ʾEm: An Ancient Honorific Title for Women
A Hebrew inscription with the title שלום אם כנסת, “Salome, mother of the synagogue,” was found in 1874 on an ossuary (a container housing human skeletal remains) uncovered in Jerusalem that is dated to the first few centuries C.E. Inscriptions from other ancient synagogues include references to ancient women (and men), usually listing them by a title—such as “patron,” “elder,” or “head of the synagogue”—that bestowed some type of honor on them, though the exact meanings of these titles and the roles they represented are often contested.
The word ʾem as a title also appears in the Talmud. The 4th generation Babylonian Amora, Abaye (late 3rd–early 4th century C.E.), often uses the phrase אמרה לי אם, “mother told me,” in reference to his foster mother, who raised him after his biological mother died in childbirth:
בבלי קידושין לא: רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן כִּי עִבְּרַתּוּ אִמּוֹ – מֵת אָבִיו, יְלָדַתּוּ – מֵתָה אִמּוֹ. וְכֵן אַבָּיֵי. אִינִי? וְהָאָמַר אַבָּיֵי: אֲמַרָה לִי אֵם! הָהִיא מְרַבְּיָנְתֵּיהּ הֲוַאי.
b. Qidd. 31b Rabbi Yoḥanan, when his mother was pregnant with him, his father died; and when she gave birth to him, his mother died. So also Abaye. Is that so? But didn’t Abaye say: “Mother told me”? That was his foster mother.
Abaye’s ʾem is cited in the Talmud as an authority about medicine, health, diet, and child-rearing. Her opinion is also valued regarding the nature of gossip. Although many English versions translate Abaye’s phrase as “MY mother told me,” the possessive pronoun does not appear in the original text. Thus,ʾem may refer to Abaye’s (foster-)mother with an honorific title.
In the context of an Aramaic-speaking culture, in which ʾimma was the standard word for mother (as it has become in Modern Hebrew to this day), it makes sense that ʾem, standing out as different from the standard usage, was actually a title. Moreover, ʾem may already have been an honorific in biblical times.
Biblical Women Identified with the Title ʾEm
In three biblical narratives, the word ʾem is used without any connection to a male partner, children, or animal offspring, in contexts that suggest the word is similarly serving as an honorific title given to a special woman.
Eve, Mother of All Living
The first biblical use of the word ʾem appears after Adam and the first woman receive their punishments for their sin of eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and right before they are banished from Eden. Adam gives the woman a name:
בראשׁית ג:כ וַיִּקְרָא הָאָדָם שֵׁם אִשְׁתּוֹ חַוָּה כִּי הִוא הָיְתָה אֵם כָּל חָי.
Gen 3:20 “The man named his wife Eve, because she was mother of all the living.”
Most biblical etymologies draw on common letters or a common root between the name and its explanation, but that connection seems forced here. Rashi (Rabbi Solomon b. Isaac, 1040–1105), noting this difficulty, explains:
חוה. נוֹפֵל עַל לְשׁוֹן חַיָּה, שֶׁמְּחַיָּה אֶת וַלְדוֹתֶיהָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר מֶה הֹוֶה לָאָדָם (קהלת ב'), בִּלְשׁוֹן הָיָה:
EVE — חוה has the same sound as חיה (and similar meaning “life”) — she was so called because she gives life (birth) to her children; the interchange of ‘י and ‘ו is similar to that in (Ecclesiastes 2:22), מה הוה לאדם “for what hath a man”, where הוה is used in the sense of היה “to be.
Rashi’s explanation concentrates on Eve’s role of producing offspring, but Eve is not yet a mother at this point. Thus, the standard definition of ʾem does not seem to apply. Moreover, if ʾem is intended to describe Eve as “the mother of all the living,” we would expect the definite article to appear in the Hebrew phrase—אם כל החי—but it is absent. Thus the word ʾem appears to be a special designation—an honorific title for Eve, the first woman.
Deborah, a Mother in Israel
In her poetic retelling of her military victory with Barak, Deborah, who is described earlier as a judge and a prophet (4:4), is referred to as an ʾem:
שׁפטים ה:ז חָדְלוּ פְרָזוֹן בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל חָדֵלּוּ עַד שַׁקַּמְתִּי דְּבוֹרָה שַׁקַּמְתִּי אֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.
Judg 5:7 Deliverance ceased, Ceased in Israel, Till you arose, O Deborah, Arose, O mother, in Israel!
The term mother seems incongruous here. A prophetess who leads her nation into battle is not the stereotypical role that is generally associated with motherhood or what it usually represents. Moreover, there is no biblical account describing Deborah as a biological mother. Thus, the use of ʾem here instead designates a position of importance and honour.
In his commentary on the verse, Ralbag (Rabbi Levi Ben Gershon, known also as Gersonides, 13th–14th century France), seems to support this interpretation of the phrase אֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, “mother in Israel”:
אני הייתי אם ומנהגת ישראל:
I am a mother and a leader of Israel.
By adding the feminine form of the word “leader” into his interpretation, Ralbag highlights that the term ʾem, as used here, is referencing an important leadership role rather than alluding to ceremonial motherhood.
The Wise Woman of Abel of Beth-maacah
After failing in his attempted rebellion against King David, the Israelite Sheba son of Bichri flees and seeks refuge in the Israelite city of Abel of Beth-maacah. The city is then besieged by Joab, the military commander of King David, and threatened with attack unless Sheba is handed over. With life in the city at a standstill, an אִשָּׁה חֲכָמָה, “wise woman,” in the city assumes a leadership role and initiates contact with Joab in order to find a solution (2 Sam 20:16). As part of her plea, she accuses Joab of wanting to destroy the whole city, instead of just the single fugitive, Sheba son of Bichri:
שׁמואל ב כ:יט אָנֹכִי שְׁלֻמֵי אֱמוּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אַתָּה מְבַקֵּשׁ לְהָמִית עִיר וְאֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל לָמָּה תְבַלַּע נַחֲלַת יְ־הוָה.
2 Sam 20:19 “I am one of those who seek the welfare of the faithful in Israel. But you seek to bring death upon a mother city in Israel! Why should you destroy YHWH’s possession?”
The English translation of עִיר וְאֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל as “a mother city in Israel,” interprets the phrase עִיר וְאֵם, “city and mother,” as a hendiadys—an expression of a single idea using two words joined by “and”—describing the city’s importance. This understanding of the phrase is seen already in the Septuagint translation of the text, where the two words “mother” and “city” are contracted into one word, μητρόπολιν (maitropolin) or mother-city.
In light of the analyses above of the particular use of the word ʾem, a more syntactically accurate translation of the phrase is to view the wise woman as referring to herself as an ʾem, pleading to save both herself, an important woman, and the city in which she lives: “Do you seek to bring death upon a city and ʾem (an important woman) in Israel?”
This understanding of the phrase is echoed in the Aramaic translation, Targum Jonathan (2nd c. C.E.):
אְנַחנָא מַשׁלְמִין בְהֵימָנוּתָא עִם יִשׂרָאֵל דְאַת בָעֵי לְחַבָלָא קַרתָא דְהִיא כְרָך רַב וְאִמָא בְיִשׂרָאֵל לְמָא תְקַלקֵיל אַחסָנַת עַמָא דַיְיָ.
“We do seek peace in faithfulness with Israel. But you are seeking to destroy a big city and a mother in Israel. Why will you ruin the inheritance of the people of the Lord?”
The Aramaic seems to incorporate the idea of mother-city (כְרָך רַב, “big city”), while still preserving the word אִמָא, “Mother,” as a separate element of the woman’s speech.
Of note, Rashi does not comment on the word ʾem in the verse, but he does recognize the importance of the wise woman by citing a midrash (Gen. Rab. 94:9) that identifies her as Serach, the biblical daughter of Asher (Gen 46:17), known in rabbinic tradition for her wisdom and longevity.
Thus, it seems appropriate, thematically and grammatically, that the word ʾem not be subsumed into the description of the city, but rather that the wise woman should also hold the title of ʾem.
The Mothers of Israel
The word ʾem appears throughout the Bible, both in its legal and narrative portions. Mothers are often mentioned in conjunction with fathers and are usually used to identify people by explaining to whom they are closely related. Maternal imagery is also used figuratively to illuminate connections between biblical characters and God and humanity. Mother references can therefore serve different functions: as symbols, as a way of understanding interpersonal connections in biblical stories and as a means of identifying certain types of relationships that are subject to commandments and/or restrictions. To these categories, we can also add “mother” as a title.
While commentators have long recognized Eve, Deborah, and the wise woman of Abel of Beth-maacah as unique and important characters, careful attention to the linguistic details of their narratives demonstrates a new aspect of their depiction: they were each given the title of ʾem, an ancient honorific title for special women that until now has been “hiding in plain sight.”
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Dr. Anna Urowitz-Freudenstein received both her Ph.D. in Midrash and her M.A. in Ancient Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Her dissertation investigated the workings of Midrash, focusing on texts that mention individual women. She has taught university courses both in person and online and was a contributor to The Torah: A Women's Commentary. She currently teaches at TanenbaumCHAT, where her students know her as Dr. U-F and she is Head of the Department of Jewish Thought. In addition to classes on Rabbinic Literature and Jewish Philosophy, one of the courses she teaches and developed is “Gender and Judaism.” Dr. Urowitz-Freudenstein also teaches adult education classes in the community and lives in her hometown, Toronto, with her husband and family.
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