Why do Jews Use the Matronymic in Prayers for the Sick?* Volume 11, Number 2


In memory of Freda Leavey z”l (1921-2016) who passed away in Jerusalem, 19 Marheshvan 5777 “At age 100 like age 20…” (Rashi to Genesis 23:1)


Question: Why do Jews use the matronymic in prayers for the sick?

Responsum: There is a widespread custom today to use the matronymic in the mee sheberakh prayers recited for the sick during the Torah service.(1) It is not entirely clear when or where this custom began. A prayer for the sick from fourteenth-century Provence uses ploni ben ploni [a male son of a male].(2) In a classic series of articles by Avraham Ya’ari about the mee sheberakh prayers, we also find ploni ben ploni or the abbreviation p’b’p’ in prayers for the sick.(3) Indeed, the latter common abbreviation frequently prevents us from knowing whether the source intended to say ben ploni [a male] or ben plonit [a female].(4)

In any case, today’s widespread custom of ploni ben plonit is odd, given the patriarchal nature of Jewish society throughout Jewish history. Biblical genealogies normally follow the father’s line (5) and the census of the Israelites was done according to bet avotam, “the families of their fathers” (Numbers, Chapter 1). Indeed, the Babylonian Amora Rava used those verses to teach that “the father’s family is called a family; the mother’s family is not called a family” (Bava Batra 109b). Similarly, when the parent of a rabbi is mentioned in rabbinic literature, it is almost always the father.(6) Third, in legal documents such as ketubot, gittin and shetarot [contracts], the father’s name is used.(7) Finally, traditionally, the father’s name is used when people are called to the Torah (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 139:3) and in the ensuing mee sheberakh.

Thus, it is not surprising that more than fifty rabbis and scholars have addressed our question and have supplied at least eleven different explanations for the use of the matronymic in the mee sheberakh for the sick and similar prayers which we shall describe below. However, at least eight of the explanations are homiletic in nature and do not stand up to careful scrutiny. Here are two examples:

  1. In Ben Yehoyada to Berakhot 55b, Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad (1833-1909) tried to explain why a prayer quoted there against the evil eye uses ploni ben plonit:

because a woman does not have as many accusations (kitrugim) against her as a man, first because she is exempt from positive time- bound commandments, and secondly because she is spared two serious transgressions: of wasting time which should be devoted to Torah study and of nocturnal emissions… (8)

Even if this rather farfetched explanation might explain the use of the matronymic in the specific prayer being discussed, it does not explain the more general phenomenon which we shall see below nor why the matronymic is not used in other mee sheberakh prayers.

  1. A responsum by Rabbi Wayne Allen of Toronto suggests that:

In almost all circumstances… the prayers of women were favorably answered, from the impassioned plea of Hannah (I Samuel 2) who is subsequently blessed with children, to the plaintive cry of Sarah’s Egyptian handmaid Hagar (Genesis 21:16-17) whose son is saved from death. By using the matronymic, the petitioner invokes the memory of the women whose prayers were answered as a further appeal for a successful outcome. Siddur Korban Minhah (Vilna 1866) alludes to this idea, including a Yiddish supplication in the name of the matriarchs to be recited for the sick (R. Allen, p. 17).

This explanation may explain why the matriarchs should be included in prayers for the sick as in the Yiddish prayer mentioned, but it does not explain why the patient’s own mother is mentioned in such prayers. Similar problems exist with regard to six other explanations of this custom. (See R. Yosef Hayyim; R. Palache; R. Zirelson; R. Cohen; Handler et al.)

We shall therefore examine what we consider to be the three most plausible explanations of this custom.

  1. I) Matriarchy/Mutterecht/Zekhut Ha’em

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a popular theory expounded by J. J. Bachofen, W. Robertson Smith, Avigdor Aptowitzer, J. Morgenstern, A. Lods and others, which stated that the matriarchal regime was the original form of the family among the Semites.(9) It is therefore not surprising that at that same period of time, a number of scholars tried to explain the use of the matronymic in religious ceremonies as a remnant of the matriarchy.

The Mandaeans are a people who used to live in southern Mesapotamia (today’s Iran and Iraq) who used to speak Mandaic, a dialect of Eastern Aramaic similar to the Aramaic found in the Babylonian Talmud. Prof. Theodor Noeldeke (who taught Semitic languages to Prof. Louis Ginzberg) explained that the Mandaeans have a sacred name in Mandaean in addition to their street name in Arabic. The sacred name included their mother’s name and Noeldeke viewed this as a remnant of the matriarchy (Noeldeke, 1884; for more details about the Mandaean custom, see Drower).

Montgomery, writing in 1913, also preferred the matriarchal explanation for the use of the mother’s name in the incantation texts of various peoples.

In 1935, Chaim Tchernowitz applied the matriarchal explanation to our very problem:

A hint of the matriarchy can be found in the prayers of the kabbalists. When they pray for the sick, they mention… the mother and not the father… but the real reason is that in the scrolls (sic!) of the kabbalists the habit has remained from very ancient times to trace ancestry through the mother.

Similar explanations were offered by Joshua Trachtenberg in 1939 with regard to the use of the matronymic in Jewish incantations and by Avigdor Aptowitzer in 1940 with regard to the mee sheberakh prayer, amulets and the other phenomena we shall discuss below (see Trachtenberg, p. 116 and Aptowitzer, p. 69).

We feel, however, that this explanation must be rejected for three reasons:

  1. The entire matriarchal theory has been rejected by many scholars such as Roland de Vaux and Ya’akov Liver.(10)
  2. There is a gap of centuries and even millennia between the Bible and all of the Jewish customs we shall mention below.
  3. This theory fails to explain why the matriarchy was preserved specifically in relation to prayers for the sick and the like, and not in more central aspects of Jewish law and custom, such as marriage and divorce.
  1. II) Pater Incertus, Mater Certa

In discussing the Greek “curse tablets” which he published, Wunsch said that the mother’s name was used because of the principle that pater incertus, mater certa (the father is uncertain, the mother is certain) and naming the incorrect father would render the magic ineffective (Wunsch quoted by Lewy, p. 192).

A similar explanation of the use of the matronymic is offered by many rabbis in relation to the mee sheberakh prayer for the sick (11) and by three scholars in relation to Jewish amulets (Steinschneider, Marmorstein, and Schrire).  They quote two major proof-texts for this idea:

  1. A) The Zohar to Lekh Lekha (fol. 84a) states:

“And save the son of Your handmaid (בן אמתך)” (Psalms 86:16). Why does [David] call himself the son of his mother and not of his father Jesse? This bears out what we have laid down, that when a man comes to ask something of heaven, he should only say that of which he is certain; hence he mentioned his mother and not his father.

  1. B) We read in the Talmud (Shabbat 66b): “Abbaye said: my foster mother said to me: all incantations must contain the name of the mother.” Rabbi Shlomo Luria in Hokhmat Shelomo ad loc explains: “It specifically says ploni ben plonit since people know the woman who is the mother of the baby more than the father – so I have heard”.

Yet, as five rabbis and scholars have pointed out,(12) this theory too does not hold up to careful scrutiny:

  1. The phrase בן אמתך (“Your handmaid”) in Psalms 86:16 and 116:16 has nothing to do with our topic since:
  2. some scholars correct בן אמתך to בן אמיתך “Your faithful son”;(13)
  3. or the psalmist is stressing that he is a servant “born in the house” (Genesis 14:14), which makes him more dependent and trustworthy;
  4. or the phrase בן אמתךis simply a parallel to עבדך (Your servant) in the two psalms under discussion.(14)
  5. The principle of pater incertus, mater certa is insulting to the father and disrespectful to the mother.
  6. Every prayer should be exact. If fatherhood is always questionable, then the mother’s name should also be used in memorial prayers and in the mee sheberakh for a person who is called up to the Torah.
  7. Finally, Jewish legal documents should also use the matronymic in order to be exact.

In short, as in the case of the matriarchy explanation, pater incertus does not explain why the mother’s name is used in the mee sheberakh for the sick and not for other prayers and documents.

III) All Magic Comes from Women

According to Joshua Trachtenberg (p. 116), Menahem Recanati wrote (Italy ca. 1300) that “all magic comes from woman (sic!)”. I have yet to locate that statement, but it is very similar to what R. Yosef Mashash of Morocco wrote in his responsum on our topic in 1928:

It seems to me that since sorcery is prevalent among women, as it says in Sanhedrin 67a, therefore they connected spells to women because a spell works better when it mentions someone who cleaves to sorcery.

Rabbi Mashash is referring to the widespread Talmudic belief that women practice sorcery and witchcraft more than men, as is evident from the following sources: (15)

  1. A Beraita in Sanhedrin 67a (and parallels): “…Why does the Bible explicitly mention a female witch (Exodus 22:17)? Because most women are familiar with witchcraft”.
  2. Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:4 states that Shimon ben Shetah hung eighty women in Ashkelon and the Yerushalmi explains that he hung them for practicing witchcraft (Hagigah Chapter 2, fols. 77d-78a = Sanhedrin Chapter 6, fol. 23c).
  3. Mishnah Avot 2:7: “…the more women [or: wives], the more witchcraft”.
  4. Eruvin 64b (end): With regard to the statement that a person who finds food on the road may not pass by and leave it there, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai states: “This applies only to the earlier generations when the daughters of Israel did not freely indulge in witchcraft, but in later generations when the daughters of Israel freely indulge in witchcraft, one may pass by the food.”
  5. Yerushalmi Kiddushin 4:11, fol. 66b (and parallels): “Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai taught… the worthiest of women is a sorceress”.
  6. A Beraita in Berakhot 53a: “If he was walking outside a city and smelled something… Rabbi Yossi said: even if the majority of the population is Jewish, he still may not recite the blessing for fragrant smells, because the daughters of Israel offer incense to witchcraft.”
  7. Yoma 83b (end): What causes dogs to go mad? “Rav said: Female witches use them as guinea pigs.”(16)

Despite the fact that Rabbi Mashash is the only one to suggest this explanation, I believe it is the most logical explanation because it explains the use of the matronymic not only in the mee sheberach for the sick but also in a whole series of Talmudic and post-Talmudic spells, amulets, and prayers, as well as in the spells and amulets of many other ancient peoples.

The matronymic was used in four types of Jewish sources during the Talmudic period:

  1. As mentioned above, Abbaye’s foster mother told him that the matronymic is used in all incantations. This is born out by eight incantations found in the Babylonian Talmud. Ploni bar plonit or planya bar planita was used in incantations: against the evil eye, fever, or an abscess; to allow one to drink water on Wednesday and Friday nights; to allow one to drink from rivers and lakes at night; as a cure for being bitten by a rabid dog; and as a cure for certain types of blindness.(17)
  2. The matronymic was used in dozens of Aramaic amulets and magic bowls written by Jews and published by various scholars.(18)
  3. It was also used in an ancient Greek Jewish amulet from the third century C.E. republished by Blau in 1898 (see Blau, pp. 96-101).
  4. Finally, it was used in many spells found in Sefer Harazim, which was written in Hebrew in Israel in the 3rd-4th centuries. These include spells against disease, to win the love of a woman, to sink an enemy’s ship (sic!), to converse with the dead, to protect someone, to find out what someone is thinking, to cause a couple to fall in love, to prevent your enemy from sleeping, and to prevent a bathhouse from being too hot.(19)

Apparently the magical and medicinal uses of the matronymic were later transferred to the world of prayer. As Rabbi Mashash hints: “The custom [of using the matronymic in prayers for the sick] spread from the spells found in Pesahim 112a… and so it says in Shabbat 66b…”.

Indeed, the matronymic is used in many liturgical settings. It should be noted that most of these prayers are relatively late:

  1. The mee sheberakh for the sick under discussion here.
  2. Hassidic kvitlech or slips of paper, which a hassid hands to his rebbe along with a donation in which he asks for health or sustenance (Ysander and Wertheim).
  3. The kapparot ceremony on Yom Kippur eve, according to some versions.(20)
  4. The ribbono shel olam recited by each worshipper during the Torah service on Pesah, Shavu’ot and Sukkot (e.g., S. Baer, Avodat Yisrael, Rodelheim, 1868, p. 223).
  5. A Yiddish tehineh for a woman about to give birth.(21)
  6. A Hebrew-Aramaic prayer for a woman having trouble giving birth (Sefer Kitzur Shelah, fol. 77a, quoted by R. Hazzan).
  7. The later versions of the ceremony to change the name of a sick person.(22)
  8. The ceremony of pidyon nefesh for a sick person.(23)
  9. An elaborate prayer for the sick.(24)
  10. Finally, the matronymic is also used in certain customs related to the deceased.(25)

Rabbi Mashash thinks that the spells using the matronymic were borrowed from non-Jews:

…I replied that since the Jews in Shinar and Babylon learned the spells from their Arabic and Persian neighbors, therefore in order to calm the patient … they allowed him to recite those spells because of pikuah nefesh [=to save a life].

It is always very difficult to pinpoint who borrowed from whom, but it is clear that many ancient peoples used the matronymic in curses, spells, and amulets for healing the sick, forcing someone to love them, cursing an enemy, and the like:

  1. It was used by the Greeks and Romans in “curse tablets” (see Wunsch and Gager).
  2. It was used in Mandaic incantation texts until the twentieth century (see Yamauchi).
  3. It was used in Syriac incantation bowls and amulets (see Hamilton and Wright).
  4. It was used in Arabic incantation texts (see Noeldeke, 1891; Goldziher; Winkler).

Summary and Conclusions

We have seen that the use of the matronymic in the mee sheberakh for the sick is merely the tip of the iceberg. The matronymic was, if fact, used in curse tablets, spells, amulets and incantations by many ancient peoples; in Jewish spells and amulets in Israel and Babylon throughout the Talmudic period and beyond; and in many later Jewish prayers which ask for health, sustenance, and the like.

One could claim that the non-Jews used the matronymic because of pater incertus and that this custom was absorbed into Talmudic spells and amulets and then into later prayers. However, it seems more logical that the Jews in the Talmudic period used the mother’s name in their spells and amulets because they considered women to be proficient at sorcery. Later on, this use of the matronymic was transferred from the realm of magic to the realm of prayer.

But ultimately, we should remember the warning voiced by Theodore Schrire in his book Hebrew Amulets. After quoting the explanation pater incertus mater certa, he continues:

…but to their credit, one submits that this argument probably never entered the minds of our innocent engravers of amulets who were guided in this matter by long tradition, fortified by the statement [of Abbaye] that “all forms of incantation are performed in the name of the mother” (Schrire, p. 48).

In other words, Jews performed these customs for centuries out of loyalty to tradition, regardless of their original reasons. Whether we use the name of the mother or the father, we hope and pray that our mee sheberakh prayers bring comfort and healing to those who are ill.


Notes

* This is a revised version of a responsum which was originally published in These Are the Names 3 (2002), pp. 59-72. All abbreviations refer to the Bibliography below.

  1. See, for example, R. Yekutiel Greenwald, Kol Bo Al Aveilut, Jerusalem and New York, 5733, p. 16, note 1; R. Yehiel Mikhl Tukichinsky, Gesher Hahayyim, second edition, Part I, Jerusalem, 5720, p. 338; R. Yitzhak Yosef, Yalkut Yosef, Vol. 7, Jerusalem, 5749, p. 36. Also see R. Allen, p. 15, who lists a variety of siddurim which use the matronymic in prayers for the sick. It could be, however, that ancient Jewish prayers for the sick did not mention the person by name – see The Tractate Mourning, ed. Zlotnick, New Haven and London, 1966, VI:11, p. 50 and the Hebrew section, p. 14.
  2. Orhot Hayyim, Part. II, ed. Schlesinger, Berlin, 5659, p. 559 = Kol Bo, paragraph 141, ed. Lvov, 5620, fol. 99a.
  3. Avraham Ya’ari, “Tefilot Mee Sheberakh” etc., Kiryat Sefer 33 (5718), pp. 244-245; ibid., 36 (5721), pp. 112-113; and Addenda by Daniel Cohen, ibid., 40 (5725), pp. 550-552.
  4. Cf. below, note 19 re. Sefer Harazim.
  5. See, for example, Genesis Chapters 5 and 10; 11:10-26; 25:1-4; 36:9 ff.; Exodus 6:14-25; Ezra 10:16; Nehemiah 7:61 and many more.
  6. In general, see the list of Amoraim in Chanokh Albeck, Mavo Latalmudim, Tel Aviv, 1969, pp. 669-681 and Menahem Katz et al., Reshimat Tannaim V’amoraim, Ein Tzurim, 5758, 14 pp. For an excellent survey of Jewish men bearing matronyms from the 1st-3rd centuries C.E., see Tal Ilan, “Man Born of Woman…”, Novum Testamentum 34/1 (1992), pp. 23-45.
  7. See, for example, the legal documents collected by Asher Gulak, Otzar Hashetarot, Jerusalem, 5686 and the ketubot collected by Mordechai A. Friedman, Jewish Marriage in Palestine: A Cairo Genizah Study, Tel Aviv and New York, 1980.
  8. R. Yosef Hayyim. He himself was not satisfied with this explanation since he proceeds to give two other explanations.
  9. J.J. Bachofen, Das Mutterrecht, Stuttgart 1861, second edition, Basel 1897; Robertson Smith; A. Aptowitzer, “Spuren des Matriarchats im judischen Schrifttum”, HUCA 4 (1927), pp. 207-240 and 5 (1928), pp. 261-297; idem., “Zekher Lizkhut Ha’em B’sifrut Yisrael”, Hamishpat Ha’ivri 2 (5687), pp. 9-23; J. Morgenstern, ZAW 47 (1929), pp. 97-110 and 49 (1931), pp. 46-58; A. Lods, Israel, Paris 1930, pp. 217 ff., 278 ff.; David Schneider, Matrilineal Kinship, Berkeley, 1961.
  10. Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, Vol. 1, New York and Toronto, 1965, pp. 19-20; Ya’akov Liver, Entziklopedia Mikra’it, s.v. mishpahah, Vol. 5, col. 584.
  11. See, for example, R. Algazi, R. Eisenstein, R. Zirelson, and R. Stern.
  12. R. Yosef Hayyim, Lauterbach, Aptowitzer, R. Cohen, and R. Allen. The first objection is my own.
  13. Mitchell Dahood, The Anchor Bible: Psalms II:51-100, New York, 1968, pp. 292, 296 and Psalms III:101-150, New York, 1970, pp. 145, 150.
  14. For the latter two explanations, see A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, Books II and III, Cambridge 1904, p. 518 and Books IV and V, Cambridge 1903, p. 691; Amos Hakham, Sefer Tehillim, Books 3-5, sixth edition, Jerusalem, 5750, pp. 121, 359.
  15. See, on this topic, E.E. Urbach, Hazal: Pirkei Emunot V’deot, second edition, Jerusalem, 1971, pp. 84-85; M. Bar Ilan, “Witches in the Bible and in the Talmud”, in: H. Basser and S. Fishbane, eds., Approaches to Ancient Judaism, New Series, Vol. V, Atlanta 1993, pp. 7-32, which appeared in revised form in Bar Ilan’s book, Some Jewish Women in Antiquity, Atlanta, 1998, pp. 114-131; S. Fishbane, “Most Women Engage in Sorcery: An Analysis of Female Sorceresses in the Babylonian Talmud”, Approaches, pp. 143-165 = Jewish History 7/1 (Spring 1993), pp. 27-42; Tal Ilan, Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine, Tubingen, 1995, pp. 221-225.
  16. Literally, “play with them”; my translation follows Rashi. For additional sources, see: Sifre Devarim paragraph 26, ed. Finkelstein, p. 36; ibid., paragraph 52, p. 118; Sanhedrin 100b; Yerushalmi Sotah 1:4, fol. 16d and parallels; Pesahim 110a and 111a; Gittin 45a; Sotah 22a and Rashi ad loc.
  17. Berakhot 55b, Shabbat 67a (twice), Pesahim 112a (twice), Yoma 84a, Gittin 69a (twice).
  18. See Montgomery, Isbell and especially Naveh and Shaked, Amulets, pp. 41, 45, 51, 57, 69, 71 (which mentions the father), 83, 87, 91, 99, 103, 135, 147, 165 etc. and cf. the Index, pp. 282-283 and Naveh and Shaked, Magic, pp. 45, 52, 57, 63, 75, etc. and cf. the Index, pp. 286-288. For late Jewish amulets and spells which use the matronymic, see Casanowicz, Schrire and Kafih.
  19. See Sefer Harazim, pp. 68, 70, 74, 75, 76, 78 (which emphasizes to write the man’s name and his mother’s name), 79, 82, 84, 89, 90, 93, and 99. It should be stressed that the text usually saysפלו’ בן פלו’ , but in the variant readings we find the correct reading: פלוני בן פלונית.
  20. R. Palache and R. Felder. The kapparot ceremony consists of waving a chicken or money around the head of every Jew on Yom Kippur eve.
  21. Tracy Guren Klirs et al., eds., The Merit of Our Mothers: A Bilingual Anthology of Jewish Women’s Prayers, Cincinnati, 1992, pp. 128-129.
  22. Lewy, p. 189 and R. Reuven Bulka, ed., The RCA Lifecycle Madrikh, New York, 1995, p. 122.
  23. R. Palache and R. Hazzan. For the text of this ceremony, see Baer, p. 26, but there it says only פ’ב’פ’.
  24. Hyman Goldin, Hamadrikh: The Rabbi’s Guide, second edition, New York, 1956, pp. 99-102.
  25. When studying mishnayot for the soul of the departed (Baer, p. 127); on tombstones, according to certain customs (Tukichinsky quoted above, note 1, p. 305 and R. David Zvi Hoffman, Melamed L’ho’il, Part I, Frankfurt am Main, 5686, No. 23); and while performing the tohorah or ritual purification of the dead (Landshuth, p. xxxiv).

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Yosef – R. Ovadiah Yosef, She’elot U’teshuvot Yabia Omer, Vol. 2, second edition, Jerusalem, 5746, Orah Hayyim, No. 11

Yosef Hayyim – R. Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, Ben Yehoyada, Jerusalem, 5658, to Berakhot 55b (also quoted in full by R. Hazzan)

Ysander – Torsten Ysander, Studien zum Bestschen Hasidismus, Lund, 1933, pp. 325-326

Zirelson – R. Yehudah Leib Zirelson, Gevul Yehudah, Piotrkow, 5666, No. 2