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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
“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.
Yet, as five rabbis and scholars have pointed out,(12) this theory too does not hold up to careful scrutiny:
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)
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:
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:
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:
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.
* 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.
Abt – Adam Abt, Die Apologie des Apuleius von Madaura und die antike Zauberei, Giessen, 1908, p. 98, note 2
Algazi – R. Shlomo Algazi, M’ulefet Sapirim, Yom Assiri, paragraph 22, quoted by R. Avraham Yitzhak Sperling, Ta’amei Haminhagim U’mekorei Hadinim, Tel Aviv, 5717, p. 164
Allen – R. Wayne Allen, “Using the Matronymic”, Update 3 (1992), pp. 15-17
Aptowitzer – Avigdor Aptowitzer, “Seridim Mini Kedem”, Bitzaron 2 (5740), pp. 67-69
Baer – S. Baer, Totz’ot Hayyim, Rodelheim, 1882
Blau – Ludwig Blau, Das Altjudische Zauberwesen, Budapest, 1898, pp. 85, 96-101, 117
Casanowicz – I. M. Casanowicz, JAOS 37 (1917), p. 45
Cohen – R. J. Simhah Cohen, Timely Jewish Questions, Timeless Rabbinic Answers, Northvale, New Jersey, 1991, pp. 215-217
Deutsch – R. Eliezer Hayyim Deutsch, Duda’ey Sadeh, Seini, 5689, No. 95
Drower – E. S. Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran, Leiden, 1962, pp. 26-27, 60, 81-82
Eisenstein – R. J. D. Eisenstein, Otzar Dinim Uminhagim, New York, 1917, p. 220
Felder – R. Gedalia Felder, Yesodei Yeshurun, Vol. 4, New York, 5722, pp. 394-396
Gager – John Gager, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, New York, 1992
Goldziher – Ignaz Goldziher, “Hebraische Elemente in Muhammedanischen Zauberspruchen”, ZDMG 48 (1894), p. 358-360
Gutmacher – R. Eliyahu Gutmacher, Sukkat Shalom, Jerusalem, 1883, Chapter 5, pp. 295-334
Hamilton – Victor P. Hamilton, Syriac Incantation Bowls, Ph.D. Dissertation, Brandeis, 1971
Handler et al. – Jane Handler, Kim Hetherington, with Rabbi Stuart Kelman, Give me Your Hand: Traditional and Practical Guidance on Visiting the Sick, second edition, Berkeley, 1997, p. 55
Hazzan – R. Eliyahu Hazzan, Yedei Eliyahu, Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1930, No. 31
Isbell – Charles Isbell, Corpus of the Aramaic Incantation Bowls, Missoula, Montana, 1975
Kafih – R. Yosef Kafih, Halikhot Teiman, third edition, Jerusalem, 1982, pp. 274-280
Landshuth – Eliezer Landshuth, Seder Bikkur Holim etc., Berlin, 5627, pp. vi-vii
Lauterbach – J. Z. Lauterbach, “The Naming of Children” etc., CCAR Yearbook 42 (1932), pp. 347-348
Levine – R. Aaron Levine, Zikhron Meir, Part I, Toronto, 5745, p. 87 and note 102
Lewy – Heinrich Lewy, “Bezeichnung nach der Mutter in Gebeten”, Archiv fur Religionswissenschaft 29 (1931), pp. 189-193
Luria – R. Shelomo Luria, Hokhmat Shelomo to Shabbat 66b, in the “Vilna Shass”, fol. 18b
Mamman – R. Yehoshua Mamman, Sefer Emek Yehoshua, Jerusalem, 5737, Nos. 29-30
Marmorstein – Avraham Marmorstein, “Minhagim Kadmonim B’eretz Yisrael”, Tziyon 2 (5687), pp. 19-20
Mashash – R. Yosef Mashash, Mayim Hayyim, Fez, 5694, No. 61
Montgomery – James Montgomery, Aramaic Incantation Texts from Nippur, Philadelphia, 1913, p. 49 and note 1
Naveh and Shaked, Amulets – Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked, Amulets and Magic Bowls: Aramaic Incantations of Late Aniquity, Leiden and Jerusalem, 1985
Naveh and Shaked, Magic – Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked, Magic Spells and Formulae: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity, Jerusalem, 1993
Noeldeke, 1884 – Theodor Noeldeke, Oesterreichische Monatsschrift fur den Orient 12 (15 December 1884), p. 304
Noeldeke, 1891 – Theodor Noeldeke, Das Arabische Marchen vom Doctor und Garkoch, Berlin, 1891, p. 33 and note 1
Palache – R. Rahamim Yitzhak Palache, Yafeh Lalev, Vol. 3, to Orah Hayyim 605, fol. 117c (also quoted by R. Yosef)
Robertson Smith – W. Robertson Smith, Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, third edition, London, 1903, p. 260 and note 1
Schrire – T. Schrire, Hebrew Amulets, London, 1966, pp. 18, 48
Sefer Harazim – Mordechai Margaliot, ed., Sefer Harazim, Jerusalem, 5727
Steinschneider – Moshe Steinschneider, “Harza’ot al Kitvey Yad Ivriyim”, Areshet 4 (5726), p. 96
Stern – R. Avraham Stern, Responsa Kitvei Eish at the end of his book Mesader Hilukim V’shitot, Vranov, 5694, Part I, No. 6 (quoted by Wilhelm)
Tchernowitz – Chaim Tchernowitz, Toledot Hahalakhah, Vol. I, Part I, New York, 1935, p. 234, note 3
Trachtenberg – Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition, New York, 1939, pp. 115-116
Wertheim – R. Aharon Wertheim, Halakhot V’halikhot Bahassidut, second edition, Jerusalem, 5749, pp. 162-163
Wilhelm – R. Yishayahu Zussya Wilhelm, Kuntress Ziv Hashemot, Brooklyn, 5744, pp. 94-96
Winkler – H.A. Winkler, Siegel und Charaktere in der Muhammedanischen Zauberei, Berlin und Leipzig, 1930, p. 24, note 1 and p. 74
Wright – William Wright, A Catalogue of the Syriac Manuscripts Preserved in the Library of the University of Cambridge, Vol. I, Cambridge, 1901, p. 6
Wunsch – R. Wunsch, “Neue Fluchtafeln”, Rheinisches Museum fur Philologie 55 (1900), p. 263
Yamauchi – Edwin M. Yamauchi, Mandaic Incantation Texts, New Haven, 1967
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
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.