Thursday, May 6, 2010

What's So Jewish About Mother's Day?

What's so Jewish About Mother's Day?

A man calls his mother in Florida. "Mom, how are you?""Not too good," says the mother. "I've been very weak."The son says, "Why are you so weak?"She says, "Because I haven't eaten in 38 days."The man says, "That's terrible. Why haven't you eaten in 38 days?"

The mother answers, "Because I didn't want my mouth to be filled with food if you should call."

When I was growing up, I used to love the little satiric book by Dan Greenberg, "How to be a Jewish Mother." It contained the typical jokes about dominating, overprotective mothers and obedient, castrated sons. There's still lots of Jewish Mother jokes on the Web.

Here's a typical one:

A Jewish young man was seeing a psychiatrist for an eating and sleeping disorder. "I am so obsessed with my mother... As soon as I go to sleep, I start dreaming, and everyone in my dream turns into my mother. I wake up in such a state, all I can do is go downstairs and eat a piece of toast." The psychiatrist replies: "What, just one piece of toast, for a big boy like you?"

Some of the jokes are downright offensive, but many just seem dated.

Of course, Jews didn't always stereotype their mothers negatively. When Rabbi Yosef heard his mother enter the room he would say, "I must stand up, for the glory of God enters." Rabbi Tarfon used to help his mother get into bed by bending down and allowing her to use his back as a step ladder (nowadays, most people prefer to tell their mothers to get OFF their backs). For Jews, it used to be that every day was mothers day.

In 1907, Anna Jarvis campaigned for a national day to honor mothers. It is said that she was at odds with her mother at the time (ah… the power of maternal guilt). For Jews, the "patron saint" of maternal figures would have to be the matriarch Rachel, who stands watch over her children even in death, as in life. At, you can read how Rachel's Yahrzeit has been transformed into a national Mothers Day of sorts in Israel, especially among pre-schoolers (it occurs in the fall, on the 11th of Heshvan).

To read the fifth commandment is to understand that Mother's Day is indeed a daily occurrence for Jews -- or at least it should be. Sometimes it isn't easy to respect our moms. Take this Talmudic account, as related in a sermon by Rabbi Elan Adler of Baltimore (with whom I shared many great times when he lived here in Stamford):

The Talmud tells of Dama the son of Netina, who was once wearing a gold-embroidered silken cloak sitting among Roman nobles. It is clear that Dama ben Netina was highly regarded and respected. One day, his mother came to where he was sitting, tore off his elegant gown, struck him on the head, and spat repeatedly in his face. The Talmud says that with all this, he did not shame her. For he knew that the Torah demanded, "kabed et avicha v'et imecha," honor your father and your mother in all circumstances. The word "kabed" without vowels can also be read as "kaved", meaning a heavy load or burden. Sometimes, it is a heavy burden to respect our parents, especially when they are no longer capable, or when we don't see eye to eye with them.

And indeed, there are also times when we can't honor our parents as much as we would like, specifically when they are abusive. Aish's Web site discusses these limits in an article found at

But, for the most part, mothers are due the highest respect and honor. As the saying goes, "God could not be everywhere, so God created mothers."

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