Who knows four?

'We know four! Four are the Mothers and three are the Fathers…" thus we sing toward the end of the traditional Pessah Seder.

haredi child 88 (photo credit: )
haredi child 88
(photo credit: )
'We know four! Four are the Mothers and three are the Fathers…" thus we sing toward the end of the traditional Pessah Seder. How serious are we about there being four Matriarchs and three Patriarchs? Our sages tell us the monikers "Mother" and "Father" are solely reserved for our famous antecedents: the foremothers Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, and the forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (B. Berachot 16b). Even other ancestors of the Jewish people - such as the 12 tribes or Bilhah and Zilpah - do not merit this title. Our sages ask why the honorific term is limited to these forebears. The Talmud considers the possibility that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are our "Fathers" since we know that we descend from them, whereas we do not know which of the tribes is our ancestor. This line is rejected, however, since we call both Leah and Rachel our Mother, even though we do not know whether either of them is our ancestor; if we belong to the tribe of Dan, Naftali, Gad or Asher we are the progeny of Bilhah or Zilpah, not Leah or Rachel. Thus our ancestral biological mother may not be one of our national Matriarchs. The Talmud concludes that the seven progenitors of the nation were of particular importance; beyond this circle, our ancestors do not bear the same weight. Though this concludes the talmudic discussion, we cannot avoid the question: What is the significance of the title granted to these forebears? An early approach suggests that our sages are merely declaring who deserves the honor of these designations (Rav Hai Gaon, 10th-11th centuries, Pumbedita). Alternatively, since these ancestors merited direct communion with God, it is them who we wish to acknowledge as our antecedents (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh da Modena, 16th-17th centuries, Venice). These attitudes dampen the talmudic passage, leaving the words of the sages as mere labels of honor, either for conferring honor on our founding parents or claiming distinction for us, their descendants. Surely there must be more to the designation of Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Another commentator says the monikers' significance lies in the prayer service. Mentioning the Patriarchs is obligatory, whereas adding a supplication such as "He who answered Reuben, our father…" is permitted but not required (Ravad, 12th century, Provence). But this approach falters when considering the Matriarchs, who are not mentioned in the traditional prayers (Rashba, 13th century, Barcelona). What, then, is the significance of singling them out as our Mothers? An alternative line sees the founding parents of our nation as charged with setting the tone for the future. Thus the originators of the Jewish people set about refining their progeny in preparation for the formation of a new nation. Only one of Abraham's children - Isaac - was to continue the path of his parents. Isaac and Rebecca also had one son - Jacob - who maintained the legacy he received. Jacob, with his wives, is the first of our forebears to have all his children follow in his footsteps. Indeed, Jacob's children may have been righteous people, yet they cannot be considered founding fathers, for they were born into a reality of a fledgling nation. In recognition of the momentous achievement of forming a distinct people with a unique message for humanity, these ancestors are recognized as the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish people (Mayan Berachot, quoted in Eitz Yosef). Continuing from this line that focuses on the actions of the founders of our nation, a further approach found in rabbinic thought sees the deeds of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs as portentous (Tanhuma and elsewhere). One biblical commentator explains the lengthy and detailed scriptural descriptions of the lives of our forefathers in terms of a prediction for future generations (Ramban, 13th century, Spain-Eretz Israel). The actions of other progenitors of our nation, in contrast, do not carry the same predeterminative force as the actions of the Fathers and Mothers. Indeed, the tribes are each known as shevet or mateh, meaning boughs that branch off from a central trunk. They are not the pivotal source of growth; they are offshoots from the principal. Thus declaring who are our forebears in effect foretells our destiny (Iyei Hayam, quoted in Hidushei Hageonim on Eiyn Ya'acov). An alteration on this approach can be arrived at through the words of another commentator (Maharal, 16th century, central Europe). In a different context, this scholar deals with the ancestral merit available to community leaders. Our sages state that those who toil for the community out of pure motives are assisted by the merit of our forefathers (M. Avot 2:2). These ancestors are forebears of the Jewish people as a unit - a congregation that exists with a changing constituency. Anyone who serves this assemblage merits the backing of the founders of this unit. Though this commentator does not cite our talmudic passage, we can suggest that revealing the identity of our Matriarchs and Patriarchs tells us whose merit accompanies us. This potent power is bequeathed to all members of our nation. The good deeds of other ancestors lack such far-reaching impact. Thus our forebears not only anticipate our lives, but they provide lasting merit for dealing with the vicissitudes of our reality, particularly for all who undertake to serve the assembly. Leaving the realm of the benefits bestowed upon us as descendants of these giants, there is a further implication in acknowledging our forebears. The conduct of the progenitors of our people is to be considered a guidepost for our own behavior, as many scholars have stated: "The deeds of the antecedents are symbolic for the descendants." We delve into their lives, poring over every detail and focusing on every action, as we seek to learn from their paradigmatic lives. On Pessah, we sit with our family as the beloved Seder ritual draws to a close, singing "Four are the Mothers and Three are the Fathers." We are telling ourselves, our children and our environs that these founding personalities carry weighty significance for our people; their lives are worth exploring and emulating. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.