MOTHER (Hebrew, "em"; Aramaic, "imma").
Although the father was considered the head of the family among the Hebrews of old, and the mother therefore occupied an inferior position legally and ritually, yet in the ethical relation involving the reverence due to her from the children she stood on the same plane as the father; disrespect for her entailed the same punishment as disrespect for the father (comp. Ex. xxi. 15, 17; Lev. xx. 9; Deut. xxvii. 16). In the Decalogue it is commanded to honor the mother as well as the father (Ex. xx. 12; Deut. v. 16); and in Lev. xix. 2 the people are enjoined to fear both parents. In the home life and training the mother is of equal importance with the father (Deut. xxi. 18, 19; I Kings xix. 20; Jer. xvi. 7; Prov. xxx. 17). When a particularly tender relation is pictured by the Biblical writers, a mother's love is often employed to symbolize the thought. Thus Isaac's marriage to Rebekah is said to comfort him for the loss of his mother (Gen. xxiv. 67). When Jeremiah describes the grief into which the calamitous events of his time have cast the people, he employs the figure of a mother weeping for her children: "A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children; she refuseth to be comforted for her children, because they are not" (Jer. xxxi. 14 [R. V. 15]); and when the prophet of the Exile wishes to delineate God as the comforter of His people, he says: "As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you" (Isa. lxvi. 13). In the Book of Lamentations the acme of destitution is presented by the picture of young children and sucklings swooning in the streets, and saying to their mothers, "Where is corn and wine?" (Lam. ii. 11, 12); and when the Psalmist describes his utter wo, he laments: "As one mourning for his mother I was bowed down with grief" (Ps. xxxv. 14, Hebr.).The Praise of the Good Woman.
It is, however, in the Book of Proverbs that the high place which the mother occupied in the Hebrew's estimation is specially indicated. Her teachings are constantly enjoined as being of equal weight with those of the father. The first verse after the introduction to the book reads: "Hear, O my son, the instruction of thy father; and neglect not the teaching of thy mother" (Prov. i. 8, Hebr.; comp. ib. vi. 20; x. 1; xv. 20; xix. 26; xx. 20; xxiii. 22, 25; xxx. 17). Especial attention may be directed to Prov. xxxi. 1, where the wise words attributed to King Lemuel are said to have been taught him by his mother. The queen mother was a personage of great importance in ancient Israel, as appears from the fact that in the history of the Kings the mother's name receives particular mention in the set phrase "and the name of his mother was . . ." (I Kings xi. 26; xiv. 21, 31; xv. 2, 10; xxii. 42; II Kings viii. 26; xiv. 2; xv. 2, 33; xviii. 2; xxi. 1, 19; xxii. 1; xxiii. 31, 36; xxiv. 8, 18; comp. also I Kings i. 11; ii. 13, 20, 22).
The word "em" has other meanings in the Bible; e.g., "ancestress" (comp. Gen. iii. 20); a "people" (Isa. l. 1; Ezek. xix. 2, 10), the designation of one of the tribes whereof a mixed population was composed; thus Ezekiel (xvi. 3) calls the "mother" of Jerusalem a Hittite.—In Apocryphal and Rabbinical Literature:
Ben Sira declares that "he that provoketh his mother is cursed of the Lord" (Sirach [Ecclus.] iii. 16); and reference need only be made to the heroic mother of the seven sons whose martyrdom is described in IV Macc. xv. to indicate the temper of Jewish motherhood in trying days.Judah ha-Nasi's Injunction to His Sons.
The estimation in which the mother was held in Talmudic times among the Jews is clear from the dying injunction of Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi to his sons:"Be careful of the honor due your mother; let the lamp be lit in its place, the table be set in its place, the couch be spread in its place" (Ket. 103a); and it was the same rabbi who interpreted so ingenuously the two commands, "Honor thy father and thy mother" (Ex. xx. 12), and "Ye shall fear every man his mother, and his father" (Lev. xix. 2 [A. V. 3]). In the one command the father is mentioned first; in the other, the mother. Said Rabbi Judah: "God knows that a child honors the mother more than the father because she soothes it with gentle words; therefore in the command to honor the parents the father is mentioned first. God knows likewise that the child fears the father more than the mother because he teaches it the Law; therefore in the injunction to fear the parents the mother is mentioned first" (Ḳid. 30b, 31a; comp., however, Bacher, "Ag. Tan." i. 113, note 1, where it is claimed that Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus should be credited with this explanation, according to Mek., Yitro, 8).
Among the beautiful examples of filial devotion may be mentioned the treatment of his mother by Rabbi Ṭarfon (Yer. Peah 15c; Yer. Ḳid. 61b; Ḳid. 31b). Note also the high praise accorded by the Rabbis to the heathen Dama ben Netina of Ashkelon for his respectful attitude toward his mother under most trying circumstances (Yer. Peah l.c.; Yer. Ḳid. l.c.; Pesiḳ. R. 23, toward end). In the home life of the Jewish people, notably in the rearing and education of young children, the mother's place and influence have been always supreme (see Abrahams, "Jewish Life in the Middle Ages," pp. 133, 344, 347).