Contact Us

The Three Faces of Sarah

The Three Faces of Sarah

Yiscah, Sarai and Sarah

 Email

Sarah, the wife of Abraham, was the first mother of our people. Sarah Imeinu, Sarah our Mother, our Matriarch. She is known as someone to emulate, someone to look up to, someone to respect and honor. But who was this woman, really? What made Sarah tick? What was she like? What were her values and beliefs? Where did she come from? And ultimately, what can we learn from her and relate to our lives as Jewish women today?

The city of Ur Kasdim, the Sumerian city of Ur, was a cosmopolitan oasis in the midst of a chaotic and dangerous desert region. It experienced its peak from approximately the year 2700 to the 4th century BCE. When excavated in the 1920s and ’30s, it was found that the city had ziggurats, an entire temple area, and both residential and commercial sections. Their religion was polytheistic, and it would have appeared to the populace that they were indeed blessed by the gods. There was a royal cemetery which was found to contain treasures of gold, silver, bronze and precious stones. There were also thousands of tablets containing cuneiform writings of both administrative and literary importance, showing that the people of the city were largely educated.

She was not a girl following her heart, but a woman following her soulIt was at the height of this city’s life that Sarah, daughter of Haran, was born and raised. And it was from this city that she fled into the desert with her husband, Abraham, to live a comparatively monastic existence as a nomadic tent-dweller and preacher of the One G‑d. So why would a cosmopolitan girl like Sarah do a crazy thing like that? Was she just a lovesick girl, willing to follow her dashing preacher husband into the desert?

All of these answers are found within the pages of the Torah, and they are further discussed amongst the sages of the Talmud, biblical commentators and mystics across the ages. The greatest insight we can gain into this woman is, most interestingly, in her name. As learned from the Torah, words and names are not given haphazardly. In most cases, we can find very clear meaning and insight into something or someone based on the name. So it is not superfluous that Sarah had, in fact, three names in her lifetime.

It appears that each time Sarah changed her name, it was symbolic of a greater spiritual refinement. Thus, we can assume that Sarah went through three transformations in her life, each reflected in a name change.

Yiscah

There are two qualities for which Sarah is most noted by the sages of the Torah: her prophecy and her beauty. It is written that as a young girl she was known as Yiscah, which literally means “to see.”1 There are two interpretations as to why this name was given to Sarah. First, she is said to have been born blessed with divine inspiration. Second, it is said that she was exceedingly beautiful to behold.2 Both of these attributes deal with sight. The first being a spiritual sight that Sarah herself possessed, which clearly affected the way she perceived the world; and the second, regarding how the rest of the world perceived her.

Yiscah, however, was a name that stayed with Sarah only when she was a young girl, after which she was never referred to as Yiscah again. It is written that she herself changed her name.3 Once she grew up and understood modesty, she never allowed herself to be gazed upon by others. The name she chose thereafter, Sarai, literally means “my princess.” With this name change she decided to go from being Yiscah to Sarai, taking herself from being “seen” by all to having the more private and elevated quality of royalty.

Sarah is likewise considered to be the mother of every convert to JudaismThis first transformation did not only symbolize her newfound adolescent modesty, but it was also a realization that she was to begin a line of aristocracy—the nation of Israel. This shows the level of her prophecy. She was still a girl who had yet to even meet her husband, but she saw the divine path before her.

So, this woman we speak of was not an easily swayed girl. She walked into that desert seeing all, and knowing precisely where she was going and whom (or what) she was following. She was not a girl following her heart, but a woman following her soul. Not only is she the first of our foremothers (Rebecca and Rachel and Leah follow), but she is also said to be the first of the seven prophetesses of Israel (Miriam, Devorah, Chana, Avigayil, Chuldah, and Esther follow).4

Siftei Chachamim, a famed 17th-century Torah commentator, writes that Sarah’s level of prophecy was actually superior to that of Abraham. It is known that he came to the revelation of the one G‑d on his own, and even destroyed his father’s idols. But his original name, Abram, means “father of a nation.” It was not changed until much later, when he received the divine letter hei from G‑d before finding out he was to have a son. It was at the same time that his wife received her third name, from Sarai (“my princess”) to Sarah (“princess”).

Sarah began life as Yiscah. This is a testament to the fact that she was born with vision, with prophecy. When it comes to Avram, on the other hand, it is interesting to note that there is no evidence in the Torah that G‑d ever spoke to Abraham before commanding him to leave for the desert. Furthermore, it is said that Sarah was such a powerful prophetess that G‑d spoke to her directly, while to the others He spoke through a messenger.5

Sarai

Most of the time we know Sarah, she is called Sarai, “my princess.”6 She was called this because she was the princess of her house and of her tribe. It is as Sarai that she does some of her most prolific work.

According to Rambam, all converts to Judaism should consider themselves descendants of Abraham, and may recite the phrase “G‑d of my fathers” when they pray.7 Sarah is likewise considered to be the mother of every convert to Judaism. This is because, together, she and Abraham amassed a large following of people who were drawn to their way of life and to their teachings. It is said that on their journeys Abraham converted the men, and Sarah the women.8 They would also prepare a place of immersion for all, he for men and she for women.9

While having shed the name Yiscah, Sarai retained its essence in her coreThere are many examples in the Torah of Sarah’s hospitality to guests, as well as to her followers. Sarah’s tent was no ordinary dwelling. Its doors were open to everyone, and G‑d’s miracles abounded. A light would be lit from one Shabbat eve to the next. There was a blessing in her dough, and it would rise miraculously. And a cloud was stationed over her tent.10 These miracles lasted throughout Sarah’s life, and ceased when she took her last breath. They would return only later, when her son, Isaac, brought his bride, Rebecca, to his mother’s tent. But that is another story.

Throughout the time she was known as Sarai, she continuously showed her royal nature and embraced her role as founder of a nation. However, what made her a truly gifted and insightful ruler was that, while having shed the name Yiscah, Sarai retained its essence in her core. And she demonstrated clearly that the gift of prophecy remained with her throughout her days.

The most profound example of this is in her dealings with her maidservant Hagar. When Sarai was unable to conceive after many years of marriage, she decided to give her maidservant to her husband as a surrogate. This could not have been an easy decision, but one that would have required her to be both selfless and steadfast. “And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai,”11 says the Torah, because she was divinely inspired. According to the sages, the reason the Torah chose to mention her voice at all is because there was an element of divine inspiration within it.12

Sarah

It is not until Sarah reaches the age of ninety that G‑d Himself changes her name to Sarah. The name Sarah is, in essence, a covenant that was given to her by G‑d. And it is representative of the idea that only then did He see fit to give her a child. “Do not call her name Sarai,” are G‑d’s words, “for Sarah is her name.”13 It is only now that Sarah has achieved her true status as “princess,” because she was recognized globally as such.14

The birth of a child was all that was needed to secure Sarah’s pedigree. It was significant because not only did it show that Sarah was powerful in the natural world and had secured the dynasty, but, considering her age, it proved that she was a woman worthy of the greatest of miracles.

All the infants nursed by her were rewarded in this world, and grew to be rulersAnd, in fact, G‑d performed many miracles for Sarah related to the birth of Isaac. Although she was ninety and had obviously aged, her hair turned black again.15 It is also said that she experienced no pains during childbirth.16 To disprove wagging tongues, Isaac was created in the image of his father.17 Further, G‑d dried up the breasts of all noblewomen, so that they had to bring their babies to Sarah to nurse. She had an abundance of milk and nursed them all. It is said that the infants nursed by her were rewarded in this world, and grew to be rulers. All of these miracles were performed by G‑d to ensure that the parentage of Isaac would be indisputable as being both legitimate and miraculous. And only this allowed her to truly begin the dynasty of Abraham and Sarah, thus fulfilling her destiny of being a princess to the nations.

Legacy

The Torah writes, “Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years.”18 According to the biblical commentator Rashi, the years are split up to emphasize that she was as beautiful and pure of sin at her death as when a child. Sarah’s royal, caring nature, and her strength as a prophetess, had become well known throughout the land, and because of her popularity, her loss was mourned not only by Abraham and his household but by all the inhabitants of Canaan. Her loss was profound, because all of her surroundings had benefited in her merit.19 Even though she was a mother for a relatively short portion of her life, she is known forever as the mother of a nation. She left the world a changed place because of her strength and insight.

Sarah, our mother, was quite the “modern” woman. She led her life with a clear vision and purpose. She had the courage to follow her own convictions, no matter how progressive they were at the time. She led her life as a role model for women of her era . . . as well as our own. Sarah can teach the modern Jewish woman a thing or two. We must seek truth in our world, and not be afraid to live according to those truths. And we must not be afraid to speak up when those truths are questioned. We must know that we have inherited a gift from our mother Sarah, and passed down through the generations of mothers following her. We must live our lives as if we, too, can change the world.

Footnotes
2.

Talmud, Megillah 14a.

3.

Ben Ish Chai, Benayahu and Ben Yehoyada to Megillah ibid.

4.

Talmud, Megillah 14a–b.

5.

Talmud, ibid.

7.

Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Bikkurim 4:3.

8.

Genesis Rabbah 39:21.

9.

Zohar 1:102b.

10.

Rashi to Genesis 24:67.

12.

Genesis Rabba 45:2.

14.

Talmud, Berachot 13a; Genesis Rabbah 47:1.

15.

Tana D’vei Eliyahu Rabbah 6.

16.

Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeira 37.

17.

Genesis Rabbah 53:13.

19.

Midrash Hagadol 23:3.

Nechama Rubinstein was raised on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, and now resides in downtown Fort Lauderdale, with her rabbi/law-student husband and two children. She has a personal interest in children’s cancer research, and enjoys advocating for natural birthing and working on her in-progress collection of short stories.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
 Email
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
32 Comments
1000 characters remaining
radiofrecuencia facial España November 25, 2015

I totally agree with you, Beit Shemesh. radiofrecuencia facial">Reply

Yisrael Beit Shemesh October 30, 2015

Who was the greater prophet Rabbi Avigdor Miller, Tape 412, True Modesty, 1:10:25

Question: We see in the case of Rabbi Akiva that a woman can affect the man. How is the reverse and to what extent?

Is the question can a man affect a woman? Certainly. Certainly. What do you think made Sarah great? Here Sarah became a great naviah. כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה, שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָה Avraham was told listen to Sarah. And Avraham is called a tefel b'navuah to Sarah. That doesn't mean Avraham was less. Avraham was a bigger navi. Only Avraham was always in the street arguing with people. And when you argue you get excited so the schinah is not always able to rest on you. Sarah was magayeres es hanashim in her own home . So Sarah lived a tranquil life and therefore the navuah could come upon her more frequently. But Sarah was the result of Avraham's tutelage. Avraham was her rebbe, no question. Reply

Deborah Ekechukwu October 21, 2014

I loved this!! Just some weeks ago, I was sharing with some sisters over at church about how we are asked to emulate sarah. It was a fruitful session and we were planning to continue it as soon as we can. I am happy i stumbled upon this and I can't wait to share this link with them!!!
Thank you Nechema, God bless you. Reply

Bracha Meshchaninov Monsey, NY October 23, 2013

thank you beautiful piece, preparing my Parsha class.. and this was a great resource with new info.. well researched and thanks for all the foot notes! Reply

Anonymous July 6, 2013

the life Of Abeliever
Thanks for this teaching may God bless you. Reply

Steve Newark May 21, 2013

Very informative.It's a blessing to hear the truth of the past. Reply

Craig Tonkin South Africa March 15, 2013

Ladies in current day business Hi everyone and thank you for the info regarding Sarah. Most enlightening. I have just been listening to a podcast from BBC Radio Wales: All Things Considered. 10 March 2013. Women and Faith (and their role in society from the perspective of 3 faiths). Brilliant podcast.

On to Sarah; she is mentioned as a role model in the bible (and I agree). As a male I would like to ask the opinion of my learned colleagues out there as to their opinion of the role of Ladies in the current day society. Has the role of the Lady in the household been eroded with the current business climate and the fact that Ladies are tasked with leading major companies? I often wonder whether this has been to the benefit of Ladies or to their detriment in this male-centric society.

Many thanks and regards
Craig
Reply

Irene Esparza USA November 5, 2012

Thanks Thanks for all the extra information about the Matriarch Sarah. My bible does not have all that info like how Sarah nursed all the other babies. How awesome is that? That is one of the reasons I love chabad.org. Thanks again. Reply

Anonymous Zimbabwe November 5, 2012

Sarah Thank you for an enlightening 'shiur' - beautifully written. Reply

Genevieve Sawyer Florence, MA October 23, 2012

Inspiring Article Quite lovely. Thank you! Reply

Felix Geraldine yola, Adamawa/ Nigeria August 28, 2012

look up to sarah who bore thee when i came across this book, i was so inspired cause it talked about her strength nd affection. but am so glad to know much more about mother sarah. she is the role model to all jewish women nd am so joyful to be a part of her. Reply

margaret young bx, ny June 4, 2012

very informative Reply

p vinod menon palakkad, kerala-India October 12, 2010

hello Iliked the article-I have read a little of a group that existed sometime at the first quarter or maybe later of the first century AD-It may have begun a lot earlier-It was called the essenes.I have also read that the jewish sage(If I can put it that way)philo mentions about them and goodness associated with them-sadly some of the monastic groups didnt allow woman.I feel woman have as much right as a man to join a monastic group if they so desire,so I dont really think it was wrong for sarah to have been attracted to monasticism.In my religion-hinduism people desirous(ie those who would like to pay attention what path the religious books show-to choose a hermitage and meditate-ie that only very keen and mentally capable of all its demands.thanks Reply

sara l rubinstein brooklyn, ny October 11, 2010

A Blessing in a Name So proud of your research; so blessed with a DIL Nechama; a comfort to us all. And my name, Sara, so priveleged I am . Reply

Atarah-Sarah Marana, Arizona September 14, 2010

From Yiskah, to Sarai to Sarah, I am so blessed to be given this name along with Atarah. What an amazing story to re-read over and over again. Reply

Sarah Scotland February 20, 2010

Sarah My mother named me after Sarah- to which I feel very blessed. I view her as a role model for the modern women and believe she can teach us a thing or two about being boldly strong independant women. Reply

Shirah Bracha February 15, 2010

Shriah Bracha Every one seeks a role model. Sarah is a role model that offers every woman, inner stability, resilience, faith, vision, even a miracle, that G-d will grant when we become her daughters and not allow fears and anxieties to unnerve us. Sarah is our mother who shows us what we need to keep striving for--more faith in our G-d. Reply

Saralinda New York, NY February 9, 2010

I love this story and relate myself with it, I'm so proud to have this name. Reply

Herb S. Vernon, CT. October 27, 2009

Sarah My motheer's name was Sarah.,.I now where her beauty, demeanor and love of Judaism came from. Reply

Tamar NY, USA October 27, 2009

Orly - we don't need to seek new paths of connection, because Sarah and our other forbearers paved the path for us - we just have to follow their direction and grow.

p.s. a small point - Sarah's father was not Terach but Haran; Terach was her grandfather and Avraham's father. Reply

Related Topics