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What Does The Hebrew Word For 'Mother' Really Mean?

Wisdom of the Ages: Celebrating Biblical Mothers This Mother's Day with the deep meaning behind the word 'mother' in Hebrew.


Biblical figure Rachel, wife of Jacob, stands next to a well
Biblical figure Rachel, wife of Jacob, stands next to a well

What does it mean to call someone "mother"? In Hebrew, the word "Ima" holds a reservoir of cultural depth, spiritual significance, and historical reverence that transcends the familiar notion of motherhood. It’s a term that resonates deeply within the Jewish tradition, echoing through stories of biblical heroines and shaping women's societal roles across generations.


The Roots of "Ima"


The word mother in Hebrew
@HebrewWords

The Hebrew term for mother, "Ima", is derived from the root "אם" (em), which signifies not just the biological mother but also the origin or source. This root word is profound, suggesting that a mother is a wellspring of life, wisdom, and tradition, emphasizing her role as the primary influence in the social and spiritual fabric of the family.


The word "אֵם" suggests a source or origin, inherently linking a mother to the concept of being a foundational life-giver. This implication extends the role of a mother to being the primary nurturer not only of her children's physical needs but also of their spiritual, emotional, and intellectual growth. In Hebrew, the root "אֵם" is also a part of other words that convey foundational and structural meanings, underscoring the mother's role as a central pillar in both family and society.



Biblical Mothers: Anchors of Faith and Wisdom


In Jewish tradition, the "Four Matriarchs" of the Bible—Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah—are revered figures who play crucial roles in the foundational narratives of the Book of Genesis. These women are the wives of the Patriarchs: Sarah as Abraham's wife, Rebecca as Isaac's, and Rachel and Leah as the wives of Jacob. Each of these matriarchs is affectionately referred to with the honorific "our mother" in Hebrew: "Sarah Imenu," "Rebecca Imenu," "Rachel Imenu," and "Leah Imenu."


Sarah, known for her beauty and faith, sets a precedent for overcoming adversity and maintaining faith in God’s promises. Rebecca’s life is marked by her decisive actions and the pivotal role she plays in ensuring Jacob’s destiny unfolds as foretold. Rachel, beloved for her grace and endurance, symbolizes the struggles and triumphs of love and motherhood, while Leah, often considered the overlooked sister, contributes significantly to the tribes of Israel through her sons. In death, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah are buried alongside their husbands in the Cave of Machpelah, according to the scripture. Rachel, however, is buried alone by the roadside near Bethlehem, at what is known as Rachel's Tomb, symbolizing her enduring watchfulness over her children, the people of Israel. These narratives not only underscore the matriarchs' spiritual and moral influence but also highlight their central role in shaping the ethos and lineage of the Jewish people.



Rachel's Tomb, Near Bethlehem, 1891
Rachel's Tomb, Near Bethlehem, 1891. (Wikimedia)

Let's look at the story of Hannah, renowned for her piety and depth of prayer. Her earnest plea for a child and subsequent thanksgiving encapsulate a mother's profound spiritual influence (1 Samuel 1). Hannah’s dedication of her son Samuel to the service of God highlights a mother’s role in dedicating the next generation not only to family but to a higher spiritual calling.


Another emblematic figure is Jochebed, the mother of Moses. Her decision to hide her son and then set him afloat on the Nile to save his life from Pharaoh’s decree (Exodus 2) underlines a mother’s protective instinct and her pivotal role in the survival and moral direction of her children. Her actions set the stage for Moses to become the leader and liberator of the Israelites, illustrating how the destiny of a nation often lies in a mother’s courage.


Motherhood in Jewish Thought


In the scriptures, examples abound of mothers whose decisions and actions are steeped in profound wisdom. Take, for instance, the story of Solomon’s judgement (1 Kings 3:16-28), where two mothers claim the same baby. Solomon’s proposal to divide the child reveals the true mother's wisdom as she chooses to relinquish her claim to save her son’s life. Her intuitive understanding of the greater good and maternal self-sacrifice epitomizes the deep-seated wisdom attributed to motherhood. Such narratives reinforce the view that wisdom is not just a learned trait but is intrinsic to the role of motherhood, guiding both the immediate family and shaping the moral contours of the community at large.



Oil painting on canvas, The Judgement of Solomon by Sebastiano del Piombo
Oil painting on canvas, The Judgement of Solomon by Sebastiano del Piombo (Venice c.1485 - Rome 1547), 1505-10. (Wikimedia)

Honoring "Ima" Today


The role of "Ima" continues to be celebrated and revered in Jewish culture, adapting to the complexities of modern life while retaining its core significance. As we look at the responsibilities mothers carry today—balancing careers, education, and home life—the foundational qualities of wisdom, protection, and spiritual guidance remain as vital as ever.

In recognizing the timeless and invaluable role of mothers, consider expressing your appreciation with a meaningful gesture. A thoughtful gift from an online store like TheIsraelStore.com can be a wonderful way to honor the "Ima" in your life. Whether for a holiday, a birthday, or simply to show appreciation, a carefully chosen gift can reflect your deep gratitude for her enduring love and guidance.


By celebrating "Ima", we celebrate a cornerstone of family and faith, and we reaffirm the deep respect and love that the title of mother commands across ages and cultures. Visit TheIsraelStore.com to find a gift that perfectly captures the spirit of appreciation that every mother deserves.

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3 Comments


Guest
May 03

Hi! Unfortunately ‘ima’ is a nursery word with no clearer etymology beyond being shaped by the phonological capacities of infants (bilabial sounds are some of the first acquired, like ‘b’ in ‘abba’). These words, ima and abba, not only have clear cognates in other ancient Semitic languages (Akkadian has ummum and abum) but also many languages around the world (Latin <P>ater and <M>ater, English <M>ama and <P>apa, etc.). A relationship with a root ‘em’ is unsupported in Hebrew and wider Semitic.

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Guest
Apr 28

Very beautiful! Thank you for the education on the meaning of Ima.

.Mother.

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Guest
Apr 27

Great post Hananya!, love the information!

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