Heretics, Mystics and Abraham's Mother
Abraham’s Mother – The Talmud’s Approach
Terach – that was the name of Abraham’s father. What was his mother’s name? The Torah doesn't tell us. Considering Abraham’s importance as the ancestor of all Israel, as well as a host of other nations, is it not strange that the Torah would leave this out?
Even if one is not particularly bothered by this question (the names of many important women are left out of the Torah’s narratives) the rabbis of the Talmud were. In fact, the Talmud sees this missing information as an opportunity for heretics to question the validity of the Torah. Therefore, it fills in the missing information (b. Bava Batra, 91a):
ואמר רב חנן בר רבא אמר רב אמיה דאברהם אמתלאי בת כרנבו אמיה דהמן אמתלאי בת עורבתי וסימניך טמא טמא טהור טהור אמיה דדוד נצבת בת עדאל שמה אמיה דשמשון צללפונית ואחתיה נשיין למאי נפקא מינה לתשובת המינים
R. Hanan b. Raba further stated in the name of Rav: [The name of] the mother of Abraham [was] Amatlai the daughter of Karnebo; [the name of] the mother of Haman was Amatlai, the daughter of ‘Orabti; and your mnemonic [may be], ‘unclean [to] unclean, clean [to] clean’. The mother of David was named Nizbeth the daughter of Adael. The mother of Samson [was named] Zlelponith, and his sister, Nashyan. In what [respect] do [these names] matter? In respect of a reply to the heretics (based on Sonc. Trans.).
Although we have very few records documenting challenges that were raised about Torah some 1500 years ago, nevertheless the Talmud here gives us a glimpse into what was considered a “historical problem” about Abraham that justified an answer. Why did the heretics ask and from where did the Rabbis get their answer? Rashbam suggests an explanation in his commentary (ad loc.)
לפי שאמותן של יצחק ויעקב הוזכרו צריכין אנו לידע שם אם אברהם…שכל הדברים האלו שואלין המינים מה טעם אין אנו יודעין שמותן… ששואלין לנו יותר באלו מנשים אחרות כדפרישית טעמא ואנו משיבין להן שמסרו לנו הנביאים בעל פה.
For the mothers of Isaac and Jacob are mentioned, so we need to know that name of Abraham’s mother… for regarding of all these women, the heretics ask us what the reason is that we don’t know their names… and they ask about these more than others for the reasons I explain above, and we answer them that they were transmitted to us by the prophets through word of mouth.
Whether the answer satisfied the “heretics” in Talmudic time, we may never know, but the answer is too intriguing to pass without further examination.
Whence the Name Amatlai?
To begin with, the Talmud’s answer is not the only answer suggested in Jewish tradition. The book of Jubilees (11:13), compiled 700 years earlier than the Talmud, gives Abraham’s mother the name of Ednah. Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 26) gives her the name was עתדיי - Atudai.
Even ignoring these alternative versions, the Talmud’s suggestion alone merits a number of observations. Firstly, it is rather odd that Abraham’s mother ca. 2000 B.C.E. living in Ur, a Sumerian and Akkadian city, would have the same name as Haman’s mother living in Persia 500 B.C.E.
Secondly, and more importantly, the name Amatlai is most likely a version of the Greek name Amalthea, meaning “tender goddess.” In Greek mythology, Amalthea was a goat that nursed the infant god Zeus with her milk. The association of Abraham’s mother with this name may have originated with the midrash found in Sefer HaYashar (on parashat Noah) that has many similarities to the story of Zeus.
In this story, King Nimrod’s stargazers tell him that Terach’s newly-bom son would one day be a danger to his throne. Nimrod orders Terach to send him the baby to be put to death, but Terach outwitted the king. Instead of sending his real son to the king, he sent the baby of a slave, which Nimrod killed with his own hands. Meanwhile, the baby Abraham, with his mother and nurse hid in a cave for ten years.
Amatlai’s mother’s name, Karnebo, is probably a corruption of the name of Job’s daughter, Keren Happuch; which the Septuagint translates as “Amalthea’s Horn.” In other words, naming Abraham’s mother Amatlai daughter of Karnebo (=Keren Happuch) is tantamount to naming her Amalthea daughter of Amalthea’s horn – a double emphasis on the legend of the goat. Alternatively, the “daughter of” may be a mistake, with a copyist not understanding the phrase Amatlai Karnebo, and assuming that the second name was the name of her parent. Either way, Rav Hanan seems to be suggesting that Terach married the daughter or granddaughter of Job. (The associating of Abraham with Job is highlighted in a number of places in the Talmud; see for example b. Baba Batra 15b-16b). 
How are we to understand the Talmud in light of these observation? The list of names were probably based on early homiletical interpretations of the verses and preserved over time and collected by R. Hanan b. Raba. But by the time they were recorded in the Talmud the significance of these names were forgotten or no longer seen as relevant. For this reason the Talmud offers, almost as an afterthought, that knowing these names is helpful in debating heretics, who see the lack of mention of these characters’ names as a sign of the Bible’s lack of authenticity. However, the Bible’s silence about the name of these women—heretics’ big “kasha”—does not really seem all that problematic. Indeed modern scholarship would not see the omission of Abraham’s mother as a historical problem, the Torah never records names of women unless there is some reason for it.
Abraham’s Mother – The Kabbalistic Take
While (today) many may come to terms with the fact that there is most likely no tradition that goes back all the way to Moses about the name of Abraham mother—whether her name was Atudai, Ednah, Amatlai bat Karnebo/Amalthea Keren-Happuch, or something else entirely—nevertheless, we find the Talmudic tradition taking on a life of its own.
Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida; 1724 – 1806), in Avodat Hakodesh (Kaf Achat, 9) writes that it is a segulah – a good omen – for someone going to see a king, a ruler, or a person of authority to say the name “Amatlai bas Karnebo” 17 times. It is not within the purview of this article to explain the dynamics of segulot but the premise of the segulah sure seems to be predicated on the fact that we know that Abraham mother’s name was Amatlai bas Karnebo.
Interestingly, the mystical exploration of Abraham’s mother goes even beyond the use of her “name” and moves to speculating about the nature of her soul. The kabbalist, Menahem Azariah da Fano (Rema MiPano; 1548 -1620) writes in his book, Gilglul Neshamot (Reincarnation of Souls) that Abraham’s mother was reincarnated into the woman known from the book of Josippun as Channah.
While there are different versions of this story (see, for example, 2 Macc. 6; 4 Macc. 8-17; b. Gittin 57b), the basics are of seven brothers who are seized along with their mother by Antiochus IV Epiphanes and commanded to prove their obedience to the king by eating pork and/or worship idols. The brothers defiantly refuse to do so. Encouraged in their resolve by their mother, they are tortured and executed. The mystical connection between her and Abraham’s mother seems to lie in the words the Talmud has her saying to her youngest son as he was led away to be killed: “Go and tell Abraham your father, you [Abraham] bound one [son on] altar, but i have bound seven altars.”
An alternative interpretation that goes even deeper into the mystical realm, is in the writings of R. Isaac Luria (the Arizal) we find the shocking claim that Abraham’s father forced his wife to sleep with him while she was in a state of impurity. Consequently, she was reincarnated into Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, who was also raped. By raping her, the wicked Shechem removes the impurity that was upon her, thereby freeing her soul. (This, Luria argues, is why Jacob does not appear so distraught by the rape of his daughter, because he knew that she had been purified of her past-life impurity through that act.) Terach, on the other hand, was punished by being reincarnated into Job, who is tortured through no fault of his own. The sins of Job were the sins of his soul in his past life, when he was the idol-worshiping and menstruant-wife-raping Terach.
תורתך שעשעי – Torah our Divine Delight and Plaything
Kach darkah shel Torah – this is the way of Torah. Beginning with a simple lacuna, the lack of any name for Abraham’s mother, Jewish interpreters begin by suggesting possibilities. With the possibilities established, later interpreters can build on this and find new significance—mystical, magical, ethical, etc.
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October 3, 2013
September 7, 2020
Rabbi David D. Steinberg is the co-founder and director of Project TABS. He learned in Manchester Yeshiva, Gateshead Yeshiva, and Mir Yeshiva. Steinberg took the Ner Le’Elef Rabbinical Outreach training course and moved to Huntington, NY to work as an outreach rabbi for the Mesorah Center. In 2007 he joined Aish Hatorah NY as a Programs Director, managing their Yeshiva in Passaic and serving as a rabbi in their Executive Learning program.
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