between a rottweiler and a Jewish mother? Answer: Eventually, the rottweiler lets go).
Some stereotypes have a bit of truth in them — last year, the popular Jewish dating website JDate posed a mother’s survey to its members, which revealed the following statistics:
n More than 50 percent said Jewish moms meddle too much in relationships (although half of these found this endearing).
n 32 percent said their mothers would be happiest if they found their dates at synagogue.
n 5 percent said their mothers actively search JDate for matches for their children or grandchildren. (Author’s note: This is true. I’ve found more than one grandmother browsing my JDate profile.)
Jewish continuity can be said to literally travel through mothers — Conservative and Orthodox Judaism recognizes only matrilineal descent of Jewish identity. Additionally, non-Orthodox Jewish movements have, in recent years, elevated the status of the matriarchs by adding them to the central Amidah prayer, as well as adding them to the Mishebeirach prayer for the ailing.
The honoring of one’s parents has a long tradition of about 4,000 years, dating back to the time of the “Imahot,” literally “mothers” but generally a term for the founding matriarchs of Sara, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
These four are symbols of merit, of prophecy, of overcoming adversity and of prayer. The four fronds of the lulav used on Sukkot are likened to the four mothers, and the well-known 15th-century Passover seder song “Who Knows One?” teaches children about the four matriarchs.
The matriarch Rachel has become the figure synonymous with love for the children of the Jewish nation. Initially barren, her heartfelt prayers to God were answered, and she bore two children who ultimately become the Jewish nation. She died in childbirth outside Bethlehem and her husband, the patriarch Jacob, set up a memorial tomb in her honor. Today, this area is considered by many to be the third holiest site in Judaism; hundreds of women visit there every year to pray for intercession on God’s behalf, especially barren women who wish to conceive.
The 11th day of the Hebrew month of Heshvan is celebrated by a few as Jewish Mother’s Day, in honor of Rachel’s passing. It’s more of a day of reflection, and neither a consumerist orgy nor a full-fledged religious holiday. Some others honor their parents on Shavuot, since that is the time the Jews received the Torah, and the Ten Commandments.
So should we sell the house to buy truckloads of flowers for Mom, and only marry who she tells us to, and basically live our lives to please her? Believe it or not, many rabbis say the answer is no.
An importance discourse on the subject of mothers came from a rabbi known as the Maharik in 15th-century Italy. He said, essentially, that the Torah commands honor and reverence of parents, but does not legislate parental authority. Honor and reverence are limited to acts that benefit the parent — feeding, clothing and attending to the parent’s other needs; reverence means not contradicting them publicly, not sitting in their special place, not detracting from their status.
However, the Maharik says a parent forbidding a child to marry a desired mate is tantamount to telling them to transgress a mitzvah, or biblical commandment, and a child is not obligated to suffer the pain that not marrying someone fitting would cause in order to honor his parents.
So the happy medium lies somewhere within — listening respectfully to Mom and making sure she is well taken care of, but making the decisions concerning your life which will make you happy. After all, isn’t your happiness what she always really wanted?
Jonathan Rubin is managing editor of the Greater Rhode Island Area’s Jewish Voice and Herald, where this piece previously appeared.