A devoted but busy mother (my own mother told me this story, trying to make a point) insisted on taking a nap every afternoon. When her children would beat on the door and whine for her to come out, she would answer in Yiddish: קי� דער איך מאך דיר א מאמע – children, I am making you a mother!
Mothers’ naps can never start too early…
While she was still nursing her baby, the mother could relax with needlework: torah binders, or wimpels, were embroidered by mothers from the swaddling cloth used to wrap the baby boy at his circumcision (Brit) and then presented to the synagogue by the family.
Traditionally, women have three ritual obligations: lighting Sabbath candles, reserving a portion of hallah (a braided loaf traditional eaten on the Sabbath) when they bake it, representing the part that would have been given to the priests at the time of the Temple, and observing the laws of family purity by going to the mikveh (ritual bath).� The acronym for the names of these three observances� in Hebrew is Hannah and in our print, this has become the woman’s name!� Here, the pious Hannah, after fulfilling her obligations (and presumably putting her children to bed), gets to take a rest and improve her mind by studying on the Sabbath.
Even hardworking secular Israeli kibbutznik mothers found time to garden with their children (with the fathers’ help, of course).
So don’t forget to give your mother a day off…
On a more serious note, motherhood was one of the most important roles of women in traditional Jewish society, but childbirth was a dangerous time for mothers and babies. Childless women as well as mothers during childbirth turned for help and protection to amulets, prayers, petitions at holy sites, and other folk religious practices.
Many childbirth amulets appeal for protection against Lilith, the demon who threatens babies. One way to thwart her attack is to wear an amulet inscribed with her name. Here, she is depicted bound in chains; the names of Adam, Eve, and the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs, are inscribed in columns to her right and left.
One of the most interesting pieces in our collection is a Ketubbah (marriage document) from Gulpaigan, Iran, dated 1919. In the usually blank triangular space within the architectural frame of the preamble (the blessings and good wishes to the bride and groom written in an ornamental configuration above the Ketubbah text), is the more crudely written and ungrammatical text: העתקה בשביל שית� ו הקבה להם ב� ים – “a copy (made) so that God will give them children.”
The ketubbah appears to be valid – it is signed and witnessed and additional settlement clauses are written below and on the back – so what does the term ‘copy’ mean here? Shalom Sabar (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) pointed out that this Ketubbah was not prepared for the said couple in particular: the names and date were inserted by a later hand in the spaces left by the original scribe. Probably the Ketubbah was copied as a sort of an amulet or to “promote” fertility (apparently the couple had no children), but it is also possible that this is a regular Ketubbah, which served as the basis for the copy they mention. Perhaps we’ll never know, he wrote, unless we find someone who has the story in his or her family.
Wikipedia: Women in Judaism
Ruth Eis, Torah Binders of the Judah L. Magnes Museum (Berkeley, 1979)
Mappot …blessed be who comes: The Band of Jewish Tradition (Osnabruck, 1998)
Past Perfect: the Jewish Experience in Early 20th Century Postcards (New York 1998) – see no. 26, p.27.
Shalom Sabar, “Childbirth and Magic: Jewish Folklore and Material Culture,” in Cultures of the Jews: A New History, ed. David Biale (New York 2002) – amulets that protect against Lilith are discussed on pp. 696-7, with an illustration of the Magnes amulet.
T. Schrire, Hebrew Amulets: Their Decipherment and Interpretation (London 1966)
Gershom Scholem, “Lilith,” in Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 11 (Jerusalem, 1972)
I. Shachar, Jewish Tradition in Art: the Feuchtwanger Collection of Judaica (Jerusalem, 1981) – for examples from the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, see the sections on childbirth and amulets with their informative introductions.
JNUL Ketubbah project website