The Three Mitzvot of Sarah
Jokes about dominant Jewish mothers are abundant and frequent. Perhaps this is because, historically, Jewish mothers have been responsible for building the foundation for passionate Jewish living in the home. This tradition began with the matriarch Sarah and is highlighted by Isaac’s reaction after he is introduced to Rebecca: “ And Isaac brought her [Rebecca] to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for [the loss of] his mother” (Genesis 24:67).
According to the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 60:16), this verse is also the source of the three key mitzvot that are meant to be the specific responsibility of Jewish women:
Family Purity: “You find that as long as Sarah lived, a [Divine] cloud hung over her tent; when she died, that cloud disappeared; but when Rebecca came, it returned.” This may seem like a strange allusion to family purity, which is the euphemism used for the laws pertaining to marital relations, but one of the primary concepts of family purity is that such matters should remain private (clouded).
Challah: “As long as Sarah lived, there was a blessing on her dough (understood to mean that the dough stayed fresh all week)…. And so when [Isaac] saw [Rebecca] following in his mother’s footsteps, separating her challah in cleanness and handling her dough in cleanness, and ‘Isaac straightway brought her into the tent’” Although anyone may make challah or one may buy challah, the mitzvah of “taking challah” (separating a part of the dough as sacred) has always been viewed as a woman’s mitzvah.
Candle Lighting: “…and the lamp used to burn from the evening of the Shabbat until the evening of the following Sabbath; when she died, these [the cloud, the challah and the lit candles] ceased, but when Rebecca came, they returned.” While it is traditional that the “woman of the house” lights the Shabbat candles, a man may also light Shabbat candles.
(Please see sidebar for related Treats.)