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Wisdom of the Heart

Wisdom of the Heart

The Jewish Mother


And every wise hearted woman spun with her hands, and they brought spun material: blue, purple, and crimson wool, and linen...

(Exodus 35:25)

She was there for us at the very beginning, and she is there for us still. She was there at times of elation and was there in times of distress. She was there in times of hope and is still there in times of despair. She nurtured our faith under the Inquisition and our strength during the Pogroms. She held our hands in the gas chambers and holds our hands still. She, is our yiddishe mama – our Jewish mother.

The Matriarchs

I doubt I would find the courage to do what Rebecca did I wasn't there when Ishmael threatened to take Isaac's life, but if I were, I don't think I could have stood up to him with the same determination that Sarah did.1 I wasn't there when Isaac proposed to bestow his blessing upon Esau, but if I were, I doubt I would find the courage to do what Rebecca did and insert Jacob as a substitute.2

And would I have equaled Rachel's sacrifice, when she selflessly forfeited her sacred right to be interred beside her husband in the cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron? She chose to be buried in Bethlehem instead, for the sake of her children. When, more than a thousand years later, the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and our ancestors were exiled to Babylon, they passed through Bethlehem and paused at their mother's tomb to pray. Rachel, who had awaited this moment for centuries, stormed the gates of heaven and shed bitter tears. G‑d granted her prayers and promised that the exile would end after seventy years. If not for Rachel's sacrifice, the Babylonian exile may not have ended so quickly; our nation may not have survived.3

Where did these Jewish mothers find the courage? I don't know because I'm not one of them, but ask your mother and I'm sure she'll gladly tell you. When a need arises, the Jewish mother simply responds.

Sarah didn't worry about standing up to the violent Ishmael; her son's safety was at stake. Had Ishmael accomplished then what his descendants have tried to accomplish since, we would not be here today. Rebecca didn't fear Esau's wrath, the future of her children was at stake. Had Jacob not received those blessings there may not have been a Jewish people today. Rachel's children were in need and she never hesitated. Her concern was not for herself, but for her children.

In Egypt

The future of their people was at stakePharaoh decreed that all Jewish male newborns be put to death. At hearing this news, Jewish men despaired and refused to procreate, but their wives wouldn't hear of it. These women were, by nature, chaste and demure, but the future of their people was at stake. Contrary to their natures, they ventured out to the fields and seduced their working husbands.

When they felt the pangs of labor, they returned to the fields, away from prying eyes and gave birth to their children. The mothers then returned home; leaving their infants behind and entrusting their survival to G‑d. G‑d nurtured these children lovingly and brought them home when they matured.

They believed with perfect faith that G‑d would not abandon them. G‑d had promised Jacob that his children would be redeemed from Egypt and the Jewish mothers fought to give G‑d that chance.4

To ensure the success of his decree against Jewish children, Pharaoh instructed the Jewish midwives to commit infanticide. These midwives never even entertained the idea and saved countless lives at grave personal risk.5

When Amram, father of Moses, who despaired of having more children, he divorced his wife, Jocheved. He later remarried her at the urging of his six year old daughter, Miriam. Pharaoh's decree, Miriam challenged her father, threatened only the male newborns, divorce ensures the complete extinction of our nation. When Moses was born, it was Miriam who gave the people new hope, when she prophesied that the baby would grow up to become the redeemer of Israel.6

Imagine Jocheved's anguish as she placed her son in a basket and cast him upon the Nile, entrusting his safety to G‑d. Imagine Miriam's dread as she watched the princess of Egypt collect the basket. Imagine her courage as she approached the princess and audaciously recommend her mother, Jocheved, as a wet nurse for the baby.7

Imagine her bravery as she returned to the palace, to the great Pharaoh's homeAnd what of Batya, the Egyptian princess who stretched out her arm to collect the little Jewish boy? Our sages taught that she had ventured out to immerse in the river to secretly convert to Judaism. Imagine her bravery as she returned to the palace, to the great Pharaoh's home, after having secretly consorted joined her father's enemies, to raised their future redeemer under her father's nose....8

These are only the publicized cases. There are literally thousands of stories, liberally sprinkled throughout the course of Jewish history, of Jewish mothers who selflessly sacrificed for the sake of their children with no regard to personal safety.9

In Catholic Spain, despite the threat of death at the hands of the Inquisition, Jewish mothers taught their daughters to light Shabbat candles. Jewish mothers in Nazi death camps continued to have children and, with their last breath, defied Hitler's "final solution." Jewish mothers under Communist oppression raised their children to be proud Jews despite the hardships of Soviet discrimination and persecution.

The Foundation

What is the source of their strength? It is their faith. From the very beginning, Jewish women believed in a personal and caring G‑d. When Jewish men despaired, Jewish women believed and carried on. When the future seemed bleak, when events seemed at their worst, the women never lost hope. They never broke faith. They always believed that G‑d would come through. If not immediately, then soon. If not for them, then for their children.

When G‑d split the Reed Sea, Miriam, accompanied by the lyrical ringing of tambourines, led the women in an ode to G‑d. Where did they find tambourines in the middle of a desert? They brought them along from Egypt in perfect faith that G‑d would perform precisely such miracles.10

When Moses failed to return from Mount Sinai at the appointed time and men predicted that he wouldn't come back, the women persisted in faith. When the men determined to build a golden calf, Jewish women refused to contribute their gold.11

The women never broke faith with G‑dWhen the spies returned from the holy land with a negative report the men broke down and wept. The women never broke faith with G‑d, and rejected the negative report.12

This ironclad faith braces the Jewish mother's rock like strength. Faith is the foundation of our religion. If Torah and mitzvot are its building blocks, then faith is its cornerstone.

Our mothers give us the foundation upon which we build. Foundations are not usually visible. They aren't meant to be. They are concealed by the buildings atop them. But at times of turmoil, when the building crumbles, the foundation can once again be glimpsed. Its solid surface cannot be shaken. The entire building can be rebuilt upon it.

The Wise of Heart

This is why the Torah identifies the women who helped to build the tabernacle as "wise of heart." Wisdom of heart pertains to immutable faith and insurmountable strength. Indeed, these were the builders of our tabernacle. These were the true founders of our nation.13

Moses did his part. Aaron did his. The rabbis, judges, teachers and priests all did their parts. Master builders constructed the tabernacle and gifted architects sketched its plans. But it would all have come to naught if not for the contribution of "wise of heart," the Jewish mothers. These wise women planted the seeds that blossomed into a nation. These wise women sowed kernels of faith and reaped generations of fortitude.

Tosefta, Sotah, ch. 6. See also Rashi on Genesis 21:9-10. Ishmael taunted Isaac about the inheritance, claiming that as firstborn he was entitled to a double portion. When Isaac balked at the concubine's son claiming title of first born, Ishmael shot arrows his way. Our sages taught that Ishmael engaged in murder, idolatry and adultery. Sarah hastened to remove this negative influence from her son, Isaac.
Genesis 27:1-15. Rebecca risked not only her physical safety, but also her spiritual safety. When Jacob worried that Isaac might be upset if he discovered his duplicity, Rebecca, assured Jacob that she would assume whatever curse his father might bestow on him. Ibid, verse 13.
Rashi on Genesis 28:7. Though Rashi mentions only that Jacob did this according to divine instruction, see Likutei Sichos v. XXX, p. 238, that Rachel demanded this as well. See also Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 82:10. For the general description of this story see Jeremiah 31:14 - 16 and Pesichte d'Eicha Rabsi, 24. What happened on the night of her wedding was another incredible demonstration of Rachel's piety. Rachel was meant to marry Jacob, but her father placed Leah under the canopy instead. Rachel and Jacob arranged a private code to protect themselves against precisely such duplicity, but Rachel, at the last moment, surrendered this code to her sister (Talmud, Megillah, 13b). She allowed the night of her dreams to become her worst nightmare, all to protect her sister's honor. (see Pesichte d'Eicha Rabsi, 24).
See Rashi on Exodus 38:8, and Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 23:8.
Rashi on Exodus 2:1. See Talmud, Sotah 13a and Mechilta on Exodus 15:20.
Talmud, Sotah 12b. That is why her name changes from Bat Paroh - daughter of Pharaoh - to Batyah ("daughter of G‑d").
The list of Jewish mothers who stood by their people in times of need includes heroines such as Esther, who forfeited her marriage to Mordechai for the sake of saving her people (Talmud, Megilah, 13a, 13b and 15a). Tamar, who was prepared to die at the stake so long as she would not shame the father of her children, Judah. (Talmud, Sotah 10b. See also Rashi on Genesis 38:28). Ruth was a shy and modest woman; yet her mother in law, the prophetess Naomi, informed her that King David would be the product of her union Boaz, her benefactor, and instructed her to go lie down by his feet as he slept in his bed—a brazen act that was anathema to her. Ruth subjected herself to personal shame, mortification and even possible rejection by her benefactor, for the benefit of the Jewish people (Ruth 3:1-15. See also Me'am Loeiz, ibid. Ruth and Boaz did not actually have relations until they were properly married). Three generations later, Nitzevet, mother of David would perform a similar task for the purpose of bringing David to the world (Sefer Hatoda'ah, introduction to Shavuot; see Nitzevet, Mother of David). And Chana, mother of seven sons, who urged her children to surrender their lives rather than worship idolatry. After her seven sons were executed, the distraught mother threw herself from the roof in despair and fell to her tragic death (Talmud, Gittin 57b; see also Midrash Rabbah, Eicha 1:50, where she appears by the name Miriam Bat Nachtom).
[See Mechilta on Exodus 15:20.
See Midrash Tanchumah, Ki Tisa, 19; Midrash Rabbah, Rabbah, 21:10.
Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 21:10.
Exodus 35:25. See also Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 49:1. The Torah also refers to the men as wise of heart and inspired (Exodus 35:25 and 36:1-2), but the fact that the women are introduced ahead of the men is out of character for the Torah and deserves attention and explanation. Furthermore, the Torah specifies that the women outdid the men in their contribution to the tabernacle (Exodus 35:22).
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to The Judaism Website— He has lectured extensively on a variety of Jewish topics, and his articles have appeared in many print and online publications. For more on Rabbi Gurkow and his writings, visit
About the artist: Karla Gudeon is not merely an artist, but a storyteller. Each of her prints are hand-watercolored over dry-point engravings. Her artwork can be found at select galleries around the country and through her website.
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Anonymous London, UK December 6, 2011

Moses This is a beautiful article honouring chaste women as they should be honoured. However, I must point out that Moses was not 'a little Jewish boy'. He was Hebrew, certainly, but he was a Levite, descended from Levi, not Judah. Reply

Simie Schtroks Surrey, British Columbia February 27, 2008

What a beautiful way of expressing the value of "Der Yiddishe Mama" (the Jewish mother). I will share this with my women's class. Reply

Lyudmyla Antonyuk Rochester, NY via May 22, 2007

Rabbi Gurkov, your article was wonderful. I am certain it enlightened hearts and minds of many mothers who read it. But I would like to let you know, that your article didn’t do just that: I am not a mother, I am a girl, but your article shun light on my view and understanding of what makes a women truly wise; It’s her indomitable spirit, and immutable faith. Thank you so much for putting your time and effort into constructing this amazing piece of work, and may G-d surround your life abundantly with his gracious blessings. Reply

Lazer Gurkow May 14, 2007

This is especially true in restoring pride to motherhood. I sense an improvement in this area. Society no longer frowns upon professional motherhood the way it did ten to fifteen years ago. However, we still have a long way to go before we reach the level of pride we used to take in being a professional parent. Reply

Gisele Brooklyn, NY May 14, 2007

Nothing beats the special wisdom of a Yiddishe Mama! I feel that we women seeking equality in the world sometimes devalues the role of Mom in our community! Mother's Day/ and Father's day should be everyday. As we Prepare ourselves for Shavouth- let us pay better attention to the Commandment- Honor Your Father and Mother! This appllies to both adult childtren and small children too! Reply

shena gitel astrin brooklyn, nY May 13, 2007

Dear Rabbi Gurkov, It was a real pleasure reading your article. Thank you. Reply

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